Wilderness (あゝ、荒野, Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2017)

wilderness posterWhen Shuji Terayama published his only novel in 1966, Japan was riding high – the 1964 Olympics had put the nation back on the global map and post-war desperation was beginning shift towards economic prosperity. In adapting Terayama’s jazz-inspired avant-garde prose experiment for the screen, Yoshiyuki Kishi updates the action to 2021 and a slightly futuristic Tokyo once again feeling a mild sense of post-Olympic malaise. Terayama, like the twin heroes of Wilderness (あゝ、荒野, Ah, Koya), got his “education” on the streets of Shinjuku, claiming that more could be learned from boxing and horse races than any course of study. Both damaged young men, these lonely souls begin to find a place for themselves within the ring but discover only emptiness in place of the freedom they so desperately long for.

Shinji (Masaki Suda), abandoned to an orphanage by his mother after his father committed suicide, has just been released from juvie after being involved in a street fight which left one of his best friends paralysed. Discovering that his old gang won’t take him back he’s at a loss for what to do. Meanwhile, shy barber Kenji (Yang Ik-june) who stammers so badly that he barely speaks at all, is battling the possessive stranglehold his drunken, violent ex-military father weilds over him. Raised in Korea until his mother died and his father brought him back to Japan, Kenji has always struggled to feel a part of the world he inhabits. The two meet by chance when Shinji decides to confront the man who attacked his gang, Yuji (Yuki Yamada) – now an up and coming prize fighter. Shinji is badly injured by the professional boxer while Kenji comes to his rescue, bringing them to the attention of rival boxing manager Horiguchi (Yusuke Santamaria) who manages to recruit them both for his fledgling studio.

The Tokyo of 2021 is, perhaps like its 1966 counterpart, one of intense confusion and anxiety. Plagued by mysterious terrorist attacks, the nation is also facing an extension of very real social problems exacerbated by a tail off from the temporary Olympic economic bump. As the economy continues to decline with unemployment on the rise, crime and suicides increase while social attitudes harden. In an ageing society, love hotels are being turned into care homes and wedding halls into funeral parlours. The elder care industry is in crisis, necessitating a controversial law which promises certain benefits to those who commit to dedicating themselves either to the caring professions or to the self defence forces.

Yet nothing much of this matters to a man like Shinji who ignores the crowds fleeing in terror from the latest attack in favour of “free” ramen left behind by the man who recently vacated the seat next to him out of a prudent desire to make a speedy escape. Shinji takes up boxing as way of getting public revenge on Yuji but also finds that suits him, not just as an outlet for his youthful frustrations but in the discipline and rigour of the training hall as well as the camaraderie among the small team at the gym. Kenji, by contrast, is kind hearted and so shy he can barely look his opponent in the eye. He comes to boxing as a way of finally learning to stand up for himself against his bullying father, but eventually discovers that it might be a way for him achieve what he has always dreamed of – connection.

Asked why he thinks it is we’re born at all if all we do if suffer and long for death, Kenji replies that must be “to connect” though he has no answer when asked if he ever has. For Kenji boxing is a spiritual as well as physical “contact sport” through which he hopes to finally build the kind of bridges to others that Shinji perhaps builds in a more usual way. Shinji tells himself that the only way to win is to hate, that in boxing the man who hates the hardest becomes the champion but all Kenji wants from the violence of the ring is love and acceptance. Shinji’s friend, Ryuki (Katsuya Kobayashi), has forgiven the man who crippled him and moved on with his life while Shinji is consumed by rage, warped beyond recognition in his need to prove himself superior to the forces which have already defeated him – his father’s suicide, his mother’s abandonment, and his friend’s betrayal.

While Shinji blusters, shows off, and throws it all away, Kenji patiently hones his craft hoping to meet him again in the boxing ring and “connect” in the way they never could before. There’s something essentially sad in Kenji’s deep sense of loneliness, the sketches in his notebook and strange relationship with an equally sad-eyed gangster/promoter (Satoru Kawaguchi) suggesting a hankering for something more than brotherhood. Nevertheless what each of the men responds to is the positive familial environment they have never previously known, anchored by the paternalism of coach Horiguchi and cemented by unconditional brotherly love.

Caught at cross purposes, the two young men battle each other looking for the same thing – a sense of freedom and of being connected to the world, but emerge with little more than scars and broken hearts, finding release only in a final transcendent moment of poetic tragedy. Kishi’s vision of the immediate future is bleak in the extreme, a nihilistic society in which hope has become a poison and death its only antidote. A tragedy of those who want to live but don’t know how, Wilderness is a minor miracle which proves infinitely affecting even in the depths of its despair.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Interview with director Yoshiyuki Kishi conducted at the Busan International Film Festival (Japanese with English subtitles)

Third Base (サード, Yoichi Higashi, 1978)

third posterJapanese cinema of the 1970s is a highly charged affair. Stories of alienated youth and nihilistic denials of future possibility predominate as the (usually) male protagonist assesses his place within a rigid and conformist society and often comes to the conclusion that there is none for him. While political turmoil continues to undermine these deeply held values of social conformity and passive acceptance, young men suffer individually and in private until, that is, they find themselves punished by society for the transgressions it causes them to commit. Scripted by Shuji Terayama and adapted from a novel by Haku Kenjo, Yoichi Higashi’s Third Base (サード, Third) is the story of one such young man who has found himself confined to a reformatory with no hope for the future and no direction in which to run.

Seno (Toshiyuki Nagashima), known as “Third”, is an inmate at Kanto – Asahi Reform School. Like most of the other boys, Third is in for violent crime – in his case, murder, and is not exactly a model pupil. In fact, he’s currently in solitary after fighting with another boy who spat in his soup. Though the atmosphere of the school is severe with an emphasis on slightly militarised discipline, it is also progressive and geared towards finding out why these young men came to exhibit such unwelcome behaviours and how they might be able to overcome them. Hence, the fight is not only punished with solitary confinement but a group discussion among all present during which both Seno and the other boy are encouraged to recognise the various ways in which they are both at fault.

A strange thought experiment in Seno’s diary causes mild alarm to one of the staff at the school. “The connection between a car and a spring – which goes around more?” – the doctor is confused by this unusual sentence but on being asked to elaborate Seno makes clear he’s talking about a wind up car. When you wind it up the wheels go round but if you hold the spring the car will turn, and if you hold the car the spring will turn. This is the relationship Seno was puzzled by – which one is turning the other. The doctor draws the conclusion that the “spring” is juvenile delinquency and the car is society, but Seno insists he’s just talking about a toy car.

Yet there is something in it. Some of the boys are inside because of economic oppression, entering lives of crime through lack of other options but there are also upperclass boys in here too who have never been hungry and have no reason to steal. Another of the staff tells a disinterested Third about a relative of his who ended up in a reform school despite coming from an “elite” home. The boy claims he rebelled because “there is no such thing as equality – it is simply a word to make people feel better”. His crimes were intended to expose a societal lie. Likewise, the boy turned the same logic on murder claiming that wars and genocide were abhorrent, but individualist murders were “beautiful”. A short while later the young man took his own life – presumably something the reform school staff are eager Third does not do.

Suicide is a choice which is presented to Third – when one of the other boys runs off during outdoor labour, he hangs himself in the woods rather than try to escape. Third’s nickname is inspired by his position on the baseball field – third base, which he says he played neither well or badly. It is also an ironic comment on his existence in which he is neither one thing nor another, at odds in the free world and among those other outsiders imprisoned in the reformatory. Yet suicide is an idea Third rejects. Considering the other boy’s fate, Third feels himself to be running in “another direction”, wanting to live but not knowing how. A recurrent dream finds him on the baseball field, running the bases only to find there is no home plate. What Third wants is to locate his home base, to finally find his place in the world where he can belong and be accepted, but until he knows where it is he’ll just be running without aim or purpose.

Running in his mind, Third is imprisoned but only through his confinement does he learn to find the world “beautiful”. His cellmate has a similar thought but confesses he’s begun to find his hope “boring”, that freedom only inspires hopelessness. It’s this sense of ennui and apathy which pushes these young men towards violence and frustration, unable to find a more productive way to propel themselves forward and getting stuck at the bottom of the pile in a society which tries to straightjacket them into lives which are both undesirable and unattainable. Running still, Third does seem to have found a potential solution in instructing his breathless running mate to move at his own pace – embracing individualism over social conformity. Nevertheless, home base seems an elusive destination and Third will be a longtime running if ever he really does find his place in an essentially uncaring society.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.