Film lead: Koji Wakamatsu a rebel to the end
Director Koji Wakamatsu wasstill railing against the tyranny of commercial fare before his recent death, writesJames Mottram
If the sudden death of Koji Wakamatsu earlier this month wasn't shocking enough, it was a loss to the film world tinged with even greater poignancy. For this had been an impressive year for the Japanese director, who tragically died from injuries sustained after he was hit by a taxi in Tokyo.
Wakamatsu had already presented three films this year: Petrel Hotel Blue, 11/25 The Day Mishima Chose His Fate and - in what turned out to be his final film - The Millennial Rapture, an adaptation of Kenji Nakagami's book A Thousand Years of Happiness. This frenzied output led South Korea's Busan International Film Festival to award him the accolade of Asian filmmaker of the year.
When we met earlier this year at Cannes, where Mishima had just played in the festival's Un Certain Regard section, the 76-year-old filmmaker was in a spirited mood. Dressed in a beige striped jacket and a green cap, he spent his time explaining how he didn't trust Japanese media or film critics. Why? "Because they're stupid. Most Japanese films now … the main characters are dogs or cats. Or some tearjerkers - like 'I only have a few days left to live', etcetera. So they are seeing all of those kinds of films. With that state of mind, I do not think they can correctly understand films like Mishima," he said.
With more than 100 films to his name, Wakamatsu had fallen out of critical favour in his time - notably from the 1970s to '90s, when he worked in virtual obscurity. But as he entered his eighth decade, his re-emergence came with the blistering United Red Army (2007), an epic study of the rise and fall of the Japanese ultra-leftist organisation. He followed this with Caterpillar (2010), with its star Shinobu Terajima winning the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival. Set in post-second world war Japan, the film tells of a war hero returning with no arms or legs only to torment his long-suffering wife.
Unconcerned with making commercial films on high budgets, he'd reached a point in his career where he was content, he said. "I prefer to make films I want to make, with a budget of 50 or 60 million yen, instead of a hundred million. Of course, the minimum level of living needs to be guaranteed for the crew. But if they are also doing something that they want to do, we can have one rice ball for lunch, instead of going to have something good." A wide grin crossed his face. "And if you eat too well, you might become diabetic anyway."
Born in the Tohoku region, north of Tokyo, Wakamatsu's arrival in the film industry was unconventional: expelled from school for fighting, he became a low-level yakuza, collecting payments from film crews shooting in the Shinjuku area of the capital. Arrested and sentenced to six months in prison, where he was tormented by the jailers, it was an experience that shaped him more than any other, fuelling a distrust of authority that would surge through many of his films.
Once out, using his contacts, he began working in the film industry, ultimately cutting his teeth directing a string of so-called "pink films", Japanese sexploitation films popular in the 1960s. Coinciding with his burgeoning interest in such left-wing groups as the United Red Army, Wakamatsu used these adult movies for far more than mere titillation. In Sex Jack (1970), a trenchant study of power games and the male-female dynamic, a group of revolutionary students hiding in an apartment engaged in exploitative sexual acts.
While it's no surprise that Wakamatsu went on to produce Nagisa Oshima's groundbreaking and explicit masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses (1976), he had already been testing boundaries a decade earlier. In The Embryo Hunts in Secret (1966), he told an S&M-tinged tale about a woman kidnapped and sexually enslaved by her boss who turned to violence to escape her bondage.
His more recent work, however, was far more overtly political, with 11/25 The Day Mishima Chose His Fate being a case in point. Based around the final years of writer Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), the film concentrated on his activism in the wake of his illustrious literary career, from when he underwent training within the Self Defence Forces in 1964 to establishing the self-funded nationalist private militia Tatenokai (Shield Society). With Mishima under the belief that Japan was weak and subordinated to the US, it was this commitment to an idealism that intrigued Wakamatsu.
"When I was making the film United Red Army, there was a scene where the Red Army marched in a really severe blizzard," he said.
"Then I asked myself 'Why were they willing to do this?' It's not for personal gain or profit. I also realised that the young people on the other 'extreme' were the same as them. As I was on the left, I regarded the other extreme as enemies. But I came to the realisation that they were probably the same. So I decided to make a film on the Shield Society."
While Wakamatsu believed that not many people, even in Japan, would know much about the Shield Society, he decided to concentrate on Mishima. "The problem is that young people nowadays don't know him. Those who read books are the only ones who know. As a matter of fact, all of the actors in Mishima were born after his death, so they didn't know."
Wakamatsu was not the only filmmaker to be taken by the triple Nobel Prize for Literature nominee. Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver, made him the subject of his 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters - although Wakamatsu was not keen on simply replicating Schrader's biographical approach. "Mishima himself is gone and this is not the film which tries to reproduce him. The main point is what he did and his spirit."
With no reference to Mishima's writings or flashbacks into his past, Wakamatsu's film (in which Mishima is played by Arata Irua) is more a docu-drama leading up to his infamous ritual suicide, which he undertook when his coup d'état - designed to restore the powers of the emperor - failed. Yet even this dramatic conclusion is unexpectedly presented, with Wakamatsu almost ashamed to show the bloodshed. "In this film harakiri is not the main theme," he said. "It's not the topic."
Ironically, while Variety's review noted the film was "a worthy study topic but likely commercial suicide", it was a comment that chimed with a statement made by Wakamatsu at the Busan International Film Festival just days before his death.
"Only commercial films are being supported by government funds in Asia, so young filmmakers are only making commercial films. It comes back to the power of the multiplexes, which will not screen smaller films." Right up until the end, Wakamatsu was grinding against the establishment.
11/25 The Day Mishima Chose His Fate, HK Asian Film Festival, Sat, 7.35pm, Palace IFC; Nov 7, 9.50pm, Broadway The One; Nov 10, 3.20pm, Broadway Cinematheque