Red all over: Student-revolt docudrama United Red Army offers an unusual close to YBCA's Pink Cinema Revolution series.

The Turn-off Sex Cinema of Koji Wakamatsu

Dennis Harvey October 16, 2009

Porn isn’t usually a topic of much interest to film buffs, being less an art form than a functional one—bearing the same relationship to cinema as, say, instruction manuals do to literature. In the heyday of the Sexual Revolution, when adult movies were still shot on film and shown in theaters, some makers got ambitious, or at least playful, with narrative and style—two things that rarely factor in today’s enormous, factory-style porn industry.

In Japan, however, hardcore content has been and remains illegal. (You may have seen Japanese-release versions of films in which genitalia are electronically "fogged," even in merely simulated-sex or entirely nonsexual scenes.) The challenge of titillating without graphic imagery fostered the peculiarities of "pink film," a still-extant genre unique to Japan that flourished in the mid-1960s through the mid-‘80s, when adult video (though still "fogged") dealt its popularity a significant if less-than-fatal blow.

"Pink" films inhabit a history and terrain larger than we’ve space to chronicle here. Suffice it to say that while much of the genre’s cheaply produced, hugely prolific output is dross, it also allowed freedom enough to permit some truly adventurous work. Required only to deliver a degree of marketable sexploitation, filmmakers were often otherwise at liberty—within tight budgetary constraints—to do just about whatever the hell they pleased.

Probably no one pushed that artistic carte blanche further—at least into the realm of serious political engagement, which most might consider the very enemy of Eros—than the auteur spotlit in Pink Cinema Revolution: The Radical Films of Koji Wakamatsu. This Yerba Buena Center for the Arts series, playing Thursdays and Saturdays through October 29, showcases eight of the most extreme works—in political, not sexual, provocation—by a director dubbed "The Pink Godfather." (Perhaps because, before his cinema career began, he briefly did jail time for even briefer yakuza employment.)

Wakamatsu started his film career with leading "pink" producer Nikkatsu, directing an astonishing 20 features in two years before his last caused a rift. 1965’s Secrets Behind the Wall, about an unhappy housewife’s affair with her former fellow-student-activist paramour, was highly regarded enough by the studio to be submitted to the Berlin Film Festival, where it duly caused a stir. Yet it was scarcely released domestically, in reaction to the Japanese rating board’s fury at a lowly "pink" film being shown abroad without its approval. That betrayal prompted Wakamatsu to go independent, producing films under his own company banner for $5,000 or less.

Those slim resources are hardly reflected in the very cinematic, ‘Scope-wide B&W assemblage (with occasional bursts of color) these expertly crafted films manage.

After Secrets, which was unavailable for preview, the YBCA series concentrates on features made between 1967 and 1972, when radical militancy in Japan was at a peak his efforts vividly addressed—though often as contrarily as Godard himself at the time. Wakamatsu believed revolution necessary, but thought it could only come about through individual, as opposed to group, action and transformation. Thus these films frequently pile ridicule or scorn a counterculture regarded at least as savagely as the bourgeois society rebelled against.

It’s hard to imagine anyone ever thought them sexy, and you’ve got to wonder just what your average raincoated lone male viewer thought in 1969 when lured by a title like Go Go Second Time Virgin. Surely he was expecting something a little less, er, bleak than this rooftop narrative about two suicidal abuse survivors: a young woman who’s been gang raped (twice) and a young man who’d slaughtered his own orgiastic tormentors in a frenzy that specifically references that same year’s Manson Family murders. (YBCA is also showing the unavailable-for-preview 1967 Violated Angels, whose plot was entirely inspired by Richard Speck’s rape/murder of eight student nurses in Chicago the year before.) Go Go is full of unpredictable tonal shifts and stylistic choices; it regards its protagonists with a certain concerned pathos despite the utterly dark content.

Likewise regarded with sympathetic hopelessness is the bewildered father in Shinjuku Mad (1970), who’s come to the city to make sense of his only child’s death—seemingly killed for participation in an underground theatre performance, by fellow young radicals, for reasons even can’t or won’t elucidate. The man desperately searches through crash pads and subterranean hideouts, mocked by hippies publicly copulating or tunelessly strumming "hare Krishna" in the same apelike stupor.

The police view our hero as a nuisance, his lost son an insignificant footnote in their larger investigations. Finally tracking down the killers, he’s confronted by inarticulate louts whose "revolution" is an empty concept without specific goal or message, unless "because we hate everything" counts.  "My son died for nothing," he realizes. Anarchy that similarly winds up driven solely by destructive impulse is the whole focus of Ecstasy of the Angels, where infighting factions of the "Four Seasons Army" wreak more havoc on each other than on the complacent society they hope to smash.

While overlapping in themes, these peak-period Wakamatsu films run a gambit in no-budget stylistic invention. On one extreme there’s the docudrama style of 1969’s Season of Terror, in which two bored policemen take over a banal bourgeois couple’s apartment to spy on the suspected radical terrorist living opposite. The latter is one lucky dude, as he just lazes about having three-ways with the two giddy chicks who support him. It seems he’s too disillusioned and satiated to be a menace to society—or is he? On the other, there’s the same year’s Violent Virgin, an utterly bizarre and striking exercise in Bunuel-like surrealism that mixes up kidnapped lovers, trashy mod youth and yakuza in a nondescript area of sand and marsh.

The aforementioned films were all written by Wakamatsu’s frequent collaborator Masao Adachi (sometimes under pseudonyms), who then became actual commando in the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Japanese Red Army, eventually doing prison both in the Middle East and on home turf.

He was out in 2007, but the two did not reunite on Wakamatsu’s latterday magnum opus United Red Army—a three-hour-plus epic in contrast to the very lean "pink" movies already described (films were often scarcely over an hour, as they were originally meant to play on triple-bills). This dense, eventually harrowing docudrama chronicles the infamous crash ‘n’ burn of that radical body formed in 1971 from the turbulent union of revolutionist Japanese Communist cells the Red Army Faction (RAF) and Revolutionary Left Faction (RLF).  "Training" at a forested mountain base, they dissolved into a virtual witchhunt whose sadistic "self-criticism" exercises left over a dozen young members dead.

Initially daunting for the amount of sheer historical information conveyed, United Red Army grows emotionally grueling as a graphic illustration of humanist ideals warped into fascist cruelty by collective delirium. ("Saying ‘I want to live’ is an abandoning of revolutionary thought, a defeat with regard to Communism," one leader says in response to one terrified weakling’s self-abnegation.) It’s more like the Stanford Prison Experiment than The Baader-Meinhof Complex. There’s no "pink" titillation whatsoever in this gruesome dirge. Trotsky would be horrified—and so, aptly, will you.