Saturday, March 31, 2018

Two Japanese cinematic gems at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

Kazuo Haro entertained questions after the HKIFF screening 
of The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On

- From the HKIFF's Galas section 
- Kenji Mizoguchi, director
- Starring: Kazuo Hasegawa, Kyoko Kagawa

1954 looks to have been quite the year for Japanese cinema.  Keisuke Kinoshita offered up 24 Eyes, Akira Kurosawa came out with Seven Samurai, and the filmmaker some consider the greatest to have ever come out of the Land of the Rising Sun, Kenji Mizoguchi, made not one but three cinematic efforts, including Sansho the Bailiff and this work whose better known English language title contains a whopper of a spoiler.

Based on a kabuki play and set in 17th century Kyoto, that which I'll refer to -- like the Hong Kong International Film Festival programmers -- as A Story of Chikamatsu centers on talented and kind-hearted apprentice scroll-maker Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa) and Osan (Kyoko Kagawa), his wealthy but miserly boss's wife.  After she turns to him rather than her husband (Eitaro Shindo) to help her get some money to repay her brother's loan, a series of unfortunate developments results in their being falsely accused of having an affair -- a crime whose proscribed punishment is humiliating and painful death by crucifixion.      

Much less well known than the previous Mizoguchi films that I've viewed (including Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu, The 47 Ronin and Princess Yang Kwei Fei), A Story of Chikamatsu is easily recognizable as a Kenji Mizoguchi work: visually, on account of many scenes bringing to mind beautiful (black and white) paintings; and also thematically, in terms of such as his predilection for taking the oppressed female view and crying out against social constraints and injustice.   

Did Mizoguchi ever make a film that did not have a sad ending?  I've yet to see one of them.  And yet, even while I'm not usually a fan of films where I can predict how things will end as well as not particularly keen on getting depressed at the cinema, I am willing to make an exception when it comes to this particular Japanese auteur -- because his works are so well made that they do touch the heart as well as leave one feeling privileged to have viewed a bona fide masterpiece.

My rating for this film: 9.0

- From the HKIFF's A Dedicated Filmmaker: Hara Kazuo program
- Kazuo Hara, director and cinematographer
- With: Kenzo Okuzaki 

Some years ago, as we exited the theater after viewing one of the films in Masaki Kobayashi's grueling The Human Condition trilogy, an Australian-British friend of mine was moved to share his thoughts that if the work had been made by other than a Japanese person, its depiction of how the Japanese behaved during the Second World War probably might be accused of being racist.  That's how wrong as well as despicable much of it was.  

I'm moved to surmise the same about Kazuo Hara's The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On and can see very well why Japanese society has largely shunned this documentary which reveals some really horrible as well as incredible practices of the Japanese military based in New Guinea in the final months of World War II and still there days and weeks after the war had officially ended.

Five years in the making, this effort tells the story of Kenzo Okuzaki, an ex-Engineering Corps Private whose unit was reduced to just two people by the war's close.  In his 60s when the film first came out, he had turned into someone absolutely determined to expose the horrors of war and confront those he deemed guilty of war crimes, from the late Emperor Hirohito (who Okuzaki had been imprisoned for having fired marbles at with a sling shot) all the way down to officers and non-commissioned officers in the Engineering Corps who had done such as ordered executions of soldiers after the war had officially ended and more.  

The camera (manned by director Kazuo Hara) and film follows Okuzaki as he pays visits, usually unannounced and often unwelcomed, to the homes and/or workplaces of other ex-soldiers from whom he demands the truth as well as soul-searching.  It's illustrative that many of those who had been in the lower ranks come from remote, rural and not particularly well-off looking areas of Japan (such as Shimane) while the most senior ranked officer, a captain, lived in a much nicer home than most.  It's also eye-opening to see how willing many of the men are to prevaricate, and even downright lie -- though, often, after they are told that someone else has spilled the beans, they start admitting things too.

Prone to violence and making pronouncements that can come across as rather egoistic, Okuzaki does not come across as a perfect human being in this emotionally raw documentary.  Still, I have very little doubt that viewers of The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On can totally understand his indignation and fury -- and see that, to paraphase Shakespeare, even if some of his actions smack of madness, there's a method to it that can yield results. 

My rating for this film: 9.0


Brian said...

I think the innate nationalism that resides within most of us makes it difficult for the Japanese to come to terms with the incredibly horrible things that they did in the war. Not so different than us in the USA never really to see the horrors of what we did in Vietnam and Iraq. Looking through that lens and seeing yourself is not easy. And thus lessons are often not learned. I won't be surprised too much if we repeat our mistakes in Iran or North Korea.

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

Since World War II ended 73 years ago now, most Japanese alive today didn't do anything during the war since they weren't born then (or if so, were very young). And I think that for many people, the past really is another country -- one which is so foreign to them that they have a hard time believing what happened then did so, let alone feeling obliged to know about and apologize for it. At the same time, I do take your point that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Which is why I, for one, do try to read up on relevant histories and such.

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YTSL said...

Hi piseth san --

Thanks for the appreciation -- and I hope you'll be fine with non-film- as well as film-related updates!