Anatahan (A J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

May 6, 2017 by  

Josef von Sternberg’s “Anatahan” is his personal and also his final film that looks amazing with the new 2K remaster.  If you are a fan of Josef von Sternberg’s cinematic works, you will no doubt enjoy “Anatahan”.  Recommended!

Images courtesy of © 1976 Meri von Sternberg. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Anatahan

DATE OF FILM RELEASE: 1953 & 1958 (uncensored version)

DURATION: 91 Minutes

BLU-RAY INFORMATION: 1:33:1, Monaraul English with optional English SDH Subtitles

COMPANY: Kino Lorber


RELEASE DATE: April 25, 2017

Based on the Novel by Michiro Maruyama and translated by Younghill Kang

Directed by Josef von Sternberg

Screenplay by Tatsuo Asano, Josef von Sternberg

Produced by Kazuo Takimura

Executive Producer: Nagamasa Kawakita, Yoshio Osawa, Josef von Sternberg

Music by Akira Ifukube

Cinematography by Kozo Okazaki and Josef von Sternberg

Art Direction by Takashi Kono


Akemi Negishi as Keiko Kusakabe, the “Queen Bee”

Tadashi Suganuma as Kusakabe, Husband of Keiko

Kisaburo Sawamura as Kuroda

Shoji Nakayama as Nishi

Jun Fujikawa as Yoshisato

Hiroshi Kondo as Yanaginuma

Shozo Miyashita as Sennami

Tsuruemon as Bando

Kikuji Onoe as Kaneda

Rokuriro Kineya as Marui

Daijiro Tamura as Kanzaki

Chizuru Kitagawa

Takeshi Suzuki Takahashi

Shiro Amikura

Narrator: Josef von Sternberg

Inspired by actual events, ANATAHAN explores the conflicting personalities of a dozen Japanese sailors stranded on a remote island in the Pacific during the waning days of World War II. For a time, they maintain their military discipline, but when they discover a young woman (Akemi Negishi) living on the island, the paradisal island becomes a nest of jealousy, violence, and desire. Filmed in Japan on elaborately constructed sets, with non-English-speaking actors, ANATAHAN was a deeply personal project for director Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco, The Scarlet Empress), and provided a thoroughly unique capstone to his extraordinary career.

Anatahan.  An inhabited island in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean due to its active and violent volcano and frequent typhoons.  But was used for coconut plantations in the 1800’s for the production of copra.

But the island was also the control of the Empire of Japan during World War I and in June 1944 during World War II, 30 survivors from three Japanese shipwrecks reached Anatahan.  But after the surrender of Japan, many of the castaways refused to believe the war had ended and fled to the interior of the island as Japanese holdouts.

But by 1950, it was realized that the holdouts were led by Kazuko Higa, the only woman left on the island and was discovered to live with a harem of five men, eleven who did of unknown circumstances until each surrendered in 1951.

The story of the holdouts inspired the film “Anatahan” (or “The Saga of Anatahan”) in 1953 by filmmaker Josef von Sternberg (“The Blue Angel”, “Dishonored”, “The Last Command”, “Shanghai Express”).

The film would receive an uncensored version, which is Sternberg’s preferred cut of the film.  Both were remastered in 2K and the 1958 version is mastered from film elements preserved by the Library of Congress and Cinematheque Francais.

The film begins in 1974 when a Japanese ship is sunk by enemy aircraft.  Survivors who swam from the Mariana’s Trench were able to find an island thought deserted.  One of the survivors found a village and when the survivors go to the village, they meet Kusakabe (portrayed by Tadashi Suganuma), a farmer of the coconut plantation.  While Kusakabe is not thrilled by seeing the men on Anatahan, he first tells them that he is alone.  But out of his home comes the beautiful Keiko (portrayed by Akemi Negishi) and immediately all the men become smitten that a beautiful woman is living on the island.

In truth, Kusakabe has a wife and son and Keiko had a husband, but everyone had evacuated on a boat during the war to Saipan four years earlier and the two were the only ones left alone and became a common law couple.

But as men try to get close to Keiko, she eventually gets close to one of the young survivors.  Kusakabe ends up beating on Keiko and warns the men to not go near his wife.

