Anthology Spotlights Kazuo Hara

Kazuo Hara’s Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (1974)

Fifteen years in the making, Kazuo Hara’s MINAMATA Mandala was completed in 2020 just as the pandemic was shutting down theaters. The six-hour documentary focuses on the medical and legal struggles of victims of a neurological disorder caused by the mercury in wastewater released by a chemical plant in Minamata, a city in southern Japan. Hara’s film is “a testament to how the body becomes politicized when it’s subjected to the ruinous practices of industry,” writes Clayton Dillard at Slant, and it’s finally seeing a theatrical release in New York as Anthology Film Archives presents a retrospective of the documentarian’s work through August 31.

Outside of Japan, if Hara is known at all, it’s most likely for The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), “one of those films that people always remember where, when, and how they watched,” as Markus Nornes wrote here last year in a survey of the oeuvre. Hara’s subject is Kenzo Okuzaki, a veteran of the Second World War and a one-man crusade whose aim is to discover what exactly happened to two fallen soldiers.

Okuzaki “has made it his life’s mission to goad, intimidate, and even beat admission of guilt out of the officers who he claims were responsible for the military-sanctioned killing of his innocent comrades in arms,” wrote Eric Henderson for Slant in 2007. “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is a trend-setting example of firebrand verité crossbred with muckraking journalism, and its confrontational tension stems not only from Okuzaki’s open abuse of his interview subjects, but also from Hara’s own struggle to remain an impartial observer.”

For Nornes, the film is a prime example of the sort of documentaries Hara made during the first phase of his career when he was working under the influence and occasionally with the helping hand of Shohei Imamura. These films are “portraits of individual passion against grand sociopolitical settings. The lives of these exceptionally captivating figures are shambolic and vulgar, and, like Hara, we cannot help but find them frightening, frustrating, and seductive all at once.”

Hara followed up on his first feature, Goodbye CP (1972), an unsentimental portrait of a group of activists with cerebral palsy, with Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 (1974), an emotionally gnarly attempt to come to terms with the decision of his first wife, Miyuki Takeda, to leave him and take control of her own life. The attempt is further complicated when Hara brings in his new—and current—wife and filmmaking partner, Sachiko Kobayashi.

“Taken within the context of his oeuvre,” writes Madelyn Sutton for Screen Slate, “Hara’s probing of his former lover’s attempts to build a life separate from his own appears to present another portrait of a strong individual fighting hegemonic power. Yet all the less-flattering moments—her failed efforts at pamphleteering, her petty jealousies, her shifting political commitments—bring her down to an earth populated by the weak (a weeping, vindictive Hara included), whose mere persistence might be considered radical.”

As Nornes sees it, A Dedicated Life (1994), a portrait of controversial novelist Mitsuharu Inoue, “the affairs he kept with his mentees, and the web of lies that he wrapped his life of celebrity in,” wraps the first phase of Hara’s filmmaking career. The second and current one is informed by the example set by Kirio Urayama, the director and former assistant to Imamura who strove to make films that might improve the lives of his downtrodden subjects.

The shift has led to a more activist—and more collective—sort of project. Writing for Sight and Sound, Ben Nicholson finds that Sennan Asbestos Disaster (2016), which chronicles a community-wide battle for reparations for the deaths and injuries of workers in the asbestos factories in Sennan, Osaka, “resonates more as a combined struggle” than that of someone like Kenzo Okuzaki. Nicholson notes that “in The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Okuzaki himself says that ‘nation is a wall between men. It’s a big wall that prevents us from joining together.’ While the complainants in Sennan Asbestos Disaster might not be quite so compelling, they turn those words around and join together in confronting the apparently unbreachable wall of an unrepentant Japanese nation.”

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