Friday, September 3, 2010

Von Sternberg's Anatahan (1953) with Akemi Negishi

You know, it sounds ridiculous but I watched a Josef Von Sternberg film, Anatahan (1953), mainly because of an actress from a Godzilla movie!

This was Akemi Negishi's first film, I think, and, as the actress made a big impression on me as a kid in King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962), I decided to seek out this title which is sometimes listed as The Saga of Anatahan.

I'm not unfamiliar with Josef Von Sternberg's work as I've seen a few of his other titles on TV over the years, and I consider myself a big fan of The Shanghai Gesture (1941).

But, the fact that Anatahan (1953) has got such a strange reputation, and the difficulty I had in easily finding it, made the film all the more a "must see" for me.

For a real, less Godzilla-influenced review, check out this one.

You can find DVD-Rs of this title online so I'm not going to review the DVD as much as the title; I don't think it's even out on a real release anywhere in the world, though I saw something online somewhere mention a French DVD at one time.

"How could we know that we had brought the enemy with us, in our own bodies?" narrator Josef Von Sternberg asks and it's the central question of this haunting film.

It would be impossible to address Anatahan (1953) without addressing the artificiality of the thing; the title card proudly proclaims that the film was shot on a specially-constructed set on a lot in Kyoto.

And, indeed, the set is quite impressive but it's a set. There's an obviousness to the mise-en-scene here -- an on-purpose obviousness -- that makes this 1953 film feel like a 1933 film of a play. As the characters speak in Japanese, we get no translation. No, the viewer only has the voice of Von Sternberg narrating the film as events progress.

The male actors are only credited by their family names while the lone female, the "Queen Bee", is listed completely as Akemi Negishi.

It's almost as if the director/narrator/God-figure is leaving out details and intentionally teasing us with his carefully contrived drama.

As the crew of a Japanese navy ship in World War 2 takes refuge on the island of Anatahan, they pursue a lone woman -- the "Queen Bee", Keiko. As the war nears its end, the men are oblivious. Drinking their coconut wine, they maintain some semblance of order on the island despite the presence of the temptress.

As the haunting score by future Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube rumbles and lurches in the background, we see the men argue and fuss, their dialogue sometimes audible but untranslated in subtitles. Von Sternberg narrates what we are meant to hear.

To even attempt to write about this film -- relate the plot in a straightforward fashion -- is to attempt the impossible. I mean, it's like writing down a dream. Anatahan progresses with the men losing all traces of their military ways, the woman tempting them on a daily basis, and the title cards clearly indicating that time has passed and The War is now long over.

The soldiers don't even seem concerned by Keiko's husband on the island. She is just an object of lust for them.

Watching this film felt like watching Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy (1933): it's got the trappings of a Hollywood film but it feels decidedly modern. I once stayed up late as a kid to see Ecstasy on TV because of the rumoured Hedy Lamarr nude scenes and the film was jarring and dream-like; seeing a big Hollywood actress in the nude in a 1933 film was weird, like if Ginger Rogers had suddenly doffed her top in an RKO musical.

Anatahan works in that same way and not because of the semi-nude scenes with Akemi Negishi. No, it's the very artificiality of the thing that lends it an unreal feeling.

That artificiality is briefly broken by newsreel footage of Japanese soldiers returning home from The War. As the Akira Ifukube score utilizes what sounds like choral voices, the viewer sees that clearly The War is over and Japan is attemping to return to normal. The men on the island know that The War is over -- a passing US Navy ship has broadcast the message of the Emperor's surrender in Japanese and the men react to that news -- but things don't change on Anatahan.

Soon, the inhabitants find a wrecked American airplane, with each man -- and Keiko -- salvaging items from the craft: Keiko takes the parachute to make a dress, one soldier finds a ring, another a pistol.

Things can only get worse.

If the message of something like Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain (1959) is that war reduces men to animals, the message of Von Sternberg's Anatahan (1953) is that men want to be animals and war gives them an excuse.

I tend to fall on the side of Von Sternberg's argument.

But, I hesitate to make statements like that because it implies that this is an anti-war film. No, this is a highly personal vision.

The best way to describe this film for someone is to say that it feels like a Japanese film that Von Sternberg found, left untranslated and undubbed, and then decided to narrate and interpret; clearly here the narrator is a God-like figure, if not intervening, aware. The narrator hints and implies at what events may happen, or what is destined to happen. When the narrator uses the word "we," there's rarely a sense that he's using that in the voice of one of the characters. No, the "we" is all of Mankind in thrall to Womankind, or at least in thrall to women like Keiko -- the unattainable and already attached dream woman.

While Anatahan progresses with a sense of the inevitable, I can happily say that I was a bit surprised by how it ends. I won't ruin the film but, of all the possible inevitable ways that this could end that I could imagine, the one that unfolded on the screen was not the one I expected to see happen. As this is supposedly based on a real series of events, I can only guess that the film's ending has less to do with Von Sternberg's choices as a director and more to do with reality's record.

At times, it feels like Von Sternberg is not so much interested in Keiko, even though she's this sort of free and uncivilized sexual woman. No, really what he's interested in are the lengths to which Man will debase himself in pursuit of that one ideal sexual being.

That's not to slight Akemi Negishi; she's stunning and seductive and entirely too sexy for 1953. Her performance is unaffected and direct. If she was more of an intentional temptress here, I'd compare her to Brigitte Bardot. No, she is a temptress but she doesn't have to try too hard with this crew of weary Japanese navy men.

The male characters are types as well; no one here is perfectly realized but that is intentional as the narrator/director is just presenting us with this little experiment in human nature which -- despite a few bits of obvious historical and Japanese specificity -- is largely a universal tale.

Anahatan demands a real DVD release, preferably from some outfit like the folks at The Criterion Collection. I can understand why the film might not have been a success in 1953 as maybe seeing the former recent enemy as fully human was too much to take for people in the West. Or maybe the film was just too personal and odd?

But, considering that something as entirely unpleasant as Fires On The Plain is considered a classic, it would only be fair for this dream-like version of a similar war-time story to be as widely revered and viewed.