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The Emperors Naked Army Marches On (1988)

“Violence is justified if the end result is good. As long as I live, I’ll continue to use violence by my judgment if it brings good results to me for the sake of mankind.”

— Kenzo Okuzaki, in The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

“I really came to dislike Okuzaki. He was chaotic. In the film he sounds logical only because of skillful editing.”

— Kazuo Hara, director of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

The death tolls that flowed from World War II and its bookends of political upheaval are nearly unimaginable. Six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis. Stalin’s rule resulted in the deaths, from either famine or oppression, of at least 10 million of his own people. During Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, at least 20 million Chinese died. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed hundreds of thousands in the short term, and affected the lives of survivors and their offspring long after. In the Pacific Theater of the Second Sino-Japanese War and WWII — as documented by books like Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking — around 30 million people died at the hands of the Japanese Army (and when you read about things like medical experimentation at the hands of Unit 731, you realize the dead were the lucky ones).

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On finds its genesis in Japan’s WWII New Guinea campaign, but instead of mining the fertile documentary ground provided by the atrocities committed against the indigenous peoples, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On instead focuses on one man — Kenzo Okuzaki — many years later. By the standards of any society, Okuzaki — paranoid, prone to violence, with an eternal chip on his shoulder against the government — would be an outsider. In Japan, these qualities make him even more of an outcast.

Early in the film, we find out the following things about Okuzaki:

* In 1956, he received 10 years’ hard labor for the murder of a real estate broker

* In 1969, he was sentenced to one year, six months of hard labor for shooting a sling at the Emperor

* In 1976, distributing pornographic images of the Emperor got him one year, two months hard labor

* In 1981 he plotted to kill former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, but was not indicted

So when you see Okuzaki driving around in his megaphone-laden, slogan-covered van (it’s unfortunate the film doesn’t translate any of them), you figure he’s off on another paranoiac’s crusade. Okuzaki, after all, proclaims at a wedding that nations — and families — create walls between people, and are therefore against divine law. He also visits an ailing soldier, Yamada, at the hospital, to tell him that he’s been struck down as a result of his post-war life, for the hubris of attempting to live like New Guinea had never happened. Okuzaki also plans to build a replica prison cell in his own house, and live in it as a sign of protest.

But it turns out, in this instance, Okuzaki is tracking a genuine scandal: the suspicious execution of two Japanese soldiers in his unit, after the war had ended. The official explanations (to the extent that anyone’s bothered to explain anything) have left him unsatisfied, so he begins a quest to interview any surviving soldiers who have any knowledge of the incident.

What follows is absolutely riveting. Okuzaki travels to the shrines dedicated to his fallen comrades, leaving food for their spirits as he erects burial markers that tell the world how they died. He sits beside a comrade’s widow, consoling her as she sings a folk song about waiting for her loved one to come home.

For his surviving comrades, however, he’s far less gentle. With pit-bull tenacity, he hounds them for the truth, even beating some of them when he feels they are less than forthcoming. In front of these men’s wives, children, and grandchildren, Okuzaki presses them to admit they were the executioners, or that they engaged in cannibalism. To put the screws to his subjects, he brings along relatives of the executed men. When those relatives decide not to accompany him to the end of his quest, he enlists his wife and an anarchist friend to pretend to be the relatives. As far as Okuzaki is concerned, the men he’s questioning are undeserving of compassion, and he’ll use any trick in the book to make them confess.

In one particularly gripping interview, he and the real relatives drop in on a former soldier at work. After Okuzaki’s prey politely invites his guests into his office, Okuzaki is told that he shouldn’t dig up the past, that Okuzaki’s quest is disturbing the dead. The relatives counter that their dead siblings visit them in dreams, and aren’t at rest anyway. The subject counters that to tell the truth would bring shame upon the families of the deceased. The relatives tell him that they don’t care, that people in Japan don’t care about those things the way they once did. It seems like an impossible impasse, but Okuzaki wears the man down, until he finally begins to answer Okuzaki’s questions.

Still, here as elsewhere, all of the answers the men give Okuzaki are self-serving and self-protecting. He’s met with half-truths that shift the blame to others. Some claim to have missed their shots on purpose, while another claims that his gun failed to fire. They all claim that their commander, Koshimizu, was at the execution, and that he followed the firing squad’s shots with point-blank pistol shots of his own. Koshimizu, for his part, claims to have been nowhere near the scene, and that he didn’t even own a pistol at the time. Koshimizu, as the man who ordered the executions, is Okuzaki’s ultimate target, but after Okuzaki’s first pass through the survivors and Koshimizu himself, he’s no closer to the truth.

As Okuzaki retraces his steps, confronting these old men with the contradictions in their stories, the truth begins to unfold — but never fully blossoms. The various survivors begin to confess their roles (with startling politeness), but there’s never any clear answer as to why the men were killed. Were they killed for desertion, as punishment for their own cannibalism, or, as one relative proposes, were they killed to provide meat for the officers? Throughout it all, Okuzaki pleads, cajoles, and threatens, calling himself a messenger of god, shouting that if he were willing to attack the emperor, he’d have no problem attacking these men.

Ultimately, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On raises as many questions as it answers, with Okuzaki remaining a cipher at film’s end. Is he truly unhinged, or merely driven by a thirst for justice? Okuzaki died in 2006, at the age of 85, after being sentenced to 12 more years of hard labor for shooting Koshimizu’s son (Koshimizu himself apparently wasn’t around on the day Okuzaki picked for the assassination). By all accounts, old age didn’t soften him or his views.

Despite its lack of resolution, though, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is a compelling film as it pulls the viewer back and forth between interpretations of Okuzaki, sometimes showing a man on a justified mission, sometimes portraying a man who’s apparently happy only if he’s causing trouble.

The DVD’s only extra is a booklet entitled “The Memory of War”, consisting of excerpts from a larger book written about the film. It gives some cursory information about Japan’s role during wartime, as well as the film’s reception in Japan upon its 1987 release. Overall, though, the pamphlet fails to provide enough context for the film.

To a Western audience, much of the politeness and social formality of Japanese culture remains a bit of a mystery. We can watch the film and presume that Okuzaki, by showing up at homes, unannounced at 5am, is throwing etiquette to the wind, but we don’t fully understand the magnitude of this behavior. Likewise, it’s hard to comprehend the civility with which many of Okuzaki’s targets not only greet Okuzaki, but also confess their roles — even after Okuzaki has tried to beat the truth out of them. Similarly, the surprisingly frank discussions of the rules and realities of cannibalism — the soldiers were forced to eat taboo “white pigs” (their comrades) because they couldn’t catch “black pigs” (the natives) — are rooted in more than the grim necessities of hunger. Such admissions are startling even if you’re familiar with the atrocities of the Pacific Theater; they must be doubly disconcerting for viewers with no knowledge of the era’s various atrocities.

And then there are the Japanese government’s responses over time to its own history, which have been less than satisfying for many. Context for things like these certainly isn’t necessary, but after you’ve been released from the grip of Okuzaki’s obsession, such information helps to answer some of the questions that this startling documentary leaves in its wake.

RATING 8 / 10