Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (書を捨てよ町へ出よう, Shuji Terayama, 1971)

throw away your booksCaught in a moment of transition in more ways than one, Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (書を捨てよ町へ出よう, Sho o Suteyo Machi e Deyo) is a clarion call to apathetic youth in the dying days of ‘60s youthful rebellion. Neatly bridging the gap between post-war avant-garde and the punk cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Terayama experiments gleefully with a psychedelic, surreal rock musical which is first and foremost a sensory rather than a cerebral experience.

The film opens with an uncomfortably long black screen which has a subtle soundscape running behind it. Just when you begin to think there’s something wrong with the video, a young man dressed in a trench coat (collar turned up) appears and berates our idiocy for haven fallen for the trick. What are we doing here, sitting in a dark room waiting for something to happen when the real action is, and always has been, out in the streets? We’re trapped in here – we’re the ones inside the screen, the boy is free to smoke and we are free only to watch him do it.

It becomes clear that we are also trapped within the realm of his unrealisable dreams. He worked at a factory but he didn’t like it so he quit. He wanted to be a boxer but it frightened him so he gave up. He hears a story of a Korean boy who built a glider and tried to fly home on his own only to crash somewhere over the ocean. He envies the moments of blue skies the Korean boy flew through as the brief fulfilment of a dream. From this point on he builds a glider in his mind but is perpetually unable to launch finally seeing it too go up in flames.

The boy says he comes from a dead end place where he lives with his unemployed father, needy grandmother and younger sister whose attachment to her pet rabbit is beginning to raise eyebrows. He finds another outlet for his youthful masculinity in the local football team (football is the most manly because the ball is bigger) where an older brother substitute tries to introduce him to the better things in life including sending him to a local prostitute to “make him a man” and teaching him about “sophisticated” western dining and marxist discourse. Throughout all of this the boy remains alone, perpetually observing from the outside but never successfully finding his way in. There’s a repeated riddle – what has one way in and two ways out? We expect an answer that carries some profound weight about the nature of human existence but, no, after all it’s just a pair of trousers.

Terayama travels from black to white – beginning with the bleak opening which is all darkness and silence, he takes us to an ending of blinding white light and the eclipse that will come to us all. The boy tells us the the film will be over soon and no one will remember him – that’s all that’s left to show, a blank white screen and the images of men who will shortly disappear. However, this is not the end though we see the white screen interrupt us a few more times, the boy has another monologue in which he tells us how the film has consumed him so that the lines between reality and fantasy have become indistinguishable. The film crew have become his family, the actor playing his father is, in a sense, his father, the 28 day shoot has become an entire universe which lives and dies inside the film. A film is something which only lives in the dark, when we flick on the lights, the magic is broken and it dies.

The boy says he loved this world but does not love the cinema yet the film is rife with cinematic references and Terayama is always careful to remind us we’re watching a film by deliberately making us aware of the camera. He calls out Polanski, Oshima, and Antonioni by name and even sings a love song to Ken Takakura as well as pledging his devotion to female leading yakuza actress Junko Fuji. Yet the world of the film is totally its own encompassing proto-punk rock songs, surrealistic imagery and inserted street art quoting artists and dreamers including the Russian futurist poet Mayakovsky. As in his other work Terayama also employs Godard style colour filters from the violent green of the boy’s family life to the standard colouring of the football club and the purple tinged insert scene in which a group of hopefuls read out classified ads featuring men seeking men, missing wives and mothers, and finally a couple of obvious scams.

Way ahead of its time and successfully anticipating the anarchic pop-punk movement which was to come some years later Terayama’s youthful masterpiece remains one of the most important if inscrutable films of the era. Sadly, Terayama died at the young age of 47 in 1983 walking into his own blank white screen but even in this first feature length effort he imprinted all the pain and rage of his times into a story of a young man lost and confused in the modern consumerist era. It calls on youth to awaken, go out into the streets and do something, anything, but also has little faith that it will. We’ll go on watching Ken Takakura to feel like a tough guy before going back to being vaguely disappointed with our circumstances but doing nothing much of anything at all about it. We too, live only in the film, inside the dream, until the screen burns white and our dreams dissolve with it.


This trailer was created for a specific film screening (The North Star Ballroom is where the screening took place) but does have subtitles. It’s a little NSFW though, be warned.

Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism

133365_frontGeneral 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:

 

 

Heroic Purgatory (煉獄エロイカ, Kiju Yoshida, 1970)

Heroic Purgatory PosterThe second film contained within Arrow’s Kiju Yoshida boxset is perhaps his least accessible. Ostensibly, Heroic Purgatory (煉獄エロイカ, Rengoku Eroika) is an examination of leftist politics in the years surrounding the renewal of the hugely controversial mutual security pact between Japan and America. However, it quickly disregards any kind of narrative sense as time periods blur so finely as to leave us with no objective “now” to belong to and characters switch identities with no warning or discernible reason. Yoshida is not really after objective truth here – there is no truth in cinema, film lies repeatedly until it finally exposes the truth.

What there is of a plot begins with the scientist Rikiya Shoda who, it seems, may have been a part of a left wing activist group in the ‘50s who were intent on assassinating an ambassador but may or may not have had a mole in their midst. Now, in the contemporary ‘60s era his quiet life is disturbed when his wife, Nanako returns home with a distressed teenage girl who begins insisting Rikiya and Nanako are her parents. Sometime later another man arrives claiming to be Ayu’s father – he’s even installed a spy cam on her because this is apparently something she does quite often. The “father” eventually leaves without Ayu but then we jump back to the ‘50s where Rikiya and the “father” seem to be part of the same left wing cell but for some reason did not recognise each other in the modern part of the film. There are repeated interrogations regarding a spy, confessions, reversals, executions and betrayals but where does it get us in the end?

There’s no making sense of Heroic Purgatory, that’s not really what it’s about. It’s the very essence of avant-garde, gently eschewing literal narrative in favour of a deeper meaning. At the end what we’re left with is a scientist who professes love to be the highest calling and a wife who answers the question “what do you do when your husband’s working?” with “Think about my husband”. This isn’t some kind of anti-feminist statement in so much as a defence of a thirty year marriage which has, apparently, survived all this chaos. What has clearly perished is the left wing student movement which has ultimately failed to instigate any real kind of social change. The film wraps itself around the dates at which Japan’s defence treaty with America was or would be renewed – something to which the leftwing movement was completely opposed to and failed to prevent. Not only did they not succeed in breaking the American security pact in the ‘50s but interest in the protests themselves slowly dwindled. The film ends with a sign reading “Dead End” which you can only read as being in reference to the eventual demise of armed leftwing rebellion in Japan.

Though Heroic Purgatory is in no way Yoshida’s most easily digestible effort, it may be one of the most beautiful. Shot in 4:3 academy ratio and in glorious black and white with Yoshida’s preference for over exposure, every scene of Heroic Purgatory drips with elegance in its exquisite framing. Yoshida pushes focus to the bottom of the frame, rarely having anything other than empty space above the halfway line. Further adding to the sense of pressured claustrophobia and confusion, Yoshida’s gift for strange compositions is the perfect match for his dreamlike, incoherent, floating tale. Pushed to the edges of the frame, the actors are literally left with nowhere to run in Yoshida’s largely industrial wasteland of a stage set.

The film begins with what looks like a suicide, but turns out not to be. Accompanied by violent, stinging music, we’re trained to expect something terrible to have happened though once again Yoshida has fooled us with clever camera trickery. The music throughout is more like something from a horror film, low level thrumming strings and brief breaks of choral singing set us on edge and make us even more uncomfortable than we already were.

Heroic Purgatory is a poem of beautiful incomprehensibility. Strange and elliptical, the film is visual experience which demands emotional over intellectual engagement. Beautiful, fascinating and ultimately inscrutable Heroic Purgatory is a film that haunts with its refusal to explain itself and is likely to reverberate in the mind long after the final credits have rolled.


Available on blu-ray and DVD as part of Arrow Films’ Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set.

Original unsubbed Japanese trailer (slightly NSFW – contains nudity)

Reviews of the other movies in the set:

Eros + Massacre (エロス+虐殺, Kiju Yoshida, 1969)

Snapshot-2015-11-17 at 11_12_15 PM-1889818228One of the foremost avant-garde filmmakers of the New Wave era (though he detested this term which, in fairness, is a retrospective and often arbitrary label), Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida has remained largely unseen in the West. Some of this is his own fault – fiercely independent, Yoshida nevertheless found himself working with ATG after leaving Shochiku but the relationship was an unusual one and often far from easy. All but the latest film in Arrow’s Kiju Yoshida boxset, Coup d’Etat, were completed more or less independently and only distributed though ATG and as such not truly “ATG” films. Though it bears many of the hallmarks of a late ‘60s ATG movie, Eros + Massacre (エロス+虐殺, Erosu Purasu Gyakusatsu) is one such effort and the one which helped to make Yoshida’s name even if it was only seen in an abridged version.

Structurally complex, Eros + Massacre mixes the world of the Taisho anarchists, Osugi Sakae and Ito Noe, with the contemporary Tokyo of the sixties through the prism of two modern students who are running a research project into the events surrounding their ultimate assassination during the panic after the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Eiko is a sexually liberated modern woman who engages in casual prostitution and her boyfriend, Wada, is a sexually impotent young man with a traumatic past and habit of playing with fire. The vision we see of the Taisho era is filtered through the perceptions of Eiko and Wada and, in fact, we start to see them as living with us in a real sense as Ito wanders around modern Tokyo, observing the fruits of her struggle and in one notable episode being interviewed by Eiko.

The film exists in two distinct versions – this is less to do with any kind of censorship, either commercial or political, than a legal or possibly moral issue. The fact is, the other of Osugi’s mistresses, Kamichika Ichiko, was still alive at the time the film was completed and had also become a serving politician. Unhappy with her portrayal in the film and unwilling to have a potentially embarrassing event from her previous life dragged back into the spotlight, she threatened to sue and Yoshida voluntarily decided to recut the film to remove many of her scenes as well as renaming the character to distance her from her real life counterpart. The shorter version of the film is the one which helped make Yoshida’s reputation and though nothing in the shorter version is not in the longer one, this version feels a little less “avant-garde” in tone than the intended full cut of the film.

Yoshida often gives way to surreal incidents such as the clash between the Taisho era followers of Osugi and a group of young rugby players tussling over the white wrapped remains of Osugi, the expressionist scene in which the mistress, Itsuko, clutches at a knife hovering in mid air causing the screen to fill with blood raining down from above or the repeated stabbings of Osugi each re-imagined in differing scenarios. His framing is always beautifully idiosyncratic as he makes use of the edges of the frames, disembodying his actors or dividing them with walls and windows. There is no sense of conventional narrative as timelines blur into each other becoming evermore indistinct and the dialogue is often elliptical or poetic rather than offering naturalistic content. Nevertheless, the shorter version retains fewer of these flourishes than are present in the original cut of the film.

Eiko is interested in Osugi because of his free love philosophy rather than any other political aim. Other than their interest in sexual politics, Eiko and Wada do not appear to be particularly politically active in any other way. Osugi’s ideas of total freedom do not even go down very well with his comrades who don’t approve of the way he treats his various women and his disingenuous denial that there is any discord between his band of concubines seems wilfully naive. Osugi’s treatment of the three women in his life – his wife, Yasuko, mistress Itsuko (who is financially supporting both Osugi and his wife despite Osugi’s advocacy of free love insisting on financial independence of all parties), and now his latest lover Noe, is extremely self-centred and unfair. As the first to live in this unorthodox fashion, it’s unsurprising that the arrangement comes in for criticism from all quarters. Yoshida posits that it was Osugi’s free love lifestyle that eventually lead to his shock execution during the chaos following the Great Kanto earthquake as his modern ideals threatened the very idea of the traditional family and ultimately the state itself.

By contrast, Eiko’s modern sexuality appears merely an attempt to ward of her sense of ennui. Where for Osugi sex was a political action (or so he would have it), for Eiko it’s a means of trying and failing to add some kind of meaning to her life. Eiko and Wada are not committed to any kind of rebellious action – they’re simply bored. They literally play with fire without understanding its consequences. Yoshida’s other central tenet is that youth is not beautiful – it is destructive. By implication, Eiko and Wada’s selfish pursuit of personal freedom and the modern commodification of desire is nothing more than willful self destruction.

Yoshida has stated that his primary idea for the film is how to bring about a revolution and to ask the question of what it is that needs to change. Osugi is shown up as a hypocrite whose ideals are imperfect and self centred, though his eventual murder is dictated by his refusal to conform. The fact that he envisioned a different future, wished to live in a different way, was sufficient enough to necessitate his death. The modern couple misuse their own freedom and are willing to watch the world burn just to feel the heat. They are incapable of effecting real social change because their focus is always inwards rather than a dedication to the betterment of all mankind. Confounding, intriguing and beautifully shot Eros + Massacre is far from easy to digest but is an essential entry in the history of Japanese avant-garde cinema.


Available now in the UK as part of Arrow Films’ Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set.

Reviews of the other movies in the set: