The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)
Dir. Kazuo Hara

If you have never seen this film, I strongly advise you not to read this post. Also, I strongly recommend to see this film. Without acquiring any information regarding its content. Not because it will diminish the shocking effect of this film (it won’t, believe me, I have seen this film more than a couple of times but it still shocks me), but because it is an experience. You will experience how the ugliness of the truth unfold.

Prerequisite for the old adage “Truth is stranger than fiction” is the notion that truth has narrative, however absurd, just as any fiction does. Though the narrative may have a bizarre twist, absurd characters, incredible coincident or inexplicable “hand of God”, it still retains coherence as storytelling requires. Such “truth”, however, is still tailored to fit linear progression, leaving out many details and inconsistencies. Documentary films, which are supposed to document “truth”, are historically bound to this storytelling. Storytelling requires a storyteller, who has a vision, or an aim, even before he put his hands on a camera.
Take, for example, Michael Moore, a “documentary film” entertainer. He knows what to shoot, who to talk to, where to show up, and how to tell it. His films are well-produced piece of art, which have nothing to do with truth, but with his vision. Denouncing his films as one-sided or politically motivated is off the mark. He tells his own story. But he has plans and clear notion about what he will tell before his camera starts rolling. Maybe Moore is extreme. Errol Morris, who is more interested in exploring the truth, or the characteristics of it, approaches the subject matter with a deliberately careful manner. He is interested in what happened. He is interested in how it happened. But still he tells his story, through editing, collection of historical footage and very engaging interviews.
Here is the film, in which its creator seems to be at loss as to know what he had to tell.
Welcome to the world of “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite Shingun, ゆきゆきて、神軍, 1987)“. It is a film about an anarchist in pursuit of truth. Kenzo Okuzaki, an anarchist, an ex-convict and a soldier of God, was determined to expose the horrifying truth about the last of his fellow soldiers in southern Asia in 1945. The director Kazuo Hara follows Okuzaki visiting his aging “war buddies” to dig up what happened in the deep vacuum of the Jungle. Many of old men were apparently annoyed at this pursuit, not willing to talk about the past. They were living normal lives, retired, with their wives, sons and daughters. They were either ill or somewhat lonely or living quietly. If you were a neighbor to one of them, you would never know the ugliest truth they had hidden deep inside. Okuzaki must have been the last person on earth they would like to meet.
But I have to ask, was the director Hara interested in cannibalism among Japanese soldiers in the closing days of WWII? Maybe a little. However, the film fails to provide historical background or any other perspective on the issue. We don’t learn anything concrete about facts on the horrible acts of Japanese soldiers in Southeast Asia. Or maybe Hara was interested in Okuzaki, a wacky anarchist with strange ideas, whose reckless behavior made all around him uneasy. But we don’t learn about how he has become what he is, why he acts like that nor what he really wants to accomplish.
After Japan had surrendered on August 15, 1945, the soldiers in Southeast Asia were supposed to be disbanded. However, due to poor conditions of Japanese military (or what’s left of it), the troops were not allowed to be dissolved and soldiers were not able to return to home. Many of them were trapped in hostile area with no supply of food, medicine and other supports. They had to survive, with no end in sight. Shortage of food was so devastating even before the war ended (as early as 1944), the cannibalism was said to be in practice in some troops. They first attacked their POW, enemy soldiers and other unfriendly parties. Then, they started to kill each other. The event depicted in this film is supposed to be one of those cases, in which two young soldiers were shot sometime after the war was over.
There was no detail of the event and most of all survivors was not willing to speak. Okuzaki, who was a member of the troop, but a POW at the time, did not know what had happened exactly but had a pretty good idea. He set out to find who had ordered the execution on what grounds. He wanted, as he said repeatedly, for those involved to confess, to speak about it and to apologize. He was not going to prosecute any of them, unless they would talk about it.
At first viewing, Okuzaki’s character is so powerful that most of us are just blown away. His logic, statement and sudden burst of violence are too extraordinary for us to comprehend.
But we start to realize, the interviewees, visited by Okuzaki and his “friends”, are also as poisonous. A man, who might look like one of our neighbors, started to talk about “white pigs” and “black pigs”, jargon used among soldiers at the time, referring to their “food”, as if they were regular items on menu. He wasn’t nervous, nor frightened, just speaking quietly. Or a sick old man, who inadvertently admitted he had involved in deaths of more than a couple of his fellow soldiers. Or a doctor, whom others said was one of those who gave orders for execution. They all spoke quietly like good old fellows on the block. But what they were speaking, what they must have had done, witnessed and eaten, are simply disturbing.
When I was eight or nine years old, one of my friends found an underground tunnel, 10 to 20 meters long, in the small hill in our neighborhood. It was an abandoned shelter made during WWII. Its entrance was concealed in the thick bush and the hill was covered with wild oaks and chestnut trees. Making it our imaginary base camp for our imaginary troops, we stayed in the tunnel for many hours, reading comics, throwing stones at marks we painted on tree trunks or simply doing goofy things any nine year old would do. The tunnel was only 1 meter in height and less in width and pitch dark except a few meters at the opening. Though the entrance was inconspicuously made to blend into the wet soil around it, the interior was constructed with concrete walls with a series of cavities. At the middle of the straight section of the tunnel, the darkest point of the whole structure, there was a branching tunnel running at right angle to it. We never ventured into this branching, which looked like a mouth of a sinister dragon. In fact, we stayed at a couple meters from the entrance most of the time, avoiding the dark, chilly echo chamber. Many years later, I came to know it was a tunnel constructed for stashing weapons. The tunnel must have been built in the last day of the war, preparing for the last standoff at main island. When U.S. troops searched the area after the war, they found some firearms and explosives had been concealed in this tunnel and took them all away. So I heard. Nobody would suspect anything sinister is quietly breathing under the peaceful hill. But I could feel that dragon waiting to eat all of us with its mouth open, silently and cunningly. The bite marks of the war was still breeding under the skin of peaceful modern society.
My experience with this tunnel was around 30 years after the war, around mid seventies. The film was shot between 1982 and 1987. After more than a quarter century, most of the ugliness during the war had been buried under. When we are guided through this film of Okuzaki’s quest, we are to experience the discovery of the tunnel hidden deep in the seemingly quiet neighborhood. In the dark passage to the land of death, we discover the hemorrhage occurred there long time ago. You need a sharp knife to slash the peaceful landscape wide open to let it loose, bleeding it out. Okuzaki was a sharp knife, or a divine instrument.
At the same time, we start to realize that Okuzaki has done what he has done precisely because he was in front of camera. The same goes for all the interviewees. Some may call it borderline staging or collusion. Or self-conscious acting by all. Confession or admission of the past might have appeared suspicious if there were some exploitative hands acting on it. However, the gravity of the subject matter betrayed that effect in the end, inverting the karma of documentary filmmaking into making of a myth. Modern men do not need to experience the primal act of survival such as this. Complex intellectual activities such as techniques in filmmaking seems too trivial or too inconsequential in this context. One of the oldest forms of communication, oral recounting, seems to be the most effective in resonating our primal soul hiding under the darkest part of human psyche. I believe that’s why this film succeeds, not with its techniques, nor with its characters, but with old men recounting his stories as many of our ancestors must have heard myths of ancient times.

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The Issue of Degradation, Part 2

Maybe some of you have migrated your collections to hard disks (HDD). You may have had a collection of DVDs and CDs but copied them on HDD, got rid of all the physical collections and are quite happy about it. An 1TB hard disk costs less than DVD box set these days and can hold hundreds of movies. Directories and folder management is much easier and faster than going through a clatter of disks. I do have some movies on HDD and find them quite useful and easy. But when it comes to trusting HDD, it’s a different story.

There is something called MTBF. It is Mean Time Between Failures. This has been a standard for many advanced electrical and mechanical components and HDD industry used it to measure integrity and reliability of their products. MTBF is a very confusing metric. For example, a particular product boasts MTBF of 1 million hours. This means when it recovers from one failure, the next failure will occur one million hours later, 114 years… Not quite. It only means this particular manufacturer tested probably 3,000 drives of this series for a month and total of 2 failures are observed. Otherwise, nobody can test a hard disk drive for 114 years.

Of course many of you know something called “HDD crash”. A HDD is not only a electrical device but a mechanical device, quite sophisticated one. There is a read/write head and disk. The head writes and reads data on a spinning disk, without physically touching the surface of the disk. But to read/write precisely, it has to fly at extremely low altitude. It is roughly 10nm (1 nanometer = 0.000001 mm) apart. If the head bumps on the disk, it causes the scratches and defects, which would make the HDD unreadable.

How small is this gap of 10nm? If you scale this read/write head to Boeing 747, it is like the plane flying at 1mm from the ground. That’s 10nm. If your HDD crashes, you curse on it. Nobody will expect a Boeing 747 flying at 1mm from the ground for thousands of hours to be scratch-free. It is an amazing technology, but people take it for granted.


That is why you need a backup for data on HDDs. All the data centers in the world have data backup strategies in place. Mirroring, instant copying (snapshots), RAID, multiple copies, data distribution across the continents, backup tapes and other technologies to make sure your e-mail data, bank accounts, blogs, photos online and other critical information are intact. There is a quite interesting technical article by Google engineers on HDD failures. They had tracked large numbers of HDD in their servers, monitoring their error increase and retire rate. Quite fascinating but also scary, because so many HDDs are retiring less than a year.

The problem with HDD crash is not loss of data. It is total loss of data. Even if it’s a small crash at one isolated area, in many cases, you cannot read any data from the drive, not one file. Then, if you store your favorite films on a HDD, the crash will destroy whole library. Not one bit will remain. This is something completely different from physical film. If you damage a part of the film, still you can edit them out, splice the rest together, and watch it with slight sudden jump in frames.

This is why I was somewhat concerned when I saw the video clip above last year. Russian film archive, Gosfilmofond, had arranged transfer of early American films not available previously to digital format and send first ten of them to Library of Congress… in HDDs. When we are talking about film buffs personal collections in HDDs, the clash would only bring personal dismay and anguish, but it is not serious anyway. But when it is a national treasure handled by Library of Congress, it is a different story. I strongly believe they must have made the multiple copies of the HDDs onto other HDDs or magnetic tapes immediately after and stored them in several different locations. If one of these original HDDs were to clash, there should be another to replace it. For better or worse, this practice of digital film archiving will become standard for many institutions and libraries, since this will save a lot of floor space, increase the accessibility and seems to lessen the management burden. It seems more “advanced” than arrays of rusting cans of films, but in three to five years they have to deal with decaying HDD components and migration issues.

And yet, there are more complications and issues in digital data archiving other than physical degradation of storage media. Issues of migration, economics of retention and digital restoration etc. I will revisit them from time to time here in this blog sometime.

The Issue of Degradation, Part 1

Old films have scratches, moldings, tears, color fade and many other forms of deterioration. They have happened, are happening and will happen. Nitrate films are combustible and prone to catch fire easily, while acetates are prone to hydrolysis, causing ‘vinegar syndrome’. Colors will fade. Sprockets may disintegrate. In many cases, no original negative has survived and only material available to us is a poorly handled dupes. Copying analogue data (images on films) always degrades the quality of the original, such as sharpness, brightness, grayscale/color balances and audio clarity. People often have said preserving the film prints and negatives is not a clever idea.

On the other hand, there are people who say photographic film is a proven medium for long-term film archival. You can watch Lumiere brothers cinema from 1890s with such clarity and beauty. No other media, DVD for example, is guaranteed to survive that long. You may have two or three reels of Super-8 home movies of your childhood, and you can project them nicely with profound amount of nostalgia. But your collection of 8mm video or VHS might have collected molding or something. Or it won’t start. Or images aren’t clear. Something wrong with that tape and you cannot figure it out. See? If handled properly, preserving cinema on films is the best way to go, they say.

Magnetic tapes do degrade. Information on magnetic tape is stored as magnetization of magnetic pigments coated on thin PET substrate. These pigments (magnetic particles) can lose their initial magnetization over a long time. Its coatings are made of ‘binder’, a glue, so to speak, and these can be degraded chemically. Also, magnetic tapes contain lubricants for better sliding against read/write heads and tape paths in a tape deck. These are oils derived from natural products, which attract moss and molding. It needs to be handled with care and stored in controlled environment.

How about DVD? It’s digital, so there is no degradation of quality upon duplication. It looks like a durable material, unless you make scratches on it.

When you say ‘DVD’, you have DVD-ROM (commercial DVDs) and DVD-R (ones you use for ripped copies). A DVD-ROM contains physical deformation (pits) created by a stamp, therefore it is quite robust. A DVD-R uses organic dye for creating pits and exposure to intense light (especially UV) should be avoided. It is probably not suited for long-term archives. There are DVD-RAM, DVD-RW and plus-minus and so on. Created for multiple read-write events, these are not meant to be long-term storage media. (Some people claim these RW disks have longer longevity compared to DVD-R.)

But these are only guidelines. There are always people who say ‘I have a ton of VHS tapes from 30 years ago and they look just fine’ or ‘I have many DVD-ROMs which won’t start!’ or ‘I transferred my Super-8 collections onto Blu-Ray disks and they are there forever without any degradation!’. From an engineering point of view, you have proven data of 100-year longevity for cinema films, 50-year for video tapes and 30-year for optical disks. Other data are derived from accerelated laboratory tests.

Errors (numbers of error events when reading the data) increase. The error map of a CD-R disc immediately after its production (top), compared to that of a CD-R disc stored for 21 years. It can be seen that errors do increase after long-term storage. (Kunimaro Tanaka, “Evaluation of archival optical discs, (2)”, Monthly IM, 49, p.40 October 2010)