Mostly unknown to UK audiences, Tahara Sôichirô and Shimizu Kunio’s debut Lost Lovers (1971) perfectly encapsulates the spirit and function of the production company that enabled its creation. Formed in 1961, the Art Theatre Guild of Japan became a counter-cultural refuge for voices frustrated by Japan’s mainstream film industries and an exciting place of convergence for different artistic mediums. Lost Lovers brought together a TV documentarist (Sôichirô) and avant-garde playwright (Kunio) to produce an allegorical portrait of Japan’s youth in the wake of the 1960s’ failed student protests, a startlingly relevant subject matter in current times. The influence of both mediums is keenly felt; physical theatricality from the lead actors and elaborate staging are teamed with a voyeuristic, unobtrusive style of camera work, reminiscent of direct or free cinema. This impassive cinematography is particularly apparent at the outset of the film as the camera lurks among passengers on a bus or surveys dead fish heads at a food market.
The film follows a former champion pole-vaulter, Ko (Ishibashi Renji), on a rootless journey through desolate sand dunes and apocalyptically abandoned US army bases in Northern Japan. Carrying a canvas bag large enough to smuggle a human body, Ko is first seen strolling down an empty highway, Stetson hat cocked at a rakish angle, all Spaghetti Western outlaw swagger. But his cool is deflated when a speeding bus knocks him over in the dust. Ko lies, sprawled out, hugging his bag and crying out a girl’s name, ‘Chiko!’ From the start, Ko is a somewhat hapless and naive anti-hero, chattering endlessly and moving with a rubber, cartoonish physicality, with a hint of Malcolm McDowell’s charisma in Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy.
A jobless vagrant, Ko robs two of his fellow bus passengers - a suitably bourgeois middle-class couple - to make his way. He may be a petty thief but Ko commits the crime without violence and with a charmingly mischievous streak, throwing their trousers and skirt off the road bridge into the river below. While Ko is essentially harmless to society, society soon reveals itself to be a malignant force. After an unfortunate encounter in the food market, Ko is falsely accused of rape by a woman looking for sex and chased by members of the public, who dishonestly attest that they saw him commit the crime, and the police, who dismiss his strong protestations of innocence. Locked up in a cell, Ko looks out to the dark street below. A crowd gathers and fills the screen, holding glowing lanterns in their hands. Ko reaches out to the onlookers with words of protest: ‘I’m a domestic lion. I have no memory of the savannah. All I know is this small cage. My voice may be small but I will roar for you.’ Without a word in response, the crowd silently turns away and disperses from view.
Released and outraged by his treatment, Ko stages a one-man protest backed by a band playing Purple Haze-style riffs. As Ko makes an impassioned speech against the ‘sweet home of violence’ once again, disinterested listeners depart until a lone girl remains. Ko promptly gives up his rhetoric and attempts to have sex with his reluctant fellow protestor. In a self-fulfilling cycle, the victim becomes the aggressor. ‘Go away old bags,’ he shouts at two elderly women who are witness to his actions; and, to explain his sexual harassment, he cries, ‘We’re of the same generation’. From the outset of the film, Ko represents the unharnessed impulses of youth and their isolation from society. His failed attempts at speech-making symbolise the failure of the student protests and the inability of Japanese society to understand the grievances of its younger generation. It’s a fairly standard portrait of disenchanted 60s youth.
It is when Ko meets a young deaf-dumb couple that his odyssey really begins and the film becomes increasingly opaque and bleak, as well as witty and beautiful. Composed of a non-actor (the film’s stills photographer) and a newcomer, the deaf-dumb pair is wholly mesmerising. The isolated bubble they create as they float through the film, impervious to Ko’s nattering and unflinching in the face of various obstacles and dangers, is a magnificent achievement. Momoi Kaori is especially captivating as the enigmatic beauty, whom Ko swiftly falls for, and the ensuing love triangle takes precedence as society gradually disappears from the film’s frames. The trio swim in the sea and run across the sands, hiding out in the disused army bases, making a home in the barren wasteland. Ko learns to bury his chatter and use non-verbal forms of communication, learning from the sensual connection of the two lovers. When society begins to re-appear in the latter part of the film, it does so in increasingly bizarre and sinister ways: a group of men are invited by a rejected Ko to watch the deaf-dumb couple having sex; Kaori is kidnapped by the same shady group who arrested Ko in the food market; and the army marches over the dunes to test deadly weapons. The trio lie naked in the sand together before explosions wake them from their reverie and blind the young couple, blood pouring from their eyes. The final shot of Ko helping his deaf, dumb and blind friends along the sand is an inspired ending. A car speeds straight at the group but swerves at the very last minute, leaving the three heroes to continue their journey into the unknown horizon while it crashes and burns in the background. The protective shield of the couple’s missing senses has saved their lives.
Made a decade after ATG’s inception and several years after the student uprising, Lost Lovers reveals an anxiety about the state of Japanese society and also an attempt to build something out of defeat. Towards the end of the film, Ko talks about being ‘free from all languages’ and not denying his physical existence. He says he wants ‘to use confused thought and make a leap into the future’. Yelling out these sentences to the sea, he eventually sees how his words are lost, tossed out to the waves. His angry, ineffectual speech-making gives way to a new kind of protest: a determined refusal to carry on and find different ways to exist in a hostile world. ATG offered outcast Japanese filmmakers a retreat from the mainstream and, in doing so, provided an environment to develop innovative modes of expression. The film is an allegory not only of the political situation but also of the artistic process. When audiences fail to listen, the speaker must find fresh ways of making him or herself heard or new paths to follow.