Blu-Ray Review: The Saga of Anatahan

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Josef von Sternberg
Based on a Novel by: Younghill Kang, Michiro Maruyama
Starring: Akemi Negishi, Tadashi Suganuma, Kisaburo Sawamura, Shôji Nakayama
Country: Japan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1953
BBFC Certificate: 15


The Saga of Anatahan is a bit of a curiosity. It was written and directed by Josef von Sternberg, who was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood in the 20s and 30s, particularly after the success of his German feature, The Blue Angel. The Saga of Anatahan was his penultimate film and saw the well-travelled director head to Japan to produce a film based on a true story that happened in the country after WWII.

It tells of a group of Japanese seamen who are shipwrecked on the remote island of Anatahan, during the war. There they come across what they assume are man and wife, Kusakabe (Tadashi Suganuma) and Keiko (Akemi Negishi). Being the only woman on the island, the men soon lust after her and over the course of the seven years the group live on the island, they fight and eventually kill for her affections. During this time, they also receive messages stating that the war is over, the Japanese have lost and an American ship will come to pick them up. The proud seamen refuse to believe this though, dismissing it as enemy propaganda, and decide to stay put.

The story isn’t so unusual then as other accounts have been made of people trapped on desert islands and the like. What makes this a curiosity is partly why Sternberg decided to make this film in Japan in the first place (it’s shot on a studio, so he could have done it in his home of California), but more so in the fact that he decided to have all the cast speak their native Japanese, without subtitles. To keep the film from getting confusing, Sternberg narrates the film himself, making for a very strange and unique experience.

Unfortunately, this decision poses a bit of a ‘make or break’ situation and I fall into the latter pool. Watching the film, I found Sternberg’s constant explanation of what was happening on screen extremely grating. I was soon desperate for his narration to be replaced by subtitles or just removed altogether. I actually think the film would make sense without it, give or take some minor details. I admire Sternberg’s decision to keep the Japanese dialogue, particularly back in the early 50s when foreign films were harder to come by in the US, but in replacing any subtitles with his overly descriptive and earnest voiceover, I think the film becomes cumbersome and almost comical at times.

Trying to tear myself away from the narration, elsewhere the film is solid enough. It looks good, with some excellent production design keeping the set from looking too fake by having oppressively dense jungle vegetation hide the painted backdrops for the most part. I made the mistake of watching the forward thinking 1963 adaptation of Lord of the Flies recently though, which makes superb use of a real location for a similar story and some more dynamic, handheld camerawork. I couldn’t help comparing the two as I watched, and although Peter Brook’s film was made 10 years later and even the book was written one year after Anatahan, I preferred Lord of the Flies in all aspects.

The film moves pretty quickly though and makes for an entertaining and often quite dark adventure. It’s surprisingly raunchy at times too, with flashes of nudity here and there (I watched the uncensored 1958 director’s cut – the 1953 theatrical cut is also included here). Men’s lust for sex and power obviously provide the meat of the film’s themes, as well as a woman’s ability to control the men around her due to this lust. Although the men are fighting over what they conceive as ‘ownership’ of her, she’s able to influence their actions and turn things in her favour. This is a theme Sternberg examined in many of his films over the years.

Overall though I found the film pretty ‘ho-hum’. The themes have been explored elsewhere more effectively and the story and visual presentation didn’t feel particularly notable to me. My biggest problem was with the narration though. Had that been removed I probably would have rated the film a good deal higher. I found it so grating it cast a shadow over everything. Others may disagree though and it has received a fair amount of acclaim elsewhere, so I wouldn’t discourage people from giving it a try. It’s certainly an unusual and unique film, so anyone looking for something a bit different should give it a look.

The Saga of Anatahan is out on 14th August on Dual Format DVD & Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture and sound quality is excellent, given the film’s age.

There are plenty of special features included. These are:

– 1080p presentation from a new 2K restoration of the uncensored 1958 version of the film
– 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

Having both versions of the film available is admirable and the various interviews and essays are required viewing to hear about this strange production. Particularly interesting is how Sternberg scripted the film. Rather than a standard dialogue driven document, he painted an elaborate chart that intricately demonstrated the feelings of characters during the running time and how they intertwined. This, on top of detailed storyboards, helped Sternberg communicate what he wanted to his Japanese cast and crew.

The footage of the actual survivors is a wonderful inclusion too and the booklet, as always, is well worth a read.