(Spoiler warning for people concerned with such things. If you’re just looking for a recommendation, I recommend this film with no reservations. Go watch it.)
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On by Kazuo Hara is my favorite documentary ever made.
The film follows a mentally troubled Japanese WWII vet named Kenzo Okuzaki. Before the film was shot, Okuzaki had done 12 years in solitary confinement for killing a man, distributing pornographic fliers depicting the emperor, and attempting to kill Emperor Hirohito with a slingshot. In a series of confrontations and interviews, he attempts to make his way to a Captain Koshimizu. Okuzaki suspects Koshimizu gave an order during the war to execute two deserters so they could be cannibalized by the other troops during the last days of island hopping.
Okuzaki reveals himself to be a man wholly given over to an insatiable desire for avenging the injustices he witnessed during the war; an insistent avenging angel of the truth. He also comes across as a madman, wholly obsessed with a certain envisioned restitution that will always elude him. What he wants refuses to define itself and is instead obfuscated by an elaborate verbal maze of the seemingly blunt and straightforward. Okuzaki lives as the avenger not to avenge but to justify his living entirely without a filter.
Hara’s portrait here is a descendant of John Ford’s earlier fictional portrait of an obsessive crusader, John Wayne’s Ethan in The Searchers. However, Ford paints Ethan as a man driven mad by the ghost of racism. Ford doesn’t suggest solutions but does place his mad man in the context of America’s greatest sin and runs with it. The Searchers, for better or worse, can be read fairly cleanly as a cautionary tale. Emperor’s Naked Army, despite its engagement with the Japanese sin of the cannibalism committed during the war, resists this impulse. The viewer comes to a fair amount of certainty that Koshimizu did in fact order the execution and later eating of two Japanese deserters. However, this clarity does little or nothing to reassure us that Okuzaki is not in fact a mad man.
Hara pretty much just follows Okuzaki on his rounds and lets his editing do all the talking; this makes sense as Okuzaki is given to directing his life like it was a film. When we first hear him speak, he’s giving a wedding toast to a man and woman who met through the man’s correspondence with Okuzaki while the latter was in prison. Okuzaki ends this speech claiming not to believe in the institution of marriage or families. When he meets with the often decrepit elderly men that he served with during the war, Okuzaki comes on initially with the aggressiveness of a Michael Moore pursuing a street interview except that when he doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for, he physically attacks them. That is, he attacks the ones that aren’t already in the hospital when he finds them.
A pile of lies builds up in the search for Kozimizu, but Kozimizu, never actually shown, may as well be a macguffin; the unspoken mechanism that pushes Okuzaki into further being Okuzaki. Okuzaki picks up two relatives of the people who were executed and (presumably) eaten to follow him along for the interviews. When they find closure, they leave. Okuzaki, not content to be without this entourage, is forced to hire an actor and tell his wife to pretend to be a sibling of the deceased. In the scene that follows, both his wife and the actor fall asleep in the middle of the long drawn out interrogation. At the film’s conclusion, it’s revealed that Okuzaki was sent back to prison for another 10 years for trying to kill Kozimizu, finding his son, and shooting the son instead. “His son will do,” he says when asked by the newspapers in the epilogue.
Unlike Ethan in The Searchers, Okuzaki’s seeming madness is not portrayed with the lament of unhealth surrounding it. Okuzaki simply seems to “be”. When reality denies him what he wants he recreates it to the best of his abilities. That he didn’t direct the film himself allows us a level of ironic distance that enriches the film overall. When his “actors” fall asleep, the audience looks on in shocked amusement. His truth is constructed, like a movie, and despite the rightness of his aim, his attempts to construct it keep falling apart. His heroic charisma is not in spite of his disengagement with his surroundings but because of it.
Important questions on the nature of documentary, performance, truth, and justice are broken open in ways that suggest no easy or whole answers. The horrific and comic dance uneasily together with neither allowing the other to lead. A masterpiece.