Combustible Celluloid
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With: Akemi Negishi, Tadashi Suganuma, Kisaburo Sawamura, Shoji Nakayama, Jun Fujikawa, Hiroshi Kondo, Shozo Miyashita, Tsuruemon Bando, Kikuji Onoe, Rokuriro Kineya, Daijiro Tamura, Chizuru Kitagawa, Takeshi Suzuki, Shiro Amikura
Written by: Josef von Sternberg
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese, English
Running Time: 91
Date: 05/17/1954

Anatahan (1953)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Layered Keiko

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

By 1953, Josef von Sternberg was nearing sixty, and his career was not going terribly well; his Marlene Dietrich pictures were well behind him. He had completed a movie, Jet Pilot, that would remain on the shelf for many years more, and his previous effort, Macao, had been partly re-filmed by others. His last released feature film had been more than ten years earlier, The Shanghai Gesture. It was then that Japanese producers contacted him about making The Saga of Anatahan, based on a true story.

The finished film is rather unlike anything else in film history. Sternberg went to Japan, but did not film on location. Rather, he constructed an entire island set on a sound stage. The opening titles even announce the use of a sound stage, as a point of pride. Sternberg later told Peter Bogdanovich that, while everything else was artificial, he regretted having to use real water. Either way, the resulting set is beautiful, with gleaming leaves and light dappled between branches.

The story involves a group of Japanese soldiers, whose ship goes down at sea at the tail end of WWII, and are stranded on an island. They soon discover a man, Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma), and a woman, Keiko (Akemi Negishi), living in a constructed hut. Over the course of seven years, all discipline and respect melting away, the men begin a competition to win the favor of Keiko, with the discovery of a pair of guns escalating things.

Sternberg communicated with his actors through translators, and leaves their onscreen dialogue untranslated, in spoken Japanese. In addition to writing, directing, and photographing the film himself, Sternberg also read the onscreen narration, which presumes to speak mainly for the characters as a group, in the sense that "we did this" or "we felt that." This gives the effect of distancing a non-Japanese-speaking viewer from the characters, their speech lost in a series of sounds, all except the name "Keiko." Though it can't be claimed as culturally accurate, it's not necessarily a bad effect; it's as deliberately artificial and controlled as the surroundings.

So Anatahan is as completely regimented and rigorous as any movie ever made, with just about every aspect of it under Sternberg's control. And yet it's a movie about losing control, about yielding to animal instincts. Sternberg makes sure that viewers see the mechanics of the situation, rather than attempting to titillate with the promise of sex. And yet, it's impossible not to see a parallel to Sternberg's own object of desire Marlene Dietrich in Keiko; the two women are photographed with the same dazzlement, adoration, and wonder, their smallest gestures a source of awe.

Perhaps Anatahan, which is the final film ever shot by the great director, was his way of once and for all dealing with his obsession, shutting the book on it, and acknowledging its place as fantasy. Keiko does leave the island (she even leaves her clothes behind), and when we last see her, as the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, she's alone in a shot, next to what looks like an extremely artificial background; the context is that the narrator believes she was there, but has no proof. In other words, she's a dream figure, ready to vanish.

It's an extremely poetic, profound film, and it did not do well anywhere (except in France, where the post-war critics had already discovered Sternberg's genius). Although Akemi Negishi went on to a long career, working with Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa as well as in a range of exploitation films, her debut film subsequently disappeared. Anatahan became something of a lost work, or at least a very hard-to-see film, almost legendary.

Now Kino Lorber has released it on a fine new Blu-ray, wherein all of Sternberg's minute lighting choices are astoundingly clear, as well as the various sound effects, singing, and music. It's a 2K restoration of Sternberg's preferred 1958 cut, although the 1953 version is presented here too (as well as a short video explaining the differences between the two cuts). There are also a few minutes of nude footage shot for the 1958 version and left unused, a visual essay by Tag Gallagher, an interview with Sternberg's son Nicholas, footage of the real-life survivors shot by the U.S. Navy upon their rescue, and trailers.

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