Inland Sea (港町, Kazuhiro Soda, 2018)

Inland sea posterJapan’s ageing population continues to provoke shifts in the social fabric, not least in small rural towns where the elderly now dominate and have been largely left to fend for themselves as if time had simply left them behind. Following his previous documentary Oyster Factory, documentarian Kazuhiro Soda returns to small town coastal Japan with Inland Sea (港町, Minatomachi). Focussing on the village of Ushimado, he observes those still clinging on to an archaic way of life despite advanced age and increasing hardship.

The first of Soda’s primary subjects, Waichiro, is now 86 years old and hard of hearing yet he still takes his boat out every day to fish in the hope of returning home with a prime catch. His living is, as he explains, precarious given that his equipment is now expensive while the price of fish has severely declined. A later meeting with fishmonger Koso makes plain that not every catch is equal – live(ly) fish fetch the most money, while dead ones bring in in only half and like everything else the price of fish is also dependent on demand.

Koso refuses to tell us her “real” age outside of amusingly describing herself as a “late stage elderly” which sounds like something she probably read on a well meaning but somewhat patronising government leaflet. In any case, she is a sprightly, energetic woman who seems far younger than her years and is something of a neighbourhood hub as she makes her rounds delivering fresh seafood to the mostly elderly residents who eagerly await the next tasty catch.

Most of the other residents are, however, more like Waichiro in advanced old age and mostly left to their own devices now that their children have left for the cities never to return. Kumiko, an 84-year-old widow who still works by the waterside preparing fish is just one such woman with a heartbreaking post-war story she later relates in a typically matter of fact fashion. Becoming a kind of guide for Soda and his producer as they explore the small village, Kumiko often attempts to steal the spotlight – bad mouthing her neighbours live on camera while they stand right behind her as in the case of her apparent bestie whom, she insensitively tells us, has “no friends” and a poor relationship with her family despite having eight children which most of the other lonely older people might consider as something of a luxury.

Relating her sad life story in which she laments a feeling of disconnection from the place in which she lives owing to having lost her family in the war and been adopted at age four by a fisherman and his wife who denied her an education (as was the thinking in those days), Kumiko lays bare a melancholy underside of the post-war boom which seems to have left towns like these (the ones that survived at all) almost untouched as if frozen in time. The world has pulled away, leaving Ushimado behind like a rock pool filled with water long after the tide has gone out.

Soda’s decision to regrade the film in black and white after shooting in colour adds a poignant touch to his casting of Ushimado as a place somewhat out of time. Wandering around, Kumiko begins to point out empty houses, mostly belonging to the recently deceased, which make up the bulk of the town and it’s true that the vast majority of the people we meet are older save perhaps for a younger woman helping at a cafe and a middle-aged one who takes care to feed the many stray cats who are the area’s other main residents with leftover fish offal. There is, however, perhaps fresh hope for towns like Ushimado as evidenced by the mild surprise expressed in discovering the range of dishes on offer at the local coffee shop seeing as technological advances and better transport links may help to draw some of those who left for the city back to the country even if not to fishing. At the very last, colour returns to the screen reminding us that there is life in this place still and that its stillness should not be mistaken for transience.


Streaming almost globally via Mubi until 1st April 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Way Out (出路, Zheng Qiong, 2016)

a way out posterThe duplicitous dichotomies of the modern China have become a permanent fixture in the nation’s cinema though mostly as a symbol of conflicted ideologies as some yearn for a return to an imagined past egalitarianism and others merely for a brake on the runaway train of capitalist materialism. Zheng Qiong’s documentary A Way Out (出路, Chūlù) follows the lives of three youngsters chasing the “Chinese Dream” albeit in their own particular ways only to discover that, in the end, despite the best intentions of those who might seek to lessen the advantages of privilege, birth may be the biggest factor in deciding one’s destiny.

Zheng opens with a little girl, Ma Baijuan, in rural Gansu. Her sing-song voice playing over her cheerful stride to school through the narrow mountain paths hints at a natural curiosity, a desire to know the “why” of everything, but Baijuan is only reciting by rote what it is says in her school book. Her education, which is received at a village school segregated by sex where she is one of only two little girls learning simple facts about the world around her while the boys next-door get a crash course in elementary maths, is largely a matter of questions and answers rather than thought or enquiry. Nevertheless, she excitedly tells us that she will soon be going on to the middle school in the nearest town and then hopefully to a college in Beijing after which she will make a lot of money and buy a new house for her family with a proper well so they can get water.

Meanwhile, 19-year-old Xu Jia has already repeated the final year of high school twice in the hope of bettering his exam grades to get into a good university. Like many of his contemporaries, Xu sees a degree from a reputable institution as the only “way out” of small town poverty. He is willing to sacrifice almost anything to make it happen and thinks of little else than achieving his dream of a getting a steady job at a stable company and then getting married in order to reduce the burden on his ageing single mother.

Xu may think that a white-collar job is the only path to success but others do not quite see things the same way. Yuan Hanhan is introduced to us as a 17-year-old “high school drop out” but is in fact a talented artist and bona fide free spirit. After brief stint in a hippy cafe, she eventually achieves her dream of studying abroad at art school in Germany where she struggles to adapt to the relatively laidback quality of European society, affirming that in a developed nation like Germany no one sees the need to go on developing. She complains that Germans only need to do their routine jobs like little stones arranged in a line by the country – perhaps an ironic statement given the restrictive nature of Chinese society but also one with its own sense of logic which places the insistent work ethic clung to by Xu on parallel with an economic model which may already be out of date.

Xu gets his start as a telephonist making cold call insurance sales where the staff are drilled like a military cadre to regard their pencils as machine guns as their mics as grenades, their jobs not means of survival but an enterprise for the common good which drives tax receipts to benefit the entire nation. In a sense he has found his “way out” though his life will be one of soulless corporate drudgery, a fact brought home by his mother’s casual appraisal of his wedding album which features her son in a series of intensely romantic photographs in which he has “absolutely no expression”. Meanwhile, Hanhan remains a free spirit. Even if she never quite felt at home in Germany, she maintains a healthy interest in the wider world and is determined to forge her own path rather than become simply one of many identical “little stones”. For Baijuan, however, the future is much less rosy. Her grandfather, commiserating that perhaps she didn’t have the kind of aptitude for schooling that she might have liked, regards a woman’s education as unimportant, as Baijuan’s only “way out” is a “reliable” man whom they would like to find for her as soon as possible.

As Hanhan puts it in her philosophical closing speech, when it comes down to it birth is the most important factor of all. Simply by being born wealthy in Beijing she had advantages that others do not have. Baijuan’s fate is sealed in being born to a poor farming family in a remote rural region, while Xu constantly refers to his “family situation” as the reason he feels he has to become a success as soon as possible, hitting all the social landmarks at all the expected junctures. Each of our protagonists is looking for a “way out” of their unsatisfactory circumstances, and each of them finds it, but perhaps not quite in a way everyone would view as ”satisfactory”. Zheng’s vision of the new China is one in which the old ideology has failed, leaving behind it only an entrenched social hierarchy from which there may be no “way out” save a willing refusal to comply.


A Way Out was screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival’s New Year programme at the BFI Southbank and is also available to rent online via Vimeo.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Dead Souls (死靈魂, Wang Bing, 2018)

Dead Souls posterFor his eight hour exploration of China’s painful past, Wang Bing borrows a title from Gogol’s famous 19th century Russian novel which aimed to poke fun at the various flaws in contemporary cultural norms. “Dead Souls” (死靈魂, Sǐ Línghún), in Gogol’s case, referred to serfs which had passed on but were still included in a landlord’s register of property and therefore liable for taxation (the novel’s protagonist, a corrupt former civil servant, is keen to “buy” these “virtual” serfs as part of a mysterious money making scam). Wang Bing’s aims are about as far from comic as it’s possible to be, but he too is intent on unmasking national hypocrisy in ensuring the testimonies of the hundreds of men and women who survived Mao’s “Anti-Rightest Movement” of the late 1950s are finally heard. The alleged rightists became “dead souls” in more ways than one – having lost their party affiliation they no longer quite existed in the intensely conformist post-revolutionary world where they found themselves betrayed and abandoned by an increasingly oppressive regime that eventually robbed them of their humanity.

