Kijū Yoshida: Love + Anarchism

| May 12, 2017

Many American cinephiles are familiar with the French New Wave, but in the 1960s a number of countries were seeing their own versions of that movement in cinema. In Japan filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima, Koreyoshi Kurehara, and Seijun Suzuki were taking a wrecking ball to tradition and expanding Japanese cinema in new directions. A number of films by these directors have been made available in the States thanks to The Criterion Collection, but there are still treasures that have yet to appear in English-friendly editions. One director whose work has been difficult to see in the States is Kijū Yoshida, a filmmaker who began his career with Shochiku in 1960. A contemporary of the aforementioned directors, Yoshida’s best known work outside of Japan is probably the trilogy of political films he made starting with 1969’s Eros + Massacre and continuing with Heroic Purgatory (1970) and Coup d’État (1973). Arrow Films has given these films their stateside debut in a beautiful Blu-ray/DVD set, but anyone thinking this set is anything like Arrow’s previous Japanese collections such as Stray Cat Rock or Nikkatsu Diamond Guys will be in for a shock. These films are dense and challenging works of art, thankfully presented with thoughtful commentary and supplementary materials to help the viewer find their way.

Eros + Massacre is a sprawling epic that takes place along two occasionally intersecting timelines. One story follows young filmmaker Wada and Mako, a prostitute who claims to be the daughter of Noe Ito (a real-life woman who was involved in a Taisho-era scandal with the anarchist Sakae Osugi), as they wander away from the city and civilization and discuss Osugi’s philosophies. The second story takes place in the Taisho era and depicts episodes in the life of Osugi (played by Toshiyuki Hosokawa), his wife Yasuo, and his two mistresses Itsuko Masaoka (Yûko Kusunoki) and Noe Ito (Mariko Okada, Yoshida’s wife and frequent collaborator). Osugi lived by a philosophy of free love, although as the film depicts his life that seemed not to work out terribly well for anyone with whom he was involved–he completely neglected his wife, and Itsuko attempts to stab him to death in a fit of jealousy. The “modern day” segments of the film depict Wada setting things on fire and having aimless conversations with Mako, occasionally stopping for psychedelic interludes set to fuzzed-out guitars. The Taisho era sequences are much more in line with traditional Japanese drama, at least in tone and acting styles. There is very little that is traditional about Yoshida’s direction and Motokichi Hasegawa’s cinematography, however–Eros + Massacre demands careful attention, and at least a passing knowledge of the Japanese political climate of the day is hugely helpful in making sense of the film (or as much sense as can be made of it).

This set presents two versions of Eros + Massacre: the theatrical release (running 165 minutes) and a director’s cut (running 216 minutes) restored in the early 2000s. The character of Itsuko Masaoka was based on a woman named Ichiko Kamichika, who was none too happy about hows she was depicted in the film. In the film Itsuko tries to stab Osugi; in real life, Kamichika was indeed arrested for attempted murder and spent time in jail for it. Kamichika was a politician in the 1960s, and although Yoshida changed the name of her character in the film she threatened legal action if the film was released in its original form. Yoshida made significant cuts to the film in order to create the theatrical version, both to sections of the Taisho storyline as well as the “modern day” story. For many years, the theatrical cut was the only one available, and during its time in obscurity approximately nine minutes of the director’s cut became too damaged to restore. Each cut of the film gets its own disc in this set, complete with introductions and scene-specific commentary by David Desser (author of Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema). The director’s cut commentary showcases scenes that were cut from the film for the theatrical version, which mostly serve to tip the balance of the narrative more toward the past than the “present.” In either form, Eros + Massacre is a daunting viewing experience both in form and content. Watching it as the first of Yoshida’s films to make its way to the States feels very much like jumping in the deep end of the man’s work.

Even more avant-garde is Heroic Purgatory, which stubbornly resists any simple plot synopsis. As the film opens, Nanako (Mariko Okada) brings a young woman home to the apartment she shares with her husband Shu (Yoshiaki Makita). After Shu returns home from work, another man appears at the apartment claiming to be the girl’s father. She resists his attempts to take her with him and he leaves Shu and Nanako to deal with her. From there Heroic Purgatory jumbles time and space, taking place simultaneously in the 1970s, 1980s, 1960s, and specifically 1952. This was the year the Treaty of San Francisco went into effect, ending the Allied occupation of Japan that followed World War II. Shu appears in different timelines as himself–sometimes a young communist radical, later an elder statesman–and Nanako attempts to follow him, but the mysterious young woman appears to change identities as the time and place shifts around them. It’s utterly confounding, but absolutely breathtaking to look at. Motokichi Hasegawa returns as Yoshida’s cinematographer, and every frame in the film is starkly gorgeous and unpredictable, adding to the sense of disorientation. In his introduction, David Desser compares Heroic Purgatory to Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime in its defiance of chronological narrative. This is a very helpful point of reference, and honestly the film would seem to be nigh-impenetrable without it. The film’s rhythms of repetition, its defiance of time and space, and especially its astonishingly beautiful photography also call to mind Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad.

Coup d’État, the final film in the set, is considerably more traditionally narrative than the others. It is focused on nationalist philosopher Ikki Kita (Rentarô Mikuni), whose 1919 book An Outline Plan for the Reorganization of Japan inspired an attempted coup in 1936. The film follows Kita as he advises the men assembling the necessary forces for the coup, as well as an unnamed young soldier (Yasuo Miyake) who wants to prove his patriotism by joining the revolution. This young soldier is held back both by his own lack of courage and his concern for his sickly young wife (Akiko Kurano), who for her part seems to want him to fulfill the duty he feels he owes the revolution. The soldier and Kita cross paths repeatedly, and after the young man fails to play his part in an earlier failed coup he and his wife are taken in by Kita. By this time, Kita’s home has become the de facto headquarters for the planned coup. He advises the mutinous officers, but never personally takes action, which in his mind shields him from the same consequences as those who have literally taken up arms at his suggestion. Instead of depicting the actions of the coup, Coup d’État stays with Kita during the tense days of the standoff and afterward to his eventual execution. As with the other two films, this is beautifully shot by Motokichi Hasegawa, although its framing is not quite as consistently adventurous as Heroic Purgatory. It bears some resemblance to more conventional period dramas, but it features a score that sounds like a horror film: jagged, shrieking strings, dissonant piano and organ, and synthesizers give its depiction of 1930s Japan an alien, nightmarish quality.

For their home video debut in the States, Arrow Films has given these films their typically spectacular treatment. All three are presented in new high-definition transfers supervised by Yoshida himself with uncompressed mono PCM audio and newly translated English subtitles. Arrow has ported some features over from 2008 French DVD releases of the films including video introductions for Heroic Purgatory and Coup d’État by Yoshida and a 30-minute featurette on Eros + Massacre entitled “Yoshida …or: The Explosion of the Story” that includes interviews with Yoshida and film critics Mathieu Capel and Jean Douchet. All of these provide invaluable information that helps set the stage for the films, and the introductions in particular should be required viewing before watching the films in question. In addition to these previously-produced features, Arrow commissioned new introductions and scene-specific commentaries on each film by David Desser. Like Yoshida’s introductions, Desser’s observations are extremely valuable in learning about the political climate in which the films were made as well as touching on Yoshida’s cinematic influences. Love + Anarchism is presented in a box with new art designed by maarko phntm that also includes an 80-page book with new pieces on the films by Desser, Isolde Standish (author of Politics, Porn and Protest: Japanese Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s) and Dick Stegewerns (author of Kijū Yoshida: 50 Years of Avant-Garde Filmmaking in Post-War Japan). If Arrow has been making a name for themselves as a sort of “cult Criterion,” their recent releases of less grindhouse and more arthouse films such as this see them making a clear bid for that vaunted imprint’s crown. Love + Anarchism is a spectacular release that rivals Criterion’s best work, and provides a whole new audience of cinephiles a long-overdue introduction to a crucial filmmaker’s work.

Arrow Films released Love + Anarchism on 9 May 2017. The Blu-ray/DVD set is limited to 3000 copies.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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