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Hollywood Genius Josef von Sternberg's Classic Anatahan Returns to the Silver Screen

Ed Rampell: Anatahan is about a group of castaway Japanese men who - after their ship is sunk by the Allies in the Western Pacific - are stranded in 1944 on that 13 square mile isle located 65 miles north of Saipan.
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Keiko, the “Queen Bee” of Anatahan (Akemi Negishi)

One of the few movies set mostly in the Northern Marianas has been restored and theatrically re-released in Manhattan. The 1953 classic Anatahan was the final film by the great Austrian director Josef von Sternberg, who’d discovered Marlene Dietrich and cast her as kinky cabaret singer Lola Lola in 1930’s The Blue Angel. After they relocated to Hollywood, von Sternberg directed the blonde superstar in a series of stylish, sensuous 1930s motion pictures, including Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman.

Anatahan is about a group of castaway Japanese men who - after their ship is sunk by the Allies in the Western Pacific - are stranded in 1944 on that 13 square mile isle located 65 miles north of Saipan.

After he fell out with Hollywood studios von Sternberg went to Japan in the early to 1950s to make what would turn out to be his last movie. Based on a true story, Anatahan is about a group of castaway Japanese men who - after their ship is sunk by the Allies in the Western Pacific - are stranded in 1944 on that 13 square mile isle located 65 miles north of Saipan. The dozen Japanese males encounter a man and woman at Anatahan, who had been living on the otherwise uninhabited island where they ran a plantation. At the time, the Northern Marianas was part of Imperial Japan’s South Sea colony, or Nanyo, in Micronesia, which stretched to the Marshall Islands in the East and to Palau in the south.

Cut off from the outside world for about seven years, Anatahan’s marooned Japanese residentslargely revert to a state of nature (if not savagery!), living off the land and drinking lots of tuba, called “coconut wine” in the movie. Loyal to the emperor, they have no idea World War II has ended - but the males bring the war home to Anatahan, as they fight and even kill each other to gain the sexual favors of the isle’s sole female, Keiko. She is depicted by Akemi Negishi, a beautiful 19-year-old chorus hall dancer discovered - like Dietrich! - by von Sternberg.

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The surviving sailors

In this black and white movie that is also known as The Saga of Anatahan, von Sternberg returned to the recurring themes of sexual obsession and violence in his Dietrich movies. While inspired by a real chapter of postwar history in what had been called the Pacific Theater, von Sternberg fictionalized (if not sensationalized) Anatahan’s screenplay, which adapted Michiro Maruyama’s novel. For instance, the actual number of men on Anatahan was much larger than the movie’s dirty dozen. None of the picture was actually shot on location anywhere near Anatahan - the jungle scenes were lensed indoors at a Kyoto aircraft hangar, while what appears to be painted backdrops are used for long shot exterior views of the volcanic island.

According to film historian John Baxter, author of the 2010 biography Von Sternberg, the director “adapted the original story to reflect his preoccupation with the destructive power of a woman… he reinvented the [real life] homely Kazuko Higa as Keiko, a glamorous and sensual temptress… relishing her status as ‘Queen Bee’” in the Marlene mold. Distributor Kino Lorber calls this restored version the “uncensored director’s cut” and it includes several eye-opening nude scenes of Akemi Negishi, which was not permitted during the 1950s. Be that as it may, Anatahan’s smoldering sensuality launched the career of Negishi, who went on to star in movies by the renowned Akira Kurosawa, including as Osen the prostitute in 1957’s The Lower Depths opposite Toshiro Mifune (who co-starred with Lee Marvin in another WWII-era drama, 1968’s Hell in the Pacific, shot on location in Palau).

To further make Anatahan a personal picture, von Sternberg himself narrates the voiceover which explains what’s happening onscreen and comments upon the plot’s turgid events. Although there are some intertitles in English, the Japanese cast’s dialogue is not translated via English dubbing or subtitles. And in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson adds, “Sternberg himself photographed the film.”

Film “Flop” or Movie “Masterpiece”?

Nevertheless, Baxter notes that while von Sternberg “exercised complete creative control” over Anatahan, his “final film was an ignominious flop.” But Thomson insists, “Very rarely seen, Anatahan is a masterpiece, to rank with the Dietrich films.”

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Now, for the first time in decades, film buffs can decide for themselves whether or not Anatahan is a “flop” or “masterpiece.” Kino Lorber, a New York-based distributor of art-house and foreign films, is releasing this long lost movie in New York, Chicago, Austin, Cleveland and Toronto through May. DVDs of Anatahan can be purchased at: www.kinolorberedu.com/film/anatahan.

After about two thirds of a century, Anatahan opened at Metrograph, a specialty cinema located in Lower Manhattan, which seems like an ideal place to welcome von Sternberg’s final film back onto the big screen. According to Metrograph’s website, it provides “a unique experience of seeing prestigious films; of stepping into a special, curated world of cinema, a world of hospitality harkening back to the great New York movie theaters of the 1920s, as well as the Commissaries of the Hollywood Studio back lots, a world inhabited by movie professionals screening their work, taking meetings, watching films. It’s the ultimate place for movie enthusiasts…” The Metrograph Book Store sells contemporary and vintage film-related books and publications and “The Metrograph Commissary is inspired by the studio eateries from Hollywood’s golden age, where stars would enjoy their meals alongside their producers, crews, and stagehands” and “is comprised of a lobby bar, restaurant, restaurant bar, and private dining room.” (See: http://metrograph.com/.)

For we fans of South Seas Cinema - films shot and/or set in the Pacific Islands - seeing Anatahan has been like the quest for this movie genre’s Holy Grail. Anatahan also has a special meaning for me: Around 1982, while living in Inarajan, Guam, I set sail for the Northern Marianas aboard a commercial fishing vessel that, to the best of my recollection, was called the M.V. Sun. We dropped anchor off of Anatahan, which was completely uninhabited - except for millions of flies and, as I recall, mules, who flourished in the absence of human controls. We fished, hauling in gigantic groupers and hammerhead sharks. The crew included Randy Coffman, a Native Hawaiian fisherman named Manny and a teenaged Carolinian named Pedro, who rather astoundingly jumped overboard when dolphins appeared and like a cowboy, rode those bucking broncos with dorsal fins. With the exception of kayaking down Molokai’s Coast a few years later, it was the most fun I ever had in my life with just guys (there was no Keiko sailing with us to kill ourselves over!). I wrote about this commercial fishing adventure for Guam Business News.

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Keiko, the “Queen Bee” of Anatahan (Akemi Negishi) with one of her numerous suitors

Some Other Mariana Movies

There have been other features set in the Northern Marianas - most of them (including many newsreels and documentaries) deal with WWII, and in particular, with the bloody Battle of Saipan and Tinian, where a B-29 named the Enola Gay flew from in order to drop its deadly atomic payload on Hiroshima. Some of the more notable Mariana movies include:

In 1947 Barry Nelson played Enola Gay pilot Col. Paul Tibbets in the film The Beginning or the End, directed by Norman Taurog (who, oddly enough, went on to direct Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin and Elvis flicks). Robert Taylor starred as Tibbets in 1952’s Above and Beyond, which was made at MGM Studios, Culver City and at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base - near Tucson, not Tinian. In 1980’s made-for-TV movie Enola Gay: The Men, the Mission, the Atomic Bomb, Dallas’ Patrick Duffy portrayed Tibbets.

In 1960’s gritty Hell to Eternity, real life soldier Guy Gabaldon - who captured many Japanese troops during the Battle of Saipan - was depicted by Jeffrey Hunter. Two years later, Hunter also played George Tweed, the only U.S. Serviceman not captured during the Japanese occupation of Guam, in No Man Is an Island. Although it was shot largely at Oahu, the Battle of Saipan was also rather gorily reenacted in John Woo’s 2002 Windtalkers, starring Nicolas Cage.

A notable exception to the WWII era dramas set in the Marianas is 1983’s It’s All Right, My Friend, starring Peter Fonda (of Easy Rider fame) as Gonzy Traumerai. Unlike the above, this Japanese sci fi comedy was actually shot on location in Saipan. Anatahan belongs to this motley crew of movies set in the Marianas. Although Josef von Sternberg was a cinematic genius, hopefully Chamorros, Chamolinians and other locals in the Marianas will join some of their Pacific Islander brethren in making their own feature films about themselves, shot, as well as set, in their own isles.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based film historian and critic Ed Rampell lived in Guam and Micronesia from 1981-1986 and reported for The Guam Tribune, Pacific Daily News, Guam Business News, Glimpses, Associated Press, Radio Australia, Reuters, Radio New Zealand, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, etc. Rampell is the co-author of three South Seas Cinema film histories, including “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.”