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The Sorcerer's Apprentice

With any luck, The Sorcerer's Apprentice will conjure up a bigger audience on Blu-ray. —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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What do you do with someone whom you know to be righteous; who shows all the virtues of a man determined to see justice done, no matter how long it takes; who sacrifices his own selfish pleasure for his cause; yet who is obviously quite mad? And what do you make of a documentary about that man, made by a filmmaker who controversially adheres to a show-everything-as-it-happens philosophy? Is this a match made in heaven or a recipe for disaster?

It turns out to be a little bit of both. Director Kazua Hara’s 1987 documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On pulled me all the way into the insane world of an aging Japanese veteran hell-bent for justice. The day after I watched it I had to see it again.

Surviving the War

Okuzaki Kenzo fought for Japan and its Emperor in WWII (or as it’s known in its Japanese context, The Pacific War). There he served with the 36th Engineering Corps in Western New Guinea. Of the more than 1,000 members of the 36th, only 30 survived the war. Okuzaki was taken as a half-dead prisoner of war in 1944 and was cared for by the Americans. This, probably more than anything else, explains how Okuzaki survived and was still alive in 1981 when he approached Hara about telling his story.

Plan B

Hara was not Okuzaki’s first choice. Rather, Okuzaki had first gone to Imamura Shohei who was known in Japan for his documentaries about the Pacific War.

By the time Okuzaki had come to Imamura, he had compiled quite a rap sheet following his return to Japan. In 1956, he was convicted of murder (ten years at hard labor); in 1969, shooting pachinko balls at the Emperor with a slingshot (one year, six months); in 1976, defaming the Emperor with “pornographic handbills” (one year, two months), and in 1981, plotting to murder an ex-Prime Minister of Japan (no indictment).

This is a litany that Okuzaki will roll out at the drop of a hat as proof (to him at least) that he’s walking the walk. However Okuzaki proved to be too much for Imamura, who suggested that Hara would be the right man for the job. Still skeptical, Okuzaki chose Hara and essentially hired him to be the director of the Okuzaki Kenzo story. This information is critical to viewing the film because it blurs the line between who is exploiting whom in the relationship between director and subject.

Atonement

Just what was Okuzaki’s cause? The short version is that he blamed the Showa Emperor (Hirohito) for all the misery suffered on both sides of the Pacific War, but particularly by the soldiers in the Japanese Army. To them, the Emperor was a divine leader, and they were called his children. A Japanese soldier’s first duty was to obey the Emperor and it was the Emperor who (in Okuzaki’s mind) sent them to fight a war they could not win.

Okuzaki apparently came to this conclusion during his first stint in prison. He also determined he had misspent his life in the years after the war and that, because he had survived, he had to live a good life. This echoes the coda in Saving Private Ryan where the surviving Ryan asks if he has lived a life worthy of the sacrifice of his comrades.

Part of Okuzaki’s reformed new life included bringing to justice everyone responsible for the war including — especially — the Emperor. (For practical and political reasons, Emperor Hirohito was never charged with any war crimes, and remained emperor during and after the occupation.)

But of all of Okuzaki’s crimes, the one that piques the Japanese psyche was attacking and defaming the Emperor. This marks Okuzaki as an extreme outsider, a role he seemed to relish. In his mind he was on a mission from God to avenge a wrong that the Japanese wanted to paper over and forget.

Extremism in the Pursuit of Justice

In the course of the film, Okuzaki focuses on one incident in which two Japanese soldiers of low rank were executed after the war had officially ended. Okuzaki hunts down the commanding officer and the men in the firing squad and confronts them about their part in the killing. Along the way, he enlists the help of two relatives of the dead soldiers who follow Okuzaki on his quest for truth.

It is suggested by the sister of one of the privates that they were killed and cannibalized so that the officers could survive. This is discounted by one of the veterans. He says that eating the New Guinea natives (black meat) and dead Americans (white meat) happened... but Japanese troops? ... never. Whatever the truth, things were very bad for the Japanese Army in West New Guinea in 1945.

Curiously, Okuzaki displays the same single-minded absolutist zealotry in pursuing his own goals as he and the Japanese had during the war. He says that he abhors war, and I believe him because he has experienced it “at the pointed end of the stick.” He’s seen violence at its worst and wants no more of it. And yet he says that violence is acceptable in the service of a just cause. And his cause is just because God has told him so.

Uh-oh, now there’s going to be trouble.

Flashing the Gang Sign

And there is plenty of trouble. Several times in the course of the film Okuzaki physically attacks the veterans he’s questioning because they either don’t cooperate or don’t give him the answers he wants. Meanwhile, Hara keeps the cameras rolling, often with Okuzaki’s encouragement. Would Okuzaki be acting this way if the camera wasn’t there? Who knows? Although he may be crazy, he’s not stupid and Okuzaki knows that with the camera there, he’ll reach a wider audience, so perhaps he wants to put on a good show.

There is an evolution in the viewer’s (and probably in Hara’s) perception of Okuzaki. He goes from an amiable, possibly pitiable crank, to dangerous monomaniac. I was put in mind of the shift in character of the professional assassin in Belvaux and Bonzel’s Man Bites Dog. In that film, there is a scene where, in one moment, the mockumentary director and crew realize they are not following a romantic adventurer but a psychopathic killer and thug. Man Bites Dog was released in 1992, five years after The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, so one has to wonder if maybe there was some inspiration at work here.

Another thing puzzles me. Neither Hara nor the Ruoff brothers (see below in the “How to View” section) mention anything about Okuzaki’s missing little finger on his left hand. Is this a memento from his “bad” years right after the war? There is the Yakusa (Japanese gangster) tradition of Yubitsume, or finger-cutting, where the tip of one’s little finger is cut off to make amends for some infraction of gang law. Okuzaki’s whole finger is missing so maybe he really screwed up. Or maybe it was just an accident (he was a mechanic at his day job). Maybe he mutilated himself for some insane reason or another. I’m inclined to believe the last. But whatever the history, he flashes his three-fingered hand in front of all who get in his way, and it is an ominous gesture to the Japanese who would know its suggested meaning.

Right and Wrong

This film raises some interesting questions of right and wrong in dedication to a cause. Both Okuzaki and Hara are fodder for this examination, and perhaps the viewer is too. How far is too far when you are fighting the good fight? Do the means justify the end?

Although released in 1987, this film will make an excellent complement to Letters from Iwo Jima. Perhaps the release of a big-budget American film will bring some new notice to The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. I have the feeling that this is one you’re not going to see on The Military Channel.

DVD Extras

Facets Cine-Notes™ “Memory of War: Notes on the Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” will get you up to speed on director Hara and provide some historical and cultural background to Okusaki’s mission. It is a revised excerpt from the Ruoffs’ book (see below).

Picture and Sound

**

Both picture and sound are merely average. Sometimes there is very “real” footage and sound, which means the cameraman and recordist didn’t always work under the best of conditions. The content itself is what carries this film on DVD.

How to Use this DVD

Before you watch the movie, read The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On by Jeffery and Kenneth Ruoff. In it you will find an excellent biography of director Kazua Hara, as well as a very complete analysis of the film. It is available as a downloadable PDF at dartmouth.edu/~jruoff/Articles/HaraCover.html or from Flicks Books in England.