War is often a controversial subject. Scratch that–war is always a controversial subject. Hence, documentaries and other medias in which they’re documented can have an extra challenge to produce. Kazuo Hara, the director of “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”, took this challenge and ran away with it, producing a masterfully crafted film that explores post-war challenges through the lens of the deeply mysterious, problematic, and contradictory subject Kenzo Okuzaki. By the very definition of a documentary, Hara had the challenge of presenting Okuzaki’s character in a factual manner as much as possible. This was very likely difficult for Hara in certain parts where the facts didn’t line up with the message Okuzaki wanted to convey, given Okuzaki’s influence on the actual production of the film and his explosive, hard-nosed personality. Although Hara’s documentary has Okuzaki as the subject, their goals for the purpose of the documentary were not necessarily the same: Okuzaki wanted to extract the truth from certain officers and convey it to the world, while Hara wanted to create a factual film about Okuzaki’s enigmatic, rebellious character. Thus, if Hara wanted to include anything that Okuzaki may not have approved, he had to do so in a subtle directorial decision that the audience may have consciously or unconsciously noticed–and this is exactly what he did. In this essay, I explore two such scenes where Hara employs subtle directorial decisions to help better convey Okuzaki’s truly conflicted character.
Throughout most of the documentary, at least to me, it seemed that the documentary was being filmed by Okuzaki himself (or at least exactly to his liking). In the film, however, there were certain scenes unearthed by lecture discussion and further analysis that were clearly subtle insertions by Hara to better show Okuzaki’s conflicted, troubled character. One such scene was so powerful it made me squirm in my seat in my second watch, once I was actively looking for these subtle clues. This scene took place when Hara made Okuzaki’s van visible to viewers as Okuzaki was visiting his comrade’s grave, in an apparent portrayal of his “soft side”. I didn’t notice the van right away, but when I did, I observed that the violent propaganda on it was a reminder that Okuzaki wasn’t the perfect hero we as viewers almost expect of protagonists when watching cinema. Okuzaki in this scene is mourning his comrade, and hence Hara’s decision to include the van makes it almost laughable how contradictory Okuzaki’s character really is. His hard-headed anti-war personality is so deeply embedded within himself that Okuzaki is willing to go through absolutely anything to achieve (his version of) justice. He’s specifically attacking crimes that took place previously and is working to prevent future conflicts–even if he’s employing the same exact behavior that leads to war and conflict in the first place: hard-headed determinism rooted in violence and force. Okuzaki obviously thought he was justified in doing this, so if Hara blatantly made this counterproductive message clear through a more obvious scene, we have reason to believe Okuzaki wouldn’t have allowed it. This is one example where we can see how powerful subtle cinema can be–without making it immediately clear with something as simple as expanding a certain shot, Hara is able to craft Okuzaki’s character the way he wants even though Okuzaki was with him every step of the production process. Only viewers watching the film in its entirety come to understand Okuzaki’s character when his actions are combined with the subtle hints Hara provides.
Another scene in which Hara employed a subtle decision was when Okuzaki violently attacked Takami Minoru, an execution squad member that refused to tell Okuzaki anything from the past at the onset of the visit, which is followed by Hara violently lashing out at him, creating a chaotic scene where Takami’s wife even threatens to call the police. Given how emotionally charged the fight is, it seems like an interesting choice to not move the camera at all and keep it still–right where it is behind the fight–for minutes (which can feel like an eternity in a movie) as the fight goes on. This is in itself a contradiction: we expect the camera to move in or follow them, but it remains a distance away, watching them from behind. In my opinion, this is homage to Okuzaki’s conflicted character. He wants to fight the horrible violence that took place in the past, and he ironically does that by incurring more violence in the present. The camera angle literally forces us to take a step back and contemplate that, which most likely would have been less effective with a closer camera shot, overdramatizing the fight and diverting our attention from the real issues Hara wants his audience to think about.
These two scenes, among countless others, accurately portray Okuzaki’s troubled, contradictory character. However, as we the audience process these scenes in our minds, a surprising phenomenon starts to take place. Despite all the apparent contradictions, physical and emotional violence that we see onscreen, and Okuzaki’s troubling personality, we find ourselves rooting for his mission, and this feeling grows after every confession he forces out of previously corrupt war officers. It is perhaps partly because the individuals he grills almost always end up “remembering” exactly what heinous crimes they committed, breaking free from their gross amnesia at the onset of a real threat. We’re naturally attracted toward justice and truth. We may not approve of his contradictory character and the way he tries to achieve his goal, but we approve of what his end goal is. After a second watch, from a reflection standpoint, it’s likely Hara knew how compelling of a story this would be and is the reason why he continued to incite Okuzaki to continue this dangerous mission of truth and justice. Would Okuzaki really have the motivation to go about all this without the satisfaction of this mission being caught on camera? Okuzaki’s history of political action all are widely documented–whether distributing pornographic political magazines or sling shooting marbles–Hara knew that Okuzaki would have the motivation to do what he does as long as he’s documented. Is Hara then condoning Okuzaki’s often violent, brash actions? Not only did he and his camera crew remain spectators during the first time it happened, by continuing the project even though the dangers were apparent was clearly encouraging Okuzaki to continue doing what he’s doing. Whether this constitutes condoning or not, Hara really knocks down two birds with one stone: he is able to portray the character of Okuzaki while maintaining a storyline with a “protagonist” that holds its own against those of the most interesting, infamous characters ever. It’s clear Hara is no innocent documentary maker–he had a huge hand in not only the development but actual motivation and production of this film. In 1993 during an interview, Hara mentioned that documentaries should “explore the things that people don’t want explored.” “The Emperor’s Naked Army” is definitely a documentary that fits this bill, and while there are serious ethical questions that are enqueued throughout the film and after its conclusion, it was a skillful and compelling journey into important taboo topics that perhaps most importantly raises even more appreciation for the subtle work that goes into producing effective, compelling cinema.