Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Marc Sober: King of Kino

A Mild-Mannered Librarian Solves the Saga of Anahatan

No matter how much I think I know about movies, I will never be the King of Kino. That distinction rests with my mentor and library colleague Marc Sober (pictured left), film sleuth and cinephile extraordinaire. He's Baltimore's version of Turner Classic Movies' cineaste Robert Osborne - a cinemaniac with mad skills (though I suspect Mr. Osbourne makes a bit more money than a Baltimore city librarian).

Case in point: for years I've been trying to track down a film I saw in college that really impressed me and whose images stayed with me for a long time. But all I remembered about it was that it was in black and white and about a lone woman on a tropical island with shipwrecked Japanese soldiers. I recalled that the jungle setting was a fake soundstage, and that there was a bee metaphor involved in which the lone woman was called "Queen Bee" and all the men on the island were referred to as her "drones." Due to the artifical set and the sexual tension dynamic, I had some inkling that it might be a Josef von Sternberg film. Or Von Stroheim. One of those von's - I always get them mixed up. My memory was iffy...I know I saw it at some arthouse revival place, but whether it was the old Playhouse Theatre on 25th street or the Baltimore Museum of Art or The Little Theatre before it went porno (and eventually became the Aegon Insurance company's parking lot), I dunno. Because I suspected it was a von Sternberg film, I somehow imagined the woman was Marlene Dietrich. Boy was I off! The woman in question wasn't Marlene but in fact the polar opposite of the blonde Venus, instead being none other than Japanese actress Akemi Negishi (pictured below).

Akemi Negishi: The Japanese Dietrich.

But I was right about the director. It then took Marc all of 5 minutes to solve the mystery. The film in question was Josef von Sternberg's last film, the 1953 curio The Saga of Anahatan (aka Anatahan, Fever Over Anahatan and The Only Woman on Earth). It was an all-Japanese affair that was directed, written, narrated and photographed by von Sternberg, produced by Kazuo Takimura, and with great Japanese folk music by Akira Ifukube. Von Sternberg shot the film in Japanese, but instead of using subtitles provided his own English translation voiceover running over the actors' dialogue, being perhaps a nod to the narrator tradition in Japanese theatre. The film starred Akemi Negishi, Tadashi Suganume, Ikio Sawamura, Jun Fujikawa and Hiroshi Kondo (picture below right with Akemi Negishi).

She's a Killer Queen: For Sternberg, Woman always reigns supreme..

I subsequently learned that Anahatan was based on a true story. In June of 1944, an air attack on a Japanese convoy stranded a group of Japanese sailors on the island of Anahatan, where they lived for the next seven years, refusing to believe that Japan had been defeated and, in the words of one writer, "waiting for the arrival of an enemy who no longer existed." The island was uninhabited except for a lone couple, and the men fought amongst themselves for her possession. Sternberg's film was based primarily on the published recollections of survivor Michiro Murayama, but he famously refused to interview Kazuko Higa - the real-life lone woman who was rescued from the island in 1950 and on whom Akemi Negishi's character Keiko is based - preferring to take poetic license with his mythic Queen Bee character. And why not? Though the The Saga of Anatahan was a commercial failure and a bizarre post-script to his career, it is also considered to be his most personal film, one in which he was given total autonomy one last time to present, in Herman G, Weinberg's words, "a study in behavorism on a universal scale." The all-Japanese production was also a fitting conclusion for a director whose fascination with the Orient had been previously expressed in The Shanghai Express and The Shanghai Gesture.

The Buzz About Queen Bee
Marc having unlocked the Pandora's Box of my memories, I ran obsessively with the information he fed me. Like about the lead actress I had confused with Marlene Dietrich. Turns out she was quite the icon of Japanese cinema in the late '50s and early '60s. She even appeared in a Godzilla movie (1962's King Kong Vs. Godzilla)! And, I did find one book that called her the "Japanese Dietrich" (ha!). This is what IMBD's biography citation had to say about Ms. Negishi:
Akemi Negishi might never have become an actress but for Josef von Sternberg. The legendary director was in Japan looking for a woman to play the seductress who leads a bunch of soldiers astray in his upcoming (and as it turned out, last) movie Anatahan (1954). But Sternberg spotted Negishi one night, dancing on the cabaret stage, and chose her at once. This was the first in a long string of exotic roles, most unusual for the average Japanese actress, but which became her trademark, in films as various as Kingukongu tai Gojira (1962) and Dodesukaden (1970). She was a favorite actress of both Akira Kurosawa and Ishirô Honda, both directors seeing beyond the kind of role in which she was usually typecast, and thereby encouraging her to some of the best work any Japanese actress did in the 1950s and 1960s. Her most memorable roles are probably for Kurosawa, in Donzoko (1957) and Dodesukaden (1970); but she is probably best known outside Japan for playing the woman who leads the dance of tribute to Kong in Kingukongu tai Gojira (1962). Negishi was an unusual presence in Japanese film at that time, since her presence was so aggressively, obviously sensual. This militated against her becoming a major star in the conservative Japanese atmosphere of the time, but she was fortunate to be able to do excellent character work throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Following her arresting cameo as the beautiful lone housewife in Dodesukaden (1970), it appears that Negishi retired.

An intimate moment from von Sternberg's most personal film.

The Saga of Finding Reviews of Anahatan
There is truly a dearth of press about Sternberg's career-ending cinematic curioddity. I could only find a few online reviews. Even Josef von Sternberg himself had little to say about it in his (long out-of-print) 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. This book is a great read. Here's what von Sternberg had to say about his swan song film:
...I planned to picture the Japanese exactly as they were, not as they imagined themselves to be, and I wished to show them that they were no different from any other race of people, much as they would like to be considered apart from the rest of mankind.

Though on the surface the nature of the content was apparently sordid, showing as it did the distintegration of discipline, hastened by the presence on the island of an attractive female, I had chosen this readily understandable series of events to carry a not easily understood experiment in indirect mass psychoanalysis, to alert all of us, to put it simply, to the necessity of reinvestigating our emotions and the reliability of our controls under favorable conditions...

As it turned out...it is most probably an error to assume that human beings will pay admission to inspect their own mistakes, rather than the mistakes of others.

And of casting his striking female lead, Akima Negishi, von Sternberg wrote:
The sole female was hauled out of a chorus line, after every geisha in Tokyo had been paraded before me...The family of the girl I had selected for the part of the jungle Lorelei made me personally responsible for her chastity, it apparently having survived the chorus line and a stretch in a chocolate factory.

Here are IMDB user Jonathan Beeb's comments:
This has to be one of the strangest films I have seen and its sheer oddity is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so immensely. "Anatahan" is based on the "true" story of Japanese soldiers who were shipwrecked during World War II and refused to believe that the war had ended until six years after Hiroshima. On the island with them, the soldiers find a man and woman who did not leave with the island's former inhabitants and the movie's intrigue centers around the soldiers' murderous lust towards the woman. What is so odd about the film is that the actors only speak Japanese and the viewer is led through the story by an English-speaking narrator (Sternberg, himself) who variously refers to himself as "I" and "we" but never clearly identifies who that "I" might be. The narrative is further complicated by the fact that at several crucial moments the narrator admits that no one knows what happened while we watch those events occur onscreen. These constantly shifting levels of "truth" make this film always compelling as we are overtly challenged to question what it is we are seeing and hearing. Like Orson Welles' "F for Fake," truth and artifice interact to create a complicated web of meanings which--at least in my one viewing--never provided easy answers. "Anatahan's" brand of "truth" is a precursor to more recent films like "Fargo," whose truths are meant to be taken ironically rather than as literal fact. Although this film is hard to find, try to get your hands on it if only to see the final piece in a genius director's long line of work.

