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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.

This article from The Japan Times raises an interesting, but not too surprising, prospect:

Police quiz S. Korean actress over abductees to the North
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Japanese police in February questioned a South Korean actress in connection with North Korea’s intelligence agency’s abductions of two Japanese couples, investigative sources said Tuesday.

Two former senior agency officials believed to have been close aides to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il are suspected of ordering the 1978 abductions of Kaoru and Yukiko Hasuike and Yasushi and Fukie Chimura. […]

The two agents are Li Wan Gi, former director of what was known as the foreign information research department of the North Korean Workers Party, and Kang Hae Ryong, its former vice director.

Investigations have already pointed to the likely involvement of the agency and the two officials in the abduction of the actress, Choi Un Gi, and the two Japanese couples. […]

Choi was kidnapped in 1978, around the same time as the couples, while she was in Hong Kong, and sought asylum through the U.S. Embassy in Vienna in March 1986.

Choi’s husband, filmmaker Sin Sang Ok, also disappeared in Hong Kong. The couple were told by North Korean agents that they were taken to the country to help develop its filmmaking industry, and continued making films in Pyongyang and other locations. […]

The case of Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok (as the two are more commonly romanised) is well-known.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok

In the 1970s, Shin was a once-successful director (‘a film director of legendary stature in his native country – the Orson Welles of South Korea‘) struggling under the government controls of General Park Chung-hee. Choi was Shin’s ‘muse and favorite leading lady‘, perhaps comparable to the relationship between China’s Gong Li and Zhang Yimou. Their relationship broke down in 1976 after it was revealed that Shin had sired two children to another woman while Choi had been incapable of conceiving and after the couple had already adopted a child. Choi filed for divorce and moved to Hong Kong where in 1978 she was kidnapped and taken to North Korea. Six months later, while looking for his missing wife, Shin was also kidnapped.

“I was jailed for about five years, but I didn’t know at the time that it would land up being that long,” he said.

“If I had known from the start I would rather have been dead. During this time I was very, very depressed. They expected brainwashing to change me.”

His wife was also ordered to attend re-education classes. She was forced to study North Korea’s “glorious” revolution and later made to sit exams on the subject.

“I was very unhappy. I did think of suicide but then I thought of my family and how much this would hurt them. It was an awful time,” she said. [THOMSON, Kidnapped by North Korea]

In 1983, the pair were reunited at a dinner party in Pyongyang. Their abductions were seemingly ordered by an adoring Kim Jong-il, movie nut of the highest order.

Kim Jong Il borrowed more directly from outside [film influences] when he arranged for the abduction of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee in 1978. Six months later, Kim abducted her estranged husband, famous South Korean director Shin Sang-ok. Before the pair managed to escape in 1986 during a stopover in Vienna, Shin Sang-ok introduced many new innovations into North Korean film. His most famous films during this period-a North Korean version of Godzilla called Pulgasari and a retelling of the famous Korean folk tale of Chunhyang called Love, Love, My Love-added science fiction and musical romance to the North Korean repertoire. [FEFFER, Screening North Korea]

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“The North’s film-makers are just doing perfunctory work. They don’t have any new ideas,” Kim told the couple.

“Their works have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.”

He blamed misunderstandings by thoughtless officials for their unfriendly four-year North Korean welcome. He also apologised for taking so long to get back to them personally, saying it had been busy at the office.

The idea came to Kim, he said, when he heard that Seoul’s repressive, militaristic Park regime had closed down Shin Films.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to bring him here’,” he said. Infiltrating Shin Films with agents posing as business partners, Kim explained how he lured the two to Repulse Bay, Hong Kong. First Choi disappeared on a trip to discuss an acting job. Then, on the way to dinner one night, Shin had a sack filled with a chloroform-like substance pulled over his head. With that, Kim had imported the best film talent the peninsula had to offer. [GORENFIELD, The Producer from Hell]

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“Kim Jong-il later confessed to me that the reason he kidnapped my wife first was because he wanted me to come and make films for him,” Shin Sang-ok said.

Kim Jong-il is film mad. Soon after the couple arrived in Pyongyang he took them for a private tour of his film library, which holds more than 15,000 movies. […]

Initially the director was not sure what the North Korean leader meant by a “good” film, until he took note of what he watched most often. Top of the list was Rambo, followed by Friday the Thirteenth and all the James Bond movies. […]

Meanwhile his wife was given a large room in the leader’s scenic summerhouse overlooking the river.

In a series of charm offensives Kim Jong-il went out of his way to make her feel welcome by bringing her piles of expensive clothes and Western cosmetics. [THOMSON, Kidnapped by North Korea]

Choi recorded the meeting with a tape recorder and would then use that to bargain their way into US custody when on a business trip to Vienna to arrange the distribution of a movie about Genghis Khan in 1986. North Korea claims that the pair made their own way to the North and that they stole $2.3 million taken with them to Austria to fund the film’s possible Western distribution. Choi’s tape recording of her meeting with Kim Jong-il have subsequently been aired in South Korea. By the time they left North Korea, the pair were once more a couple, supposedly with Kim’s urgings.

If it was indeed Kim Jong-il that ordered their abduction, then it casts even more doubt over the paper-thin, tried-and-tested excuse offered by the Dear Leader in his 2002 Pyongyang Summit with Koizumi Jun’ichiro. The abductions were certainly not the work of rogue or overzealous agents, as Kim would have everyone unquestioningly believe, but clearly rested with the top figures of the North Korean government. The news in The Japan Times also shows how inextricably linked Kim might have been to the abduction of other foreign nationals.

The Great Happiness Space

I know I’m a bit behind on the times, but I just finished watching the fabulous documentary on hosts, The Great Happiness Space (2006). Watch it on Google Video. It looks at life for the hosts and clients of Rakkyo in Osaka. It is very well created, engaging, and grapples with all the right issues.

I’ve always had an interesting in subcultures, and I have been particularly curious about Japan’s mizu shobai (water trade; sex industry, for want of a better description), so this was right up my street. You cannot help but notice the number of clubs around Japan, each attempting to entice customers in with intriguing posters and pushy staff, and furthermore, you cannot help noticing the staff themselves as they slip into clubs on their way to work. People from all walks of life work there, and from my experience there are some nice personalities. For instance, in Nagoya, I got caught out in the rain with a friend and only one umbrella, lost somewhere near Sakae and in desperate need of a decent karaoke club. We asked the nearest group of people (the only ones brave or needy enough to be out in that weather) for directions and they not only helped us out, but also gave us their umbrella to boot. It’s a small gesture, but one that makes a big impression. As we stepped outside of the shelter, it was clear that we’d just been talking to fuzoku who were about to start work at the pink salon that was clearly advertised in the doorway. Anecdotal, I know, but characteristic of this documentary.

It portrays the wide range of relationships in the clubs, host-host and host-client, with all the minutiae in between. The most intriguing question about this arises midway through as we learn of the clients’ professions: fuzoku and hostesses. We are shown their feelings towards their hosts through one-on-one interviews, each with verisimilitude. They describe, and the head host Issei admits that that they are trapped in a vicious cycle. They go to the club because they want the veneer of support and acceptance that the hosts provide, but then they must continue to work in the mizu shobai so that they can have the money to attend these clubs. At the same time, they are becoming addicted to the feelings they have, while at the same time being polygamous both in terms of love and clubs.

The hosts don’t make it any easier. Issei claims that they don’t force the girls to buy the expensive champagne ($250 – $10,000 a bottle), but then we see footage of them doing just that. The incredible amounts of money that are spent are made to seem trivial as the girls recount their feelings for Issei. Are the hosts providing a support mechanism, a place that the girls can go and not be judged, but accepted? Or are they exploiting the girls, trapping them in a cycle of income and expenditure that can only be satisfied in the prostitution industries? The question is unresolved, but what becomes clear is that there are no real illusions on either side. The girls know what they’ll get, and the boys know what they’ll give, but each plays along to get their money’s worth.

We also see the terrible toll on the hosts. Stuck in a moral no-man’s-land, they drink and smoke themselves to death. Some get plagued by guilt as they extract more and more Yen from the girls. They suck it up and keep going, emerging each day into the blinding morning sun and heading to bed for a short sleep before they hit the streets and clean the club for another night of extravagant spending.


Nihon igai zenbu chinbotsuI recently finished watching ‘The World Sinks Except Japan’ (nihon igai zenbu chinbotsu), a movie based on a book with the same title, parodising another book which was also recently made into a film, ‘The Sinking of Japan’ (nihon chinbotsu). This is a terrible film, yet it has some satire (probably a hold-over from the source novel). I really can’t recommend anyone else to watch it…

What is it about? The world’s landmasses sink due to hokey geophyics, leaving a stream of foreigners making their way to the only surviving country: Japan. The refugees put increased pressure on Japan, which is already short on supplies because of its need for imported resources. It is a comedy, although not a very successful one. The only place it succeeds is in its social commentary, namely the experience of foreigners.

The worst thing for me is the acting which plays up to the unsophisticated humour. If anything, foreign actors in a Japanese film are rarely very good, and this film does not buck the trend. Many of the foreign characters are all supposed to be American, but to any English speaker it is obvious that most come from East Europe, as well as other European countries. On the other hand, I’ve never heard such bad Japanese accents coming from foreigners. It’s truly cringe-inducing!

At first glance, the film seems to be nationalistic in tone. I cannot imagine many Chinese or Koreans watching the way their leaders are portrayed without them believing this to be some form of Japanese propaganda. A viewer might even see xenophobia and racism in this film. If any of you do watch it and feel that way, I can only ask you to reconsider. I saw it put best on a review at there are some people who thought Team America was a right-wing, conservative film. In both cases, one must understand that they are in fact parodies of those very perspectives.

In the film, the arrival of the foreigners is greeted with some excitement, particularly because the first to arrive are those with the cash and power to get there: world leaders and movie stars. They attempt to continue their lives but their money is worthless and they can barely speak their host nation’s language (one part of the film is the announcement that the eikawas are closing to be replaced by a Japanese language school franchise founded by Dave Spector). They end up on the streets, working bottom-rung jobs (prostitution, human billboard) and stealing whatever food they can (because Japan’s lack of resources has sent the price rocketing). They will do anything for an umai-bo. The foreigners descend into crime and homelessness, and the Japanese people are increasingly xenophobic. The solution put forward by the government (headed by a character called Yasuizumi…) is the Gaijin Attack Team (GAT). They round up foreigners and deport those who have failed to assimilate (where to is another question).

The whole premise exaggerates the xenophobia of some portions of Japanese society by placing them in an extraordinary situation. It plays up to the fears of immigration and becoming a foreigner in one’s own country. Perhaps my favourite scene, and only a moment of it, is when one of the main characters (a journalist) wakes up on a train to find himself surrounded by foreigners. Amongst the sea of gaijin’s faces, he spots another Japanese man and they both smile, albeit sheepishly. Anyone who has spent time in Japan will recognise this… some of us indulge in it, others rebuke it. It even has a name: ‘the Gaijin Dilemma’ (I believe this first came from Azrael at GaijinSmash). It’s all about comfort in the unfamiliar, and I love that the film had this small moment.

The film isn’t afraid to play up Japanese insecurities about foreigners, and its a self-deprecation that is entirely welcome. However, at the end of the day, the film struggles to get past its basic humour and poor editing to truly deliver the commentary that lurks beneath. Had it have done so, it might have been worth watching.