Though it displays not a single dead body, gory gash, or bombed-out building, and limits its on-screen violence to heated arguments and abortive senior-citizen wrestling matches, Kazuo Hara's The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On(1987) nonetheless stands as one of the most harrowing, astonishing documentaries about war ever thrown onto celluloid. It reveals a side of Japan little seen by American audiences: the repressed culture of an older generation, still struggling with the demons unleashed by the atrocities of World War II, souls broken beyond repair.
Hara follows Kenzo Okuzaki, a sixtysomething veteran who at first appears to be nothing more than a shell-shocked, crystal-eyed crank, proudly boasting of the time he tried to assassinate Emperor Hirohito with a slingshot. In a vehicle hand-painted with anti-Hirohito slogans, he drives around the Imperial grounds bullhorning until impeccably white-gloved policemen haul him away. The scene plays like performance art of the insane, with Okuzaki evidently egged on by Hara's camera.
But once Hara and Okuzaki get down to the real business of the film, this complicity between director and subject goes further than one would think legally possible. Determined to find out why and how members of Japan's 36th Regiment killed their own soldiers in World War II, Okuzaki, a former 36th private, tracks down surviving members of his troop, which had been stationed in New Guinea at the war's end. Entering their homes at first with excruciating politesse, Okuzaki begins to grill the old men with increasing insistenceand when they don't provide answers, starts pummeling them. The sudden lurches between formalized gentility and violent outbursts provide the blackest humor: "No violence!" one kimonoed matron implores, demurely hovering over Okuzaki as he body-slams her husband to the ground.
Imagine the setup of Roger and Mewith the payoff of Winter Soldier, or a version of Shoah in which the director walks around with a sidekick who bitch-slaps wartime memories out of the more reticent interviewees. At one point, Okuzaki brings the brother and sister of two of the long-dead privates along with him to confront the veterans; when the siblings decide to leave, Okuzaki hires two actors to take their place for the next inquisition. Hara shits on every hallowed ethical precept of nonfiction filmmaking and yet arrives at deeper revelations of complex humanity than most directors can hope to reach. As a stomach-churning account of what occurred in New Guinea four decades earlier slowly emerges, Okuzaki's actions begin to seem less a product of pure insanity than warped outrage: He becomes the embodiment of Japan's hidden traumas, a raw wound that will not heal. (So what really happened in 1945? Spoiler alert: They say they tasted like pork.)
As evidenced in Anthology's Hara series, the filmmaker's stalker-cam tendencies go back at least as far as his second film, Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (1974), which centers on his ex-girlfriend Miyuki Takeda, not long after their breakup. By following her around with his 16mm rig, Hara explains in voiceover, he'll be able to continue the relationship. At first portending a sadistic macho trip, Extreme Private Eros proves to be an unexpectedly humanist, even feminist film as it chronicles Takeda's later relationships with other women and black American GIs in the low-rent, gutter-tough world of Okinawa go-go bars. Hara himself never appears in frame, but remains present as a self-deprecating voyeur to his former lover's ongoing life. He depicts not one but two births in real time; by film's end, the screen is stuffed with the toddling babies of Takeda's communal residence.
Both visually and audibly grueling, Hara's debut work, Goodbye CP (1972), documents a small group of young Japanese men and women with cerebral palsy, their bodies and voices cruelly distorted as if trapped in eternal agony. Not only does Hara's camera allow viewers to examine lives otherwise kept hidden, it again treads into morally questionable zones. At one point, the likewise handicapped wife of one of his subjects attempts to throw Hara out of their home. He keeps filming as her muscle spasms and weak limbs prevent her from doing anything but run away from his silent watch. In a more recent film, A Dedicated Life (1994), Hara at first appears to have abandoned gonzo vérité for a more conventional, talking-head format to tell the story of leftist writer Mitsuharu Inoue. But before long, Hara follows Inoue to the hospital, and soon we're peering into his bloody torso while doctors remove several pounds of damaged liver. Hara's transgressive ethos remains in effect: The truth hurts.
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