“A loose trilogy united by their radical politics and an even more radical shooting style.”
The Japanese New Wave was one of a number of emerging film movements as the 1950s rolled into the 1960s. Though the name is derived from the French New Wave, it was developed largely separate from the Parisian filmmakers. The major difference between the French and Japanese New Waves starts with the fact that most of the French directors started out as critics, while the Japanese filmmakers worked their way up through the studio system. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that two of the giants of Japanese filmmaking (Ozu and Mizoguchi) died in the late 50s and early 60s, leaving Akira Kurosawa as the old guard of Japanese cinema and plenty of room for youngsters to fill the screen with new visions. Names like Shohei Imamura and Nigashi Oshima never became household names like Kurosawa (as much as Kurosawa is a household name), but they released a number of famous art-house hits, especially in the late 60s through the late 70s. Imamura in particular had a solid run of mature films in the 1980s. Unlike his contemporaries, Kijû Yoshida didn’t have a late-career renaissance (in fact his output decreased drastically after the mid-70s), but he did help define the Japanese New Wave with a trio of films about radicalism in 20th century Japan. They’ve been collected in Love + Anarchism, a fascinating collection of films and an important document of world film history.
Love + Anarchism collects a loose trilogy of films by Yoshida, made between 1969 and 1973:
Eros + Massacre is the story of anarchist Sakae Osugi, told through three of his relationships. This recounting is interspersed with a more contemporary investigation of Osugi’s “free love” philosophy. Past and present intermingle in a surreal mixture that’s part biography, part diagnosis.
Heroic Purgatory continues the themes of revolution and memory as an engineer is forced to recall his revolutionary youth after a woman appears claiming to be his daughter.
Yoshida finishes his trilogy with Coup d’état, a biography of Ikki Kita, a Japanese nationalist who attempted to overthrow the emperor in 1936.
The 20th century was hard on just about everybody, as industrialization became more rapid with the introduction of mass electricity. Add in all the wars, both national and international, and you’ve got a recipe for serious upheaval. The popular image of Japan is of a ridged, hierarchical society where this upheaval was controlled and contained, especially after World War II. But that’s not quite the case. They had their own “youth” movements in the 1960s, just like Europe and America. And much like Europe and America, Japan’s youth could turn to earlier figures for inspiration. That’s exactly what happens in Eros + Massacre, where the tumult of the late 1960s is transferred to an earlier part of the 20th century. The theme continues in Heroic Purgatory, and culminates in Coup d’etat. Each of these films looks at the tumult of early 20th century Japan, but from a different perspective. Eros is about anarchism, Purgatory about communism, and Coup about right-wing nationalism. All three contributed to the situation that resulted in World War II, and Yoshida presents these stories from the early part of Japan’s post-WWII democratic shift.
What makes this trilogy of films interesting is that it’s never quite clear what lesson we’re supposed to draw from the past. Unlike a filmmaker like Godard, who seems to have some very definite lessons about what we’re supposed to draw from history, Yoshida uses his elliptical narratives and dreamlike atmosphere to avoid direct statements. These aren’t hardcore, propagandistic films with a definite moral. The fact that these films are about three distinct kinds of political philosophy, all of them in conflict both theoretically and historically, helps Yoshida avoid being boxed in. Instead of a lesson or moral, Yoshida seems to be stressing the importance of remembrance itself. It is important to capture the energy of the past and present and preserve it.
The importance of memory is evident in numerous visual and narrative styles that Yoshida employs. The most obvious is his penchant for non-linearity. Eros + Massacre seems to be a typical kind of two-strand narrative, as the contemporary characters investigate the past. But Yoshida lets these two streams cross in odd, poetic ways. The strands are linked narratively, for sure, but also visually in ways that seem to evoke the act of remembering. The double-strand continues with Heroic Purgatory, as the film is explicitly about a character remembering his youth. But even this straightforward description ignores the way that the film is played out with a character who may not be who she says she is. Coup d’état seems like it might be a straightforward biopic, but by covering several events that led up to the titular coup, Yoshida paints a more complicated picture of both Kita and Japanese nationalism.
