Published on November 12th, 2015 | by Michael0
Kiju Yoshida: The Political Trilogy
Yoshishige ‘Kiju’ Yoshida was one of the leading lights of the Japanese New Wave of Cinema in the 1960s. More specifically, he was considered one of the central figures of Shochiku Nouvelle Vague, along with fellow filmmakers Nagisa Oshima and Mashiro Shinoda. However he started to feel stifled by the restrictive studio system and in 1964 he left to form his own production company.
Arrow Films have put out a collection of Yoshida’s unofficial trilogy about Japanese radicalism that he made starting with 1969’s Eros + Massacre and continuing with Heroic Purgatory (1970) and Coup d’Etat (1973).
Eros + Massacre
The first of these films concerns a 1920s radical, Sakae Osugi, a real figure in Japanese history. Osugi mixed his socialist beliefs with a philosophy of free love which manifested itself as polygamy. A large part of the film details his relationships with three women – his wife Hori Yasuko and his two lovers, Noe Ito (Mariko Okada, Yoshida’s real life wife) and Itsuko Masaoka (Yuko Kusunoki) and the hypocrisies his life is riddled with. Osugi’s stance on polygamy, as informed by his views of freedom as it may be, is nakedly self-serving. He preaches rules around his relationships, largely involving each party’s independence from the rest, but he himself is financially dependent on his wife. His polygamy even alienates some of his male comrades, who believe his actions impinge on the women’s own freedoms.
Intercut with Osugi’s story is that of student Eiko, who is studying Osugi’s works. In the film’s cold opening, she is interviewing Noe’s daughter Mako, also played by Mariko Okada, trying to get some perspective on Osugi. In a mirror of his story, Eiko is involved to some extent with three men. She has a sexual relationship with a film director, something akin to a sexual relationship with fellow student Wada, and is investigated for prostitution by a detective. It’s a nice twist that where Osugi preached free love, Eiko charges for her services.
Of the three relationships Eiko has, the most intriguing is with Wada. Wada is a pyromaniac, said to be impotent. He and Eiko frequently mess around with a film camera, acting out scenes from the lives of the people they study, often with a psychedelic garage rock soundtrack which of course contrasts with the 1920s scenes. These scenes have a very strong avant garde quality whereas those set earlier are more conventional in execution. Trying to bring Wada out of his impotence, Eiko strips for him and then sets a fire, which seems to do the trick
As well as the two parallel stories, the film is remarkable for the sheer amount of filmmaking tricks Yoshida employs. There’s the stunt casting with Okada’s duel role, of course, but also a scene in which Eiko speaks to Noe herself, who died decades earlier. There are other surreal sequences too, including the rugby match played with Osugi’s remains and the final scene of the film, in which Eiko and Wada take a photograph of the characters from the 1920s story line. Then there’s an incident in which Itsuko attempts to kill Osugi. This is shown several times with the details changing significantly each time. This theme of history’s unreliability is reflected throughout the film, which feels several deliberate anachronisms as well as the melding of the past and present. Wada says that he doesn’t care about history and anything that has already happens, and yet spends much of the film with a cameras, creating a record of what he sees for posterity. Towards the end of the film, Eiko’s director lover kills himself with the tools of his trade, using a length of film as a noose and film reels as the stool he kicks out from under him.
Eros + Massacre is a beautiful film made by a very assured director. Yoshida’s own cut of the film, the one I watched (available with English Subtitles for the first time) clocks in at a whopping 216 minutes and rarely wastes a scene. A shorter version was previously available, cut not due to time restraints but because the real life inspiration for Itsuko, Kamichika Ichiko, objected to her portrayal and some films involving the character were cut. This is detailed in the 10 minute introduction by film scholar David Desser, who also provides a commentary for the film. Desser’s words help place what might be a confusing film in the proper historical context, although it would be interesting to go into the film completely blind. The story of Sakae Osugi was a fascinating one and Yoshida has done it justice with this strange, beautiful film.
In his introduction to this film, David Desser directly addresses the one and only thread on IMDb about Heroic Purgatory, ‘What is this film about?’ (I checked, it remains the only thread on there, although posters speculate that the upcoming Arrow Films release might shed some light!). Desser talks about the similarities and contrasts between the film and that of Nagisa Oshima and how Yoshida might have been influenced by European filmmakers, such as Michelangelo Antonioni and particularly Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime Je t’aime. He concludes by saying that despite the spy film trappings and constant dreamlike surreality, the film might be simply be a love letter to his wife Mariko Okada who again plays a key role in the film.
Yoshida himself is on hand to add further clarification in his own introduction. He speaks about his own experiences with people who were in Communist groups and that in his mind, violence begets violence and that revolutions themselves must be overthrown further down the line. Yoshida says that the only proper reaction to the ongoing madness is to treat it all as ‘farce’. Incidentally, the word ‘farce’ does not seem to have a direct translation into Japanese because Yoshida clearly uses the English word.
So, ‘what is this film about?’. Well very basically it is about a woman (Mariko Okada) who brings home a teenage girl she finds to her husband. Shortly, a man claiming to be the girl’s father shows up demanding she come home, but she claims not to know him. The husband (Kaizo Kamodo, in his only known role) begins to flash back to his time as a revolutionary. From there though, time and space unravel. Characters frequently leave one room and arrive somewhere completely different, very reminiscent of dreams in which concepts of space are distorted. The plot flashes forward and back with abandon, never really giving the audience a clear idea of when is ‘now’ and what is past and future.
David Desser provides some context for this in his introduction, talking about the 1952 San Francisco Treaty which ended US occupation in Japan. The treaty was to be renewed in 1960, 1970 and 1980, and the first two instances were met with violent protest. So it seems that each Treaty renewal has its own scenes, including that of 1980, which is 10 years after the film was made. As with Eros + Massacre, the film has great fun playing around with time but also its own medium. In Eros + Massacre, the 1960s characters took a photo of the unaged 1920s characters, most of whom were long dead. In Heroic Purgatory, as the time skips about, many of the characters still wear their aging make-up and grey wigs only to take them off when they realise they’ve gone back to 1960. Like Eros + Massacre, there is a character constantly filming the events. However these films are at odds with the memories of the characters in them, as in one scene a girl has completely disappeared despite being there the first time the audience viewed the incident.
Even more than its predecessor the film is such a breath taking example of cinematic techniques that if Yoshishige Yoshida did not exist, it would be necessary for film scholars to invent him. His biggest trick this time around is overexposure, in many scenes the characters are drowned out by the light pouring in from outside. Theorising wildly here, but given the repetitive, circular nature of time that the characters experience, I wonder if they are indeed trapped in purgatory and the light from outside represents the Heaven they haven’t yet reached.
Despite a modest 118 minute running time, Heroic Purgatory is far denser and more difficult to get a handle on than Eros + Massacre. In modern terms, it is Inland Empire to Eros’ Mullholland Drive. But with the help of Yoshida and David Desser (who also provides a commentary), you can go in knowing just enough to pull you through the bits that might pass you by. And it looks absolutely wonderful.
As with Heroic Purgatory, Coup D’état features an introduction from Yoshida himself, helping put the film in context. The film concerns an event that happened in Yoshida’s lifetime, but which he cannot remember (he was three at the time). On 26th February, 1936 (known as the 2.26 incident in Japan) there was a failed attempt at a Military coup. The film chronicles the actions of Ikki Kita, a right wing philosopher who was not directly involved in the Coup but whose writings certainly inspired it.
As Desser notes in his own introduction, the film differs from its two predecessors in three key ways. Firstly, Kita was a real figure, unlike the fictional characters of Heroic Purgatory and was still famous across Japan in 1973, rather than Sakae Osugi’s relative obscurity, so there was less room to take liberties. Secondly, Kita was firmly on the right politically. His belief was that that in Japan they had the people’s Emperor where Kita thought it should have the Emperor’s people. Again, this contrasts strongly with the left wing ideologies of the characters in the first two films. Thirdly, the film is largely straightforward, eschewing the chronology jumping and stylised flourishes of the previous films.
In some ways Coup D’état is reminiscent of theatre more than film. Many of the main actions of the coup occur off screen and are merely related to the characters. Gone are many of the purely cinematic touches of the previous films, indeed it is the first of the trilogy that could have been made from someone other than Yoshida. Mariko Okada is also absent from the film, having had big roles in the others, and Ikki Kita is played by Rentaro Mikuni, a much more familiar figure to western audiences than Yoshida’s previous stars. Mikuni was a very prolific actor who died in 2013 aged 90, and was still making films well into the 2010s.
Though a great film in its own right, Coup D’état feels like a much simpler and straightforward film and so suffers in relation to the grand, experimental Eros + Massacre and Heroic Purgatory. Having completed his Political Trilogy, Yoshishige Yoshida retired from filmmaking and stayed retired for 13 years before resurfacing again in 1986. His last film (so far) was 2002’s Wuthering Heights.
I really hope this excellent Arrow Films collection kick starts Western interest in Yoshida’s films. When researching this article, I noticed that while there is a wealth on writing on Eros + Massacre, Heroic Purgatory and Coup D’état are mostly unknown. I really hope that changes.
The films are available through Arrow Films, under the name Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism