Josef von Sternberg’s final movie (unless you count the 1957 John Wayne starrer JET PILOT but let’s not) gets a full and restored dual format release in the UK courtesy of Eureka.
Close to the end of World War II, a Japanese military vessel gets sunk and its twelve man crew end up on the island of Anatahan, part of an archipelago miles away from civilisation and nowhere near any flight paths. Once there, they discover an abandoned village in the jungle, the only occupants of which are a former plantation overseer and his young attractive wife (or so they believe at first) Keiko (Akemi Negishi).
As time progresses and they realise the situation they are in, discipline and rationality break down. The discovery of a crashed aeroplane also leads to the discovery of a couple of guns, and soon there are power struggles over Keiko’s affections, leading to more than just a couple of deaths.
It’s likely you’ll never see another film quite like THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN. Photographed entirely on studio sets in black and white by Sternberg himself, all the dialogue is in Japanese with no subtitles. Instead, Sternberg himself tells the story, occasionally translating the dialogue, sometimes leaving us to listen in on the islanders’ native language with no assistance. What this results in is an interesting, almost TWILIGHT ZONE take on Lord of the Flies - the stranded seamen could almost be aliens on another planet.
This, plus the black and white photography, means our attention is almost entirely concentrated on the emotional reactions of the players. It all becomes quite riveting stuff, and I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the ending. Mention should also be made of Akira GODZILLA Ifukube’s music score, which employs shuddery woodwind and strings in the same unsettling way James Bernard would a couple of years later in Hammer’s THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (1955).
Eureka’s disc comes with the fully uncensored 1958 version as well as the 1953 release which lost all the nudity and a few other bits as well. If you don’t feel like going through both versions there’s also a comparison, plus some outtake footage of actress Akemi Negeshi being required to run naked into the sea several times plus several other unclothed close-ups.
There’s a fifteen minute making of with von Sternberg’s son Nicolas, a visual essay about the film by Tag Gallagher, archival US Navy footage and a trailer. Best amongst the extras is a lengthy 45 minute interview with Tony Rayns who covers plenty of ground regarding the making of the movie.
An unforgettable experience from an important film-maker, THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN should be on everyone’s list of films to see at least once. Full marks to Eureka for putting this package together.
Josef von Sternberg's THE SAGA OF ANATAHAN is out on dual format from Eureka from Monday 14th August 2017