Having taken avant-garde story telling to its zenith in Heroic Purgatory, Yoshida returns to the realm of politics with a far more accessible effort in Coup d’Etat (AKA Martial Law, 戒厳令 Kaigenrei). Inbetween the two films, Yoshida had made another more mainstream offering, Confessions Among Actresses, which had been moderately successful with both audiences and critics but with Coup d’Etat he came back to the artistic fare he’d been pursuing since leaving Shochiku. Unlike the other two films in Arrow’s Love + Anarchy boxset, Coup ‘Etat deals with a right wing rebellion rather than the communists and anarchists which are more familiar to the post-war world.
The film begins with a nervous young man brutally stabbing an elderly businessman in the street before taking his own life. On claiming his remains, the man’s sister finds a letter addressed to Ikki Kita – a well known right wing intellectual in favour of the institution of martial law. Kita, or more particularly his work, becomes a figurehead for a putative revolution organised by young army officers who have become disillusioned with the elected government, its plans for increasing Westernisation and treatment of the poor. They seek to overthrow parliament and put the Emperor back in charge for a kind of paternalistic socialist state. Kita remains on the fringes of this movement, coming into contact with a young soldier who wants to join the revolution and advising him but repeatedly making it clear that he is not involved with the coup itself. Nevertheless, even if not directly involved, Kita will still pay the price for his radical ideas.
Less an examination of the historical events of the time or the coup itself, Coup d’Etat is a psychological portrait of Kita’s last days. Marking the only time Yoshida was not involved in the screenplay (this time leaving things entirely to playwright Minoru Betsuyaku) the film follows a much more linear structure rather than playing with time in the same way as Eros + Massacre or Heroic Purgatory. Kita had written a hugely influential book which advocated moving to a system of martial law under the paternalistic care of the emperor alongside nationalisation of industries, minimisation of private property and a better welfare state. However, Kita is a public intellectual not an activist. He takes no personal part in the armed struggle (though he is aware of each of the actions and close to the people who facilitated them), yet still he pays the price. Whether this is an indictment of his lack of physical commitment to the ideals that he spoke of, or an indictment of a system which seeks to shoot the messenger is up for debate but in any case Kita is “betrayed” by the very same emperor that he worshipped as a god.
Having said that, it’s Emperor Meiji who hangs on Kita’s wall. What Kita and the officer class wanted was a “Showa Restoration” in line with the “Meiji Restoration” but almost the reverse as they returned to a form of paternalistic government where personal freedoms were restricted but everyone was well cared for. We actually don’t learn a lot about Kita during the film (a strange thing to say about a “biopic” which is often how the film is described) but it seems that he had a strict childhood in which he was prohibited from feeling fear – each time a boy was a afraid, he was supposed to cut himself as a punishment. Yet Kita is afraid and this tension between intellectual thought and irrepressible emotion is one that restricts his physical actions to the point that he remains a solitary figure entrapped by his own ideology. That he is then betrayed by the very figures that he sought to exult is the very highest form of tragedy and it’s difficult not to believe that the real coup d’etat is being perpetrated against Kita himself.
Perhaps because of its relative narrative simplicity, Coup d’Etat is a visual masterpiece taking Yoshida’s especial gifts for composition to new heights of beauty. Once again shot in black and white 4:3 Academy ratio, the film is an unsettling maze of shadows and light coupled with uncomfortable angles and a musical score that’s almost like a science fiction film. Yoshida’s prognosis is indeed bleak – the young soldier for example who’s unable to carry out his part of the mission and eventually falsely confesses to having been a spy simply because he felt insignificant and wanted to be a part of something is symptomatic of the self-centred ineffectuality of the younger generation. Once again, youth has been evaluated and found wanting though age doesn’t fare much better in the end. The filming of Coup d’Etat was delayed for sometime as Yoshida underwent an operation to remove a tumour from his stomach. His ultimate satisfaction with the film and the feeling of having come to the end of a cycle coupled with the need to recuperate more fully kept Yoshida away from the director’s chair until 1986 though he’d never return to it with the same intensity as in his political trilogy.
Available now on blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Films’ Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set.
Scene from near the end of the film:
Reviews of the other movies in the set: