Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987)

“I like to make dramatic movies. I feel strongly about this, more than other directors. I love Hollywood action films, and I wanted Okuzaki to act like an action star. I want to make action documentary films.” – Kazuo Hara.

In my post, I’d like to present some selected, interesting material from Jeffrey Ruoff and Kenneth Ruoff’s 50-page monograph, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Cinetek, 1998). It contains facts, production details, and observations that might prove useful to the discussion. In order to use this space efficiently, let me present the material in the form of bullet points rather than an essay.

-- To begin with a few quotations from Hara:

“From my viewpoint, a documentary should explore things that people don’t want explored, bring things out of the closet, to examine why people want to hide certain things.”

“I did not go to college. I did not participate in the [60s and 70s student protest] demonstrations. I was on the outside looking in…The sense of failure among those who participated was strong. But I was not directly involved, so I don’t have this feeling of failure; I was always…on the outside, thinking to myself, ‘how wonderful.’ The 60s and 70s continue to shine in my mind.”

“My outlaw complex is very strong. I don’t feel that I’m in the middle of society. I am in the lower part. Those people on the bottom disdain those people in the mainstream. A movie director from the ‘bottom’ does not make movies that portray mainstream society nicely. I make bitter films.”

-- Ruoff & Ruoff: “The filmmaker does not passively record reality [referring both to Hara and Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1985)], but rather provokes certain encounters. Of his methods, Hara later noted: “I am not the type of director to shoot something just happening [like a demonstration], but rather I like to make something happen and then shoot it.” His documentaries are like virtual collaborations — along the lines of the ethnographic fictions of Jean Rouch such as Moi, un noir (Me, a Black, 1957) — in which the director encourages the subjects to perform their lives for the camera. In Hara’s words: “There are two sides to people. The person one wants to be, and the person one is. I want the people in my movies to act the way they want to be.””

-- In the late 70s, Okuzaki asked Shohei Imamura to make a film about his life. Imamura initially considered a TV film about Okuzaki but then changed his mind when he realized that the project would be too controversial for television. He then suggested it to Kazuo Hara, who was his assistant cameraman on Vengeance is Mine and Eijanaika.

-- The film started out as something quite different: a broad portrait of the war generation. It was “only after the filming of ex-Sergeant Takami Minoru [scene 11, about a half-hour into the film, which confirms that the garrison leader Koshimizu shot one of his own men] did Hara narrow his focus to the murder of Japanese soldiers by their superior officers during the New Guinea campaign.”

-- R & R: “Okuzaki was as overbearing a star as any filmmaker could find. The director recalled that his outlandish subject was always fighting with the crew: “Some of the younger staff members quit. I, too, really came to dislike Okuzaki. He was chaotic. In the film he sounds logical only because of skillful editing. The way he speaks is often incoherent.” At numerous points during the shooting, the erratic veteran withdrew from the project. In one case, he threatened to burn all the accumulated footage in Tokyo.” [...]

“Shortly after the filmed encounter with ex-medic Hamaguchi Masaichi, Okuzaki disclosed his intention to murder one of his former officers, hoping to convince the director to record the homicide. “I want to kill Koshimizu and I would like you to film it”, the veteran told Hara. “No movie has such a scene in it. Having you film such a scene would be my greatest present to you.” Hara discussed the issue at great length with his lawyer, his producer and other directors. The filmmaker recalled: “This was a very delicate problem. I had to decide if I should film it or not. I still have not made up my mind. One reason that I didn’t film it is that I had become really sick of Okuzaki. I might have filmed it. Human beings have dark sides, and people want to see something frightening. People want to see the evil side of people. A little bit of me says I would like to see it. I went to speak with Imamura. His opinion was really different. He told me not to do it.””

-- The original Japanese title of the film is Forward, Divine Army. The English title was given not by Hara but by the Institute which provided grant money for striking 35 mm prints for theatrical release.

-- R & R: “Proud of his convictions, Okuzaki sees himself as a warrior in a crusade. Above all, he is a man of action, as Hara noted: “Okuzaki threw pachinko balls at the emperor. But intellectuals, you know, they debate ideas, but they can’t do anything.”” [...]

