Whiplash of the Dead きみが死んだあとで Dir: Haruhiko Daishima [Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2021]

Whiplash of the Dead   Whiplash of the Dead Film Poster

きみが死んだあとでKimi ga Shinda ato de

Release Date: April 17th, 2021

Duration: 200 mins.

Director: Haruhiko Daishima

Writer: N/A

Starring: N/A

Website

The psychic trauma of the actions and failure of the student protests of the 60s and 70s haunts the collective memory of Japan. Its constant presence is partly thanks to various cinematic treatments from figures like Koji Wakamatsu, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, and Nagisa Oshima who worked in that milieu at the time and produced politically-charged works, be they direct or symbolic critiques of country and its politics. Then there is the more measured analysis from later generations of dramatists and documentarians who are working with the benefit of hindsight and the distance of time to provide clear-eyed analysis. This sort of analysis is shown in Whiplash of the Dead, a fascinating documentary from Haruhiko Daishima who adroitly finds his entry point into this emotive and massive subject through the life and death of a protestor involved with the “first Haneda struggle.”

To give some background, when America was embroiled in its war in Vietnam, anti-war protests sprang up in response to Japan hosting US bases. The first Haneda Struggle took place in October 1967, just before America’s infamous Tet Offensive, and involved various leftist political factions laying siege to Haneda Airport in order to prevent then prime minister Eisaku Sato travelling to Vietnam on a state visit. Haneda became a landmark moment due to the escalation in student militancy as protestors armed with helmets and clubs engaged riot police in battle and pushed them back in a dramatic confrontation focussed on Benten Bridge. The turning point of this battle came with the death of 18-year-old student protestor Hiroaki Yamazaki at the hands of the police but, despite this, the trajectory of violence was locked into place for future actions taken by protestors over the next decade.

At three hours and twenty minutes, Whiplash of the Dead is split into two parts of equal weight, the first going into detail about Yamazaki’s background and how he came to be at the bridge before examining the leftist movements of the time, their inter-factional conflicts and wider self-destructive actions that eventually led to their collapse. Daishima sticks to conventional means of visiting locations and seeing Yamazaki’s preserved textbooks, inserting archive footage and photographs from that time period, and conducting interviews with people who give first-hand accounts of events at the time.

The accounts from the brother and friends of Yamazaki are the most compelling parts of the film, especially in the first half, as they build up a picture of a person learning early on about communitarianism by helping out neighbours as a child, growing into a politically aware individual through the writings of Marx and experiencing life as a working-class kid, and struggling for peace as yearnings of global solidarity come in high school and university with recognition of America’s wars around the world and Japan’s past imperialism. If there is a perfect protagonist, Yamazaki is it because comes off as an earnest and committed peace protestor. It helps that he is strikingly handsome in photographs we see of him and the writing he left behind is equal parts romantic and intellectual. Fundamentally, all of the anecdotes paint the picture of a genuinely kind and intelligent person caught up in the excessive violence fomented by leftist factions and the riot police which boiled over at Benten Bridge. How did his death come about?

The second half of the film gets more into the drier parts of the political world Yamazaki entered as former comrades remember the increasing radicalisation of protestors in various factions, the resulting internecine conflicts and a gradual escalation of violence. While this section lacks the dramatic and tragic elements of the first which had its focus on Yamazaki, it does provide a sweeping history of the student protests  and broader social reactions and the pressures on those involved. Indeed, having had something of a political education in the first part of the film, there is little tonal or subject-matter whiplash as we can see how people were radicalised into militant action and funnelled into situations like the bloody destruction of the United Red Army that finally turned public opinion against protests after many years of support.

In contrast, there is little coverage on the side of the authorities apart from an investigation into the coverup of Yamazaki’s death. Instead, the audience is allowed to listen to old-timers from Kansai to Kanto, from different political denominations, retell their memories of  this most tumultuous time. As such, it does feel like a comprehensive look at the rise and fall of the protests.

While the film’s pacing remains stately, the stories are never soporific and it is easy to become engrossed. The dramatic photos from Hitomi Watanabe and Kazuo Kitai of the battles and protests add atmosphere to the mix but the real heart of the film remains Yamazaki and it is particularly affecting to hear the emotionally charged voices of friends and family as the resurfacing of his death from the various accounts really hits them. It is clear that it has haunted the interviewees and through them we see how the protests still live on in people’s memories.

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