Jeffrey Ruoff and Kenneth Ruoff,
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yukiyukite Shingun)
Trowbridge, UK: Flicks Books, 1998
£ 9.9.5 stg (paper)
(Review copy supplied by Jeffrey Ruoff)
Uploaded 12 November 1999
Hara Kazuo’s 1986 documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is a film once seen never forgotten. Hara tags along behind a former Imperial Army soldier who spent time in New Guinea, Okuzaki Kenzo, on his quest to uncover cannibalism amongst troops abandoned there at the end of the war and assign responsibility to the emperor. At first, audiences are likely to be sympathetic to the underdog. Hara is quoted in this extended essay by the Ruoff brothers as saying, “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” (3). So, although he never declares his hand in the film itself, there is little doubt that he empathizes with his subject’s project.
However, in this particular case, it is also clear that Hara got more than he bargained for. Okuzaki is a man obsessed. He is as unrelenting and dictatorial as the system he claims to oppose, prepared to go to the most unreasonable lengths with no regard for others in order to extract what he believes to be the truth. In Hara’s case, Okuzaki’s provocative behaviour led to the confiscation of all his footage at the end of a harrowing and expensive trek around some of the more remote parts of what is now Irian Jaya in 1983. (16-7) Hara took years to complete this film. For spectators, it only takes two hours to watch. But those who stay with it as it lurches between the absurd and the horrifying leave drained. They may also leave less certain than ever of what happened in the final days of the conflict, of the reliability of memory and confession, and morally troubled by the role played by the camera and their complicity as viewers. It has a lot to say not only about Japanese history but also about documentary film and truth.
As the Ruoff brothers detail in this extended essay, the film was an enormous success at the time of its release in Japan and shown widely at festivals overseas. However, it gets little international exposure today. A major reason for this is the conspicuous lack of English-language scholarship on contemporary Japanese cinema in general and documentary in particular, despite the innovative and diverse character of Japanese filmmaking. These regrettable circumstances make the publication of this book all the more welcome, especially because it not only includes analysis of the film but also details of the production and reception contexts, as well as Japanese historical background and discussion of the film’s place in Hara’s work.
There are many fascinating and sometimes charming nuggets here. For example, I have always wondered how the film got its arresting English release title of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. The original Japanese means “The emperor’s sacred army marches on” and there is no actual nakedness in the film. On the other hand, as the Ruoff brothers note in this extended essay (18), “it does convey a sense of Okuzaki’s fanaticism.” If I understand Hara’s polite account of the circumstances correctly, it was all a serendipitous accident of translation and not a marketing strategy. But it is the broad backgrounding that will prove invaluable for those wishing to bring the film to the attention of new audiences or use it in the classroom.
Despite these strengths, which reflect the Ruoff brothers’ own backgrounds in documentary film work and Japanese studies, the book is not without minor flaws, and I do feel it could have gone further. To be specific, although Hara’s own filmmaking background is given, the book pays little attention to the Japanese independent documentary tradition within which Hara works. Instead, it compares The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On to the works of Jean Rouch and Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (Switzerland/France/West Germany, 1971). Although I certainly think such comparisons are valid, I think it is equally important for readers to be informed more about the local direct cinema movement that would have informed Hara’s work even more decisively. This only underlines my point about the lack of adequate English language scholarship on Japanese cinema even further.
Second, the book would benefit from close analysis of some sequences. The Ruoffs do break the film down into sequences and describe the moral quandaries thrown up by Okuzaki’s misadventures and the questioning of documentary cinema provoked by Hara’s very visible presence. However, without a more detailed account of some examples, it is difficult for the reader who has not seen the film to get a more precise sense of the queasiness produced by Hara’s rendering of the ethical and emotional rollercoaster ride that Okuzaki takes us on. For example, there is the famous sequence in which he confronts ex-Sergeant Yamada in an effort to get him to talk about what happened in New Guinea. As the camera follows Okuzaki up to the house, the technique elicits the thrill of participating in an ambush from the audience. However, when Yamada turns out to be a sickly old man and Okuzaki starts to kick him and beat him up on camera, the audience is less likely to be comfortable with the results. A careful tracing of the shifts in mood and thought and the ways in which Hara’s editing of his material orchestrates them would be very productive here.
Despite these small reservations, there is little doubt that this is a valuable contribution to scholarship on documentary film in general and Japanese documentary in particular. I hope that it will encourage readers to seek out Hara’s film and view it either again or for the first time.