“Like the vigilantes of American detective films, he [Okuzaki] works for justice through extralegal means, outside a system he defines as corrupt. The protagonist of a hard-boiled crime story is typically, as John G Cawelti notes, “a private investigator who occupies a marginal position with respect to the official social institutions of criminal justice.” Like the classic action hero, Okuzaki has to resort to violence to bring the guilty to justice. Incapable of compromise, Okuzaki’s awkward nobility derives from the righteousness of his moral beliefs and the justness of his cause.”

-- Hara opts not to use techniques we often associate with historical documentaries like archival footage, eyewitness interviews, authoritative ‘Voice of God’ narration, and interviews with scholars or journalists. Bill Nichols sees such conventional historical documentaries (which can often be didactic) as contributing to the “discourses of sobriety.”

-- A few words about reception. Commercial distributors refused to handle the film, fearing attacks from right-wing protesters. But after a few short-run public screenings in Tokyo, word-of-mouth publicity spread like wild fire. It then played at an 80-seat art theatre in Tokyo for 3 months, with daily standing-room-only crowds.

A national controversy and debate ensued; the director joined it by writing an essay on the film in a leading Japanese film journal and publishing a 120-page making-of account.

-- The historian Akira Iriye pointed out that Okuzaki’s extremism mirrored that of the Japanese military: “His fanaticism—at one point he says, ‘the use of violence is justified for the good of mankind’—is reminiscent of Japanese wartime behavior, and it is possible to see in his facial expressions, stripped of surface civilities, the same combination of brutality and self-righteousness that impressed foreign observers of the Japanese army during the war.”

-- R & R on an ethical question: “If Okuzaki had not been the subject of the film, would he still have shot Koshimizu’s son, who committed no crime? Did the making of the documentary contribute to the wounding of an innocent man? Hara only inflamed the argument by candidly admitting that he considered filming the murder attempt after Okuzaki proposed it. Disturbed by his own morbid curiosity, Hara asked himself: “Is film God for me?””

-- Links: At Jeffrey Ruoff's site, an essay on the documentaries of Kazuo Hara that appeared in the journal Iris, and an interview with the filmmaker. Also, there's a review of the Ruoff & Ruoff monograph at Offscreen.


FilmWalrus said...

As usual, some excellent intel, research and synthesis. I had no idea that the question of filming the murder had been discussed so candidly. That strange gravity that true crime possesses seems to lurk in the background of several docs (not to mention a couple of television shows) and gets an interesting satirical treatment in "Man Bites Dog," which works as a sort of darker fictional flipside to "Emperor's Naked Army."

Rick Olson said...

So, why would Hara edit Okuzaki to make him coherent? Would it not have been a more powerful image, more complex if he showed him how he really was? Or did Hara choose to simplify him, to "purify" somehow his message, to make it seem somehow more righteous, more worthy?

I would have liked to see a little more of the raving.

HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the background info Girish. I admit that at first viewing I didn't think much of this documentary. I thought this was the kind of content-driven movie, where the only meaningful topic to discuss would be what happens, and not much about the form itself. So the back story adds a little something and qualifies the point of view differently. But should we judge the film from things that are not apparent on screen?

I'm not sure I admire Hara's principles from reading his quotes there. It's quite disturbing that he would even consider encouraging someone to commit a murder for his film...

The ending without images (the allegedly confiscated reel from Guinea and the attempt murder) is weird. Is there a possibility that Hara did in fact film certain violent actions that he was convinced to leave on the editing floor?

It's funny how he opposes "mainstream" to a vertical social scale, as if the "bottom" (does he mean delinquents?) was not "mainstream" (so he means "abiding the law").

HarryTuttle said...

Man Bites Dog is a cynical extrapolation of what Hara's theory of filmmaking could lead to. But he never really crosses the ethical line in the film... all we see is molestation, and Hara remains neutral even when Okuzaki gets beaten up. Which the guys in Man Bites Dog don't, they end up ganging up with the criminal, help him out and take part in his crimes.

I would rather compare with Imamura's A Man Vanishes (1967) which is a pseudo-documentary mixing staging and reality, deception and re-enactment to fill in the blanks and provoke revelations through confrontational interrogation and hidden cameras.

