In 1944, a Japanese ship is sunk and its twelve crew seek refuge on the nearby Pacific island of Anatahan. Loosely based on real events, Josef von Sternberg’s 1953 tale of shipwrecked Japanese soldiers is one of desperation, base desire and the instability of moral codes.
The crew quickly discover that Anatahan is already inhabited by Keiko (Akemi Negishi) and her would-be husband, Kusakabe (Tadashi Sugamuna), left behind after the island’s plantation was abandoned. Keiko and Kusakabe have been living together for years in an abusive relationship. When the ship’s all male crew discover Keiko, they immediately begin vying for her attention and competing against Kusakabe for her affections.
Filming outside of the studio system, The Saga of Anatahan is von Sternberg’s labour of love, one that he continued to re-edit for the American release for four years after its initial run. A strange mix of Hollywood and independent sensibilities – multiple scenes with nudity required a censored version for American audiences – Anatahan’s most jarring feature is its voice-over narration, spoken by the director himself and running the entire course of the film. The narration is the only English dialogue in the film, all the diegetic speech being in untranslated Japanese. Initially, this feels like a misstep, a cliched annoyance that prevents the imagery from speaking for itself.
However, as the film progresses, subtle notes of unreliability begin to creep into the Sternberg’s voice over. Speaking collectively for the group, the narrator claims that the men initially saw in Keiko only a fellow survivor – but the obvious lust in their eyes tells a different story. Later, as their desires darken into violence, the narrator repeatedly claims at key moments that no one really knows what happened, undermining his own authority as well as underscoring the dream-like quality of the visuals. At the heart of this unreliable narrative is Keiko, a locus of sexuality, jealousy and violence. The narrator constructs Keiko as a cipher by denying us access to her inner life, forcing us to glean what little we can from a coy smile, a look of longing, or one of regret.
Keiko’s psychology is one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas, but also one of its most troubling. The men completely objectify Keiko, with the narrator at one point describing her as having “gone into circulation”. Much like the conch in The Lord of the Flies, possessing Keiko signifies power and status among the group. Also like William Golding’s novel, it becomes increasingly clear in Anatahan that the social structures that enable the group’s brutality were in place long before they washed up on that island. As the narrator puts it, little did the group know that they had brought the enemy within.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell