Human beings become helpless worms. Erotic power: Negishi Akemi. Josef von Sternberg at the end of his rope.

by ~nomdyl-barhex, published on

When Josef von Sternberg got the offer to make a film in Japan, he was already on his way out.

He couldn’t make the kind of movies that he wanted to make. The sumptuous pictures he made with Marlene Dietrich seemed like artifacts of another time. They never made much money, anyways. He had gone to work at RKO for Howard Hughes, trying to patch together a movie called Jet Pilot, starring Janet Leigh as a Soviet defector. It began shooting in 1949 and was not released until 1957, after several other directors and editors went to work on it. Shot to finish out his two-picture deal, von Sternberg was forbidden from exercising much creative control over Macao (1952). He lamented the fact that he was haunted by "the anonymous scavengers that invariably hover over the making of a film" (the quote comes from his 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry).

He would probably have headed back into retirement, if not for a visit from Kawakita Nagamasa 川喜多長政.

Kawakita and von Sternberg had met for the first time in Japan in 1936. The director had taken a trip out to Karuizawa to visit the set of Arnold Fancke was shooting The Daughter of the Samurai. Kawakita had been working with Fancke. He was a fan of von Sternberg. He had helped get some of his films imported to Japan. He immediately pitched von Sternberg on making a movie, a co-production like Fancke was working on. But it was never to be. The war intervened. Japan ramped up its invasion of China a year later.

The two men kept in touch after the war. Kawakita made him another offer: he could get financing for a feature, build a studio for von Sternberg in Kyoto, and guarantee him creative freedom.

He chose to make a film called Anatahan アナタハン, based on the “Queen of Anatahan” Incident アナタハンの女王事件.

Over the final years of the Second World War, the island of Anatahan in the Northern Marianas had become home to several waves of marooned Japanese sailors. They were running resupply ships to Saipan, seventy miles south. The island was not uninhabited. There was a small number of Japanese settlers left over from coconut plantations, as well as a few dozen indigenous people. As the war in the Pacific became more ferocious,most of the marooned sailors, indigenous people, and plantation holdouts were evacuated to Saipan. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the Americans tried to take the rest of them. But not everyone would leave.

Two former plantation workers and around thirty shipwrecked sailors fled into the interior.

The lone woman—Higa Kazuko 比嘉和子—was legally married, but she had come to form a romantic relationship with the other plantation holdout. For a time, the pair ruled over the sailors, but it wasn’t long before her lover was killed. One of the soldiers took her as a bride. He ended up dead. Another one of the soldiers took her as a bride. He ended up dead. And so on. The men turned feral, fighting over the Queen of Anatahan.

The reasons for the choice of this specific incident as the source material are unclear. A card credits a book by Maruyama Michio 丸山通郎 called Anatahan アナタハン, published in 1951, but there is no chance that von Sternberg would have read it in the original. He may have been familiar with the story through reports in the American media, but it seems possible, too, that the suggestion came from producer Osawa Yoshio 大澤善夫 (he was charged as a war criminal for his propaganda work and still had links to the powerful film company Toho 東宝) or writer Asano Tatsuo 浅野辰雄, who worked directly with von Sternberg on storyboards and scripts (this seems to be hinted at in "The Saga of Anatahan and Japan" by Sachiko Mizuno, which details the production of the film and draws on unpublished letters and notes from the Japanese team).

The story of the film deviates slightly from the story as it happened, but it’s close enough: it tells the story of two plantation holdouts—an older man and a younger woman—that find their peaceful island refuge disturbed by the arrival of a gang of marooned sailors. The woman—Keiko 恵子 (Negishi Akemi 根岸明美)—is first a temptress, manipulating the men into mutiny against the flimsy order they cling to, then she becomes a victim of their primitive violence.

It is narrated throughout by von Sternberg himself, cast in the role of one of the shipwrecked sailors, recounting his travails on the island. At first, he seems to be recreating Maruyama’s narrative but the philosophical flourishes about social disorder clearly mark it as the voice of the director.

He was interested in reflecting on the violent conflict that had gripped the world for most of the previous century. It was imagined, after all, as a “postscript to the Pacific conflict.” He wanted to make a movie about society breaking down into chaos:

Though on the surface the nature of the content was apparently sordid, showing as it did the disintegration of discipline, hastened by the presence on the island of an attractive female, I had chosen this readily understandable series of events to carry a not easily understood experiment in indirect mass psychoanalysis, to alert all of us, to put it simply, to the necessity of reinvestigating our emotions and the reliability of our controls under unfavorable conditions. (Fun in a Chinese Laundry.)

