Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
From the Archive
nº 6 - 2020 (3)
Sex, Politics and Provocation: The Curious and Exciting Story of Kôji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi
Gabriel Doménech (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid)
Periodically, the circuits of cinephilia host film series, retrospectives and re-editions dedicated to movies, creators or trends belonging to the so-called “popular”, “genre” or “cult” cinemas. This could be understood as a strategy aimed to legitimize features that previously did not fit, for different reasons, into the canons of global cinephilia, prone to other approaches, typically labelled “arthouse”. Occasionally, this phenomenon leads, at best, to the acquisition of new life for previously denigrated forms of spectacle, becoming thus novel objects of interest for critics and academics.
A relatively recent example is pinku-eiga, a Japanese erotic genre. The initiative of Nikkatsu to re-launch its Roman Porn1 production line in 20161 –a label with which the Japanese company became a champion of the genre back in the 1960s–, emerged in a context of growing interest from the international film community, expressed through retrospectives and special screenings at renowned festivals (Thessaloniki 2009 or Berlinale 2018), websites, DVD and Blu-ray editions and a few academic studies (Weisser, 1998; Hirasawa, 2001; Sharp, 2008; Standish, 2011).
It’s not easy to summarize in a few words the history and main features of pinku-eiga. Suffice it to say that the genre can be paired up to a certain extent with other forms of sexploitation that flooded the big screens in Sweden, Italy, Spain, Philippines or Brazil from the 1960s onwards. These are films made with minimum budgets and had an approximate length of seventy minutes; its softcore representations of sex (mainly heterosexual) constituted the main attraction for audiences. The distinctive traits of the genre are given by its hybridizations with other narrative models –the Japanese thriller, particularly the yakuza-eiga, and the historical film or jidai-geki–; by a system of production, distribution and exhibition, parallel to conventional circuits. which has stayed more or less stable until today; and by the continuous dialogue it has established with other, more widely distributed, mainstream or experimental productions. In this sense, the pinku-eiga ended up becoming, especially after a strong production surge during the 1960s, a sort of school for technicians, actors and filmmakers who would later excel in other fields of the local scene; thus, renowned directors such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Masayuki Suo, Shinji Aoyama, Hideo Nakata or Yōjirō Takita began their careers within the pinku-eiga, and were also able to develop formal and narrative experiments that would have been improbable in other production contexts. This genre, with its peculiar industrial and narrative conventions, permitted creators with much more radical approaches to reach new audiences and challenge the distinction between auteur cinema and exploitation.
That was the case of Kōji Wakamatsu (1936-2012) and Masao Adachi (1939), both screenwriters, directors and producers who had careers of great interest in the 1960s and 1970s through the blatant mix of aesthetic experimentation, political radicalism and the mobilization of the erotic clichés of pinku. Watching their films today demonstrates the ductility of the notion of film genres; simultaneously, it allows us to catch a glimpse of a historical period of deep socio-political tension, an era that was reflected in a series of unclassifiable films, whose controversial pulse still surprises viewers.
Wakamatsu, a former yakuza and ex-convict, had begun working as an assistant director and later as a filmmaker for the Nikkatsu film company in the early 1960s, and soon stood out in the circuits of ero-duction for his workaholic practices. The local success of Affair Within Walls (Kabe no naka no himegoto, 1965), which was also screened at the Berlin Film Festival and caused a diplomatic turmoil (Standish, 2011, 97-98), gave him some economic independence, allowing him to establish his production company Wakamatsu Pro. Hence, he was able to forge a characteristic style away from some of the common places of pinku-eiga. As shown in our first excerpt, a sort of wicked version of Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959), from the beginning of Affair Within Walls, the erotic bait –here the sexual intercourse between a frustrated housewife and her lover, a former communist affected by the radiation of Hiroshima– is subverted by the presence of a political element and by the insistence on various uncanny images that drown out any kind of pleasantry vision. The Japanese traumas –unhealed memories of the atomic bomb and the climate of political tension– here take unexpected shape through an erotic B-movie template. After the screening in Berlin, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested (successfully) the withdrawal of the film stating the following: “The Film Festival Office has the authority to select and screen films, however, it is common for hosts of international film festivals to take due consideration not to offend national feelings or to spread a false image of a country” (quoted in Standish, 2011, 98).
Wakamatsu’s will to provoke found in director, scriptwriter, producer and theorist Masao Adachi an exceptional “partner-in-crime”. Adachi, close to the postulates of the Japanese New Left, was pivotal in articulating a project of even greater discursive radicalism. The sympathies of both filmmakers for the Zengakuren, the student movements that had emerged strongly in 1960, during the protests following the signing of the ANPO (Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan), crystallized into a string of films that, always using the textual and budgetary conventions of the pinku-eiga as well as its industrial circuits, sought to intervene in reality, not unlike other examples of militant cinema of the time. Violated Angels (Okasareta hakui, 1967), Running in Madness, Dying in Love (Kyôshô jôshi-kô,1969), Go, Go, Second Time Virgin (Yuke yuke nidome no shojo, 1969), Sex Jack (Seizoku, 1970), titles directed by Wakamatsu and written by Adachi, built a universe full of sex, violence and strong political statements. In any case, these first two elements did not function as mere decoys but were inserted into a discourse that utilized them simultaneously as sources of rebellion and symptoms of alienation. The success of Wakamatsu Pro allowed Adachi to carry out some experiments outside the boundaries of pinku, which are now considered pinnacles of Japanese experimental cinema. The most important of these are Galaxy (Gingakei, 1967) and, especially, AKA Serial Killer (Ryakushô renzoku shasatsuma, 1969), which, for some scholars, represents a clear precedent of the aesthetics of “slow cinema” (Ross, 2015). The search for innovation and the challenge to conventions led the production company to establish links with important figures of the Japanese New Wave, especially with Nagisa Ōshima, whose In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korīda, 1976) cannot be fully understood without the historical precedents of Wakamatsu and Adachi (Sharp, 2008, 188-197). In the same way, the Art Theater Guild, production company linked to renowned figures of Japanese “art cinema” –Shuji Terayama, Toshio Matsumoto, Shōhei Imamura among others–, financed what would be the last great work of the creative tandem Adachi-Wakamatsu, Ecstasy of the Angels (Tenshi no kôkotsu, 1972).
Produced after a trip to Palestine, where they shot the propaganda film Red Army / PFLP: Declaration of Total War (Sekigun-PFLP: Sekai senso segen, 1971) on behalf of Arab guerrillas, Ecstasy of the Angels was a powerful and ambiguous nihilistic pamphlet in the agitated Japanese society of the early 1970s. Through the sexual and criminal adventures of an extreme left-wing terrorist group, “October’s Gang”, the film dissected the bitterness of a political struggle that was already reaching a dead end at the time. The pessimistic portrait of “a disorganized group, involved in internal struggles that lead to absolute chaos” (Estrada, 2011, 128) seemed to be a reflection on the murders that movements like the United Red Army perpetrated among its ranks during those same years2. This did not prevent the Japanese ruling authorities from perceiving the film as an invitation to terrorism and from limiting its exhibition inside and outside the country as much as possible. Evidence of the furore that the film conveyed can be seen in our second video, where we witness the group’s last terrorist attacks. The frustration of one of the main leaders of the guerrillas gives room to a death spiral and a series of explosions, articulated by an on-screen free jazz soundtrack, paroxysmal editing and the combined use of color and black and white images reminiscent of emblematic works of the new European waves –for instance, The White Bus (1967) and If… (1968) by Lindsay Anderson–. Violence here is cathartic and terminal: after the last explosion, only a void remains.
The collaboration between Kōji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi not only shook the conventions of pinku-eiga and criticized the foundations of Japanese society: it also proposed a model of political intervention through the use of highly codified genres, which even today astonishes film lovers and fans, and serves as an inspiration to multiple filmmakers around the world.
- Some of the films produced within this initiative –including Antiporno (Sion Sono, 2016), Wet Woman in the Wind (Akihiko Shiota, 2016) and White Lily (Hideo Nakata, 2017)– can be seen via streaming in Spain on Filmin, an online platform that is currently the main reference for cinephiles.
- The purges and wear of the Japanese youth liberation movements were addressed decades later by Wakamatsu in the important docudrama United Red Army (2008). Wakamatsu’s career continued almost uninterrupted for another thirty years, although for the most part without the collaboration of Adachi, who joined the Japanese Red Army, an international terrorist guerrilla. Adachi was arrested in 2001 and deported to Japan, where he currently lives and continues to make films.
- Estrada, Javier H. (2011) KOJI WAKAMATSU. Secuencias, 34 (2), 126-129.
- Hirasawa, Gô (2001) Underground Film Archives. Tokyo: Kawade Shobô Shinsha.
- Ross, Julian (2015) “Ethics of the Landscape Shot: A.K.A Serial Killer and James Benning’s Portrait of Criminals”. In Nuno Barradas Jorge and Tiago de Luca (eds.), Slow Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 261-272.
- Sharp, Jasper (2008) Behind the Pink Curtain. The Complete Story of Japanese Cinema. Surrey: FAB Press.
- Standish, Isolde (2011) Politics, Porn and Protest. Japanese Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1960s and the 1970s. New York, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
- Weisser, Thomas and Weisser, Yuko Mihara (1998) Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia: The Sex Films. Miami: Vital Books, Asian Cult Cinema Publications.