Despite having directed over a hundred films in a career that has spanned five decades and also being responsible for, as producer, a number of key works of the Japanese ‘New-Wave’ during the sixties and seventies, very little has been written, in English, about independent director/producer Koji Wakamatsu. In no small part, this is due to the fact that very few of his films have been seen outside of Japan, barring a few international festival screenings in his heyday, the fairly recent (2001) DVD releases of three of his films in America (two of which are already out-of-print) and some international acclaim for his two most recent films (Cycling Chronicles: landscapes the boy saw, 2004 and United Red Army, 2007), which have led to a few retrospectives of his work in Europe and the U.S.
Another factor has been the critical dismissals of his works put forward by respected Japanese film and culture expert Donald Richie, who, at a time when French film critic Noel Burch was championing Wakamatsu’s films in Europe, wrote that “Wakamatsu makes embarrassing soft-core psychodrama and Noel Burch led the French into seeing great cinematic depth in Violated Angels. It occurs to no-one that the reason for making it was non-cinematic. So Koji was treated like his junk meant something.” It is my intention, with this essay, to try and argue the case that Koji Wakamatsu is indeed a director worthy of attention, whose work displays complex thematic and stylistic elements beyond the confinements of the genre in which he mainly functioned.
The first section will cover the years 1963 to 1965, in which Wakamatsu learnt his trade making ero-ductions (a Japanese amalgamation of the words ‘erotic’ and ‘production’) for small film companies in the erotic/pink film market. Chapter two will look at the films produced between 1966 and 1972, when he was at his most prolific and produced his own films (through Wakamatsu Productions), as well as those of several important ‘Japanese New Wave’ directors (such as Nagisa Oshima and Masao Adachi) and becoming the ‘Agent provocateur’ of the leftist Japanese New Wave and underground film/art scene of the time. The next will be an analysis of the films he made from 1973 to 1978 after he was forced to close his production company, and the final section will cover 1979 to the present and his movement from underground ‘pornographer’ to ‘Pink Godfather’, and the respected rebel of Japanese cinema.
The Early Years 1963 - 1965
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.
A young Koji Wakamatsu
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 (Secret Behind The Walls, 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 (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. 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 (1964) uses a narrative structure similar to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (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.
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.
Masturbatory superimposition from Secrets Behind The Wall
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.
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’.
Wakamatsu Productions 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.
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 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.
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 (1969) and the surreal apocalyptic Violent Virgin (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.
One of the colour scenes from Violated Angels
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. 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.
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 (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.
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 (1970) and Sex Jack (1970) and would become the central theme of the next film to be looked at here.
Landscape shot from Running in Madness, Dying in Love
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 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.
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.
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 (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 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.
The Wilderness Years : 1973 - 1978
While the proceeding passage is something of a digression from the aims of this paper, I feel it necessary to understand the circumstances which lead to this era of Wakamatsu’s directorial career so that the changes in his style and output can be placed in a context of the conditions he was ‘forced’ to work with. After the closing of his own production company, Wakamatsu returned to making cheap exploitation films for the companies, mainly Shintoho Studios, that would give him work. With no input in the scriptwriting and little interest in the subject matter it is clear that these films were mostly being made to ‘pay the bills’, the only exception being the ATG produced Eros Eterna (1977), which was an allegorical tale of a woman who eats the flesh of a mermaid and gains immortality, living in a cave and giving her body to a succession of pilgrims who come to worship her. Described as ‘a textbook example for the use of metaphor and symbolism in contemporary cinema’ (Weisser & Mihara, 1998, p358), it would seem that, when given the opportunity, Wakamatsu was capable of directing films that could rival the artistic heights he had reached in the preceding era of his career. Unfortunately the film is unavailable for viewing, so any further analysis would be purely hypothetical. It is also worth noting that during this period he helped produce Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), probably the best known Japanese sex film in the west.
Despite these worthy additions to his body of work, it has to be said that the bulk of the films Wakamatsu directed in this period were purely exploitational, with titles like Torture Chronicles (1975) and Female Rape and Torture (1978) and plots that merely led from one scene of rape or violence to the next. On viewing, it can be noted that many of these films do contain some political elements, but as Wakamatsu did not write them and they show little resemblance to his earlier works, it is most likely that it was the political angle of his scripts that inspired the production companies to hire Wakamatsu to direct them, with only the last of the productions being worthy of attention as an Auteur work.
Produced on a miniscule budget, even by Wakamatsu’s standards, and seemingly nothing more than a series of rapes and murders from beginning to end, there is more to Serial Rapist on closer inspection than is first apparent. Most interestingly, it shows that Wakamatsu was returning to form and trying to add an overt political dimension to the skeletal ‘plot’ on his own terms through the use of Landscape theory and in retrospect the film can be seen as something of a prototype of his highly acclaimed Cycling Chronicles (2004), with a bicycle riding protagonist pushed to violent action by the environment in which he lives. While the scenes of murder and sexual violence are fairly unpleasant, if somewhat less explicit than similar fare being produced at the time by the larger ‘pink’ film companies, it would seem that Wakamatsu used the films ‘filler’ sections, of the boy cycling from one crime to the next, to subvert the production into something less exploitative and more politically minded than the producers would have originally intended, turning what should have been a simple ero-guro (erotic grotesque) film into a work of profound nihilism.
Landscape shot from Serial Rapist
With a discordant jazz soundtrack by renowned saxophonist Karou Abe, Serial Rapist is filled with shots of bleak industrial landscapes and when the soundtrack is not filled with screams or jazz, all that can be heard are the sounds of factories and aeroplanes coming and going from a nearby airport, creating an aural landscape similar to that of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (U.S.A, 1977), adding to the films depressing tone. Two of the key scenes in the film that show Wakamatsu’s underlying intent are a short sequence in which the boy stares longingly at an aeroplane departing from the airport, signifying his desire to escape not only his environment, but also the path that his life has taken and the final scene in the film in which an unknown and off-screen assailant shoots the protagonist dead, filmed in a way that suggests the surroundings themselves are responsible for the boys death, both emotionally and literally. After this somewhat muted return to form, Wakamatsu began to move away from the production of micro-budget exploitation and started to head towards the next and final stage of his career.
Last Man Standing : 1979 - 2007
After spending the previous years in the ‘ghetto’ at the lower end of the Japanese sex film industry, Wakamatsu’s sudden shift into mainstream films must have come as something of a surprise to his critics and marked the revival of his previously abandoned production company. Although considerably less prolific than he had been in the previous phases of his career and often containing less obviously experimental elements than the films he had directed in his ‘glory days’, there is plenty of material in these works that show his maturation as an artist and that can be used to illustrate his status as an Auteur director as well as his continuing mastery of the cinematic form. For the final sections of this paper I will be looking at one film from each of the decades covered in this period, starting with the first film to be made through his resurrected Wakamatsu Productions.
Before he reopened his own production company, Wakamatsu directed his first mainstream film for a company called Shishi Productions that had a distribution deal with one of Japan’s major film studios (Toei). The film was called Prey (1979) and starred punk singer-cum-actor Yuya Uchida as a man on a mission to bring reggae music to Japan through his old friends who work in the record industry, but are only interested in promoting the next factory-line ‘idol’ singers and most of whom are involved in drugs and prostitution. While it is quite clear that this scenario is a metaphor for Japanese societies resistance to political change and the corrupting effects of wealth, the film is often flawed in its execution as a ‘mainstream’ film. With A Pool Without Water however, he would return to the realms of pink cinema (albeit with a mainstream distribution deal that would see the film play in ‘regular’ cinemas) and produce his most realised film to date.
Again starring Yuya Uchida (like many Auteur directors, Wakamatsu was prone to working repeatedly with the same actors throughout the various phases of his career), the film follows the exploits of a middle-aged ticket puncher working at a subway station who, disillusioned with his nagging wife and demanding children, takes to following women home and filling their apartments with formaldehyde fumes before breaking in and photographing their nude, unconscious bodies. Like many of his earlier films, Wakamatsu used this basic framework of an erotic film to create a broader political commentary, this time concerning the social dislocation of those left behind in the bubble economy that was forming in Japan at the time. In the film, Uchida’s character is so detached from the world around him that his only ‘meaningful’ relationships are with the prone bodies of his victims, with him even going so far as to cook them breakfast before he leaves. With far higher production values than any of his previous films and subtler use of both politicised narrative devices and the films occasional uses of unusual and non-diagetic sound (similar echoing/reverberating sound effects to his mid-sixties works) A Pool Without Water stands as probably Wakamatsu’s finest work within the realms of erotic cinema.
Yuya Uchida and 'sleeping friends' in A Pool Without Water
The next film under consideration would be his most autobiographical and, at that point in time, his most personal. Telling the tale of a Shinjuku district bar owner who becomes involved with a young Korean immigrant woman with whom the local yakuza are trying to coerce into prostitution. Turning to his ex-radical friends for help, he finds that all but one of them has long since given up on their political ideals in favour of the capitalist lifestyle. It is easy to see, even from this basic description, the reflection of Wakamatsu’s own feelings towards the leftist movements with which he was once involved. In fact, there are so many similarities to Wakamatsu in the central character that it is impossible to deny his place in the film as a direct extension of the director’s psyche. Aside from looking similar to Wakamatsu, there is the fact that, like the films protagonist, Wakamatsu owned a bar in the Shinjuku district at the time and then there is the plot correlation to the director’s days as a left-wing radical. Although there are a few of Wakamatsu’s trademark visual and aural experimentations in Ready to Shoot, there are so many parallels with his personal life that, when studied against Bazin’s definition of an Auteur film, a ‘reflecting of the director’s personal vision’, it is a futile task to try to see Ready to Shoot as anything other that exactly that. This increasingly restrained and personal form of film-making would continue to develop over the next two decades culminating in his critically acclaimed return to Landscape theory with Cycling Chronicles and reaching it’s (for Wakamatsu) logical conclusion with his most recent work, the last to be analysed here.
Made as a reaction to Masato Harada’s 2002 film on the Asana Lodge incident Choices of Hercules, which showed the events from the police officers point of view and portrayed the young radicals involved as one dimensional terrorists, United Red Army is the most ambitious film of Wakamatsu’s career. Running at over three hours and taking the director several years to research, including interviewing the remaining survivors of the URA who, up until then, had kept silent over the details of the ideological purges and murders that preceded the famous siege. The film chooses not to pass any judgement, but instead presents the ‘facts’ of the case in a near documentary style, leaving the viewer to make up their own mind as to where the responsibility lies. Split into three acts of approximately an hour each, United Red Army makes for harrowing viewing as the film unfolds. Starting with an elongated history of the formation and development of the various factions of the Japanese leftist movement following the signing of the ANPO Treaty and slowly shifting from contemporary newsreel footage into the ‘fictional’ narrative in an extended version of the opening scenes in Running in Madness, Dying in Love, the film shows how the group of friends allowed petty jealousies and ideological differences to destroy not only their revolutionary ambitions, but also their humanity. Seen in context with his other films it is clear that United Red Army works as a summation of the political and personal themes that Wakamatsu had been putting into his films throughout the bulk of his career and to some level the change in the films protagonists from wide-eyed idealists into jaded ‘realists’, reflects the shifts in attitude seen in the different eras of the directors own output.
Proof of this ‘career summation’ reading of the film can be found in two statements from each end of United Red Army’s prolonged running time. The first is the title card that opens the film and reads ‘Once, armed youth cried out for revolution’, which can be seen as a reflection of Wakamatsu’s revolutionary ideology seen in his films of the late sixties and early seventies. The second is a quote from one of the films protagonists in the closing scene of the film which he cries “We had no courage”, which can be seen as a condensed version of the themes of ex-radicals selling out their ideals which is covered in his later works, most obvious in Ready to Shoot and of course United Red Army. Throughout the course of this essay I have shown in detail how Wakamatsu has developed a unique cinematic voice through his use of experimental, stylistic and thematic techniques.
Still from United Red Army
Starting with his politicization of the sexual act and developing over the years to an artistic maturity that gave voice to a number of creative, personal and political ideas that were very much his own, even when collaborating with other artists. While it is true that much of his work is filled with less that subtle uses of metaphor and symbolism, it is to some degree, this heavy-handed approach to the subject matter that can be seen as one of the keys to his status as an Auteur. To return to Astruc’s pen analogy, it could be said that instead of a pen being Wakamatsu’s tool of authorship, he used an AK-47, which would better describe both his revolutionary political viewpoint and his sledgehammer approach to delivering his messages.It has also been shown that there is a consistency of style, theme and personality that runs through the majority of the films covered in this text and that Wakamatsu’s work easily meets both Bazin’s ascertation that an Auteur's films must ‘reflect the directors personal vision’ and Astruc’s definition of not being ‘hindered by traditional storytelling techniques’, the proof being readily found in Wakamatsu’s experimentalism and his constant use of turning his films into vehicles with which he could convey his personal and political viewpoints. It is also clear that as his own world view changed with his increasing maturity, so did that of the films he was directing, from the ideological rantings of his earlier works to the, mostly, subtler approaches of his later films.
A feature by Dickon Neech | Published in May 2010 | Photo credits : Wakamatsu Production