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.
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.