Saturday, May 17, 2008

Prophetic Performance and the Documentary Gaze

There's a moment in Kazuo Hara's The The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On that strikes a chord in my little Calvinist brain: the activist/war-veteran Okuzaki is trying to get into prison to measure a cell for his own home. Besides providing a neat foreshadowing of the ending, it clued me into the performative nature of his activities. Presumably, he wanted a life-sized cell so he could sit in it, demonstrate in it, and perform his protest. And it struck me that this was a very prophetic thing to do, in line with Israelite prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures.

Hebrew prophecy was not primarily about predicting the future, but telling the people they were disobeying their national deity (Y--h) and warning of his punishment. Here's a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, where Y--h is talking to the prophet Ezekiel: "lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it . . . When you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side . . ." The bodily disposition of the prophet communicates the message of the Hebrew deity, which is a prediction of his punishment of Israel.

Okuzaki is certainly a prophetic figure: he simultaneously warns the public about their past behavior and interprets all the bad in their lives -- including his own -- as divine punishment. He justifies the decision to kill Kishimizu, the captain he believes to be at the center of a war crime, on prophetic grounds: "to prove divine punishment," he says, "I made a decision to kill Koshimizu."

The camera supports his enterprise admirably: as he interrogates his old army buddies, it noses around inquisitively, cutting from interrogator to "suspect" to the mute witnesses Okuzaki brings along. There is an element of exposé to his activities; he purports to expose the atrocities of war so that there are no more of them. Again, the camera suits this well: it follows Okuzaki as he "ambushes" his subjects. I thought for a moment I was watching Mike Wallace bust in on some hapless politician.

As Okuzaki's actions become increasingly extreme, we are implicated through Hara's steady glare. How much does Okuzaki do because the camera is there? How much does he do because we are watching? Under Hara's gaze, he does some questionable things: at one point, he enlists his wife and another to play the siblings of one of the victims as he interrogates a suspect. On two occasions, he physically assaults the person he is questioning; at one point, a relative plaintively asks the camera operator if he's not going to intervene.

I was uncomfortable watching these scenes, and reminded of watching Michael Moore browbeat a befuddled Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. There, the perpetrator and the documentarian were one and the same; the obvious sympathy of Hara for Okuzaki's cause makes me wonder if the same can't be said for The The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On as well.


HarryTuttle said...

I hadn't noticed this "prison measurement" scene was an echo to the ending. Nice point.

A prophetic figure might be a little of an overstatement, since religious references and omniscient overconfidence is a common trait of psychiatric delirium... I'm a little uncomfortable with the association with monotheistic religion, as if he was an actual messenger from God (like Moses, Jesus, angels or saints). But I agree with the pagan imagery of a prophet, like the madmen shouting apocalyptic revelations in medieval ages (without being tied to God). He kind of incarnates the voice of reason. that's why the people pause and listen to him in the street (when his van is stopped by the police at the beginning).

He has this charismatic aura of a psychic, an oracle, someone with a gift of vision, with premonitory dreams.

He's also a martyr, a national hero. He sees himself that way at least. He's willing to be punished, imprisoned, beaten up, or even killed if necessary, for the greater Good of his people (against their will and cooperation, because they are blind to the "Truth"). His performance plays a lot on his role of martyr, sacrificing himself for the cause, to punish the villains, to restore the honour of the victims.

But this is just rhetoric. How much of this is true? How much of his campaign is about a revenge from his own narcissistic humiliation?

The anti-war message is noble, but his ways are not quite in tune with his moral principles. He's ready to render justice himself... and this is not the democratic way our society supports.

HarryTuttle said...

"he enlists his wife and another to play the siblings of one of the victims as he interrogates a suspect."

I don't see this minor deception as terribly unforgivable. In Shoah, Lanzmann lies to one of his Nazi interviewee who refused to be filmed, and film his interview without his consent. It's impolite and sneaky. It probably discredits his reputation of a journalist we can trust. But the person agreed to testify already, so it's just a matter of recording these informations one way or the other.

Here, Okuzaki just plays a little trick. And it's so clever on many levels. First the actual siblings were not against such procedure since they participated to earlier interviews, it's just that they couldn't take any more of that. Okuzaki is more persistent that the very victim family! And he has to make up for it because they are not as strong as him. They are merely pawns to him, even when they were present he used them to pressure the interviewee. So whether they are real or not doesn't change anything to his pursuit of the Truth. It's really ironic to use substitutes and it makes the whole game less hypocritical on his part. From a narrative standpoint, this "candid camera" trick is pure genius. It makes the film purpose greater than the trivial reality it documents.
Secondly, it highlights the false relation between the interviewee and his victims' relatives. He's told that these anonymous faces are the family of someone he killed and he couldn't tell if they were real or not, because he never saw them (or he forgot them since the military funeral). And Okuzaki knows that very well. He knows nobody would find out, or ask embarrassing questions to uncover their identity. He knew also it wouldn't look strange if the "actors" didn't speak and let him do all the talking.

Rick Olson said...

Hey, Harry

I never said he was a prophet, just a prophetic figure, i.e., using the same methods and perhaps having the same delusions as the Hebrew prophets.

That's why I carefully used the word Y--h, the unpeakable name for the Hebrew deity, instead of "God." Good point about "pagan" prophecy, most prophecy that I'm aware of has some reference to a deity (whether or not the deity is there) ... it just might not be the Judeo-Christian "God."

I think you're spot on about the narcissist element ... he certainly is that. What that was caused by, I assume he saw some horrible things in New Guinea.

Nice analysis of the "trick" of getting stand-ins for the siblings.

HarryTuttle said...

"Experience Guantánamo in a town near you!
On May 8 in Miami, Amnesty International launched its national tour of a life-size Guantánamo prison cell replica."
Amnesty International USA