Beat the Living Truth Out of Them
Victors write history, while loser Japan has difficulty facing its own twentieth century history. The last, Saturday afternoon film in Part 2 of Japan Society’s first anniversary homage to Donald Richie is The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On/Yukiyukite Shingun. Homegrown antiwar narratives like Fires on the Plain and Caterpillar -- both included in the Society’s 2011 “Cinema & Empire” -- as well as recent foreign considerations of the siege of Nanking are not embraced in Japan, but this non-fiction from Kazuo Hara is anathema, unseen on domestic television for its twenty-seven years now.
Emperor ignored controversy about rumored missing documents and a Werner von Braun-style marriage of convenience in whitewashing Hirohito into self-sacrificing nice guy but is not a good movie, anyway. Films continue to treat war/crimes against humanity trials, but what is one to do with the “execution’ or “murder” -- a matter of opinion, constantly claim those implicated in ENAMO -- not of non-combatants or POWs but, on orders from on high, of one’s own fellow soldiers.
Banned in France for eighteen years, documentary-like Paths of Glory comes to mind, but the Japanese documentary raises other issues as well, notably the conundrum of whether a morally correct end justifies the very self-righteous violence and intimidation it seeks to expose and rectify.
The project had been brought to Shohei Imamura, who chose to remain on as producer while passing it on to Hara. Not completing it for another five years, the younger director sought a bridge between fact and fiction and, fly on the wall throughout this two hours and two minutes, asks no questions and does not intrude whatsoever, merely recording as sixty-two-year-old Kenzo Okuzaki relentlessly pursues his campaign to expose dark secrets and discredit the Emperor.
The energetic wiry World War II veteran had served in the 36th Regiment, one of few from the Wewak Garrison who survived West New Guinea to see the home islands again. But at great cost, for he is scarred by what he and his comrades underwent, particularly just before and twenty-three days after surrender. Also intimated in the Philippines in Fires on the Plain, a concrete taboo atrocity is laid by him at the Showa’s doorstep, because Imperial troops were abandoned, unsupplied and starved.
The man subsequently served nearly fourteen years in prison--for murder and for slinging four pachinko balls at and posting pornographic images of the Emperor -- and by film’s end will be behind bars again. His solitary crusade aims to publicize the truth and force the government, military and wartime officers to admit guilt, accept responsibility and therefore soften the punishment of divine providence and cleanse the nation’s stain. Some white-on-white subtitles are lost, and some ironies left untranslated, such as when a right-wing ultra-nationalist van is allowed to go through while police detain Okuzaki’s sign-bearing loudspeaker car.
He tracks down relatives of soldiers who did not make it home, brings them -- or others impersonating them -- face to face with guilty ex-officers or non-coms, barges into homes and businesses, kicking the sick and dying and pummeling those who defy him, opening metaphorical wounds to probe the complexes beneath, all the while daring the authorities to intervene.
An anarchist who thumbs his nose at the Establishment at every turn, the man may seem insane, his dogged self-appointed quest a quixotic stirring up of ashes perhaps better left dead and buried. As with some who devote their lives to running escaped Nazis to earth, the obsessive outrage becomes the whole man, himself as fascinating or repellant a gadfly as is the absolute truth which he would force to the fore. He is a Bertrand Russell, of whom regarding the earlier World War: “no one could have been more warlike in his opposition to war, . . . even to exhibit[ing] a certain sadistic streak.”