Koji Wakamatsu, 1936-2012

Militant filmmaker dies at the age of 76.

It is criminal to shoot from a powerful point of view (Koji Wakamatsu)

In a cinematic year that is proving painfully costly, we learn of yet another death. Dissident Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu has left us. Having been hit by a taxi on the night of the 12 October, he died yesterday in a Tokyo hospital where he had been taken after the accident with injuries to his head and lower back. Born in 1936, Wakamatsu first came to fame as a prolific director of “pink films”, a sort of Japanese version of sexploitation very popular in the 1960s. Partly thanks to the mitigating circumstances of the adult genre and its looser censorial restraints, the director seeded his films with the radical motifs he had started to openly endorse as the Sixties neared their political peak. Though systematically overshadowed by the “romantic” exploits on the Parisian boulevards, the year of 1968 in Japan saw massive protests and prolonged occupations taking place alongside street battles whose sheer size and force belittle anything that took place in the west in comparison. It is in this context that Wakamatsu fully committed his career to the revolutionary cause while cultivating links with ultra-leftist formations such as the armed group United Red Army whose disastrous parable will later be the subject of an eponymous movie.

Despite the ideological orthodoxy of the Japanese extra-parliamentary left, Wakamatsu never succumbed to its fanatical dérives, articulating instead a cogent critique from within, critical but never dismissive. In Sex Jack (1970) for instance, a group of revolutionary students hiding from the police is joined by a shy outsider willing to help them out only to be mistaken for a spy. Locked away from society in a claustrophobically small apartment, the group enacts the kind of exploitative and abusive practices they ostensibly oppose while covering their cowardice in empty revolutionary rhetoric. Sex here is actively deployed as an allegorical element of the story – highlighting the perverted power relations between the group members, males against females – rather than functioning as a mere front for the political subtext. The Embryo Hunts in Secret (1966) is Wakamatsu’s personal take on the class struggle, in which he tells an S&M-tinged story of a woman kidnapped and sexually enslaved by her boss whose brutal domination will push the young woman to the use of violence in order to break free. More existential issues were explored in Go, Go Second-Time Virgin (1969), a tender story of a man and a woman talking after he has silently witnessed her rape. The repressed suicidal tendencies and abrupt sentimentality of a traumatised nation emerged in this bleak yet deeply felt film, once again shot with almost no money but plenty of disenchanted passion. In 1970, on his way back from the Cannes Film Festival Wakamatsu stopped in Beirut with his colleague and fellow militant Masao Adachi to shoot a piece of agit-prop filmmaking with the Palestinian resistance, Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971). In 1976 he produced Nagisa Oshima’s sexually explicit masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses.

Always working on extremely low budgets, Wakamatsu made more than 100 movies but worked in virtual obscurity throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, only to resurface more recentlywith United Red Army (2007) and Caterpillar (2010). The former is a colossal epic detailing in unflinching details the rise and fall of the titular armed organisation which dissolved at the hands of Japanese police, as well as falling victim to its own monstrous fanaticism. Caterpillar, which premiered to critical acclaim in Berlin, tells the story of a Japanese soldier returning from the Sino-Japanese war without his arms and legs. Feted as a war hero, the man is in reality a cruel and abusive character tormenting his patient wife who, tired of nursing such a monster, will kill him in cold blood. Until the very end, the Wakamatsu never repented, standing with dignity by his ideals. Only this year,  he presented two new features in Cannes and Venice respectively: 11/25 The Day Mishima Chose His Fate and The Millennial Rupture. Interviewed in Paris in 2009, Wakamatsu slyly declared: “I’m not about to change right now, I will always fight the authorities”; signing his premature epitaph with a mischievous smile.

The late Koji Wakamatsu, photographed in May 2012 (Photo: Getty Images)
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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood