Leeds International Film Festival review – The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

 The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite Shingun) (1987)

Dir. Kazuo Hara

122 minutes

Screened: Saturday 10th November, 2007

My series of reviews of the films I saw at this year’s Leeds Film Festival continues. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On was screened as part of a retrospective on Japanese documentarist Kazuo Hara. I hadn’t heard of him before, but the film gets mentioned in Ian Buruma’s The Wages of Guilt, and I was intrigued by the controversial subject matter, dealing with the legacy of the Second World War and the difficulty of leaving the past behind. The film follows Kenzo Okuzaki, an Imperial Japanese Army veteran of the Pacific War, who served in New Guinea. Two soldiers from his unit were executed at the end of the war in mysterious circumstances, and Okuzaki is obsessed with finding out what happened to them.

We travel around the country with him, as he talks to surviving members of his unit to uncover the truth about the two soldiers’ deaths. To call Okuzaki eccentric would be an understatement. He believed the Emperor was to blame for the war and the millions of lives lost – a taboo opinion in Japan even today – and his car was festooned with placards and slogans demanding the Emperor accept responsibility. Okuzaki had spent time in prison for shooting pachinko balls at the Emperor, and for killing a real-estate broker, although we never hear a reason for the latter crime.

His old comrades give confusing and contradictory accounts of the execution. All of them stress the importance of moving on and letting the past go. But Okuzaki is unable to do this. He is enraged at the evasiveness and hypocrisy he perceives. On several occasions, he attacks and beats up old veterans who refuse to tell the truth. The police are never far away, and on one occasion Okuzaki calls them himself after a scuffle with one ex-officer.

Moving up the chain of command, from fellow privates to officers in the execution party to the commander who ordered the execution, the whole story finally begins to emerge. The two soldiers were not shot for desertion, but so they could be eaten. In the closing days of the war in New Guinea, food was scarce and the soldiers were starving. Native people and enemy soldiers were preferred for cannibalisation, but when these were not available, unpopular soldiers were used.

This is not an easy film to watch, and not just because of the disturbing events at its heart. Hara’s camera simply tracks Okuzaki through bizarre, chaotic and violent situations, seemingly without comment or judgement. But is it really that simple? Would Okuzaki have started so many fights if the camera were not on him? The constant lies and evasion he encounters seem replicated in our view of him, which stays on the surface. In the end, Okuzaki tries to shoot the old platoon commander, but wounds his son instead. He is sentenced to life in prison.

The screening was introduced by Hara himself, who said that while watching the film he can still feel Okuzaki watching over his shoulder. As I watched, I could understand his sentiment; the obviously disturbed crusader uncomfortably reminds us of how hard it is to be honest. As unfinished business from the war drives him mad, we are forced to look at ourselves and wonder at our own capacity for complacency and self-delusion. The Emperor’s Naked Army… leaves you with no easy answers, only questions about the nature of truth, and whether we can face up to it.

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