Monday, December 10, 2012


Sakae Osugi and Noe Ito could be called the Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of Japan: leftists murdered by military thugs not long after World War I. Rather than Marxists, Osugi and Ito were anarchists, which might make them more the Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman of Japan. Like Goldman's anarchism, theirs was laced with once-scandalous "free love" ideas. In particular, Osugi developed into an individualist anarchist influenced by Max Stirner, the author of The Ego and Its Own and an arch-enemy of Marx. It's impossible for me to say how large these martyrs loomed in Japanese leftist culture in the late 1960s, but for Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida they were painfully relevant. It was not just for budgetary reasons that he shot many of the scenes of their story in the modern streets of Japan. They are with us today, he seems to say. To illustrate the point, not only does he have two self-dramatizing modern students making a film (or preparing some sort of project) about them; he has his modern young woman attempt to interview an uncooperative Ito. At the end of the picture, the modern couple gather the cast of Osugi and Ito's story for a commemorative photo, and the assumption is that these are the historical people, not actors (played by actors) playing those people. Eros Plus Massacre is the reverse of the nearly contemporary Goodbye Uncle Tom, the historical persons haunting the present rather than the filmmakers invading the past. The effect is theoretically similar to but far less comical than Marco Ferreri's staging of the Custer massacre in 1970s Paris in Don't Touch the White Woman. It's meant to be problematic if not traumatic. Why should it all end with a film director (I presume) making a noose of celluloid, climbing onto a pile of film cans and hanging himself? It's a powerful set of images, but did what we've seen justify it? I sense some sincere new-wave anxiety on Yoshida's part over whether he has done justice to history, to ideas, to human relationships. I can't help thinking of Jean-Luc Godard's struggles to express ideas, though in particulars E+M reminds me more specifically of Alan Resnais' La Guerre est Finie, another juggling act involving political commitment and sexual yearning. If one thing is clear after three and a half hours, it's that the political is the personal -- or that the one is inseparable from the other. How free can we be when needs drive us together but can't hold us together? For Yoshida, it seems like the personal conflicts that led one of Osugi's lovers to stab him are a greater tragedy than the political conflicts and confusions that led to Osugi's death.

Eros Plus Massacre is a deliberately difficult film, but it's also the work of a pictorial genius. Nearly every frame is an impeccable composition incorporating meticulous set design. Even if the ideas elude you and the actors don't earn your empathy, the picture is thrilling to look at. Working with cinematographer Motokichi Hasegawa, Yoshida films in an often deliberately washed-out monochrome evocative of faded photographs, giving an impression of pastness even while filming on modern locations. He plays freely with space and proportion, often placing the actors far left or right of center, or near the bottom of the screen, daring emptiness to dominate the frame. He also films action brilliantly, from a surreal rugby game with an urn of Osugi's ashes as the ball to the labyrinthine tracking shots as Osugi's attacker stalks him through a house whose walls eventually collapse in all directions.


Toshi Ichiyanagi's score perfectly expresses the film's juxtaposition of romanticism and moder discordance. The cast, led as usual by Yoshida's wife Mariko Okada as Noe Ito, is solid. The film's too long for me to go on synopsizing it, and to be honest, I don't feel that I got all of what Yoshida meant to say. But I feel confident that there's more to get, and that Eros Plus Massacre is a film that will reward multiple viewings both visually and intellectually.

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