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koji wakamatsu: the ambiguous gaze

jake wilson: busan international film festival 2012

11.25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate, Koji Wakamatsu 11.25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate, Koji Wakamatsu

Wakamatsu kept on throwing stones to the end: in 2012 alone, he came out with three movies, which screened back to back at the Busan Film Festival where he was presented with the Asian Filmmaker of the Year award. Some two weeks later, he was dead, hit by a Tokyo cab while reportedly on his way home from a meeting about his latest project, an exposé of the nuclear industry in Japan.

A lifelong provocateur, Wakamatsu fought his battles from a strategic position away from the tides of cinematic fashion, somewhere between exploitation and the avant-garde. For many years his international cult reputation came from his notoriety as a maker of ‘pink’ films—low-budget items blending softcore sado-masochism and political subversion, such as Ecstasy of the Angels (1972) and Go Go Second Time Virgin (1969). In 2006 he returned to prominence with United Red Army, an epic, gruelling docudrama chronicling the self-destruction of an early 70s leftist group: a long-cherished project for Wakamatsu, and a summary of his complex relationship with the Japanese New Left.

The clash between ‘cool’ style and ‘hot’ subject-matter in Wakamatsu’s films creates an economical, unfussy beauty; the flat, desaturated digital look of his last films is as nonchalant and functional as was his use of high-contrast black-and-white film stock in the 1960s. Monomaniacal characters and flimsy storylines are typical of porn cinema, for obvious reasons—but Wakamatsu capitalises on the absurdity, with long periods of dead time broken up by offhand acts of cruelty, rape and murder. His brand of ‘poetic purity’ closely accords with Manny Farber's description of Sam Fuller's approach: “a merging of unlimited sadism, done candidly and in close-up, with stretches of pastoral nostalgia in which there are flickers of myth.” In other respects he's like a sleazy cousin of the French New Wave: the brilliantly minimal Serial Rapist (1978) has an affinity with Godard or even Bresson in its impassive performances, refusal of psychology and loopy gags (wandering by the river, the anti-hero comes across a woman painting a picture of a smokestack, screams “That isn't beautiful!” and shoots her dead).

11.25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate, Koji Wakamatsu 11.25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate, Koji Wakamatsu
Part of the fascination of Wakamatsu’s work springs from the ambiguity of his gaze: too intense to be taken for cool indifference, but typically (though not always) too detached to trigger either arousal or distress. In one of his most frequently repeated images, the camera looks down on a woman’s face contorted in undecidable pleasure or pain—suggesting a world of opaque surfaces, where violence is impelled by an ever thwarted desire to break through to hidden truth. Curiously, the same effect is produced by the monotonous dialogue exchanges that compose much of United Red Army, where student rebels argue relentlessly over a ‘correct’ political line. Through the endless repetition of self-justifying slogans (“Criticise yourself!”) speech too becomes a form of violence; equally, physical violence is understood as a cry that demands acknowledgement.

As with other very prolific directors—from Godard to Ruiz to Miike—Wakamatsu’s films often seem generated by the quasi-mechanical application of rules of thumb, which remain flexible enough to allow for any kind of casual inspiration. If none of the films screened at Busan quite rank with his best, taken as a group they give a sense of his range. 11.25 The Day Mishima Chose His Own Fate is an unorthodox biopic of the famous writer (played as a fragile dandy by Arata Iura) and a companion piece to United Red Army: the right-wing Mishima founded his own private militia in the 1960s to combat the radicals he saw as the chief threat to Japan. The link between his political philosophy and his troubled sexuality is treated obliquely, but the film makes plain that he, too, fiercely “criticised himself” for failing to live up to his own heroic conception of manhood.

The Millennial Rapture, Koji Wakamatsu The Millennial Rapture, Koji Wakamatsu
Wakamatsu naturally gravitates toward obsessives, depicted with mingled mockery, horror and awe: it hardly matters if their beliefs are revolutionary, conservative, or merely deranged. “I wanted to burn like fire,” says one of the protagonists of The Millennial Rapture, a family saga set in a coastal village of Burakumin (untouchables). Told from the viewpoint of an aged, dying midwife (Terajima Shinobu)—in a surrealist touch, she addresses herself to a photograph of her late husband (Sano Shiro) who talks back as if from a video monitor—the film tells the story of a dynasty of hommes fatales, seducers doomed to bring ruin upon themselves and those around them. The uncanny quality of the narrative comes from its shifts of focus: as each good-looking young man comes to a bad end, another steps in to fill his place. It’s as if all male members of this family were interchangeable, vehicles for the impersonal destructive tendency transmitted from one generation to the next through ‘bad blood.’

Petrel Hotel Blue, Koji Wakamatsu Petrel Hotel Blue, Koji Wakamatsu
Was this, for Wakamatsu, a metaphor for the curse of Japan? A vision of escape is briefly conjured in the dreamlike noir Petrel Hotel Blue, the last of the Busan films. Newly released from prison, an ex-con (Go Jibiki) finds solace in a hotel bar by the sea, where a mute woman (Hitomi Katayama) sits smoking like a living sculpture or a mirage. Gradually the crime plot is ‘deconstructed,’ as in the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet: stock genre elements are shuffled in a way that accentuates their banality, while the presence of magic is signalled by colours that leap off the screen (blue walls, a lilac parasol). But as the protagonist waits for his past to catch up with him, we know this strange idyll cannot endure. Whether the material he’s working with is documentary or fantasy (and perhaps he’d recognise no distinction) Wakamatsu’s pessimism is constant: ruled by forces larger than themselves, his characters can do little more than embrace their inevitable fate.

Busan Festival, Korea, Oct 3-12, 2012,

Jake Wilson attended the Busan International Film Festival as a member of the FIPRESCI jury.

This article first appeared as part of RealTime's online e-dition Feb 6, 2013

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 19

© Jake Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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