Writing an overview of von Sternberg's filmography for Senses of Cinema, Tag Gallagher observed the following about The Saga of Anahatan:
In 1952 von Sternberg went to Japan, at his own expense, and made The Saga of Anatahan without pay, entirely in a make-shift studio, and in Japanese, with an actor giving a running commentary, as in the Kabuki theater (or the benshi during Japanese silent films). Some sailors, marooned on an island during the war, had just come home; for seven years they had refused to believe the war was over, and five had been killed fighting over the only woman on the island. As von Sternberg had tried to do all his career, he wrote the scenario, designed the sets, operated the camera, and manipulated his players like a puppet master. Von Sternberg was about as close to a “total auteur” as one can get. And now he replaced the Japanese commentary with his own voice in English. “Though language is not always the best way to communicate an idea, its use should not be ignored entirely,” he conceded. The picture made back its cost in Japan, despite subtitles and some nationalist resentment. But in America it was a disaster. Von Sternberg fiddled with it for years, changing the title five times and in 1957 having his cameraman shoot some nude scenes which he spliced into the prints. Nothing helped.

The Senses of Cinema site also provided some equally rare screen captures of scenes from the film:

Of the bathing scene depicted above Tag Gallager comments:
"When Keiko in Anatahan sees three sailors watching her bathe in a tub, she reacts first with embarrassment, then responds to the inner pleasure of power and exhibits her leg, rejecting civilized morality on impulse, and in that moment becomes Queen Bee of the island. But in so doing, she enslaves herself to power."

The Aggressively Sensual Akemi Negishi

But the best (and only full) online review on this cinema obscurity is Phil Hall's 2003 report for Film Threat magazine:

By the early 1950s, the great filmmaker Josef von Sternberg found his Hollywood career at a dead-end. Although hailed in the 1920s and 1930s for a series of artistically stunning features, many starring his glamourous protégé Marlene Dietrich, a string of expensive commercial failures and accusations of being difficult to work with derailed his viability. His last two American films, "Macao" and "Jet Pilot," were taken away from him during the course of filming by his producer, Howard Hughes, creating major embarrassments for him. Without an opportunity in the U.S., von Sternberg took an invitation to make a film in Japan. The result was a strange and baffling work called "The Saga of Anatahan," which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

"The Saga of Anatahan" is based on a true story about a Japanese fishing boat that was commissioned into the service of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. In 1944, the boat was destroyed by American bombers but the entire crew survived and managed to swim to Anatahan, an island in the Northern Marianas. Anatahan had been a thriving plantation island before the war, but nearly all of its inhabitants fled when the Pacific conflict began. The shipwreck survivors find two people: a surly man and a fairly sultry woman living together in a house over-decorated with seashells. It seems they are married, but later it is discovered that their union is adulterous as both have spouses who are elsewhere in Asia.

The men hold out hope for either a rescue by their Japanese comrades or a chance to fight the American enemy. Neither occurs, and as time drags on it seems the world has forgotten them. Their only contact with the outside world comes over a year after their shipwreck, when they hear the loudspeaker broadcast from a distant American warship announcing Japan's surrender and the end of the war. The men do not believe this news, as the goal of the Japanese war machine was victory without the possibility of surrender. Their island isolation stretches year after year, and in their island imprisonment they experience severe breakdowns in command...and they also begin to question the seriously lopsided gender ratio they are living with.

In creating "The Saga of Anatahan," von Sternberg faced a dilemma regarding its commercial value to American audiences. He could have filmed it in Japanese and added English subtitles, but that would have limited its release. He could have had the film dubbed into English, but chances are it would have looked and sounded awkward. And apparently there were not enough English-speaking Japanese actors to shoot the film in English. The result of this linguistically tricky situation was probably the weirdest solution: von Sternberg shot the film in Japanese and provided a complete English translation running over the actors' dialogue. This creates an obvious problem by diluting the effectiveness of the performances, as scenes go by when the actors speak considerable lines but the narrator (von Sternberg himself, doing a monotonous job) gives quickie summaries that clearly does not mirror what is being said. It also subtracts genuine personalities from the cast, as everyone is given a one-dimensional place in the story as the narrator gives sketchy descriptions of who is thinking what. There is also the confusion of just who is narrating the story: von Sternberg alternates between "I" and "we" in his narration, but we are clueless regarding which member of the fairly large cast is relating this tale.

But in a strange way, the constant and often mysterious narration gives "The Saga of Anatahan" a uniquely odd quality...as if we are eavesdropping into a bizarre parallel universe. And in many ways the film does present a parallel universe: this was among the first films to present wartime Japanese service members as genuine humans rather than cartoonish caricatures, and the film also includes very rare newsreel footage showing the defeated Japanese troops returning home to friends and family who try to put on a strong front despite the obvious failure of their mission. While this provided a genuine level of humanity not seen in films before, it also proved fairly risky considering the film was being aimed for American audiences and most Americans of the time were less than enthused about having the wartime Japanese seen in any positive light.

"The Saga of Anatahan" also provides other fascinating distractions, including an elaborate jungle set constructed entirely in a Kyoto soundstage (this was, at its time, the most expensive film shot in Japan), a haunting music score by Akira Ifukube that borrows brilliantly from the Japanese folk music traditions, and the sultry presence of Akemi Negishi as the lone woman on Anatahan (she is referred to as the "Queen Bee" while the rest of the men are dubbed "Drones"). Von Sternberg breaks down the stereotypes of Japanese femininity by making her a vibrant, often violent personality who doesn't think twice of bathing nude while the men watch or throwing a chair at her mock-husband when he grows jealous of the attention she is bringing herself.

"The Saga of Anatahan" came about at a time when Japanese films were beginning to find wide international favor. However, critics and audiences were embracing the productions of the Japanese filmmakers like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi (whose first international releases were historic samurai-themed films based in the safety of distant centuries, rather than wartime dramas which would not appeal to Americans). "The Saga of Anatahan" was seen as a hybrid production rather than a genuinely Japanese work, and von Sternberg's weakened reputation coupled with the film's problem plotline did not help sell the film. Its commercial failure permanently ended his life in films and for many years "The Saga of Anatahan" was viewed as career-killing experiment.

But seen 50 years later, "The Saga of Anatahan" is an intriguing curio that deserves to be considered again. It is clearly not a classic, by any measure, but it offers a fascinating view on the lengths that von Sternberg would travel (geographically as well as artistically) to continue creating films which were unique to his style and mindframe.

Though it seems no one has heard of this film or reviewed it, I did manage to find one company selling a video copy of it: Hollywood's Attic. Though it's not considered a classic, it is one of those unusual films that deserve to be seen and I'm glad at least one vendor provides this much appreciated service.

Addendum (9/25/07):
Subsequent to digging up this information about Anahatan, Marc Sober joggled his memory banks and recalled that he once screened The Saga of Anahatan as part of a film series he curated in the 1970s at Johns Hopkins University. Bingo! I'm sure that's where I saw it now, probably in 1974 or 1975. Not only that, but he had a complimentary Anahatan t-shirt from the film distributors, Twyman Films, Inc. All this time we've worked together and all I had to do was ask him from day one about this film and he not only would be a good source, he was thesource! Who knew?

And, as a self-professed pack rat who "never throws anything away," Marc dug out his archives and brought in three great books about the films of Josef von Sternberg: Herman G. Weinberg's Josef von Sternberg (1967), Peter Baxter's Sternberg(1980) and, best of all, Andrew Sarris' The Films of Josef von Sternberg (1966), which had an excellent review of Anahatan. Sarris concluded that Anahatan was about "the spectacle of man's dignity and honor crumbling before the assault of desire." He added, "Sternberg wants us to understand the origin of man's folly. To understand, but not to overcome. For Sternberg, Woman, in Truffaut's phrase, will always be supreme."

In Weinberg's book, Ado Kyrou comments, "This is one of those rare films in the history of cinema in which sexual desire is the only subject matter...," adding that the sailors all sing around her this ditty, "You and I, like an egg - you, egg yellow: I, egg white, I embrace you!" Yes, it's that strange!

While there may be only a few reviews of this film on the Internet, all of these rare books had detailed discussions, so I'm in his debt, once again. Below is a picture of von Sternberg on set from the Weinberg book.

The "Japanese Dietrich," Akemi Negishi, on the set with Sternberg and his Japanese interpreter.

And here's a great shot taken from Sarris' book of Akemi Negishi and Tadashi Suganuma (left) amidst the faux jungle set:

When asked why he traveled all the way across the ocean to create a bogus jungle (as pictured above) in a former aircraft hanger, von Sternberg famously replied, "Because I am a poet."

'Nuff said!

Related Links:
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3:51 AM  

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