Eros + Massacre

Eros + Massacre ★★★★★

A few days ago, I watched my favorite movie, Yoshishige "Kijū" Yoshida's Eros + Massacre for the sixth time. When it was over, I felt the urge to watch it once more; there's just something really addictive about it. This review is an attempt to try to put into words what it is about E+M that I find so compelling, why it changed the way I look at cinema, why it still feels so original 48 years after its release and why I love it more than any other movie.

First, some historical context. The central figure of the movie, Sakae Ōsugi (1885-1923) was a radical anarchist intellectual known for his beliefs in ethical egoism and free love. He was therefore involved with three women; his wife Yasuko Hori, journalist Ichiko Kamichika (who would later attempt to kill him in a tea house) and Noe Itō (played by Yoshida's wife Mariko Okada in the film), a notable feminist and fellow anarchist. Itō's husband, writer Jun Tsuji is also prominent in Yoshida's story. The central event of the movie is the 1923 massacre of Itō, Ōsugi, and his 6-year-old nephew in the wake of the Great Kantō earthquake. They were murdered by a squad lead by military officer Masahiko Amakasu, most likely so that Ōsugi's dangerous ideas would die out, seeing how his renouncement of traditional family values could've had jeopardized the Taishō era ideology. The historical background is summarized in the film's intro, as the obscure historical figures at play most likely won't be familiar to viewers outside of Japan.

The second bit of historical context relates not to the story of the movie but to its making. After being forced to leave the studio system in 1964, Kijū Yoshida, one of the most important Japanese New Wave filmmakers (he'd probably reject the blanket term "New Wave") first formed his own company (Gendai Eigasha) and later turned to the Art Theatre Guild (ATG), the independent arthouse company which distributed a huge number of New Wave movies. Eros + Massacre went beyond the usual ATG production for its sheer scale, budget and ambition, but the distribution of Yoshida's films was practically guaranteed due to his reputation in independent film circles and due to Mariko Okada's well-established star status.

Yoshida felt that he needed to challenge the way historical movies are made. Throughout his youth he was exposed to films that attempt to put history into order and coherence ("In my school they used to screen films for us, and I remember vividly the time they showed us Kurosawa's No Regrets for Our Youth. [...] I remember thinking how manipulative the medium was, thinking that it was impossible to trust film directors." ). The downfall of this authority after WWII revealed its pliancy, and this loss of stability was reflected in the politically charged output of New Wave directors.

This means that E+M is structured like no other biopic that I know of. Yoshida isn't interested in telling a story, conveying a moral, or even strictly following official history. His film is a conversation with the spectator. Meanings of the scenes, characters' motivations, and interpretations of portrayed events are thus in a state of flux from viewer to viewer. The twofold narrative, one tale historical one fictional, goes through surreal deflections, conversations in turns semi-realistic and stylized, clarifications and obfuscations of events both real and imagined, cracks in the fourth wall and gentle stylistic oscillations. This creates a bizarre feeling in the viewer, a feeling that one is losing clarity, or that one is venturing deeper and deeper into some kind of an intimidating, yet beautiful, arcane labyrinth.

Yoshida's unique visual style also contributes to the enigmatic nature of the film's narrative. Characters are separated by walls, pillars, doors, window frames, doubled and bisected by reflective surfaces, seen from long distances, illuminated by all sorts of crazy sources of light, placed in a variety of expressionistic compositions and pushed to the boundaries of the screen, bouncing from one side of the frame to the other from shot to shot. This oddball approach rests on Yoshida's visual philosophy which he developed in some of his essays. Arguing that human vision is an unstable, unstructured property, he seeks to distort the structured, standardized way the movie camera sees the world. While actual visual perception is a chaotic mess where objects and beings enter and exit the visual field without order, conventional cinema attempts to control the sight by selecting certain "fixed" elements and focusing on them. The parallel between Yoshida's opinion on political filmmaking and framing shots is therefore obvious (the rejection of classical framing is evident from the two opening shots, in which Mariko Okada is first shown at the center of the screen, and then suddenly placed in a tiny corner a few seconds later). By taking the audience out of their comfort zone, he asks us to focus on that which is important to us, rather than to align with the filmmaker's political bias. This completely clashes with the standard techniques utilized by Hollywood and Japanese directors like Kurosawa and Kinoshita, who pushed the audience to identify with the protagonist and to accept the message of the film as it appears to be. For Yoshida, this type of filmmaking seems to be nearly useless ( "Defining a commercial film? It's a movie where you know everything. So, it's a film you soon forget.").