In 1956, the Communist Party had announced the Hundred Flowers campaign in which ordinary people were encouraged to voice their innermost thoughts about the state of the revolution. After a short lived period of liberalism, the Hundred Flowers campaign was exposed as a ruse to root out so called reactionary elements. The Anti-Rightist Movement which began in 1957 rounded up those who had offered up constructive criticism of the party as well as capitalists, intellectuals, and just about anyone with a vaguely questionable history, and packed them off for “re-education” at various labour camps throughout China.

Mostly offered through lengthy direct to camera monologues, Wang presents a first hand account of the Jiabiangou Labor Camp from those who managed to survive (around 500 of 3200 internees) after famine and disease took hold. Many of the alleged “rightists”, most “rehabilitated” after the Cultural Revolution and subsequent economic reforms, affirm that they have no idea what it is they did “wrong” but are convinced that it was petty jealousies and personal resentments that landed them in hot water rather than a political dispute. Many found themselves at the mercy of an official they’d already reported for incompetence or corruption, disappeared for reasons of expediency or convenience. Others were told that their re-education was for the public good and they’d be back in a matter of months in their old job with their old salary, or else their family could come live with them on the utopian farm that would arise from their efforts in the camp.

Of course, the reality was very different and the harrowing stories recounted by the now elderly men with a mix of retrospective black humour and deeply held resentment speak of death on a mass scale, starvation, walking corpses, and rampant disease. With famine intensified by the failure of the Great Leap Forward, food supplies grew increasingly short while numbers of “rightists” in need of re-education only increased thanks to a kind of quota system. Those most likely to survive were the ones who made themselves the most useful – the physically strong, the tenders of horses, and the kitchen staff who could survive by pinching food when no one was looking. One strangely gleeful old man calmly recounts how he finagled his way into the kitchen and then set about pilfering the best of the supplies for himself with the help of the other cooks (seemingly without remorse), while another man recounts spotting a similar practice and taking the greedy to task by reminding them that the food they were scoffing came out of someone else’s mouth. Those who survived did so either because their families were able to smuggle in food for them, or else they were lucky.

Breaking away from the rigorous, sometimes oppressive interviews, Wang wanders the grounds of the former camps now levelled in an attempt to erase their existence but still painfully visible in the arid, scarred landscape. Bones litter surface as if squeezed out of the earth while human skulls rest eerily in the middle of barren land. A group of survivors attempts to identify remains through stones placed atop the bodies of those who died when those left behind still had the strength to bury them, but fail to read the faded names while their attempt to erect a monument to those who lost their lives to a malicious failure of government ends with only more destruction. What they were not permitted to do Wang accomplishes if intangibly in creating an indelible monument to human suffering through the first hand testimony of a persecuted generation finally able to break the long decades of silence and give voice to a truth still so painfully hidden.


Short clip from the beginning of the film (English subtitles)

Bitter Money (苦钱, Wang Bing, 2016)

Bitter money poster“Bitter Money” (苦钱, Kǔ Qián), according to director Wang Bing, is a phrase on the rise. It may be that money is rarely sweet, but this kind is particularly hard to swallow. Not only is the youth of China thrown out of its villages towards the inferno of city industry, living alone and away from home, but finds nothing more than exploitation, drudgery and false promise when it gets there. Wang’s trademark immersive detachment captures the frustrating inertia of the young men and women of the modern China who find themselves very definitely at the bottom of a heap and consistently betrayed by a failed ideology.

Wang opens in the country with a trio of hopeful youngsters about to leave everything behind for the bright promise of a better life for themselves and their families bought with city money. They board a bus, and then a train, and then interminable hours later arrive in Huzhou, the centre of the modern garment trade. The girls find work in a small workshop which, all things considered, might not seem so bad save that it provides only extremely low pay and offers no guarantees.

Shifting away from the recent arrivals, Wang’s camera locks onto the melancholy figure of 25-year-old Ling Ling who wants to borrow it as ally in confronting her coldhearted husband who threw her out after she complained about his beatings and is now so resentful that she’s stayed away too long that he refuses to talk to her. Ling Ling’s attitude to her unhappy marriage speaks volumes about the oppressive, patriarchal world of Huzhou where physical strength and dexterity are the only real currencies.

Lamenting her fate to coworker, Ling Ling affirms that domestic violence is just a part of life and believes that women have a duty to “submit” to their husbands’ rages – after all, “no woman can beat a man”. Her husband, Erzi, is proud and insecure. He views his wife’s behaviour as a slight against him and is resolved to be rid of her, loudly threatening her life in front of half the neighbourhood guys each of whom gets up and abandons their mahjong game after sensing that something is about to kick off. Despite the disdain with which the other men treat his overt violence towards his wife, Erzi is convinced his “manly” behaviour is impressive and thinks nothing of grabbing his wife by the throat in full view of Wang’s camera which remains a purely passive presence despite this ongoing threat.

Ling Ling, however, has few real choices left to her. She can’t survive alone in this environment and has nowhere else to go. In a pattern repeated across the nation, Ling Ling’s son is being raised in the country while she and her husband try to make a go of things in the city. Her major argument with Erzi is that he kicked her out with no money and won’t even give her anything for their son. Yet a later scene shows them together again, seemingly “happier” even whilst they to continue to bicker about money if in a less obviously destructive way.

Most of the other workers are not quite as trapped as Ling Ling, but are caught by a feeling of threat and desperation which encourages them to push themselves beyond the limits of human endurance while their bosses reap the profits. One minute the garment workshop is in the hole because they backed a product which isn’t selling, and the next it’s doing so well that the “slow” workers are being laid off in favour of the more “efficient”. It goes without saying that work in these small workshops is almost entirely unregulated with very few enforceable labour rights which means the boss is free to hire and fire as he sees fit. Some consider “investing” in pyramid schemes despite an awareness of their risks in the belief that they could beat the system if they get out fast enough while others resolve to give up and go home to the comparative comforts of the country.

One worker retreats into drink, only for his boss to tell him he’s holding back his wages for his own good which seems like a dubious claim at best. The workers regard the “big factories” with fear and awe, enemies of their current establishments but perhaps also offering better opportunities if also requiring a further fall into the industrial inferno. With little else on offer, “bitter money” is all there seems to be but its rewards are scant and its toll heavy. The teenage girl we first meet full of excitement and enthusiasm is eventually worn down, realising she’s worked all these months and earned barely anything. Wang’s detachment mirrors that of his protagonists who find themselves at the mercy of a cruel and indifferent social system the ongoing violence of which it proves almost impossible to escape.


Matsuchiyo – Life of a Geisha (松千代一代記, Ken Nishikawa, 2018)

Matsuchiyo PosterThe figure of the “geisha” looms large in Japanese cinema, but all too often international perceptions of what a geisha is or should be are rooted in old fashioned orientalist ideas of exotic Eastern women somehow both refined and alluring. Most assume geisha is synonymous with high class prostitute and that the life of a geisha is not much different from any other sex worker save for the trappings of elegance which are in fact its USP. These assumptions are, however, not entirely accurate.

In order to tell the story of the modern day geisha, Ken Nishikawa steps in front of the camera to tell that of his own mother which is also in many ways, the story of 20th century Japan. Later known as Matsuchiyo, Nishikawa’s mother spent the pre-war years in Manchuria returning to a land in ruins shortly after the wartime defeat. In order to support her ailing mother, she became a geisha which is, as we will discover, an extraordinarily skilled and arcane profession entailing the mastery of a number of traditional arts from dance to shamisen.

As Matsuchiyo later puts it, it’s difficult for a foolish girl to become a geisha, but for an intelligent one it may be impossible. A flippant remark to be sure, but it hints at the true purpose of a geisha’s training which amounts to a gentle erasure of individual personality in order to play the role of the perfect woman from the point of view of each particular client. Somewhere between bartender and therapist, a geisha must listen patiently to the complaints of each of her companions as they pour out their souls over sake, laying bare the fears and worries with which they could never burden a wife (assuming they might want to). Nodding sympathetically, she must remain cheerful and supportive, never voicing her true feelings but only those the client has paid to hear. The business of a geisha isn’t selling sex but fantasy, an image of unconditional love which is entirely conditional on payment of the bill.

As far as bills go, being a geisha is an expensive business and so each must be careful to hook a patron who will support her ongoing career – paying for training, equipment, elaborate outfits and hairdressing, in return for preferential treatment and loyalty. Matsuchiyo, as young woman, fell in love with a handsome young man but he was poor and her family still had debts. Though they urged her to do what she thought best, Matsuchiyo made a sacrifice and gave up on love to continue her geisha training and provide for her family. She became the mistress of a wealthy elderly man and later the “shadow wife” of a younger one from a wealthy family who fathered her three children but had two more with a legal wife. On his death she received nothing and the children were not even allowed to go to their father’s funeral, such was the taboo nature of their existence from the point of view of their father’s family.

The children were also instructed not to tell people that their mother was a geisha, leaving them with a lingering feeling of shame regarding her profession even if Matsuchiyo herself has absolutely none. Becoming a geisha is hard, it takes skill and application not to mention an investment in time. These days there are few women who want to be one, possibly because of its associations with the sex trade, but also simply because times have changed. Before the war when poverty was at its height, it was “normal” to sell a daughter to a geisha house so she might feed her family. Thankfully, this was no longer (officially at least) possible in the post-war world, but when Matsuchiyo became a geisha there were many young women like her who did so to escape the kind of extreme poverty which is happily absent in the modern Japan. The geisha houses enjoyed a post-war boom in the Showa era but have been in rapid decline ever since, becoming perhaps a rarefied cultural icon while the regular foot traffic trots off to the decidedly more casual world of hostess bars.

Nishikawa narrates much of his mother’s story in English with occasional on screen graphics to aid in explanation before allowing her to tell some of it herself in subtitled Japanese. Though others might have lamented Matsuchiyo’s “hard life” filled with loss and heartbreak, she herself regrets nothing and continues to dedicate herself to the geisha craft as the president of Atami’s geisha guild, fostering the latest generation of younger women keen to carry on the geisha legacy in an ever modernising world. A fascinating insight into the tightly controlled dichotomies of a geisha’s life, Nishikawa’s personal documentary is also voyage through the changing society of post-war Japan through the eyes of those trained to observe and most particularly an old woman who survived it all with a smile.


Matsuchiyo – Life of a Geisha (松千代一代記, Matsuchiyo Ichidaiki) was screened as part of the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English)

Sennan Asbestos Disaster (ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村, Kazuo Hara, 2017)

Sennan Asbestos Disaster posterIn these troubled times, many may find themselves wondering what the purpose of government really is. Is the primary duty of the state to look after its citizens or to maintain “order” and what exactly is the limit of the state’s responsibility towards those most in need of its care? Director Kazuo Hara had made a career of examining the lives of those who dared to defy the system, but his latest film Sennan Asbestos Disaster (ニッポン国VS泉南石綿村, Nipponkoku vs Sennan Ishiwata Mura) focusses not on an individual but on a group of ordinary people attempting to stand up to governmental bureaucracy after having been betrayed by successive administrations who put economic prosperity ahead of citizens’ welfare.

Asbestos was hailed as something of a wonder for its highly useful properties including sound insulation, fire proofing, strength and durability. Increasing in use throughout the industrial revolution, the harmful affects of asbestos were first discovered in the early 20th century but its use across most of the world was not banned until the turn of the millennium following long campaigns by those whose health had been adversely affected by breathing in its fibres leading to long term respiratory issues and even a risk of cancer.

In Sennan, in the South West of Japan, asbestos production was the dominant economy stretching back into the Meiji era. Concerns had been raised about the possible harmful effects of asbestos before the war and then again afterwards, but successive governments chose to do nothing while workers remained unaware of the risks even while noticing that many of their friends and family members were dying young often of respiratory conditions. Most only became aware that asbestos was dangerous in 2005 following a national scandal known as the “Kubota Shock” in which a well respected manufacturer of machinery was forced to admit that as much as 10% of its workforce had died of asbestos-related conditions.

Hara follows a collective of Sennan residents who have come together to file a class action law suit against the government for failing to ensure safety standards in asbestos production. Led by Kazuyoshi Yuoka whose grandfather owned an asbestos factory before the war, the group members are mainly older men and women who worked in the factories during the economically straitened days of the immediate post-war period. Though many point to the otherwise progressive nature of the factories which were desperate to attract workers and keen to foster a community spirit as well as offering other benefits including access to education, it is true that many of the employees were among those already facing other kinds of oppression aside from the economic – the uneducated rural poor, women, and a large number of minorities including zainichi Koreans. This information is important because it exposes the truth that the state decided these people were expendable and could be sacrificed in the name of the economic prosperity that was deemed necessary in order to rebuild the nation after its crushing wartime defeat.

Unlike the protagonists of Hara’s previous films, the Sennan campaigners are ordinary people – those assumed to have very little social power pressuring their government to take responsibility for having wilfully abandoned them. Unsurprisingly, the government is not very keen to do so. The legal case drags on eight years during which many of the sufferers die while their children or spouses continue the quest for justice. The case itself is wider than it first seems, extending not just to factory workers but to those exposed by general proximity such as famers owning land near asbestos plants and in one poignant case a woman whose parents took her to the factory while they worked when she was a child.

Forming a tightly knit community, the campaigners present a united front but come up against the wall of bureaucracy. As time wears on it’s difficult not to feel a small amount of sympathy for the junior civil servants the government trots out to deal with angry protestors, forced to repeat the same tired phrases without explanation while the group insist on seeing someone with a bit more clout, but even when the case is finally proved, progress is slow and the ritual apology as hollow as it always is. Yet even if some are angered by the perfunctory nature of professional atonement, others actively embrace it and appear grateful even for this small shred of attention from the authority. It’s here that Hara wavers in his sympathy, admiring the kindhearted solidarity of the protestors but lamenting their tendency towards feudal deference when they should be raging against a society which is often content to exploit and discard them, remaining accidentally complicit in enabling a gradual decline of democratic freedoms.

Nevertheless, Sennan Asbestos Disaster is the chronicle of a (partially) successful campaign in which a group of concerned citizens working within the law eventually force the government to concede an error, even if that concession may turn out to have no wider application. The victory, however, can’t bring back lost time nor ease past suffering and only serves to draw a line under one chapter of a struggle which is sadly far from over.


Sennan Asbestos Disaster was screened as part of a Kazuo Hara focus at Open City Documentary Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (ゆきゆきて、神軍, Kazuo Hara, 1987)

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On PosterThe relationship between a director and a subject can often be a complex one. Who is really leading who and towards what end is a difficult enough question at the best of times, but when your subject is an unhinged crackpot with a definite agenda, a natural love of the camera, and an unpredictable violent streak, it’s an inescapable conundrum. Kenzo Okuzaki, a Pacific War veteran with a deeply seated grudge against the emperor for his refusal to acknowledge his war guilt, first came to the attention of director Shohei Imamura but a second stretch in prison for firing pachinko balls at the object of his wrath put paid to his directorial hopes. 10 years later Imamura passes his subject on to Kazuo Hara who finds himself increasingly at the mercy of his mercurial campaign for truth and reconciliation.

The main thrust of Okuzaki’s current activities lies in uncovering the facts behind the deaths of two enlisted men who were executed in New Guinea three weeks after the war was over. Okuzaki believes the men were murdered and lies the blame at the feet firstly of the officers on the ground and ultimately at those of the emperor who created the circumstances in which all of this horror was allowed to bloom. To assist him in his investigations, Okuzaki ropes in the families of the victims – one a Shinto priestess who is convinced she sees her brother in her dreams and on her altar, and the other a conflicted brother who just wants to know the truth. The truth, however, may be hard to hear, as one of the men Okuzaki corners tries to tell them. Like most of the others questioned about the events of almost forty years before, he advises the family that it’s better not to know while emphasising that their relatives died through no fault of their own.

What is probably obvious to Okuzaki but not to the relatively less cynical family members is that an issue is being skirted. The soldier makes out that he doesn’t want to go into the deaths because the men were executed for desertion – something which is absurd in itself when the war was already over, and that he did not want the family to experience the shame and social stigma of being related to “cowards” who failed in their “duty”. Such notions are already out of date by the late ‘80s, but evidently still weigh heavily on the minds of veterans. Wanting to spare others the pain and shame of discovering the truth about what happened in New Guinea is a frequent excuse offered by those questioned, but perhaps a way of deflecting their own reluctance to speak of such deeply traumatic, extremely difficult events.

Getting them to open up is not Okuzaki’s first thought. Okuzaki himself is a strange man with a disturbing aura and a tendency to self-aggrandisement. When we first meet him he’s acting as a go-between at a wedding of a man he met through his “activism” which is to say a fellow combatant in Okuzaki’s campaign against “The Establishment”. A wedding speech might not be the most appropriate moment to embark on a personal history that involves going to prison for murdering someone you “did not want” to murder as well as a litany of anti-establishment acts including the pachinko ball incident and distributing “pornographic” pictures of the emperor to shoppers at a Tokyo department store. Nevertheless, Okuzaki is extremely proud of these “achievements” which exemplify how he alone has continued to fight the good fight in the post-war world. He sees his original conviction as karma not for his actions in the Pacific but the wastefulness of his life afterwards. He now believes he was saved from New Guinea in order to educate the young about the horrors of war and ensure none of this ever happens again.

Problematically, his main weapon in this fight is violence. Okuzaki’s manner is one of extreme politeness, bordering on obsequiousness, but he is also direct and aggressive, becoming violent when his subjects decline to answer his questions. The relatives are there to shame the officers into speaking the truth through being directly confronted by the human costs of their actions, but Okuzaki’s personal bluster hasn’t thought through the various ways in which his tactics might make it more difficult for them to speak. After all, Okuzaki is a veteran of New Guinea himself, if these men could feel comfortable talking to anyone about their experiences, you’d think they could turn to someone like Okuzaki if only he were not so frightening a presence. Uncomfortably enough, the violence does seem to work and Okuzaki gets his answers through intimidation which leaves his quarry broken and compliant. Despite claiming to work for world peace, Okuzaki believes that his violence is justified by the worthiness of his aims, which you have to admit is an oddly familiar mantra.

His subject’s propensity for violence places Hara in a difficult position, as do his frequent attempts at engineering the situation including roping in his wife and a couple of male friends to pose as relatives of the deceased when the original couple tire of Okuzaki’s exploitative antics. Okuzaki quite obviously has a very clear aim for what he perhaps sees as a propaganda exercise for his ongoing cause which might stand in deep contrast to that of his director who is, after all, a bystander reconstructing narrative after the fact. Okuzaki emerges as a symbol of a nation’s repressed trauma, skittering between officious politeness and belligerent violence while offering a bizarre, quasi-religious philosophy about god’s plan for us all. Hara remains caught between conflicting impulses, unwittingly complicit in Okuzaki’s personal war against war while trying to maintain control in the face of his constant manipulations. As a portrait of a madman The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On excels, painting Okuzaki as a product of his own mad times while refusing to back away from the bitter truths his madness is so keen to expose.


The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (ゆきゆきて、神軍, Yuki Yukite, Shingun) was screened as part of a Kazuo Hara focus at Open City Documentary Festival 2018.

Short clip from the film (English subtitles)