June 1944 and the War in the Pacific is at its height, with patriotic Japanese doing their best to prove themselves worthy of their homeland, many of them taking to the oceans to best demonstrate their strength. However, boats and ships in the Pacific had a habit of being blown up by enemy gunfire, bombs and missiles, and one such boat stranded a group of Japanese sailors on the island of Anatahan which happened to be nearby, and there they would stay for the next seven years as the makeshift society, unaware the war was ending, began to buckle and fracture. At first the cause of that was their captain, who tried to impose discipline, but as time went on there was another unavoidable factor…
She being the sole woman on the island, wife of the plantation manager Keiko, played by Akemi Negishi who was making her debut. Thanks to screenwriter and director Josef von Sternberg, who had upped sticks and moved to Japan to make this film, she became a star there, mostly down to her sexualised image which was unusual in the country's cinema of the day. She may not have made the front rank of celebrities, but she did command a cult following there, appearing in anything from King Kong vs. Godzilla to Akira Kurosawa's Dodes’ka-den and the exploitation flicks of the seventies, and it was all because von Sternberg had plucked her from obscurity to take the lead in his shipwreck picture.
Notably unlike other Japanese stars at the time, Negishi had a few nude scenes here, in fact unlike all of the Hollywood stars of the day for that matter, which when this was shown in its uncensored version was one of the arthouse movies to offer audiences an excuse to see the unclothed female form with the excuse that it was intellectual material they were watching. Von Sternberg delivered a degree of artistic kudos thanks to his high standing in the tastes of cineastes already, albeit with works that were rarely huge box office successes, but his way with a camera was rightly lauded as some of the most accomplished cinematography ever seen on the screen, his particular passion for making his actresses look beautiful a lot of the reason he was so admired.
Negishi certainly looked attractive here, but something about the studio bound production, with its jungle set that should have been lavish yet appeared cluttered and even a little underwhelming, worked against the exotic qualities von Sternberg was patently aiming for. It was not his finest-looking work, which was a pity as it was effectively the last time he would be entrusted at the helm of a movie, with Jet Pilot having been shot before and released after when Howard Hughes had finally finished tinkering with it. As compensation, what it did have was that peculiar psycho-sexual plot where the desire for order in life was replaced with a more sexual desire for control, Keiko a totem for the ten or so men who are away from every other woman in their lives, assuming they actually had a woman in their lives in the first place.
Yet she was not simply going to be put on a pedestal and fawned over, it was apparent that she had a mind of her own and was not going to be ordered around, or indeed passed around on the whims of the men she is trapped on the island with. We had seen films where the male of the species was sent around the bend by the presence of a female before, and if she was a trophy to be fought over so much the better for the drama (or comedy, not that there was much humour here), but with the leading lady's striking performance, reminiscent of those thirties melodramas where a native girl was the catalyst for all sorts of naughty behaviour by colonial visitors, was what carried much of this. Except Keiko was no native, she was a Japanese citizen and as a result breaking some conservative social rules, often because of her boredom with her restricted existence, the femme fatale who von Sternberg had pioneered in his efforts with Marlene Dietrich. Anatahan was a very odd experience all round, both because it simultaneously was fixed in its era and not a part of it, based on a true story yet hard to believe. Music by Akira Ifukube; the director narrated.
[Eureka have released this on Blu-ray under the title The Saga of Anatahan. Here are those features in full:
• Reversible Sleeve
• 1080p presentation from a new 2K restoration of the uncensored 1958 version of the film
• Uncompressed PCM soundtrack (on the Blu-ray)
• Optional English subtitles
• The complete 1953 version of the film (Blu-ray only)
• A new interview with Asian film expert Tony Rayns
• Whose Saga? - A visual essay by critic Tag Gallagher
• Saga: The Making of Anatahan - An interview with Nicolas von Sternberg
• U.S. Navy footage of the actual survivors of Anatahan, immediately after their surrender
• Unused footage originally filmed specially for the 1958 version of the film
• Original theatrical trailer
• PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp, alongside rare archival imagery.]