Kôji Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels, like many films of the early 70s, opens with a song. In a darkened nightclub, while four conspirators plot their mission, Rie Yokoyama’s Friday sings an unidentified Japanese fôku song, accompanied by a plaintively plucked acoustic guitar. ‘I throw a tiny flame,’ she sings, ‘towards bright crimson blood / In any barren field / Burn the dawn / Burn the streets to the dawn’. Her distant-eyed delivery makes a curious counterpoint to the surreal, sometimes violent lyrics of the winsome, enka-esque melody and, as there is no further music for the next half an hour, the lines stick in your mind like an ear worm, becoming the unvoiced refrain of all the action that follows.
When the first bit of non-diegetic music does come in, it is every bit as violent as the intervening action. Clangorous piano chords burst in over a montage of newspaper headlines detailing the terrorist acts of the young revolutionary group. Drums skitter in freefall, as Yosuke Yamashita’s piano-playing veers from modal jazz to free atonality, switching dance partners from Alice Coltrane to Anton Webern.
Yamashita remains one of Japan’s most famous jazz musicians. He started playing with his elder brother’s swing band before he’d left school and by the 1960s he was spending every Friday at legendary Tokyo basement club Gin-Paris. One of his earliest teachers was Fumie Hoshino, a woman who played stride piano along to silent films in old cinemas, and Yamashita himself would go on to work on a number of films, from 60s pinku films by Wakamatsu and Noriko Natsumi to Shohei Imamura’s award-winning Dr Akagi. All the while carving out a distinctive live playing career as one of Japan’s most celebrated jazzers, with frequent comparisons to Cecil Taylor (his acknowledged idol) and one German critic – just a few years after the release of Ecstasy of the Angels – coining the phrase ‘kamikaze jazz’ to refer to his group’s wild musical antics.
Nowhere is the comparison to Taylor more apt than in the present film’s final scene. We are back in the same nightclub from the opening scene, but now one of the four conspirators is missing and the cool, collected spirit of their earlier meeting is long gone. At first we find Friday once more, singing the same song about a ‘silent battlefront’. But then, as if at the click of someone’s fingers, she and her accompanist disappear to be replaced by Yamashita’s trio, seen on screen for the first time. Akira Sakata’s soprano sax is squealing and honking like Ornette Coleman, Yamashita is pounding frenetically at the keyboard and Yuki Arasa’s section leader, Autumn, sat over at the table, is screaming hysterically as her empire crumbles around her.
The following text from my book Behind the Pink Curtain (2008) forms the introduction to the chapters on Kôji Wakamatsu, Masao Adachi and the various other characters involved in Wakamatsu Pro. I should point out that this text was written over five years ago, before the premiere of Wakamatsu’s United Red Army (2007) at Tokyo Film Festival introduced a whole new generation of overseas viewers to the director’s startling and provocative work.
At the time, the films of Wakamatsu were little discussed in the West, particularly in the English language, and the context in which he operated virtually unknown. (There have been a number of retrospectives subsequently, particularly in France). Behind the Pink Curtain was my attempt to remedy this, and the whole project was largely inspired by my early encounters with the films of Wakamatsu, which have proved an enduring influence on me personally. He shall be sorely missed.
Kôji Wakamatsu is a difficult figure to place within the broad history of Japanese cinema. While his films screened at a number of festivals in mainland Europe in the late 60s and early 70s – which in itself is enough to distinguish him from his contemporaries in the eroduction world – the general climate and context in which they were made, along with those he produced for other directors through his company Wakamatsu Pro, was not one treated with much significance by many Western writers at the time. There were those in France, like Noël Burch and Max Tessier, who wrote seriously about those few Japanese erotic films that began to appear in Europe in the late 60s and 70s, and consequently it has been this country that has provided a home for two noteworthy retrospectives of Wakamatsu’s films with the director himself in attendance, at the 1998 L’Etrange Festival in Paris, and as part of a season entitled ‘Sex Is Politics’, in the town of Saint-Denis in 2006. But, clearly uncomfortable with the spectacle of sexual violence against women, English-language commentators seemed at a loss when it came to interpreting the new phenomenon of the 60s, either ignoring it or dismissing it out of hand. Few took time to engage with the films even on the level at which they were intended to be consumed. It’s a stance Donald Richie has maintained until this day, as is spelled out by this classic snub of Wakamatsu relayed in a 1990 entry from his journals, published in 2004: ‘He makes embarrassing soft-core psychodrama (or used to), and Noël Burch led the French into seeing great cinematic depths in Violated Angels. It occurs to no one that the reason for making it (nurses skinned alive) was noncinematic. So Kôji was treated as though his junk meant something.’
