The Saga of Anatahan

by Glenn Erickson Apr 11, 2017

Take one fiercely individual auteur fed up with the Hollywood game, put him in Kyoto with a full Japanese film company, and the result is a picture critics have been trying to figure out ever since. It’s a realistic story told in a highly artificial visual style, in un-subtitled Japanese. And its writer-director intended it to play for American audiences.

The Saga of Anatahan
Kino Lorber
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 91 min. / Anatahan, Ana-ta-han / Street Date April 25, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95 Starring: Akemi Negishi, Tadashi Suganuma, Kisaburo Sawamura, Shoji Nakayama, Jun Fujikawa, Hiroshi Kondo, Shozo Miyashita, Tsuruemon Bando, Kikuji Onoe, Rokuriro Kineya, Daijiro Tamura, Chizuru Kitagawa, Takeshi Suzuki, Shiro Amikura.
Cinematography: Josef von Sternberg, Kozo Okazaki
Film Editor: Mitsuzo Miyata
Original Music: Akira Ifukube
Special Effects: Eiji Tsuburaya
Written by Josef von Sternberg from the novel by Michiro Maruyama & Younghill Kang
Produced by Kazuo Takimura
Directed by
Josef von Sternberg


And now for something completely different . . .

Two Josef von Sternberg ‘greats’ are now available on Blu-ray, and both are about men obsessing over women, as the director himself obsessed over his female stars. The Blue Angel from 1930 is an undisputed world-class cinema great. 1953’s The Saga of Anatahan is a marginal independent production whose reputation was alive in film schools in the 1970s, although none of us could see it. At UCLA we saw all of Sternberg’s beautiful Marlene Dietrich movies because our professors had access to the UCLA Film Archives’ collection of Paramount’s studio reference prints. Some of them were on dangerous nitrate stock, yet were routinely screened in our beautiful auditorium, Melnitz Hall (now the James Bridges Theater). But nobody could show us Anatahan despite its being extolled in numerous books about cinema art. Josef’s son Nicholas von Sternberg was even a student filmmaker at UCLA at the time.

Sternberg had written his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry in 1965, a decade after he finished his last film. Two years later, film historian Herman G. Weinberg wrote his critical study of von Sternberg, making the director one of the first to be enshrined as a great auteur. The general notion was that von Sternberg was some kind of Svengali to Marlene Dietrich’s Trilby, when his real background was a risk-taking independent director. His wholly non-commercial silent art feature The Salvation Hunters was championed by Charles Chaplin… or was it Sternberg’s The Sea Gull?

Just as Fox found its house visual style through F.W. Murnau, von Sternberg epitomized the look of lush Paramount production values. The Dietrich films are incredible star vehicles, but we film students would stare in wonder at Sternberg’s utterly fantastic cinematography. Shanghai Express was all misty steam with no strong blacks, filtered and soft-focused to perfection. The Scarlet Empress was a bizarre collage of nonsense history, sexual innuendo and incredible art direction – with all those crazy oversized chairs carved from wood, and massive doors that take ten seconds to open and close. The close-ups of Dietrich, platinum hair ablaze with the light from fifty candles, took our breath away. The nitrate print of Empress did indeed look silvery — almost not photographic in origin.


Von Sternberg’s stock fell as Dietrich’s brand of glamour went out of style; she’d change her act but he’d stick to his high-art cinema scruples and exotic stylistics. His wild The Shanghai Gesture went over the heads of most audiences with its suggestions of dark secrets and perverse relationships. He kicked around for the better part of the ’40s doing second unit work for David O. Selznick, and then fell for the promises of Howard Hughes. His RKO stint was mostly more fill-in work, and the two movies that credited his name were largely re-shot by others. The loopy, breast-obsessed Jet Pilot was filmed in 1951 but not released until 1957. Every time Janet Leigh peeled off a tight coat or flexed her diaphragm muscles, Hughes added the ‘Whoosh!” noise of a jet zooming overhead.

The director managed his money well, and in 1952 was in good enough shape to co-produce another independent picture, as he had in the 1920s. He’d made friends in Japan way back in the early days of sound; when Japanese executives and experts came to Paramount to study big-studio American filming methods, they were shown von Sternberg’s example. The director put together a Japanese film that gave him total control for the first time since Dietrich’s last, The Devil Is a Woman. Filmed almost entirely in a Kyoto warehouse converted into a massive jungle set, The Saga of Anatahan was made with great care, with a largely unknown cast. Von Sternberg found his leading lady singing and dancing in cabaret, and some but not all of the actors were non-professionals. He surely worked out his plan to allow himself all the time he needed to film his way. Besides directing, he wrote the script and supervised the cinematography. Von Sternberg was once again the great artist, instead of a worker-for-hire with a bad attitude that had made him terribly unpopular at RKO. His lighting and camerawork on Anatahan follow his own notion of cinema, without a producer on his back or even a commercial line to tow.

Anatahan is based on the true story of a group of Japanese soldiers that stayed on a tiny island for several years after the war, living in primitive conditions and believing that the fighting was still ongoing. In von Sternberg’s version the crew of a small boat, only a couple of them professional soldiers, are marooned on the isle of Anatahan. The island is uninhabited except for a farm manager left there when the island was evacuated, and his beautiful wife, Keiko (Akemi Negishi). The men settle into a primitive routine, and as the years roll on, formalities break down. Always visible, Keiko is an immediate object of desire. Life is eventually reduced to eating and lusting after Keiko. Boats off shore blast them with loudspeakers, and leaflets dropped claim that the war is over, but the men are too wise to fall for American tricks. A pair of revolvers found in a crashed airplane precipitate various power plays and murders, as the more aggressive men vie to possess the woman.

Anatahan doesn’t tell a Robinson Crusoe, docu-drama story of survivors in what an opening title calls ‘a postscript to war.’ It’s not like some of the revisionist, angry anti-war pictures that show loyal and idealistic soldiers abandoned to starve in far-off territories where one cannot live off the land. Although there is a montage of news-film footage at one point, all of Anatahan takes place in a highly artificial island setting. Although Sternberg stages a storm, no breezes blow through his indoor jungle, and there is no insect or vermin problem. The men dress in rags with boots woven from reeds, but there’s always plenty to eat. Keiko spends her time collecting seashells. She’s a tease, and allows the lonely men to watch her bathe, and swim naked in the ocean. These must actually be some very straight-laced guys, considering that it takes years for civility to break down. The quantum result of unbridled Lust in Eden amounts to three, maybe four impulsive murders. It’s implied that Keiko is handed from one man to another, but everything sexual is left off-screen. She’s more of an idealized possession, really; the men who claim her by right of force are mostly seeking status.


Critics slammed Anatahan for not having a strong story, when the director has other aims entirely. As he did with Dietrich, von Sternberg shoots Akemi Negishi through mosquito nets and curtains; in the 1958 re-shoot material he simply shows her nude by her tub or on the rocks with the surf. His handling of actors is expert. Ms. Negishi has an interesting range of attitudes and reactions that make her into a real puzzle — she may be teasing and inviting trouble when she pauses by her bathtub. When she shoots curious looks at her admirers it is clear that she wants attention she’s not getting from her husband. We don’t have to believe that the men would necessarily break down into a mob of rapists, and it’s nice to see a film where a group of men don’t immediately become wild rapists. Except for one soldier who insists on military formalities, they’re a homogenous bunch with no obvious social friction or religious differences. There is a peak of violence, which leads to an interesting resolution that’s actually pretty believable.

