The Saga of Anatahan is an interesting piece of cinema.

The 1953 Japanese war film was the last directed feature of Josef von Sternberg, who continued to work on the film for four years after it’s original release; leading to a re-release in 1958. The modern-day re-release is a HD remastering of von Sternberg’s final, ‘uncensored’ product.

Based on true events, the film follows twelve Japanese sailors, who, in 1944 are stranded on the island of An-Ta-Han for seven years. During this time, they meet the beautiful Keiko and her husband Kusakabe, who are the only other inhabitants of the island. As the years go by, the men’s isolation drives them to become increasingly less rational as they struggle for power and Keiko’s love.

If we look first to the film in it’s most basic state, in the context of the 50s, we can conclude that this is a poignant tale with dark and powerful themes, complimented with strong production values. The location and set-pieces are intricate and rather beautiful, and the camerawork (done by von Sternberg, alongside directing and narrating – we’ll get to that last part later) captures the whole thing beautifully.

The acting has varying degrees of quality, but all the main characters have a strong presence, and their journey is both interesting and occasionally devastating to watch. The desperation and perversion of these men is the centre of this tale, and is handled in an intense and thoughtful way. The transition in atmosphere from camaraderie to rivalry feels very natural and is quite captivating.

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Or at least, it would be, were it still the 1950s.

You see, the problem with this film is, it’s very impressive in the context of the 50s, but if you look at the film in it’s entirety, from the perspective of a modern-day audience member, with our advances in technology and film-making knowledge, it leads to some problems.

The first is that, unless you speak Japanese; you’ll be at a loss with what’s going on some of the time. The DVD obviously does have the option of subtitles, but they don’t actually translate what is being said by the cast, due to the fact that having subtitles for the translations would clash with the directors narration of the story. This of course means that while you can follow the general progression of the characters; you can’t always get a grip on the intricacies of each character, especially if they’re not one of the central cast (as there are, perhaps, more characters than are necessary in this film).

From the beginning of the story, von Sternberg provides a narration as if he were speaking on behalf of one of the characters. The problem is, firstly, the aforementioned fact that it cancels out any chance of a translation, bar a few choice lines that he himself speaks in English. That is, however, forgiveable, as his direction of the film and the acting means, as previously stated, that you can still follow it. The second and main problem with the narration, however, is that it is rather disjointed, and at times, rips the tension from a scene.

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There is one particular point where the choice of narration is particularly baffling. While it is very eloquent and impressive in it’s own right, lines like “How the day would end, no one knew at the time” seem somewhat ridiculous because they stand in complete contrast to how, throughout the rest of the film; von Sternberg will often narrate something before the act has been seen on screen.

If a character’s going to die, von Sternberg will tell you that before the character even finds themselves in a hint of danger. One could argue that this follows the Hitchcock train of thought of building suspense – how a bomb in a film is better used if the audience knows it is there and is waiting for it to explode, rather than no one knowing it’s there and it just exploding randomly. But the key point of that is that we’ve been shown the bomb. In this film, we’re not shown hints of danger, we’re just told that a character will die, which ignores one of the main rules of cinema; ‘show, don’t tell’.

So yes, while The Saga of Anatahan is impressive by 1950s standards, in the modern day, it’s unusual assembly means it would probably be more at home in the form of a radio play.

Dir: Josef von Sternberg
Scr: Tatsuo Asano Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Akemi NegishiTadashi SuganumaKisaburo SawamuraShôji NakayamaJun FujikawaHiroshi KondôShozo MiyashitaTsuruemon BandoKikuji OnoeRokuriro KineyaDaijiro TamuraChizuru KitagawaTakeshi Suzuki & Shiro Amikura
Prd: Kazuo Takimura
DOP: Josef von Sternberg
Music: Akira Ifukube
Country: Japan
Year: 1953
Runtime: 92 Minutes

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The Saga of Anatahan is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now.