Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Review of The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On

I consider the best documentaries to be ones that strive for some objectivity, while still uncovering the most interesting aspects of its subject and doing so in a way that is fresh, fitting and inflected by the style, approach and experience of the director. “Objectivity” is the key word that gets into most debates about the merits of a documentary. How objective can one be? When you simply “document” in the sense of pointing a camera and recording (especially if done in secret) I figure that you can get pretty close. Yet I have to admit that objectivity is not always possible and or even desirable in every situation.

The exposé documentary is a popular example, in which the filmmaker explicitly has an agenda and actively wishes to change the opinions/actions of the audience. Even in a film lacking any narration or interviews, like the excellent “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982) a documentary has the power to affect the viewer. A documentary director is generally all too aware of this power. Still, an attempt at objectivity (or the illusion of it) plays a large part in the effectiveness of films. Pretty much everyone agrees that you should stick to the facts and present evidence to support anything said. Generally anything shown should speak for itself, but we know today that even that is subject to manipulation.

However, there is a special type of documentary that neatly transforms classical debates about objectivity. I’m referring to films not about social subjects (like war, pollution, corporate greed, etc.), but about specific individuals. Often times the complex personality of a single person is far more mesmerizing to me than an entire field of information presented by a lesser filmmaker.

Here, one of the best approaches the director can take is to depict the person as accurately as possible even to the point of allowing their subjectivity to dominate the film. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are masters of this biopic documentary style. In the sense that Michael Moore’s films are equally about himself and his adventures as about his supposed subjects, he too can be considered a master.

“The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” (1987) is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen (not to mention one of the best documentaries period). It had profound impact on the subgenre despite grabbing the attention of few viewers anywhere. It isn’t too surprising to find the film on both Werner Herzog’s and Michael Moore’s list of top ten films.

“The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” (ENAMO from here on out) is a film about Kenzo Okuzaki, a Japanese WWII veteran. Director Kazua Hara couldn’t have found a more interesting peephole into the individual ramification of military violence. At the start of the film (early 1980’s), Hara has recently gotten out of jail for the third time. His crimes include a murder (never really elaborated upon) and several acts of political protest ranging from dropping compromising leaflets about Emperor Hirohito to shooting BBs at him.

The rage and trauma of WWII still burns within Okuzaki after more than 35 years and unlike many who learned to repress their memories, Okuzaki intends to do something about them. His plan, though not initially evident, is to discover the truth about two men in his unit who were killed by his own side shortly after the war ended (Kenzo Okuzaki was a POW at the time). One by one, Hara tracks down his war buddies, his superior officers and the family of the victims in an obsessive, impassioned quest for answers.

Okuzaki is not a calm, patient or scientific observer. He is a man with deep emotional scars that you can read on his face, in his voice and in his words. Okuzaki’s methods are neither professional nor even ethical. He manipulates to get the information he is after, not hesitating to beg, pester, threaten or lie. On several occasions he physically assaults the people he talks to, including kicking the sickly septarians who once sent him into combat. At one point the police intervene.

He teams up with the surviving family members of the two dead soldiers for a good portion of the film, but even they eventually distance themselves from Okuzaki. The family members can find solace at having gotten near the truth and can return to living their current lives. Not so for Okuzaki. He hires his own family members to pretend to be the victim’s relatives and uses them to guilt his stubborn opposition.

Eventually he gets at the terrible truth, but even the head-on confrontation with the horror he sought can not heal Okuzaki’s wounds. I won’t spoil the quest (it’s real-life history, but it works as a powerful dramatic revelation) nor will I reveal the Okuzaki’s final fate, but don’t cross your fingers for a happy ending.

While most documentaries work on only a single level (providing information, stirring controversy, etc.), ENAMO gets us emotionally and intellectually involved along several different axes. We experience Hara’s quest along with him, allowing us to follow a compelling story as it happens; a rarity in biopic documentaries. Then there is the inherent fascination with Kenzo Okuzaki himself, a hornet’s nest of passion, rage, commitment, trauma, humanity, righteousness, paranoia and self-destruction. Trying to decide how we feel about him is no easy task.

From the start, Okuzaki struck me as extremely admirable, a stubborn, but brave man who sincerely wanted to get at truth and justice. His quest is even more impressive when one considers that social rules in Japan are quite strict: making demands or accusations of near-strangers is a far greater taboo than in the States. There are also times when he seems quite pitiable, as when he tries to break back into jail to take measurements of his cell so that he can recreate one to sleep in at home. After a few minutes into the film is becomes quite evident that Okuzaki is more than a little crazy and ultimately his methods cross ethical boundaries with total disregard for the rights of others. Okuzaki’s lack of objectivity, self-restraint and perspective is troubling, but one would be hard put to deny that he only got the results he was looking for by using such strong-arm techniques.

From a top-level view, the film is also a provactive depiction of war trauma, conspiracy, guilt, the consequences of military rule and the burden of memory. The film could inspire a million conversations or personal reveries. Why have some of the soldiers in the film moved on and started new lives so effortlessly while Okuzaki is so powerfully, inescapably driven? How far should a crusader go to pursue a quest and what gives them the right to break rules to mend others? Is passive resistance or violent determination more effective? More noble?

Then there are the questions about the genre itself: Can the filmmaker ever really be just an observer and recorder? Certainly his mere presence has an effect: it is used by Okuzaki to manipulate his interviewees into making the visits seem more official, but it also discourages them from revealing their secrets. Does Hara’s choice of subject (which he was dedicated enough to that he followed him over several years) imply that he agrees with, supports or identifies with Okuzaki? Does the filmmaker have an obligation to help his subject by providing money, information or comfort? Is he obligated to interfere when he witnesses crimes or unethical behavior, as when Okuzaki is beating up other people?

Few films ever achieve such scope, especially when their ostensible topic is so personal and specific. ENAMO should be required viewing for everyone, rather your primary interest in seeing it lies in Kenzo Okuzaki, Japanese society, military history, political activism or documentary filmmaking. Ultimately what makes ENAMO so interesting is that it answers one important question (what happened to those two poor soldiers after the war ended) and ask a thousand more that go unanswered.

Walrus Rating: 9.5


It’s clear that this type of biopic documentary has only increased in popularity since the eighties. An excellent example is the recent “King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters” about two competitors for the world record in Donkey Kong. Like Errol Morris’s documentaries or Christopher Guest’s comedies, it manages to make gentle fun of its subjects while at the same time making us care for them deeply.

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

This was one of the most unexpected things we've seen recently, in my opinion. Especially since I didn't know much about it going in...whoa.