By Jasper Sharp.
When did Japanese cinema first get so sexy? It is a question that Eureka Entertainment’s release of the little-seen The Saga of Anatahan (1953) goes some way in answering. The film is based on a true incident in which a group of Japanese sailors were marooned on a remote jungle island situated midway between Japan and New Guinea at the tail-end of the Pacific War. The story follows their Lord of the Flies-like descent into savagery during their five-year ordeal, refusing to acknowledge the war has ended, and their aggressive rivalry over the island’s only female inhabitant, a Japanese woman encamped there with a former plantation worker they assume to be her husband.
Anatahan is an odd beast, whichever way you look at it. On the surface, it looks very much like a Japanese film of the period. It sports an all-Japanese cast and crew, with two noteworthy names in the credits being special-effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya and composer Akira Ifukube, both of whom would come into their own the following year with their contributions to Inoshiro Honda’s Godzilla. However, the guiding hand behind the endeavour was the Austrian-born Josef von Sternberg, best-remembered for launching Marlene Dietrich as a star in that classic of German cinema, The Blue Angel (1930), and subsequently steering her Hollywood career in titles such as Blonde Venus (1932) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935).
Those days were long behind him by the time he turned up in Japan in August 1952, at the age of 58. After almost a decade of inactivity, von Sternberg was considered no-go territory in Hollywood. He had just been fired by the producer of Macao (1952), starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, to be replaced by Nicholas Ray. But his bloody-mindedness was as much a feature of his career as his taste for exoticism. With a long-held interest in Japanese art and culture, he returned to the country he’d first visited in 1933 with the intention of making a film using his own money.
His arrival with his wife and infant son Nicholas, shortly after the end of the Occupation, coincided with a dramatic resurgence in the confidence of Japan’s film industry, which would very soon see directors such as Kurosawa and Mizoguchi garlanded with prizes at major foreign festivals. The idea of an international co-production with a globally renowned director whose earlier films had been incredibly popular in Japan was a particularly tempting one for local producers, especially those who had faced their own troubles over the past decade.
Two such figures were Yoshio Osawa, removed from his post as Toho president in 1947 and temporarily suspended from the industry for overseeing the company’s all-too-zealous production of war propaganda films, and Nagamasa Kawakita, a figure active since 1928 in fostering cultural exchanges by way of cinema through his company Towa Trading Partnership, although the nature of these international relationships in the late 1930s had similarly seen him charged with war crimes and banished from film-related activities for several years. Both men had been key players in Japan’s first international co-production, Die Tochter des Samurai (The Daughter of the Samurai, released in Japan as The New Earth), a rather one-sided collaboration between the directors Arnold Fanck and Mansaku Itami that infamously failed at establishing any common cultural ground between the Axis allies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Von Sternberg knew both Osawa and Kawakita from his earlier visit, and as a major importer of European films, it was presumably Kawakita who had introduced The Blue Angel to Japan. Now back on the playing field, they provided the studio facilities and technicians for Anatahan while von Sternberg provided a large part of the budget.
The resulting film, introduced in the opening titles as “A postscript to the Pacific conflict”, however, did rather better in Japan, where it was released in June 1953, than in America. Following the disappointing performance of its stateside release in May 1954, von Sternberg re-edited it with leftover nudie footage of leading lady Akemi Negishi for reissue in 1958. It was to prove his final work as a director (although his penultimate film, Jet Pilot was not released until 1957).
Whether seen as the first foreign co-production of the postwar period, the first commercial feature in which a Japanese woman bears her naked body or the swansong of a legendary director, Anatahan is undoubtedly a landmark of some sorts. One of the main points of interest is the curious “Queen of Anatahan” true tale that inspired it, following the discovery of some thirty or so Japanese men lorded over by a single woman named Kazuko Higa on a tiny Northern Mariana isle that had been a Japanese territory since the First World War.
Most of the Japanese population of plantation workers had abandoned Anatahan at the outset of the Pacific War, leaving just Higa and her husband’s former boss until, in June 1944, the crews of three Japanese military boats bombed by U.S. planes washed up on its shores. Their contact with the outside world over the five ensuing years was limited to but a few key incidents, such as the crash-landing of an American bomber in 1945. As depicted in the film, the discovery of several pistols in the wreckage dramatically changed the dynamic of this insular community, with the series of “husbands” that Higa shacked up with during their period of isolation all mysteriously winding up dead. Despite news of Japan’s defeat coming through via surrender leaflets airdropped from passing planes, the stranded holdouts refused to return to their shattered homeland, until in 1950, fearing for her life, Higa flagged down a passing U.S. ship and escaped. The rest of the survivors were repatriated a year later.
The opening credits of von Sternberg’s film state it is based on a book by one of the survivors, Michiro Maruyama, published in Japanese as Anatahan in 1951. In the original trailer included on the disk, the director states he learned about the story from the New York Times that same year, and indeed, the English translation, by Younghill Kang, only appeared in 1954 to coincide with the film’s U.S. release (the incident later inspired the Japanese novel, Cage on the Sea, by Kaoru Ohno, published in 1998 and available in English translation). Von Sternberg spoke no Japanese, and certainly didn’t read it, so would have relied heavily on his co-scriptwriter Tatsuo Asano to pick out the details of what happened.
Given the shockwaves the story caused across the world’s media, it is little surprise that two months prior to the Japanese release of von Sternberg’s film, a documentary entitled Anatahan-jima no shinso wa kore da!! (trans: This is the truth of Anatahan!!) hit local screens, in which Higa herself appeared. Indeed, von Sternberg’s own approach is akin to observational documentary. At one point, newsreel footage of the soldiers’ repatriation is included, while throughout, the director himself provides the stentorian voiceover, ostensibly from the perspective of one of the sailors (although it is never made explicit which). Explaining and elaborating upon the sparse Japanese dialogue between the various characters that it drowns out, the narration often draws attention to the fact that in reality, no one really knows what exactly unfolded on the island.
A number of dramatic concessions have been made in the adaptation process, notably a reduction in the number of characters to around a dozen and a complete omission of the fact that the real-life castaways actually lived alongside the island’s native population. Higa’s character is named “Queen Bee” in the opening titles, but referred to as Keiko in the dialogue, while several of the men are collectively credited as “the five drones.” The biggest compromise is that virtually all of the film was shot in a film studio in Kyoto, in much the same way von Sternberg had gone nowhere near the respective settings of Shanghai Express (1932) and Morocco (1930) for these earlier productions. The island itself, “a jungle rock that stood high out of the sleepy waters”, is depicted as a matte painting, with the overgrown plantations of its interiors resembling the sets of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan films.
Despite the approach, von Sternberg is less interested in reconstructing original events with any degree of verisimilitude than he is in symbolic abstraction, as he plots the group’s regression into primitivism through their breakthroughs of how to make fire, then coconut wine. With the latter coming to dominate their diet, order has broken down amongst the ranks of marooned military men long before the bomber crashes on the island with its deadly arsenal. The handling of the group’s shifting hierarchies, all the more impressive when one takes into account the linguistic barriers between director and cast, is rendered with an ethnological detachment which, coupled with the ongoing narration, certainly singles the film out as different, but gives it rather a stilted, old-fashioned air.
One area in which Anatahan did break ground, however, was its singular focus on Akemi Negishi in various states of undress, particularly in the 1958 version, which went far beyond what was acceptable both in Japanese film and Hollywood productions then bound by the censorship restrictions of the Hays Code (both are included in the release, as well as a scene-by-scene comparison). Undoubtably, the woman presented onscreen is a fantasy figure, both for Western and domestic audiences, in the way that Sada Abe, the true-life castratrice at the heart of Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, was. Her fictional depiction here came much sooner after the real life events for which she became famous than Abe’s, but was perhaps more culturally significant in the way that she came to represent a new type of assertive femininity, one whose sexuality gave her a new controlling power over the men in her orbit.
The “Queen Bee” archetype proved particularly popular in the low-budget genre films of Shintoho, such as its Queen Bee (1958-1962) series about a female gangster boss. The same studio was also responsible for Revenge of the Pearl Queen (1956), a crime thriller that is seen as something of a watermark in introducing female nudity in a Japanese production, specifically in the mid-section clearly lifted from Anatahan in which its star Michiko Maeda is washed up on a desert island inhabited by a handful of sex-starved shipwrecked soldiers.
Negishi’s subsequent career transcended the expectations of her sensational debut, as she went on to appear in, among other things, four films by Akira Kurosawa and several entries in the Female Convict Scorpion (1972-73) series, alongside numerous roles on stage and television, although the obituaries that followed her passing in 2008 always led with Anatahan.
At the time of von Sternberg’s death in 1969, however, Anatahan was viewed as an undistinguished footnote to his distinguished earlier career. Although it has screened in retrospectives of the director, Eureka’s release is the first for home viewing in the UK. Von Sternberg always thought of it as his best film. I’m not so certain it was, but it is definitely a very different prospect to The Blue Angel. At least viewers will now have the chance to make their own minds up.
The Saga of Anatahan is released in the UK by Eureka.