Saturday, May 31, 2008

Post-Griersonian Documentary

First off, thanks to Girish for picking Emperor's Naked Army Marches On - such a fascinating film, and one I likely would not have caught on my own - and orienting us to what's been written and said about the film. The ensuing conversation here has been rewarding to read and daunting to add to. All in all, a great start to the club. June's movie will be announced soon.

A number of you have brought up the ways Emperor's Naked Army questions hegemonic documentary practice: its continuum between documentary social actor and fictional character; its direct acknowledgment of the camera; its thematic interrogation of ethics; its own ethical problematic in facilitating violence; and its use of the performative persona of Okuzaki as a key author-agent of the film.

These are all important - central to the film, even. But I want to sidestep them a little without sidestepping the representational challenge of the film.

And the film is challenging. The spectator is placed in a position of piecing together events from their recounting. Social conflict plays out as ritualistic confrontation. The historical context is distant to viewers not versed in Japanese politics and removed generationally from World War II. Most of all, like other observational documentaries, ascertaining tone is difficult. Ignatiy remarks, "[Hara] may may be giving the real-life Okuzaki authority, but the filmed Okuzaki is a character in Hara's movie. And the movie's intentions are quite different from Okuzaki's." But what are the movie's intentions? And how do we know what they are?

To begin with, the film's narration does surface at key moments. Seymour Chatman talks of the "implied author" effect in narrative cinema, and at crucial times Emperor's Naked Army, too creates an implied author that lets the spectator weigh the veracity of what the interogated officers say. For instance, the film cuts from a verbal account of a 3 day lag before hearing of the war's end to an intertitle telling that 23 days passed instead.

But such blatant assertions of narrational voice are few. I found myself (perhaps unjustifiably) going back to the interview Girish quoted and to Jeffrey and Kenneth Ruoff's helpful reading. From these I gathered that Okuzaki's confrontation appealed to Hara as a way around the static social relations of the documentarist-social actor relationship that forms the basis of Griersonian documentary. This is more than a formal choice: Hara seems to be critiquing political consensus, most likely from a leftist perspective. Ruoff further argues that Hara seizes on the individual figure of Okuzaki as means of opening up a taboo debate about Japanese moral culpabilit

Thankfully, I dug up Akira Lippet's review of Ruoffs' monograph (Film Quarterly Summer 2000) and found my ideology of liberal consensus reading seconded. Lippit is taking issue too with Ruoff's political reading:
Okuzaki's ultra-rightist critique of the Emperor paralyzed Japan's facile politics of the right and left. To state that "after the war, Japanese people preferred to identify with the civilian victims of the A-bombs, rather than with their own soldiers who committed atrocities all across Asia," is not only illogical, but participates in a false dialectic that sees Japan's failure to acknowledge and accept responsibility for its extensive crimes in direct contrast to the American use of atomic weapons in Japan. It is a polemic that appears nowhere in Hara's film, which remains unrelentingly focused on Okuzaki's pursuit of a justice that is both extreme and private.

I, too, had problems with the Ruoff reading: Okuzaki's crusade seemed to challenge militarism in highly militaristic terms of honor and responsibility. But the broader point here is that Emperor's Naked Army seems to stage a confrontation and a revelation of truth without the redemption of dialogue, contemplation, deliberation, or action. Formally and ethically, many documentaries eschew the forms of Griersonian documentary, but this one dismantles the core principles of public sphere address. Documentaries - even personal experimental documentaries or Michael Moore's ironic agitprop - often ask their spectator to know something for future action or even ask her to act now in some capacity as citizen. Emperor's Naked Army mocks this quest for knowledge while enticing it, poses any deliberative action as quixotic while taunting those who are inactive, and sides with confrontation over reason. How many times does a cornered social actor fall back on a defence of "that's my opinion" while the framing registers his deer-in-headlights expression?

Intellectually, it's great to have this problem posed for us to reflect upon. Normatively, though, I don't think this Post-Griersonian worldview lines up simply on the side of the angels.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Authorship in Kazuo Hara's Films

Thinking about The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On made me curious about Kazuo Hara's other films. Earlier this month I watched his two earlier films, Sayonara CP and Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, hoping to get a better idea of Hara as a filmmaker. I posted some notes on his style and themes at my blog - but now I'd like to address another characteristic of these films I put off from that post. This emerges, specifically, from some of Harrytuttle's comments here, that Okuzaki seems to be more important to the film than Hara. It's an interesting point - in fact, I think it is characteristic of Hara's approach.

His films are definitely about strong personalities: the poet and photographer in Sayonara CP, Miyuki Takeda in Extreme Private Eros, and Okuzaki, are all assertive individuals with their own agendas. But usually even documentaries about strong characters retain a fairly clear hierarchy of "authorship": the subjects (Bob Dylan or Mark Borchardt or the Crumbs) do their thing - the filmmakers (Pennebaker, Smith, Zwigoff) film it and shape it. The subject of the films may control their discourse - but the filmmakers retain control of the discourse of the film. But Hara cedes more control of the films to his subjects - he allows them to shape what is in the film, to comment on the film more directly. Okuzaki's crusade is a good example - along with his tendency to perform, to stage manage confrontations, to act violently (though always photogenically). And his control of what will be in the film - inviting Hara to film him killing Koshimizu is probably the extreme example, but there are others. Several posts and comments here have explored Okuzaki's "shtick", so I will concentrate a bit more on the earlier films.

In Sayonara CP, the Greenlawn group (an organization of cerebral palsy sufferers) has significant input into the film, shaping its content, and its purposes. When the film is endangered (the wife of one of the main characters, the poet, Hiroshi Yokota, demands he stop filming), the Greenlawn people are as adamant about continuing as Hara. (And a good deal more vocal - he just keeps shooting; they yell at Yokota, nearly get into fight with him.) Beyond this, both Yokota and the other main character, a photographer, are given extended scenes, and explain their ideas and hopes at length. Hara has spoken of his desire to show things that are hidden - the CP sufferers share this desire. The photographer says he began taking pictures because other people took pictures of him - "we can only be passive" he says - he wants to reverse that, to look, as well as be looked at. He implicates Hara in this - Hara was always photographing him, he says - now he wants to be the one with the camera. Yokota, the poet, has similar goals - to read his poetry in public, to make people look at him, listen to him, acknowledge him. He has a major speech at the end of the film - describing his hopes for the film, for a different kind of film, only to have those hopes shattered. He will always be helpless, he says - while Hara cuts between shots of Yokota sitting nude in the street and repeatedly trying and failing to stand. Whose idea was that? Hara's? Yokota's? Either way, it pits the image against the words in a way that, I think, that underlines the authority of the character in the film. Both of these men resist their appropriation by the film, at least by speaking about it directly.

Hara's second film, Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, contains perhaps the most extreme example of this shared authorship. The film is a portrait of Hara's ex-lover, Miyuki Takeda - an extraordinary woman in her own right. The first half of the film is fairly conventional, as far as the relationship between Hara and Takeda, as filmmaker and subject, go - he shoots her, she talks, goes about her business - but the film is basically his. But in the second half the relationship changes. He films her giving birth - but this was her idea. We heard her plans earlier - she wants to give birth completely alone, with no help from anyone: and wants Hara to film it. That is what happens. She has the baby, while Hara films and his current lover records the sound. This scene is hers by any standards - she plans it, does the work (to say the least), and Hara just records.... This also tends to recast her activity in the earlier scenes - Hara tagging along as she went through the Okinawa underworld, trying to help the women there. Only at the end do we learn what she was doing there: by the end, seeing her efforts to create a model community, we see her as a far more active character than before.

Now - I don't think this in any way diminishes Hara's contributions to the films, and I certainly don't think it makes them less interesting formally than other documentaries. On the contrary - I think it makes the tension between the subject of the documentary and the maker of the documentary more explicit. It plays into the broader issues of control and independence found in these films, and often into their themes of revelation and repression - as all these characters in many ways seek to say and show things that have been suppressed. In this they are partners with Hara - though as well, as a filmmaker, he is appropriating their words and their images for his own purposes. They often, fairly explicitly, try to take control of those words and images back. It makes for a fascinating interplay.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Two Still Images

A man wrestling Okuzaki to the ground smiles up at the camera.

A woman takes a picture of the crew during Okuzaki's interview with a man he'll later attempt to kill.

Kazuo Hara's Kenzo Okuzaki

A lot of our writing so far has focused on Kenzo Okuzaki. So, in the spirit of the sport, let's turn around 180 degrees. After all, there's no such thing as passive filmmaking: Kazuo Hara (any by extension producer Shohei Imamura, editor Jun Nabeshima and sound recordist Toyohiko Kuribayashi, whose silver microphones are always peeking in from the top of the frame) is the secret co-protagonist of The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On.


Like any good social drama, The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On opens with a wedding and ends with a crime. In between, Kenzo Okuzaki, a man in his 60s, travels across Japan, first in a van covered with hand-written signs, then by train and ferry, confronting veterans about atrocities committed by Japan against its soldiers during World War II. Thin, wiry, with a finger missing on his right hand, he has the bearing of a wild dog. He's got the kind of vitality than only comes with age; his anger is the spirit of a man fighting time. The passiveness of the people he confronts is the kind that comes from accepting infirmity. "Everyone has the right to live in peace," says an incontinent veteran. A few minutes earlier, Okuzaki had kicked him to the ground.

Director and cameraman Kazuo Hara is Okuzaki's accomplice and Okuzaki is Hara's. Okuzaki's actions are motivated by the presence of a camera crew. He coerces people into confessions not for the sake of confessing, but for the sake of capturing them on audio tape and film. He's uninterested in "stories everyone knows." He wants to make private burdens public. Things must be said not to be said, but so that others can hear them. When a man offers to tell a soldier's relatives about war atrocities in private, Okuzaki angrily refuses with the authority of a director asking an actor for another take.

But Hara has the upper hand. He may may be giving the real-life Okuzaki authority, but the filmed Okuzaki is a character in Hara's movie. And the movie's intentions are quite different from Okuzaki's. It's after a secret, morally complicated history, and finds the perfect vehicle by presenting a man who openly sees the world in black-and-white. The film's Okuzaki is the lie that tells the truth. His aggressive, mannered personality is like a pane of polished glass, completely transparent and reflective of everything around it.

Watching films, we become astronomers, who detect the locations of planets and stars through calculations and hypotheses instead of images. No one needs to tell us that the real-life Okuzaki is tolerated as a crank, because the filmed Okuzaki's confrontations are always bookended with his polite arrival and equally polite departure. His "victims" are rarely apologetic about their wartime actions but always apologetic about the house being a mess or not having anything for tea. No one needs to tell us that the past is something muddled and impossible to understand--more opaque than the future, even--because Okuzaki is so hell-bent on simplifying it, on having everyone stick to one story. A receptive interviewer would only mirror his subjects. A passive one would only reveal his motivations. But here he is, replacing a soldier's grieving relatives with actors (his wife, a friend and a like-minded anarchist) who ask less questions and project more dread. And by showing us a false simplicity, Hara shows us how complicated truth can be.

--I. Vishnevetsky

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day thoughts on Kenzo Okuzaki

In the beginning, there was the camera. I'm no historian, but I'm easily swayed by the argument that social protest as we now know it did not exist before the invention of photography. It provided a reliable recording device that could prove to observers across space and time that, indeed, the authority of the powerful was being challenged. Would peace marches exist without cameras to record them? Would flag-burnings? Would Kenzo Okuzaki?

In the Emperor's Naked Army Marches On Okuzaki tracks down the surviving members of Japanese Army squadrons that were stationed in New Guinea, confronting them to tell the stories of their involvement in unspeakable acts in the days following the news of their country's surrender to General Douglas MacArthur. John Farr calls him a "one-man truth-and-reconciliation committee", which might sound overly-glib but opens an interesting line of inquiry. South Africa's TRC was designed to bring the truth of the apartheid regime into the light. Some felt the commission placed too high a value on truth at the expense of justice. Okuzaki also is committed to pursuit of truth, facts, and information. When he uses brute force on his interviewees, it's not so much a method of justice or punishment, but coercion so that they'll do what he wants them to do: spill the beans.

But I don't think Okuzaki is uninterested in justice either; he talks of a kind of karmic retribution for post-wartime crimes in the form of physical ailments. He's unabashed in claiming his moral superiority over those he confronts. And the camera too performs a role in meting justice or punishment. It's often alluded to that family honor is the obstacle to honest confessions by the former soldiers. Okuzaki appeals to a higher set of ideals, arguing that the revelation of truth about murder and cannibalism will comfort the victims' souls, and that this is a greater goal than maintaining the integrity of family honor. But it seems likely that he also feels that getting his interviewees' testimonies on film is its own form of justice. I'd be curious to see a follow-up on how the successful release of the Emperor's Naked Army Marches On in 1987 affected the lives of the former soldiers in the film, and their families.

-Brian Darr

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Okuzaki's Shtick

Following Rick Olson's "Prophetic Performance and the Documentary Gaze", I find that I'm fixated on Okuzaki Kenzo's shtick, on his performance of himself before Hara's camera, on what performance studies types like me might call Otuzaki's "autoperformance" (click here for an apt elaboration of the premise within a performance art context).

As we see throughout the film, Okuzaki is an adept improviser, capable of calibrating his autoperformance to provoke or to calm his audience in a flash second. Yet, like the most skilled improvisers, Okuzaki also relies upon some well-rehearsed stock pieces, familiar bits of business easily deployed at a moment's notice depending on the audience's shifting needs. Hara's camera captures most of Okuzaki's shtick repeatedly. Indeed, by the end of the film, the viewer has perhaps unknowingly become something of an expert on Okuzaki's distinctive "act."

To illustrate, Okuzaki deploys different items in his repertoire toward distinct effects. Some redirect the action of the scene when things threaten to spin out of his control ("I'll call the cops for you"). Others utilize ostensibly factual declaratives to verbally reassert Okuzaki's authority ("I went to prison for 13 years and 9 months" or "You were my commander but I'm a better man than you"). Still others are mostly non-verbal as when -- in each of his three filmed assaults on his interviewees -- he pauses, while poised in a position of dominance, to politely request his victim's assent. Hara's film fully documents these performative aspects of Okuzaki's ambush interview style. In so doing, Hara's camera forcefully illustrates that, as much as each encounter is its own "real" event occurring in its own "real" time, Okuzaki has the benefit of ample rehearsal for his part in each performance.

Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of Okuzaki's shtick comes in his brief collaboration with the surviving siblings of the two murdered privates. As these grieving individuals get into the swing of Okuzaki's act, they too begin to improvise, demanding their own answers from the interviews as distinct from Okuzaki's own interrogatives. The siblings' privileged status as visibly grieving survivors inspires the sustained attention and respect of the interviewees (which Okuzaki is quick to exploit as he forwards his own, by now familiar, claims). But these grieving siblings also upstage Okuzaki, as the interviewees increasingly direct their communication to the family members and ignore Okuzaki. Little surprise then, when the siblings -- for reasons that not made clear by either Hara or Okuzaki -- choose not accompany Okuzaki on future outings, that Okuzaki folds "their" presence into his own shtick by "casting" his wife and friends in the roles "originated" by the actual siblings, directing them to "act well but let me do the talking."

Okuzaki understands the circuit of performance -- recall his instruction to the grieving mother to "start over" when she "messed up" her vocal lament for her lost son -- but the fact that he's performing doesn't make his actions any less "real." Consider his savvy expression of his alibis, his "reasons" for doing what he's doing. I caught three, usually presented in the same sequence and using the same inflection. The first ("to console the souls" of the dead) assuages the spirit, while the second ("to tell the truth about war" so as to prevent future conflicts) addresses the conscience. Okuzaki seems to intuit that these first two make sense to most people. This might be why Okuzaki keeps the lid on his third and arguably most imperative reason ("to reveal Hirohito as a war criminal") the only one of his alibis to directly address the intellect -- for it outs Okuzaki as something of a crackpot and is especially vulnerable to what becomes a familiar rebuke, "That's your opinion." (Indeed, the statement "that's your opinion" seems to work like kryptonite for Okuzaki, requiring that he immediately reboot his performance with a distinctly different bit of business.)

Yet as much as Okuzaki is a skilled performer, I suspect he's most interesting for his adept use of the performative. Okuzaki's "act" -- through careful verbal and embodied repetion -- does help to instantiate the evidentiary reality of the counternarrative he seeks. The "truth" is revealed through Okuzaki's shticky fakery. All of which opens yet another angle on the question that everyone seems to have about this film: would Okuzaki's autonomous, adept performance shtick have done the work we see it do without the ratifying audience provided by Hara's lens?

-- Brian Herrera AKA StinkyLulu
(see also my unedited ramblings on the film here)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Hara's Naked Victims Mourn On.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Kazuo Hara, 1987)

What was Kenzo Okuzaki? Was he a dismissible war veteran with little more than a senile axe to grind? Or an ageing yet dangerous element posing a real threat to civilized society? I believe he was both of these things and more. Okuzaki is a ghost, a murderous revenant of the regime that created him. As Jacques Derrida disclosed in Specters of Marx, ‘haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony’(1). For Okuzaki, the purported institutional betrayal by the Japanese Imperial army in an illegal execution of mutineers, after the Pacific War had already ended. Defined him as representative, avenger, spectre of the wronged dead in opposition to the passive hegemony of a society in silence, guilt and ignorance.

