The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On belongs in the same category as movies like Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line—a true story that is so staggering in its details that you would never be believed if you had presented it as fiction. Its subject is a mild-mannered looking Japanese fellow in his fifties named Kenzo Okuzaki. He doesn’t look like the kind of man who would have spent ten years in prison for murder and two more years for acts of civil disobedience against the Emperor. He has good reasons for all of those things, though, which he is happy to explain to you in the form of a massive sign erected on his shop front and on angry placards mounted on top of his car. Face-to-face, he’s polite, almost self-effacing, but then he switches on his bullhorn microphone and rails against the injustices his own country has doled out to him, and everyone within earshot ducks.
Okuzaki probably does have good reason to be angry. He was a member of the 36th Regiment in New Guinea in WWII, and after what he endured for the sake of the Emperor and his own country (in that order, some would argue), he’s not afraid of a little jail time for his trouble-making. His crusade in life is to draw attention to what happened to him and his starving comrades at the time—sufferings that he is convinced were neither necessary nor noble. The only of his comrades that got a proper burial did so at the hands of his fellow soldiers. In the scene where Okuzaki explains this to the man’s mother he pours the whole story out in a single breath and then simply collapses in grief. “He died, and he was the luckiest one.”
Okuzaki does two things: he works, and he makes trouble. When the police warn him against driving his slogan-splattered car on the Emperor’s birthday (a national holiday) he goes out with it anyway and creates a near-riot. “I am conducting a memorial service to console those who perished for the Emperor during the Pacific War,” he bellows through his car’s hood-mounted loudspeaker. “Arrest me if you will!” The police seem more embarrassed than angry, which makes sense: again, this being Japan, not making waves is how a good deal of life works. It is no secret that as far as WWII goes, Japan has a lot to answer for — but because of the way Japan is, those answers will probably only come from outside pressure or from gadflies on the inside like Okuzaki and not through official channels.
The more he pushes, the more he finds. Other men in his unit were executed as deserters, but only mere days after the war ended. Did his commander know about the surrender ahead of time? Was he trying to save face? When Okuzaki learns about the possibility his comrades were murdered, he lashes out and tackles the man explaining this to him. That scene goes from ugly violence to black comedy, when the rest of the poor man’s family try to pry Okuzaki off while arguing about the proper way to introduce yourself to a total stranger. The Japanese propensity for manners at all costs may be good for keeping the peace in the short run, but for dealing with a blood-soaked chapter of history it’s wretchedly inadequate.
When the movie isn’t studiously following Okuzaki’s detective work, it consists of one truly demented moment following another. At one point Okuzaki (again, driving his pamphlet-on-wheels) goes back to the prison where he spent ten years. Why? So he can take measurements of the cell where he was kept and build a duplicate of it in his own home. The prison guards line up to block his car and do their best to look straightfaced as he lashes out at them. “I dare you to do something,” he shouts. “If you’re human begins, go and get angry. Can’t do it, can you?” What he wants more than anything else from the people he faces is something other than tired dismissal. If they are as righteously angry as he is, then perhaps he will not feel quite so alone with his horror and grief. To that end he enlists the relatives of one of the war dead to lend that much more weight to his cause. They march into the houses and businesses of the survivors and demand answers they are not even sure they are going to get.
Watching Naked Army, I was also reminded of another movie of similarly dogged anger, Marcel Ophüls’s Hotel Terminus, wherein he followed the capture and trial of Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie decades after WWII ended. Ophüls was looking for anything he could find about Barbie, and what he found was an amazing number of people who were more willing to chastise Ophüls for being a shit-disturber than were willing to admire him as a crusader. Leave well enough alone, they told him. That was all decades ago. And then he talks to some of Barbie’s victims, who would love to be able to forget what he did to them, and cannot. Someone has to remember, and now Ophüls has taken up that responsibility. Likewise, Okuzaki asks people perfectly reasonable questions (and some not-so-reasonable ones) and gets idiotic evasions: It wasn’t me. I don’t remember. It was so long ago. It doesn’t matter.
In the United States there has been ongoing debate about compensating people for the crimes of the past in many forms—e.g., slavery, or more recently (and relevantly to this discussion) the internment of Japanese citizens. One question that always comes up is, how far back should we go? Does it make sense to force a whole society, or its elected representatives, to pay for something that happened long before any of them were born, simply by dint of a) being unlucky enough to be born there and b) not manifesting what someone else considers the right kind of atonement? Okuzaki knows that at least one person who needs to atone is still alive, and still unrepentant, and even though he’s pretty sure he doesn’t have a chance in hell of getting an apology, he’s not about to let either of them go to their graves without trying. The past may not be real to them anymore, but it sure is real to him. Watching this movie is like seeing someone re-enacting the myth of Sisyphus with all of Japan’s role in WWII as the rock.
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