Beyond the obsession with history and memory, Yoshida unites his films with a unique visual style. With the early two films it manifests as a series of increasingly surreal images. The play of memory and history allows Yoshida to inflect “actual” events with a dreamlike quality as recollection and reality intermingle. Even when he abandons the apparent surrealism of the first to films for a more straightforward biopic narrative in Coup d’etat, Yoshida refuses to use standard kinds of framing. Throughout his career he would place actors at the edge of frames, facing outward. The effect is visually striking and a bit unsettling.
The folks at Arrow don’t seem to care that you’ve probably never heard of Kijû Yoshida, as they’ve pulled out all the stops anyway. All three films are sourced from master tape held by Carlotta Films in France, and all have been approved by Yoshida. We don’t get any more info than that with this set (like what resolution the scanning occurred at, how much restoration was done, etc.), but the resulting 1080p AVC-encoded transfer are pretty strong. Eros + Massacre is presented in 2.35:1, and the transfer showcases a decent amount of detail in the black and white image. Frequent, intentional, overexposure is part of Yoshida’s strategy, so the blooming image is expected. Less expected, however, are the rock solid black levels. Contrast is smooth and consistent throughout, with no significant compression problems. Heroic Purgatory is presented in 1.37:1, and looks even better than Eros, mainly because the image is a bit more “natural.” Expect solid black levels, excellent contrast, and lots of film-like detail. For a film of this age and budget, it’s an impressive feat. Coup d’état is also at 1.37:1, but doesn’t look quite as sharp as the previous two films. Black levels are still great, and so is contrast, but the film never quite resolves into either sharp detail or expressive grain. It’s not unwatchable by any means, but it is disappointing after the knockout of Purgatory.
All three films get LPCM 1.0 mono tracks in the original Japanese. All are constrained by the technology of the time, sounding a bit thin and unimpressive by modern standards. But taken as almost 50 year old soundtracks, they serve the films well. Dialogue is always clean and clear, while the film’s scores sound impressive, even if they occasionally distort (as is the case with Coup d’état).
Each film gets its own keepcase, which is housed in a slipcase with a booklet featuring an essay on each of the films. Eros + Massacre gets two discs to house the two different versions. Aside from the theatrical cut (which runs 165 minutes), we also get the film’s director’s cut, which runs another 45 minutes long. It delves slightly more into some more of Osugi’s private lives, and the cut scenes were partly motivated respect for then-living people. We also get a selected-scene commentary on both version by scholar David Desser (author of the first study of Yoshida). Desser also provides 10ish minute introductions to each of these cuts. Arrow also includes a 30 minute French documentary on Yoshida, as well as the film’s theatrical trailer. Desser’s participation continues on Heroic Purgatory, offering an introduction and more select-scene commentaries. This time we get a six minute introduction by Yoshida. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included. The extras from Purgatory are mirrored for Coup: Desser and Yoshida intros, select-scene commentary, and the film’s trailer. It’s easy to fantasize about a full Criterion-style release with 10 hours of video supplements and full-fledged commentaries, but that’s not realistic for a filmmaker like Yoshida. Instead, what’s here is deeply informative, interesting, and if not exhausting, then at least likely to sate most fans. DVD copies of the films are also included.
These are weird, demanding films, and unless you’re already pretty familiar with the canon of mid-century Japanese filmmakers, then the work of Kijû Yoshida might seem like a bit too much work. They offer an interesting perspective on Japanese history, but viewers have got to already want that before delving into these long, challenging films.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Kijû Yoshida, but thanks to Love + Anarchism, there’s really no excuse for fans of Japanese cinema to not be familiar with this cinematic master. A set of excellent transfers and solid extras make this an attractive package despite the price tag.