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  • Benjamin May

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987) Review

For the Japanese stationed on New Guinea during the Second World War, life was hell. Trapped in the oppressive heat of the jungle, with enemies on all sides and barely any food or water; men had to do desperate, base things to survive. Most of them would rather forget their experiences, or pretend they never happened. One man, however, refuses to let the past die: Kenzo Okuzaki, a middle-aged anti-monarchist anarchist. He too was stationed on New Guinea, and believes fate has bestowed upon him a mission: to find out the truth behind the mysterious deaths of two soldiers from his old unit. Almost forty years after the end of the War, Okuzaki embarks on this investigation, where he uncovers incredible, uncomfortable truths; documented for your viewing pleasure in Kazuo Hara's 'The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On.'

A powerful fly-on-the-wall documentary, 'The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On' is fascinating and unpredictable. A character study, as well as a poignant look at the experience of WWII Veterans in Japan, the film has a lot to offer. Okuzaki is a terrifically strange fellow whose every waking moment is consumed by anarchist ideals, and his quest is utterly compelling.

Fond of blowing his own trumpet, he is a charismatic eccentric whose investigative skills are surprisingly subtle and effective. He traverses Japan, interviewing various veterans involved in the murders. For a time, he brings the siblings of the two victims with him to engender sympathy from those he interrogates; a canny psychological trick. Okuzaki bombards his subjects with questions and non-stop chatter, breaking down their defences and- more often than not- uncovering long buried truths in the process.

Okuzaki is quite clearly a dangerous man, though, who does some questionable things to try and get people to talk. At times one wonders whether or not the presence of the camera isn't encouraging his outrageousness, and that he may be hampering his own mission. By attacking- or threatening to attack- the majority of those he interviews, Okuzaki comes across as more than a little unbalanced, which puts into question the validity of his investigation. Is he a crusader of justice, or an insane bully who beats people until they say what he wants them to?

The film paints a portrait of Okuzaki as a mixture of the two; something of an insane crusader. Indeed, despite his violent tendencies- or perhaps because of them- Okuzaki successfully solves the murders; uncovering some more in the process. He brings closure to the families of victims, and showcases how uncaring the Japanese government was during the War. Director Hara also uses the film to shed a light on the experience of Veterans after the War, and how the surviving men carry with them the shame and guilt of combat.

The soldiers Okuzaki interrogates are all broken men, in one way or another, haunted by their memories of New Guinea. The stories about the depravity they were forced to endure and partake in are devastating, and you can see the weight of that trauma is still overwhelming. A frail veteran by the name of Kichitaro Yamada- who Okuzaki visits twice and kicks a few times- has the most to say, and his revelations are staggering. By the time the credits roll, viewers will have a different perspective on Japan's involvement in WWII, and will clearly see the depths humans can sink to in order to survive.

There is nothing quite like 'The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On.' Wholly engrossing and consistently unpredictable, it has influenced generations of documentarians- from Joshua Oppenheimer to Bing Wang- and its power has not been diminished by time. It is an extraordinary odyssey in the company of a madman that offers viewers a unique cinematic experience not likely to be forgotten. Insightful, poignant, profound: Kazuo Hara's 'The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On' is a masterpiece.


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