Canon Entry - The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Kenzo Okuzaki (the war veteran at the center of this documentary) is the unkillable gadfly of Japanese society. Less poetically, he is a huge pain in the ass, and very possibly, one with a gaping lacking of self-awareness of this fact. One of the first scenes of the movie takes place at the wedding of one of his younger colleagues. He hijacks the wedding, drunken uncle style, and rambles on about how he shot at Emperor Hirohito with pachinko balls and how he was arrested for his subversive efforts. If you were to meet this man on the street, you would give him a wide berth, yet director Kazuo Hara chooses to make Okuzaki the center of this inflammatory picture.
Okuzaki is on a (mostly) one-man mission to get behind what happened at a Japanese garrison in New Guinea during World War II. He systematically tracks down commanding officers and sergeants. Often he will visit (or, more likely, intrude upon) his victims at their homes or places of business. As he continues on his quest, accusations of cannibalism and straight out, unjustified murder arise and keep building like an ugly wave. The conversations are as uncomfortable as you might imagine them to be, and more than once, his fights break out in physical violence, even against people who are clearly not capable of fighting back,
It is the greatest mischief of director Kazuo Hara that he takes advantage of the culture of respectability that is endemic to Japan and other Asian countries. Early in the film, we see policemen waiting politely for Okuzaki to finish a rant he is making from his car. This movie is quite expansive in its scope despite its focus on one man, but perhaps one of the biggest targets for Hara at least is this politeness. That this culture may engender respect for all people but it can also be used to obfuscate, to exculpate and to pass on the blame to someone else. While Okuzaki ultimately blames Hirohito for the moral bankruptcy of Japan during and after the war, he takes great care to try to get his victims to own up to what up they did, politeness be damned.
Despite his firebrand nature, Okuzaki is clearly able to navigate this culture. Otherwise, he would have never been able to have conversations as extensive and thorough as the ones in the film in which the soldiers admit to some of the most atrocious crimes. Also, the fact that he is being filmed gives his quest legitimacy. His encounters tend to have the same narrative arc.
At first he will be polite. Then he will grill his subjects mercilessly. Then he will resort to either physical or verbal violence. Hara very deliberately films these encounters in as dramatic a fashion as possible. He shoots Okuzaki like an action hero, letting fights happen and giving Okuzaki as much distance as possible.
As much as this documentary resembles a work of cinema verite, Hara has freely admitted that there is just as many specific choices as you would expect in any film. For example, the scene where he stops traffic while ranting through his megaphone has shots that were taken from a rooftop, which meant Hara went along with Okuzaki’s wishes since he knew it would look great in his movie. Before condemning Hara for disingenuousness though, it is important to know that even the most objective of documentaries cannot escape subjectivity. And such artifice was often necessary since apparently Okuzaki would often ramble on at length to the point of incomprehensibility. According to Hara, the only reason that Okuzaki appears even slightly coherent is because of some very judicious editing.
It is fascinating to me that Michael Moore is quoted on the movie’s DVD cover, and Errol Morris has said it was one of his favorite films. These two very different filmmakers of, frankly, vastly different talent levels are perhaps the most famous documentary filmmakers ever and how both seem to have taken cues from this movie with vastly different results. What bothers me the most about Michael Moore is that he often takes the role of the gadfly just like Okuzaki did, yet he does it in an artificial way, one in which he is clearly elevating himself as the champion for the people, though he could be seen as an irritating example of the neoliberalism that plagues American society. As for Errol Morris, he shares Hara’s proclivity for making his work as cinematic as possible. His Thin Blue Line is a thrilling procedural and mystery, when it literally could have just been a bunch of talking heads. Yet despite the artifice, Morris was able to get a wrongly accused man acquitted because of his film, a much-envied combination of truth and art.
Though no one could accuse Okuzaki of being an artist, he surprisingly has the temperament of a stereotypical tortured artist. He works tirelessly at an unpopular quest. He feels misunderstood, and he will not listen to criticism of his methods because he believes that he is absolutely in the right. He is cut from a Manichean cloth with very little regard for complexity, and his opponents are from the polite culture of deniability. These men have been lying so long that they probably believe what they say is true. Yet Okuzaki persists with the faith of a fallen believer. One can sense that he was probably the most loyal soldier during the war just by looking at how extreme his temperament after the war was. He is the Lucifer that wants revenge on all of a society that wouldn’t admit to murder even if they had pulled the trigger on the smoking gun. While Hara’s portrayal of Okuzaki is not entirely sympathetic, I believe he persisted with him because he saw a very real need to amplify Okuzaki’s voice and that he was speaking for many people who were fed up with the culture of respectability.