The American director Josef von Sternberg had to go to Japan to make his ultimate artistic statement, 1953’s The Saga of Anatahan. That could possibly make the film sound like yet another reductively Orientalist film from way-before-when (when people weren’t “sophisticated”), but that would grossly simplify the truth about this extraordinary achievement. It’s not exotic in the dancing-gorilla way of Sternberg’s 30s camp items (Morocco, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus). Rather, it’s a mixed-mode movie—upfront about its fakeness, yet honest and direct. It’s Sternberg’s most challenging look into male desire-cum-power, and the danger that lurks underneath our thick “civilized” skins. Now, we can (re)discover this challenging work, thanks to the efforts of Kino Lorber to restore Anatahan for Blu-Ray and DVD.
The film is loosely based upon the World War Two-related Anatahan Incident, where a crew of Japanese holdouts (31 men, 1 woman) refused to believe that Japan had surrendered the war, and lived isolated on the volcanic island of Anatahan in the Pacific Ocean for more than six years after 1945. When the holdouts were eventually persuaded to surrender and return to the mainland, it was discovered that several of the men had perished during their time on Anatahan. The Japanese news media, Life Magazine, and The New York Times intimated in seedy articles that the woman, Mrs. Kazuko Higa, was responsible for sending ten of the men to their deaths, suggesting even that the men had fought to death over her (and did she encourage them?, they pressed). The situation perhaps proved too rich for Sternberg to pass up. Here he had the basic skeleton of a thought-experiment — what would happen when men are isolated away from civilization, struck by fervent nationalism and a blind devotion of country, with a single woman amongst them? Sternberg cast newcomer Akemi Negishi in the role of Keiko, or the “Queen Bee”; she is not, as is so reductively repeated, a Japanese version of Marlene Dietrich, but rather her own singular and complex creation of strength, haughtiness, Eve, knowing docility, male-deflator, and gaze-resistant Venus. The men (listed in the credits as “The Drones”) come across two pairs of guns from a shot-down American plane (America still encouraging bloodshed from afar), and use them to fight over who gets sexual control over Keiko. As they get drunk off coconut wine (new societies will find a way to get drunk fairly quickly), eat, make merry, praise the Emperor, and kill each other off, Keiko keeps watch; she is seen as an object to be controlled, and is a human who ends up controlling everyone.
Anatahan proves that, for all the greatness of Sternberg’s Paramount classics, he had to switch to a different mode of production—away from a Hollywood studio’s clockwork gloss—to produce his most concise statement on human violence and control. Anatahan did not grant Sternberg the luxury of working within a slick Paramount sound-stage, with voluptuous and world-known stars like Marlene Dietrich to-be-looked-at by his camera-eye. Instead, it was shot on an elaborate set inside an industrial complex in Kyoto. Because the cast spoke only Japanese, Sternberg had to communicate with them via an elaborate chart that mapped the emotional beats of the story. The film is narrated by Sternberg himself; he translates the words of the Japanese actors. For the English-speaking viewer, large chunks of Japanese dialogue will pass untranslated; for the Japanese-speaking viewer, a disembodied Western voice keeps cutting in and out to present the faint guise of objectivity. The result denies any sort of typical cinematic pleasure in the way of character identification, a narrative cohesion, an invisibly-edited film that doesn’t call attention to itself, and a singular “nationality.” Sternberg argues that human truth is far from objective; it is constantly mediated and re-mixed, yet it is achingly there—if we can figure out how, where, and what to look for.
When Anatahan was released, it was a flop in both the United States and Japan. In America, the film was treated as a camp-curio: bad acting, flat direction, cheap sets, and no core language. Anatahan’s Sternberg-narrated voiceover denied a full immersion in a “authentically Japanese” movie experience, as in other Japanese-made Western hits at the time, like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) or Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1952). In Japan, the film was also derided by critics as “too foreign.” The Anatahan incident received a barrage of constant media coverage in Japan; so by the time Sternberg’s film hit theaters, the general Japanese public were burnt out over their national obsession. Elsewhere, the film critics at Kinema Junpo (Japan’s most hard-hitting film magazine) lambasted Sternberg because they perceived him to be objectifying Japanese culture through a patronizingly Western interpretation of the Anatahan incident. In Great Britain, interestingly enough, they recognized Sternberg’s voiceover narrative as being too jarring (“too Western”), so they swapped it with a Japanese boy’s halting and amateurish narration. Ironically, this attempt to make Anatahan fit into a singular Japanese tradition was even more dishonest, since it furthered the concept of an “authentically Japanese” aesthetic; Sternberg’s original film, with his narration, makes no such faux “folk culture” claims. We can perhaps see why, in his autobiography, Sternberg called Anatahan “my best film—and my most unsuccessful one.” He didn’t mean “unsuccessful” in an artistic sense, but in a commercial one. It proved unpalatable to intellectual tastes for dealing with a sordid story in serious terms.
And it may prove unpalatable to most in 2017. The contemporary failure of Anatahan highlights just how impossible it is to categorize even today. It is a global work with no nationality; it can’t be placed in this camp or that. Those who are content with calling it a “failure” try not to deal with its maddening complexity of technique. Sachiko Mizuno’s excellent essay traces, in fuller detail, the tortured and fascinating history of Anatahan, and why its myriad juxtapositions work so well. The project was brought about by a desire from Sternberg to solicit a deeper understanding of the beauty of Japanese culture for Western audiences. His desire was shared by the man who eventually brought Anatahan to life, Nagamasa Kawagita, a Japanese independent producer with a niche in importing unheralded foreign films to the country (including Mädchen in Uniform). Kawagita’s business was exporting Japanese films to the West. After witnessing the debasement of Japanese culture in a German production of Madame Butterfly, Kawagasa took it upon himself to make films that would complicate and change Westerners’ minds about Japan. Anatahan was thus borne out of a novel appreciation for world-mindedness without patronization or Orientalist condescending. Sternberg’s intention, according to a theatrical pamphlet, was to make “an abstract tale about human isolation that would be identifiable to any viewer in the world.” Identifiable, yes, but not easy to swallow, much less to digest.
Anatahan is a blatant reconstruction, a re-imagining that culls as much from fiction as it does from life. That’s one of its strengths—how it recognizes its own constructedness, taking real-life concepts and abstracting them in film form. The exotic remove from real-life locations; the still-stoic acting of hunter’s glances, jerky movements, overlapping snatches of dialogue which turn into a echoey din; the flat movements of the camera, tracking the sailors and Keiko without any flash; the Kabuki-ish contortions of a man as he’s killed in a dramatic gun-shot to the back (substituted as a drumming noise); the glossy surfaces of the actors’ skins, like wax apples with aggressive shine. The look is far from “classic” Sternberg (scrims and smoke covering a melting Marlene Dietrich face, a hint of money and illusion underneath all the fakery), but it is the skeleton’s essence of his entire surface-obsessed cinema.
Anatahan takes the self-enclosed vacuum that Japanese imperialist soldiers found themselves in as the basic premise for its exploration into a disturbing self-delusion, a control-impulse gone off the rails. The story cannot be read as being purist towards a Japanese mindset; Anatahan is just as easily applied to the current bent in America and parts of Europe towards fervent isolationism — the fear of connecting to cultures beyond our own, while we are ironically more connected than ever via social media and sophistication of new technologies. “We knew nothing about what took place in a new Japan,” the narrator intones. “We were still on Anatahan, deserted by the world. Defending this volcanic rock — against what enemy?” As the enemy of the men is nothing but themselves, so, too, are we (Americans) are our own worst enemy—not even realizing the toxicity of our position in the world, abusing it constantly.
Sternberg’s reframing of the story places a ritualized, abstract emphasis on power itself, in all its forms—sex and weapons, or as Tag Gallagher puts it, “guns and cocks.” The film’s main truth that is that we (heterosexual men) have the capacity for sexual violence given the right circumstances. The struggle in Sternberg’s men is with their own desire — finding the fine line that separates the normal from the abnormal, the extra-social — and how this proves to be their moral downfall. Sternberg knows heterosexual male dominance well (it was the subject of most of his career), and his films’ observation of the struggle between the power dynamics of men and women have a frankness that is barely approached in today’s pop-cinema scene. “How could we know,” asks Sternberg-as-Narrator, “that we had brought the enemy with us in our own bodies, an enemy that would attack without notice?” In no unsure terms, Sternberg shows that hard-edged masculinity is a man’s undoing. This impulse to own a woman—possess her emotionally, sexually, violently — is engrained in the Drones of Anatahan, regardless of their intentions. In the most extraordinary of situations (and who can predict when these will come about?), that impulse cannot be repressed; in Anatahan, they tumble forth in fake blood streams. The question for Sternberg is what separates us when we’re on the island and on the mainland — perhaps nothing at all? Can one prevent that impulse consciously, or is it simply something engrained in all men, a bias to be painfully aware of, but one that civilization thankfully keeps away?
Anatahan is available for purchase on Amazon and on Kino Lorber’s website. The smattering of rich supplements on the Blu-Ray/DVD include: (1) an expectedly-great visual essay by Tag Gallagher, (2) an interview with Josef von Sternberg’s son Nicholas on the lengths to which his father went to realize this passion project, (3) archival footage of the survivors of Anatahan after their surrender, and (4) both the 1953 and the 2K-restored 1958 versions of the full film. The biggest difference in both versions is the inclusion of nude shots of Keiko (Akemi Negishi) in the 1958 version, Sternberg’s preferred cut. The 1953 version has self-censored shots of Negishi dressed; the 1958 shots of her are more disturbing, for the arousal that she inspires in the men is made even more explicit. (This, too, is the arousal of Sternberg’s male camera-gaze, which we could argue whether Negishi successfully resists or not.)
Images courtesy of Kino Lorber.