General review of Arrow’s Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set up at UK Anime Network.
Kiju (also known as Yoshishige) Yoshida is one of the primary names in Japan’s 1960s art movie boom though he’s comparatively unknown and, in fact, little seen outside of Japan. Though some of this is down to Yoshida’s fierce self ownership of his own back catalogue, this new HD blu-ray box set from Arrow Films is the first time any of his films will be readily available with English subtitles. Titled Love + Anarchy, the box set includes both the original director’s cut of Yoshida’s magnum opus Eros + Massacre as well as the shortened theatrical cut of the film, his examination of ’60s radical leftist politics in Heroic Purgatory and his look at a failed ‘30s rightist insurrection in Coup d’Etat.
Eros + Massacre is the film Yoshida has become best known for and the one with which he is most closely associated. The film tells two parallel stories beginning with the 1960s students Eiko and Wada who are running an extra curricular research project into the lives of a group of Taisho era anarchists including feminist Ito Noe and poet Osugi Sakae who was an early exponent of free love which is something that particularly interests Eiko. The Taisho era scenes are less a historical examination than they are the results of the research project conducted by Eiko and Wada and so are a sum of their refracted perceptions. The film is full of surrealistic touches like the Taisho characters suddenly turning up in modern day Tokyo or unexpected scenes of expressionism breaking in without warning. A fantastic example of ‘60s avant-garde cinema, Eros + Massacre is a film which should have been more widely seen and now hopefully will be.
The first question – why two versions? The answer is not the one you’re thinking of. Though the film is undoubtedly long at over 3.5hrs, Yoshida largely financed the film himself and intended to release it in his original version. However, though Ito and Osugi were assassinated along side Osugi’s six year old nephew in the chaos following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, another of Osugi’s mistresses, Kamichika Ichiko, was still very much alive (though obviously an old woman) and a serving politician. She got wind of the film and after seeing it threatened to sue over her portrayal. Yoshida voluntarily recut the film to minimise her scenes, renamed her character and exhibited the shortened version to great acclaim. Though the director’s cut is truest to Yoshida’s vision, even in the shortened version his artistry shines through.
The second film in Yoshida’s “political trilogy” is the even more avant-garde Heroic Purgatory. Far less accessible than the other two films in the set, Heroic Purgatory spans three distinct time periods from the recent past to the present and the near future and focuses on the current Japanese leftist movement with particular reference to its opposition towards the renewals of the Japanese and American mutual defence treaty. However, what all of this really amounts to is paean to love and marriage. Full of strange and beautiful photography Heroic Purgatory is the iconic avant-garde film. Which is to say it’s undoubtedly difficult, inscrutable and perhaps more experienced than understood.
By contrast Coup d’Etat is the most straightforward of the films presented. Marking the only time in his career where Yoshida was not involved in the screenplay, the film moves across the political divide and examines the final days of right wing intellectual Ikki Kita. Ironically enough, the thrust of the film concerns an attempted political coup by a group of young army officers who disapproved of the government’s treatment of its people and particularly of its failure to properly provide for the poor. Their revolution was in the name of the emperor, they merely wanted to eject the sitting government. Despite his repeated protestations and lack of direct involvement in the planning of the coup, Kita still paid the price as his stature and the influence of his writings were simply too strong making him a dangerous individual and a pretty fitting scapegoat. The last film Yoshida would make with ATG (and in fact the only one which was entirely produced with them), Coup d’Etat retains his characteristically complex imagery even if it ejects his surreal storytelling style. It also loses his wife, Mariko Okada, but gains the towering presence of star character actor Rentaro Mikuni.
Available for the first time with English subtitles and in HD this new box set from Arrow Films is a long overdue opportunity to finally witness the challenging yet hugely important work of this hitherto neglected filmmaker. Yoshida’s work is not easy to digest (it will also help to have a little knowledge of 20th century Japanese history or to make careful use of the excellent essays included with the box set) but is always beautiful. The unseen genius of the ‘60s avant-garde art scene, Yoshida is an uncompromising figure which may be why it’s taken so long for work to reach us, but now that it has, it’s an opportunity that should not be ignored.
Links to individual reviews of each of the films:
- Eros + Massacre (エロス＋虐殺, Kiju Yoshida, 1969)
- Heroic Purgatory (煉獄エロイカ, Kiju Yoshida, 1970
- Coup d’Etat (AKA Martial Law, 戒厳令 Kaigenrei, Kiju Yoshida 1973)