‘If we value so highly the dignity of life, how can we not also value the dignity of death. No death may be called futile.’ – Yukio Mishima
In 11.25. The Day He Chose His Own Fate, one of his last completed films, the late Kôji Wakamatsu turned his attention to the final years of Japanese writer, critic and nationalist Yukio Mishima, who espoused traditional values based on the Bushido code. On 25 November 1970, Mishima, along with four members of his own private army – the Tatenokai – went to the Self Defence Forces headquarters in Tokyo, tied up the commander and took to the balcony to call upon the assembled military outside to overthrow their society and restore the powers of the Emperor. When he was jeered, he returned inside to commit suicide, leaving behind a set of controversial writings, including short stories, plays and novels, and a mystery that echoes to this day.
Pamela Jahn took part in a group interview with Kôôji Wakamatsu after the premiere of his film on Mishima at the 65th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in May, where the film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section, to find out more about Wakamatsu’s take on Mishima and the reasons behind his actions.
Question: What was your motivation for making the film?
Answer: I first thought about it when I was shooting United Red Army. There is one scene where the Red Army marches during a very strong blizzard and it was actually a real blizzard that we were facing at that time when making the film. The Red Army was a formation of left-wing extremists. But I knew that there were also right-wing activists, young people who wanted to change the society just as much, even at the cost of their own lives, like Mishima, who formed his private militia – the Tatenokai, or ‘Shield Society’. I felt that portraying only one side of the whole spectrum wouldn’t be sufficient and that I should depict both extremes and I decided to make a separate film about the Tatenokai. First it was just an innocent joke. I’d tell my actors on the set of United Red Army that my next project would be on the extreme right for a change. But I knew that making these films in a row would be rather hard on me, so in the middle, as a sort of easy play, I shot Caterpillar . Both films turned out to get a very good audience and attendance that provided enough money for 11:25, and also two other films, Petrel Hotel Blue and The Millennial Rapture.
Your last visit to Cannes was just over 40 years ago when Sex Jack was shown at the festival in 1971. How does it feel to be back here after so many years with yet another film that is highly politically charged?
It doesn’t have any special meaning or significance. The only special thing back then was that on the way back I went to Palestine to film a documentary [together with Masao Adachi], and because of that, I was labelled as terrorist and declared a persona non grata in the United States, Russia and other countries. And the Japanese government also questioned me quite severely 15 or 16 times. It that sense, it was quite a memorable visit.
Arata Iura, who plays Mishima in the film, is very well known in Japan. You don’t usually cast stars like him.
He also had a part in United Red Army and I thought he was very good in it. I got to know him as an extremely hard worker and somebody who’s able to deliver great performances with consistency. I’m the type of person who feels strong gratitude and obligation towards those who give me something. Arata was very well known already, but he agreed to do the job on my terms and follow my method. I asked him to come alone, without any manager or personal assistant. On my set I use no make-up artists, script girls or secretaries – he had to accept that. I had several people in mind for Mishima’s part, but I finally gave it to Arata. Looking at the film only reassures me that I made the right choice. I never cast stars to attract a bigger audience. To me it doesn’t matter if it’s someone as famous as Arata or an amateur. As long as you have a heart, you can act. If cinema was only about attracting audiences with star power, I wouldn’t be making films anymore.
Both films, 11:25 and United Red Army, show a deep sense of comradeship that is essential to the development of any revolutionary movement but also more generally speaking in Japanese culture.
To put it very simply, the Japanese culture is not individualistic. The focus is not on the individual but on the community. Whatever we do, we always consider our neighbours, family and friends. For example, if you’re making dinner and it turns out really delicious, it is natural to offer it to your neighbours, to share. These cultural differences between Japan and Europe or the United States may be rooted in religious concepts of Christianity and Buddhism and, therefore, some behaviours or rituals might be harder to comprehend for a viewer from outside of our culture.
The only female figure in this otherwise male-dominated film is Mishima’s wife. She’s spoken of rarely, appears in one scene and barely has one line. How do you see her character in the film?
I believe that the very consciousness of her existence was necessary for the film. During the research stage, when reading through all the materials and documents available, I found many proofs of her role and influence in the Tatenokai, even though she acted behind the scene. But for example, every time they went to a training camp, she would come along and give pep talks to the trainees. Also in the household, her presence was natural. In Japan, the wife’s position is behind her man, in the background. It would have been difficult to bring Mishima’s wife into the spotlight because she would never have stepped out. She’d support him silently, like she did. Again, that’s a cultural thing that be might more difficult to understand for Westerners.
Your name is inevitably associated with the pink film genre (pinku eiga) that first appeared in Japan in the early 1960s, but actually soon after it became popular you stopped making that kind of films.
I was the first director of pink cinema, and everybody else followed me and copied what I came up with. But their imitations were focused only on showing naked women, sex scenes and so forth. Soon after, pink cinema went down the drain and became the mainstream. There were so many pink films around that I didn’t feel it was interesting for me to continue that path. If you compare pink cinema from the time when I was active in that genre and contemporary pinku eiga, they are entirely different. All the directors who made pink films back then have disappeared with the exception of Mr Takita, who became very successful. His film Departures is known around the world. To others, pinku eiga was just an easy way to make money. They’re too scared to be anti-establishment. For me, making a film means to throw a stone at the establishment, and what happened to pink cinema is that it became conformist entertainment.
You are not only an influence on, but a mentor to, young Japanese filmmakers like Banmei Takahashi, for example. Is helping the new generation of filmmakers important to you?
It is true that many young filmmakers started their professional career on my set or thanks to my recommendation. But it was they who came to work for me in the first instance. Of course, I can help them, I can give some assistance or mental support. But the truth is, they are my competitors, or in other words, they are my enemies. But by creating my own enemies I become more enthusiastic. If one of them makes a really good film, that only makes me more passionate about it and drives my own motivation to be better. I think that the young directors in Japan today whom I mentored are my best, most inspiring competitors. In the mainstream I don’t see anyone I’d consider as such.
You are a very precise author, whose art is so particular, that sometimes it might come across as hermetic.
I think in Japan, and anywhere else in the world, there are many mysterious things. My work might sometimes seem difficult, but I am just doing what I do and I am just turning these mysteries in society, which are sometimes hard to understand, into images, into films. Each person is different, in terms of their looks but especially in terms of their thinking – there are no identical human beings. Take this bottle of water on the table in front of you, for example. It might seem just ordinary clear water to you, but there may be someone else who doesn’t perceive it in the same way, who might think it’s red. It’s not us longing to be each other’s clones, it’s the authorities, who try to make everyone as identical as possible.
You are an internationally acclaimed director but your position in Japan is still difficult, especially in terms of financing your projects.
The government does not recognise my films because in a way they rebuild the part of Japanese history they’d like to hide. My work is most problematic especially for the Cultural Agency. They hold the budget to subsidise filmmaking in Japan but they wouldn’t give any of it to me, even though I requested it many times. They’d rather fund films with far less value instead of mine, mainly because I am very straightforward and open with bureaucrats and I tell them what I think about them. But in any case, you couldn’t make a film about the United Red Army or Mishima with money from the government. They wouldn’t give a single yen for a film like that.
How do you feel about Mishima’s suicide?
People in Japan have been wondering about Mishima’s suicide for long after his death. The reactions in the public have been quite ambiguous. People talk about it according to their own imagination and equally I made the film based on my understanding and interpretation of the events. I think that Mishima had chosen the venue and time of his own death quite carefully – he died at 45. The date, the 25th of November, was also the date when one of his close friends from the University of Tokyo committed suicide. That friend was involved in a financial fraud; he couldn’t get out of it and felt so cornered and hopeless that he decided to take his own life by hanging himself.
Could you relate to his decision?
At that time, when it happened, I thought it was just stupid. I also had my reservations about his idea of creating an army of ‘toy soldiers’. I thought that Mishima, who was an accomplished writer and well-established citizen, eventually went insane. But as time passed and I went through many documents, including his writings about planning that event, my opinion started to change. I also sometimes drink sake with one of the surviving members of the Tatenokai and slowly my view changed: I came to think that actually he is a phenomenon in his own right. There are other films about him and about the Red Army, but the names have been changed. I refuse to do that, in my films I use their real names. People around me warned me that I’d be assassinated by the right-wing if I did that and I said, ‘Well, if they want to do that, that’s fine.’ But I met some of the people and I read a lot of material and I believe that I am showing both sides, the right and the left extremes of the spectrum, and that it’s a fair view on both sides. I am telling them both that they were trying to do something good, that they meant good for society, and that they shouldn’t be ashamed or live in hiding. And after I made those films, they actually thanked me for what I did. They came to see the films, they even helped selling tickets, and I think it’s because my intention is genuine.
Interview by Pamela Jahn