by Allan Fish
(Japan 1969 216m) DVD2 (France/Japan only, no Eng subs)
Aka. Erosu purasu Gyakusatsu
Appreciation requires an ambivalent participation
p Shinji Sushizaki d Yoshishige Yoshida w Yoshishige Yoshida, Masahiro Yamada ph Motokichi Hasegawa ed Hiroyuki Yasuoka m Toshi Ichiyanaga art Tsuyoshi Ishii
Mariko Okada (Noe Ito), Toshiyuki Hosokawa (Sakae Osugi), Yuko Kusunoki (Itsuko Masaoka), Kasuko Ireno (Akika Hiraga), Etsushi Takahashi (Jun Tsuji), Taeko Shinbashi (Chiyoko), Daijiro Harada (Wada), Ejko Sokutai (Toshiko), Masako Yagi (Yasuko),
Upon watching this film for the first time, even in the shorter 166m version that was for a long time the only one available anywhere with English subtitles, one is left drained, a quite literal mental wreck. Even those versed in the seminal works of Yoshida’s contemporaries, Oshima and Imamura, will be unprepared for this. That his work still remains unavailable to the English speaking world, barely mentioned in any major film guide or tome, is one of the greatest oversights of accepted film reference literature. If he only made this one film, Yoshida would be recognised as a giant.
Essentially the film relates the story of the famous Japanese anarchist Sakae Osugi, who was killed by the authorities soon after the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, aged 38. It tells his story through his three women; his wife, Yasuko, his current lover, Noe Ito, who was killed with him, and Itsuko, who tries unsuccessfully to kill him in 1916. His story is inter-cut with that of two students in modern day Tokyo, who discuss the merits or otherwise of free love and Osugi’s life and times.
And that’s not even scratching the surface! Critics have often compared the film to Rivette and Godard, and there is a Godardian ambivalence towards conventionality in not only the film’s narrative structure, but in the depiction of the students, who cannot help but recall Pierrot le Fou. To this reviewer there was also a hint of Andy Warhol about it. It’s not so much in terms of any sort of minimalism, but in the way Yoshida experiments with the size and shape of not the frame, per se, but the eye-line. He doesn’t go as far as Warhol did in The Chelsea Girls, stopping short of running two frames side by side with conversations inaudibly overlapping, but he makes a point to separate his characters, in some way or another, from another part of the frame, thereby isolating them, either in the perspective of a receding passageway or split by the positioning of an inanimate object deliberately on the screen – a wall, a banister rail, a column.
Equally radical is the way Yoshida and Hasegawa light the film. For the scenes which take place indoors, the light coming through the windows or from the skies beyond is often bright white, as if the scene has deliberately been overexposed. It lends the film an almost nuclear apocalyptic feel, which considering the stills of the 1923 quake and the political climate of the late sixties may not be coincidental. The very title evokes the pitting of love against death, and the notion is carried forward onto multiple levels, with characters considering, discussing and attempting suicide, murder and, of course, sex. We’re not out of the first reel and the young female student is masturbating while in the shower, pressing herself against the door, her genitals obscured on most prints in typical Japanese fashion. Indeed, the first time we see her, she’s lying naked on the bed, allowing one man to literally kiss her all over, while her partner casually comes into the next room and waits for them to finish. It’s in the point of view of these characters, even more than Osugi, that Yoshida’s point lies. The predisposition towards immolation, with the girl first attempting to burn strips of film with a lighter, then literally starting a fire with said lighter, her tights and some petrol, and she and her lover using it as foreplay to begin their latest sexual encounter. Some might regard it, to quote the film, as mental masturbation, and on one level it is, but of the most challenging kind. With its constant references to suicide, one might almost see the film as the suicide note of traditional Japanese film-making, but it seems more appropriate to call it its death warrant.