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Out of the One+One Archive: Excess and Austerity: The Films of Kōji Wakamatsu


By Benjamin Noys
Originally published in One+One Filmmakers Journal, Issue 11 July 2013.
Kōji Wakamatsu died on 17 October 2012 from injuries sustained after being hit by a car while crossing the road on 12 October in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Director of over one hundred films, he drew critical attention late in his career for his 2008 film United Red Army, which showed in graphic detail the descent of the eponymous Japanese Maoist group into self-destruction. The film is memorable for its portrayal of how self-criticism sessions by the group turned into acts of torture and murder. In particular, the scene in which one female member is encouraged to repeatedly punch herself in the face is almost unbearable viewing. In fact, the film seems to connect the excess of Wakamatsu’s early ‘pink films’ (‘pinku eiga’) from the 1960s with the austerities of his political filmmaking during the 1970s, such as his 1971 documentary work Red Army / PFLP: Declaration of World War. Yet it is not possible to divide Wakamatsu the ‘soft-core auteur’ from Wakamatsu the political filmmaker.[1]
In fact, a discourse of ‘growing maturity’ is particularly inapposite. Wakamatsu styled himself as a fiercely independent filmmaker, starting his own production company in the mid-60s. This aggressive independence is given comic form in the copyright warning sequence from the recent reissue of Wakamatsu films from 1965 to 1972 in three DVD box sets by the French company Blaq Out.[2] The scene shows someone downloading and about to copy a Wakamatsu film onto a DVD. We see someone enter the frame and start to attack them. The screen goes black and shows the copyright warning while we hear sounds of a violent beating. Wakamatsu’s face appears and he announces:
If you copy my films or put them online … Keep in mind, I have friends everywhere. They’ll come to your home … Watch out![3]
The perennial bad boy image is perhaps an overly-familiar one. It raises the issue of how we view Wakamatsu’s work, especially in the ‘pink film’ genre. These films are characterized by sexual violence and misogyny. While they constantly transgress the limits of what we might expect as ‘soft core pornography’, they do so in a way that is acutely disturbing. In the film Violent Virgin (1969) a young couple are brutalized as punishment for elopement by a gang they are, presumably, members of. For much of the film the woman is tied naked to a cross, as well as being gang raped. She is eventually shot by her partner with a sniper rifle, set up by the Yakuza observing the punishment. Still tied to the cross, she spends the rest of the film dying. While the film explicitly raises issues of voyeurism, through having the woman observed through binoculars (attached to the rifle) and photographed, the result is uncomfortable viewing. The contrast between the stark landscape around Mount Fuji and the naked and abused bodies of the couple suggests the tension of austerity and excess, but an excess that is heavily misogynist.[4]
Still from Violent Virgin (1969)

Still from Violent Virgin (1969)