I agree with Rick Olson that The film would be better showing all faces of Okuzaki's personality rather than building a conceited portrait for the cause. Hara's quest for documentary truth is largely biased by his personal vision of reality and his agenda, thus questionable.

Okuzaki's urge for justice loses credibility the moment he confesses his willingness to resort to violence himself to punish violence. He crosses the line to the dark side and becomes an insurgent, like the resistance in France (1940-45), the Mossad operatives following the Munich hostage crisis or the Iraqis in Gulf War 2. Some call them "freedom-fighters", others "terrorists", it all depends on who makes the rules.
In this case, post-war Japan is a democratic regime that allows for non-violent justice. And Okuzaki appears to be a menace to society because he works alone and few people share his idea of justice.

Anonymous said...

Harry - Thats what is so fascinating about this documentary. The 'urge to justice' is the open can of worms. Should we consider him righteous, wrong, or something else?

Believing Okuzaki had crossed an ethical line is one option, but empathy with Okuzaki's rage, that he must transgress the dominant ethic in order to attain "divine justice", is a viable other. Perhaps a menace to society is just what Japan needs to break their oppression of silent majority.

With long brewing tensions of Japan's Yakusuni shrine with it's neighbours. Okuzaki is vital, and a welcome break from Japan's official position on war crimes. One that this documentary, however flawed, offers a testimony of.

Anonymous said...

a few more thoughts:

Also, I'd like to have seen some of the pornographic flyers he had made of Hirohito.

Did he make them himself or get them commissioned? Who would have agreed to make them for him?

I'd like to have known more about the Anarchist that appears towards the end of the film.

An interview with his wife would have been in order.

weepingsam said...

A Man Vanishes is a good reference point for this film - this does look like an Imamura project: the documentary style is similar (the neutral camera, recording situations the filmmakers are certainly complicit in creating) - the political interest in exploring the hidden (actually, suppressed might be a better term) elements of Japanese history and society, especially around WWII. The two films are also similar in their structures: they're both, explicitly, mystery films - the comparison to detective films is good - Okuzaki & Hara are out to solve a mystery - Okuzaki, like a good detective, goes about this actively, creating as much drama in the present as in the past. He's on a quest not just to find the truth but to correct it, to expose the continuing effects of this buried evil. In the end, this film goes to pieces almost as much as A Man Vanishes: with the missing footage - the offscreen shooting (of the wrong man) and its results - the mystery isn't quite resolved, and Okuzaki's quest for justice goes completely wrong...

weepingsam said...

With long brewing tensions of Japan's Yakusuni shrine with it's neighbours. Okuzaki is vital, and a welcome break from Japan's official position on war crimes. One that this documentary, however flawed, offers a testimony of.

This is important. Okuzaki's willingness to go outside the law certainly seems related to the way Japan has tried to avoid accountability for the war. And to try to suppress understanding of the level of suffering by the people serving in the war - the foot soldiers - the comfort women. Okuzaki (and Hara) seem to be determined to drag the old crimes back into the light where everyone can see them...

I think it's important that Okuzaki attacks Yamada (the man at the end, who'd just come out of the hospital) when Yamada says he mourns the dead at Yasukuni. Not that Okuzaki wasn't worked up, but that launches him at Yamada.

girish said...

I'm puzzled a little by Hara's comment about editing Okuzaki to make him more "coherent." Presumably what he meant was that we see Okuzaki talking only in his scenes of meetings with soldiers/officers, never outside these meetings/confrontations. On these occasions, I must admit, Okuzaki is not incoherent at all! He's cunning, reacts quickly to what others say, and alertly guides the conversation towards obtaining the admissions he wants. And as far as I could tell, within these scenes, there was little or no editing-out; the conversations seemed to play out without significant ellipses (even if Hara often used cuts and shot/reverse-shot).

Harry raises an interesting question about "mainstream" vs. "bottom". What exactly do these terms mean here? My guess is that Hara uses "mainstream" to signify all those who consciously or unconscously embrace and become part of the prevailing ideology (this ideology being perhaps particularly monolithic and strong in Japan, more so than in many other countries, I'm guessing), while those at the "bottom" question it, and are generally marginalized for doing so, their questioning often suppressed (to use WeepingSam's apt word).

I wish I'd seen Man Bites Dog or A Man Vanishes.

HarryTuttle said...

Edwin Mak,
I feel compassion for Okuzaki's just cause. It's important to expose the corruption of the official institution, the immunity of ranked officers, the covered up war crimes. But we shouldn't overlook the arguable means of his greater end.
It's intolerable to know the culprits keep on living an undisturbed remorseless life at the expenses of restless dead victims. That was the purpose of Lanzmann's investigation in Shoah, and Rithy Panh's in S-21... even if prescription prevents any legal suits, at least to bring back bad memories to their conscience and not let them be at peace with their oblivious indulgence.
And it works, because the medic who was in denial, confesses and apologizes for lying on the second visit.
And like you say the absence of accountability is probably stronger in Japan, where keeping a straight face is vital, to preserve the honour of the nation, to avoid public humiliation at all costs.
But we had this problem in France too, after the 1945 liberation, when the people collaborating with the occupying Nazis, the partisans of the Vichy regime were tracked down and exposed. There is always this unspoken incertitude in our society about those who helped the resistance and those who made money during the war. It's impossible to punish (let alone to identify) all the crimes happening during a war. A post-war society is inevitably rotten at the core, by suspicion, if not by actual culpability.

HarryTuttle said...

I don't understand why "bottom" is opposed to "mainstream" in this case. I don't know, maybe something is lost in translation, from Japanese or from English for me.

A close equivalent to Okuzaki would be Cindy Sheehan in the USA, the lone rebel against the administrative denial. But this opposition to the conformism of an immune government is rather horizontal, from within the main body of the people, not an outsider, not an outlaw, not an underdog. Even anarchists and marginals are not at the "bottom". The margin is to the side.

But maybe this word betrays his true grudge : the unranked private v. the sun (Hirohito who is not longer the immune infallible god he used to be).

weepingsam said...

I'd read Hara's remarks about being on the "bottom" of society as being fairly straightforward: he's at the bottom, socially, economically, etc. "Mainstream" might be another way of saying "the middle part" - though it might have other connotations. I think his films show great interest in the people at the bottom of society - cerebral palsy sufferers, the bar girls, Okinawans, mixed races who populate Extreme Private Eros, and Okuzaki's obsession with finding justice for the people at the bottom of the military hierarchy, the dead and forgotten privates... It is possible that Hara meant something more - from what I know, I think the people at the very bottom of Japanese society are in a lot of ways excluded from society - beyond mere status and poverty... he could well mean something like, being at the bottom of society is to be outside society...

Rick Olson said...

Those out of the mainstream -- i.e., the marginal -- are often also at the bottom of the socio-economic scale.

HarryTuttle said...

That's if you're thinking in term of social ladder. But I thought Hara's point was a political opposition to the mainstream support for the governmental majority.

Sean Penn anyone?

HarryTuttle said...

This films isn't about social class struggle, it's about political dissidence.
The political dissent behind the iron curtain was lead by intellectuals in the Gulag.
The events of May 1968 in France against De Gaulle's government were driven by students, intellectuals and factory workers alike.

weepingsam said...

This films isn't about social class struggle, it's about political dissidence.

But from what I know of Hara's work, and the way I see this film, these aren't that different. His films are usually about people who are outsiders - very often, because they are at the bottom of society, politically, economically, socially - and maybe more than just at the bottom, maybe genuinely excluded from society, having no place in society. Like Okuzaki, attacking the the emperor... And Okuzaki's crusade for justice in this film is itself driven by a strong sense of hierarchy - the people persecuted are privates, the first ones sacrificed for food (along with the troublemakers and selfish ones). The captains and colonels survived, and eventually went onto live their lives....

HarryTuttle said...

But isn't Okuzaki supposed to be a war hero?

Anonymous said...

The ethical question, whether Hara's filming partially instigated Okuzaki's actions, troubled me as well, and continues to. I am not passing judgment, but I'm glad it's a question that was noted in this post and that it has generated discussion here. There's a difference between objectively recording events and encouraging (indirectly or otherwise) events that could harm the subjects of one's film.