Friday, 21 August 2020

‘Heroic Purgatory’ (1970, dir. Yoshishige Yoshida)


Yoshishige Yoshida’s 1969-1973 trilogy of radicalism--recently packaged for the English language market as a DVD boxset entitled ‘Love and Anarchism’, half-borrowing its title from Lina Wertmuller’s rather different tale of the resistance to Italian Fascism, ‘Love and Anarchism’--is at once of the key points of 1960s political cinema and a body of work that--for its dizzying formal experimentation, for its non-European cultural placement, and for the lack of widely-available, suitably subtitled copies--has received relatively little Anglophone critical attention. Of the three films in the trilogy, Heroic Purgatory has suffered most of all, in large part due to its great density. At least an hour shorter than its predecessor, Eros Plus Massacre, it also extends that film’s tendency to narrative compression and ellipses to a far greater extent, and a first viewing may render elements virtually incomprehensible. As Yoshida puts it in a brief retrospective introduction, whereas Eros Plus Massacre used the past to think about the present, Heroic Purgatory uses the future to think about the present. Imagining its characters at four points in time--the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s--its complex play with narrative structure that shares the making-strange of urban locations of, say, Alphaville or La Jetee, and, to a certain extent, a concern with technological development, but is hardly a ‘science-fiction’ film. 


In ‘Eros Plus Massacre’, Yoshida adopted the framework of the ‘historical film’ in order to cast doubt on that very form: to question the use of the past as fixed in aspic, the contingent nature of reconstruction and the multi-perspectival nature of narration, and the use of a radical past, both as inspiration for, and as something not fully understood by, a present day generation of radicals. Eiko and Wada, the disenchanted students of the film’s contemporary sections, appear to have few ties to actual political activism--in that sense echoing, in the historical scenes, Osugi Sakae’s increasing inability to criticise the State or advocate revolution due to the repressive nature of the imperial state, focusing instead on accomplishing the revolution in the sphere of ‘private’ sexual experimentation. But whereas Osugi, Noe Ito and others are constrained in their ‘public’ activism by State repression, and in the sphere of sexuality by both the State and conservative public morality and opinion (perhaps gossip can destroy a political figure as much as, or in tandem with, violence), Eiko and Wada’s inability to accomplish meaningful action lies, in part, in the opening up of the State--the importation of American-style democracy, with Japan no longer an imperial power but a colonised, or de facto colonised, one, the lifting of sexual restrictions--and of their seeming lack of awareness (or disinterest in joining) existent political movements opposed to current governments. 


Heroic Purgatory offers a more in-depth exploration of contemporaneous political movements that go beyond the lifestyle revolt played out with such desultory frustration by Eiko and Wada. At the same time, its exploration of sexuality, revolt and violence lacks the former film’s basis in a specific historical event. Because familiar from existent accounts, the retelling of aspects of Osugi and Ito’s lives offers a certain legibility--or at least, a way in--that ‘Purgatory’ deliberately blocks. Basing the film on a fictional incident set during the opposition to the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, rather than the explicitly historical re-enactments of ‘Eros Plus Massacre’, removes the framework of referential specificity that grounds Eros in a manner suitable to this film’s greater emphasis on performance, fantasy and the closed dynamics of small, radical groups: the paradox by which those most minded towards the radical transformation of an entire society become inward-turning cells losing contact with the broader climate of that society. ‘Eros' takes as its principal object of examination the heterosexual, monogamous couple, and by extension the family unit: in 'Purgatory', the couple are only one among several other social formations to be explored. 

The film opens as Nanako (Mariko Okada) witnesses what appears to be the attempted suicide of a young woman, Ayu (Kazumi Tsutsui), who then follows her to the apartment she shares with her husband, engineer Rikiya (Kaizo Kamoda), the three becoming a kind of strange family unit of ‘adopted’ children, absent parents and power triangulations. (It’s never made clear in Ayu in fact exists or is a kind of mutual projection of the childless couple). Ayu, who, at least initially, speaks only rarely, claims to be ‘lost’ and disowns the ‘father’ who comes to the couple’s flat to claim her, and who may or may not be either a police spy, a member of the revolutionary cell in which Rikiya was formerly involved, or a genuine father who has lost both his wife and daughter. As the film unfolds, Rikiya recalls his past within that cell during the signing of the 1952 San Francisco treaty--a de facto ceding of colonial power to the occupying American forces, beyond the period of ostensible occupation--as a planned attempt to either kidnap or assassinate an ambassador collapses due to the possible intervention of a spy within the group. This moment is played out again and again, shifting in time and location from 1952 to 1960 (the signing of another treaty of compromise), 1970 (when the film was made) and 1980, ten years in the future: actors play multiple roles, as the original members of the 1952 cell appear to take up roles in ‘official society’ and their successors among the new waves of radical movements turn against them.


Performance is stressed at virtually every turn: in the earlier segments, Ayu’s presence, real or imaginary, reveals families as role plays, removed from their basis in biological parenthood and filiation, while a characteristic move in the film’s final third will see a character remove a wig to reveal their ‘true identity’ (though most of the time their faces are recognisable from the other roles they play). Social roles repeat themselves, over and above the arc of individual motivation, desire or intention, not only within the broader society which, as in ‘Eros’, is encountered more through the discourse of those who resist it than through the appearance of crowds, public places, or the state apparatus, but through the smaller units that try to oppose the Engelsian trinity of the family, private property and the State. Paranoia, suspicion, and the ritual-casting out of outsiders, or spies, are both responses to real conditions, real infiltration, and real defeat, and manifestations of the failure to fully conceive of alternative social arrangements free of hierarchy, cruelty, sexual exploitation and violence. Notably, the wave of late 1960s and early 1970s Japanese New Wave films allying formal and political radicalism--Wakamatsu or Adachi more so than Yoshida--depict this resistance, not by presenting a utopian grouping, a valorised alternative to the more subtle modes of conformism that, in the post-war era, are fostered in the guise of liberation, but through the warping of revolt through violence, sex and fantasy: the actions of ultra-leftist terrorist groups, the misogynist murders of serial killers, kidnappers and sadistic criminals. As the title suggests, part of the problem may be the paradigm of heroism. Refusing to sign Rikiya’s death warrant for betraying the group, Nanako is asked what constitutes the cardinal virtue of a true revolutionary. ‘Love’, she replies. ‘Wrong! It’s heroism’. The constant failure to live up to such an ideal sees the group view heroism, paradoxically, as manifested through an iconoclasm so relentless it must destroy those closest to it for failing to live up to ideals.


Yoshida takes the furthest limits of ‘Eros plus Massacre’s experimentation as its operating principle. Spatially, both films are characterised by carefully askew, non-symmetrical framing, with public, exterior, space rendered as a bleached-out, ghostly horizon, always in the distance, glimpsed as if in perpetual mist or blinding sunlight, and domestic, interior space as an endless series of corridors or bedrooms, of secret spaces, characterised, in Eros, by sliding screens, and in Purgatory by modern walls,as characters endlessly circle the space and each other, shot round corners or in mirrors (Yoshida’s dizzying use of the mise-en-abime possibilities that mirrors afford out Fassbinders Fassbinder (see: ‘Chinese Roulette’), rendering domesticity (the couple, the family or substitute family) a claustrophobic nightmare. 

In terms of temporality, there’s the overlap between different time frames, with characters transcending spatio-temporal restrictions to (literally) wander between them, and the replaying of the ‘same’ moment in different ways. Whereas the multiple versions of a single scene occur only at Eros’s climax (the attempted murder of Osugi as the denouement of the love quadrangle), here, this variant structure replay across numerous incidents throughout: the entry of a stranger into the couple’s flat; an encounter between Rikiya and Ayu in front of a blank wall, which appears to have been either secretly filmed or performed as a kind of voyeuristic sex show, replays with various combinations of viewers and protagonists; the central incident of the dissolution of a revolutionary cell, and the subsequent internal trial of a spy (or perhaps multiple spies), perhaps leading to the spy’s execution; the future visit of an ambassador, surrounded by journalists. All this contributes to the dazzling complexity of the film’s structure, determined to resist the conventional representational hierarchies of narrative clarity. As such, it has much in common with the ‘puzzle film’ structure, the studied enigmas, concentric circles, stories within stories, frames within frames, that yield much of the perplexing pleasures of more famous exemplars, from ‘Out 1’ to ‘Inland Empire’, sharing with them the central conceit by which the verifiable existence of a particular event becomes more and more unstable (the actual slaughter of group members taken as the grounds for the show trial is never shown, for example). While Yoshida was early on influenced by Sartreian existentialism, the puzzle structure serves less as a philosophical reflection on the nature of reality--though it is in part that--but a predominantly political interrogation which suggests that any considerations of the nation of being, memory, individuality, alienation, violence and desire must be viewed as social questions: to abstract them at this historical moment would be meaningless. This applies equally to realist modes of leftist filmmaking which fail to trouble their own representative strategies. Yoshida’s methodology suggests that film is uniquely placed to interrogate both the propaganda of consumer democracy and patriotic hierarchy and the counter-propaganda of revolutionary violence, particularly that of the new generation of ultra-left militants. After all, terrorism of whatever ideological stripe is primarily representational in its strategies, for all the actual violence it involves and for all the secrecy and non-visibility of its organisation, whether the spectacular hijacking of a plane or the kidnapping of an ambassador or a prime minister.


For Yoshida, in these films, film’s role seems to be to cast a critical eye on the mechanisms of site, representation, and narration--that is, virtually all the paradigms of existent cinematic vocabulary--along with the failures of anarchist, ultra-leftist and official Communist responses to normative society. To present any sort of functioning alternative would be to simply fall into the traps that perpetuate the present state of things. But in that sense, film provides no more favourable alternative than the political activism it represents. Whereas Masao Adachi progressed from making films concerning radical actions to joining the PLO, for Yoshida, the representation/action binary is not an either/or. Both in terms of its own, self-reflexive mechanisms--an endless selection of carefully-framed shots that split and hierarchize the visual anarchy that Yoshida, in his critical writing, suggested was the eye’s natural mechanism (and recall Stan Brakhage’s attempt to capture something of that ‘innocence of the eye’)--and the narrative impasse it depicts--an endless compulsion to repeat, as trauma begets trauma, violence begets violence--Yoshida’s film occupies what its title appropriately designates as  ’purgatory’--a space between earth, heaven and hell, a space of uncertainty and temporal suspension. ‘Eros plus Massacre’ appeared to suggest a disenchantment with the medium of film itself--following a kind of shadow play with a projection room, the film’s director figure commits suicide using a roll of celluloid--and ‘Heroic Purgatory’ once more features a filmmaker surrogate--this time, as a member of the modern, ultra-leftist urban guerrilla group who wields a cine-camera interchangeably with a machine gun. Through his method, Yoshida seems at once to suggest that it’s only through a radically reinvented grammar of film that true critical perspective can be gained; on the other, film itself, with its representational mediation, is trapped inside those very frames on which it seeks to cast light. Yoshida’s characteristic over-exposed black and white thus casts a literal light on proceedings which succeeds only in erasing outline, shadow and shape. Yoshida’s equally characteristic off-centre framings (the very first shot provides an example) often set the camera ‘too high’ or ‘too low’, so that we see only the tops of character’s heads, or in which their minituarised figures are overshadowed the built spaces through which they move. In virtually every frame of the film, such framing stresses the limited, partial nature of any one perspective, the slicing up of reality into segments that never tell more than part of the truth. Or, as one critic puts it, “every shot is an idea”.


The film ends at the train station at which much of the action has taken place, as Nanako and her ‘daughter’ board an empty train, only to exit once more and walk back along the platform in front of a prominently-placed sign which reads ‘dead end’. If Walter Benjamin viewed revolutions as pulling the emergency brake on the disastrously destructive myth of historical ‘progress’, here, there’s no more track for the train to run on. The characters admit as much. ‘It’s over. Nothing left’. ‘There’s still things to do.’ ‘Depart to a distant place?’ ‘I will get rid of what I thought my God was’. As the two women walk towards the camera (back to the city, back to society), the camera focuses on the ‘Dead End’ sign, previously only a blurred smudge of white in the background, before blurring it out once more. It’s a perfect in-joke: the traditional signing off of a film, the boundary re-established between life and cinema, the mechanism of narrative closure that rounds off in a neat summary, with the English language signage reflecting the enforced dominance of American culture and its representational strategies. This moment, in its repeating of the mother/’daughter’ pairing, echoes the Valerie Solanas-style fantasies Ayu earlier expounds to Nanako, fantasizing ways of capturing and excuting ‘daddies’ everywhere, it seems as a means of revenge for the abuse that either she or her mother may or may not have suffered from a father figure at an earlier point (and suggested in the armed cell’s condemnation of a female member, who at one point they threaten with sexual violence to extort a confession’ a violence doubled by the criminal gang who surround a lone female figure, played by the same actors as the 1970s guerrilla group). As such, it echoes the thwarted possibility ‘Eros plus Massacre’ found in Ito’s feminist politics--and with the expected casting of Okada, the continuity is further implied.  In the juxtaposition between the historical re-telling of Osugi’s and Ito’s doomed relationship and the adrift experimentation of contemporaneous students, ‘Eros’ suggested that the overt repression of imperial Japan found in the historical segments of ‘Eros’ has now been replaced by the impasse of a ‘democratic’ society, the radical implications of feminism and free love overlooked in a superficial play with transgression, sex and violence. But while ‘Heroic Purgatory’ replaces those students’ petty acts of pyromania with a more focused attempt to change society through underground political action, the same mistakes repeat: the hierarchy, repetition of trauma and, in particular, the patriarchal violence and sadism--which at once condemns sexuality as counter-revolutionary, a distraction (as in the revolutionary-filmmaker’s speech to a female comrade), and sublimates it into an often gendered cruelty, doomed to endless replay myths of heroism in a purgatorial ante-chamber that appears to repeat the binaries of repressive tolerance and flawed resistance every decade: whether in the incidents of 1952 (the San Francisco Treaty), 1960 (ANPO), 1970 (the film’s present) and 1980 (where Cold War problems are assumed to have been ‘solved’ in what is appears to be a pessimistic interpretation of the triumph of the U.S.A. and the Fukayama-esque ‘end of history’). Technology and technocracy are key too: a university student in engineering when involved in the guerrilla activities of 1952, Rikiya paradoxically then went to the United States for further study, reportedly working on the development of the atomic bomb (given the genocidal ‘lab’ of Hiroshima and Nagaski, a doubled historical irony) before returning to Japan to work on a project which appears to involve the construction of an alternative space through laser beams. Meanwhile, the guerrillas progress from debates in clandestine rooms to waving around the symbols of the new, ultra left, Red Army Faktion militancy, brandishing machine guns (or cine-cameras) at every opportunity. As an indicator of progress, technology’s capacity for human transformation becomes subordination to the same mechanisms of patriarchal and national violence, now extended worldwide.


The inability to break a cycle of various kinds of repetition, even in the most radical, vanguard, progressive or advanced of movements--whether official technocracies or revolutionary organisations--is the film’s purgatorial territory. On the other, for Yoshida, those same moments and movements repeat the mistakes of previous generations, collapsing from both internal--and, more importantly for the purposes of the film--internal pressures. In a later interview, Yoshida sketches out his interest in the issue of revolutionary struggle, as manifested in the Japanese left from 1952 through to the present of the film, 1969/70, and the taking of power as a kind of perpetual process--”a power struggle inevitably gives rise to other power struggles”. “How to overcome the political problem of power? it’s almost impossible”, he argues, turning Marx’s famous axiom about the replaying of events, first as tragedy, then as farce, and applying it to the Japanese armed struggle. Yet the film’s title--underplayed in the current translation, but apparently invoking Beethoven’s  third symphony, the ‘Eroica’--suggests a more optimistic take than Yoshida’s present-day opinion that, in such situations, one has to laugh to keep from crying, that the revolutionary movements depicted are nothing more than a ‘scam’ or ‘farce’. Initially dedicating the symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, as the representative of the enlightened progress, the continuation of the emancipatory spirit that motivated the French Revolution, Beethoven angrily removed the dedication when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. Yet the tears in the page from Beethoven’s scratching out of the original ‘Buonaparte’ subtitle are still existent on the score’s original manuscript, and those tears serve as a useful figure for Yoshida’s film. For all its visual ‘excesses’, this is a film of absence, of narrative ellipses: the un-filled gaps, the endlessly-circling staircases, corridors, subways, and train tracks, taking on or taking off wigs, picking up or putting down the gun. Yet such absences, such repetitions, such deficiencies in action or rhetoric attest, do not only attest to the betrayal and defeat of hopes for revolutionary transformation, the co-option, internal and external violence that play out both in the taking of power and the struggle against it. It’s perfectly possible to view the as presenting a jaded perspective of liberal cynicism. Yet such a view more easily, more comfortably, more cynically fits into narratives of power, defeat and resistance than the film itself offers. Struggles for power may repeat themselves, first as tragedy, then as farce: yet this also means that resistance never ends. Viewed half a century on, Yoshida’s projections of the present into both past and future suggest that, for all the moments of suppression, the defeat of a particular movement or moment, whether in 1952, 1960, 1970, 1980, 2020, the revolution has never ceased to be fought, and will continue to be fought.

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