As part of our focus on the late Japanese director Kôji Wakamatsu, we take a look at his 1969 crime drama Naked Bullet, available as part of the Kôji Wakamatsu DVD box-set volume 3 released by Blaq Out.
Grabbers is one of the most persistently entertaining and thrilling films of this year: a throwback to the B-movies of the 50s, it’s a smart film that uses Irish locations and humour to create a unique spin on the genre.
When an island off the coast of Ireland finds itself invaded by aliens, the small community can only rely on their alcoholic Garda (a terrific Richard Coyle), rookie Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley on top form) and love-rival scientist Dr Adam Smith (Russell Tovey doing his usual routine) to save them from being obliterated.
Enjoyment of Grabbers relies as much on the audience’s ability to have fun as anything else: this is not a serious , lofty film but a fun science-fiction ride with some terrific set pieces and some of the best CGI delivered from these shores. Considering the budget of the film, the special effects really shine: they are almost as good as in the pinnacle of the genre, the Korean monster masterpiece The Host.
The structure of the film plays out like any number of B-movies from the past: Tremors, Deep Rising even Attack the Block. However. it’s the local flavour that adds a unique twist to the proceedings: not only as provided by our heroes but also by the members of the small village on the island who all create some memorable and very funny characters that riff on recognisable stereotypes. True, it’s not exquisitely in-depth characterisation, but when the end result is so charming and well put together, that it’s impossible to complain.
Grabbers might not be anything new –most of the film feels like it was put together by taking the best examples of the genre. However, along with Cockneys vs Zombies, it is a refreshing genre film, something that we need more of in UK cinemas. And if that sounds like damning with faint praise, be assured it isn’t. Grabbers will delight not only the fans of the genre but also anyone who wants to spend 94 minutes in the company of some charming and bumbling characters fighting a greater evil the only way they know how – through sheer determination and liberal doses of Guinness.
Violent Virgin (1969) is one of Kôji Wakamatsu’s early films. Although it is certainly part of his pink film oeuvre the film maps out many of the director’s later concerns. Like other filmmakers working in the late 60s and 70s, such as Melvin Van Peebles and Ruggero Deodato, Wakamatsu used the format of sexploitation as a way into an exploration of other transgressive acts such as extreme violence, amorality and oppression. The film does have a story: a man and a woman are held in captivity by a group of yakuza thugs and the film explores various shifts in power dynamics between the pair and this group and another group of well-dressed yakuza bosses. Yet, as the film progresses the characters appear to be more like symbols acting out relationships in an allegory rather than part of a narrative. Wakamatsu sets these tableaux entirely outdoors in the wilderness. There is no sense of a horizon and, as such, no suggestion of a place beyond this world. From here, it is easy to speculate that Wakamatsu used this form to comment on broader real-life socio-political dynamics. This comment, though, is fragmented and hinted at, and, arguably, purposefully eclipsed by erotic sensation, although it alludes to dysfunction, tyranny and ultimately meaningless struggles for leadership.
What is so refined about the film is that its exploration of domination is slippery and nonsensical. The microcosm portrayed in this dune-scape is constantly in flux. The central male character, played by Atushi Yamatoya, goes from kidnapped victim, to escapee, to killer, to demon and then to oppressor himself. So to with the portrayals of sex. Here both male and female characters go through a range of experiences of erotic pleasure, physical restraint and humiliation. Remarkably for the time and even notable now, there is a depiction of mutual pleasure in the male/female sex scenes that seems to transcend the male perspective. The women characters are seen to be as sexually and violently charged as their male counterparts. However, Wakamatsu stops short of evening the scores fully by only showing the female characters being subjected to rape.
