.Wakamatsu Koji, The Rebellious Auteur
 
 
WAKAMATSU PRO: 1966 1972

The years following the formation of his own production company (Wakamatsu Productions) marked not only Wakamatsu’s shift from director-for hire to independent film-maker, but also saw an era of great change in both the political and cinematic landscapes of Japan, with numerous student demonstrations against the Vietnam war (despite the Anpo treaty stating that Japan could have no involvement in international conflicts, America was using its military bases there as a stop-off point for war planes on their way to fight in Vietnam and storing huge amounts of munitions for use in the conflict) and the introduction of student fees. In cinematic terms, the mid sixties saw the formation of what would become known as the ‘Japanese New Wave’ movement and the first self-produced from the Arts Theatre Guild of Japan (ATG), whom had previously been responsible for screening numerous ‘non-mainstream’ foreign films in their Shinjuku district art-house cinema. In fact it was in the ATG’s theatre (which coincidentally was situated close to Wakamatsu’s production offices) that Wakamatsu would meet one of his major collaborators, the (at the time) award-winning Avant Garde short film-maker Masao Adachi.

After working briefly as a production assistant for Wakamatsu’s newly formed company, Adachi was asked to write a script that could be filmed at minimum expense in Wakamatsu’s own Tokyo apartment. This film would become the first of Wakamatsu’s ‘masterworks’ and marked the beginning of his realisation as a true Auteur.


Still from THE EMBRYO HUNTS IN SECRET

Despite being shot on a greatly reduced budget (the yen equivalent to around $5000), EMBRYO HUNTS IN SECRET is artistically a far superior work to Wakamatsu’s earlier films, containing much higher production values and a more assured use of many of the experimental techniques seen in his previous work. The simplistic plot concerns a young department store worker who goes to her manager’s apartment for a night of passion, only to be drugged and bound by the man before being beaten and tortured by him for much of the films duration, before finally turning the tables and stabbing her abuser to death. In Wakamatsu’s hands, this seemingly misogynistic exploitation film becomes a parable on the abuse of power by those who claim to hold authority over the masses.

Every aspect of the film shows Wakamatsu’s increasing mastery of cinematic form, from the beautifully composed widescreen cinematography to the often dizzyingly surreal use of sound, it is clear that his departure from studio system allowed him to make films exactly the way he wanted. This can be seen by the vastly increased use of visual techniques such as canted framing, freeze-frames and the addition of non-diagetic footage into the structure of the narrative. It is also clear that he was continuing the stylistic separation from the accepted methodology of Japanese film-making that started with SECRETS BEHIND THE WALL, with faster paced editing and the use of extreme close-ups, far removed from the sparse, formalist approaches of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and the other directors who were considered masters of Japanese Cinema at the time.

Visually, one of the most striking aspects of the film is the use of lighting, which bathes the tiny apartment in ever shifting pools of light and shadow, turning the walls and doorways into a watery landscape that mirrors the occupants psychological instability, the surroundings becoming increasingly dark until the final scene when the woman kills her abductor and the lighting scheme returns to a normal, naturalistic state, signifying her escape from the sadean hell in which she has been imprisoned.

Like the acts of violence in LEAD TOMBSTONE and SECRETS BEHIND THE WALL, the woman’s stabbing of her abuser can be easily read as a ‘revolutionary’ act of defiance against the forces of oppression and also turns what could have been a well crafted but misogynistic exploitation film into a statement against not only the abuse of power, but also the subjugation of women in Japanese society.


An example of the lighting used in THE EMBRYO HUNTS IN SECRET

From the standpoint of Auteur theory, acknowledgement must be given to the involvement of both Adachi and the films cinematographer, Hideo Ito (who would lens at least ninety percent of the films Wakamatsu directed during the period covered in this chapter), both of whom, it can be argued, can claim a degree of authorship over the work. To counter-argue this point, it must be stated that Wakamatsu rejected a number of early drafts of Adachi’s script and that in his position as director and producer he would have had the final say over the composition of the shots.

While not particularly graphic by today’s standards of what is ‘acceptable’ in terms of sex and violence, it is a testament to Wakamatsu’s directorial skills that EMBRYO HUNTS IN SECRET is still considered disturbing enough to have been recently rejected for mainstream DVD release by the French ratings board who gave the film an ‘X’ rating in line with modern hardcore pornography although there are no ‘hard’ sexual acts in the film and it is considerably less graphic than recent French films such as IRREVERSIBLE (Dir: Gaspar Noe, France 2002) and BAISE-MOI (Dir: Virginie Despentes & Coralie, France 2000). This ability to shock and disturb without resorting to cheap gore effects or graphic sex is something that would also cause the problems for the next film to be discussed, which to this day is still banned by the British Board of Film Classification.

