by Allan Fish
(Japan 1953 91m) not on DVD
Aka. The Saga of Anatahan
Fight for the queen bee
p Kazuo Takimura d Josef Von Sternberg w Younghill Kang, Josef Von Sternberg novel Michiro Maruyama ph Josef Von Sternberg ed Mitsuzo Miyata m Akira Ifukube art Takashi Kono
Akemi Negishi (Keiko Kusakabe), Tadashi Suganuma (Kuasakabe), Kisaburo Sawamura (Kuroda), Shoji Nakayama (Nishio), Josef Von Sternberg (narrator),
Take a dash of The Lord of the Flies, add a sprinkle of Robinson Crusoe, a tablespoon of Robert Flaherty and a liberal splash of a Roger Vadim Bardot vehicle and you’re coming close to the ingredients of Josef Von Sternberg’s remarkable swansong to the movies. It’s a totally unique, totally artificial tale, and one which owes a lot to Von Sternberg’s earlier movies. Like many of his earlier works, it was ignored at the box office.
In 1944 a troop of Japanese soldiers are stranded on the volcanic island of Anatahan south of Japan and await either rescue or an attack from the enemy. They soon meet a young girl on the island and all immediately fall under her spell, and she seems to delight in offering them teasing glimpses of flesh, leading them into an ever-increasingly cycle of lust. As the months go by, no-one comes, but when they hear an announcement that Japan have surrendered and the war is over, they cannot believe it and assume it an enemy trick. They stay there, their number slowly dwindling as, one by one, they give away to their savage urges to have the girl in question.
It’s surely the only film in which the dialogue is in native Japanese but there are no subtitles, the effective translation coming in the form of Von Sternberg’s narration as an unnamed member of the troupe. Von Sternberg was famed for his love of artifice, and Anatahan is possibly his most artificial film of all, set almost entirely in a studio, and with foliage made out of paper and cellophane to add to the sense of the fevered and surreal. It may lack the presence of his beloved Marlene Dietrich, but in her place Negishi – then only 19 and discovered by the director – has a real erotic presence rare in Japanese actresses of the day. She even allows herself to be shot nude from the rear on three separate occasions, twice on coastal rocks and, most famously, in her very first appearance, getting into a bath in full view of the men. (One has to chuckle at how this leniency with regards to nudity would have appealed to Von Sternberg’s prurient side, remembering his complaining on the set of the unfinished I, Claudius that he didn’t want just the correct six vestal virgins, “but sixty, and I want ’em naked.”)
Von Sternberg took complete control of his later films, and his passion for photography is evident in his work as cinematographer on the film – a practice he had started when co-photographing some of his earlier works with Lucien Ballard. It’s superbly shot, but never once strives for realism, always choosing to accentuate the very opposite. Note also how his heroine is referred to as the queen bee, and the men on the island as her drones. She literally whips the men up into a frenzy of desire, most memorably dancing suggestively in front of them at a New Year celebration, and watches them fight it out for her favours. The insect analogy is not inappropriate either, when one considers how men seemed to flock like moths round the flame of Dietrich in his thirties films. Even Von Sternberg’s narration, ludicrously emphatic when taken entirely seriously, captures his sense of romantic doom. As he himself observes, “the only real enemy most of us ever have is lonesomeness.” Or, better still, “death was fishing in this jungle, and on his hook, as bait, he dangled Keiko.” Keiko becomes the sort of woman who is both elusive and yours for nothing, a woman to both end a man’s loneliness and prolong it. It’s just one of the many deliberate and perverse contradictions in the psychology of Von Sternberg’s world. People dismissed it at the time, but as David Thomson observed, “it needed the ridiculous impossibility of Anatahan to end his filmmaking career…very rarely seen, Anatahan is a masterpiece to rank with the Dietrich films.”