Land of the Lost: Close-Up on Josef von Sternberg’s "Anatahan"

The last film made by the legendary Hollywood director is a beautiful and unusual Japanese production about stranded soldiers during WW2.
Jeremy Carr

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Josef von Sternberg's Anatahan (1953) is showing June 4 – July 3, 2019 in the United States.

Its premise alone is intriguing. A group of Japanese sailors are attacked at sea and become stranded on an island for seven years, with no knowledge of how the outside world carries on without them. A world, it’s worth noting, that is currently at war. The 1944 incident served as the basis for Michiro Maruyama’s 1954 novel, Anatahan, in which he detailed the ordeal and his time on the Northern Mariana island of that name. Intriguing, yes, but perhaps not a subject immediately associated with filmmaker Josef von Sternberg, a director best known for ornate, cloistered, exotic, and sometimes romantically convoluted dramas. Yet von Sternberg had, in fact, harbored an interest in Japanese culture and art for some time, and the prospect of translating Maruyama’s text to film, and doing so outside the parameters of Hollywood’s studio system, where he could maintain complete creative control, was just what he had so often craved.

Anatahan, or The Saga of Anatahan, begins as these sailors are 19 days out of Yokohama. In June of 1944, an Allied assault discards the surviving crew on an isolated “jungle rock.” In time, they find they are not alone. There is, first, Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma), who adamantly oversees a long-abandoned plantation (a little too adamantly given the lack of evident risk). The men are baffled by this lone dweller and his apparently intentional settlement. But there is also a young woman, Keiko (Akemi Negishi), who resides with Kusakabe. This changes everything. Glancing at this striking beauty, as enigmatic, vibrant, and remote as the island of Anatahan itself, a row of sailors appears dumbstruck, nearly executing the proverbial double take as they attempt to reconcile her incongruous presence. Anatahan’s omniscient narrator, one of the sailors (voiced by von Sternberg), proclaims her “the only woman on earth.” And she may as well be. There’s more to their gaze than confusion or astonishment, though. There’s something lustful, something dangerous, and something diffused, for better or worse, among the apprehensive assembly. The narrator suggests as much when he recalls how he and the others watched her and “watched each other.” The jealousy is instantaneous, and the resulting reactions are instinctual and dubious, priming the combustible cluster and setting the tone for the film to come.

Akemi Negishi would later appear in Akira Kurosawa films like The Lower Depths (1957) and Red Beard (1965), as well as the glorious Lady Snowblood (1973), but before that, before Anatahan, she had been a dancer and chorus girl, an aptitude clearly favored in von Sternberg’s direction of her graceful, sinewy, tantalizing movements (then scandalous, now quite modest, her nude scenes added to the allure). Drawing every inch of the camera’s eye and the covetous contemplation of her male contemporaries, she is, as Anatahan’s opening credits note, the dominating “Queen Bee,” merely joined by her “Husband” and five niggling “Drones.” As the film’s central female figure, stimulated by persuasive undertones of incitement and enticement, Keiko is an unambiguous extension of the Marlene Dietrich persona honed earlier by the luminous German star and von Sternberg, her Svengali director. Keiko grooms herself while the men show off in other, cruder, and rather sillier ways, but who, wonders the narrator, is she combing her hair for? Is it for Kusakabe or is it for the hapless sailors; is it for von Sternberg or is it for us, the rapt viewer, who thanks to von Sternberg’s efficient depiction of filmic and sexual desire identifies with the joint perception of Keiko? In any event, the flirty discourse, more physically expressive than verbally articulated, forms part of some primeval power play, giving Anatahan, despite any ostensible restrictions in dramatic potential, a dynamic psychosexual tension. For a time, Keiko seems to love the attention, but then it goes too far. The men are progressively sinister and possessive—seductive becomes destructive.

Shot in a Kyoto studio—that is, an aircraft hangar turned exhibition hall—where von Sternberg was able to capitalize on his penchant for meticulous set design and cinematography, Anatahan’s scenic accumulation is consumed by elaborate vegetation and a paradoxical, nonetheless decorative natural-ornamental façade. The trees and vines form a dense coating of fabricated foliage; strategically placed netting hangs alongside shells strung together like curtains. The “jungle had taken over,” says the narrator, but it still plays by von Sternberg’s rules. Although he was assisted by Kôzô Okazaki, von Sternberg assumes primary cinematographer credit on Anatahan, and while that declared autonomy isn’t surprising, nor is the result: a film with pristine photography, smooth camera maneuvers, and pure, precise lighting (perhaps inordinately pure considering the supposedly organic setting). The film’s illustrative artificiality is enhanced early on by the island’s “endless rains,” adding another elemental layer to the picture’s textured, faux-environmental imagery, and by von Sternberg’s placement of actors within the frame, like characters “swimming in light,” as Tag Gallagher puts it, like fish in a fishbowl (a visual echo of Anatahan’s opening credits).

