Of all the documentaries comprising Japan Society’s “Cinema as Struggle: The Films of Kazuo Hara & Sachiko Kobayashi” retrospective, few are as gripping, intense, and visceral as The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (produced in collaboration with New Wave auteur and all-around hell-raiser Shohei Imamura—and boy, is that ever evident in subject matter).
The camera follows Kenzo Okuzaki—a WWII veteran turned activist/provocateur—as he embarks on a crusade to expose the atrocities of his country’s past, eradicate imperialist attitudes, and prevent the outbreak of another war. His socially disruptive methods include: confronting former military officers at their own homes, accusing them of horrific crimes in front of their families; disturbing the peace by publicly criticizing Emperor Hirohito via a car-mounted loudspeaker, denouncing the disgraced dictator as a coward and traitor to his people; and, when everything else fails, resorting to physical violence—indeed, he frequently ends his “debates” and ambush-style interviews with a flurry of punches and kicks. Obviously, his morally questionable actions make for a profoundly uncomfortable viewing experience, but they are no more unethical than the truths that he succeeds in uncovering: the utter failure of the government to adequately supply soldiers, leading to mass starvation on the frontlines; the cannibalization of New Guinea natives (referred to as “black pork” by the chain of command); and the murder of dissenters under the pretext of “executing deserters.”
The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is a fascinating character study—a haunting portrait of one man’s single-minded obsession with tearing down a pervasive culture of willful ignorance, denial, and apathy by any means necessary. It is challenging, poignant, occasionally unsettling, and ultimately beautiful.