Reportage-style documentary-making can have incredibly impressive results. Hara Kazuo’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (ゆきゆきて、神軍 – Yukiukite shingun) is one such example. The voyeurism that Hara draws from the viewer implicates them in the absurd violence of the protagonist Okuzaki Kenzo.
Okuzaki served in the 36th Regiment in New Guinea. For him, that time there shaped him into the twisted man that he is onscreen. Unafraid to admit to killing a man, for which he was jailed prior to the filming, Okuzaki lives on a hair-trigger. At first he calls to mind the black-van driving uyoku rightists, but Okuzaki is a one-man train wreck. The problem is, his goals are quite noble.
Investigating the deaths of two fellow soldiers from his regiment, Okuzaki wades into tales of cannibalism, starvation and desperation. The experiences of these soldiers can only be described as harrowing. As Okuzaki tells another soldier, whose role in the death of another soldier forms a bookend to the documentary, in hearing about the true horrors of war, people will learn that it is unacceptable.
That said, it is clear that for Okuzaki, the ends justify the means: he not only says this, but he turns the violence and aggression on and off at will, throwing punches in what has to be one of the least exciting fist-fights in cinema history (except for a single throw that demonstrates that old retired sergeants are still pretty handy in a melee).
This film is a must-see. There are few films that can truly demonstrate the untellable secrets in wartime memory. These secrets must be told: humanity will be the better for it.
I have been spending a lot of time watching movies recently, one of which was James Ivory’s The White Countess starring Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardener), Sanada Hiroyuki (The Last Samurai), and Natasha Richardson, whose previous work I am unacquainted with. The screenplay was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese-born author who grew up in the UK.
The film is set in 1930s Shanghai. There, Countess Sofia Belinskya, a White Russian driven from Europe and living with her dead-husband’s family, survives as a hostess and occasional prostitute in order to support her young daughter. She meets a retired American diplomatic, Todd Jackson, blinded by a terrible accident in the past, who establishes a bar, ‘The White Countess’, with Sofia as the centrepiece. Jackson forms an intellectual kinship with Matsuda, a Japanese intelligence agent with a keen interest in Jackson’s new club. Ultimately, however, we learn that Matsuda is the harbinger of a Japanese advance and siege of the city.
Jackson longs for a political tension in his bar to reflect the outside world: Kuomintang, Chinese Communists and Japanese. This longing is expressed in the film itself which excels in capturing the tensions of the 1930s in the foreign enclaves of Shanghai: Germans shout abuse at Jews, Russians attempt to regain the stature they lost in the Revolution, and Wilsonians lament the collapse of the League of Nations. It is reminiscent of, but in this aspect is better than, Empire of the Sun, also set in Shanghai at the time of the Japanese invasion.
It was nice to see Sanada Hiroyuki capitalising on his post-Last Samurai fame. Certainly, this was a better role for him than his Rush Hour 3 character. I hope that, along side Yakusho Koji, Sanada’s star keeps rising in Hollywood.