The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

Kenzo Okuzaki is angry. And this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill anger. No, his has been simmering on low heat for forty years, with an occasional flare up in the form of a murder or firing a few lead balls at Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s head. His cause? Justice and truth. He wants offenders exposed. He demands they admit their crimes. He hopes to console those dead souls who fell victim to heartless men.

Okuzaki was a soldier in a Japanese regiment stationed in New Guinea near the end of WWII. Few returned, primarily due to starvation. However, two soldiers died nearly a month after the war ended, apparently executed for desertion, which if true, would be murder. Okuzaki believes these were unjust killings, and that he is on a divine mission to extract the truth from the few surviving officers responsible for the crime.

The film follows him on his travels criss-crossing Japan, and with a minimum of contextualization. A few title cards occasionally serve as transitions, but the film simply plunges the viewer into this man’s journey. We know him only through his interaction with these former officers, and a brief sketch of his prior criminal record.

Two things stand out about his mission. First, his methods of extracting information: Okuzaki peppers the former officers with an intense line of questioning. If the men are uncooperative, he uses violence as an inducement, beating on them until they are ready to talk. Interestingly, in the final interrogation scene, we hear three times that the purpose of his visits is to get information out so people will learn the horrors of war and never do it again. Using violence to prevent (potential) violence? A dubious strategy for sure, but one to whose effects he seems oblivious.

Second: his lies. Okuzaki wants to get the truth out about what happened in New Guinea. However, to do so, in the latter half of the film, he uses “actors” to pose as the siblings of dead soldiers in an effort to persuade the officers to talk. The only confessions of any real substance are with these actors, rather than the actual siblings. Telling a lie to get the truth? Again, a deeply problematic strategy.

Filled with contradictions, the film also leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, the formal and aesthetic issues it raises through Okuzaki’s inner conflicts stimulate my inner film-lover. He is one of the supremely contradictory “characters” I’ve ever seen on film, ripe for interesting discussion of the issues surrounding his journey.

Of further interest: how much of this journey was Okuzaki’s idea? Did the filmmaker place him in situations he knew would be explosive, in a sense capitalizing on Okuzaki’s relational shortcomings? These questions go unanswered in the film, but make for engaging conversation about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, of the impact making a film has on people’s actions, and for the audience as we voyeuristically participate in these problematic encounters.

At the same time, Okuzaki’s single-minded pursuit garners little sympathy, primarily because he is so clearly driven by his rage and thirst for vengeance. He is more than willing to transgress the boundaries of justice and truth in his pursuit of those same ideals. Because the film identifies so closely with him and his journey, and because he is so utterly unlikable, it serves to distance the viewer from his cause.

A great companion piece to Naked Army would be Forgiving Dr. Mengele, a film which features Eva Kor on a journey to forgive her Nazi captors. Both individuals are single-minded. Both have a tough exterior that rarely, if ever, cracks. Yet Kor’s journey is so distinctly different from Okuzaki’s in its refreshing embrace of forgiveness for wrongs done. Her recognition that she has no control over whether criminals are dealt with justly frees her to forgive and move on. Sadly, Okuzaki’s blind pursuit of “justice” at all costs and his need to control the situation keep him stuck in the wrongs and misdeeds nearly half a century old. In this context, Naked Army serves as a cautionary tale to those so deeply angered and embittered by the injustices of the world.

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2 thoughts on “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

  1. Does Okuzaki really only have four fingers or is that an optical illusion?

    Great write-up, John; I certainly appreciate your ambivalence to Okuzaki’s behavior–he’s seriously antisocial and narcissistic, if not psychotic–but I guess what I most appreciated about the film was the force of its contrasting inclinations (confession and justice vs violence and falsehood) and the way it provokes the viewer to think about his or her own distinctions and limits. Certrainly, Okuzaki is no role model, but the film records his behavior in a way that might compel moral contemplation.

    Thanks for flagging “Forgiving Dr. Mengele” again–it’s a film I really need to bump up in my Netflix queue now that it’s on DVD.

  2. Hi Doug, thanks for the comment! I’ve been pondering it and looking for a spare moment to write a response.

    I can see your point about the contrasts, and in general, I tend to appreciate such a structure that invites contemplation. I do appreciate it here to some extent.

    However, I felt like the force of that invitation was blunted by the lack of critical distance in the filmmaker. It seems that the *way* it’s filmed invites contemplation, but the fact that the filmmaker is there at all makes him complicit to some degree in the propagation of Okuzaki’s ill will.

    Of course, saying that leaves me in a tricky spot, at least in terms of documentaries. On the one hand, the way this was filmed is appealing to my aesthetic sense. I wouldn’t want Hara to “intervene” in his film and tell me all the reasons why this guy isn’t a role model. I suppose this just goes to show that even the mere act of turning a camera on a subject is an act fraught with meaning and implications. Certainly, how one films the subject helps to interpret that somewhat, but the act itself communicates strongly.

    So if Hara were to turn his camera away, or put it down and run in to break up a fight, we would get that distance from the subject, yet the spell of the film would be broken.

    I think your phrase about “distinctions and limits,” is helpful, as I feel that’s what the film has caused me to do. Personally, I decided fairly early, I think, that I didn’t want to be part of a journey like this, that Okuzaki didn’t represent a productive way of handling his troubles (even though he gets something of an admission at the end). So as the film went on, it only served to reinforce my discomfort with his mission, something I knew within 10-15 minutes. In that sense, the film went on too long and didn’t work for me.

    And yes, see Mengele. I suspect Ken would love to hear your thoughts as well. I need to revisit sometime myself. Life will begin again after the dissertation… :)

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