At a time when he was both his country’s most celebrated novelist and a journalist struggling to make ends meet, “Zorba the Greek” author Nikos Kazantzakis set sail for Japan on a formative journey that would shape the latter half of his career – and ultimately lead to his untimely death.
Based on the written account of his travels in the Far East, “Last Voyage,” by journalist and documentary filmmaker Aris Chatzistefanou, examines that journey while using it as a framework to explore how the period between the two World Wars shaped what would come to be known as the “Japanese Miracle.” Produced by Kyriakos Chatzistefanou for Moviementa Productions, the film premieres this week at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.
Greece’s greatest modern writer occupies a singular place in the country’s literary canon. But on his recent travels to Japan, Chatzistefanou was accompanied by “Japan-China: A Journal of Two Voyages,” one of Kazantzakis’ lesser-known travelogues, which was based on a visit to Asia in 1935. “I used it as a ‘Lonely Planet,’” said the director, who leafed through the book’s florid, descriptive passages of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples as he toured the country.
It was Kazantzakis’ incisive readings of the geopolitical landscape and his harsh critiques of capitalism, however, that gripped the filmmaker, whose previous documentaries such as “Debtocracy” and “This Is Not a Coup” focused on political and economic crises roiling Greece and the Eurozone.
The book sheds light on a formative period in the life and philosophical evolution of Kazantzakis, whose signature works – such as “Zorba the Greek” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” – still lay before him. “It’s at the core of the way he was thinking, [but] it’s a piece of text that we don’t know about,” said Chatzistefanou. “It’s one of the periods of his life that isn’t discussed in the official histories.”
“Last Voyage” is both an homage to that book and a visual journey through modern-day Japan, with contemporary footage – combined with manga, anime and video games – unspooling in conversation with and juxtaposition to Kazantzakis’ text, which is read by renowned Greek artists Yannis Aggelakas and Olia Lazaridou.
Kazantzakis had a famously mercurial spirit. “He was a huge personality. He was traveling between theories and ideologies, and everyone hated him,” said Chatzistefanou. “The church thought he was an atheist. He was not a Christian, but he had a very strong faith. The left was saying that he was an idealist. The right was saying that he was a pro-left materialist,” he continued. “If you were to ask someone in his time, they would say that he was a communist. He loved the Soviet experiment and he loved Lenin. If you had to ask a communist, he would say, ‘No way. He’s not a communist. He’s not even a leftist.’”
Kazantzakis, however, was fervid in his anti-imperialist beliefs, a conviction that prevented him from speaking out against – or perhaps even recognizing – the growing menace of fascism that in the 1930s was sweeping across the globe. “He didn’t really criticize fascism as one would expect,” said Chatzistefanou. “He hated the United States and Great Britain and France and all the old powers, so he was giving space to new powers like Italy, like Germany, like Japan, which at the time were moving toward fascism.”
The writer’s travels in the Far East, however, marked a turning point. “I think it’s in ‘35, or a little later, that he will realize the dark side of some things that he used to believe,” said Chatzistefanou. “He realized that something really bad is going to happen with Japan, with all these expansionist policies.”
Yet despite his increasingly sharp criticism of the country later in life, Kazantzakis the traveler was still drawn to the enigma that was Japan. “I think he loved this contradiction. As he says, they use the [cherry blossoms] to cover the cannons,” said Chatzistefanou. “I think that Kazantzakis was using Japan to explain this battle with modernity and tradition. It wasn’t only about Japan. Those were the things he didn’t like in other countries where he traveled. He didn’t like this modernity of the machine that was coming.”
In a radio interview reproduced toward the end of “Last Voyage,” during a 1957 visit to Japan with his wife, the great novelist quotes an ancient Egyptian saying: “Happy is he who has seen the most water in his life.” On the return trip to Europe, Kazantzakis fell ill with the “Asian flu” epidemic that would claim more than 4 million lives worldwide – including his own.
As for how the writer would respond to the modern-day Japan presented in “Last Voyage,” Chatzistefanou was circumspect. “I’m not sure if he would like it or not,” he said. “It was the travel itself that he loved.”