Color, 1987, 120 mins. 55 secs.
Directed by Hazuo Hara
Second Run (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.55:1) (16:9), Facets (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Now The Emperor's Naked Army Marches Onsomething of a sacred text The Emperor's Naked Army Marches Onamong many documentarians, this disturbing and often nerve-ratting look at war atrocities paved the way for innumerable subsequent films, perhaps rivaled only by The Act of Killing for its jaw-dropping mixture of unflinching filmmaking and appalling subject matter. Made under the umbrella of the production company founded by filmmaker Shôhei Imamura (who also served as executive producer), this became the most internationally famous film by documentarian Kazuo Hara, who has made a career of bucking the norms of Japanese society.

In his early sixties, World War II veteran Kenzo Okuzaki remains incensed by the deaths of his fellow soldiers in New Guinea and blames Emperor Hirohito for the savagery that erupted at the end of the war. Tracking down other soldiers and officials involved, he feels to need to find a scapegoat for a truly horrific set of circumstances involving human exploitation and even cannibalism for reasons that seem to differ according to who’s telling the story. Already prone to violence as a means of getting at the truth, Okuzaki becomes more dogged than ever in his attempts to find someone to punish for an act he cannot forgive.

It’s tough to imagine a film that will draw a more divided reaction among its viewers than this one, with Okuzaki frequently making potent points about his crusade (and seen early on officiating a wedding laced with his usual political barbs) while embarking upon behavior that ranges from eccentric to outright terrifying. There’s more than a dash of black comedy in the sight of The Emperor's Naked Army Marches Onhim driving his message-laden vehicle around trying to get his message across via loudspeaker, a tactic probably more outlandish in The Emperor's Naked Army Marches OnJapan than in your average American metropolis. The fact that our subject has his own trio of criminal convictions (including a wild stunt involving Pachinko balls) adds to the level of discomfort, making this a peculiar and unforgettable antiwar statement unlike any other out there on the cinematic landscape.

Anyone attempting to watch this film on home video was forced to deal with a lackluster, very old video transfer shuffled around by a few video labels including a 2007 DVD from Facets. Fortunately the worldwide Blu-ray debut from Second Run in the U.K. (with a simultaneous DVD release) rectifies that situation with a fresh HD scan approved by Hara, which is framed at the unusual aspect ratio of 1.55:1 and looks about as good as the source material will likely allow. Detail is tremendously improved here with natural film grain (which was never visible before on video) and more natural black levels. The LPCM Japanese mono track is also in excellent shape and features new and improved optional English subtitles. A new interview with Hara (27m17s) covers his history behind this film including the role his wife / producer played in the process, his first awareness of Okuzaki and the early involvement of Imamura's team, the The Emperor's Naked Army Marches Oncomplicated tension between him and his subject as the shooting progressed, the story behind the shocking incident that closes The Emperor's Naked Army Marches Onthe film, and a valuable explanation for the taboos of society that were consistently broken throughout the film. Then "Kazuo Hara Masterclass" (39m31s) features a conversation with the filmmaker at the 2018 Open City Documentary Festival, speaking with an interpreter about the story behind the film and its importance in his career. The inclusion of substantial footage from the older transfer will also give you an idea of how shabby this used to look on home video, too. A 20-page insert booklet (which might be best read after watching the film) features valuable contributions by Tony Rayns, Jason Wood and Abé Mark Nornes adding extra information about Japan at the end of the war, the societal norms bucked by Okuzaki (and his fate after the documentary was shot, which isn't much of a surprise), and Hara's unique contributions to documentary cinema.

Reviewed on December 4, 2019.