Junk or not, Wakamatsu’s films do mean something, or at the very least are representative of something. While in the Japanese film industry at large he may be better regarded more as a particularly canny producer than for the level of craftsmanship to be found in his films, even in the capacity of a director his early work is stylistically distinct enough to at least merit some consideration. At its best, it is direct and abrasive, seething with an infectious energy and electrifying zeitgeist, its stark power immediately appreciable, even if hidden deeper meanings prove maddeningly elusive. At the very least his films serve as socio-historical documents; not only visual testimonies to an era of new sexual frankness and a deep-rooted uncertainty in which oblivion seemed to lurk around the corner; the development of Wakamatsu’s oeuvre, along with that of his close friend and ally Masao Adachi, also runs parallel with the development of the student movement and the growth of the radical left wing. Those looking back at this turbulent period and trying to fathom just how extremist political groups like the Communist League Red Army Faction (Kyôsanshugisha d^ômei sekigun-ha) – hereafter referred simply as the Red Army Faction – and the closely related groups of the Japanese Red Army (JRA, or Nihon Sekigun) and the United Red Army (URA, or Rengo Sekigun) developed as they did might well find clues in titles like Sex Play (1969), Shinjuku Mad (1970), Ecstasy of the Angels (1972), and the infamous Red Army / PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971).
It is immediately clear to the modern viewer that there is something very unique about these films that sets them apart from run-of-the-mill softcore. Wakamatsu himself denies that he ever really made pinku eiga, and indeed, it would be difficult to describe much of the output of Wakamatsu Pro, especially those films made by Masao Adachi and Atsushi Yamatoya, as representing the typical face of the genre. ‘All in all you can say that our films were underground films with a sexy touch. At least, that’s how we saw them,’ Wakamatsu later claimed. The eroduction world just provided a distribution system for him and his collaborators to exploit, and they therefore needed to tailor the content of the works, to some extent, to fit its requirements. The Kôji Wakamatsu titles best known today seem to bear this out, though this is also due to the director himself owning the rights to the majority of the hundred or so films in his back catalogue, allowing him to be selective about which titles today find themselves most regularly screened and accessible on DVD. Wakamatsu will also concede that there were many films he made in his heyday that are no longer readily available that were, in his own words, ‘not very interesting’. His filmography is full of titles, such as White Man-Made Beauty (1966), Black Narcissus of Lust (1967), and Kama Sutra: Love Technique (1970), that were more directly intended for the sex film market, and made mainly to earn money to finance more adventurous, experimental or personal projects. He also proved more adept than most when it came to selling his films to foreign distributors.
How successful really was Wakamatsu then? According to the director himself: ‘My films fared pretty well. Troublesome were the films of Masao Adachi. Since nobody wanted to buy them, we added my name on the billboard and advertised them as joint productions.’ However, according to Daisuke Asakura, the president of Kokuei – the company that produced some of his earliest works – Wakamatsu Pro’s films, ‘weren’t too popular… which is understandable because the scripts were written by people like Masao Adachi and Atsushi Yamatoya. But I think Waka was the first “name value” in the world of pink films… in a sense, he’s the one who led the world of pink film.’ There are other benchmarks of success apart from commercial performance, and in many ways Wakamatsu can be described as the most significant figure to emerge from the eroduction field. Not only has his name been cited as an influence by successive generations of pink directors, but he has also achieved a unique level of crossover success during the time Wakamatsu Pro was active, with his films accepted by critics and intellectuals from outside the seijin eiga world, including such pivotal figures from the creative avant-garde as Shûji Terayama, Jûrô Kara, Nagisa Ôshima and the ATG producer Kinshirô Kuzui.
So how exactly did this bumpkin from a poor uneducated farming background in the north of Japan make the leap from the low-budget sex film market to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, play a pivotal role in the most prominent foreign co-production of the day, and wind up tangentially involved in the pro-Palestinian cause?
Wakamatsu’s rise to prominence is all the more remarkable when you take into account his humble roots. Born 1 April, 1936, in the small town of Wakuya in the rural Miyagi prefecture of the mountainous northern Tôhoku region, he was one of several sons of a farmer who specialised in horse breeding. His relationship with his father was turbulent, as it was with his teachers at school, and though naturally a bright student, he soon let his studies slip after discovering a channel for his energies playing baseball. After being thrown out of agricultural college due to a violent altercation with a fellow member of the judo club (who was later to become, somewhat ironically given Wakamatsu’s problematic relationship with figures of authority throughout his life, a police officer), at the age of seventeen he found himself, like so many of his generation, packing his bags and heading down to Tokyo in search of work.
Wakamatsu’s entry into the world of filmmaking was a convoluted process. After his initial arrival in the city, he worked in a variety of lowly positions, on construction sites, at a confectionery company making daifuku, and in a bar, before he somehow became involved in a local yakuza group. Soon, at the age of twenty-three, a brush with the law led to a six-month spell in Hachiôji prison. Wakamatsu emerged from the ordeal with an even deeper mistrust of authority and a resolve to tackle it in a more constructive fashion that wouldn’t end up with him behind bars for a second time. The most obvious solution was through fiction. After all, engaging in real-life crimes such as killing politicians, policemen and other such figures of repressive authority tends to land one in trouble; committing the same act as fantasy in prose or on film seemed a safer way of expressing feelings of dissatisfaction with the current state of society. Wakamatsu’s initial plan was to vent his spleen by writing a novel based on his life story so far, but not long into it he discovered that his early departure from the education system made this a trickier task than he’d first envisaged. Might his talents perhaps be better suited to a life in the movies?
It was then, and indeed still is now, a customary practice for film crews in Tokyo to ask permission from local yakuza groups rather than the police when it came to location shooting in a particular quarter. And so Wakamatsu’s first brush with the film world came through his old mafia connections, with him working as a scout in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, watching over the crew and standing nearby the shoot to indicate that they had mob approval. During this time he approached one of the television producers whom he was monitoring and asked to be taken on as an apprentice.
Within a very short time he was working as a director for Nihon TV, a route taken by many pink directors before embarking on their big-screen careers. As Wakamatsu tells it, his next step up the ladder was characteristically serendipitous. A huge row, after a last-minute order to change the script and all the cast members on a project he was then working on led to Wakamatsu attacking his producer with a chair and storming off set. Only briefly out of work, he received an out-of-the-blue phone call from an actors’ agent in a hurry to find a director for a new film project. What kind of film did they want made? ‘They gave me a free rein as long as it included some shots of women’s naked backs and some love scenes. At that time the label pinku eiga didn’t exist. The censorship exercised by Eirin was very severe, to the point where you couldn’t show pubic hair or women’s nipples: so you were obliged to film naked women from behind. I asked him if it was worth the bother, but he insisted.’ And so, in 1963, Wakamatsu came to direct his first theatrical work, entitled Sweet Trap.
Sweet Trap no longer exists in a viewable form. What appears to be his earliest film in existence, and his seventh as a director, (1964) tells the story of a podgy salesman named Mizushima (played by the actor Takuzô Kamiyama in his first and only leading role) who, when visiting the household of the Tsuchiya family, disturbs an assault on the lady of the house, Yûko (Daydream’s Kanako Michi), by her brother-in-law Toshio. Coming to her rescue, he nevertheless finds himself on the wrong side of the law when Yûko’s husband, an influential public prosecutor, frames him by giving false evidence in order to protect Toshio, his younger brother. When Mizushima is betrayed to the police by his girlfriend Akemi, who remains unconvinced of his innocence, he returns to visit Yûko and, after making love, the couple decide to flee together across the countryside, with the film climaxing in a memorable confrontation on the rim of a volcano crater. Playing far more conventionally than the director’s later, more enigmatic meditations on violence, subversive politics and sexual hysteria, if Red Crime can be linked to the new eroduction genre in any way, it is more by dint of its low-budget production circumstances than its actual content. With its lovers-on-the-run scenario reminiscent of Godard’s A bout de souffle (1960), it in fact owes more to crime thriller conventions, and there are none of the overt addresses to contemporary political issues that would characterize his self-produced work.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews