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)
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era