It’s no wonder Michael Moore raves about The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. Kazuo Hara’s breakthrough 1987 documentary, about a Japanese veteran turned extreme activist, makes fiercely intimate, truth-based tragicomedy look easy. Which isn’t to say that it’s always easy to watch. Hara follows closely as the relentless potential-crackpot Kenzo Okuzaki barges into several elderly men’s homes to grill them on decades-old atrocities and beat them up — although not before bowing his apologies first.
At a time when few dared challenge the manufactured consensus view of Emperor Hirohito as a put-upon pacifist, Okuzaki called the leader a war criminal and attacked him with a slingshot. Now he wants questions answered and responsibility assessed for the killing of three Japanese soldiers with whom he served in New Guinea during World War II. The circumstances of the deaths seem fraught with obscurity: Officers reportedly executed them for desertion, but not until several weeks after the war’s official end. Okuzaki has reason to suspect that the desertion charges were bogus and their superiors in fact murdered the soldiers in order to cannibalize them. The testimonies he extracts are as surreal and riveting and devastating as his means of coercing them.
It’s unsettling to see Japanese politesse so agitated by radical righteous indignation, but that’s the point. With a fearless, at times outrageously duplicitous and undeniably illuminating protagonist (who, in fact, co-financed the film), Hara reveals a whole culture coping with its most traumatic memories. The filmmaker doesn’t take an editorial position, but doesn’t deny his own influential presence in the proceedings either. His camera’s unblinking gaze at Okuzaki roughing people up only further complicates the movie’s central concern with perpetual aggression and complicit brutality. Americans inclined to view their own chief politician as furtive imperialist/military puppet/reprehensible scoundrel surely will find it energizing.