The time: Sunday February 22nd, 2009. The Place: Japan Society NYC. The Film: Eros Plus Massacre (1969). The Director: Kiju Yoshida. The Mind: …blown. A contemporary of Nagisa Oshima (Pleasures of the Flesh), Masahiro Shinoda (Samurai Spy) and Shohei Imamura (The Ballad of Narayama), Kiju Yoshida (aka. Yoshishige Yoshida) distinguished himself early in his career after heeding Shochiku’s postwar recruitment efforts. His films are suffused with the French Existential Philosophy he studied at Tokyo University, a penchant for visual / structural invention, emotional rigor to match intellectual depth, and sharp sociopolitical framing... all qualities which made him something of a firebrand within the studio system. Along with some considerable personal wealth and a detest of bureaucratic interference in the creative process, Yoshida eventually start his own independent production company Gendai Eigasha with his wife Mariko Okada (An Autumn Afternoon, Late Autumn). I knew none of these things in 2009 before Shinjuku Ecstasy: Independent Films from the Art Theatre Guild of Japan tore the lid off my head. Amid the 12 film series (curated by Roland Domenig and Go Hirasawa and presented on 35mm and 16mm), was Yoshida’s nearly 3hr oddity, Eros Plus Massacre. It’s the kind of title that begs, if not demands investigation and the kind of artwork that begs, if not demands multiple viewings. Its rarity certainly justified traveling out-of-state to a younger version of myself. In fact, barely a month later I would land on even farther flung shores at the Harvard Film Archive for another screening of E+M, this time with Director/Writer Kiju Yoshida and Actress/Wife Mariko Okada in person as part of the retrospective Art Cinema, Counter-Cinema: The Cinema of Kiju Yoshida and Mariko Okada. E+M had hooks in me before I ever saw it, and a death grip on my mind ever after.
I’ve waited 8 long years, but finally a restored English-subtitled edition of Eros Plus Massacre has been released in the US! No, not by Criterion (shame on you for not clamoring to get the distribution rights to everything bearing the Yoshida name), but by UK’s Arthouse/Cult specialists Arrow Video (under its Arrow Academy Label and distributed in the US by Pottstown PA-based MVD Entertainment Group). Arrow’s work on this sharp 7-disc (dual format!) boxed set casts a necessary spotlight, not only on E+M (in both its theatrical and director’s cuts) which clearly preoccupies this reviewer, but on Yoshida’s trenchant Revolutionary Trilogy made under the auspices of the Art Theater Guild of Japan (1967-84). There are just the right amount of just the right pieces: Immaculate Director-Supervised transfers, introductions by Yoshida and ones by noted film writer David Desser, scene-select commentaries, a booklet packed with rich analytical and biographical essays, all enveloped in a clean, evocative and unassuming design. The films therein: Coup D’etat (1973), Heroic Purgatory (1970) and E+M explore failed early-mid 20th century revolutions (in Japan, but reflective of global fractiousness) rooted in ideologies of nationalism/militarism, communism and anarchism. Each realm is expressed through the director’s psychological approach to temporal structure, mood and screen composition. To an extent, these films even explore the very act of investigation which inextricably and interconnectedly involves history, memory, dream and imagination with the instrument of a “true present tense” eschewed. Thus the notion of an authoritative or objective view of history is obliterated by its own impossibility.
Despite its 210 minute runtime, it's elegiac undertones and fundamentally experimental nature, the Director’s Cut of E+M is perhaps the most cogent (accessible would be a stretch) of these three temporal/perspectival/ideological scrums. Yoshida’s arguable “masterpiece” delves into a bifurcated timescape of late 60’s college students - themselves in the complex grips and growing pains of a gradually sexually/politically liberating Japan abuzz with student demonstrations - investigating the life and death of noted anarchist, women’s rights activist and free love practitioner Osugi Sakae (Toshiyuki Hosokawa) who was assassinated in 1923 with his activist/writer wife Noe Ito (Mariko Okada) and their son. Yoshida makes a salient point about the entanglement of sexuality and politics in Japan. There is no separation between the two, when the solidity of the socio-political architecture called the “Family State” is dependent on the commodification of a conservative sexual model (marriage, the nuclear family, the creation of a churning economic machine through couples’ combined/codependent finances). In such an environment, Free Love is indeed an anarchistic act, and the attempt to share and encourage the dismantling of strictures and structures of sexual policing is precisely the struggle we observe in the vibration of Taisho and Showa era narratives of E+M.
Yoshida’s manipulation of the cinematographic medium is no less anarchistic, defying all expectation through persistent radical asymmetry, multiple focal depths, over exposure, spare sound design, and a fluid sometimes elliptical interplay of timelines which disrupt conventional narrative continuity. In doing so, Yoshida engenders an unpredictable visceral experience. As discussed in one of Arrow's essays, Yoshida thus activates the audience through an articulate language of abstraction, rather than simply feeding passive spectator-ship with the anticipated turn of emotional cues between opening and closing credits. This "activation" of the viewer is pushed even further in Heroic Purgatory, which is unmoored entirely from the safety of natural progression or a sense of grounding, and which deeply depends on the willingness of the viewer to swim with the pieces of the puzzle in darkness.
Whether you are unfamiliar with Yoshida (it's not your fault), or have been waiting as long as I have (or longer) for a substantial presentation of his works to land on our shores, it is here, and I wouldn't change a thing.... except that it be the first of many.
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS:
• Limited Edition Blu-ray collection (3,000 copies) • High definition digital transfers supervised by Kiju Yoshida • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations for all films • Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM Audio on all films • New translated English subtitles on all films • 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 • Heroic Purgatory theatrical trailer • Coup d’etat theatrical trailer
• Limited edition packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm • 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)