Kazuo Hara’s direct documentary film is a fascinating jaunt into contentious national historiography, documentary subjectivity/objectivity, the return of the repressed and the fragile limits of righteousness. What makes Okuzaki, as well as Hara’s film, so compelling is the ambivalence that persists in every one of these issues. Although Okuzaki is a ghost, and certainly Hara has ensured of his immortalization. Should he be regarded as a righteous ghost? Hara’s own anti-social credentials: ‘I make bitter films, I hate mainstream society(2), seem to erode any claims to the sanctity of objectivity in this film and consequently Okuzaki’s quest. Yet this outlook of bitterness could only detract from the potency of, exposing injustices as they are. On many occasions, the camera was self-reflexively pointed to as a weapon and presence of cinematic duress to which the subject should submit.

Okuzaki’s own claim to be representing “divine truth” is set about by dirtying his hands with intimidation, “I’ve beaten a lieutenant already I’m prepared to beat you”; actual violence – as a visiting menace, brutalizing ex-sergeant Yukio Seo before Seo’s bystanding wife and children and brazen deception – masquerading impostors (including his own wife) as the siblings of the deceased he purportedly crusades on behalf of. Okuzaki simultaneously proffers to know a truthful version of events, enough to self-warrant the beating of those that do not corroborate. Yet he cannot and never claims to have witnessed the actual events himself. His only sources of knowledge are also his victims and accused. The documentary is in this sense, a testimony of absurdity. The capture of nothing more than a succession of belligerent acts, engineered dishonesty and the unreliability of memory and confession. Considered by Okuzaki, we might assume, proportionate and justifiable to his own end(s). But should we as spectators be convinced?

What dawned upon me towards the latter part of the film is that the search of objectivity and truth should be abandoned, a project that myself as spectator no longer cared about. This film was certainly never going to find this most elusive of things, even, and especially, if Okuzaki had managed to coerce each ex-officer into a full tear strewn confession of carrying out obscene acts in the context of organized obscenity. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is a film about catharsis and to some degree narcissism. It is clear that Okuzaki in his more tender moments mourns the dead, and his offer to substitute the filial role to the mother of a junior officer is a moving display. Yet I find it tempting to believe that he desired also to be the face of public mourning. Driven in this way to override several ex-officers, in their own private mourning in their own terms.

Derrida often spoke about the work of mourning in relation to a ‘narcissistic conversion’(3). Okuzaki’s restless preoccupation in mobilizing not only his own mourning but also the mourning of others exhibit precisely this narcissism. In fact, the harder Okuzaki campaigns the deeper he embroils himself in this conversion. In that his actions do ‘not eliminate the death and expropriation at the heart of the living; it calls one back to what always defers the work of mourning, mourning itself and narcissism’(4). Perhaps this is one of the few certainties or truths that the film can make claim to objectivity on. That the atrocities and madness of war makes those that participated, precipitates in peacetime, a heteroglossia of suffering and mourning. In Okuzaki’s case, a suffering and mourning that had mutated itself into an uncontrollable narcissism, not to mention homicidal desire. I found myself at the start, wanting to celebrate him but by the end ultimately pitying him.

Edwin Mak

- - - -

1 Derrida, Jacques. [1993] (2006) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. London: Routledge. (46)
2 Ruoff, Jeferrey. (1993) ‘Filming at the Margins: The Documentaries of Hara Kazuo’, Iris: A Journal of Theory on Image and Sound. No. 16 (Spring 1993), with Kenneth Ruoff, 115-126. [internet] Available at: [Accessed 19th May 2008]
3 Derrida (164)
4 ibid.

This review also appears at Faster Than Instant Noodles

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987)

“I like to make dramatic movies. I feel strongly about this, more than other directors. I love Hollywood action films, and I wanted Okuzaki to act like an action star. I want to make action documentary films.” – Kazuo Hara.

In my post, I’d like to present some selected, interesting material from Jeffrey Ruoff and Kenneth Ruoff’s 50-page monograph, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Cinetek, 1998). It contains facts, production details, and observations that might prove useful to the discussion. In order to use this space efficiently, let me present the material in the form of bullet points rather than an essay.

-- To begin with a few quotations from Hara:

“From my viewpoint, a documentary should explore things that people don’t want explored, bring things out of the closet, to examine why people want to hide certain things.”

“I did not go to college. I did not participate in the [60s and 70s student protest] demonstrations. I was on the outside looking in…The sense of failure among those who participated was strong. But I was not directly involved, so I don’t have this feeling of failure; I was always…on the outside, thinking to myself, ‘how wonderful.’ The 60s and 70s continue to shine in my mind.”

“My outlaw complex is very strong. I don’t feel that I’m in the middle of society. I am in the lower part. Those people on the bottom disdain those people in the mainstream. A movie director from the ‘bottom’ does not make movies that portray mainstream society nicely. I make bitter films.”

-- Ruoff & Ruoff: “The filmmaker does not passively record reality [referring both to Hara and Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1985)], but rather provokes certain encounters. Of his methods, Hara later noted: “I am not the type of director to shoot something just happening [like a demonstration], but rather I like to make something happen and then shoot it.” His documentaries are like virtual collaborations — along the lines of the ethnographic fictions of Jean Rouch such as Moi, un noir (Me, a Black, 1957) — in which the director encourages the subjects to perform their lives for the camera. In Hara’s words: “There are two sides to people. The person one wants to be, and the person one is. I want the people in my movies to act the way they want to be.””

-- In the late 70s, Okuzaki asked Shohei Imamura to make a film about his life. Imamura initially considered a TV film about Okuzaki but then changed his mind when he realized that the project would be too controversial for television. He then suggested it to Kazuo Hara, who was his assistant cameraman on Vengeance is Mine and Eijanaika.

-- The film started out as something quite different: a broad portrait of the war generation. It was “only after the filming of ex-Sergeant Takami Minoru [scene 11, about a half-hour into the film, which confirms that the garrison leader Koshimizu shot one of his own men] did Hara narrow his focus to the murder of Japanese soldiers by their superior officers during the New Guinea campaign.”

-- R & R: “Okuzaki was as overbearing a star as any filmmaker could find. The director recalled that his outlandish subject was always fighting with the crew: “Some of the younger staff members quit. I, too, really came to dislike Okuzaki. He was chaotic. In the film he sounds logical only because of skillful editing. The way he speaks is often incoherent.” At numerous points during the shooting, the erratic veteran withdrew from the project. In one case, he threatened to burn all the accumulated footage in Tokyo.” [...]

“Shortly after the filmed encounter with ex-medic Hamaguchi Masaichi, Okuzaki disclosed his intention to murder one of his former officers, hoping to convince the director to record the homicide. “I want to kill Koshimizu and I would like you to film it”, the veteran told Hara. “No movie has such a scene in it. Having you film such a scene would be my greatest present to you.” Hara discussed the issue at great length with his lawyer, his producer and other directors. The filmmaker recalled: “This was a very delicate problem. I had to decide if I should film it or not. I still have not made up my mind. One reason that I didn’t film it is that I had become really sick of Okuzaki. I might have filmed it. Human beings have dark sides, and people want to see something frightening. People want to see the evil side of people. A little bit of me says I would like to see it. I went to speak with Imamura. His opinion was really different. He told me not to do it.””

-- The original Japanese title of the film is Forward, Divine Army. The English title was given not by Hara but by the Institute which provided grant money for striking 35 mm prints for theatrical release.

-- R & R: “Proud of his convictions, Okuzaki sees himself as a warrior in a crusade. Above all, he is a man of action, as Hara noted: “Okuzaki threw pachinko balls at the emperor. But intellectuals, you know, they debate ideas, but they can’t do anything.”” [...]

“Like the vigilantes of American detective films, he [Okuzaki] works for justice through extralegal means, outside a system he defines as corrupt. The protagonist of a hard-boiled crime story is typically, as John G Cawelti notes, “a private investigator who occupies a marginal position with respect to the official social institutions of criminal justice.” Like the classic action hero, Okuzaki has to resort to violence to bring the guilty to justice. Incapable of compromise, Okuzaki’s awkward nobility derives from the righteousness of his moral beliefs and the justness of his cause.”

-- Hara opts not to use techniques we often associate with historical documentaries like archival footage, eyewitness interviews, authoritative ‘Voice of God’ narration, and interviews with scholars or journalists. Bill Nichols sees such conventional historical documentaries (which can often be didactic) as contributing to the “discourses of sobriety.”

-- A few words about reception. Commercial distributors refused to handle the film, fearing attacks from right-wing protesters. But after a few short-run public screenings in Tokyo, word-of-mouth publicity spread like wild fire. It then played at an 80-seat art theatre in Tokyo for 3 months, with daily standing-room-only crowds.

A national controversy and debate ensued; the director joined it by writing an essay on the film in a leading Japanese film journal and publishing a 120-page making-of account.

-- The historian Akira Iriye pointed out that Okuzaki’s extremism mirrored that of the Japanese military: “His fanaticism—at one point he says, ‘the use of violence is justified for the good of mankind’—is reminiscent of Japanese wartime behavior, and it is possible to see in his facial expressions, stripped of surface civilities, the same combination of brutality and self-righteousness that impressed foreign observers of the Japanese army during the war.”

-- R & R on an ethical question: “If Okuzaki had not been the subject of the film, would he still have shot Koshimizu’s son, who committed no crime? Did the making of the documentary contribute to the wounding of an innocent man? Hara only inflamed the argument by candidly admitting that he considered filming the murder attempt after Okuzaki proposed it. Disturbed by his own morbid curiosity, Hara asked himself: “Is film God for me?””

-- Links: At Jeffrey Ruoff's site, an essay on the documentaries of Kazuo Hara that appeared in the journal Iris, and an interview with the filmmaker. Also, there's a review of the Ruoff & Ruoff monograph at Offscreen.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Prophetic Performance and the Documentary Gaze

There's a moment in Kazuo Hara's The The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On that strikes a chord in my little Calvinist brain: the activist/war-veteran Okuzaki is trying to get into prison to measure a cell for his own home. Besides providing a neat foreshadowing of the ending, it clued me into the performative nature of his activities. Presumably, he wanted a life-sized cell so he could sit in it, demonstrate in it, and perform his protest. And it struck me that this was a very prophetic thing to do, in line with Israelite prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures.

Hebrew prophecy was not primarily about predicting the future, but telling the people they were disobeying their national deity (Y--h) and warning of his punishment. Here's a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, where Y--h is talking to the prophet Ezekiel: "lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it . . . When you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side . . ." The bodily disposition of the prophet communicates the message of the Hebrew deity, which is a prediction of his punishment of Israel.

Okuzaki is certainly a prophetic figure: he simultaneously warns the public about their past behavior and interprets all the bad in their lives -- including his own -- as divine punishment. He justifies the decision to kill Kishimizu, the captain he believes to be at the center of a war crime, on prophetic grounds: "to prove divine punishment," he says, "I made a decision to kill Koshimizu."

The camera supports his enterprise admirably: as he interrogates his old army buddies, it noses around inquisitively, cutting from interrogator to "suspect" to the mute witnesses Okuzaki brings along. There is an element of exposé to his activities; he purports to expose the atrocities of war so that there are no more of them. Again, the camera suits this well: it follows Okuzaki as he "ambushes" his subjects. I thought for a moment I was watching Mike Wallace bust in on some hapless politician.

As Okuzaki's actions become increasingly extreme, we are implicated through Hara's steady glare. How much does Okuzaki do because the camera is there? How much does he do because we are watching? Under Hara's gaze, he does some questionable things: at one point, he enlists his wife and another to play the siblings of one of the victims as he interrogates a suspect. On two occasions, he physically assaults the person he is questioning; at one point, a relative plaintively asks the camera operator if he's not going to intervene.

I was uncomfortable watching these scenes, and reminded of watching Michael Moore browbeat a befuddled Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. There, the perpetrator and the documentarian were one and the same; the obvious sympathy of Hara for Okuzaki's cause makes me wonder if the same can't be said for The The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On as well.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How This Works

I've gotten a few questions on how to proceed. There are a few ways to join the discussion here at Film of the Month Club:

(1) In any of the comments threads (presenter's or otherwise) at Film of the Month Club;

(2) Putting up a post of their own at Film of the Month Club;

(3) Putting up a post at their blog/site and cross-posting it at Film of the Month Club;

(4) Putting up a post at their blog/site and placing a link to it in the comments at Film of the Month Club. (Your blog post should be on-topic, lest we treat it as spam.)

Numbers 2 and 3 are restricted to blog members, while anyone can comment. Posting on the film can take place at any time throughout the month, until a new film is announced. (There is no reason to limit comments to the month's film.)

Happy posting/commenting!