Kihachi Okamoto (1924-2005) was a Japanese filmmaker who spent an entire career demolishing the widely accepted viewpoint that there was any honor in violence. Although recognized as a preeminent director of action films for Toho studios his work was constantly being eclipsed by more critically acclaimed directors like Masaki Kobayashi and Akira Kurosawa. Yet, what makes Okamoto’s films prescient is how the theme of history being an invention by those in power runs throughout his oeuvre. The typical Okamoto protagonist is an outcast and victim of the times that they live in, but within this hopelessness came a freedom, be it through death or a rejection of established social codes. So please come join me as we explore the inelegant, the sardonic, the brutal, and the comic films of Kihachi Okamoto.
The recent resurgence in popularity of the Western with films like True Grit (2010) and Appaloosa (2008) belies the fact that many of these projects are mainly exercises in nostalgia. With the exception of television where critically acclaimed shows like Firefly (2002) and Deadwood (2004-2006) breathed new life into the genre but constantly struggled to stay on the air, the current crop of theatrical Westerns has never fully left the realm of the morality play. It is quite ironic then that those with a passion for wide open vistas and tales of men conquering or being conquered by the new frontier must look an entire ocean away in Asia to satisfy their hunger for this most American of genres. Visually arresting films like Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger, 2000), the flawed but stylistically interesting Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), and epics like Joheunnom Nabbeunom Isanghannom (The Good, The Bad, The Weird, 2008) prove just how malleable the Western, a genre that many believed to be heavily reliant on a specific location and time period to tell its stories, could be.
Although many countries have contributed to the Western’s cinematic vocabulary, the most apparent being Italy with the development of the Spaghetti Western in the 1960s, it has been Japan that has consistently utilized the template of the horse opera to tell its own unique stories. However, for many cinephiles in the West, the most obvious name when discussing this transposition of the Old West to the Ancient East has been Akira Kurosawa whose groundbreaking jidai-geki pictures placed Japan at the forefront of art cinema in the 1950s. Of course, the downside to Kurosawa’s popularity is that it led to a plethora of filmmakers being drowned out by one man’s work. Time and a small number of dedicated aficionados of Japanese Cinema have managed to rescue from obscurity a select number of films and elevated many directors who were relegated to the dustbins as true masters of the art form, though.
Kihachi Okamoto has always loomed in the shadow of Toho’s favorite son, Akira Kurosawa. While Kurosawa had the reputation of catering to “Western tastes” his international success could always guarantee him the budgets he wanted and the freedom he needed to create his very best masterpieces. Okamoto on the other hand seemed to always be at odds with management.
Beginning his career at Toho studios in 1943 just as the war in the Pacific began to escalate a 19-year-old Kihachi Okamoto, a late bloomer to the wonders of cinema, decided to forego the ordinary existence of a salaryman and apply for the position of assistant director. After getting through the requisite exams and job interview, fate and Toho management would place the country boy from Tottori Prefecture as a member of Mikio Naruse’s film crew. Although a complete neophyte to the logistics of film production, what the timid Okamoto worried about most on his first day was how to address the director since, by that time, Naruse had already racked up several critical successes like Koshiben Gambare (Flunky, Work Hard! 1931) and Tsuma Yo Bara No Yo Ni (Wife! Be Like a Rose, 1935). A nervous Okamoto opted to be pragmatic and addressed Naruse as sensei but before he could finish his greeting Naruse calmly corrected him and said, “I’m not here to teach you anything, so you needn’t call me teacher.”
Those words would not be an expression of false modesty on Naruse’s part though. On set Naruse was notorious for being tight-lipped about what he wanted from his actors and he treated his film crew much the same way. Never allowing his assistant directors even a glance at the continuity script, Okamoto could not skate through a production by blindly following orders. Forced to anticipate the needs and demands of each specific film that he worked on for Naruse, he learned firsthand what it took to be a filmmaker and the independent spirit that would come to be associated with Okamoto was ignited during these years.
When Toho finally came to Okamoto and offered him a film to direct, a picture that supposedly was an attempt by upper management to capitalize on the burgeoning teenage audience, Okamoto passed on the uninteresting material. His artistic integrity did not make him any friends with Toho management though and was brusquely told by a company man that, “We don’t need directors here who only want to film what they like.” For a brief moment the independent spirit within Okamoto began to waver and he turned to his former “sensei” for advice. The normally reticent Naruse opened up to his troubled former A.D. and calmed his nerves with these simple words:
“You should stick to your own ideas. If you run from left to right and back again to suit the changing times, the results will be hollow. Look at me. I’ve been the same from before the war, through the war, up till now. What has changed, has been fashion; sometimes it has coincided with my ideas, and sometimes it hasn’t.”
Okamoto obviously did get another chance to direct, starting with Kekkon No Subete (All About Marriage, 1958), but it would not be until his fifth film, Dokuritsu Gurentai (Desperado Outpost, 1959), that his personal style would fully mature. Working for the first time on a project that was wholly written by him (in fact, the script was one of two he had written as part of Toho’s entrance exam), Okamoto offered audiences an irreverent take on the Sino-Japanese War. Of course, as luck would have it, the fashion of the times did not coincide with Okamoto’s personal vision and critics who expected the usual dour treatment of the conflict in Manchuria attacked his film.
When first discussing Desperado Outpost, there are four genres one must juggle around when talking about the picture: war, satire, murder mystery and the western. The aspects of the war film are obvious; Okamoto sets his film in the context of the Second Sino-Japanese War specifically in a region that was formally known as Manchuria. The characters in the story are soldiers, mainly the grunts who did the fighting and dying. Yet while typical war films during Japan’s studio era highlighted individual heroics, placing Japan as either victims or perpetrators of the conflict, Desperado Outpost does away with such reductive categorizing. Okamoto’s film took the atrocity that is war and made it the punch line to a very bittersweet joke.
The hero of the film Sergeant Okubo, played by Makoto Sato, is a decorated officer who gives up a promising military career and takes on the identity of a simple reporter, Araki, so he can find his Libra can also be called “Scales” or sometimes “Balance” and is the sole taurus horoscope 2014 symbol which is shown as an inanimate object, and not as an animal or a person. brother’s murderer. The fact Okubo must relinquish his hallowed station in the Japanese military is very typical of Okamoto protagonists. In films like Sengoku Yaro (Warring Clans, 1963), Dai-bosatsu Toge (The Sword Of Doom, 1966), and Akage (Red Lion, 1969), the main characters are all individuals who must relinquish the comfort and safety of the class they belong to and take on a new identity/role, usually against their will. Also, because of this detachment from a familiar social milieu the traditional conflict between giri and ninjo, a frequent theme in many masculine Japanese dramas, does not play a huge role best online casino in defining the character.
What drives Okubo is a very personal, almost bordering on selfish, need for justice. Cut off from the burden of social obligation, the typical Okamoto protagonist becomes like an outsider looking in, commenting on the action and slowly chipping away at the status quo like a guerilla fighter. Of course, this detachment does eventually lead to a reversion into a primal state. For example, when we first meet Okubo he is portrayed almost like a desert fox, napping in the middle of the desolate Manchurian wasteland until the early morning rays of the sun snap him into attention and propels him to leap onto his horse and begin the chase.
Influenced most likely by John Ford’s “cavalry trilogy”, e.g. Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), Okamoto takes great pains into not only evoking the look of Monument Valley, Utah but also making the Manchurian desert an integral character in the story. Within the vast expanse of the Manchukuo frontier, Okubo is surrounded by several threats and unlike Ford’s films that had a very simplistic cowboys versus Indians, i.e. the savage versus the civilized conflict underpinning each of his three films, internal as well as external forces are out to get Okubo. The outposts that dot the Manchurian landscape should represent civilization and safety but they are more like outlaw towns and, in a scene referencing Sam Fuller’s 1951 Korean War drama The Steel Helmet, a pagoda that Okubo comes across in the middle of the desert, instead of housing sacred relics is merely an empty shell relegated to being nothing more than a tool for trapping and killing by both bandits and military alike. Lucky for him, that is a side effect of his prolonged isolation. Okubo has been able to hone his base instincts to survive, specifically the running motif of his itchy palm warning him of danger. However, it is quite ironic that it is not a bullet from a bandit’s gun or a mortar shell from Chinese artillery that Okubo must really watch out for, but the Japanese military itself, an institution that he had pledged his life to that is the cause of not just his brother’s death but every person’s in the story.
Although the Chinese army and the bandits, lead by a fresh faced Koji Tsuruta, are poised to be the villains at the beginning of the picture, it is obvious as the film moves along that Okubo, as well as the director’s, real target is the Japanese military. The name of the command center itself, Shogunbyo, calls attention to the samurai class and the code of bushido, a target in many later Okamoto films, not to mention the fact that many of the military higher-ups on the base seem to fetishize their military-issued katanas, stroking them and devoting a great deal of time cleaning them. Yet, many of these men are far from honorable. It is only at the eponymously named Desperado Outpost where, due to the constant threat of death, the affectation of class and decorum is completely shed and we are witness to soldiers who possess a genuine warrior spirit. Of course, seeing as Desperado Outpost is an Okamoto production, it is the director’s sardonic sense of humor that is the most effective at attacking such a hallowed institution like the military. Little details like Deputy Commander Fujioka’s (Tadao Nakamaru) introduction as he passes time by shooting captured spies for target practice, Sergeant-Major Sakai (Michiro Minami) perpetually yelling into the radio receiver and losing his temper, or a brief but memorable cameo by Toshiro Mifune as the insane Battalion Commander illustrate just how far gone the army was when left to fight a war they couldn’t win and with no higher authority to curb its base appetites.
However, a flaw in Okamoto’s script though is his need to offer Fujioka and his accomplices a motivation for their actions at the end. The bag of opium is revealed far too late in the story and seems like a perfunctory device to make Fujioka and his men even more evil to the audiencethan they need to be. It was far more interesting when Fujioka was a man who had an iron grip on the army’s food supply, possibly a sly reference to Napoleon’s quote, “An army marches on its stomach.” Thus making Fujioka a far more villainous war profiteer since he is betraying not just the men under his command but the very flag that he salutes to.
This disenchantment with authority figures and established institutions, a common trope in Okamoto’s films, will eventually lead to an existential crisis where the protagonist must make a choice between Eros or Thanatos, to continue living or seek comfort in death. Okubo’s determination to find his brother’s killer is a deadly obsession that is paralleled in the film by Sergeant Ishii’s (Ichiro Nakatani) blind devotion to following orders even if doing so meant certain suicide. Both men stake their lives on fruitless causes because, like all existential heroes, their actions define who they are. So when the film’s climax does come and Ishii’s men are surrounded on all sides by the Kuomintang army, à la The Battle of the Alamo, they fight, not for the honor of their country or even to protect the retreating Japanese military, but because that’s what soldiers do: they fight and die. And so their violent deaths become like a contemporary updating of the act of seppuku and a protest against the Japanese military’s decision to let them die so far away from home all under the banner of nationalism.
Okubo on the other hand is not so lucky. Every attempt he makes at killing himself actually leads to someone else dying in his place. The most tragic proxy death being that of Tomi (Izumi Yukimura), a nurse turned military prostitute. A precursor to the self-sacrificing Nurse Nishi in Yasuzo Masumura’s Akai Tenshi (Red Angel, 1966) and the amour fou relationship in Seijun Suzuki’s Shunpu Den (Story of a Prostitute, 1965) Tomi and by extension her relationship to Okubo is quite complicated. Having lost someone close to her before the start of the film, her unborn child that Okubo may or may not be the biological father of, Tomi is trapped in a limbo of sorts while residing at Shogunbyo. Okubo’s arrival is not only a reminder of a relatively happier past, but also the promise of redemption for Tomi. Set to be married before Okubo took it upon himself to avenge his brother’s death, the couple’s reunion hints at the possibility that things will end happily, but Okamoto has seen and experienced far too much as a war veteran to allow such a trite conclusion. By the end of the film, helpless to prevent the deaths of his loved ones and with no place in either the army or back home Okubo is doomed to forever ride the wind as a bandit, a stranger in a strange land, and living ghost to a scarred nation.
To get a better understanding of people’s negative reaction to Okamoto’s film, one must compare it to another picture about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria released in January of that year, Masaki Kobayashi’s three part war epic Ningen No Joken (The Human Condition, 1959-1961). A talented filmmaker in his own right and an avowed pacifist, Masaki Kobayashi directed, in this series, directed a war epic that stands as a sharp contrast to Okamoto’s film. Whereas The Human Condition was a serious treatise on the dehumanizing effects that war has on people, Desperado Outpost was a cunning satire that espoused the grim view that even in the absence of outright battle cruelty does still exists between human beings. While Kobayashi’s epic put forth the idea that only through suffering could one attain a sort of sainthood, Okamoto’s film shatters that comforting thought and states that there is no spiritual salvation and that the artificial social structures that society creates to divide people into classes are irrelevant. In an Okamoto picture, individuals are reduced to wild animals, tight knit packs that battle it out with man and nature alike for control of the same limited resources. Of course, because Kobayashi placed his populist philosophy within the context of serious drama, his anti-war message had an air of gravitas that Okamoto’s offbeat comedy could just not compete with. If Desperado Outpost had been made ten years later it could have easily eclipsed Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) as the standard bearer for anti-war comedies, as it stands now we have the luxury of hindsight to place Okamoto’s film where it rightly belongs, as a masterpiece of genre filmmaking and as part of the canon of essential Japanese cinema.