‘Campaign’ and ‘The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On’: Two Mirroring Masterpieces of Japanese Documentary

Kenzo Okuzaki and Kazuhiko Yamauchi are two men who spend a lot of time riding around in colorfully decorated automobiles, shouting at passersby over loudspeakers. Separated by two decades, they could not have more drastically different goals. Yamauchi would like to be Prime Minister of Japan some day. Okuzaki is seeking the downfall of the Emperor, by violent means if necessary. Yamauchi began his political journey as a coin collector, Okuzaki as a veteran of World War II. Yamauchi has a humble, nervous temperament while Okuzaki has frequent bouts of rage.

Yet the films about them, documentaries released 20 years apart, have some shocking and unsettling similarities. The earlier is The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (a favorite of Errol Morris), in which filmmaker Kazuo Hara follows Okuzaki on his quest to expose the killing of two Japanese soldiers just after the official 1945 armistice, 40 years after the fact. The second is Kazuhiro Soda’s Campaign, which follows Yamauchi’s candidacy in a 2005 by-election for city council. Both films brush up against some unpleasant truths, the naive faith of their protagonists colliding with the often cynical and always intransigent systems of social power.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On charts a turning point of sorts for the irascible Okuzaki. His prior activism got him in a great deal of trouble. He once shot at Emperor Hirohito with a slingshot and some pachinko balls, for which he ended up in prison. In the mid-1980s, with Hara filming him, he adopts a different strategy. His new mission is the pursuit of one specific truth.

Two privates in Okuzaki’s unit died just a few days after the official end of World War II, in New Guinea. What actually happened to them seems lost to history, obscured by the guilty parties and ignored by everyone else. Hara follows Okuzaki as he questions everyone he can, from the unit’s medic to its captain. Bringing the siblings of the deceased along with him for dramatic effect, he begins to get some answers but none of them consistent. They may have been executed for desertion. They may have been executed for cannibalism. They may have been executed for objecting to cannibalism. Each story seems darker than the last, and the truth only becomes hazier and further away.

Along the way, Okuzaki has trouble controlling himself. Hara stands aside, watching Okuzaki as he interrogates and occasionally attempts to beat up his fellow former soldiers. This unstable activist has so much ambition and such little control, like a Don Quixote who envisions himself as a muckraking revolutionary rather than a knight-errant. He has no chance of toppling society, but there is still truth and honor in his ill-fated struggle.

Through his failure, Hara shows the brutality of collective silence and social amnesia. The activist drives around in his truck, bedecked with slogans condemning Emperor Hirohito, shouting to a public that does not listen. Yet, as Soda explores two decades later in Campaign, the message might not be the problem. In his pursuit of a seat on the Kawasaki city council, Yamauchi also rides around spouting rhetoric. His political advisers even tell him that the only thing that matters is the frequent repetition of his name. No one much pays attention anyway.

If Okuzaki is a crazed dreamer, Yamauchi is something of a stooge. He’s running as the Liberal Democratic Party candidate in the by-election, and if he wins the LDP will hold onto their majority on the council. Yet because of the way districts are drawn, he will be forced to run against the established LDP candidates in a theoretical re-election campaign. If that happens, as has been made perfectly clear, he will be abandoned by the party and its apparatus. He is only a place-holder, borrowing constituents to serve a single purpose. Everyone laughs about this, including Yamauchi, perhaps because the only alternative is to cry.

The entire process feels like one big show, a circus performance put on by local politicians in order to fool just enough citizens to win an election. Yamauchi doesn’t really have a platform or public opinions on any issues, and it seems likely that he was told not to get any. Soda has assembled a treasure trove of odd juxtapositions and uncomfortably hilarious images, culminating in Yamauchi’s brief opportunity to meet then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. He gets to shake the hand of his hero, but isn’t actually allowed on the top of the platform where Koizumi and the other candidates will get to make speeches.

Campaign and The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, therefore, are a harrowing diptych of society and its rejects. Yamauchi and Okuzaki are both outsiders, struggling to be heard. With their concurrent methods and opposite dreams, they are mirror images of one another. Each is confronted by the cold intransigence of an enormous system. In Campaign this is explicit, given the brash nature of the LDP’s political machine. Okuzaki’s opponent is a bit harder to pin down, as he is struggling against an entire nation’s resistance to memory.

Soda and Hara evoke these systems one step at a time, showing how they are assembled socially and psychologically. To borrow the words of one of Campaign’s election observers, “the whole country is like a small village.” The immobility of society manifests in very personal ways. The old women who cold call for the LDP have done so for years, and they admit their devotion comes more from family loyalty than political fervor. Okuzaki’s quest for truth is not thwarted by the police, who are a constant but benign presence in The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. Rather, it is the refusal of individual men to remember the past that stands in his way. The film is full of hushed conversations in living rooms, heavy but simple scenes.

These filmmakers also both have an eye for the bizarre. Campaign follows Yamauchi into the most incongruous of situations, highlighting just how strange his position is. Soda also keeps an eye on little details like a rival van from the Communist Party, meandering its message through the streets, and the sometimes odd little concerns potential constituents pose to the candidate. Hara, meanwhile, stabs at a surreal horror not unlike that seen in The Act of Killing. The slang used by the army to describe, and perhaps mitigate incidents of cannibalism at the end of the war are equal parts stomach-churning and fascinating.

And so in a strange way, these two films are essential to each other’s interpretation. On the one hand, they are specifically Japanese portraits. Every nation’s political quirks are slightly different and the Japanese post-World War II experience, particularly regarding those soldiers stranded in Southeast Asia, has a unique character. Yet these two films dive deeper and try to find something even more essential. Campaign exposes the bizarre incongruities of a world entirely built upon certainties, winners and losers. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On follows a deeply confident man down a rabbit hole into the darkest recesses of memory and uncertainty. Together, their eerie parallels open up a dialogue about the nature of society that can’t be contained in a single film.

Campaign and The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On both screen this month in New York City as part of the Japan Society’s A Tribute to Donald Richie (1924–2013), Part 2 series. Campaign screens on March 15th, and The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On screens on March 29th.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.