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April 25, 2017


anatahan poster 1.jpg

Josef von Sternberg - 1953
Kino Classics BD Region A

At this point, I would think most people with any interest in Josef von Sternberg's last film are aware that it was primarily shot inside a studio, and was based on a true incident of a group of Japanese men and one woman found on a small Pacific island, virtually abandoned during and after World War II. That the film continues von Sternberg's penchant for artificial and stylized settings is no surprise. What none of the other reviews of Anatahan that I've read bother to note is the orientalism found here. Sure, the basic story actually happened, and the characters are treated respectfully.

At one point, some of the men create a Shinto shrine. Von Sternberg, as narrator, mentions that four of the men were Buddhists, and two were Christians. I don't know if this detail was in the novel that provided the basis for the film, but I do know that Shinto was established as the state religion of Japan during this time, and any other religious practice would have been done in secret.

As for the "Queen Bee", Keiko, von Sternberg has the lone woman living in a jungle island introduced wearing one very nice kimono, with a sea shell necklace. Not realistic, and not appropriate for the setting, but this is a von Sternberg film, made by the guy who sent Marlene Dietrich chasing after Gary Cooper in the desert while she was wearing high heels. Nineteen year old Akemi Negishi is introduced looking more like someone's idea of a geisha, than a woman stranded far from civilization. Again, this is history as filtered through von Sternberg, kind of like The Scarlet Empress. A more recent book as been published about the survivors of Anatahan, and the description of the woman who inspired Keiko, is, well, less inspiring as noted in the Japan Times - "It was certainly not her looks. Kazuko Higa was a diminutive, lantern-jawed woman who could have been charitably called handsome."

By 1953, Josef von Sternberg's career as a Hollywood director was over. Unlike E. A. Dupont, a top silent director reduced to making The Neanderthal Man that same year, von Sternberg was able to make Anatahan mostly on his own terms. That the budget was limited is most obvious in the last ten minutes, with the survivors off the island, Japan seen as a rear-projection still of an airplane on the landing strip. Von Sternberg gets credit for the screenplay, cinematography and direction, while his work as narrator is anonymous.

The blu-ray has both the original 1953 release version, as well as the 1958 revision, notable for showing more of Akemi Negishi with less clothing. In his visual essay, film historian Tag Gallagher mentions how Negishi went on to have supporting roles in several films by Akira Kurosawa, but doesn't mention that fellow Toho house director, Ishiro Honda cast Negishi in several films as well, including King Kong vs. Godzilla. Additional Kaiju connections include a score by Akira Ifukube, and special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. An interview with son Nicholas von Sternberg includes discussion of working methods, and the display of a chart Josef von Sternberg created to map out the drama. What is pointed out is that von Sternberg did not know Anatahan would be his last film. The blu-ray includes English subtitles transcribing von Sternberg's narration, but not the Japanese dialogue. The justification may be that this is in keeping with the original spirit of the film, with von Sternberg acting as the mediator between the viewer and his visual story. As it is, for those who have familiarity with von Sternberg, the themes and some of the visual motifs are those to be found in his films from the Thirties, any one which might have been titled, The Devil is a Woman.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 25, 2017 10:00 AM