Born, on the first of April, 1936, in the mountainous, rural Tohoku region of northern Japan, Koji Wakamatsu was one of several sons of his horse-breeding parents. Displaying an anti-authoritarian attitude from an early age, he was prone to fighting with his father and was expelled from several schools for his frequent clashes with teachers and fellow pupils. Having already decided that the life of a farmer wasn’t for him, he headed to Tokyo in his late teens, where he spent time working in a number of menial jobs, before becoming involved with the yakuza and being given the task of ‘overseeing’ film shoots in the city’s Shinjuku district (to this day, film crews working in Tokyo have to have a yakuza nearby on shoots, to show they have ‘permission’ to film in the area), before serving a six-month prison sentence for robbery. During his time inside, along with further fuelling his hatred of authority figures, he decided that the best way he could attack the system, without spending any more time in jail, would be through artistic expressions of his anarchic rage.
After begging for a job from one of the production managers he had previously extorted, Wakamatsu managed to secure himself a position as a production assistant for a small television company, moving on to work for a number of small companies producing low-budget eroductions, and by 1963 got the chance to direct his first film, entitled SWEET TRAP.
Over the next three years, while freelancing as a director for numerous pink/eroduction companies, he directed over twenty films. Unfortunately, because films made within the sex film industry at the time were often destroyed after their theatrical run had ended, and as there was no video industry in the sixties, meaning there was no secondary income, storing them was seen as unprofitable and very few of these films are now available. It is my intention to use the few that are still in existence as the basis on which to show how Wakamatsu’s directorial style first developed.
From the available sources, it is clear that the bulk of Wakamatsu’s formative films took their plots either from sensationalist headlines of the day, or from other films that were popular at the time. While it would be fair to say, based on the few films that are available for viewing, that these films lacked any particular signs of originality or talent on Wakamatsu’s part, it must also be noted that although it wasn’t until the release of his eighteenth film (SECRETS BEHIND THE WALL, Japan, 1965) that Wakamatsu developed a style that could be defined as his own, this was not unusual within the Japanese film industry, where it is not unheard of for a director to make five to ten films a year due to the extremely short production times of most Japanese films. Given that Wakamatsu was taking his ideas from news stories of the day, these quick turnarounds worked in his favour, as by the time his films hit the theatres, the headlines that they were based on were still fresh in the audiences memory and he quickly began to gain a reputation as a director of edgy, contemporary films that did fairly well at the box office (compared to other productions of the time).
Of the films which are available for viewing, the only one which would seem to bear any witness to Wakamatsu’s personal vision is RED CRIME (Japan, 1964), which tells the story of a salesman who is framed for a crime he didn’t commit after saving a woman from being raped by the brother of a public prosecutor. This theme of, often doomed, struggle against corruption and those in power would become something that would turn up throughout much of Wakamatsu’s work over the years and become an important part of his ‘signature’ as an Auteur.
"LEAD TOMBSTONE " (1964)
The earliest of his films available for viewing does seem to show an increasing political content in his output at the time, most notably in it’s opening scene (following the opening title montage of cityscapes and petty criminal activity), in which a female farmer is raped by an American G.I, before the soldier is murdered midway through the act by the woman’s young son (who grows up to become the films central protagonist). To understand this sequence beyond the merely exploitative, it is necessary that to look at the political landscape of Japan at the time, particularly the uneasy relationship between Japan and America during the fifties and sixties and beyond. Firstly, and most obviously, one has to take into account the effect that the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the national psyche of Japan, which by the early sixties was still seeing countless cases of radiation related illnesses and death among those who survived the blasts or lived close to the regions at the time. Secondly, there was the fact that until 1951 Japan was occupied by U.S military forces, and even after the official ending of the occupation the American army kept a strong military presence throughout the country, with a large percentage of the countries land taken up by American army bases and munitions storage facilities. The third factor was the signing, in 1960, of the Japanese – American Treaty for National Security (known as the Anpo agreement) which gave Japan the right to restore its military defence capabilities, but stated that the country could not involve itself in any international military conflicts. The treaty also gave America the continuing right to keep a military presence in Japan, a move unpopular with the general population and the cause of numerous demonstrations at the time.
Given this information, it is clear that this scene of an American soldier violating a Japanese farm worker is symbolic, albeit in a simplistic, heavy-handed way, of the nations feelings of the helplessness against the ‘brute force’ of the American military occupation and the child’s killing of the soldier can be easily be read in terms of a wish fulfilment or a ‘revolutionary’ act of violence that ‘saves’ the boy’s mother (and by extension, his ‘motherland’) from violation by an invading force. Other, less blatant, socio-political elements are also present in the narrative structure of the film that can be used to illustrate the early development of Wakamatsu’s use of political subtext within plots that appear, on the surface, to be fairly conventional ‘B-movie’ material. Most notably in LEAD TOMBSTONE this manifests itself in the inter-character power play, in which those in power (in this case, in the ranks of the crime syndicate) are seen as being corrupt in direct relation to the amount of power they hold over others, with the films single ‘innocent’ character, the young gangsters flower-seller girlfriend, suffering at the hands of those trying to suppress the central protagonists ‘rebellion’ (throughout the film, he rapes and murders the wife of the Yakuza that recruited him, then kills his mentor, before taking on the gang’s head) against the external forces that are shaping their existence.
An early use of image layering in LEAD TOMBSTONE
Stylistically, there is very little in LEAD TOMBSTONE that separates it from other low budget Japanese exploitation films being produced in the early sixties, although, in context, there are a few sequences that display Wakamatsu’s early experimentation with cinematic form. The main illustrations of this can be witnessed in the occasional uses of unconventional sound elements (several ‘dramatic’ close-ups are accompanied by the sound of a knife being sharpened and the protagonist’s rape of his mentor’s wife takes place to the sound of African tribal drumming, serving to illustrate the primal nature of the act being depicted onscreen) and a dream sequence which is entirely composed of images superimposed over one another, a visual motif that would turn up repeatedly throughout Wakamatsu’s career, serving as one of the ‘pen strokes’ of his Auteurism.
The second film under consideration, PERSONAL HISTORY OF A LOVE AFFAIR (Japan, 1964) uses a narrative structure similar to Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (Japan, 1950), with a murder investigation uncovering several versions of the events leading up to the crime and both of the characters (a prostitute and one of her clients, who is in love with her) being questioned telling tales, shown in flashback, that paint themselves as the innocent party, suffering at the hands of the other. As with LEAD TOMBSTONE, there are few distinguishing signs in the film that could be regarded as the work of an auteur director, with both films being fairly amateurish, both in relation to Wakamatsu’s later work and in comparison with similar films being made at the same time by directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki. That said, there are several elements within the film that can be seen as early attempts to break with conventional cinematic form.
The first of these is the use, throughout the course of the film, of the same ‘knife sharpening’ sound effect that appears in LEAD TOMBSTONE. Again, this effect adds dramatic tension to a number of close-up shots showing the characters emotional turmoil. Another aural technique used in the film, that would become one of Wakamatsu’s recurring stylistic motifs, is the addition of echo and reverberation effects to certain key pieces of dialogue, heightening the sense of emotional detachment during scenes in which the prostitute suffers verbal and physical abuse at the hands of the males she blames for her predicament. Visually, one of the few signs of directorial individuality present are the layering of images over each other in a style similar to that of LEAD TOMBSTONE, often showing both ‘real’ and imaginary or remembered events at the same time, most effectively in a scene where the prostitute is having intercourse with a client she dislikes and daydreams about the only man she ever loved. There are also numerous shots that utilise distorted lenses to ‘bend’ the reality of certain, usually violent, sequences, often in tandem with the aural techniques mentioned previously.
Newsreel demonstration footage from PERSONAL HISTORY OF A LOVE AFFAIR
Also worth mentioning is Wakamatsu’s use of genuine footage of political demonstrations (in this case, made up of archive newsreel footage), used in the film to introduce one of the prostitutes lovers, a political activist that she meets when he jumps into her car to escape the riot police. Taken in the context of this particular film, there is little of significance to be found in this stock footage beyond being a cheap way for the director to incorporate scenes of civil unrest into his film, but when viewed against the films he would make throughout the sixties and into the early seventies (covered in the next chapter), these scenes can be seen as a precursor to the numerous uses of riot footage that would turn up throughout his more political works.
While it can be argued that neither LEAD TOMBSTONE nor PERSONAL HISTORY OF A LOVE AFFAIR are by any means works of an Auteur director, it is possible in both cases to show how they demonstrate early attempts by Wakamatsu to insert his political and artistic preoccupations into genre film-making. To use Astruc’s ‘camera-pen’ analogy, these two films can be likened to a child’s first crayon drawings or primary school writings, not so much displaying any real talent, but more a period of coming to terms with the tools at his disposal.
The first of Wakamatsu’s films to gain both international attention and national controversy when it screened at the 1965 Berlin International Film Festival, SECRETS BEHIND THE WALL is also the first of his films that can seriously be considered as an Auteur film, displaying both an increase in his artistic abilities as a director and a talent for turning the personal and sexual exploits of the films protagonists into metaphors for wider, political concerns. The film follows a young student, named Makato, as he studies for his university entrance exams and who knowing he is doomed to failure, spends his time reading American pornographic magazines and spying on his neighbours, one of whom is a woman having an extra marital affair with an ex-radical activist suffering from a radioactive keloid scar, a side effect of his exposure to the atomic blast at Hiroshima. As the film progresses, Makato becomes increasingly frustrated, both sexually, with his surroundings and at his impending failure with his exams, finally snapping and murdering his sister before he rapes the adulterous neighbour, who has by this point become so jaded that she openly encourages his aggressive advances, ultimately resulting in her death at his hands.
The unblinking gaze of SECRETS BEHIND THE WALL
Throughout the movie there are numerous signs of Wakamatsu’s increasing artistic ability, including a far greater use of experimental devices, such as montage editing and the use of unconventional sound to illustrate the characters internal emotions. There are also a number of shots and sequences that display his maturing use of mis-en-scene to create multiple layers of meaning within the framework of the narrative. An example of this can be seen in the very first shot of the film, an extreme close-up of a woman’s eyes staring directly at the viewer, which serves not only to introduce us into the films voyeuristic universe (aside from Makato spying on his neighbours, several other characters in the films are prone to peeping through curtains and letterboxes at the world around them), but also make implicit the audiences role as passive observers of the onscreen events.
Wakamatsu’s technique of layering images together also advanced considerably with SECRETS BEHIND THE WALL, serving not only to show us the characters internal landscapes, but also as a means to make political statements. This politicisation is best illustrated by two scenes in the film, the first is during a love scene between the adulterous wife and her keloid scarred lover where Wakamatsu layers images of mushroom clouds and student riots over the woman’s ecstatic face and the second is the layering of pictures of western erotica over Makato’s face as he masturbates over his magazines. The bomb/riot overlays serve to show us that the woman is in love with what her lover stands for (at another point in the film she states “You are a symbol of Hiroshima, a symbol of Japan…an anti-war symbol”) more than she is in love with him and the erotic magazine images become symbolic of America’s political corruption of the Japanese way of life. While it is true that much of the political content of the film is far from subtle (much of the dialogue is taken up with the various characters discussing everything from Hiroshima and the Vietnam war to union law and memories of their activist pasts), it is this, at times, overly direct approach that would become one of Wakamatsu’s thematic and stylistic constants and in turn serves to prove that even his lesser films of the mid to late seventies (to be discussed in a later section) show signs that make them distinctly works of an Auteur director
Masturbatory superimposition from SECRETS BEHIND THE WALL
Another development in Wakamatsu’s individualism as a director can be found in the breakdown of cinematic form at the end of the film. After Makato kills the adulterous housewife, the film cuts to a shot of a newspaper accompanied by the sound of a radio broadcast of a baseball match, as the camera slowly zooms in on the newspaper to reveal a headline stating ‘HOUSEWIFE MURDERED IN HOUSING COMPLEX BY HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT’, the radio voiceover excitedly screams “Home run by Kaneda! Going, going, gone!” at which point the film ends. On the one hand this works to illustrate that the events in the film come from ‘real’ events present in the news headlines and on the other, it shows that Wakamatsu was becoming increasingly confident with the language of cinema, to the point that he could break away from conventional practise and still maintain a meaningful discourse with the audience, even while ‘folding’ the film in on itself, a practice that would become yet another of his unique stylistic touches.
After the films premiere in Berlin and the ensuing controversy (it was one of the first of the countries sex films to be released outside of Japan and became known as ‘a national disgrace film’ (Sharp, 2008, p.83)) Nikkatsu, the studio that had commissioned Wakamatsu to make the film, more or less shelved the film, angering the director and prompting him to set up his own production company, the output of which will be discussed in the next chapter.