In the 1960s and early 1970s, Yoshida was part of the Japanese New Wave, a more politicised group of film makers than their French counterparts, who were able to set up their own production companies for a brief period after a financial crisis in the mainstream studio system.
Judging by Yoshida’s ‘political trilogy’ presented here – his epic masterpiece Eros + Massacre (presented in both its theatrical version and full-length director’s cut), Heroic Purgatory and Coup d’état – he has a critical vision of radical politics. He presents political struggle as either tragic or comic, but in either mode there will be betrayal and there will be blood.
Formally, the films explore similar aesthetics to those of agit-prop-era Godard and mid-60s Antonioni – but this statement can’t really prepare you for the aesthetic overload you’ll experience if you dare to enter the world of this box set.
Yoshida’s unusual framings push characters to the sides and bottom of the shot; the images are exquisitely composed. The overlit widescreen images of Eros + Massacre pulse with an energy that constrains the action in them; the dark faces and interiors of Coup d’état have burnished edges like razor slashes where the light impacts on them. Black-and-white cinematography doesn’t usually look this intense, radiant and yet distancing for the viewer.
Eros + Massacre tells the real-life story of 1910s and 1920s anarchist and advocate of free love, Sakae Osugi, played as a mere mouthpiece by Toshiyuki Hosokawa. He is involved in a love square (three women and him); the emotional conflict between all four, including the wonderfully high-strung Itsuko, played by Yûko Kusunoki, creates an intense drama of libidinal restraint and unleashings. Itsuko’s role was downplayed in the theatrical release because the real-life character she is based on (who was a senior politician when the film came out) threatened to sue. Kusunoki’s quietly, righteously unhinged performance is one of the big treats of this box set.
The 1920s story is seen through the eyes of a couple of student radicals from the 1960s. They spend a lot of their time lolling about, discussing nihilism and politics, suffering the anguishes of ennui, engaging in ‘meta’ activities such as fingering film material. One of the least pleasant five minutes comes when one of their friends gets theatrically hysterical about the mundanity of her day. Her shopping list of prosaic grievances goes on so long you wish you could jump through the screen, samurai sword in hand.
Then again, it is hard not to engage with the hard beauty of this film, the glacial logic underpinning the emotions or lack thereof on display.
Heroic Purgatory pushes the mood and approach taken in the 1960s sequences of Eros + Massacre to the brink of incoherence: a young, contemporary couple find and decide to look after a young woman; it then becomes clear that the couple are part of a left-wing terrorist cell whose commitment is being tested by the other members. I glazed over several times.
But the story isn’t the point. There are some lovely monochrome images of figures wandering across industrial Red Desert-style landscapes; and sequences in a derelict warehouse so wonderfully shot, with fuzzy, whiteout light coming through every broken window, that at time of writing I can still see it when I close my eyes.
Coup d’état is a very different kind of film. It is a slow-burning but utterly gripping political thriller, telling the real-life story of 1930s right-wing extremist Ikki Kita, who was involved in an attempt to overthrow the Japanese government in 1936.
Coup d’état has a linear narrative, characters with characterisation and darker, more oppressive – but still exquisitely composed – imagery. It also has a very strong, physical performance from lead Rentarô Mikuni, who alone in this box set commands his surroundings.
There can’t be many political thrillers that proceed in such a quiet, stately, anguished manner, as the great chess game of state politics is played to endgame. It is an absolutely gripping film, a tragic character study that opens out into something more nuanced, the late introduction of new characters the source of new hope and new paranoias.
- New high definition digital transfers supervised by Kiju Yoshida
- Yoshida …or: The Explosion of the Story – a 30-minute documentary on Eros + Massacre with contributions from Yoshida and film critics Mathieu Capel and Jean Douchet
- Introductions to Heroic Purgatory and Coup d’etat by Yoshida
- Newly-filmed discussions of Eros + Massacre, Heroic Purgatory and Coup d’etat by David Desser, author of Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave, recorded exclusively for this release
- Scene-select commentaries by David Desser on all three films
- Illustrated 80-page perfect-bound book featuring new writing on the films by David Desser, Isolde Standish (author of Politics, Porn and Protest: Japanese Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s) and Dick Stegewerns (author of Kiju Yoshida: 50 Years of Avant-Garde Filmmaking in Post-War Japan)
Review by Colin Dibben
Kijû Yoshida: Love + Anarchism is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.