As the survivors are expecting to be rescued on the island, time goes on longer and longer and what becomes days, becomes months and eventually years.

And as time goes on, each of the men start to feel lustful towards Keiko and wanting her to belong to them.  And eventually, men succumb to savagery as they vie for her.

Will any of them be rescued or will they want to be rescued?


“Anatahan” is presented in 1080p (1:33:1 aspect ratio). Presented in black and white, the film looks magnificent.  Clarity and sharpness are noticeable, blacks are nice and deep, while the contrast between white and gray levels look fantastic.


“Anatahan” is presented in English Dolby Digital Monaural. Dialogue and music are crystal clear through the center channel, I didn’t notice any pops or clicks considering the age of the film. The monaural lossless soundtrack is very good.


“Anatahan” comes with the following special features:

  • 1953 Theatrical Version – The original censored version of the film without any nudity.
  • Saga: The Making of Anatahan – (15:34) Interview with Nichgolas von Sternberg about his family living in Japan during the filming of “Anatahan”.
  • Visual Essay by Tag Gallagher – (16:16) Tag Gallagher’s visual essay.
  • Outtake Footage– (2:54) Featuring unused (nude) footage shot for the 1958 version of the film.
  • U.S. Navy Footage – (7:52) Actual video footage of the real Japanese holdouts who have surrendered and went home.
  • Comparison of the 1953 and 1958 versions – (8:16) A comparison of scenes and the differences between the 1953 and 1958 version of the film.

When I was younger, I would often hear stories from my family about Japanese soldiers who were still hiding in remote areas and didn’t know World War II had ended.

My parents would talk about the soldier (who turned out to be Hiroo Onda) found 30-years later in the jungles of the Philippines had refused to believe the war was over until his former commanding officer traveled to the Philippines to meet with him.

I have read about Japanese holdouts, those who refused to believe that Japan would surrender.  And that would lead me to read about Kazuko Higa and the group of sailors who were shipwrecked and found their way to the island of Anatahan, which was left uninhabited due to a vicious volcano and terrible typhoons.

The real life story of how these survivors were taken in by the real Kikuichiro Higa (who ran a coconut plantation) and his live-in wife Kazuko.

What is known is that the survivors had lived with Kazuko, a few died and stories came out that the men died as they submitted to savagery for their love for Kazuko.

Needless to say, this story which was big news in the media worldwide and also a novel based on actual events written by one of the survivors, Michiro Maruyana, translated by Younghill Kang, became an inspiration for filmmaker Josef von Sternberg to create a movie based on the true story.

With the Sternberg family living in Japan and having enjoyed their time in the country, Sternberg was able to get funding from Japanese producers and he would create his final film, “Anatahan” in 1953.  While the film did well in Japan, due to anti-Japanese sentiment (as the film was released a few years after World War II), the film didn’t do well in America.

The film was a deeply personal project for Sternberg, as he created the film for his love of Japanese culture but also wanted to create a film that had an anti-war message.  Also, a film that he was involved in ever facet down to directing, writing a screenplay, the set design, camera and more.

And the fact that all actors were Japanese and had no knowledge of English, led Sternberg to find ways to communicate with his actors of what he wanted to achieve through storyboards and creative planning.

While the film was released in 1953, a preferred uncensored cut of the film was released in 1958.  And many decades later, both versions of the film had been remastered in 2K from film elements preserved by the Library of Congress and Cinematheque Francaise.  And this remastered version is what is available in the 2017 Blu-ray release of “Anatahan” from Kino Lorber.

Watching this film, it’s not a surprise to see many lonely men being attracted to the only woman on the island with them.  In the film, Keiko Kusakabe (portrayed by actress Akemi Negishi) is attractive and sexual.  She is a common-law wife of Kusakabe, because their own loved ones had evacuated to Saipan during the outbreak of the war and the two were left behind to watch over the plantation on the island of Anatahan.

Not having heard from their loved ones, they had only each other for the next four years.  And eventually, a dozen of shipwrecked sailors now living with them and how it would become a problematic situation for Kusakabe, as he knows nearly every man wants his wife and if anything, she is the person who keeps them all going.

