The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

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.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (ゆきゆきて、神軍, 1987)

Directed by Kazuo Hara
Produced by Sachiko Kobayashi

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