Every story is a ghost story in a sense. In every photograph there’s a presence which cannot be seen but is always felt. The filmmaker is a phantom and an enigma, but can we understand the spirit from what we see? Whose viewpoint are seeing, and can we ever separate that subjective vision from the one we create for ourselves within our own minds? The Man Who Left his Will on Film (東京戰争戦後秘話, Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa) is an oblique examination of identity but more specifically how that identity is repurposed through cinema as cinema is repurposed as a political weapon.
The film begins with an anarchic scene in which two men argue over use of an 8mm Bolex camera. The man whose voice we can hear is angry with the cameraman who he claims has stolen his camera only to use it for “trivial” street scenes and landscapes whereas he needs it to “capture the struggle” by filming a nearby student protest. Eventually we can verify that there are two men as the protagonist, Motoki (Kazuo Goto), briefly moves in front of the camera in order to try and snatch it away from the filmmaker. The man holding the camera then runs off as breathless, handheld camera takes over. Motoki follows him and we follow Motoki as the scene takes on an ominous quality. The cameraman reappears atop a nearby building before plunging to his death camera in hand. Stunned, Motoki approaches the bloody scene and, noticing the camera is still intact, tries to retrieve it only to be picked up by the police who confiscate the camera as evidence.
Motoki then wakes up back at his left wing commune with his friends eager to know what happened. Strangely, they do not seem to be aware that one of their number has died and are more worried about the police being in control of one of their “means of production”. Even the dead man’s girlfriend, Yasuko (Emiko Iwasaki), begins to doubt the fact that he ever existed at all. Motoki and Yasuko begin investigating the mysterious presence together, chasing their elusive filmmaker and each taking possession of his form on more than one occasion but the question who owns these images, whose identity defines the narrative, proves an elliptical and ethical dilemma.
Oshima, evidently, was no right wing stooge but even if The Man who left His Will on Film takes the world of the student protests as its milieu, it does so to undermine them. Motoki’s comrades view filmmaking as a revolutionary act. They claim to turn the camera into a weapon by using it confront reality, but as Yasuko later admits much of this is a rationalisation which allows them to continue a “bourgeois” art form without abandoning their left wing principles. The cadre members spout marxist dogma and argue about who has the highest political consciousness, but all they ever do is film the ongoing struggle. Their fight is empty, their vision blank.
Notably, the first of several arguments over dogma relates to “ownership” of the camera itself and whether Motoki and another comrade fought hard enough to retrieve it from the oppressive state. Did Motoki chase after “his” camera, meaning he condones the idea of “private” property which is contrary to the communal nature of the group, or “their” camera which is a revolutionary tool? The camera itself is singular, but the group is plural. This commune is intended to work as a hive mind, the people as one with one vision and one identity but Oshima exposes this as an impossibility. The group is a collective of individuals with different ideas and opinions which do not necessarily conform to a common point of view.
This is further brought out when the camera is retrieved and revealed to contain a collection of seemingly apolitical landscapes and street scenes. The group members are quickly bored with the static shots of everyday subjects, some berating the filmmaker for his “bankrupt” politics and lack of artistry while others vow they must honour their comrade’s struggle by watching the film to its conclusion in order to derive the meaning. The unseen filmmaker has indeed left his “will” on film, not as a testament or embodiment of future policy, but his literal “will”. His individual spirit and vision are contained within the seemingly innocuous shots in a political act of revolutionary individualism. He is the film, the film is him. His vision dominates, we must accept it or remake it as our own.
Motoki, constantly chasing shadows, attempts to remake the film in the mould of the original filmmaker but unexpectedly encounters aspects of his own life already existing within it. Yasuko’s approach is more proactive. She inserts herself into the film, makes her presence known and refuses to be invisible. She picks up the camera and fights for her place within the frame. Hers is the struggle of the true revolutionary filmmaker, imprinting herself and her vision onto the film.
Where does this leave us? We’re in the film too. We see the film and, in a sense, recreate it in our own minds, recasting ourselves as director and protagonist. We see the film subjectively yet we cannot divorce ourselves from the original vision. Motoki’s venture fails because he only sees the landscapes, whereas Yasuko takes the same images but repossesses them, remaking them in her own image in a true act of cinematic revolution. Yasuko has seized the means of production and overthrown the tyranny of anonymous images in refusing to be constrained by someone else’s will. The camera is a weapon, but it is we who choose what it sees, and in turn what it sees in us.
Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)