ゆきゆきて、神軍 「Yuki yukite, shingun」
Release Date: August 01st, 1987
Duration: 122 mins.
Director: Kazuo Hara
Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi
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 war crime by any means necessary. In his journey he ends up indicting Japanese society and its silence over the war. The idea of a documentary about him was first envisaged by Shohei Imamura but due to the refusal of television companies to touch such a controversial subject, it fell to Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi to film it.
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 flyers featuring pornographic images of the Emperor around Tokyo. While he has always been an anti-authoritarian (he’d rumble with his officers while in the army), that jail time (including 10 years in solitary!) led to a mean moralistic streak that has increased his drive and his willingness to fight. 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 an ex-prime minister to search for the truth of a dark chapter in his past.
During World War II, he was in the 36th Regiment of Independent Engineers which was stationed in New Guinea. Towards the end of the war, good fortune saw him captured by Allied forces while the rest of his fellow soldiers who continued to fight were forced to retreat into a small area and were almost completely cut off from food and water. 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 announcing that the war was over. That alone was clearly a crime but the reason for their deaths carried suspicious elements that the survivors have covered up.
Okuzaki wants to find out the truth behind the murders 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. From Hyogo Prefecture to Hiroshima, Tokyo to Saitama, he tracks down and interviews all who were involved in the execution. What he gets are excuses, equivocations and elusiveness as the former soldiers lie and demonstrate a convenient collective amnesia that allows them to 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, through doggedness unearths evidence of cannibalism.
Okuzaki clearly relishes his role as a hero but the more time we spend with him, the more unhinged he seems.
His rebelliousness and violence hovers over each interview and with the truth just out of grasp he resorts to bizarre and disturbing tactics such as hiring actors and inflicting violence on the interviewees. Meanwhile the camera crew continues recording everything.
Watching men in their sixties fight each other is alarming and Hara emphasises the sense of shock by going into these moments with slow motion as Okuzaki moves to judo his targets. It seems immoral, both for Okuzaki’s actions and the camera keeping rolling, but, as the awful details of the crimes committed come to light, I suspect audience members may find themselves willing Okuzaki getting confessions out of men. A complex relationship between subject, filmmakers, and audiences emerges as the hypocrisy of more socially acceptable action of forgetting and parroting a sanitised version of events is investigated.
Moral quandaries may emerge over how the filmmakers become part of the action but it only serves to make the film feel more dynamic. It is clear that Okuzaki clearly uses the camera crew to get into people’s lives and to lionise himself while the camera crew use him for material. It is fascinating watching how the presence of the camera goads people on to more extremes or inhibits them from confessing scenes. Sometimes it all goes off the rails as Hara is forced to step in front of the camera to caution Okuzaki during fights. His subject shows the degree of his mania and need for control by trying to direct the crew, berating the director at times. Indeed, behind-the-scenes, he was trying to dictate the course of events as he had provided some of the production fees.
Along with the violence, which is uncomfortable to watch, there is also humour as Okuzaki’s irreverent attitude to authority is ever present and his penchant for violence allows things descend into slapstick that subvert the seriousness of everything – Japanese politeness, reticence and respectfulness is used just before bouts of wrestling. 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 equally comes off as amusing as they ask for Okuzaki to stop. In truth, as funny as Okuzaki is to watch, his domineering behaviour points to a disturbing level of violence that has its roots in macho behaviour and wartime trauma.
Shizumi, Okuzaki’s wife, soon emerges as a hero by demonstrating how 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 and others. It’s a really compelling mixture of contradictory elements that makes the film an absolutely gripping watch!
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is a powerful film about violence and obsession. Although the film was recorded over a number of years, the filmmakers chart Okuzaki’s behaviour with intelligent editing to create a focused narrative full of smart 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.
The Emperor’s Naked Army plays as part of a season of films made by Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi that is available to stream in North America until July 02nd.
This is a rewrite of a review from a couple of years ago.