Seamy dreams

Pub date October 6, 2009
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Sex and violence are old bedfellows in art cinema. A line can be drawn from the sliced eyeball in Un Chien Andalou (1929) through A Clockwork Orange (1971), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and David Cronenberg’s earlier films, right up to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s clitoridectomy in Lars von Trier’s latest provocation Antichrist. The quickest way to expose the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality still seems to be the willful conflation and graphic depiction of bodily harm and bodily pleasure.

The late ’60s and early ’70s films of Koji Wakamatsu — showcased in Yerba Bunea Center for the Arts’ thrilling retrospective, "Pink Cinema Revolution" — present a fascinating case for the political uses of gratuity. Extremely low-budget, alternately frenetic and plodding, frontloaded with sexualized violence, grizzly killings, S&M and rape, and pulsing with the radical politics of their era, Wakamatsu’s films are disturbing, messy, and electric. When, by a fluke, Secrets Behind the Wall (1965) got past Japan’s film rating board and screened at the Berlin International Film Festival that year, the audience couldn’t have prepared themselves for the sight of a stifled housewife hungrily licking the keloid scars of her lover, a Hiroshima survivor.

Although he was a contemporary of Seijun Suzuki, Shohei Imamura, and Nagisa Oshima, Wakamatsu doesn’t slot so easily into the cannon of the nuberu bagu, Japan’s response to the cinematic new waves churning across Europe at the time (noted Japanese film scholar Donald Richie still contends that Wakamatsu "makes embarrassing soft-core psychodramas"). A farmer’s son who had worked odd construction jobs and served time before ever stepping behind a camera, Wakamatsu fell into filmmaking without the formal training or academic background held by many of his peers. Hired by Nikkatsu in 1963, he quickly started churning out pinku eiga or "pink films," the highly profitable genre of soft-core quickies that often displayed wild creativity in the face of a the (still-standing) taboo against onscreen genital realism.

Wakamatsu eventually quit Nikkatsu (after the studio, fearing government action, gave the potential embarrassment Secrets a low-profile domestic release despite the acclaim it received in Berlin) and formed his own studio, Wakamatsu Pro, using the pink film industry mainly as a distribution network for his increasingly extreme experiments, which could barely be described as "soft-core." In Violent Virgin (1969), men and women brutally subject a young couple to all manner of sexual degradations, resulting in the woman’s crucifixion; Violated Angels (1967), based on Richard Speck’s 1966 killing spree, ends with the killer surrounded by a bloody rosette of his flayed victims; Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969) follows the strange, nihilistic love that develops between two abused teenagers.

Paralleling the growing output of Wakamatsu Pro was the off-screen rise of the radical left wing and student movements. Extremist political groups like the Red Army Faction, and the closely related Japanese Red Army and United Red Army (whose twisted genealogy and downfall Wakamatsu follows in his most recent feature United Red Army (2007), which closes out the series), held the Japanese government accountable for aiding and abetting the U.S. in Vietman and demanded a complete overhaul of the standing social and political structure by any means necessary.

While one can see in the radical assaults on the status quo of sexual relations, filmmaking, and normative citizenship staged in Wakamatsu’s films as being in concert with the rhetoric of the extreme political left, he was not above pointing out its ridiculousness as well. More often than not, the leftists in Wakamatsu films are a confused bunch whose political motives are frequently (and humorously) cross-wired to their libidinal impulses. In Ecstasy of the Angels (1970) the hormonal militants (named, perhaps in a nod to G.K. Chesterton’s anarchist satire The Man Who Would be Thursday, after the days of the week) spout secret code meaningless even to them in between having sex at the drop of a hat.

A fitting close to the series, United Red Army finds Wakamatsu taking a sober look back over the era that fuelled his most prolific years as a filmmaker, accounting for both the revolutionary promises and grim dissolution of Japan’s student protest movement. Combining documentary footage with staged reenactments, United Red Army is a stylistic 360 from Wakamatsu’s earlier work. The grueling, three-hour history lesson spares no detail in documenting the titular faction’s descent from idealism into the sadistic purging of its own members to its highly publicized last stand at a mountain ski resort.

Much like Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, another recent film that examines ’60s political terrorism, United Red Army is difficult to watch because of the factual nature of its exposition and its refusal to judge, even when depicting the URA’s darkest hours. It’s a surprisingly objective coda to the wild, dark films that precede it in "Pink Cinema Revolution," which are as much documents as products of their time. As Jasper Sharp writes in his recent survey of pink cinema, Behind the Pink Curtain, Wakamatsu’s films are, "not only visual testimonies to an era of new sexual frankness and a deep uncertainty in which oblivion seemed to lurk around the corner," but they also offer, in retrospect, prescient glimpses of the underlying forces that would propel the radical left to its own dissolution.

"Pink Cinema Revolution: The Radical Films of Koji Wakamatsu"

Oct 8-29, $8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF
(415) 978-2787,