Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Just watched: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

Typing “Japan” or “Japanese” into the search engine on the Internet Archive can throw up some interesting results, such as film footage of a Tokyo street soon after the war, or a book written by an English governess working in Japan in 1910.

Perhaps the most surprising and interesting thing I found was this film (note, only the links at the bottom of the page seem to work). Released in 1987, but filmed during a five year period, it tells the story of an ex-Japanese soldier trying to discover the truth about two soldiers who were executed by firing squad a couple of days after the end of the World War Two.

Okuzaki Kenzo is the main focus of the documentary and he makes no apologies for his views or actions. In the first scene, he explains how he’s murdered a man, and tried to shoot the Emperor. As you watch the film, you get a sense of how betrayed he felt by his country during the war: how the ruling classes and the royal family were responsible for the horrors that he saw.

He was part of a unit that was stuck in New Guinea, beyond the reach of any help from home, slowly starving to death. It was during this time that the two soldiers were executed, and Okuzaki considers it his duty to track down those involved in the firing squad to get their testimony to find out what really happened.

At first, he is accompanied by relatives of the deceased soldiers but after a while, they stop participating in the film and he has to ask other people to pretend to be the soldiers’ brother or sister.

As he finds and questions each participant, he does so with a single-mindedness that borders on obsession. On two occasions he physically assaults them when they won’t give him a straight answer. He is certainly fearless, and this makes for some interesting encounters.

In this film, the director seems almost completely absent. It’s very much an old-fashioned approach to documentaries. These days, it is expected and accepted that the director will have a particular point of view, and will edit the story to suit it. But in this film, all shots are hand-made and use natural light with very little opportunity for any stylistic additions. The conversations are edited, of course, but in an unobtrusive way.

The director, Hara Kazuo (who also directed Goodbye CP) leaves it up to us to decide what we make of the story: whether we admire or abhor Okuzaki’s desire for the truth. After all, he is a murderer accusing other people of murder, and more than once he points to one of his companions and says “the soldier’s brother has come all the way here to hear the truth”, which makes him a liar who demands that others tell the truth.

Although in the end the secret is discovered, the film doesn’t have a happy ending. A series of captions at the end tells us that Okuzaki later tried to shoot the commanding officer who ordered the execution, only he could not, so he shot he officer's son instead. Not fatally, but he was given twelve years for attempted murder. While he was in jail, his wife passed away.

It’s a brilliant film, but not easy to watch and often I found his attitude to violence somewhat disturbing. And the epilogue gives the film a slightly bitter moral: that knowing the truth may not bring you peace of mind at all.

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