We might recall what Herbert Marcuse called ‘repressive desublimation’, which is the capacity of capitalism to release (desublimate) violent and erotic urges, only to put them at the service of repression.[5] Much of 1970s and early 1980s cinema in particular shows a turn to violent misogyny and nihilism, which it is not hard to track as a reworking of the utopian political energies released in the 1960s. For example, to draw a parallel case to Wakamatsu, Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) is an unstable mixture of feminist parable and perhaps parodic male fantasy of the phallic woman. Similarly, we could suggest that Wakamatsu’s work does not so much transgress the boundaries of bourgeois morality, but create a new ‘desublimated’ sexual violence available for consumption.
In Wakamatsu’s work the use of frustrated or virgin male protagonists (indicated in the titles Violent Virgin and Go, Go, Second Time Virgin), suggests that the ‘release’ of sexuality is hardly a Reichian liberation. Instead, sexual frustration results in outbursts of sexual violence, usually rape. Of course, we could argue that Wakamatsu is implicitly criticising his male audience and their expectations. I would add this extends to a contemporary Western audience, which often has quasi-Orientalist expectations of sexual cruelty and gratuity in Japanese cinema. Perhaps the most explicit case of this is the film Violence without a Cause (1969), in which the three young male protagonists style their rebellion and frustration through gang rape. Here the incapacities of the men pose a question to an audience consuming their own frustration. So, Wakamatsu doesn’t offer a simple model of repression and liberation. Although this is true, his replication of misogyny and sexual violence means that Wakamatsu’s films can hardly be exonerated from problematic gender politics. In fact, his films operate in a tense negotiation with the limits of a genre that is already misogynist, and they demonstrate how a filmmakers ‘independence’ might also stake out a highly-ambiguous space.
I want to concentrate here on perhaps Wakamatsu’s most successful fusion of the political, the ‘erotic’, and nihilism: The Ecstasy of the Angels (1972).[6] The film was released in March 1972, a few weeks after the shoot-out between the police and militants at Asama Sans_ō lodge that Wakamatsu would later film in United Red Army. It tells the story of a militant group – the October group – who belong to a wider organisation, ‘The Four Seasons’. This structure – from year, to seasons, to months, to days (to name members) – is derived from the conspiratorial Société des Saisons, of which Louis-Auguste Blanqui was a leading member and which staged an armed uprising in 1840. The suggestion is that these are hardly classical Marxist revolutionaries, and the constant debates in the film concerning opportunism, anarchism, and ‘personal struggle’ (which includes sex), suggest Wakamatsu’s outside take on the orthodoxies of the time.
The film itself, predominantly in black and white except for a few colour scenes, follows the ‘pink film’ model. The discussions of revolutionary struggle and acts of violence are interspersed with various scenes of sex. We begin in a night club with the representatives of the ‘four seasons’ meeting, while the nightclub singer, appropriately, sings a song with the line ‘Burn the streets at dawn!’ Almost immediately this instance of ‘burn, baby, burn’ rhetoric is linked to the ‘burning’ of orgasm, in the sex scene between the woman ‘Autumn’ and the man ‘October’. October’s group then seize explosives in a raid on a US military base, during which attack four members are killed and October blinded. The rest of the film is largely dominated by Autumn’s betrayal of the October group, and the agonized discussions of the group about how to act.
Still from Ecstasy of the Angels (1972)

Still from Ecstasy of the Angels (1972)

Again, we have a gang rape scene, as ‘Winter’s February’ try to seize the explosives from the October group couple Monday and Friday. This scene of beating, torture, and finally rape of the woman, anticipates Wakamatsu’s United Red Army, with its long sequences on internecine violence. It is possible to argue for the woman’s ‘power’, in her capacity to resist torture, and in her final comment to the leader of the other group: ‘Fuck off, we’ll wipe our own ass’. This ‘power’ is, however, obviously limited by the violence she suffers under the voyeuristic gaze of the camera. In fact, the austerity of the film lies in its constant use of the closed and claustrophobic space of apartments in which members of the group have sex and engage in what appear, at least from the subtitles, nonsensical exchanges of revolutionary jargon. Although the film had a higher budget than Wakamatsu’s previous ‘pink films’, thanks to support from the Art Theatre Guild Japan, it is still by the material factors which shape the aesthetic. In the end its repetitions turn on the tension of austerity and excess, which comes to seem more like a form of impotence. The blinded October announces ‘I can do nothing to change this world.’
The film is also reflexive about its relation to the world of the ‘pink film’. Near the end of the film it is revealed that one of the group members makes his living as a pornographer. He interrupts one of the many anguished discussions in the film by bringing in two prostitutes in sailor outfits and starting to photograph them as they have sex. Explaining his shooting technique to the bemused prostitutes, the photographer announces ‘It’s avant-garde.’ Trying to involve the young student member of the group, seemingly another of Wakamatsu’s frustrated ‘virgins’, we witness an uncomfortable scene as the young man starts to engage in sex before violently rejecting any involvement. He argues with the photographer, accusing him of ‘anarchism’, while the photographer retorts ‘There is no revolution’. Whatever Wakamatsu’s intentions, it is hard not to feel discomfited by the acutely strange ‘mix’, or failed mix, of sex and politics.
As I have suggested the repetitions of the film induce a feeling of boredom and weariness. The film finally proceeds to a moment of decision as the October group decide to act on their own and take their remaining bombs for one suicidal attack. The result is the most impressive sequence of the whole film. In a mass assault on Tokyo the members of the group are filmed taking their bombs to attack multiple targets. This assault had already been signalled by the group’s previous decision to blow-up one of their safe houses, killing eleven people. While this did not seem to help them escape the enclosed and claustrophobic world of apartments, now they do. The group members take the remaining explosives and start not so much on a bombing campaign but a frantic ‘charge’ into what they call the ‘battlefront’ of Tokyo.
To a soundtrack of free jazz played by the Yamashita Trio we have a montage of explosions (rendered in rather poor special effects), and the running members of the group followed by the camera as they place bombs. In some of the most effective moments the jagged ‘hand held’ camera work becomes blurred into pure abstraction.
At the centre of the attack is Autumn, converted from betrayal to a final suicidal act of fidelity. After this sudden frantic sequence we get silence and an image of Autumn sat in a car with some remaining bombs, covered with blood. Announcing that she has ‘gotta go to the battlefront!’ we have a cut from black and white images of her driving the car towards a government building in suicide attack to a colour sequence of the car blowing-up on a mountain road.
Still from Ecstasy of the Angels (1972)

Still from Ecstasy of the Angels (1972)

If there were the ending we might recall Zabriskie Point (1974), with its final sequence of the exploding house – another seemingly imaginary solution to impasse. Yet, there is another turn of the screw, as we see the blind October leave the apartment with a bag of bombs and follow him wandering through Tokyo as the final credits roll. We are left suspended, between an assumption that October will join his comrades in death or simply carry on walking. The equivocal nature of the film’s ending points to the fact that it could easily be considered as a thorough-going critique of left-activism, as much as any endorsement. In fact, rather that this alternative I’d suggest that Wakamatsu’s filmmaking is perhaps better taken as an exploration of the attempt to act and the sudden shift within that action into nihilism. As much as any mockery of ‘Promethean’ revolutionary politics, Wakamatsu’s film traces the ‘fire’ of revolution from politics to sex, to extinction in a final burning conflagration.
Still from Ecstasy of the Angels (1972)

Still from Ecstasy of the Angels (1972)

It would be unwise, if not impossible, to exonerate Wakamatsu of charges of misogyny, gratuity, and political opportunism. In fact, part of the interest in the filmmaker lies precisely in the instability of his works. It is perfectly possible to regard a film like The Ecstasy of the Angels or the later United Red Army as critiques or mockery of left-wing utopianism and its violent ends. Of course the very excess of the films, coupled to the austerity, in fact makes them difficult to position. Rather than argue that Wakamatsu be regarded as a ‘model’ filmmaker, either in his independence or his singular aesthetic, I want to suggest that he is a filmmaker who poses problems.
In particular, he poses a problem to the usual quick and easy reading of him as a ‘transgressive’ filmmaker.
To invoke the ‘prophets’ of transgression, like Georges Bataille or Sade, after watching Wakamatsu is almost irresistible. While this is not simply false, I’d argue that the interest in Wakamatsu’s tension between austerity and excess might fall on the austerity of his work. What’s often forgotten in invocations of transgression is a reliance on austerity to generate excess, and the fact that transgression itself is deeply unstable.
In the desire of filmmaker or audience to ‘be’ transgressive we can end up inhabiting the position of those who aren’t actually shocked. It is always someone else who finds the work shocking, while we offer ‘sophisticated’ understandings. At worst, this can even involve a machismo of those who can ‘take’ watching or reading transgressive material, against those ‘weak’ enough to be disturbed.
Bataille, in fact, stressed the repetitive and problematic nature of transgression. His friend Pierre Klossowski, another key ‘transgressive’ writer, wrote in his book on Sade that we finally find in transgression an ‘ascesis of apathy.’[7] Repeating acts of transgression results in an apathy, which is not simply that of the jaded. In fact, transgression reaches its own limit, which suggests that we can’t simply laud the activity of ‘being transgressive’. Therefore, rather than complacent viewing, we could see the austerities of the conditions under which Wakamatsu made films and the austerities of the films as the sign of an apathy or even boredom that viewers of the ‘transgressive’ might find more disturbing to confront.


[1] I would like to thank Alberto Toscano for allowing me to read his essay ‘Walls of Flesh: The Films of Koji Wakamatsu (1965-1972)’, forthcoming in Film Quarterly.
[2] https://boutique.blaqout.com/. These films are available with English subtitles.
[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYJ3QlkyHBw
[4] For a critique of Wakamatsu’s gender politics see Isolde Standish, Politics, Porn and Protest: Japanese Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, New York, 2011, pp.103-107.
[5] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, London, 1964, p.72.
[6] For a useful discussion of the context of the films’ production, see Hirasawa Gô, ‘The Ecstasy of the Angels’, http://www.japansociety.org/resources/content/3/0/1/4/documents/Tenshi%20no%20kokotsu%20Hirasawa.pdf
[7] Pierre Klossowski, Sade My Neighbour, trans. and intro. Alphonso Lingis, London, 1992, p.29.