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)
Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game