Anatahan (1953)

“Nothing that happens to another human being is alien to us: there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Anatahan Poster

Synopsis:
During WWII, a group of shipwrecked Japanese sailors land on the rocky island of Anatahan, where they encounter a man (Tadashi Suganuma) and his common-law wife (Akemi Negishi) living in a shack. Over the next seven years, the men compete for Negishi’s attentions while hoping to hear news of Japan’s victory in the war.

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Review:
When Howard Hughes forced him off the set of his final two films in Hollywood, Josef von Sternberg accepted an invitation to direct a film in Japan; the result is this “curio”, a commercially unsuccessful hybrid movie which has since been recognized as a most unusual and provocative cinematic experiment, and was certainly a personal triumph for von Sternberg at the end of his illustrious career. As noted in Kathy Fennessey’s Siffblog review, Anatahan “plays like a cross between Woman in the Dunes, Underground, Letters From Iwo Jima, and ABC’s Lost” (and, I would add, a dose of Laurel and Hardy’s Block-Heads as well) — a potent mix to be sure.

With Anatahan, von Sternberg very intentionally broke all the “rules” one might expect from a wartime film based on a real-life historical event: he utilized a Kyoto sound stage rather than an actual island, cast Kabuki actors rather than cinematic stars, and implemented a voice-of-God narration over unsubtitled Japanese — all in an effort to create a highly stylized allegory of rivalry and desire. Trapped on an island with only one woman, and patriotically bound to stay put rather than allow themselves to be captured by the enemy, the deluded soldiers’ most basic impulses come into play; they ultimately represent a microcosm of society at its most primitive. Meanwhile, we’re seduced by the beauty of von Sternberg’s unearthly imagery; although he famously said, “I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented”, Anatahan proves that von Sternberg was entirely capable of marrying the two.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Akemi Negishi as the Queen Bee
    Anatahan Queen Bee
  • Effective use of stylized, claustrophobic sets
    Anatahan Sets
  • A fascinating tale of rivalry and survival
    Anatahan Rivalry
  • Von Sternberg’s striking cinematography
    Anatahan Cinematography
  • Akira Ifukube’s haunting score

Must See?
Yes, as an undeniably unique entry in von Sternberg’s late-life career.

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One Response to “Anatahan (1953)”

  1. A must. A unique and compelling film. Very hard to find. Since it’s a von Sternberg flick, isn’t this the kind of title Criterion should rescue from obscurity?

    A group of men and one woman alone on an island during WWII – the kind of story that could practically write itself; and it seems as if it has. At IMDB, there are several complaints about the director’s narration throughout. It’s criticized as being overkill (or not enough, when there are short sections of conversation without subtitles) or condescending. I don’t agree. The narration is economic and not particularly intrusive at any time. From what I could make out of the Japanese dialogue, it’s not even all that necessary to understand it. When the men aren’t singing drinking songs as a group, they’re fighting over the woman. All of which is quite clear. (It’s not as if they’re ever discussing deep, philosophical matters.)

    [Actually, I found myself thinking about what the main difference might have been between a group of stranded Japanese and a group of Americans in the same situation. Since the cultures are so polar-opposite – with the Japanese entrenched in more of a ‘safety in numbers’ way of life (hence, the joy revealed in the group singing) – I wondered about some of the differences in the effects of isolation. Of course, when such a situation continues for years, it begins to not matter at all what culture you come from.]

    It’s true that von Sternberg was always mainly interested in how visuals told a story. One would, therefore, think he would cringe at the thought of subtitles invading a film’s canvas. Solution: narration – which would also (and does, here) help convey information that dialogue could not.

    The action takes place almost completely on the island. However, I do like the midway sequence which takes us back to Japan to relate the aftermath of Japanese capitulation to the Americans and show men returning to their families. There is a slightly similar, but more haunting ‘return’ sequence at film’s end.

    It’s often especially intriguing when a director and cast are from different cultures. (Under von Sternberg’s precise direction, the cast of ‘Anatahan’ is impressive.) Here, I could almost imagine someone like Mizoguchi making the same film. But, ultimately, it would not have the same kind of stamp von Sternberg put on it. And it’s doubtful that Japanese audiences (at least at the time) would have appreciated one of their own taking on a film (in part) about the country’s defeat.

    When I went to Japan in 1984, Peary’s book was one of the few I took with me. It served me well. I was deep into the ‘check list’ thing at the time. When I settled into Tokyo, I discovered there were revival houses showing films from around the world which were still years away from possibly being available on VHS (movies on videotape still being a fresh source). I also happened upon a number of popular film ‘clubs’ around the city. One of these was on-campus at Waseda University. That’s where I first saw ‘Anatahan’. (I came across it again years later in a video shop in NYC.) I might have gone to see it then whether or not it was listed in Peary’s book. But the fact that it was listed made me certain to seek it out.

    I’ve often thought of the many films I did see in Japan (either Japanese films or those from other parts of the world) which, to my knowledge, never made it to American shores. A film fanatic’s horizons become that much larger through living in another major city somewhere else in the world.

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