Anatahan (1953)

aka The Saga of Anatahan

Josef von Sternberg’s legendary final film as director (Jet Pilot, filmed before it but released after, aside), Anatahan was incredibly hard to view until very recently. The film represented a true voyage of discovery for a director who had often retreated into a hallucinatory bubble of Chinoiserie for films like Shanghai Express (1932), The Shanghai Gesture (1941), and Macao (1952). His commercial graces all exhausted in America but invited to make a film in Japan, Sternberg took as his subject a recent news event, and subsumed it, and the new film industry he was invading, into his totally aestheticised sensibility. His crew was replete with notable collaborators including composer Akira Ifukube and special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya, but Sternberg photographed the film himself, imbuing his deliberately artificial vision with imagery so lucid and sharp is almost passes beyond into a state of delirium.

With the help of art director Takashi Kono, Sternberg recreated his tropical island setting almost entirely on a carefully prepared studio set, fashioning a world to suit his eye. The topics are beloved of the director, the fragility of civilised mores in the face of base instinct, spawning sexual power plays where states of ardour and hate are pure and ruthless and indivisible. For the film’s American release, Sternberg imposed not subtitles but his own narration, sometimes directly recounting the dialogue of his Japanese actors but more often describing the narrative in quasi-poetical terms. The inspiration is the story of a clutch of sailors in the Japanese Imperial Navy whose ship was sunk by American planes in late 1944. The survivors squirm out of the sea and onto the shore of Anatahan, a volcanic island in the Marianas chain. Wreathed in dense tropical vegetation, the interior all but impenetrable, the shore guarded by surging white surf and ragged rock, the island itself is perched above the abyssal fathoms of the Mariana Trench: “The fiery centre of the Earth had blown this rock of Anatahan a long way from the ocean floor.”

In between is a habitable toehold, where the sailors find a shack, inhabited by a man and woman, Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma) and Keiko (Akemi Negishi). The man used to work in a coconut plantation on the island and Keiko was married to another labourer, but remained behind after their fellows fled at the start of the war. Although it eventually becomes clear they’re not married, this pair have until now lived as a traditional married unit anyway since choosing their castaway life. But the influx of romantic rivals anoints Keiko as the “queen bee,” soon taking up other lovers from amongst the castaways. Kusakabe becomes increasingly infuriated, chasing her down and giving her beatings and watching over his tiny fiefdom with increasingly sullen and watchful anxiety. Meanwhile the sole real authority figure for the sailors, the warrant officer Amanuma (Shiro Amikura), finds his grip on the men waning as their exile drags on and the enemy, so they decide, try to fool them with their declarations the war is over.

“Some men become drunk with wine, others with power,” Sternberg notes, and Amanuma has relished power, at one point tripping one of the sailors in a petty display of potency. Soon however he’s outfought and cast down as power turns from a socially prescribed abstraction into a more primitive and essential thing based in raw strength: “It took him years to achieve his position — it took him seconds to lose it.” The discovery of a crashed American warplane transforms the stakes: two of the sailors, Nishio (Shōji Nakayama) and Yanaginuma (Hiroshi Kondō) recover pistols, which they use to ward off Kusakabe and claim their own time with Keiko, who finds herself irrevocably slipping from queen to slave at the whim of whoever has the guns at any one time. Keiko’s former, chosen lover is casually murdered, his killer then slain by the other gun-holder, who is then in turn slaughtered by Kusakabe. Kusakabe meets his end surprised by another, Yoshiri (Jun Fujikawa), skewered with a pitchfork; the new king scarcely lasts out a day before Keiko gets hold of his gun and blows him away. The others decide to compete for her instead, but now Keiko flees them all, delving into the jungle and then taking the extraordinary risk of swimming out to get aboard a passing ship.

“He was a human being, which covers a wide spectrum of behaviour,” Sternberg quips at one point, one of a succession of epigrams that decorate the soundtrack, as the director offers the saga unfolding as his paradigm for something essential about human nature, despite protestations that this all represents a random decline that depends on the peculiarity of the circumstances. But Sternberg is as much interested in civilisation’s persistence as its dissolution, the grey zone between rigid social roles and purely instinctual behaviour where people wander throughout their lives, the threads of loyalty that persist in the face of chaotic situations, and the small rituals of a paltry existence that help the castaways maintain what little sanity they maintain. Samisen sing-alongs, celebrated festivals, freely imbibed brewed coconut wine, the seashells that decorate Keiko and Kusakabe’s cabin, transforming it into a mermaid’s beached castle, the little growing grove of grave markers as each new phase of the castaways’ degradation unfolds and their petty potentates rise and fall: all testify to the persistence of shared humanity and subsisting spirit, but the enemy within Sternberg details is a remorseless foe of it all.

The castaways and their two hosts are usually seen in sundered groups or little gangs of two or three, but occasionally come together, to bow in unison in the direction of the imperial palace, or to get drunk and party, Keiko exultant in her place at the top of the heap, the men glad to have her there. The situation is vintage Sternberg: Keiko’s rise as queen bee is reminiscent of the role Marlene Dietrich played in Sternberg’s most feverish fantasias like The Scarlet Empress (1934), with Kusakabe cast in the role of the spurned yet eternal yardstick of Keiko’s sexual life, the man to whom she remains in essence married even as she “goes into circulation.” The theme of men in competition for the irresistible female’s blessings in a tense and unnaturally confined setting recalls both Morocco (1931) and Shanghai Express, the spectacle of characters enjoying their own spiral into life’s drain hole revisits The Shanghai Gesture, whilst the potential for chaos found in intelligent and civilised men recalls Sternberg’s take on Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (1935).

The sexual gamesmanship of his famous Dietrich collaborations, where rituals of erotic power both white-anted familiar social structures but were also corralled by them, are here pushed into a zone beyond, where mere predatory behaviour dominates, but also proves self-consuming. Turning his hand to a Japanese subject allowed Sternberg to transplant his signature obsessions into what he saw a strongly hierarchical and traditionalist society redolent of the subcultures of The Docks of New York (1928) or the never-never Russia of The Scarlet Empress: there’s both more transgressive kick and extremity inherent in the surrender of his characters to anarchic impulses, from Keiko sundering her part as dutiful Japanese wife to the soldiers casting off the yoke of Amanuma. The different viewpoint also gives Sternberg a different way of perceiving life’s events in spiritual terms, his drama framed in the precepts of Buddhist faith where the travails of life are a desperate wading through the muck of life to reach enlightenment, and wade our heroes do, rather than as any of kind of fall-from-Eden parable.

Sternberg’s anti-realist approach allows him to create an aesthetic universe as strong yet fine, as lovingly and precisely composed as an ideogram: Anatahan becomes a mimesis for an entire state of being. Sternberg’s use of a voiceover to convey his narrative essentials resembles the employment of the “benshi” or narrator, a tradition derived from kabuki theatre adapted for silent cinema, who would explain not just the plot but the themes and moral instructions. Like many directors who started in the silent cinema and whose careers lasted into the 1950s, Sternberg seems to be backsliding towards the older cinematic form, although his approach also surely helped him overcome language problems. Nonetheless Anatahan unfolds as a series of shots that recall oriental scroll paintings, flat and panoramic in their sense of bodies and objects, the jungle backdrops providing textured decorative design. The brief framing sequences aboard the ship that brings the sailors to the island and the postscript at a runway both conspicuously offer purposefully obvious back-projection, ship rigging and ranks of photographers alike used as a kind of cordon for reality. Ships appear like little ink squiggles drawn onto the film. Sternberg interpolates a segment consisting of documentary footage of returning servicemen, creating a stylistic switchback in escaping from the hermetic approach elsewhere to underscore the contrast of experience

Sternberg wryly notes how shameful it is to poke into people’s private affairs except when it aids in the cause of self-knowledge, because no human behaviour is unknown to any human. The pairing of Keiko and Kusakabe fascinates the director, a union that exists beyond law and seeming sense, but certainly evokes the jaggedness of an authentic relationship, the switchbacks of worship and abuse, the peculiarly exultant suffering of the spurned. To Kusakabe Keiko is both taunting devil and goddess to battle and prostrate himself before; to the other men she’s a nymph skipping through the underbrush to take her baths in a rainwater-filled tub and sitting naked on the rocks, the ocean foaming about her like the world’s creaming ejaculate. Yanaginuma peers at Keiko as she immerses herself with an octopus tentacle and eel fished from the sea slung around his neck, a splendidly charged image of insidious ambitions slinking in the young man's man. Phallic humour is apparent as the hand guns imbue their holders with presumed sexual rights as well as intimidating stature, whilst the toppled and castrated Amanuma retreats into the jungle to nurse his salvaged machine gun, the most potent weapon which is, notably, never fired. The officer, who is labelled “The Patriot” in the credits, finally refuses to join the other sailors when the time to leave the island finally beckons. The plans to build boats to sail off the island never progress further than some tiny models lined up on the sand.

The typhoons that whip the island testify to nature’s general indifference to the humans clinging to its face. The island’s poisonous, impenetrable girdle allows no insight, only a dense, choking fence through which Sternberg’s camera travels in a long tracking shot, finding no space or clearing to gain bearings or relief. The demands of nature torture the castaways out of shape: “obedient, polite” warriors for the Imperial cause who refuse to surrender to the enemy readily surrender to the temptation to become Neolithic kings claiming their concubine and rising to the top of the heap, or the “Hill of Fools” as the castaways dub the shack the various conquerors capture and lose. Yoshiri, the smiling, likeable “chief cook and bottle-washer,” with his signature trophy, a American sailor’s hat, becomes the coldest killer as he hunts down Kusakabe, who dissolves into the jungle never to emerge. He also becomes the most imperious in his insistence Keiko submits to his desires and rule. He’s also the most swiftly and contemptuously slain of the men, shot in the dark by Keiko in revenge for Kusakabe. Sternberg sums up his 24-hour rule with bottomless sarcasm: “Keiko was his, and all the coconut wine he could guzzle – untold riches.”

All the actors seem to have been carefully cast for their strong and individual countenances, recorded in stark yet refined detail by Sternberg’s camera. Sternberg films Negishi as the last of his great actress-sphinxes, the sleek plains of her face a universe unto itself to be explored for various lodes of emotion, alluring in her sensual goading, foreboding in her offence, plaintive in her wistful remembering of the dead at the very end. Keiko’s innate decency and her peculiar form of love felt for all the men proves in the end to be their salvation, allowing them to return home and find peace, if not freedom from the shades that follow them, shades seen only by the elusive yet attentive Keiko. Anatahan belongs in that little annex of Sternberg’s films with Crime and Punishment as a near-perfectly realised islet of compressed and abstracted dramatic texture, but it’s also unique but just about anyone’s measure in its dramatic method. Only the occasional, ungainly jots of sexploitation, including a very brief glimpse of Negishi completely nude, seem hamfisted. Whilst the film only made a mild impression at the Japanese box office and was a total dud in America, effectively ending Sternberg’s career, it might well have made a lasting impression on those who saw it, as similar experiments in total stylisation would become common in Japanese cinema in the next decade, in the likes of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964).

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