The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On ★★★★½

Works on so many different levels: As an uncompromising piece of investigative journalism shedding light on the unimaginable horrors of Japan's wartime sojourn into Southeast Asia, an attempt to untangle complex knots of guilt, patriotism, cognitive dissonance, and willful ignorance, and a character study of a bullheaded veteran driven to (possibly over) the brink of madness on a quest to find someone accountable for the horrors he endured.

Kenzo Okuzaki has a rap sheet of a number of bizarre offenses, ranging from second-degree murder to public disturbances caused by driving around one of his three automobiles decked out with anti-government slogans to "distributing pornographic images of Emperor Hirohito" (never elaborated upon, to much hilarious effect). His defiance of authority goes back to childhood and seems totally at odds with his obstinate devotion to the many government officials with whom he routinely comes in contact. When we join him he's just out of the joint after doing some hard labor for shooting pachinko balls at the Emperor's motorcade. After celebrating Hirohito's birthday by causing a massive traffic jam and distracting at least 50% of Tokyo PD, he decides to switch gears and try to elicit admissions of guilt from surviving military officers he served under in the New Guinea campaign.

We get into some really fucked up territory, really quickly. The facts of the matter are horrific enough: In mid-1945, the war was already lost, there was almost no Navy presence in the Pacific theater, American bombing campaigns were relentless, and military presence was stretched so thin that fragile supply lines were severed, stranding thousands in remote, inhospitable climates that they were sworn to defend until their dying breaths. Starvation was rampant. Soldiers ate grass, tree bark, roots, insects, and dirt. Then came the matter of finding a steady source of protein, and with all these dead bodies piling up, well, you can probably figure out the rest.

What gives this unforgettable documentary so much depth is that while Okuzaki is embarking on his insane quest to find people responsible for actions necessitated by survival, his anger is coming from an intense patriotism and a deeply rooted belief in the holiness of the Empire, of the necessity of bygone traditions and a bottomless rage coming from a lost war and inevitable Westernization. His rhetoric sounds more like a mad preacher than an Asiatic Michael Moore. His rage springs from what he sees as a betrayal of thousands of years of glorious tradition. He thinks nothing of bursting into someone's house at 5AM, demanding a full account of long-forgotten war crimes, and putting any uncooperative septuagenarians into a sleeper hold should they be standoffish or refuse to comply. Which happens a lot.

None of the interview participants would have been willing to comply had they known ahead of time about Okuzaki and his camera crew conducting impromptu inquests, so he stays one step ahead of the game by giving his comrades "the old surprise visit." The awkward cringe humor is off the charts. Almost all the interviewees are quite literally cornered. One of them is trapped in his living room because he's paralyzed from the waist down. Our fearless crusader doesn't know this until after he's through pummeling the guy with his boot. Instead of apologizing he tells the poor sod that he's an inferior person with no spiritual discipline.

Wow.

Even the people helping out can't handle being around this guy. Companions come and go once they can't handle being around this lunatic anymore, closure for missing sons/brothers/children be damned. He leaves behind a trail of scorched earth, tears and freshly reopened war wounds. That's how he rolls, since he's already on a first-name basis with hundreds of cops. Dealing with police is just another part of his routine. He even calls the cops on himself on one occasion, and when he refuses to show his ID to the black-and-whites he instructs them to get all pertinent information from the ever-present government intelligence officers parked down the street in their surveillance van.

Such scenes are hilarious in a Jackass kind of way before you get to thinking about all the different layers of disturbing tragedy. Is Okuzaki an insane attention-seeker desperate to justify his belligerent behavior, or is he just externalizing all the guilt that all the other survivors internalize, to the point of either refusing to speak about it or willfully distorting history? My feelings are that he's an unavoidable byproduct of the fanaticism demanded by the Empire, acting from a place of intense anger, and he absolutely deserved to be locked up. Without this film he would have faded from history altogether; I can't find any reliable information on what happened after we leave him in early 1987. Maybe his body was finally consumed by the system that had totally consumed his spirit.