For a film constantly switching between numerous complex sexual and socio-political positions it remains elegantly simple in its poetic rendering. Wakamatsu favours an uncluttered mise en scène. Yamatoya is nude for much of the film or wearing a woman’s slip, and his lover Hanako, played by Eri Ashikawa, is topless and wearing only her underwear. So many shots depict nude flesh against the grassy wilds or bare earth. There is something levelling about this that creates a sense of equivalence between the characters, a grounding that is present at the same time as a sense of fluctuating structures. This suggests that Wakamatsu wanted to show the characters as base essence as if he was somehow trying to get close to the root of the motivations that prompt the members of the group to behave in the way they do. He, like us, is left with a sense of enigma but also the suggestion of myriad social configurations.
A long haul, two-and-a-half-hour documentary that absolutely needs that length. Amy Berg’s film details the ‘West Memphis Three’ case from 1994, when three eight-year-old boys were found dead in Arkansas, in what was suspected by the police to be a case of satanic ritual abuse. Three likely teenage suspects were rounded up and tried. The film then follows events through the 18 years they spent in a supermax prison as clamour slowly grew to overturn a miscarriage of justice and set them free. The clamour first took the shape of the documentary Paradise Lost, which galvanised the likes of Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder into campaigning and fund-raising for the long battle, and, more pertinently, gained the attention of producer Fran Walsh and director Peter Jackson, who got on board to bankroll investigations to produce new evidence, and demolish the prosecution’s case. This is a Wingnut film, produced by Walsh, Jackson, and Damien Echols, one of the WM3.
Considering that, West of Memphis is fairly even-handed, giving voice to a fair few interviewees who still believe, or profess to believe, that the three teens committed the crime, but it’s clear where the film is coming from, and it’s difficult to argue with that perspective. The flimsiness of the original prosecution beggars belief: an alarmist conflation of dodgy ‘witnesses’, spurious medical evidence and the heavily coerced testimony of a borderline retarded teenager, it’s simultaneously blackly amusing and enraging to see it all torn apart. More enraging still is the state of Arkansas justice, where opportunities for retrial after retrial are denied for clearly political ends despite DNA evidence and new witnesses. One of the odder moments sees the campaigners praying for Judge Burnett’s bid to run for senator to succeed, purely so that he’ll no longer be in a position to stonewall.
It’s a fascinating story, full of twists and turns, dark ironies and striking characters, and Berg’s film largely shapes it as a long march to justice. Ambiguities remain, however. The outcome of the campaign is highly unsatisfactory, a baffling piece of legal chicanery that means that the likeliest suspect (Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the boys) is never going to see a courtroom. There is a glossed-over element of the tale, when the makers of Paradise Lost 2 seem to have tried to finger the wrong man for the crimes, based partly on the same logic of the WM3 conviction (i.e., that he was kinda funny lookin’, being a mulleted redneck, rather than a goth). And we’ll probably never know what actually happened to those boys in 1994. It’s an indication of how weird and twisted the whole thing gets that the only time Terry Hobbs is placed on a witness stand to answer questions about the murders is as a result of his attempt to sue one of the Dixie Chicks.
All of the key players are interviewed, and the unobtrusive soundtrack is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I wish I could say it makes the locale look starkly beautiful, but it really doesn’t, a polyester-clad trailer park hellhole of foetid water and barren scrub. But you only have to spend a hundred and fifty minutes there. I was never bored, it’s very much recommended, but viewers should be warned that it contains a lot of distressing forensic footage. And a scene where a snapping turtle attacks a dead pig’s testicles. I’m not going to forget that in a hurry.
Kôji Wakamatsu’s provocative road movie Running in Madness, Dying in Love starts as it means to go on, as the volatile political climate of late 1960s Japan is juxtaposed with an abstraction of the nation’s youthful frustration. The film begins with a black and white montage of a protest rally at Shinjuku, where demonstrators are violently clashing with the police due to the renewal of the Anpo Treaty (Japan’s security and cooperation agreement with the United States). Footage of the actual rally, shot by Wakamatsu as the demonstration occurred near the office of his production company, is intercut with staged re-enactments that place Sahei (Ken Yoshizawa) at the centre of the action, superimposing his individual struggle against a backdrop of generational disenchantment. Sahei escapes from the authorities, at which point Wakamatsu cuts to colour, as the activist flees through the streets of Tokyo, away from the incriminating neon lights of downtown, hoping to take refuge at the home of his brother (Rokko Toura). However, the siblings could not be more ideologically different, as Sahei’s brother is a police officer. Their conflicting views lead to a fierce argument, and Sahei is physically assaulted until his brother’s wife Yuri (Yoko Muto) puts an end to the beating by shooting her husband with his gun. Fearing arrest, Sahei and Yuri make the death look like a suicide, then leave the city by train, travelling across a snow-covered landscape that Wakamatsu uses to explore the manner in which personal and political identities can become intertwined with surrounding environment.
A discussion concerning the nature of their crime and varying levels of victimisation in Japanese society takes place against the grey skies of a sleepy fishing community, one of several places that initially promise escape, only to represent exile. ‘I must atone for my crime,’ insists Yuri. Sahei takes her to the edge of a cliff and challenges her to act on such suicidal thoughts by jumping, but Yuri backs away and bursts into tears, ultimately afraid of the abyss. Instead, they move further north, starting a passionate affair as a distraction from guilt. ‘We were not at home, we didn’t do anything,’ Sahei repeatedly tells Yuri, rewriting the recent past through denial as Wakamatsu cuts to images of his brother’s corpse, lying in the suicide position. Sahei tries to convert Yuri from a subservient domestic lifestyle to a more freewheeling existence, although he still requires exclusivity, and she struggles with depression. They seek freedom in the wilderness, but incur the wrath of locals who consider the couple to be impure. Sexual desire is linked with political impulse as Sahei’s involvement in the leftist movement is explained through voice-over during bouts of lovemaking: some years ago, Sahei was a romantic admirer of Yuri, but when she chose to marry his brother, he turned to social rebellion. Sahei and his brother are positioned at opposing ends of the political spectrum, with each equally committed to their cause, while Yuri occupies the middle ground, swaying in her stance and plagued with self-doubt.
Wakamatsu combines the erotica of pink cinema with the narrative tropes of the lovers on the run genre, as Sahei and Yuri move around the Tohoku region to avoid being apprehended for murder. Sahei keeps checking the newspaper, expecting to see a report of his brother’s death, but such an article is nowhere to be found, prompting reconsideration about what may have actually happened back in Tokyo. Later, the film raises more questions not only about the reliability of memory, but the level of reality on which these events are occurring. Sahei and Yuri eventually have nowhere to go apart from home, arriving in the village of the former’s childhood, where his parents still reside. Based on Sahei’s account of their earlier love triangle, the violent and disheartening dénouement of his affair with Yuki is a case of history repeating itself, suggesting that moments, or movements, of rebellion are usually followed by conformity, and that efforts made to change the status quo by those on the social-political margins will always be futile. Running in Madness, Dying in Love is a strangely hypnotic vision of disillusionment, which forms a loose trilogy with Shinjuku Mad (1970) and Sex Jack (1970).
‘Did you enjoy being raped?’ is one of the several odd and unanswered questions Tsukio (Michio Akiyama) heaps upon his new, nihilistic friend Poppo (Mimi Kozakura) while lying supine next to her on the raw rooftop concrete of a Tokyo apartment building, their infantine faces framed in a gorgeous black and white close-up as they stare into the hot August sun. On the night before in the same place, Poppo had been attacked and violated by a gang of glue-sniffing thugs – a by now dried stain of blood between their heads still witnesses the crime. The question seems stranger still since Tsukio was actually there when it happened, but although he didn’t take part, he didn’t do anything to help Poppo either and instead observed the savage event with searing emotions. A shy, disturbed teen with similar abuse experiences, he is clearly attracted to the world-weary Poppo and so she is to him, if only because they both know that they have nothing and no one else to hold onto. Heading for inevitable evil, the pleasure they find in each other over the course of one day – while exchanging their bitter agony and confusion about their traumatic past and talking about how to most suitably end their suffering – fuels their anger against the cruel world that surrounds them, and ultimately leads to unexpectedly dire consequences for all.
Anything but love, so it would seem, can possibly grow out of director Kôji Wakamatsu’s exploration into the territory of alienated youths, violent sexuality and nihilism. But then, we are dealing with the late towering giant of Japanese pink film and merely outlining the crude story is hardly sufficient to get across the strange mini-mavel that is Go, Go Second Time Virgin (Yuke yuke nidome no shojo). Having made more than 100 films (his latest, United Red Army, premiered at the London Film Festival in October 2008), Wakamatsu started his bizarre career in the mid-60s when he became rapidly notorious for this sort of highly explosive blend of dark sex, violent and radical politics infused with pop art stylistics and punkish defiance after his startlingly provocative Secret Acts behind Walls (Kabe no naka no himegoto) was labeled ‘a national disgrace’ by the Japanese press when it played at the Berlin Film Festival in 1965. Shot as a pinku eiga in four days in 1969, Go, Go Second Time Virgin is loosely based on a script by his long-time collaborator Masao Adachi, yet strongly inspired by a poem by Nakamura Yoshinori, and Wakamatsu himself here seems primarily inclined to the French New Wave and the spirit of 1968 rather than sheer exploitation. While sensitively painting his characters, he delivers his rather philosophically infused brew of violent sex and existential teen angst in a dazzling mix of multi-layered metaphors, stunning monochrome visual landscapes of intrinsic beauty, punctuated by rare splashes of full colour, and accompanied by a perfectly chosen jazz score that poignantly accentuates the ambiguity inherent in the central character’s immature psyche.
In terms of plot and structure, Go, Go perhaps ranks among Wakamatsu’s simplest films, yet it surely is one of his most horrifyingly beautiful and heartfelt stories too. An apt description for the film as a whole is the weirdly wonderful title itself that refers to Poppo’s vaginal bleeding after her second rape, but also proves a constituent element in the film in the form of a defiant poem repeatedly recited by the girl. In fact, Go, Go is all about seemingly inconsequential but secretly connected details and inscrutable forces that compel characters to actions they don’t necessarily understand. Much like in a well-constructed elegy, images and lines resonate with each other.
The film opens as Poppo is raped on the roof, and then the first rape is presented to us in an ocean-blue tinted flashback that sees the girl taken by two young men at a beach – a setting that shares haunting similarities to that of the famous beach love scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. Like Tsukio, who has also been abused by two couples who rent an apartment in the building, Poppo is not merely seen as a victim but rather gains strength and independence from her unfortunate situation. Yet, she can’t help but wishing to die, and consistently begs Tsukio to kill her. ‘I am too hopelessly unhappy to live,’ she says. ‘Even rape didn’t erase the sadness’. However, Tsukio refuses to carry out the act while also resisting Poppo’s advances. Deeply disturbed by his own feelings for her and because of what he has seen and been through himself, he is impotent with her. Instead, however, he finds a way to act out his anger in the film’s violent climax. He loves her, but he can’t tell her, and love is not enough to save them.
Perhaps this sounds like an all too predictable unhappy ending, yet the film’s eerie tone and fractured approach to characterisation – conceived as a mirror to its disenchanted, disengaged protagonists – provide the story with an intangibly lingering power and a seductive sense of mystery that sticks with you much longer than for the film’s barely hour-long running time. What’s more, although exposing different forms of sexual violence, the film at the same time resists these representations. The fact that Poppo does not change regardless of the cruelty she experiences, whereas Tsukio is reluctant to build a physical or sexual relationship with her, point to the film’s essential truth: dark sexuality is not merely a strategic decision to allow Wakamatsu to make the film he wanted to make, rather it is used as an important tool for developing his radical point of view. As much as the pinku eiga genre demands these images, Wakamatsu attempts to demolish them from within by contrasting the depiction of sexual violence with his own critique and the refusal of sexuality. It is an idea that Adachi has already used in his own films such as the off-beat sex-comedy Sex Play (Seiyugi, 1968), and eventually reaches its high point in Wakamatsu’s stunning Ecstasy of the Angels (Tenshi no kôkotsu, 1972).
