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.