This is what von Sternberg meant when he wrote: “Human beings become helpless worms” (this is the note for the first sequence, above).

At the time, there were not many films like this. The focus in Japanese films was on the postwar reconstruction and the focus of American films was on heroics. (From the same year, there's The Girls of Pleasure Island, a comedy from Paramount about the British governor of a South Seas island trying to stop Marines from sleeping with his three daughters. I've never actually seen it but I doubt it has many of the same themes.)

The island of Anatahan could be the conflict in the Pacific writ small, an allegory for Japanese barbarism throughout Asia, a meditation on "the reliability of our controls under unfavorable conditions," but, more than that, it's about von Sternberg's interest in hypnotic female power.

There were other stories about Japanese holdouts to draw from, but the element of Higa Kazuko lording over Anatahan story has to have been a large part of what appealed to von Sternberg. From the beginning of his career to his final picture, he always came back to stories of women resisting domination through their erotic hold over men.

The Blue Angel (1930), his first picture with Marlene Dietrich, has his muse as a cabaret dancer that destroys the life of a schoolmaster. He attempts to contain her influence over his students and winds up reeled in by her erotic power. He falls in love with her and finds himself constantly and thoroughly humiliated. She is haughty and promiscuous, while he is meek and jealous. When he catches her kissing a cabaret strongman, he attempts to murder her. He is beaten, strapped into a straitjacket, and ejected. He is too humiliated to return to his former life. He dies alone and heartbroken.

Here, we get another version of that story. Instead of Marlene Dietrich's Lola, it's Negishi Akemi's Keiko that wields erotic power in Anatahan. Her power is made even more potent by the fact that she is—the voiceover tells us—the last woman on Earth. She has no competition. There is no moral or legal authority to constrain her or the men she controls.

This is something I should admit: the only reason that I watched Anatahan アナタハン (1953) was because of Negishi Akemi. I couldn't get her off my mind after seeing her in Sudden Rain 驟雨 (1956).

There are few similarities between the two movies. Sudden Rain is a claustrophobic portrait of postwar commuter life, directed by Naruse Mikio 成瀬巳喜男. Hara Setsuko 原節子 (she happens to also have starred in the Fancke's The Daughter of the Samurai) and Sano Shuji 佐野周二 play a couple that can’t seem to get along, and Negishi Akemi is the young, beautiful, occasionally abusive wife of the neighbor played by Kobayashi Keiju's 小林桂樹.

Her performance is strikingly naturalistic compared to the actors of the previous generation. She leans into the cruelty. There is something of Keiko in her Sudden Rain performance. I think Naruse must have seen her in Anatahan.

I couldn’t get her off my mind. I wondered where she came from. I wanted to see every movie she had made, starting from the first. That was why I started watching Anatahan. von Sternberg writes in his autobiography that she was "hauled out of a chorus line." That seems to be mostly true, except it seems the dancers from the Nichigeki Dance Team 日劇ダンシングチーム were chosen by Osawa Yoshio to audition (Nichigeki was under the control of Toho) (getting an actress to appear nude in 1952 would have been a challenge, as well, since that wasn't common until Revenge of the Pearl Queen 女真珠王の復讐 in 1956, which also happens to borrow liberally from the plot and theme of Anatahan).

I understand why von Sternberg chose her.

I am surprised to read contemporary reviews in English that disagree. "It's not easy to accept Akemi Negishi as a femme fatale," says a New York Times review of a 1977 screening. It goes on: "She is sweetly pretty and rather chubby-kneed, and when she does a seductive, hip-swinging dance that is meant to drive the men out of their minds with desire, she looks more like a preteen practicing an awkward hula."

I disagree, for what it's worth. Negishi Akemi made a living as a dancer, even if it was only a "chorus line," and it shows. She is also expert at performing with a glance or a raised eyebrow arrogance and seduction. She's very adept at going from placid to mischievious to fearful and back again. I can't think of any mainstream actors from this period that could pull it off.

His women are said to be stand-ins for the auteur, but I think it’s more clear that they represent a horrible fantasy of complete feminine power. The 1977 Times review is wrong about Negishi, but it is correct here: "We do see, however, von Sternberg's obsession with a concept of sexual desire as a destructive force." It's Kusakabe 日下部 (Suganuma Tadashi 菅沼正) that's the stand-in for von Sternberg here, I think: the plantation holdout is the director trying to contain his muse.

The film begins with the sailors being shipwrecked on the island, but the narrative starts with the plantation holdouts Kusakabe and Keiko. She was faithful out of necessity, perhaps, but that can't last.

The voiceover tells us:

He had brought with him when he came wife and child. At the outbreak of the war, four years now, they had left him to go to Saipan for safety. Keiko, too, had had a husband, who'd left on the same boat. She, too, had not heard from him again. All this, we found out later. Careless as we might wish to be in our relations to other human beings, there is a time of accounting. Left alone in an empty world, it was natural for these two to have formed a bond of sorts. For a time, they had forgotten everything but each other.

She goes to find a new lover. He discovers her infidelity and thrashes her, but it doesn't matter. Her sexuality cannot be contained by Kusakabe. It can't be contained by any of the men on the island. They are powerless against her. Society has abandoned them; they are reduced to the most primitive state. All that remains is desire.

Japan had forgotten us. The horizon remained empty and remote. But the circle around Keiko enlarged. She was young. Her body failed to remember the blows it had received. It also slipped her mind. She became better looking day by day. She became Queen Bee and we—the drones— began to swarm.

The sailors steal over to watch her bathing.

This scene, like a few others, was added much later. von Sternberg photographed Negishi nude through netting and foliage, but there was a call later to make it sexier. In a letter to cinematographer Okazaki Kozo 岡崎宏三 ahead of reshoots in 1957 and 1958, he told him that he wanted the these scenes to recall Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 woodblock prints. I can't say how well he pulled it off. It seems closer to Renaissance bathers.

She became a woman, the voiceover says, which means not only have the men on the island realized it, but she has realized it herself.

She pits them against each other. Her foot on the shoulder of one of the men is not unintentional. She knows what she is doing. She dances while they sing their folk songs.

Revolvers are discovered in a crashed American bomber. Kusakabe is killed. Her next suitor meets the same fate. Things spin out of control. She is brutalized and raped.

Leaflets are dropped to tell the men that it is over. The war has been lost. The Empire of Japan has been defeated. She is the only one that listens.

She swims to an American cruiser moored offshore. The men follow much later.

The film closes on a surreal scene, heightened by von Sternberg's refusal to shoot outside of the studio. The men are repatriated. The narrator is not quite sure whether or not Keiko is there, but he suspects she must be. Against a backdrop, Keiko appears. The men are wearing their uniforms, but she sees them as she last saw them—naked and primitive.

It’s hard to know what this means. I suppose it gestures at the reality of Higa Kazuko’s life: the woman that von Sternberg based Keiko on was not easy and some accounts have her working as a stripper. It puts me in mind of Imamura Shohei's 今村昌平 remembrance of karayuki-san からゆきさん—indentured sex workers in Japan's colonial holdings—alongside the left-behind soldiers that were his other concern.

Some accounts have Higa working as a stripper. Nothing like this is suggested by the film. Keiko remains mysterious.

Sachiko Mizuno's article suggests that this was never supposed to be the ending. The original vision was to have one of the survivors arrive at the airport, spot some of the mud of Anatahan on his shoes, and go to a shoeshine girl in the airport. The girl would be Keiko.

It's a peculiar film, then, because it's certainly about the descent into barbarism in the Second World War, as explained by the setting and the subtitle about it being a “postscript to the Pacific conflict." But that spasm of violence does not involve does not apparently involve the erotic power of women. Men turned into beasts with no women around. The men that gutted themselves or flew planes into aircraft carriers did so because of—as mythology holds—commitment to the Emperor, the imperial project, and perhaps the belief in their race and nation. As an allegory or explanation for the violence of the Second World War, it doesn't work. It's not particularly representative, even, of the Japanese holdouts on the Pacific islands. They had no women to fight over.

But this movie is all about women. That was what von Sternberg was interested in, more than creating a portrait of society breaking down.

So, it seems clear that it's about von Sternberg's own psychology more than it's about the Japanese during wartime. It’s no wonder that Japanese audiences don't seem to have enjoyed it. Western audiences were put off, too, based on most reviews by von Sternberg's narration, which is sometimes disconnected from the action on the screen (he is telling what happens before it happens, or he is telling what happens after it happens, for the most part).

The film was important to Japanese filmmaking. Negishi Akemi went from being an unknown to minor stardom. Almost everyone from the production team went on to serious careers.

But Josef von Sternberg retreated into academia. Although Jet Pilot was released by RKO later, this was the last film he made. He considered it his best.