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).