“How could we know we had brought the enemy with us?”
Josef von Sternberg’s Anatahan (1953), or The Saga of Anatahan, as it is called in the opening credits, is an allegorical chronicle based on a true incident, recounted in a novel by Michiro Maruyana, about a dozen Japanese sailors who become stranded on the essentially abandoned and long-forgotten island of Anatahan. It was an experience Maruyana had lived through, a harrowing span of seven tedious and volatile years spent isolated and deserted on this “jungle rock.” Taking place in June of 1944, Anatahan, as titles tell us at the beginning of the picture, is “a postscript for the Pacific conflict.” But while World War II is never far removed from the film’s narrative basis, Sternberg is even more interested in the depiction of strained human behavior tested by this dire condition.
The actual event involved some 30 survivors and around 45 natives, and the newfound population spread all over the island, but Sternberg reduces the size of the marooned squadron to 12 and decreases the native populace to two: Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma), who pointlessly oversees a rickety plantation, and Keiko (Akemi Negishi), his wife/girlfriend/default lover—it’s never quite clear. What matters is the effect Keiko has on the men as a symbolic catalyst, and how they respond to her and each other. In a narration voiced by Sternberg, adopting the unspecified viewpoint of one of the sailors or possibly speaking for the collective, the young woman is described as “the only woman on earth,” and as far as these men are immediately concerned, she may as well be. Upon their first glimpse of this enticing island vision, Sternberg tracks along the faces of the enraptured crew. They are mesmerized, surprised, and aroused. There is an obvious shift in their primary concern, from their perilous shipwrecked state to more instinctive, carnal desires.
Negishi, who later starred in a number of films for Akira Kurosawa and would appear in the glorious Lady Snowblood (1973), had originally been a dancer, and throughout Anatahan, she tantalizes with gracefully seductive movements and inscrutable, captivating glances. That she is even shown nude several times—in the 1958 uncensored version of film, which is now available from Kino Lorber on an exceptionally sharp Blu-ray—is provocative in terms of what it initiates in the lascivious men and in terms of its mere existence in relatively mainstream 1950s cinema. In any event, dubbed the “queen bee” who dominates her cluster of “drones,” she eventually goes “into circulation,” rousing the jealous ire of all involved (and almost everybody, at one point or another, is involved). But her sex symbol status is not so simple, nor is it wholly positive. Before long, her evident sensual potency is seized by macho proprietorship; she hazardously transitions from authoritative, independent vixen to objectified prize.
As opposed to Keiko—due to Negishi’s finely ambiguous performance and the fact she is the only woman in the film—it is difficult to individualize the 12 men. More often than not, their similar intentions, personality traits, physical characteristics, and basically nonexistent backstories create the impression of many rather than one, an emblematic mass rather than any single protagonist. That said, while the discord that grows from Keiko’s amorous influence may be the principal cause for conflict in Anatahan, it is by no means the only issue at hand. The men are forced to live off the land and endure the toil of makeshift subsistence and the stress of wearing patience. There is a constant struggle for both survival and a livelihood, and as Sternberg dramatically shows, these are most definitely not the same thing. Early on, the narrator recalls that the men had “not yet become savages,” a foreboding indication of how the passing days, months, and years would inflame bitter quarrels, leading to antagonistic confrontations amplified by coconut wine.
As patriotic decorum dissipates—never fully, but always at a crucial time—the men are stripped bare of their pretenses. Civility, let alone a command structure, hangs in the balance, and in one of the film’s strongest visual statements, Sternberg depicts just how the men have devolved and how that corrosion yields probable peril. Like cavemen confronted by the future, they clamor around a newly discovered enemy plane, a modern machine crashed down and jutting out from this archaic dominion. There they find weaponry (a few pistols) and outfitting (a parachute). They also find danger, for the guns now “take the place of thinking.” In Sternberg’s viewpoint, Anatahan represented a contest of emotion versus reason, and indeed, going from better to bad to worse, a baser human nature is revealed as primal impulses blur the fine line between the primitive and the civilized. Even when there are moments of gaiety, they are often undercut or tarnished by impending menace.
Sternberg’s revelatory saga is also a cautionary tale, and it’s one many in the United States didn’t care to heed. At least not in this context. A box office failure, Anatahan went through a series of recuts before Sternberg ultimately dropped the project. Of course, it’s easy to look back on the film as the final work of a great director (final, though Jet Pilot, which was shot years earlier, wasn’t released until 1957) and criticize the ignorance of the initial audience. But to be fair, their reluctance to appreciate the picture is somewhat reasonable. The war had long been over, and the public appetite for such fare was waning. And that was for a conventional war picture. This one was taken from the Japanese side of things, where the former enemy was the sympathetic victim. It may not have been easy then, but now it’s remarkably effective. One understands the sailors’ suspicion when showering pamphlets give word of the Japanese surrender, which they decry as an enemy ploy. One feels their bewilderment when the Japanese army sends letters in which the families of the men ask for their return. And finally, perhaps most uncomfortably for viewers at the time, one is truly shaken by stock footage showing Japanese soldiers returning to the home front, a montage of defeat, confusion, and despair. Still, rightly or wrongly, it was a point of association many were unwilling to accept (having one of the men don an American sailor’s hat, worn as a reminder of a conquered U.S. ship, didn’t help).
Anatahan is challenging in other ways as well. Save for the narration, which is necessary to explain much of what is happening and to provide some psychological rationale, the Japanese speak Japanese with no subtitles and no dubbing. A full comprehension of what the characters are actually suggesting is often left to inferences based on gestures, facial expressions, and vocal inflections. The narrator provides descriptions and insight, but his commentary is also unreliable. He admits to not being present for some of the action seen, casting doubt on its validity. And after its rhetorical implications are made clear, but before its swift, violent conclusion, the film begins to drag in its midsection, often falling back on its stylish form to make up for its limited substance.
Anatahan’s neglect and much of its problematic backstory is discussed in Saga: The Making of Anatahan, a documentary included on the Kino Lorber disc featuring Sternberg’s son, Nicholas, who shares, among other things, a fascinating chart his father used to envisage the emotional flow of the characters, something that emphasizes the importance of sensation over story. There is also an excellent visual essay by Tag Gallagher, outtake footage (mostly of Negishi in the buff), a newsreel-type program from the U.S. Navy showing the surrender of troops, comparisons between the 1953 and 1958 versions of the film and two trailers, one from 1953 and a re-release trailer from earlier this year.
Though he had considerable assistance by Kôzô Okazaki, Sternberg takes cinematography credit on Anatahan. Apparently, the Japanese photographer acquiesced to the largely one-sided recognition due to the general acknowledgement that any film directed by Josef von Sternberg was going to look a particular way no matter who technically manned the camera. True enough. Shot in a Kyoto studio, the set’s dense, fabricated foliage revels in a patent artificiality. The film is a characteristically Sternberg construction. As Gallagher notes, the jungle is about as authentic as the director’s take on Morocco, Shanghai, or Russia—that is to say, not very. It’s a fantastical artifice, though: stylized, appealing, and artful. As usual, the lighting is particularly striking, if obviously unnatural; the characters appear to be “swimming in light,” as Gallagher puts it, like fish in a fishbowl.
With a visual delicacy and emotive intensity only he could generate, Sternberg effectively conveys the surreal desperation born from Anatahan’s extraordinary situation. In the process, he also works out a potent observation on the irrepressible passions—and the innate barbarities—of mankind. Perhaps not as engaging as his best work, this is nevertheless a sublime example of the director’s pictorial elegance and his corresponding penchant for poetic storytelling.