Reverse Angle: The 1960s and the Possibility of Radical Underground Film in Japan

By Go Hirasawa

abortion-adachi-masao.jpgAbortion, 1966

A chronology of an era of radical experimentation and political consciousness that has largely been forgotten

It is said that contemporary Japanese Cinema is booming. Certainly, mainstream films are drawing large audiences, the number of independent films produced is increasing, and so many first-time directors are coming out one after another that it’s hardly possible to follow up on them all. One could say this is a sort of ‘bubble’. Japanese Cinema, since the 1990s has been dubbed the ‘New Japanese Cinema’, or even the ‘New New Japanese Cinema’ and so on, and many filmmakers have risen to take up privileged positions overseas these days, notably in terms of their regular inclusion in international film festivals. I do not intend to dismiss this situation, however there is a downside caused by this ‘bubble’, which is not insignificant. Today’s production system of independent films and the overseas recognition that Japanese cinema has received can be attributed in part to ATG (Art Theater Guild), a company that was established in 1960s with the aim to produce and distribute art films and the films of distinctive filmmakers, such as Nagisa Oshima, Kiju Yoshida, Susumu Hani and Koji Wakamatsu; films made by innovators, including those from underground cinema.

And yet today, the historical circumstances around this period have been largely forgotten, not only by foreign curators and critics, but also by the Japanese filmmakers themselves. Certainly, it is not always necessary to cling onto our cinematic history, and it’s not enough to just keep bringing up the famous ‘great’ works either. So, when we look back, it was Oshima’s Koshikei (Death By Hanging) (1967) or Yoshida’s Erosu Purasu Gyakusatsu (Eros Plus Massacre) (1969), which uncompromisingly depicted anti-Japanese, anti-Emperor, anti-Nationalist and anti-Capitalist ideas. They tapped into the zeitgeist of 1968, and through that they obtained international recognition. However, a great many other films are not remembered, and I can’t help but feel that this demonstrates a rupture with the past.

female-student-guerillas-masao-adachi.jpgFemale Student Guerillas, 1969

There are new films that criticise the inert situation of Japanese society, or tackle political themes, yet most of them remain superficial. It is rare to find films that contain the substance and intensity of social and political movements. In other words, despite a flamboyant outlook, the cultural, ideological foundation in the current Japanese cinema is extremely weak. This is neither the responsibility of individual filmmakers, or a problem caused by Japanese cinema alone, and it arises largely out of social situations in Japan. Yet the films can’t be totally free of responsibility either. Given this factor, I would like to look at the current situation by going back into the past and examining the 1960s when independent and underground films started in Japan for the first time. Using a process of reverse exposure, we might then be able to throw some light on what is happening today.

If we look back at the emergence of Japanese independent films, we have to name three groups from the 1960s; the group of students centering around the Nihon University Film Study Club (Nichidai Eiken); the group of artists including Hiroshi Teshigawara and Shuji Terayama who held their ground in the avant-garde art movement; and the group of personal films of Nobuhiko Obayashi and Takahiko Iimura who used 8mm cameras and made their films at home. Along with them, running in parallel, we had young filmmakers who were working with major studios such as Oshima and Yoshida who were dubbed the ‘Shochiku Nouvelle Vague’; and the group of avant-garde documentary filmmakers, including Toshio Matsumoto, who made numerous experimental films. This was the time when a current of ‘new waves’ were rising (and breaking) around the world. It was just before US-Japan security treaty in Japan, historically the most crucial phase after World War II, and there was the birth of the movement of Radical Left, demarcated from the Japanese Communist party, the existing leftist political party of the day. As for the ‘revolution’ of ‘68 in Japan, we could say it already had its head-start in 1960. These were tempestuous times, and they were a big turning point for art, culture and politics; new methodologies and theories of filmmaking were developed and then put into practice. What should be particularly highlighted among these activities is the role of Film Student Club groups.

sex-play-adachi-masao.jpgSex Play, 1968

In 1958, the Nihon University Film Study Club released Conversation Between a Nail and a Stocking after its establishment in the previous year. This first picture was produced under a notion of collective filmmaking – all the group members participated equally so that no one was identified with typical roles such as director, cameraman, gaffer or assistant director. Subsequently, the club completed N No Kiroku (Document N) (1959) and PouPou (1960). After the struggle over the US-Japan Security Treaty (Known as ANPO, this post-war agreement ensured a heavy US military presence in Japan, and was fiercely protested against by students) and having to reorganise the group as the New Film Study Club (Shineiken), they released Wan (Rice Bowl) (1961) and Sa-In (Closed Vagina) (1963).

Although they tenaciously remained as a collective production group and refused to have their works attributed with any proper names, some of the filmmakers like Katsumi Hirano, Motoharu Jonouchi and Masao Adachi began to emerge from the group, and they influenced not only student films, but also the film industry as a whole. Coming out of the Film Study Club, Jonouchi and Adachi established the VAN Film Science Research (VAN Eiga Kagaku Kenkyujo) as a place to both live and produce films together. An artistic commune, it became a space for communication, where not only filmmakers, but also avant-garde artists from various mediums like fine arts, music and photography could meet.

ecstasy-of-angels-koji-wakamatsu-hi.jpgEcstasy of Angels, 1972

Through such an exchange, Jonouchi made pioneering films. In Document 6/15 (1961) he refused to take an objective view on US-Japan Security Treaty, and joined ranks with activists in the struggle, portraying the conflict from their point of view. The screening of this film was carried out as a trailblazing mixed-media experiment at the memorial for a student who was killed in a demonstration, along with multiple soundtracks, slide projections and live performances. Document LSD (1961) was Jonouchi’s self-photographed film of his own experiments with the hallucinogenic drug; Shelter Plan (1964) was the record of a now-famous artistic ‘happening’ by the art collective Hi-Red Center, which had been formed by artists Jiro Takamatsu, Genpei Akasegawa and Natsuyuki Nakanishi; and WOLS a film woven from fine fragments, edited in-camera, of the paintings of Wols (Otto Wolfgang Schulze) of the 1950s French art movement Art Informel. In Japan, the idea of underground films was only properly established in 1966, and after that many types of filmmaking and filmmakers started to emerge. However, tracing the shift from the Nihon University Film Study Club to VAN, it can be said the experimental spirit embodied by Jonouchi was the pillar that supported the underground films that followed in the 1960s and was the basis for new concepts of experimental and independent film.

On another front, Masao Adachi, after leaving VAN, joined Wakamatsu Productions, a company started by Koji Wakamatsu. Wakamatsu’s film, Kabe no naka no himegoto (Secret Behind the Walls) (1965) had been officially selected for the Berlin Film Festival despite that fact that it was a Pink Film. At the time this was considered to be a national disgrace by the Japanese film world, and became a big scandal. Attention towards Wakamatsu was growing and he was seen as a kind of dissident hero, partly because he came up against repressive law enforcers seeking to curb the genre of Pink Films; because he was known for cranking out films quickly, that turned low budgets (of three million yen) to his advantage; and he continued to shoot his radical experiments guerilla-style. Wakamatsu Production, had Atsushi Yamatoya and Chusei Sone of Nikkatsu Assistant Directors Group (who later become the core of a scriptwriters group called Guryu Hachiro founded by Seijun Suzuki), and when Masao Adachi and Isao Okishima of the Nihon University Film Study Club joined, it became a pioneering creative movement to produce radical films.

terorisuto-masao-adachi.jpgTerorisuto (Terrorist), 2006

Adachi wrote many scripts for Wakamatsu, such as Taiji Ga Mitsuryo-suru Toki (The Embryo that Hunts) (1966) depicting the private interiors of the world of S&M; Nihon Bohkoh Ankoku-shi, Ijohsha No Chi (A Dark History of Violence in Japan: The Blood of a Pervert) (1967) the story of a family over four generations which dealt with the Japanese Imperial system; Okasareta Hakui (Violated Angels) (1967) an improvised drama basing on a serial nurse killing with Juro Kara, a standard-bearer of underground theatre; Yuke Yuke Nidome No Shojo (Go, Go Second Time Virgin) (1969) a unique love story that takes place on an enclosed roof top; Seizuko (Sex Jack) (1970) a film inspired by radical group, the Japanese Red Army’s (JRA) 1970 hijacking of a plane which they diverted to North Korea; Shinjuku Mad (1970) an exploration of the emerging underground culture; The Woman Who Wants to Die (1970) a film parodying Yukio Mishima, the writer who plotted a right-wing revolution and committed suicide, and Tenshi No Kôkotsu (Ecstasy of the Angels) (1972) depicting a militant group planning an all-out attack on Tokyo. Numerous masterpieces and controversial films were produced.

At the same time as these Pink Films were being made, Adachi self-produced a film called Gingakei (Galaxy) (1967) collaborating with the Nihon University Film Study Club group. This film, a conceptual drama, showed the protagonist M’s death, and was a reverie of self-liberation. It was the first film that played in the Underground Theatre Sasori-za, one of ATG’s two major venues in Tokyo. Gingakei became one of the key films in the development of underground film in Japan. Also, Adachi briefly acted in the memorable first ATG-produced film, Nagisa Oshima’s Koshikei in the role of the officer who carries out the execution. Moreover, he put together the trailer for the film. Adachi expanded the scope of activities from Wakamatsu Production to Sozo-sha, Oshima’s production company, co-writing the scripts of both Kaette kita yopparai (Three Resurrected Drunkards) (1968) and Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki (Diary of a Shinjuku Thief) with Oshima.

shelter-plan-jonouchi-motoharu.jpgShelter Plan, 1964

After May 1968, while the anti-establishment movement called Zenkyoto (the All-Campus Joint Struggle Committee) intensified, Adachi continued to make films that were closely related to the movement; Sei Yugi (Sex Play) (1968) depicted sex and revolution through the strange relationship between a nonpolitical student and female militant; Jogakusei Guerilla (Female Student Guerillas) (1969) about a high school student activist who camps out in the mountains and goes into guerilla warfare against the graduation ceremony and 15-sai No Baishunfu (A 15 Year Old Prostitute) (1970) which metaphorically projected the circumstances of the movement’s decline through the story of the prostitution of a high school student. These films did not defend the movement one-sidedly, in fact if we include the scripts he wrote for films made by Wakamatsu, they critically and objectively explored the movement and tried to seek out what the true movement and revolution was about by deconstructing the authoritarianism of the existing movement, its narrow view of government and its androcentric attitudes towards sexuality.

Furthermore, Adachi co-produced AKA. Serial Killer (1969) with Masao Matsuda, an anarchist film critic and Mamoru Sasaki, a scriptwriter from Sozo-sha. The film, made collectively, imagined the landscapes that Norio Nagayama, a 19 year-old serial killer who had been in the news at that time, might have envisioned, and suggested a concept of ‘Landscape Theory’ in art. In this theory the ubiquity of the state power is defined as a landscape, which can be analysed through representation. The idea was further explored by Oshima in Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa (The Man Who Left His Will on Film) (1970) creating a firestorm of controversy in the fields of film, photography, fine arts, design and philosophy.

violated-angels-koji-wakamatsu.jpgViolated Angels, 1967

In 1971, Adachi and Wakamatsu were invited to Cannes Film Festival. On the way back they went to Beirut, and while they were there shot Sekigun PFLP –  Sekai Senso Sengen (The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War) a film that showed the ‘everyday life’ of Arab guerillas, and transformed a ‘news documentary’ into a radical text for a world revolution. Rejecting the existing system of film exhibition and declaring the screening itself as a political act, the ‘Red Bus’ mobile projection unit was formed and they hit the road, showing the film in Palestine and Europe. This film can be seen as the key Japanese film of that era, as it completely epitomized the spirit of the radical filmmaking movement. It was also a personal turning point for one of its makers: Adachi left Japan in 1974, in order to join the Palestinian revolution as a Japanese Red Army soldier.

In 1997, after a quarter of a century had past, Adachi was arrested by the Lebanese authorities. They deported him back to Japan in 2001. He was subsequently imprisoned in Japan for two years. After his release, Adachi made a new film called Terorisuto (Terrorist) (2006). The story takes place in prison behind the closed doors; describing the life of a man in confinement. The film was inspired by Japanese terrorist Kozo Okamoto, the sole surviving perpetrator of the Tel Aviv airport raid in 1972 (where a JRA group carried out a terrorist attack on behalf of the PFLP). Adachi channels Okamoto’s story through an ‘adaptation’ of French revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui’s 1872 philosophical text L’Eternite Par les Astres (Eternity Through The Stars), and starkly portrays a protagonist who questions the meaning of his own existence, of time and of revolution, while being fiercely tortured in prison. You could say that the film took 35 years to make, and that paradoxically, Adachi needed to make this film in order to erase his own absence. The fact that the film exists is a kind of miracle.

red-army-pflp-declaration-of-world-war-masao-adachi-koji-wakamatsu-hi.jpgThe Red Army / PFLP Declaration of World War, 1971

If we include Terorisuto, this process of tracing the history and works of the pioneering filmmakers of the ‘60s like Adachi, Jonouchi and Wakamatsu, is synonymous with questioning what the independent and underground film is today, and seeking out possibilities that still exist. And from this position, we can open up the potential of ‘being independent’, a state that is fundamentally different from that of the capitalist system where one only consumes and reproduces, and in the film-world, where we find value only in what’s new.

At the same time, I strongly hope that this sort of effort helps to create a place from which we can see the history of Japanese cinema in 1960s in a multi-layered way, and with a particular focus on the political energies of that period, rather than in the familiar way where we repeatedly celebrate the names of the same few well-known filmmakers.

Translated by Aimi O

Go Hirasawa is a film researcher, and editor of the books Underground Film Archives and Cinema/Revolution (Eiga/Kakumei) co-authored with Adachi Masao (both published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha).

From the Floating World

As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then suddenly sprung up out of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What impressed me most was that they were not at all impressed. – The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon