Picture this. You’re one of a few surviving members of a World War Two Garrison stationed in New Guinea. It’s Japan in the late ‘80s, and you’ve gotten out bed after a horrific nightmare from the trauma of the war. Guilt, shame, and horror fester your mind: you’ve done something incredibly immoral during your army days. You can’t go back to sleep, the actions committed cannot be undone, and it haunts you years later. So, you get out of bed and walk to the kitchen to calm down. Maybe you get a glass of water? Or a snack? Just as you’re about to take a sip of water, or take a bite from that snack, you hear a car pull up outside the house. Curious, you go to the front door. In a matter of minutes, one of your ex-comrades storms into the house. He interrogates you about the execution of two low-ranking privates at the end of World War Two. There’s a man behind a camera filming the situation as it unfolds. Frightened, you scream lies – “I can’t remember anything back then!”.
The interrogator won’t accept that as an answer. So, without any hesitation, he pounces on you. Your former friend wrestles you to the ground and pounds the truth out of you. Scary isn’t it? We talk about the past catching up to folk who’ve committed bad deeds. But it hasn’t been depicted in as violent a manner than in Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. I first heard of Hara’s evocative documentary in CineFix’s Top 10 list of the ‘Best Documentaries of All Time’. What qualifies as the best varies from person to person. Nonetheless, there’s a fanbase behind Hara’s film that suggests it lives up to that high acclaim. Two of the most well-established names in the world of documentaries, Errol Morris and Michael Moore, have praised Hara’s film as an unforgettable experience. So, when I heard that Second Run was putting out a Blu Ray edition of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, I had to jump on it. And it’s a film that hasn’t left my mind, nor do I think anyone can.
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On follows a 62-year-old World War Two veteran, Kenzo Okuzaki. We learn at a steady rate of Okuzaki’s character. He’s the owner of a battery shop in Kobe, and he has three criminal convictions to his name ranging from manslaughter to throwing pachinko balls at Emperor Hirohito. Speaking of Hirohito, on the Emperor’s birthday, Okuzaki drives around Japan in a car plastered with anti-government writing. Okuzaki claims he is conducting a memorial service for fallen soldiers during the Pacific War. The Emperor is the sole perpetrator of these past atrocities as Okuzaki wails into the microphone. “The most cowardly man in Japan is Emperor Hirohito” states Kenzo. Almost immediately, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On takes a surreal yet engaging stance on anti-war activism. And the film only gets more insane the longer it goes on.
Okuzaki’s crusades lead him to find out what happened to his executed friends at the 36th Engineering Corps in New Guinea. Okuzaki comes unannounced on the doorsteps of his former superior officers. He demands answers for the firing squad executions and threatening them with violence if they refuse to spill any information. This is a classic example of an investigative documentary. Or the first person documentary that was popularised by the likes of Moore and Louis Theroux. However, the difference between Okuzaki, Theroux, and Moore is that Okuzaki is both parts determined and wild in his quest for the truth.
Unlike Theroux who diffuses tense situations with his awkward sense of humour, and Moore’s confrontational interviewing style, but is never violent with anyone. Make no mistake, if Okuzaki senses someone is lying through their teeth, he will annihilate that person. Okuzaki fires questions like a police interrogation, wrestles army veterans to the ground if they get on his nerves. He even drags the relatives of his deceased partners to these interrogations. So, the veterans see the raw pain and misery left behind years after the executions. Kenzo is the living, breathing embodiment of political rage who won’t back down to anyone. And that makes Okuzaki a compelling and terrifying leading character for a documentary like this.
I would position The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On with the cream of the crop of the investigative documentary. I thought a lot about the work of Joshua Oppenheimer when watching this. I guess in the sense that both The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence thematically link to The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. Especially The Look of Silence which grows more frantic as it gets closer to the truth of who murdered an Indonesian man’s brother. Hara possesses the same quality as Oppenheimer in that he treats Okuzaki’s quest for justice as a story. Hara gradually builds the dread scene by scene. And once we get to the reveal by one of the medics of why the 36th Regiment executed Private Yoshizawa and Nomura; I was left both shocked and disturbed. The twist is so ghastly that it causes both the relatives to quit the production. As a strange consequence, Okuzaki employs actors to stand-in for the missing relatives for future interviews.
I would argue that it’s best to go into the documentary without any knowledge of the war crimes that happened during the raging years of the Pacific War. That way, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On will have its maximum impact on the viewer. It’s a deeply unflinching and potent indictment of war and power: not something that your average war film can achieve based on clichéd anti-war messages. And Hara is an excellent documentary filmmaker. He knows exactly where to position himself to capture footage, even to the extent that he never interrupts the action. That’s right; Hara doesn’t stop Okuzaki from beating the snot out of someone. He chooses instead to continue filming, and that questions the morality of the documentary filmmaker. Someone does call out Hara for doing this in the film’s final sequence. However, had Hara cut and stopped the in-fighting, then he would dismantle hostility. Worse still, he would have shown mercy on the veterans who kept dirty secrets in the dark for far too long. Something that The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On requires at all times for it to work on people.
I was enthralled by The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. It’s a stunning film that any fan of documentaries needs to see in their lifetime. It’s a passionate, furious, and maniacal piece of work that no-one will ever forget watching. Extra’s wise, there’s both an interview and the 2018 Open City Documentary Festival’s masterclass with Kazuo Hara. Additionally, the release includes an impressive transfer of the film, and another well-researched booklet featuring the always respectful Asian Cinema expert, Tony Rayns. I always get excited whenever Second Run put out a documentary, and this is undoubtedly no exception.