By the early 1950s, the great filmmaker Josef von Sternberg found his Hollywood career at a dead-end. Although hailed in the 1920s and 1930s for a series of artistically stunning features, many starring his glamourous protégé Marlene Dietrich, a string of expensive commercial failures and accusations of being difficult to work with derailed his viability. His last two American films, “Macao” and “Jet Pilot,” were taken away from him during the course of filming by his producer, Howard Hughes, creating major embarrassments for him. Without an opportunity in the U.S., von Sternberg took an invitation to make a film in Japan. The result was a strange and baffling work called “The Saga of Anatahan,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“The Saga of Anatahan” is based on a true story about a Japanese fishing boat that was commissioned into the service of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. In 1944, the boat was destroyed by American bombers but the entire crew survived and managed to swim to Anatahan, an island in the Northern Marianas. Anatahan had been a thriving plantation island before the war, but nearly all of its inhabitants fled when the Pacific conflict began. The shipwreck survivors find two people: a surly man and a fairly sultry woman living together in a house over-decorated with seashells. It seems they are married, but later it is discovered that their union is adulterous as both have spouses who are elsewhere in Asia.

The men hold out hope for either a rescue by their Japanese comrades or a chance to fight the American enemy. Neither occurs, and as time drags on it seems the world has forgotten them. Their only contact with the outside world comes over a year after their shipwreck, when they hear the loudspeaker broadcast from a distant American warship announcing Japan’s surrender and the end of the war. The men do not believe this news, as the goal of the Japanese war machine was victory without the possibility of surrender. Their island isolation stretches year after year, and in their island imprisonment they experience severe breakdowns in command…and they also begin to question the seriously lopsided gender ratio they are living with.

In creating “The Saga of Anatahan,” von Sternberg faced a dilemma regarding its commercial value to American audiences. He could have filmed it in Japanese and added English subtitles, but that would have limited its release. He could have had the film dubbed into English, but chances are it would have looked and sounded awkward. And apparently there were not enough English-speaking Japanese actors to shoot the film in English. The result of this linguistically tricky situation was probably the weirdest solution: von Sternberg shot the film in Japanese and provided a complete English translation running over the actors’ dialogue. This creates an obvious problem by diluting the effectiveness of the performances, as scenes go by when the actors speak considerable lines but the narrator (von Sternberg himself, doing a monotonous job) gives quickie summaries that clearly does not mirror what is being said. It also subtracts genuine personalities from the cast, as everyone is given a one-dimensional place in the story as the narrator gives sketchy descriptions of who is thinking what. There is also the confusion of just who is narrating the story: von Sternberg alternates between “I” and “we” in his narration, but we are clueless regarding which member of the fairly large cast is relating this tale.

But in a strange way, the constant and often mysterious narration gives “The Saga of Anatahan” a uniquely odd quality…as if we are eavesdropping into a bizarre parallel universe. And in many ways the film does present a parallel universe: this was among the first films to present wartime Japanese service members as genuine humans rather than cartoonish caricatures, and the film also includes very rare newsreel footage showing the defeated Japanese troops returning home to friends and family who try to put on a strong front despite the obvious failure of their mission. While this provided a genuine level of humanity not seen in films before, it also proved fairly risky considering the film was being aimed for American audiences and most Americans of the time were less than enthused about having the wartime Japanese seen in any positive light.

“The Saga of Anatahan” also provides other fascinating distractions, including an elaborate jungle set constructed entirely in a Kyoto soundstage (this was, at its time, the most expensive film shot in Japan), a haunting music score by Akira Ifukube that borrows brilliantly from the Japanese folk music traditions, and the sultry presence of Akemi Negishi as the lone woman on Anatahan (she is referred to as the “Queen Bee” while the rest of the men are dubbed “Drones”). Von Sternberg breaks down the stereotypes of Japanese femininity by making her a vibrant, often violent personality who doesn’t think twice of bathing nude while the men watch or throwing a chair at her mock-husband when he grows jealous of the attention she is bringing herself.

“The Saga of Anatahan” came about at a time when Japanese films were beginning to find wide international favor. However, critics and audiences were embracing the productions of the Japanese filmmakers like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi (whose first international releases were historic samurai-themed films based in the safety of distant centuries, rather than wartime dramas which would not appeal to Americans). “The Saga of Anatahan” was seen as a hybrid production rather than a genuinely Japanese work, and von Sternberg’s weakened reputation coupled with the film’s problem plotline did not help sell the film. Its commercial failure permanently ended his life in films and for many years “The Saga of Anatahan” was viewed as career-killing experiment.
But seen 50 years later, “The Saga of Anatahan” is an intriguing curio that deserves to be considered again. It is clearly not a classic, by any measure, but it offers a fascinating view on the lengths that von Sternberg would travel (geographically as well as artistically) to continue creating films which were unique to his style and mindframe.

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