Part of the film’s disturbingly obscure power derives from its elastic sense of location: even though the roof is presented as a claustrophobic, limited space, Wakamatsu finds visual magnificence in Tokyo’s cityscape, which seems to expand beyond the borders of the screen, or in the teenagers running up and down between the apartment rooms and the basement. But what makes Go, Go all the more memorable is the use of colour in a primarily black and white film. Wakamatsu revealed in later interviews that the mixed film stock was not originally intended (he simply couldn’t afford to shoot the whole film in colour), and yet, it paid off as textures come luridly alive, the colours taking on an intense headachy glare to contrast the characters’ wounded sensibility.
Such is the stuff Wakamatsu’s dreams are made of. His amalgamations of image and sound are quite unforgettable, like a sore that refuses to heal. Despite the film’s brutal violence, however, it is somewhat more sensual than that. The most haunting moments of this caustic fable are the most insistently insinuating – and the hardest to recall. But it’s the ill-fated relationship between these two misfits that gives Wakamatsu’s film its soulful sadness. As we watch Poppo and Tsukio lie on the rooftop concrete or starring down at the city’s rumbling traffic, the two seem like normal kids aching to connect. They want to let one another in and can’t. They can only share comic books, vengeance and the inner rage at life itself that is fatally eating away at them.
Martin McDonagh is one of the most talented wordsmiths working today, as well as a very accomplished director with an uncanny sense of framing. His previous film, In Bruges, was a modern masterpiece: funny, intelligent, moving and violent, its script was of a calibre we don’t see very often nowadays. So to say expectations were high for his follow-up would be a massive understatement.
To an extent, Seven Psychopaths is a true wonder. Focusing on struggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who is stuck in an eternal writer’s block and drinks heavily, the film tells the story of his involvement with an assortment of oddball characters. After his seemingly inept friend Billy (a terrific performance from Sam Rockwell) and his associate Hans (Christopher Walken, underplaying it beautifully), decide to kidnap the shih tzu of violent mobster Charlie for ransom, events escalate and get out of control, which might give Marty just the inspiration he needs…
As per his previous work , McDonagh’s strength are his characters: he is blessed with the ability to write funny, authentic dialogue that fleshes out this assortment of murderers, madmen and alcoholics. However, Seven Psychopaths lacks the structure of his previous work and wanders off in all directions. Instead of the story tightening its focus, the audience is treated to ever more growing digressions, which hurts the film because there simply is not enough time to bring all the loose ends together in a sensible fashion. The meta elements of the script constantly threaten to derail the film, especially in the third act – there’s a point in the last quarter where the self-conscious cleverness becomes almost too much to bear.
Perhaps the problem is with the unholy amount of characters that McDonagh tries to put on the screen. His desire to give each one enough screen time is to be applauded; however, with an ever-increasing number of flashbacks and stories, the film begins to feel more like a sketch show and less like a coherent story.
The film is set in America and it’s hard not to wonder whether this change of location may play some part in the sprawling script: McDonagh tries to bring in almost every cliché about L.A. to then turn them swiftly upside down. It’s as if he feels the need to settle into this new location by levelling it down and then re-building it as his own. A commendable attempt perhaps, but not one that works completely.
However, these can be considered minor complaints about a film that stands head and shoulders above most of what Hollywood can produce. McDonagh proves time and time again that it is his characters that matter to him, and through them draws the audience into his weird universe where almost anything can and will happen.
Seven Psychopaths is worth a watch if only to see McDonagh bring his magic touch to the strange deserts of America – a weird and whacked-out journey from which nothing and no one can emerge as expected.
Zombie Flesh Eaters, or ‘the one with the eyeball splinter’, as it was referred to at school. My family having arrived late to the VHS revolution, my main exposure to the video nasty boom of the early 80s was the playground descriptions of various unwholesome sequences relayed to me with relish by various classmates. By the time a VCR actually arrived in our house the hammer had come down and all those exotic goodies had disappeared from the shelves. It was the James Ferman era at the BBFC, and so it took me until well into my twenties to catch up with, say, ‘the one where the girl throws up all her guts’ (City of the Living Dead) and put it together that a good deal of the more outrageous moments of playground lore emerged from the oeuvre of one director, Lucio Fulci. Oddly enough, given the usual reliability of schoolyard chatter, the films that I finally saw were every bit as horrible as described, and a whole lot stranger.
Zombie Flesh Eaters is one of his more straightforward, pacier efforts. An unmanned ship drifts into New York harbour, bringing with it unpleasant surprises for the harbour patrol, and a mystery for Tisa Farrow. The boat belongs to her father, and the search for him leads her, a journalist (Ian McCulloch) and a couple of wary locals to a Caribbean island where Richard Johnson is the doctor understandably turning to the bottle as the night is filled with jungle drums and the dead are feeling restless. Much mayhem ensues.
ZFE was released in 1979 a couple of months after Dawn of the Dead (aka Zombi) as Zombi 2 and, while clearly indebted to the Romero film, it also harks back to the likes of White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, in its island setting and its use of a voodoo curse as an undead motivator rather than any cod scientific explanations. Romero rules still apply, however, in the ‘shoot ’em in the head’ policy and the infectious nature of zombie bites. Anyone wondering if this makes much sense clearly hasn’t been exposed to enough Italian cinema.
Indeed, Fulci’s best horror films gain greatly from a feeling that they don’t quite make sense, that nobody on screen is acting like a human being would. As with City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery, his people just seem to hang around waiting for the worst to happen, blind to the mounting evidence that they should flee. He has a tendency towards stately pacing, a contemptuous disregard for narrative cohesion and an eye for weird images. The net result of this is to give his films an authentic nightmare undertow, but at the cost of any human character or motivation. It remains an enigma to me how much of this oneiric freakiness is deliberate, and how much a result of the filmmaker’s shortcomings. Fulci in his pomp is several rungs above hacks like Umberto Lenzi or Astride/Aristide Massaccesi (aka Joe D’Amato): he can frame an arresting shot, create a memorable sequence and has a definite style, but seems to be indifferent to the pleasures of dialogue and performance, and often mixes effective set pieces with moments of alarming judgement, letting his camera linger endlessly over shoddy effects that any sane director would cut away from.* Zombi 2 was also known around my school as ‘the one where a zombie fights a shark’ and, indeed, that’s what happens here, witnessed by a topless Auretta Gay wearing a scuba tank. It’s a scene that seems to exemplify Fulci: it’s slow, exploitative, absolutely ridiculous and genuinely surreal. It’s also typical in that the ramifications of the moment are left murkily unexplored as the plot trundles on.**
Viewed from the 21st century, Zombie Flesh Eaters seems to come from an age before irony: there is no self-conscious playfulness here, and very little humour. Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci‘s score is perfect in its epic, cheesy, doom-laden portentousness. This is the 1970s. Nobody is ‘empowered’ by violence here, and it’s all going to end rather badly. I think I love this terrible film.
*The rubber spiders in the library in The Beyond, I’m looking at you.
**Are the oceans of the world now crawling with waterlogged ghouls and infected sealife? Buggered if I know, and Lucio’s not telling.
Watch the trailer: