Jun Fujikawa, Shôji Nakayama, Akemi Negishi, Tadashi Suganuma, and Kisaburo Sawamura in Anatahan (1953)


(director/writer: Josef von Sternberg; screenwriters: Tatsuo Asano/from the novel by Michiro Maruyama, translated by Younghill Kang; cinematographers: Kôzô Okazaki/Josef von Sternberg; editor: Miyata; music: Ifukube; cast: Jun Fujikawa (Yoshisato), Shoji Nakayama (Nishio), Kisaburo Sawamura (Kuroda), Tadashi Suganuma(Kusakabe, Husband of Keiko), Akemi Negishi(Keiko Kusakabe, the ‘Queen Bee’), Josef von Sternberg (Narrator); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Takimura; Arias; 1953-in English and Japanese with no English subtitles)

“It’s a corker.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The last film of the great Vienna-born Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg (“The Blue Angel”/”Dishonored”/”Morocco”), the image maker of sex goddess Marlene Dietrich, was a low-budgeter financed by two Japanese producers and made in a Japanese studio on an artificial set (the only things not artificial were the ocean waves and a newsreel shot of the castaways returning to Japan seven years after the war was over). It’s a corker about dealing with defeat if brainwashed into believing in war as a nationalistic policy. It also relates to how easily civilized men can revert to being primitives in the right situation and in dolts who follow their country whether right or wrong.

Von Sternberg provides an English narration, while the Kabuki theater actors converse in an untranslated Japanese. The film is drawn from a real-life incident of twelve Japanese merchant seamen shipwrecked on Anatahan, one of a thousand tiny islands in the Pacific’s Marianas, in June of 1944, after their ship was fired on by an American plane. The seamen found only a Japanese deserter (Tadashi Suganuma) and a young temptress woman named Keiko (Akemi Negishi) living on the deserted island in a tree house as husband and wife. The men then lived there in primitive conditions for seven years, always on alert for the enemy, surviving on their fishing skills and on homemade cocoanut wine, not knowing or believing the war was over despite once hearing a radio transmission from a passing ship and once receiving flyers from a plane that were dropped on the volcanic island to inform them the war was over and they should surrender to an American boat waiting on the coastline. They all thought Japan would never surrender and these efforts were enemy ruses.

What unfolds is a dark story over the eventual loss of military discipline and of five men losing their lives trying to be Keiko’s lover. Also the patriotic leader, in 1951, refuses to return with the seven survivors to Japan and his family because he couldn’t comprehend returning to a defeated country. Meanwhile the seamen return as heroes for believing so fully in Japan’s war efforts and for being set to live forever on the island believing it would be unpatriotic to surrender. Keiko had run away from the men a year before when they got too difficult to handle, and returned on a passing ship to Japan to tell the government and the men’s families where they were and why they never believed the war was over. After leaving the island, the men never saw her again.

It’s truly a bizarre and amazing tale, a black-and-white film of stunning visual beauty and of poignant insights into human behavior and features an unusual intriguing story line. In his book “Fun in a Chinese Laundry,” Sternberg joked that he wanted the viewer to watch his films upside-down in order to examine its pictorial worth through only the use of light and shadows and without the trappings of plot or actors. His last film was the only one in which the viewer might get a chance to experience what he was aesthetically talking about. If you love movies that don’t conform to standards and are as different as different can be but still make sense artistically, this idiosyncratic pic should do just fine. It’s interesting to note that Sternberg regarded this as his best film, despite it being so obscure and rarely seen and not praised like his other masterpieces by the Hollywood crowd. They seem to love best only the films that are compromised, and in this pic Sternberg went his own way and could care less what anyone else thought.