Okuzaki’s Shtick

Posted originally to Film of the Month Club blog as
contribution to discussion of the 1987 film, Yuki Yikite shingun.

Following Rick Olson’s “Prophetic Performance and the Documentary Gaze”, I find that I’m fixated on Okuzaki Kenzo’s shtick, on his performance of himself before Hara’s camera, on what performance studies types like me might call Otuzaki’s “autoperformance” (click here for an apt elaboration of the premise within a performance art context).

the-emperors-naked-army-marches-onAs we see throughout the film, Okuzaki is an adept improviser, capable of calibrating his autoperformance to provoke or to calm his audience in a flash second. Yet, like the most skilled improvisers, Okuzaki also relies upon some well-rehearsed stock pieces, familiar bits of business easily deployed at a moment’s notice depending on the audience’s shifting needs. Hara’s camera captures most of Okuzaki’s shtick repeatedly. Indeed, by the end of the film, the viewer has perhaps unknowingly become something of an expert on Okuzaki’s distinctive “act.”

To illustrate, Okuzaki deploys different items in his repertoire toward distinct effects. Some redirect the action of the scene when things threaten to spin out of his control (“I’ll call the cops for you”). Others utilize ostensibly factual declaratives to verbally reassert Okuzaki’s authority (“I went to prison for 13 years and 9 months” or “You were my commander but I’m a better man than you”). Still others are mostly non-verbal as when — in each of his three filmed assaults on his interviewees — he pauses, while poised in a position of dominance, to politely request his victim’s assent. Hara’s film fully documents these performative aspects of Okuzaki’s ambush interview style. In so doing, Hara’s camera forcefully illustrates that, as much as each encounter is its own “real” event occurring in its own “real” time, Okuzaki has the benefit of ample rehearsal for his part in each performance.

Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of Okuzaki’s shtick comes in his brief collaboration with the surviving siblings of the two murdered privates. As these grieving individuals get into the swing of Okuzaki’s act, they too begin to improvise, demanding their own answers from the interviews as distinct from Okuzaki’s own interrogatives. The siblings’ privileged status as visibly grieving survivors inspires the sustained attention and respect of the interviewees (which Okuzaki is quick to exploit as he forwards his own, by now familiar, claims). But these grieving siblings also upstage Okuzaki, as the interviewees increasingly direct their communication to the family members and ignore Okuzaki. Little surprise then, when the siblings — for reasons that not made clear by either Hara or Okuzaki — choose not accompany Okuzaki on future outings, that Okuzaki folds “their” presence into his own shtick by “casting” his wife and friends in the roles “originated” by the actual siblings, directing them to “act well but let me do the talking.”

Okuzaki understands the circuit of performance — recall his instruction to the grieving mother to “start over” when she “messed up” her vocal lament for her lost son — but the fact that he’s performing doesn’t make his actions any less “real.” Consider his savvy expression of his alibis, his “reasons” for doing what he’s doing. I caught three, usually presented in the same sequence and using the same inflection. The first (“to console the souls” of the dead) assuages the spirit, while the second (“to tell the truth about war” so as to prevent future conflicts) addresses the conscience. Okuzaki seems to intuit that these first two make sense to most people. This might be why Okuzaki keeps the lid on his third and arguably most imperative reason (“to reveal Hirohito as a war criminal”) the only one of his alibis to directly address the intellect — for it outs Okuzaki as something of a crackpot and is especially vulnerable to what becomes a familiar rebuke, “That’s your opinion.” (Indeed, the statement “that’s your opinion” seems to work like kryptonite for Okuzaki, requiring that he immediately reboot his performance with a distinctly different bit of business.)

Yet as much as Okuzaki is a skilled performer, I suspect he’s most interesting for his adept use of the performative. Okuzaki’s “act” — through careful verbal and embodied repetion — does help to instantiate the evidentiary reality of the counternarrative he seeks. The “truth” is revealed through Okuzaki’s shticky fakery. All of which opens yet another angle on the question that everyone seems to have about this film: would Okuzaki’s autonomous, adept performance shtick have done the work we see it do without the ratifying audience provided by Hara’s lens?