As only a completely independent artist can, von Sternberg makes Anatahan a highly individual show. The artificial set is never really dream-like. There are ‘artistic’ angles idealizing Keiko’s body, and the island flora is gardened and sculpted to perfection, but much of the coverage is straight-on medium shots that could be from Gilligan’s Island. Nobody’s fooled when, for some scenes, von Sternberg films on a real seashore. His direction of the actors is quite good. They’re a natural bunch of okay, unremarkable guys, behaving naturalistically. One of them builds a Japanese musical instrument from found junk, and the sing-along sequences are charming and believable. Some of Keiko’s facial expressions are fascinating, especially when she’s playing her exhibitionist games. She seems greatly pleased with herself, yet behaves almost as if insulted, even as she puts on a perverse show for the voyeurs. Is her behavior a form of rebellion against traditional norms, given their absurd situation? Josef von Sternberg knew how to elicit interesting reactions from his leading ladies, that’s for sure. She’s an important addition to the von Sternberg stable of complex females.

The real oddness is in von Sternberg’s chosen storytelling style. The movie is basically for American audiences, but all the Japanese dialogue is un-translated. Instead, the director himself narrates the movie like a storyteller. He talks right through some dramatic scenes, explaining what is happening. Although we assume the narrator is one of the survivors, looking back at these events from a point in the future, von Sternberg doesn’t identify him or follow any set rules. Much of the talk is semi-poetic musings on the strange situation faced by the castaways. The narrator also gives blow-by-blow reportage for some scenes, including explaining exactly what people are saying. Sometimes the narrator seems deeply involved, and in others his voice is conspicuously absent. Although it seems interminable, the entire narration script of Anatahan is reproduced in Weinberg’s book, and it fills only fourteen pages.

Western audiences aren’t accustomed to having a movie ‘read to us’ while we’re watching it. Von Sternberg may have been adapting what was once a norm in the Far East and Africa, where un-dubbed, un-subtitled movies were shown accompanied by a local spokesman who would tell the story while it unspools. In some cases the local storytellers would make up their own story, to fit. Von Sternberg’s leading us through his movie feels slightly less obnoxious than the sound-era reissue of The Gold Rush, where Charlie Chaplin drops the subtitles and tells us the story, as if we were infants. But it’s still a drag — is this a movie, or a radio show? Character relationships and the pecking order among the men are so obvious, that we wonder if von Sternberg at first hoped to leave the movie in un-translated Japanese. We’d certainly follow most points, but it probably wouldn’t work. Audiences don’t like to feel they’re missing out on what’s being said.


The most criticized aspect of the narration is that von Sternberg is constantly telling us what will happen before it happens, even telling us that this or that character will soon be dead. I’d imagine that the French film critics flipped over this outright negation of standard storytelling. It’s supposed to force us to concentrate on how the story is told, rather than just react to events. But in this case it does not serve to involve us in the plight of the characters.

I don’t see any Rashomon– like complexity in this, even when the narrator relates events that that none of the survivors would know happened, as when one character dies and another disappears, without any direct witnesses. I guess those French film critics can say that the story is being told in two grammatical tenses simultaneously — the free-flowing present, and the reflective future. It may be sophisticated, but I’m not sure it enriches the movie. And forget about ‘normal’ audiences. I can’t see an average audience putting up with the method for ten minutes. We keep wishing the narrator would shut up so the story can begin.

Von Sternberg’s film reportedly didn’t play well in Japan, but we’re not told why… although I’d imagine that Japanese audiences might want more action, or at least more sex intrigue. In America the show reportedly did no box office business, even in a tiny art house theater like the old Vagabond near MacArthur Park. I guess those Cahiers critics raised interest for the film in Paris, along with von Sternberg’s reputation for glossy eroticism. It’s a given for filmmakers to claim that a picture that flopped in the States ‘played for over a year in Paris,’ but in this case the story seems to be true. But was France given the censored version as well?

James Hughes’ new Film Comment interview with film editor Tony Lawson has a pertinent quote about the narration in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Lawson says that for a while Kubrick was considering using silent-movie inter-titles to advance the story, but then says that,

“We went to narration instead. Even that is so audacious, because the narrator tells you what’s going to happen before it happens, and then you watch it happen. That’s against all the rules. [Laughs] To tell you what’s going to happen and then watch it is just mad.”

Well, wouldn’t movies be dull if nobody tried experiments like that?



The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of The Saga of Anatahan is a thorough special edition produced by Kino’s Bret Wood. The Library of Congress, Lobster Films, and La Cinematheque Française are all part of the restoration effort. The main feature is von Sternberg’s 1958 re-cut, which is in excellent shape. The 2K transfer is clean and steady, reproducing well the Japanese opticals and title work. I’ve been receiving notes that inferior VHS tapes once circulated; it’s nice to have gotten my first look at Anatahan in a version this good-looking.

I suppose that the nudity-enhanced 1958 cut was shown only at museums, etc., out of the reach of censors. Kino also includes a transfer of the U.S. premiere cut from 1953, which looks pretty good but has several sequences with French subtitles. Another extra does a quick comparison of the two versions. Also part of this package are three minutes of outtakes that Sternberg apparently kept for ‘artistic’ purposes — it’s basically nude scenes, including one view of a torso under ‘exotic’ lighting that’s reminiscent of images from Eisenstein’s abandoned ¡Qué viva Mexico!

Tag Gallagher’s visual essay illustrates most of the obvious angles with the show, but doesn’t quite convince us that it’s successful as an entertainment or as film art — we’re mostly impressed by the insights into von Sternberg’s psychology. Most interesting is footage showing the director’s ’emotion graphs,’ direction aids that explain in almost cartoon form what all the characters are supposed to be feeling in every scene. Again, even if he couldn’t communicate fluently with his actors, von Sternberg obviously got their cooperation, as the performances are much more adept than a simple set of choices — sad, happy, jealous, etc.. Gallagher mentions the special effects, in which the island is represented by what look like charcoal drawings. He doesn’t tell us that the film’s effects man was Eiji Tsuburaya, already established as Toho’s miniature expert, soon to be creating Godzilla.


Nicholas von Sternberg gets his own featurette with his memories of his father and their home life. He doesn’t remember the Anatahan set but is definitely there as a tot, in his dad’s arms in several photos. Von Sternberg  fils adds to our knowledge and appreciation of the great filmmaker, pushing back the old image of a pampered, super-cool martinet telling Marlene Dietrich what to do as if she were a puppet. As soon as that star could match his English, we know she’d put up with nothing she didn’t like.

The extras include U.S. Navy footage of the real rescued Japanese troops, after their belated surrender. If I’m not mistaken, I think there was another batch of weird Japanese holdouts, that only returned to civilization in the early 1960s.

A new trailer is deftly edited, but the original 1953 trailer looks like random shots tacked up behind a Josef von Sternberg narration. He says that he’s the director of Jet Pilot. That either means that von Sternberg mistakenly thought the RKO film had been released (I’d buy that), or that the supposed 1953 trailer is really a concoction put together in 1958, when Jet Pilot had finally reached the public.

The cult of Josef von Sternberg had already been established among cinephiles of the 1960s. Philippe Demonsablon, a French critic quoted in Weinberg’s book, pontificates that Keiko’s ‘husband’ in the movie is a von Sternberg substitute. His facial hair is something like the director’s, he’s an aloof manipulator, and he never quite accepts the fact that she’s not his property and subject to his control. Critic Adou Kyrou compares the perverse situations in Anatahan to Luis Buñuel, which makes sense when one sees Buñuel’s Death in the Garden. The groups of castaways in both films are getting along fairly well until they find a crashed plane that delivers into their hands material detritus from civilization. In each case the next step is discord and violence.

Thanks to Tag Gallagher for his corrections. He reminds me that
von Sternberg was not aiming for commercial success with this show.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Saga of Anatahan
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, for English narration only. (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 09, 2017

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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