But as days turn to months and months turn to years, these men eventually start to think about whoever has the power (weapons) would be the leader and have the right to be with Keiko.  And this would lead certain men to challenge other men to be with Keiko.

While messages are broadcasted towards the island that Japan has surrendered, none of the soldiers believe it and think that it’s their enemies lying to them.

But while Sternberg made sure to let viewers know that the stories were from one and that actual situations can’t be verified, the story of what happened in Anatahan still remain a mystery.  Fortunately, in 1998, the story was revived by Japanese author, Kaoru Ohno who researched and interviewed a few people who survived or were rescuers and the new information became Ohno’s novel, “Cage on the Sea”.

And the more people read about the story, the real story especially what happened to the “Queen Bee”, Kazuko Hige, was just as tragic.  But many wonder how many people were killed just to be with her?  News reports have it at six.

While there are survivors who know what happened but to respect the dead, will not ever speak about how certain people were murdered.

Kazuko Hige had said that only two died because of her.  One was shot and the other was stabbed to death.  The man who was shot was the man she lived with for three years after her husband died at sea.  She lived with one man, which lasted for 20 days.  And he happened to die while fishing.  She lived with another man for two years but didn’t love him.  So, she was with a fourth man, who was responsible for stabbing man #3.  And she and man #4 lived together until they surrendered to the Americans and had said in an interview, she would go on stage to clear her name and what happened.

But the real life of Kazuko Higa after returning back to Okinawa is that she fell into prostitution and poverty, worked as a garbage collector and died at the age of 51.

Needless to say, this story is quite captivating and it’s no surprise considering the tragedies that transpired and how a lone woman was pinpointed as the person responsible.  May it be unfair, especially for media of portraying the woman they call “Queen Bee” as a tramp.  There is more to this story that we may never know what truly transpired.

But for Josef von Sternberg’s film, he was able to create a film to capture the loss of war, loyalty to one’s country, lust, passion, abuse, anger, happiness, you name it.  With two version of the film presented, I found the 1958 film to be the definitive version and it’s what Sternberg had preferred.  The main difference is that the 1958 had nudity, the 1953 film didn’t.

The 1958 version of the film featured Keiko as a woman who knew that the men are entertained by her.  She enjoyed the attention and these men wanted to see more of her.  May it be her smiling, dancing, happy and sometimes catch her nude.  She was not happy with the men she had been with in the island, he was an abuser, he had control over her and having these other men who made her happy and gave her attention, changed her life on the island.  But her naivety was somewhat of her undoing, not knowing that men would go so low to fight and kill each other for her.  In essence, a few of these men became just as bad as the man she lived with.  They wanted power and with that power, they wanted to control her.

As for the Blu-ray release, this 2K remaster looks magnificent.  The film looks sharp, clarity is much better and amazing contrast within the grays and whites of the film.  While you can hear the Japanese dialogue, the majority of the film is narrated by Josef von Sternberg who narrates over the Japanese dialogue.  But the English narration is crystal clear.  And last, you get a good number of special features included such as the interview with Nicholas von Sternberg (Josef’s son), a visual essay by Tag Gallagher, U.S. Navy footage of the actual survivors from Anatahan and a comparison between both 1953 and 1958 films.

While Josef von Sternberg may be known for his earlier films in his oeuvre such as “The Salvation Hunters” (considered to be the first American independent film), his German film “The Blue Angel” which would lead to six U.S. collaborations with actress Marlene Dietrich.  “Anatahan” should be looked at his final, personal film which he wrote, narrated, photographed and directed.  Sure, it had a limited release and was a financial failure due to anti-Japanese sentiment not long after World War II, but I do feel that many who are discovering the film today thanks to Kino Lorber’s remastered Blu-ray release will be captivated by the story.  Considering it was inspired on a real-life story.

Overall, Josef von Sternberg’s “Anatahan” is his personal and also his final film that looks amazing with the new 2K remaster.  If you are a fan of Josef von Sternberg’s cinematic works, you will no doubt enjoy “Anatahan”.  Recommended!

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