Unless you’re an aficionado of Japanese cinema, Kiju Yoshida’s work might be unfamiliar to you. It’s very good to see that Arrow’s stunning new Blu-ray collection is correcting that oversight.
On the basis of the three films contained in this beautiful limited edition set, and the generous and fascinating special features (although the book which forms part of the set was not available for review), Yoshida’s work is fiercely different from most of the filmmaking we ever see in the West.
Eros+Massacre is essentially the life story of Sakae Osugi, an anarchist who believed in free love, socialism and intellectual freedom, and who was murdered by Japanese military police in 1923. The film focuses on the three women in Osugi’s life – his wife, his current lover, and a former lover who attempted to kill him, an incident that forms one of the main set-pieces of the movie. But Yoshida doesn’t stop there. He also sets up a second timeline that takes place in the late 1960s, as two students try to discover more about Osugi’s life and beliefs. Yoshida sometimes runs the two timestreams parallel to each other and sometimes intersects them, but the intricate stylistic choices he makes never leave us confused about where the narrative is leading. It is a film of cinematic genius and this set brings together both the theatrical cut and the much longer director’s cut, which are well worth watching side-by-side if you have the time (be warned – these are long films) because, even though they tell the same story, each adds something new to the retelling, making Eros+Massacre feel something like a hall of mirrors, with the theatrical and director’s cuts reflecting constantly back upon themselves, informing and enhancing each other, so that we’re almost left with a third retelling of the story that takes place solely inside the viewer’s mind, in the middle-ground between the two versions.
That’s what Yoshida’s work does to you. It is filmmaking on an existential level, that takes a while to grow comfortable with (his avant-garde framing and frequently overblown exposures can be quite disorienting, and the pacing of his films can grow a little tiring) but their true reward comes via the viewer’s subconscious.
Heroic Purgatory takes Yoshida even further and is more a philosophical exercise than a piece of storytelling. Of the three films, this is the one which is hardest to connect with and hardest to describe: the wife of an engineer finds a lost girl and brings her home, but when the girl’s father appears (and he may not actually be her father) the story splits off into past and future, where we learn about the engineer’s youth as a revolutionary and a plot to assassinate a political figure. Unlike Eros+Massacre, the story of Heroic Purgatory is fractured to the point of incomprehension. What saves the film is Yoshida’s dreamlike imagery, his strangely wandering camerawork and his juxtaposition between light and dark, hard emotion and cool ambivalence.
Coup d’Etat, like Eros+Massacre, is based loosely upon the life of a Japanese intellectual called Ikki Kita whose ideas inspired the failed military coup of 1936, an incident which eventually cost Kita his life. Like the previous two films, Coup d’Etat is much more concerned with the philosophical struggles and internal motivations of its protagonist, so that the coup itself is almost an afterthought, a story element Yoshida seems far less interested in portraying. As the dissection of a man whose worldviews are so flawed and rigid they eventually prove his own downfall, this film is fascinating. It’s only real stumbling block is the fact that, unless you already know a little about that period of Japanese history, it can be challenging to follow.
In fact, maybe that’s the reason Yoshida’s films are seen so rarely outside of his own country. They are, at their very heart, intensely intimate portraits of an alien culture, made all the more alien because, during the historical period within which Eros+Massacre and Coup d’Etat are mostly set, Japan was in a state of violent political and ideological flux the true resonances of which only the Japanese themselves can truly appreciate.
But back to the collection! Arrow have genuinely excelled themselves with this release. Once upon a time, it was only distributors like Criterion in the US and Eureka/Masters of Cinema in the UK who were making the genuine effort to unearth forgotten gems of world cinema and lavish them with the care and attention they deserved. Recently, Arrow have produced sets that not only rival Criterion and MoC’s best work, but which are works of art in themselves. The Kiju Yoshida collection is one of those.
Very highly recommended.KIJU YOSHIDA: LOVE+ANARCHISM / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: KIJU YOSHIDA / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: MARIKO OKADA, TOSHIYUKI HOSOKAWA, YUKO KUSUNOKI, ETSUSHI TAKAHASHI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW