In early 1968, Norio Nagayama, a disaffected Japanese teenager, was moving across the country from one town to the next, trying to find himself employment. Filled with feelings of isolation and frustrated at his fruitless efforts to become ‘a productive citizen’ (the expected personal goal of Japanese political ideology), he started shooting several random strangers in the towns he passed through. Inspired by news of the events, a group of radical artists, who were at the forefront of the movement which became the Japanese new-wave, started making works founded on a manifesto known as ‘Landscape Theory’ in which the post-war reconstruction of the country (both physically and politically) became a socio-political tool affecting the individual and mass psychology of the countries citizens. In simple terms, the theory runs along the line of ‘what we see, makes us’ (the word ‘fukei’ can translate as either ‘landscape’ or ‘spectacle’), and was used by these artists to make statements on Japan’s national identity being lost to politicians who, at the time (and to some degree still) were handing the power over to the political demands of the west (predominantly post-Fordist America).
The first film to come out of the movement was Kaneto Shindo’s Naked Nineteen (1969), which was a fairly conventional film dealing with Nagayama’s unhappy childhood, laying the blame for his crimes on contemporary social inequality. The next film, and probably the best known (although still near impossible to see in the west) was Nagisa Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will On Film (1969) which held the boys environment as responsible for his actions as his upbringing. While still relatively straightforward (aside from its extended fukei sequences), Oshima (who entered film after gaining a degree in Marxist theory) used his film as something of a ‘call to arms’ for Japanese youth to overthrow the status-quo and re-build society on a more equal footing.
The most interesting of these late 1960’s/early 1970’s landscape films was Masao Adachi’s dialogue free AKA Serial Killer (1969), which covered Nagayama’s journey, filming the images that he could have seen on his travels, and placing the blame for his actions squarely on the shoulders of the boys environment. The making of the film was facilitated by the funding of Adachi’s more commercial pink film Schoolgirl Guerilla (1969), which was shot at the same time by Koji Wakamatsu as part of their long running friendship/collaboration (Adachi scripted many of Wakamatsu’s best known/more political films of the time, including his ‘masterworks’ Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969) and Violated Angels (1967), often working under the pseudonym ‘Izuru Deguchi’, a nom-de-plum used by a number of Japanese underground artists at the time). After the collapse of the Japanese Red Army (a radical left-wing group of student activists), whom both Wakamatsu and Adachi had links with) in 1971’s ‘summation’, in which twelve members were executed by the group leaders in a supposed ‘cleansing’, both Wakamatsu and Adachi fled to Palestine and made the short film Red Army - Declaration of World War (1971).
Adachi stayed there, while Wakamatsu returned to Japan after filming had finished and continued to make subversive pink cinema, occasionally utilizing sub-texts founded on Landscape Theory. The most notable of Wakamatsu’s early landscape influenced films was 1978’s Serial Rapist, which features a young man who aimlessly rides his bicycle around a dead end industrialized town, using a home-made gun to attack and murder a number of people before being killed himself by an unseen assailant. More recently, a seventeen year old student living in Tokyo bludgeoned his mother to death, then took his bicycle and rode to the northern prefecture of Aomori before being apprehended by the authorities. Inspired by this story (and the increasing rate of teenage parentacide in modern Japan), Wakamatsu started writing a treatment with old friend Adachi (who had recently been released from prison after returning to Japan from his self-imposed, thirty year, exile to Palestine after the breakdown of the Red Army movement), reviving their theories on landscape/spectacle influencing individual action. This film became the international festival hit Cycling Chronicles …
Cycling Chronicles follows a nameless 17 year old boy (played by charismatic Tatsuku Emoto, in one of his debut film roles) as he embarks on an epic journey, cycling through Japan (from Nagoya in the south, to Aomori in the north, mainly along the eastern coastline and through the snowy central regions) in an attempt to escape the fact that he may well have murdered his mother by beating her to death with a baseball bat. While almost entirely silent himself, the boy meets a number of characters on his travels who deliver dialogues/monologues pertaining to both Japan’s brutal militarism (and its historical/societal after effects on the national psyche) and current political issues affecting the country and its population. In a number of ways (to be discussed later) the film shows how the paths that Japanese society has carved in both its history and land have created an environment which has nurtured the young mans frustrations and can create the need for extreme forms of cathartic behavior, be it murder (in recent years the murder rate in Japan has increased considerably) or the physical endurance of his epic journey.
As the film progresses, the physical endurance takes its toll on the youth and we see a number of shots of him struggling with his bike
From its opening frame Cycling Chronicles is rich in symbolism. The first shot is of a bicycle on the beach, dwarfed by the vast sea behind it. This would be something of a symbolic shot as it is (the bicycle belongs to the possibly radical youth, and images of the sea are often referred to by both art critics and psycho-analysts as being a signifier of birth and motherhood), but Wakamatsu adds a further layer of meaning by having an oil rig break up the line between sea and sky, rearranging natural beauty through mans commodification of the environment. Shortly after this we see the first scenes of the film’s teenage protagonist pushing his bike along a muddy road, towards Mt. Fuji. In this sequence, it is safe to assume that the mountain serves as a semiotic replacement for the boy’s father (in Japan, Mt. Fuji is known as ‘the old man of Japan’ and serves as a much used symbol of national stoicism and authority)and by extension, the patriarchal society in which he lives. This is further made clear by a single line of internal dialogue which the teenager ‘says’ to the national landmark; “You only look upon us from afar…and pretend you know everything”. This line (one of the very few delivered in the boy’s voice) not only to express his (and Wakamatsu’s) feelings towards authority, but also hints that this father has been either absent from his life, or distant (this is further borne out by the fact that at no point in the film does the boy refer to, or remember, his father. Unlike the mother who haunts both his waking life and his dreams). This scene ends when the boy gets on his bike and rides away from the mountain (turning his back on everything that Mt. Fuji stands for), towards the urban jungle of Tokyo.
The scenes in Tokyo are the first in the film to use on screen titles (rather than dialogue) to express the central characters internal thoughts. This use of external text serves in some ways to express the teenager’s detachment from the world around him (further proved by the text itself, one line of which reads, “You’re just landscapes, all of you. Go get lost” the translation could also be read as “You’re just spectacles all of you, Get lost”, although given the context of the film, either would be acceptable). This detachment is also apparent in the camerawork during the Tokyo segment of the film, with the crowds of people often overwhelmed on the screen by the flashing neon signs of the city, or removed entirely and replaced with garbage eating magpies. Much of the visual style of the city scenes is cold and clinical, recalling both the chrome and glass cinematography of directors Toshiharu Ikeda (and his occasional collaborator Takeshi Ishii) and the ‘tech-noir’ styling’s of pre-Titanic James Cameron.
It is also during this part of the film that it is first hinted at that the teenager may have killed his mother. While it is strongly suggested that he has indeed committed the crime, Wakamatsu never actually shows us the act itself (in Tokyo a group of teenage boys discuss similar cases and Emoto’s character has occasional visions, dreams and ‘flashbacks’). By alluding to the murder, rather than showing it, Wakamatsu puts the boy in a position (from the audience’s point of view) where it is possible that he is in fact running from the desire to kill his mother (and by extension, Japanese society’s ‘submission’ to the west, as in Japan, women are expected to be subservient to men, the ‘stronger/dominant’ sex) and has not necessarily committed the act. By taking this approach, Wakamatsu makes it easier for the audience to empathize with the boy, and also makes him something of a metaphor for the entire generations of Japanese youth put under huge cultural/parental pressure to achieve high grades in their exams and become well behaved ‘productive citizens’ (this pressure is blamed by many Japanese thinkers for creating the ever growing number of teen committed murders and crimes in Japan).
One of the images that Wakamatsu uses that comes across as overly heavy handed is that of the boy cycling through red lit tunnels into bright white daylight. This image is repeated several times throughout the film (usually after a scene in which the teenager has grown/developed), and comes across as a sledgehammer subtle piece of Freudian ‘birth’ imagery which seems out of place given the fact that the bulk of the film works perfectly on much less obvious levels, such as the scene towards the end where the boy gives an elderly lady a piggy back up a hill in a scene that seems almost like a return to the birth canal, but with the boy taking on the burden of the task as a form of redemption for his possible act of matricide.
The one point at which Cycling Chronicles ceases to function purely as a symbolic film is during the extended monologue from the old man concerning Japan’s part in the second world war, the post war reconstruction, Japanese political hypocrisy and the self destructive nature of youth. This overly long sequence (which clocks in at around a sixth of the films duration) imparts almost all of the exposition through the man’s dialogue, apart from a single use of split-screen which serves to illustrate the generational divide between the old man and the boy. While bringing the film to a temporary halt on some levels, it does work to give the film a context in which the rest of the picture can function as something more than just a tale of a boy running away from a crime.
In Japan, Mount Fuji is known as ‘the old man of Japan’ and serves as a much used symbol of national stoicism and authority
This central scene was also ad-libbed by non-actor Hariu Ichiro (who in real life is a renowned art critic and friend of Koji Wakamatsu) with minimal direction from Wakamatsu, who merely asked him to talk about his life when he was seventeen, the war and the Emperor. As Ichiro shares many of his political views with Wakamatsu, and they are of similar ages, one feels that Ichiro is in many ways the voice of the director, speaking almost directly to the audience.
Another way in which the director addresses the viewer directly is through the use of on-screen text, which not only works to give the audience an insight into the youth’s internally thinking, but also serves as a visual allegory for Japanese society’s acts of ‘writing on the landscape’ (with roads, buildings etc), most notably during the shot of an untouched snowy field with the words “Why is it so quiet here? We are here. That’s all.” And as the shot cross fades so as to seem that a road sign and building ‘appear’ on the field, the text changes to “Falling from the sky, or coming out of the ground, we are quiet now, but we are staying only for a moment.”, making it clear that, although man lives temporarily, ‘he’ leaves permanent scars on the natural world that has sustained his existence.