On the night of July the 13th 1966, a twenty five year old high school drop out named Richard Speck, high on drink and drugs, broke into a nurses dormitory in Chicago, Illinois and murdered all but one of the occupants. Identified by a tattoo on his arm that read ‘BORN TO RAISE HELL’, he was quickly arrested and spent the rest of his life in jail. Inspired by early reports of the case, Wakamatsu wanted to make a film that looked into the reasons why Speck ‘allowed’ one of the girls to live (as it later turned out, he didn’t, the girl survived by hiding under her bed), and with a small crew shot VIOLATED ANGELS in the space of a week.

Starring Avant Garde playwright/poet Juro Kara (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Wakamatsu and Adachi) as the disturbed young man, the film opens with an extended montage of still images, cutting between extreme close-ups of female flesh, Kara’s character wandering the streets of Tokyo and pictures from soft-core pornographic magazines, before we see the first moving shots that show Kara (his character is never named and only listed in the credits as ‘Boy’) firing a gun into the sea. This scene is heavily symbolic, as in Japanese mythology the sea is seen as a feminine entity similar to the ‘earth mother’ of western pagan belief systems.


Juro Kara shoots the sea in VIOLATED ANGELS

Following this attack on the planets feminine forces, the boy heads to a nurse’s dormitory located on the beach and after spying on the women inside, he enters the building in which the rest of the film takes place. This repeated use of single locations is something that, like the use of the apartment in EMBRYO HUNTS IN SECRET, would turn up throughout Wakamatsu’s oeuvre, most notably in the teen-angst ridden rape/revenge film GO,GO SECOND TIME VIRGIN (Japan, 1969) and the surreal apocalyptic VIOLENT VIRGIN (Japan, 1969) and while it would be advantageous to the purpose of this essay to claim that this was always an artistic decision on Wakamatsu’s part, it is most likely due to the extremely low budgets with which he was working.
While the film is filled with Wakamatsu’s ‘trademark’ techniques of freezing frames, layering/superimposition and non-diagetic sounds and images, as well as a structural breakdown at the films finale, all these elements have already been discussed in previous chapters. What makes VIOLATED ANGELS worth consideration here is the introduction of colour sequences into the proceedings (up until this point all of his films were shot entirely in black and white). At the time, it was common for the directors of eroductions to be given a handful of colour film reels on which to shoot their sex scenes (the plot parts being monochrome), but Wakamatsu would, in this film and many others, use colour to shoot scenes he considered dramatically important. In the case of VIOLATED ANGELS there are two scenes in colour, the first being a sequence in which the boy peels skin from one of his victims backs while philosophising about how he is “transforming her into an angel” and the second being when the final girl refuses to beg for her life and instead shows the boy love and compassion, to which he reacts by bursting into tears and curling up in a foetal position with his head on her lap, the two of them surrounded by a flower-like circle formed of the bloody corpses of his victims.


One of the colour scenes from VIOLATED ANGELS

Over the next few years Wakamatsu would direct more than a dozen films, most of which contained signs of his artistic and political concerns that have been mentioned elsewhere, so it is unnecessary to cover them here. It wasn’t until the tail end of 1969, one of Wakamatsu’s most prolific years, that he would further his work and shoot his first almost entirely colour film.

By the late sixties both Wakamatsu and Adachi had become heavily involved in the left-wing student radical movement known as the Japanese Red Army (J.R.A) and in the closing months of 1969 they received a tip-off that there was to be a large scale demonstration against the renewal of the Anpo Treaty near the offices of Wakamatsu Productions. Armed with a camera and several rolls of black and white film-stock, Wakamatsu went out and filmed the protest, which soon turned into a full scale riot.


Shinjuku riot footage from RUNNING IN MADNESS, DYING IN LOVE

It is this footage that is used in the opening scenes of RUNNING IN MADNESS, DYING IN LOVE and is one of a small handful of black and white scenes used in the film, intercut and at times superimposed over shots of the films male lead being beaten by riot police (nearly four decades later, Wakamatsu would return to this intercutting of genuine riot footage with staged re-enactments for his epic UNITED RED ARMY, Japan, 2007) before fleeing to the apartment of his police officer brother and sister-in-law. During an argument with his authoritarian sibling, his brothers police issue gun goes off, apparently killing him. The man and his sister-in-law flee across the country, becoming increasingly detached from reality and retreating into a world of guilt-ridden sex and depression before the brother makes an unexpected return (it turns out the bullet only injured him) and rapes his wife while his brother watches. The woman then chooses to leave with her husband, leaving the other brother alone and isolated on an empty country road.

As well as being Wakamatsu’s first colour feature, the heavily saturated colour schemes adding an almost psychedelic flavour to the usual freeze-frames and overlays, it is also the first of his films to incorporate Landscape theory into its structure. First formulated by Adachi, left-wing film critic Masao Matsuda and script writer Mamoru Sasaki, Landscape theory stated that our environment had the power to effect our personal and political identities and that through the use of urban design, state power became embedded in our very surroundings, it also theorised on the political implications of recording these landscapes on film.


Landscape shot from RUNNING IN MADNESS, DYING IN LOVE

In RUNNING IN MADNESS, DYING IN LOVE this theory manifests itself in the long durational shots of the protagonists’ surroundings, making their environments as important a part of the narrative as the actors and making their travels as much a journey through Japan’s political landscape as it is an attempt to escape from their crime.
Throughout the film there is something of an air of bitterness that can be detected, most obvious in the film’s conventionally unsatisfying ending which can be seen as a reflection of Wakamatsu’s sense of dissatisfaction with the idealism of the political movements with which he was involved. This was directly addressed in his output over the next two years, most obviously in the films SHINJUKU MAD (Japan, 1970) and SEX JACK (Japan, 1970) and would become the central theme of the next film to be looked at here.

By the time Wakamatsu directed ECSTASY OF THE ANGELS, his films had started to shift thematically from being ‘sex films’ with an often heavy handed political subtext into political films with a less overt sexual undercurrent, often featuring plots revolving around groups of left-wing/student activists and containing large amounts of dialogue that dealt directly with the political issues surrounding him at the time, such as the change in the various factions of the J.R.A from student demonstrators to ‘terrorists’ and the ideological in-fighting that was preventing these groups from bringing about any real changes in the society they sought to overthrow. This change can be seen attributed, in part, to Wakamatsu’s increasing involvement with the leftist movement, but also it can be seen as a result of the fact that his films were starting to find distribution outside of the sex cinema circuit that he had been functioning in for most of the previous decade, finding a new audience with the intellectuals and students who found in Wakamatsu’s work a cinematic reflection of their own political and artistic interests. One of these outlets was the ATG’s Shinjuku Bunka cinema, and through the ATG’s recently formed production company he was offered the chance to make ECSTASY OF THE ANGELS without having to conform to the rules of the eroduction circuit.
Following a group off left-wing radicals called ‘The Four Seasons’ (each member is named after a season, month or weekday according to their ranking within the organization) as they fall apart after a botched raid on an American munitions facility, which results in the deaths of several members of the ‘Fall’ wing of the group and the blinding of ‘October’, the groups strongest member. Charting their collapse into ever shrinking splinter groups and the internal power struggles as each member becomes increasingly paranoid of the others political intentions, ECSTASY OF THE ANGELS shows how the leaders use both sex and violence against their followers in their increasingly desperate attempts to manipulate the events for their own purposes.


Still from ECSTASY OF THE ANGELS

From an artistic point of view, ECSTASY OF THE ANGELS shows a marked improvement over many of the director’s previous films, in no small part due to the higher budget that the film had been given by the ATG. It also shows a greater realisation of Wakamatsu’s use of sex as a political metaphor, with the few acts of intercourse in the film serving as clear statements on the use of ‘pleasure’ by the controlling forces of society to subjugate the masses into compliance. This film also contains probably the best use of his trademark ‘collapse of form’ at the end of the film, with the surviving protagonists running amuck through the streets of Tokyo blowing up everything in sight, shown through a hyper-kinetic barrage of explosions, whip-pans and shaking camerawork, all set to a pounding jazz score. Aside from its stylistic prowess, this sequence also serves to make the point that the in-fighting of both the fictional and the real radical groups had made them politically ‘impotent’ and the only answer was for each individual to take action according to their own personal beliefs, a philosophical standpoint that would soon see Wakamatsu on the wrong side of law.

In the weeks surrounding the release of ECSTASY OF THE ANGELS, several events took place that would become instrumental in bringing about the end of Wakamatsu’s production company and indeed the end of his period as a hip young director with his finger on the pulse of Tokyo’s underground art scene.

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Publicity artwork for RED ARMY/P.F.L.P: DECLARATION OF WORLD WAR

Firstly, one of the locations that was ‘blown-up’ at the end of film became the target of a real bombing and Wakamatsu and the actor involved in the scene were questioned by the police and accused of using the filming as a ruse to rehearse the real act. Already aware of the director’s links with the various factions of the leftist movement, and his involvement the previous year in the production of Adachi’s propaganda documentary RED ARMY/P.F.L.P: DECLARATION OF WORLD WAR (Japan, 1971), the offices of Wakamatsu Productions were put under constant police surveillance and often raided and Wakamatsu himself was frequently pulled in for questioning about the increasingly violent attacks that the various leftist factions were perpetrating at the time. Another event that took place in the weeks running up to the films release, and the subject of his 2007 film UNITED RED ARMY, was the Asana Lodge incident, where a group of URA members who had gone to the rural Nagano prefecture on a military style training exercise, in preparation of the revolution they were trying to instigate, began a destructive series of ‘self-criticisms’ resulting in the murders of twelve of their ‘comrades’ who didn’t meet the leaders ideological standards and ended with five of the surviving members taking over a remote inn near Mount Asama and taking the owners wife hostage before staging a ten day siege which came to a head when police stormed the building, with two officers being killed in the ensuing gun fight. Under increasing pressure from the police and disillusioned with the actions of the rapidly disintegrating radical left, Wakamatsu closed his production offices and took a huge retrograde step in his career.