By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On,” Facets/Kino International, 1987]
“Kamikaze documentary” that was the phrase used by more than one critic when Kazuo Hara’s bristling, intensely odd film “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” cut its slim but recalcitrant swath through the world’s theaters in 1987. It earns the label. Documentaries themselves are, in a way, the safest kind of movie safely moral in concept, safely conventional in form, and usually unadventurous as a viewing experience. Unless you’re Werner Herzog (a veteran kamikaze), you’re most likely to make a non-fiction film about an injustice or social situation to which there are a limited amount of conceivable responses. As entertainment, docs can be safe to the point of tedium, never voyaging out into unknown waters or testing our role as viewers.
There are exceptions, of course, that tend to lodge in the memory because they exude the electrical charge of risk and danger. (I’m thinking Herzog, natch, but also “Winter Soldier,” Frederick Wiseman’s “Titicut Follies,” the Maysles’ “Grey Gardens,” the genuine war-in-the-streets frisson of Patricio Guzman’s “The Battle of Chile,” etc.) Life, as it happens, uncontrollable and chaotic, is the documentary’s secret, and too often unemployed, mega-weapon. So it is with Hara’s film, a rough-and-tumble chronicle of the present life of a sociopathic moralist as he dramatically confronts postwar Japanese society. Kenzo Okuzai is that rare animal an authentic anti-authoritarian who, because he’s willing to lose everything, cannot be intimidated or daunted by social norms and laws. By the time filming begins, the “anti-emperorist” Okuzai already has a long record of domestic resistance (including publicly pelting Hirohito with marbles in 1969, a notorious episode in modern Japanese lore), and is now committed to uncovering an illegal killing during WWII while his platoon was stationed in New Guinea.
Investigating a murder that took place in the midst of the hellacious Pacific war of the ’40s has an ironic taste to it, but Okuzai is dead serious, and nothing stands in his way demanding the truth be told, he routinely assaults and kicks his aging and sometimes ailing fellow veterans, who are naturally reticent to talk about 40-year-old crimes. He duplicitously presents his own family to the witnesses as survivors of the murdered soldier, and even pulls admissions of cannibalism from the old men. (They’re more relaxed about owning up to hunting the presumably more game-like natives for food; only when the Guineans proved too fleet and clever did the Emperor’s warriors resort to killing and eating each other.) Throughout, Okuzai carries himself with a bizarre mixture of polite Japanese stolidity and feverish anger; when the police deal with him (which is frequently), they are at a loss as to what to do the man’s rampaging behavior, even if he’s responsible for very little damage to limb and property in the end, sets society’s fragile structures shaking. Of course, Hara colludes with his subject (the film crew gives Okuzai’s crusade a legitimate feel), and reportedly the megalomaniacal Okuzai attempted to take over the film at several points. It’s a film in seething flux from scene to scene kinda like life.
Dario Argento’s is a more easily stomached style of frisson the Italian horror-maven/style-geyser has been such a popular name brand among psychotronica fans that by now he may seem like yesterday’s news, or perhaps may be known only as Asia’s dad and as the director of the gorier episodes from Showtime’s Masters of Horror series. But go back to 1975’s “Deep Red (Profondo Rosso),” and you see what still fuels Argento’s reputation as Europe’s premier pulp wizard. A ridiculous giallo serial murder plot set in Rome, with slumming star David Hemmings (star of Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” a fact hardly lost on Argento) as the wrong-man investigator-cum-target, is all you need to know about the film’s nods toward traditional “content.” The story turns out to be so baroque and hermetic that you end up just surrendering to Argento’s boggling visual density the film is a moody, sadistic opera bouffe of swooping camera moves, infectious Old World atmosphere, compositional clues and nutsy set-pieces that don’t speak to the ostensible psychosis of the killer so much as to the obsessive imagination of the filmmaker.
“The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” (Facets) and “Deep Red” (Blue Underground) will be available on DVD on February 27.