Emperor's Naked Army Marches on
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This absorbing documentary follows Kenzo Okuzaki--a veteran of Japan's WWII campaign in New Guinea--as he searches out those responsible for the mysterious deaths of several soldiers in his unit. Though he holds Emperor Hirahito accountable for all the suffering caused by WWII, he painstakingly tracks down former military officers and accuses them of specific war crimes, often times abusing them verbally and physically. Director Kazua Hara's subtle cinema verite not only captures the zeal of Okuzaki's lifelong mission, but also exposes the atrocities committed by the Japanese military against its own soldiers. The film created such controversy in Japan upon release that no major distributor would touch it.
Whatever you call it--a righteous and cathartic quest for the truth and the odyssey of a vengeful madman are two possibilities--the saga depicted in The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On is both compellingly strange and strangely compelling. A good five years in the making (it was released in 1987), director-cinematographer Kazua Hara's documentary concerns itself with one Kenzo Okuzaki, a 62-year-old World War II veteran and an anti-establishment character of a kind little known in Japan. Having already served almost fourteen years in prison for various offenses (including killing a real estate broker and shooting a sling at Emperor Hirohito), the unrepentant Okuzaki spends much of the film trying to root out the perpetrators of an atrocity that occurred during his deployment in New Guinea, when two soldiers were executed for desertion--after the war had ended. Sometimes accompanied by the two men's surviving relatives, Okuzaki simply shows up at the alleged perps' homes; in typical Japanese fashion, he apologizes profusely for arriving unannounced (even though that's obviously one of his primary tactics) before challenging them, relentlessly and abrasively ("You can't escape God's judgment!" he shouts at one. "I'm a much better human being than you!" he tells another). For the most part, the accused pass the buck to their commanding officer (who himself claims that he was only following orders). And while some of these confrontations are reasonably civil, others find the outraged Okuzaki physically attacking his prey, culminating in yet another prison sentence. This is genuine cinema verite, presented utterly without artifice; there's no music, the look of the film is plain and washed out, and the lighting is often terrible. Yet the fact that a character like this exists at all in Japan, a country where "the nail that sticks up shall be hammered down," is quite remarkable. Kenzo Okuzaki refused to be hammered--and he's got the scars to prove it. --Sam Graham
- A Facets Cine-Notes booklet about the film
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The basic story line is of a Japanese soldier in New Guinea who witnesses an atrocity just days after WWII ended, then, years later, launches a crusade to find and confront the alleged perpetrators of the atrocity. The soldier, Kenzo Okuzaki, now well into middle age, is sometimes accompanied by a couple of family members of the victims as they seek the truth about what happened. An unseen camera crew, directed by filmmaker Kazuo Hara, records the action.
One marvels at Okuzaki's temerity as he enters a small Japanese village and nearly muscles his way into the homes of the alleged guilty parties using an odd blend of extreme politeness, guile, and physical threats. This is most un-Japanese. The startled victims, when confronted, do, however, react in a more characteristic Japanese way by disguising their surprise and alarm with polite smiles and bows as they invite the interloper part way into their homes or businesses.
The ensuing accusatory harangue by Okuzaki and the polite denials by his targets can last only so long before he loses patience and advances toward physical threats and actual violence. Meanwhile, the viewer is left in an uncomfortable spot, having to watch helplessly as the victim realizes the imminent danger. One is left open-mouthed when the police finally arrive and are cowed into docility by the apparently mad Okuzaki.
It's interesting to note that even the Hara, the filmmaker confesses to a dislike of his subject. "In the film, he (Okuzaki) sounds logical only because of skillful editing." he says. In fact, Okuzaki considered himself the director, not Hara.
All this said, however, it will be a rare viewer who won't be transfixed by this film. The interest level rarely flags as we are led, step by step to the end. No matter your view of Okuzaki, "The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On" will keep you riveted to your chair. Afterward, you'll be left to ponder what inspiration it must have given to our current crop of filmmakers.
Initally all my sympathy was with the protagonist, Kenzo Okuzaki, fearlessly rooting out and confronting the wartime executioners. But, even with much material edited out, it quickly became obvious that the man was mentally imbalanced and a murderer himself. It is also not clear why he took nearly 40 years to start pursuing the officers and men shown in this piece, wasted his youth making pathetic gestures towards the Emperor and killing someone not related to this story (and spending a long time in jail as a result).
To answer my own question in the review title - both!
The Japanese have a saying "The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down." Yet, Kenzo Okuzaki not only refused to be hammered down, but his very character traits of being in the face of those he accuses of war crimes gives the viewer a strange and perplexing look at a nation who refuses to look at its own past. Yes, WWII was a long time ago. But for many, including Okuzaki, time is irrelevant. The entire premise of the documentary deals with Okuzaki's attempts to confront the horror of his wartime experiences of the New Guinea campaign in WWII. For those who are not familiar with the WWII campaign on New Guinea, the battle was a hellish one. Especially for the Japanese.
Kenzo Okuzaki accuses his former superiors of atrocities in this documentary. Especially one atrocity in particular: The execution of Japanese soldiers on New Guinea. Okuzaki, who is sometimnes accompanized along with the deceased soldiers' relatives, attempts to expose these atrocities by confronting former members of his unit. One in particular is a former Sergeant. And although the film explores the atrocities by the Japanese soldiers against Japanese soldiers, the very fact that these former soldiers pass the buck to those who were in charge; and in particular to their commanding officer; whose response was that he was "only following orders," is very telling in itself.
But for me, the main essence of the documentary of a former soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army accusing his own men of atrocities is quite compelling. Especially considering that Okuzaki accuses Emperor Hirohito of being responsible for ALL the war crimes committed in WWII: As Okuzaki believes the Emperor was the reason that the Japanese Army went on a conquest of Asia. I would also like to recommend to those who wish to purchase this DVD, to also take a look at the film "Under The Flag Of The Rising Sun" by director Kinji Fukasaku. The film by Fukasaku, released in 1972, deals with the New Guinea campaign, and the accusations directed by the the films protagonist compliment "The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On." I would also recommend to viewers to check out the film "Fires On The Plain, by director Kon Ichikawa. The subject matter that both of these films deal with have much in common with the documentary. Especially why the accused in this documentary were executed.
This documentary is one of only a handful of documentaries by Japanese soldiers confronting the war, and as such it is highly recommended. Do not go into this documentary with the assumption that this will be like something you see on the History Channel, or some other well-done, cinematic and perfectly directed documentary. This documentry may not have perfect camera men behind the lens, but it says much more than many other documentaries of this nature. Which is probably why I like this documentary so much. Whether or not it is professionally done does not really matter. What matters is the lone crusade of one former Japanese soldier who does not wish to quietly acquiesce to those whom he once served under. And whether or not you sympathize with Okuzaki is really irrelevant, [to me at least] for he is not trying to be liked. His in your face attitude and disrespect for those in authority is his way of attempting to come to face-to-face with his own harrowing past. Maybe even his way of redemption? I highly recommend the DVD.