Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pink Cinema Revolution: The Radical Films of Koji Wakamatsu

The YBCA had a program in October called Pink Cinema Revolution: The Radical Films of Koji Wakamatsu. My only exposure to Pinku Eiga was from Indiefest. I described Pinku Eiga as "softcore porn" but the YBCA program was anything but pornographic. I would describe Wakamatsu's works as Godard crossed with Oshima. Indeed, the UC grad student or instructor who introduced two of the films mentioned that Oshima and Wakamatsu were having a cinematic conversation through their films. Wakamatsu was a producer of Oshima's In the Realm of Senses which played at the PFA's Oshima retrospective earlier this year.

More than any other Japanese films, those made by Koji Wakamatsu in the '60s and '70s are deeply rooted in the political and social upheavals of the era. One of the leaders of ‘pink cinema,’ Wakamatsu has always been obsessed with the history of student protest movements. The term ‘pink cinema’ or ‘pinku eiga’ comes from the English word ‘pink’, and the Japanese word ‘eiga’, meaning cinema. The pinku eiga—or Japanese sexploitation—were independent film productions that from the mid '60s to early '70s experimented with a new form of filmmaking that blended sex and violence.

Inspired by the narrative processes, aesthetics and production means of the French New Wave, pink films and their makers are inseparable from the history of the Japanese revolutionary left. This film movement, certainly the most extreme that developed at the time in industrialized countries, is nonetheless comparable to the cinema of Pasolini or Fassbinder, distilling the same subversive tendencies and denunciation of “bourgeois morality.” (Michaël Prazan)


The series started with Ecstasy of the Angels (1972). Advertised as a 35 mm print, the screening was actually a DVD due to mail problems. The film is a stylish political statement. The plot revolves around some student activists (terrorists) fighting for The Cause who steal some weapons from a US military base. Not your run of the mill activists, these students have for formed clandestine cells named after the seasons of the year & each cell leader is named after a month. So they refer to each other as Autumn's October for example. It's all very covert & militant but eventually the different cells begin infighting. The "four seasons" would meet at a swank cabaret. They would exchange some notes and immediately burn them. They hid out at safe houses, tortured each other and eventually lobbed some bombs. Unfamiliar with the leftist causes of 1970's Japan, I found the film to be dated, unfamiliar and boring.

Not willing to give up on Wakamatsu, I next went to Violated Angels (1967). This film was a surrealistic tale of a serial killer that terrorizes a nursing dorm. I think the film represented the killer's delusional thoughts, I once again wondered what I was watching.

I'm glad to say that the third time was a charm. All the films in the series were from the late 60's and early 70's except the final screening - United Red Army (2007). Clocking in at an intimidating 190 minutes, I was hesitant to commit 3 hours of my life to a director whose previous films left me confused and underwhelmed.

United Red Army was nothing like the previous two films I mentioned. First of all, it had a narrative structure. Second, it had the benefit of 35 years of perspective. The film told the story of the Asama-Sansō Incident in 1972. The United Red Army was a communist paramilitary group comprised mostly of college students.

The first third of the film told the story of the formation of the URA and political climate in which it existed. The second third (which was the most powerful) involved the members hiding and training in a remote mountain base camp. Suspicions and petty jealousies eventually led way for the members to engage in brutal sessions of "self-criticism." Nominally intended to critique one's performance so as to improve future group operations, the sessions devolved into opportunities for the leaders and more sanctimonious communists to verbally bully, assault and eventually kill the rank & file as well as the poseurs.

The most disturbing scene in the film occurred when a young woman who seemed more interested in the camaraderie then communist dogma, was forced to self-criticize herself by beating her own face. The camera never showed the impact of her own fist but when she was spent, the leader (standout performance by Akie Namiki) showed her a mirror so she could gaze upon her bloodied and bruised face. The audience shares its first glimpse of her deformed face along with her. It was an outstanding sequence which made me squirm in my seat.

In this climate, a communist had to establish his/her bona fides which was an impossible task given the character flaws of the two main leaders. Eventually, 8 members were "purged." Undoubtedly the beatings would have continued except some of the members escaped. The remaining members dispersed to fight the good fight. They were captured except for five of them.

The final third of the film depicted the Asama-Sansō Incident in which the five fugitives holed up at an inn while holding the innkeeper's wife hostage. They held out for 10 days, ignoring their families pleas and their own self-doubts. Showing tremendous restraint, the police stormed the inn and captured all five fugitives alive (one lost an eye). Reportedly, Wakamatsu's own house stood in for the inn and was destroyed during filming when depicting the siege and storm.

This film reminded me of The Baader Meinhof Complex which was set in a contemporary period and involved similar radicals. The length of the film undoubtedly mirrored the weariness of radicals. After years of struggle, a brutal round of self-criticism and final exhausting siege, the audience felt a fraction of the fatigue as the URA members must have felt. Infighting, pettiness, austere living conditions and unrelenting communist indoctrination did more to destroy the radical left in the 1970's than the establishment. This was the core message in both The Baader Meinhof Complex and United Red Army. Baader Meinhof told the story with more panache whereas United Red Army felt like the cinematic equivalent of the beatings the members received.

United Red Army was one of the best films I've seen this year.

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