ゆきゆきて、神軍 「Yuki yukite, shingun」
Running Time: 122 mins.
Release Date: August 01st, 1987
Director: Kazuo Hara
Starring: Kenzo Okuzaki, Shizumi Okuzaki,
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is regarded as one of the finest documentaries ever made. It derives its power from its subject, a World War II veteran and political agitator named Kenzo Okuzaki who is on a quest to expose a possible war crime as well as the irresponsible actions of Emperor Hirohito, the military, and post-war governments who carelessly tossed away the lives of their people and have imposed a sort of nation-wide amnesia over the wrongs committed during the war including the killing of their own soldiers.
Okuzaki is quite a character to follow. Within the opening five minutes we learn he is an anti-authoritarian who served jail time for murder, for hurling pachinko balls at the Emperor and for distributing pornographic flyers outside the Imperial Palace. He also has a history of assault and has developed a mean moralistic streak. He shows no signs of slowing down at the age of 62, which is when we join him, as he sidelines his plot to assassinate a prime minister to search for the truth of a dark chapter in his past.
He was in the 36th Regiment in World War II which was stationed in New Guinea. It seems he was always something of a rebel even during his time in the army where he claims he beat up his superiors and states resistance helped him survive. Good fortune saw him captured by Allied forces a year before the end of the war while the rest of his fellow soldiers who continued to fight were crammed into a small area and almost completely cut off from food and water supplies. At a time when soldiers were suffering from starvation there were dubious “executions” including those of privates Tetsunosuke Yoshizawa and Jinpei Nomura who were shot 23 days after the Emperor gave his radio address telling the Japanese that hostilities were over.
Okuzaki wants to find out the truth and so with Kazuo Hara and a documentary film crew in tow he shuttles from his home in Kobe to various places the length of Honshuu. The camera unflinchingly records him travelling from Hyogo Prefecture to Hiroshima, Tokyo and Saitama and interviewing ex-NCOs who may have been involved in the killings. What he gets are excuses, equivocations and elusiveness as the former soldiers lie and demonstrate a convenient collective amnesia and dodge responsibility. Lines like, “it was a military order. Orders always came first”, and, “for the sake of these souls, we shouldn’t dig up the past”, are uttered which infuriates Okuzaki who unearths evidence that cannibalism may have taken place and wants someone to take responsibility.
Okuzaki’s rebelliousness and violence hovers over each interview and with the truth just out of grasp he becomes more single-minded and resorts to bizarre tactics and violence as his own nasty streak emerges. He works with relatives of the victims to force out confessions and then actors to trick interviewees and goes as far as to slap and punch them while the camera crew continues to recording everything. Watching men in their sixties fight each other in bursts of violence is alarming and yet as the awful details of the privations of war and the crimes committed come to light (and we’re talking cannibalism and murder), audience members may find themselves willing Okuzaki on to continue shaking shocking confessions out of men bound to the more socially acceptable action of forgetting and parroting a sanitised version of events.
Many moral quandaries emerge from the film such as how the filmmakers become part of the action and help Okuzaki search for his truth. It was shot over a number of years but it is raw and immediate thanks to the way Hara edits the film and this editing is used to almost lionise Okuzaki and make him seem like a righteous avenger even though he is clearly unpredictable and violent. At some points he starts a fight, the action slows down, the camera zooms out while others awkwardly watch on. He clearly uses the camera crew to get into people’s lives and the camera crew use him for material but we begin to wonder if he is goaded on to more extremes due to the presence of the camera and question whether the filmmakers should step in at points to stop the fighting. They do, towards the end, and the most violent parts of the story happen off-screen as we are told with title cards. However, could the filmmakers have facilitated Okuzaki’s obsession that lead him to those fateful actions?
What stands out more is how uncomfortably funny some scenes are. The flashes of violence can be funny as we see a formal Japanese greeting upturned by some wrestling as tempers flare or polite language used as people punch each other. The camera records everything without bias and so the absurdity comes out naturally. Seeing the reactions of families and nonplussed police officers standing around scuffles comes off as amusing as they ask in a typically polite Japanese way for Okuzaki to stop. The length Okuzaki goes while surprising can also be amusing such as enlisting his wife Shizumi and a friend to do some acting after he is abandoned by relatives of the victims. Seeing him give a briefing to them about their characters as they meekly look on and then act with the domineering man is funny. Shizumi also emerges as a hero as she puts up with her husband’s actions with the patience of a saint. More importantly Hara, through Okuzaki, shows that the Japanese character is not the quiet and calm stereotype and he has exposed some uncomfortable truths that the Japanese state would rather forget with regards to the way the military brutalised and cannibalised its own people. For this, however violent he is, Okuzaki does come across as a hero for trying to get someone to take responsibility.
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is a powerful film about violence and obsession. Both Okuzaki and the filmmakers are unethical and unkind at points but we feel their mission is important. With intelligent editing to create a focused narrative and exact staging and interactions to make it as visceral as possible, both the filmmakers and Okuzaki root out the truth from a horrific episode in Japan’s past and pose difficult questions for the audience watching their work forcing people to fully confront the horrors of war. Their work will always be relevant because armed conflicts, unthinking obedience and blind nationalism are ever present threats for humanity.