Unlike Keiko, the lone female character and the only one of any sex to be distinguished as a carefully contriving individual, it is difficult to individualize the sailors or even Kusakabe. They are more like a swarming mass of male bodies and faces, interchangeable and overlapping, of one mind and yet often at odds. Be it through religious or military practice, they attempt to preserve some sort of command structure and affirm a degree of civility, but whether it’s the coconut wine or their inevitable suspicions, the veneer corrodes and devolves. Living a life of trifles, as the narrator admits, struggling to place their newfound existence into a coherent context, their livelihood is defined by impatience, violent impudence, and inherent passions. Von Sternberg allots a certain ambiguity in the narrator’s commentary, especially regarding scenes of semi-speculative reproduction, as when Kusakabe and Keiko quarrel in their hut, an incident he speaks of but would clearly have no direct knowledge. But his musings are essential to Anatahan, translating the film’s complex emotional register, its moralizing, and its communal reflection, as he speaks for the collective about the nature of mankind and the rigors of time’s composite passing.

Rokuriro Kineya essentially plays Maruyama in Anatahan. He’s the man who at one point devises a stringed instrument from the wreckage of a downed enemy aircraft (the men regularly sing in genuine revelry or as some sort of fundamental emotional recall). In the rubble they additionally find parachutes, which become slightly absurd attire, and two pistols, which become pivotal in the ensuing upheaval—“two new guns,” says the narrator, which “take the place of thinking,” also mean “two new masters.” Accurately compared to both Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe, Anatahan advances a cautionary tale of baser human instincts and primitive resilience. Von Sternberg told a meeting of scholars and journalists that the reason he wanted to adapt the Anatahan story was “not because the incident is pertinent to Japanese nor because it happened to non-American people. How do human beings behave in the most unfortunate situation? This point is what I am most interested in.” It’s survival of the fittest, and when the foreboding narrator says the men “brought the enemy with us,” hinting at the latent murderous malice soon charged by this most exceptional circumstance, this is exactly what he means.

Anatahan, it is said at the beginning, is a “postscript to the Pacific conflict.” While it will frequently appear secondary to the interpersonal drama, World War II is a permanent fixture of von Sternberg’s film. This the narrator also initiates, stating that the war has been like “playing a game without vision or foresight,” a precarious sentiment amplified by what the men will swiftly endure. As days turn to weeks, months, and years, they assume Japan has forgotten them, forsaken them. As indefinable and indecipherable as Anatahan’s characters can be, the actors, mostly from dance or Kabuki backgrounds, are at their best when conveying a profound sense of longing and incomprehension. Although a full command of what they feel is typically left to inferences based on gesture, facial expression, and vocal inflection (there are no subtitles), or it is dependent on what the narrator discloses, the overriding lonesomeness is conclusively apparent. Deeply forlorn, they look out over the “empty” and “remote” horizon for any sign of national relief. A passing American ship announces the Japanese surrender, but the sailors refuse to believe the presumed adversarial trick. They will continue to defend the island, to defend it beyond all reason. And besides, even if Japan did lose the war, why would they go back to a defeated nation? Their disbelief translates into a reinvigorated patriotic zeal and the need for leadership. They hoist a tattered flag and make their own war. Anatahan isn’t just about strained human desire, it’s about humanity’s need for purpose.

The men do return home, though, in Anatahan’s concluding montage of defeat, bewilderment, and despair. In reality, the nearly twenty who actually survived were warmly received in post-war Japan (also in reality, 33 sailors initially swam ashore, where there were also around 40 natives). Keiko, however, whose real name was Kazuko Higa, escaped the island a year before the men and later fell into a tragic life of prostitution. Artistic liberties aside, Anatahan’s exposure to Japanese and American audiences was of marked contrast. The film, which underwent a series of re-cuttings and re-titlings, did fine in Japan, but in the U.S., where it barely received much of a release in the first place, viewers weren’t generally keen on imprecise statements about humanity’s dark side, on characters who speak a foreign language with no subtitles and no dubbing, or on assigning the film’s requisite sympathy to a recent enemy combatant.

Original reactions notwithstanding, Anatahan is today a plainly audacious motion picture, still underrated within von Sternberg’s immensely impressive filmography. In many ways, it is one of his most inspired inspections of how identity becomes broken down, melded, and impoverished, a remarkable achievement given it also contains a distinct emotive detachment and graphic distance. Von Sternberg’s own evaluation was both somewhat exaggerated and sadly accurate, as he wrote Anatahan was his “best film – and [his] most unsuccessful one.” He had no way of knowing it would also be his final feature (sort of: Jet Pilot, shot years earlier, wasn’t released until 1957). But what must have been obvious at the start, and what remains one of Anatahan firmest virtues, is just how unique the film is, from the likes of this legendary Austrian-American auteur or from anyone else in the annals of international cinema.

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