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Josef von Sternberg directed, photographed, provides the voice-over narration and wrote the screenplay (from a based-on-actual event novel by Michiro Maruyana translated by Younghill Kang) about twelve Japanese seaman who, in June 1944, are stranded on an abandoned-and-forgotten island called An-ta-han for seven years. The island's only inhabitants are the overseer of the abandoned plantation and an attractive young Japanese woman. Discipline is represented by a former warrant officer but ends when he suffers a loss-of-face catastrophe. Soon, discipline and rationality are replaced by a struggle for power and the woman. Power is represented by a pair of pistols found in the wreckage of an American airplane, so important that five men pay for their lives in a bid for supremacy. Written by
Les Adams <email@example.com>
The origin of "The Saga of Anatahan" was a trip Josef von Sternberg made to Japan in 1936, during which he met producer Nagamasa Kawakita, while Arnold Fanck was shooting "Atarashiki tsuchi" (1937), a movie Kawakita was financing to promote the image of Japan in Europe. Sternberg was a well-known admirer of Japanese culture, so he discussed with Kawakita the possibility of making a motion picture in the country, about one of their national themes, but they had to wait until the end of American occupation in the island. Kawakita had been scorned for his liking of everything related to China, considered a war criminal, and expelled from the Japanese film industry for five years. However, his long career as producer of films that faithfully portrayed the Japanese culture, and his distribution of Japanese cinema abroad since the 1920s, allowed Kawakita to produce this free retelling of an incident that by 1951 was hot in the Japanese media. According to Michiro Maruyama's memoirs which served as starting point for the screenplay-, during World War II he and 29 fellow sailors shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean and stayed for almost a decade in the island of Anatahan, populated only by a peasant and a woman. With the collaboration of Tatsuo Asano, Sternberg made his version of the story, and concentrated on the power struggle, the triumph of hedonism and the search for sexual favors from the woman (newcomer Akemi Negishi). However, I find the result a bit confusing and whimsical. Besides directing, co-producing, co-writing, co-editing, and co-photographing the film, Sternberg opted to narrate it (himself) in English, while the voices of the Japanese players were registered as they performed. The effect of the first-person narration disorients more than distances from the action: it seems the reflection of one of the main characters, but the narration is never associated with anybody. Moreover, Sternberg's commentaries contain ethical and moral views and perceptions that seem more pertinent to Occident than to Japanese culture. In 1953 the film opened and was rejected in Japan, for it dealt with recent war events that had traumatic effects on the population, who had a different moral view. The film was a failure in the United States, Kawakita released it in Europe with a new narration told by a young Japanese actor, and Sternberg went to teach cinema. However he kept working on it, asked cinematographer Kôzô Okazaki to film additional shots (including a nude Akemi Negishi, sitting by the sea), and in 1958 made the version I am reviewing, which he gave the title of "The Saga of Anatahan", and stated that this was the definitive version. Since then, the film has been reconsidered as among his best works. It does not lack interest but is far from his silent masterpieces, "The Blue Angel" and other titles with Marlene Dietrich.
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