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Documentarist alloes subject's violence to taint his work

Tearsheets: MFA

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Directed and photographed

by Kazuo Hara.

Based on an idea by Shohei Imamura.

Plays tonight, 7:30 pm only, (there are usually two showings on Fri nites.)

at the Museum of Fine Arts.


Here is a film which simply explodes the hallowed cinema verite tradition governing the last three decades of documentary film. In fact, Yuki Yukite Shingun ("The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On") plays like a cross between the lurid sensationalism of Mondo New York and the high-minded search for truth of Hotel Terminus. What's more, this sort of "kamikaze filmmaking," as one American critic dubbed it, actually manages to capture reality and all its contradictions. After all, it could hardly fail to do so when the subject of the documentary flatly proclaims "As long as I live, I'll use violence -- if it brings good to mankind." Such statements immediately throw one into a quandary.

"As long as I live, I'll use violence -- if it brings good to mankind." So says the subject of the documentary, Kenzo Okuzaki, an elderly Japanese man who dips into his World War II experience to offer moving testimonials against the war. At the same time, Okuzaki wants to assassinate Emperor Hirohito (who died of natural causes after this film was completed) for leading the Japanese into World War II in the first place. Another one of Okuzaki's moral crusades is an investigation into the suspicious death of two obscure soldiers immediately following the end of the war. Okuzaki persistently grills his subjects in the best Ted Koppel tradition -- and then proceeds to beat the hell out of them if they don't answer to his satisfaction. Okuzaki and his cinematic collaborators proceed with such determination that they simply shatter any basis for rational argument on whether the ends justify the means.

It is Okuzaki's almost schizophrenic ability to switch from coaxing to bullying that makes him such a paradoxical figure. "God chose you from thousands. So if you don't tell [your story], it's not right" he softly tells one reluctant interviewee. "I beat him because he didn't treat me politely" he says about another. "Please pardon my violence" he says to a third. By the end of the film, he does get to the bottom of what happened to those unfortunate soldiers -- including unraveling reports of cannibalism. The trail of his investigation, however, is littered with the uprooted pillars of civilization.

Okuzaki, of course, cares little about the debris. Indeed, Okuzaki's touching concern for the common man is matched only by his brutal hatred for the Emperor. Okuzaki went to prison in 1956 for murdering a real estate broker, a murder that he now regrets.While Okuzaki regrets killing a real estate broker in 1956, he has no qualms about shooting lead pellets at the Emperor in 1969 and distributing pornographic images of him. His favorite warning to hesitant interviewees is a shouted reminder that "I've shot at the Emperor!" Needless to say, this threat has staggering implications in a culture that once worshiped the Emperor as a god and still considers any criticism of the Emperor as taboo.

As if Okuzaki's radical departure from "civilized" behavior weren't enough, director-cinematographer Kazuo Hara gleefully collaborates with Okuzaki in breaking just about every rule of documentary filmmaking there is. When Okuzaki begins pummeling his former army comrades, for example, Hara happily films the whole incident without stopping to consider the ethical ramifications. On the other hand, Okuzaki hired Hara to follow him around, so in a sense Okuzaki is using Hara to gain an audience. This one little fact immediately throws a monkey wrench into the whole documentary process, since one can never be sure just who is exploiting whom.

It is also difficult to decide how real or staged Okuzaki's encounters are. In one touching scene, for example, Okuzaki walks alongside a murdered soldier's sister, consoling her and supporting her arm with his own. At the same time a microphone conspicuously dangles from his tie. That Hara so brazenly clips a microphone to Okuzaki's tie shows how little consideration Hara gave to the whole issue of not influencing the events he was recording. Granted, the microphone's influence in this particular example is probably minor, but the unabashed presence of the camera over five turbulent years must have had at least some influence on Okuzaki. Frederick Wiseman and D. A. Pennebaker, the giants of cinema verite, would undoubtedly cringe at the mere suggestion of such an impropriety.

Given all these shenanigans, it comes as no surprise that Hara studied with Shohei Imamura. o read in the press materials that Hara is a protege of Shohei Imamura.Imamura once said that he wanted to make "really messy, human films," but Hara may have surpassed his mentor with this nihilist documentary. That is, ultimately, the main reason why it is so fascinating to watch this film: its trek to the brink of self-destruction is as cheerful as it is inexorable. Indeed, one has to wonder how long this type of filmmaking can sustain itself before it consumes itself. For now, however, Hara should be content; Reckless and provocative, Yuki Yukite Shingun is unlike anything yet seen in the world of documentary filmmaking.