One of the other, rare, dialogue driven segments of the film involves a group of fishermen (one of whom is played, in an uncredited role, by cult director/actor/writer Hiroyuki Tanaka, better known in the west as Sabu) whose way of life has been outlawed because of a Japanese legislation that makes them ‘poachers’ who risk prosecution, but have no other means of income with which to support themselves. Again, these characters become the voice of the director, calling for the population ‘to get angry and fit and to complain’ (something Wakamatsu has done, in many ways, for the bulk of his long career). This scene works to further politicize the narrative, and helps transform the seventeen year old from a solitary youth fleeing a murder scene into a metaphor for Japanese society’s ‘running away’ from it’s own brutal past and turns his harsh journey battling the unforgiving elements, into a reflection on the country’s long history of political, emotional and geographical upheavals.
As the boys journey takes him further from his ‘troubles’, birds start to play an increasingly important symbolic role in the narrative. First seen as representing mankind’s parasitic relationship with the environment (when they are seen picking at the rubbish in Tokyo), they later become less than subtle allegories for the youths increasing sense of freedom and symbols of his ‘flight’ across the length of the country. This is most obvious in the shot of the teen riding along the coast, which is faded with an image of a bird flying, which is positioned on the young man’s heart. Although heavy handed, the shot does work to give the viewer the sense that the boy is not only freeing himself of his guilt, but also that his ride is becoming a symbol of his journey from adolescence to adulthood.
As the film (and the protagonists journey) progresses, the physical endurance takes its toll on the youth and we see a number of shots of him struggling with his bike (up hills, against the wind and through the waves crashing at the beach) in some ways contradicting the bird/freedom imagery that runs parallel with these scenes. Given the overall context of the film, it seems that this semiotic ‘clash’ is a complex construction designed to show us that as the teenager has put physical distance between himself and his crime (be it mental or actual), he is becoming increasingly burdened by his feelings of guilt (brought about by his growth throughout the narrative) and also by association , that as Japan has tried to free itself from the burden of its past, it has faced new difficulties finding its place in the post-war global community (up until a few centuries ago, Japan had isolated itself from the outside world, and has only become an active part of the worlds political landscape in the last seventy or so years).
As the boys journey takes him further from his ‘troubles’, birds start to play an increasingly important symbolic role in the narrative.
Possibly the most emotionally charged scenes of the film come towards the end, when the boy meets an elderly woman stranded in the snow and carries her to her home, where she recounts how she came from Korea to Japan during the war as a ‘comfort wife’ (a polite term for women captured abroad and used by military officers for sexual gratification), only to be abandoned by her ‘husband’ when the war ended, and left to fend for herself. As the old man in the earlier scene had become the boys symbolic father, so the old woman serves as a mother to him, helping him come to terms with the ‘real’ mother he left behind (dead or alive). This reconnection with the feminine is made clear in a number of ways, some of which are almost unnoticeable and others which are blatantly obvious. One of the less heavy handed is the fact that the only words to come from the boys mouth in the entire film are when he offers to help the woman (after initially walking away from her) and also the previously mentioned piggy back that he gives her, which in some ways returns him to the womb (a notion that recurs in numerous Wakamatsu films since Embryo Hunts in Secret in the mid 1960’s). This mother/son analogy continues to function adequately without being too obvious, until Wakamatsu bludgeons the audience with it by having the old woman literally turn into the boy’s parent mid-conversation, a gimmick which is entirely unnecessary given the numerous other allusions to the relationship peppered throughout these scenes and the fact that this woman is the one person in the film for whom the boy abandons his bike (albeit temporarily), showing in a way his regret at what has gone before and a desire to right his wrongs.
By the time the titular seventeen year old finally reaches Aomori and has nowhere left to go, his bicycle begins to disintegrate, and by the time he reaches his final destination (a cliff at the most northern tip of the land), the tool of his escape has become as much of a weight for him as to carry his guilt. Unusually, for a Wakamatsu film, the boy does not throw himself off the cliff (which would have mirrored the deaths of the doomed and abused teenage lovers at the end of his 1967 film Go, Go Second Time Virgin), but instead has him throw his bike and his sleeping bag into the sea, symbolizing that like the society around him (at least as the director sees it) he has forsaken his past and is left with no future.Wakamatsu has used the skeletal elements of a mainstream film (such as the simple plot and central actor) to create a politically charged experimental ‘landscape/spectacle’ work which is accessible to a wider audience than would normally be the case with such ‘art house’ cinema, although he falls short of creating a ‘masterpiece’ through his use of occasionally clumsy clichés such as the tunnel sequences and old lady/mother transformation – But while working in the philosophical tradition of his contemporaries, like Adachi and Oshima, he has also taken his influence from western ‘landscape’ cinema, such as Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy (USA, 1982, 1988 and 2002) and Ron Fricke’s Baraka (USA, 1992). Overall, it is clear that he has created a well crafted, subversive film that manages to, for the most part, function as both a mainstream and art house feature, using an approach that is predominantly the territory of experimental film, photography and painting.
Cycling Chronicles (17-sai no fukei) | Directed by Koji Wakamatsu | 2004 | With Tasuku Emoto, Mansaku Fuwa, Ichirô Hariu, Juri Ihata, Kaori Kobayashi, Atsuto Maruyama, Etsuko Seki • A feature by Dickon Neech