In perhaps his most imaginative, fanciful film ever, Chris Marker’s take-no-prisoners (literally, as it turns out) essay about the unspeakable (notably by many Japanese) horrors of the Battle of Okinawa succeeds on two planes: unstintingly depicting the death, blind obedience and wanton destruction of one third of Okinawa’s citizens; marvellously embracing the metaphor of a computer programmer (Catherine Belkhodja as Laura has just the right tone of inquisitive mind and serious romantic) searching the world’s “memory” (pixel by pixel) for the truth about Okinawa.
Marker deftly alternates between actual footage, Laura’s quest and interviews with survivors. Notable from the latter is Kinjo Shigeaki who as a teenager—a devoted member of Blood and Iron Scouts—lived up to the mantra (and orders) that no Okinawan should be taken alive by the demon Americans, killing his mother, younger sister and brother. He was assisted in this grisly duty by his elder brother, knowing that their “gift of death” was far better than having their ears and noses sliced off by the Yanks. In order to live with himself (curiously not taking his own life as many, many others did) Shigeaki became a Chrisian (eventually a minister), soothed by the doctrine that once past sins are confessed and forgiveness sought, the soul can live in peace. At other times the notion that “God sides with the persecuted” is reinforced (even the bad who are persecuted) and an extraordinary clip of crowd pleasing, bull-against-bull fight underscores a number of human lusts and failings.
Ostensibly playing/programming a computer game (OWL: Optional World Link), Laura is afforded the opportunity to speak directly to a long-lost partner, yet when looking into cyberspace (a.k.a. the camera), she appears to be speaking directly to viewers. On many occasions, this adds a level of intimacy and contact that few “talking heads” documentaries ever can. In the game, she aspires to obtain Level Five, knowing full well that no one ever has, or is that exalted place similar to Shigeaki’s heaven, only reachable by confession and forgiveness before departing Mother Earth?
Okinawa post-WW II has become a place of pilgrimage, largely for Japanese tourists. The looks captured on their faces as the gruesome facts are related by cheerful guides bear/bare silent testimony to the truly awful events of 1944. But perhaps the most chilling sequence is a clip depicting a woman’s hesitation, standing on an Okinawan cliff, preparing to do her duty and throw herself into the abyss (many of the men were given two hand grenades by the Japanese authorities: one for the enemy; one for themselves). Only when she realizes that her actions are being filmed does she jump to her death along with the commentary that that camera was most certainly the gun which ended her, apparently, not very precious life.
Even more than in 1977, the computer has, in many ways, become our memory. How easily it can erase the parts we don’t like or choose to deny. But for a growing segment of the population, by letting parts of our lives slip onto the Internet for all to see and judge, the road to oblivion seems much more inviting than ever before—just as Marker knew far ahead of his time. JWR