That's not to say E+M is meaningless by design. It does have plenty of central themes (failure of radical ideas, failure of the current generation to act accordingly, etc.) and it does articulate the filmmaker's personal preoccupations, but beyond that, you're on your own - quite a lot of it is open to question. The constant awareness of uncertainty brings forth an unexpected sense of excitement; figuring out which sequences branch out from another character's viewpoint and which are structured as an artificial discourse is very engaging and rewarding. To add to this, the incessant confusion of it all is a means to communicate probably the most interesting question there is - how are we supposed to act in a world where nothing is certain? Not only in the revolutionary context, of course. I think the political nature of the plot can be considered a springboard to this larger question.

The movie doesn't just focus on the 1920s historical figures, but instead merges them with a second timeline; the contemporary, 1960s one. This narrative is completely fictional, and follows two bored students vaguely researching Ōsugi's life - the unbridled half-time prostitute Eiko and the traumatized pyromaniac Wada. The juxtaposition of burning emotional issues of Ōsugi and his lovers in the 1920s with the empty, frustrated relations of Eiko and Wada may or may not suggest Yoshida's disillusionment with modern radicalism (an attribute he shares with other New Wave directors, like Ōshima or Wakamatsu), in that the contemporary generation feels somewhat lost in time and unsure how to advance or what even to do with their lives, while the mythical position of passionate revolutionaries long gone remains blurred and in disarray (or at least, that's how I understand it). Yoshida's approach is very complex, constantly transforming character relations, challenging linear plot structure in all sorts of ways and applying literary references, including Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's The Spider's Thread and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.

The two narratives are respectively filmed in wholly different styles, although they too tend to overlap. The 1920s' characters are solemn, talkative, with a formal, almost noble aura. These performances are quiet and ceremonious, and the emotional heights are theatrical. The leisurely pace also helps maintain a sense of lyricism present in the first narrative. The 1960s-set narrative, on the other hand, is faster, more visually experimental and set to modern music. There's quite a bit of absurdist comic relief and the dialogues are fancy and all over the place. It's also interesting whenever the two periods intertwine; Noe Itō takes a train and arrives in modern-day Japan, Ōsugi and Kamichika converse in a modern house, you can even see people with modern-day clothes in the background during the 1920s' scenes - historical accuracy isn't a concern for Yoshida.

Another interesting thing about E+M is the way it parts with conventional means of constructing character arcs. Take for example the respective sub-plots of Eiko's encounters with the Detective and of her suicidal friend Megumi. We can't really call them "sub-plots" in the usual sense, since these characters exist more as representations of their zeitgeist than personas with a structured arc. They flow in and out of the "big" narrative as they please. The other characters also defy traditional screenwriting; everything they change into is completely ambiguous. Notice, for example, how Jun Tsuji turns from a nihilistic unfaithful husband into a ghastly apparition who freely travels through time, playing shakuhachi and accompanied by his son Makoto. What to make of this? In my opinion, it's a metaphor for Tsuji's cynical ideas living well into the 1960s. Compare Tsuji's early dialogue with Itō, where he states that institutions and ideals are nothing but "spooks" to cover up man's indecisive, confused nature, with the world-weary Detective's later dialogue with Eiko, where he espouses similar beliefs. Does the film imply that Tsuji's ideas "haunt" the present social climate? I see it that way. [Note: Jun Tsuji (1884-1944) had translated the work of German philosopher Max Stirner, who is even mentioned in the scene. Stirner's ideas of Ego and "spooks" are also discussed here. One of Jun Tsuji's lines, the one about humans being sentenced to freedom, is highly reminiscent of Sartre, one of Yoshida's biggest influences.]

To give you another example of how the audience has to "work" to assemble a meaning from Yoshida's clues, I'll point to the beach scene, one of my favorites in the movie. We see Itō, Ōsugi and Raichō Hiratsuka (another anarchist and pioneering feminist) conversing on a modern beach, Itō and Hiratsuka having just quarelled. As Itō and Ōsugi leave, Hiratsuka picks up a mysterious gigantic key from the ground and holds it. Shortly after it, Itō gets in trouble for leaving behind a (normal-sized) hotel room key. Is it possible that the two scenes are connected? That the beach scene asserts that Itō's dispute with Hiratsuka is somehow significant to her later troubles? It's impossible to tell, but that's the beauty of it. The elusive, hypnagogic images of the film make you feel like you're trying to make sense of someone's dream, like deciphering them is a form of psychoanalysis (as Wada says at the beginning: "Psychoanalysis is absurd! Who's to say the doctors aren't crazy too?" ).

The mood in E+M is flawless to me. The editing is pure liquid. Just sitting back, switching your brain off and letting the dreamlike imagery wash all over you is just as satisfying as thinking your way through the picture. Everything about it works; the dazzling white light which gives it an ethereal feel, the way the camera explores the space, the tableaux structure where each sequence blossoms naturally into the next, and, more importantly, Toshi Ichiyanagi's amazing soundtrack. Just thinking about some of the sequences from the movie gives me chills. The somber main theme playing over Itō, Ōsugi, and his nephew getting strangled on chairs in a terrifying stylized re-enactment of the massacre, and later when it plays over the sight of their bodies on the ground. The haunting sound of Tsuji's shakuhachi as he traverses desolate landscapes with his lively son. The upside-down image of the pond reflections of Itō and a staff journalist. And of course, my favorite scene in the movie, when Itō gets interviewed by Eiko at the start of the movie's second half. Ichiyanagi's chilling score played over the slightly surreal cityscape, with the two of them sharing a serene conversation over it - damn, it really gives me goosebumps. It's like an animated postcard from another dimension. I even dig the elegant design of the credits and title cards; I love everything about this movie.

I've seen some people compare the mood of Eros + Massacre to that of a Noh play. It's not the first connection to spring to mind, but come to think of it, this description is oddly on point. Unique formalism, a strong sense of austerity, atmospheric music and intangible characters who move through space like sublime apparitions are all elements that put the spectator in a strange trance. There are no limitations to time and space, which helps give shape to a mood that's simultaneously relaxing and perpetually intriguing. The acting style for the 1920s timeline relies less on typical acting capabilities, but rather on elusive expressions, resulting in the state of actors being "both present and absent" (as film critic Ayako Saitō had described it). Yoshida called this a "rejection of acting" of sorts, where the performances are akin to butoh dance. ("It wasn't my direction. The actors were aware of the confusion of timeframe and space. So, [they] had no choice but to resort to the formula. It was a precious experience for me and for the actors too. [...] They're projections of something they experienced here." ).

The second half of E+M is a whole lot more opaque than the first and contains perhaps the most famous sequence in the film - the stabbing of Ōsugi in the tea house seen through various perspectives. This is often compared to the plot of Kurosawa's Rashōmon (1950), but the similarities are a bit superficial. Not only is the context completely different (Kurosawa is more interested in the humanistic and moralistic side of his story), but also, E+M never makes it overtly clear just whose perspective we're seeing which scenario from, and since the details and dialogues during these scenes are pretty vague, the film demands repeated viewings in order for the viewer to develop his own explanation and to appreciate it fully. This, I think, is one of the major strengths of the film for me.

Today, the film is available in two versions, the director's cut and the shorter theatrical cut. This is because Ichiko Kamichika, one of the characters in the film, was an active member of the Parliament in the 1960s and threatened to sue Yoshida for violation of privacy. And thus, her character's name was changed to Itsuko Masaoka and a number of scenes were cut from the movie so that it could be distributed in Japan in the first place. The shorter cut isn't divided into two parts and lacks the interval, not to mention that it omits some slight contexts in the story, but it's still definitely worth watching, and I really like its grainy, darker look.

This review ended up being quite lengthy, and yet, somehow I still feel that I barely touched upon the film. I doubt I'll ever find time and will to compile a personal scene-by-scene interpretation, so for now, I hope this write-up sufficiently illustrates my admiration for the movie. Even among many other brilliant Japanese New Wave works, I feel that Yoshida's output, and this film especially, deserves exceptional praise.

("Can human beings live beyond time? How can we capture that in the film? How can actors and their bodies express such a concept? It was an organic process. I wouldn't call it my idea, but film as a medium allowed me to do that." ) - Yoshida

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