Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On

1987, Japan, directed by Kazuo Hara

Kazuo Hara's documentary, his third feature, focuses on the extraordinary figure of Kenzo Okuzaki, a veteran of the Second World War who transformed himself into a one-man social movement committed to confronting post-war taboos that restrict discussion of Japan's role in the conflict, and more particularly the actions of the Emperor and military establishment. Indeed, Okuzaki appears to be unbound by almost all standard social conventions, having served time for murder years before the events chronicled in the film, and he is quick to resort to violence when it feels this to be necessary. Despite this, he's acutely aware that he is transgressing norms: he calls the police himself after one outburst and is almost absurdly polite in his dealings with various officers of the law yet does not rein himself in on subsequent occasions.

Hara gives us only the most fragmentary of information about Okuzaki in the film itself, following his activities but almost never supplying supplementary details (for that, it's very useful to turn to Jeffrey and Kenneth Ruoff's excellent short book about the film).* The film opens with one of Okuzaki's apparently quixotic enterprises - he drives around Tokyo broadcasting messages from a loud-hailer on his van, and is halted by police - and it's for the viewer to slowly assemble a story as we continue to follow him through Japan, where he confronts a variety of men who, years before, were complicit in, or at least aware of, a particular wartime scandal that's at the core of Okuzaki's interests.

Although Hara himself never appears onscreen, Okuzaki's actions are so intrusive - kicking an old man around, involving his own wife in acts of deception - that the film poses intriguing, and unresolved, questions about the filmmaker's own responsibility in setting at least some of the specific events in motion (although the actual actions are less troubling, the film raises some of the same issues of journalistic and human responsibility that swirled around Kevin Carter's famous - infamous? - photograph of a starving Sudanese girl apparently being stalked by a vulture). 

* Jeffrey and Kenneth Ruoff, The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1998.

Chris Cagle hosted a discussion of the film at the Film of the Month Club; the film was selected and introduced by Girish Shambu.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States