“Film making is my essential weapon for expression.”
Tragic news broke earlier this week when the death of Koji Wakamatsu was announced on Wednesday 17th October at 11:00 PM. He died after being hospitalised following a traffic accident in central Tokyo on the 12th of October in which he was hit by a taxi. This event happened just a few days after he returned from the 17th Busan Film Festival where he was awarded Asian Filmmaker of the Year.
His career has been long and colourful including time spent working with gangsters and serving a stretch in prison. His experiences in prison where he was mistreated by guards would solidify anti-establishment¹ feelings he carried. Upon his release, the connections he built up in organised crime helped him get his foot in the door in the movie industry in the realm of pink films in the 1960’s with Nikkatsu studios. Pink films are a familiar proving ground for many directors² who have a certain degree of freedom so long as they film a certain number of sex scenes and make it a certain length and filmed on time and on budget but after a film ran afoul of government censors and Wakamatsu found Nikkatsu did not support him, he formed his own production company, Wakamatsu Studios³ and made films stamped with his ideas, smuggling political messages amidst the sex and extreme violence, referencing the revolutionary fervour in the air at the time⁴.
These were dark and troubling films that were raw commentaries on the state of Japan and various aspects of society. Two major titles include Go,Go Second Time Virgin, a film involving two young people being brutalised, facing rape, murder and violence and directly challenging the audience at points. Another one is Sex Jack which involved revolutionary students hiding from police in a claustrophobic apartment, the males forcing the female members into having sex. These are both seen as a commentary on the power relationship between men and women in Japan and criticism of the treatment of youth.
This radicalism he essayed would form the basis of some of nearly all his films including later and more well-known films like United Red Army in 2007 and 11:25, The Day He Chose His Fate in 2012. This late period in his career has seen a surge in interest in his works including the 2010 film Caterpillar, a film which is partially based on Edogawa Rampo story. It is a dark tale of a disabled Japanese war criminal who uses sex and violence against a wife who has long despised him because of his evil nature. Then, with him at her mercy, she turns the tables. It criticising militarism and, again, the imbalance in power between the genders. Starring celebrated actress Shionbu Terajima, it was nominated for a Golden Bear Award and Shinobu Terajima won the Silver Bear for Best Actress. She would later appear in the aforementioned 11:25, The Day He Chose His Fate, a film which took place in 1960’s Japan and focussed on the nationalist author and intellectual Yukio Mishima who espoused traditional values based on the Bushido code and attempted a coup d’Etat by taking a military commander hostage. It premiered at Cannes earlier this year where it got mixed reviews. Shinobu Terajima also appeared in The Millenial Rapture which premiered a few months later at the Venice International Film Festival. Despite the western critics having differing opinions, if the cast lists for his films are any indication, he was held in high regard in Japan.
I am writing this having only experienced one whole film and fragments of his other works as it is pretty hard to get them and, quite frankly, I have been a little intimidated by them. Unfortunately it seems that many film labels have felt that audiences in the west might have felt the same I have since they have pretty much ignored him because he would be harder to sell. Or perhaps, like me, they thought he might be around for much longer and they could get around to him eventually. One film that he worked on and is easily available is one of the most important Japanese films ever made is Nagisa Oshima’s critically acclaimed In the Realm of the Senses which which he helped produce. I have seen that and it is pretty stirring stuff intellectually and viscerally.
It might be crass to say this but his life ended on a high considering the fact that he was quite in demand at the festivals this year and he won Asian Filmmaker of the Year. How many of us can even hope to have achieved what he did and have as much burning passion? Still, the film world and, more importantly, his family have lost someone special. Maybe it is time for me to try and get acquainted with him.
Koji Wakamatsu 01st April, 1936, 17th October, 2012
² Other directors from the pink film proving grounds include Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure: The Power of Suggestion, Loft), Masayuki Suo (Shall We Dance?) and Yoshimitsu Morita (Take the A Train, The Family Game)
³ My knowledge of pink films comes from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink_film, a Channel 4 documentary and a couple of films that I thought rather silly
⁴ Norwegian Wood and My Back Page are two major Japanese films that have protests as backgrounds