The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

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“The termination of the war has been brought about solely through the benevolence of our Sovereign. It was His Majesty himself, who, apologizing to the spirits of the Ancestors, decided to save the millions of His subjects from privation and misery, and to pave the way for an era of grand peace for generations to come.” — Prince Higashikuni to the Diet about Emperor Hirohito’s surrender to the U.S.

“I really came to dislike Okuzaki.  He was chaotic.  In the film he sounds logical only because of skillful editing.” — Director Hara on his subject

To say that Japan has always fallen a bit short in apologizing for, or even acknowledging, its epic aggression of 1931-1945 would be a gross understatement. Maybe “criminally recalcitrant” best summarizes their approach to this somewhat thorny period in their international relations. Compared to Germany, where there was an increasing level of youth outrage and leftist insurrection as the decades wore on, Japan was relatively insular on the matter, more often casting themselves in the roles of victims of atomic catastrophe, which they undoubtedly were. Still, citing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as pinnacles of human cruelty does not require a high level of introspective reflection and conveniently avoids any admittance of culpability. Even Emperor Hirohito, amazingly absolved of all responsibility for 15 years of violence, would have the audacity to include himself in this “victim” category, being duped as he was by clever Japanese militarists. Surely no one in Washington believed such nonsense, but for the sake of a smooth occupation, it was agreed to strip him of all authority and allow him to remain a figurehead of the nation state, a “divine” powerless puppet in an Americanized Japan. Overnight, Hirohito became a warm and fuzzy facilitator of national healing. Questioning this was beyond the pale, and those Japanese politicians that publicly did so quickly got back in line.

Out of this expanse of sad denial comes the voice of  Kenzo Okuzaki, the focus of filmmaker Kazuo Hara’s 1987 documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yukiyukite shingun). Okuzaki, a veteran and captive of the New Guinea campaign, has no qualms about loudly speaking (his version of) truth to power. In equal turns refreshingly conscientious and disconcertingly unhinged, Okuzaki is tireless in his role as historical truth-seeker, the aging voice of a manipulated and sacrificed Imperial youth, screaming into the face (often through loudspeakers affixed to his car) of those he feels responsible for its execution. With incredible focus and drive, particularly given the decades since war’s end, he confronts his former superiors and tracks down the fellow survivors of his Engineering regiment, which was decimated in one of the most notorious disasters of the conflict. Hara stays in the background, constantly filming his fascinating subject and refusing to intervene in volatile situations, even where perhaps it was his moral responsibility to do so, at least in the eyes of some of his critics. Like Michael Moore and the Maysles Brothers, Hara does not pretend to be the objective observer, detached and aloof, documenting events as they unfold. He recognizes his part as a tacit instigator, as a social agent in the convoluted chain connecting himself with his chaotic subject. Yet, he clearly has a great respect and sympathy for Okuzaki and admires his tenacity and complete lack of propriety, his obsessive drive. The film is not without its moments of dark humor, as Hara has freely admitted. As scenes unfold, viewers find themselves squirming uncomfortably as Okuzaki presents his calling card with an eerie congeniality. It is simply unbelievable when, over calmly poured tea and smiles, he launches into questions about cannibalism and accuses superiors of atrocities punishable by death.

Like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the seminal 9-hour documentary on the Holocaust, Hara avoids dwelling in the past. There are no newsreels, no historical voice-overs. The visceral and lasting pain of the war is expressed in the present, in the fractured stories and violent outbursts, in the melancholic faces that just want to forget and move on. This is what is so remarkable about Okuzaki: he seems incapable of moving on. He is stranded in time, holding on to beloved grudges while probably suffering from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In Shoah and Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, participants speak with a certain degree of detachment–even nostalgia–from the events that altered their lives. But in Hara’s film, the urgency with which Okuzaki carries out his mission makes one feel as though the conflict is still raging, as if he is fighting to end a genocidal war happening at that very moment, not one that ended thirty-five years earlier. Only it does still rage, in Okuzaki and others conscripted (or convinced) to fight wars of imperial aggression for honorable and “just” causes. Needless to say, the causes continue, and the deceived seem to deal with it in different ways. Some drift further towards patriotism. Others just want to erase it forever. And occasionally, some, like Okuzaki, devote every remaining moment to attacking the authoritarian institutions they feel are responsible for wrecking their young lives.

When released in Tokyo in 1987, the film renewed the debate about civilian complicity in the war effort. It helped to shatter long-standing myths of Emperor Hirohito’s peaceful benevolence. And more importantly, it removed the stigma of shame that still hung over many families whose men were taken captive during the war, as opposed to dying gloriously in the service of their “benevolent Sovereign.”

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