No, the two films by Kôji Wakamatsu that I recently watched are not Criterion films, but if I had a bet to make on an auteur whose work may eventually make it into Criterion, this would be a safe one to make. He started directing in what is considered the Japanese New Wave, he’s Japanese (Criterion seems to like Japanese directors), he’s not commercial, but his work tackles significant issues regarding post-WWII Japan and is critically acclaimed. To chalk him up as merely a pinku director is giving him way too short of shrift, at least given the two films I’ve watched. There’s another good reason why Criterion might turn an eye to him sometime – most of his works are not available in the US.
To say I checked him out because he made a movie called 11.25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate (2012) (a biopic about Yukio Mishima’s last years) is not quite accurate, as United Red Army (2007) and Caterpillar (2010) were already in my Netflix cue before I even knew about the Mishima movie meant something I had read previously compelled me to look Wakamatsu up. Both films focus on historical time periods, both films are incredibly brutal, both films are not fun to watch, and both films are unflinching in their negative portrayal of the Japanese. I can’t imagine that these two films grossed very much at the Japanese box office. Unfortunately, the next project he was going to work on, which centered on the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Japanese nuclear lobby, will never come to light, as Wakamatsu was hit by a taxi and diedlast year.
United Red Army is three hours and ten minutes long. When flipping through my cue, I would see that, cringe, and move on (I do the same thing with Intolerance). Finally, given the extra incentive of learning more about a director who made a movie on Mishima, I bit. It’s a film about the Japanese communist movement of the late-1960s / early-1970s, mostly populated by idealistic students sick of the capitalist, pro-American government and their policies. Mishima was on the other side of this battle, with the ultra-militarists (reinstate the Emperor) who were against the capitalist, pro-American government and their policies. He once went to a university to talk to the students. Nothing really came of the talk, but it is very interesting to learn more about the background of this ideological antithesis who ultimately wanted the same thing Mishima did.
I’ve seen The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008 [interesting that these two films were made around the same time]), so I knew a little bit about what was going on in Germany. Also interesting that these two radical movements were coming out of Axis power countries, youth born during and directly after WWII coming to terms (or not) with their countries’ recent pasts and reacting. Wakamatsu was actually part of the movement for a time but left, so he has a unique perspective into what happened. Some reviews I’ve read say that he tries to go out of his way to create an unbiased account of what happened, and his jutsuroku (combining actual footage with acted footage to create a docu-drama sort of feel) approach strives to be a kind of historical recounting, but I disagree that this is impartial. He chose the subject matter. He even funded the film himself when no one would give him money to “set history straight,” as it were. He used his own house and wrecked part of it for the finale of the film. And if you wish to maintain that describing the internal purge within the group, which takes up much of the second part of the film (the first part concentrating on how the groups and factions formed and the third [last] part on the siege of an inn in Asama), as being unbiased, then you’re wrong. This was a personal film for Wakamatsu.
The film is meticulous in its detail, providing names and ages of all the people that come across the screen, and since there are many, it is difficult to track who is who (especially since they often wear masks) until characters become more solidified in the second part. Actually, to call them “characters” is inaccurate on two counts. One, these were real people. Two, none of them are fleshed out very much, so other than “pretty girl” or “brutal guy with buzz cut,” they didn’t really register. Until they start getting killed by each other. This is where the film got bizarrely interesting. Is it really all that hard to become a communist? Certainly not. China and the Soviet Union were full of them. There was no daily “self-criticism” like the type seen in the film. This ideal communist the leaders of the group strive to make their cohorts is irrational and illogical. When self-criticizing, a man admits he had thoughts of taking over leadership and using the group for his own means. Mori seethes “You’re a Stalinist!” and has him executed. That the group is complicit in this is totally unthinkable. The next character, presumably thinking the same thing as I, that Mori’s bloodlust had been sated, says that he also was guilty of such thoughts. Mori is beside himself. He has that man executed as well. A jealous woman, Toyama, who is part of the leadership, hates a beautiful young lady who was part of the founding members of the organization. Toyama berates her for wearing makeup and fixing her hair. Why did she come to the forest to train, Toyama constantly grills her, if she was going to cling to such mannerisms, which are truly out of step with being a true communist? Toyama and the group eventually force this woman to bury her executed friends and beat herself up. She dies a few days later.
Wakamatsu stares the lunacy of this group straight on. How can a group fight global democracy and capitalism when they can’t even seem to be a cogent group themselves? They are their own worst enemy. As numbers dwindle and the police close in, one by one, members get arrested. The final showdown at Asama, valiant as it is misdirected (taking a stand against police who will obviously, with the establishment, spin the incident even more extremely than it already was), was a complete waste. Shooting cops to make a political point won’t garner much public support, especially when you won’t let a member of the public go free (and no, she wasn’t a hostage to them, but that’s their own ideology spiraling out of control).
No one in this film ends up looking noble or redeeming. The ending scroll gives the timeline of the group, post-Asama. I was surprised to find that they were still active into the 2000s, with all the trials, punishments, executions, other terrorist activities, and splintering. There is a lot of pain, way too much pain that comes from this. And for what? Where is communism thriving? Are you going to call China communist, because that’s naïve. So much lost; so little gained. It seems like a true waste and dreary in its finale.
And if you think URA was bleak, it was nowhere near as defeatist as Caterpillar. Tadashi Kurokawa, a man from a small farming village, is conscripted to join the Japanese Imperial Army for the Sino-Japanese War in 1940. He is sent to China. During a battle, as he and his fellow soldiers are raping, maiming and killing Chinese women, he is trapped in a burning house. He loses both arms, both legs, is badly burned on half of his head and rendered deaf and mute. Yet, he is still alive. He is returned to his wife, Shigeko, who is understandably mortified. Just as he sacrificed for the Emperor, she must now take care of her husband.
Fun, right? It gets worse. Tadashi is a brute of a man. Before being deployed, he would often abuse Shigeko. She had not given him a child, so he calls her barren and beats her. Another layer of horror to this story is that the returned Tadashi is hailed as not just a war hero but a war god. Someone who survived “battle” to still be alive is elevated to almost kami status. People bow to Tadashi whenever his wife wheels him around town in a wheelbarrow. In a time where food is scarce, village women will give Shigeko precious eggs for the war god. No one knows (nor can Tadashi say) just how he became so horribly disfigured, but that the root is monstrous behavior like raping and killing makes celebrations of Tadashi all the more stomach-churning. What is also disgusting is that Tadashi often asks to see his medals (he is awarded three for his “bravery” and the newspaper article about him) as a means of a pacifier of sorts. They seem to underscore his heroism, which isn’t even true, but he takes comfort in the recognition.
Furthermore, Tadashi is an immense strain, as you can imagine, on Shigeko, who still has to go out and farm rice and knit fabric at night. She now has to bathe, feed, and tend to Tadashi’s other … er … digestive functions, very much like taking care of an infant. But that’s still not enough. He pulls at her clothes with his teeth and writes with a pencil in his mouth whenever he wants sex. And he wants sex often. Shigeko is bound to oblige, not only out of marital duty but duty to the Emperor. She has to be ultra-care-giver to this man who used to beat and debase her. She eventually starts to unravel.
I may be biased in my reading of this film, but one thing I found totally grotesque is that Tadashi does not seem to have a conscious. There are times when we see him flashing back to the women he was raping before the fire consumed the building while his own wife is having sex with him. He reacts with grunting noises, but it isn’t clear if this is guilt he is feeling. It’s as if he is in the role of the women (in a move of power, Shigeko initiates sex instead of it being the other way around) and is horrified, not of what he did to others, but that he is feeling what he made others feel. His constant insatiable needs, which immensely tax his wife, run parallel with how he got himself into his current state of being. When he commits suicide at the end of the film (sorry, no spoiler alert, but I’m pretty sure even the teeny audience this post may have will not see this film after reading) by rolling out of the house into the small pond outside the front door, it seems more like he is ending his own suffering of having to rely on someone for any and all his needs than overbearing guilt for all the horrors he has visited on others. He is truly reprehensible, which is what makes this acting performance (as well as the one given by Shigeko’s actress) all the more powerful. She is so beaten down by expectations and her “duty,” and he is so evil and wretched.
Both films are not all that technical in nature. URA is not particularly acted well (and is so piecemeal with its large cast that no one really has time to shine). Its scope and link to a specific piece of history is what make it so captivating. Caterpillar is well-acted, but the plot brings home the cruelty of humans and the fragility of life. Wakamatsu is the type of director that has repeat performances by actors, so they are loyal to his vision. That’s very telling. It’s a shame we will have no more of that vision in the future.