Remembering Koji Wakamatsu (1 April 1936 – 17 October 2012)

24 October 2012
picture: Remembering Koji Wakamatsu (1 April 1936 – 17 October 2012)


Last week, the tragic news came through that Koji Wakamatsu had passed away during the night of Wednesday 17 October at the age of 76, having been hit by a taxi the previous Friday, 12 October. Though the Japanese media initially reported that his wounds were not life-threatening, he never regained consciousness during the time he spent in hospital.

One hesitates to resort to such stock words as 'legendary' to describe this larger than life personality, as a number obituaries have already done. However, in this case, I believe it is apt. Long before the relatively recent resurgence of interest in the director, the name Koji Wakamatsu was already one to be reckoned with, certainly among those with more than a passing interest in Japanese film. He was one of those rare directors of his generation about whom you could convincingly put up an argument that the recent work was just as challenging and powerful as that from the beginning of his career, and also just as politically engaged and relevant, if not more.

By some bizarre quirk of fate, it was Wakamatsu who provided me with a very early and particularly perplexing introduction to the cinema of Japan when I witnessed a rare screening of Violated Angels (1967), his ad-hoc abstract allegory for First World imperialism inspired by the massacre of eight student nurses in America, on a double bill with Shohei Imamura’s 1983 Cannes Grand Prix winner The Ballad of Narayama at London’s sorely-missed Scala Cinema in the late 1980s. Who says a film can’t change a person’s life?

Often described in such terms as enfant terrible or agent provocateur, it is perhaps no wonder that the French took his work more seriously than the Anglophone community, who are traditionally rather less comfortable with overt sexuality and left-wing politics. He’s been the subject of numerous retrospectives, studies and DVD releases in France, but this side of the channel, not very much at all.

And yet this director of well over a hundred films was hardly just the preserve of fans of obscure cult or underground cinema. Let us not forget he was one of the producers attached to surely one of the best-known Japanese titles of its era in the West, Nagisa Oshima’s controversial In the Realm of the Senses (1976). He had in recent years been a regular guest at A-list festivals such as Cannes, Berlin and Venice, where his films won a number of awards. His late-career masterpiece, United Red Army (2007), was named as one of the 30 most important films of the past decade in the February 2010 edition of Sight and Sound – and yet shockingly never received any form of distribution in the UK beyond a single screening at London Film Festival in 2008. And to cap it all, just two weeks prior to his death, the 76-year-old director had been named Asian Filmmaker of the Year at Busan International Film Festival.

The relative lack of regard for the passing of a creative figure who has been active and at the forefront of his field for five decades says more about the West’s selective relationship with Eastern culture than it does about Wakamatsu’s significance in Japanese film history. Wakamatsu’s films certainly weren’t 'pretty' in the way that more highbrow art critics expect Japanese films to be. He began his career in the low budget eroduction genre (later to become more widely referred to as the pink film), the type of film considered an anathema to contemporary cultural commentators of a certain era. They were more direct yet, at the same time, rather less obvious, dare I say it, than those made by the more eloquent and conspicuously intellectual Nagisa Oshima, the elected spokesman for Japanese youth culture and politics among contemporary international art elites during the 1960s. They were a lot more fun too. But they required a contextualization for Western viewers that few would have deigned to give them at the time.

picture: Koji Wakamatsu

And then there was the subversive political content. While Wakamatsu made films in the eroduction genre, they were hardly typical of it, and less and less so as he began to pick up other interesting collaborators such as Chusei Sone, Atsushi Yamatoya and, in particular, Masao Adachi, in the latter half of the decade. His liaisons with those in radical leftist movements who would later become wanted for some truly horrendous crimes have also proved cause for some wariness - but how close were these connections, exactly? The question still remains, though, if the harsh portrayals of certain individuals in United Red Army are anything to go by, Wakamatsu’s view of those who threw in their lot for the revolution was cynical at best. At the same time his films were very much a part of this scene, providing both a critical comment and a vivid record of it, and an almost uncanny portent to its excesses.

My own overview of Wakamatsu’s career has been published at Sight and Sound online, so rather than go over the facts of his life again, I would like here to offer a more subjective recollection, from the viewpoint of the closest he had to an English-language biographer. I will not claim to have known him at all well on a personal basis. I was not part of his narrative in the same way other people I know closer to him were. On at least two of the several occasions on which I was introduced to him as "Jasper", he made the connection with the French director who was a big fan of his work - Gaspar No&eacut;.

I’ll be honest, I also sensed a slight uneasiness in our encounters once Behind the Pink Curtain had been published, although I may have imagined it. I assumed it was because he knew I had written about him, but not being able to read English, was not entirely sure what exactly it was I had written. In truth, however, he probably never gave such things that much thought. I remember him saying on the first time we met that he didn’t know what any foreigner writer, be they Donald Richie, Noel Burch, or David Desser, had ever said about him, nor did he seem to care. I had very much the strong feeling he just got on and did things, and did them his own way, regardless of critical admiration or opprobrium, either from within or outside of his own country.

The other thing I did become very much aware of when writing the chapters on his career (compiled from a combination of my own interviews and those conducted by others over the years) was that he was an incredibly mercurial and complex person. Trying to gain some insight into his personality and his motivation by way of the collage of quotes about him and his work by Western critics proved very difficult. I was reminded, however, by a comment Donald Richie made when I interviewed him back in 2003, about directors not being particularly interesting people due to them being so caught up in the immediate requirements of casting and looking for money for whatever the current or next project is. I tend increasingly to agree with this sentiment, the more directors I meet or interview. But Wakamatsu certainly bucked this trend.

Wakamatsu just seemed so distinct and outside of the type of personality profile I would usually associate with filmmaking. He was a filmmaker by vocation not profession, drawn by the power of the medium to communicate, not the glamour or artistic posturing associated with it. If he hadn’t become a filmmaker, one struggles to wonder what he might have become. You can be sure it wouldn’t have been a 'failed filmmaker' or a 'wannabe filmmaker'. I’m struggling to find a parallel, but the closest I can come to is someone like Ken Russell, who was similarly championed by a younger generations of cinephiles but who also passed away this year without receiving the due recognition by the establishment of his own country. The content of their films perhaps couldn’t be more different, nor their backgrounds, but I think what they shared was a certain vision, and a sheer uncompromising bloody-mindedness to do things their own way.

Of the few times I met him (an interview or two in Tokyo, several times in Nippon Connection when he was a guest there, and the last time in Thessaloniki, where I programmed a pink retrospective in 2009, and where United Red Army was also screened), the first in 2005, around about the time of his return to more a more personal style of filmmaking with Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw (2004), was by far the most memorable. I wrote about it in the opening paragraph of an article that later got published in Vertigo magazine in 2007, entitled Sex, Violence and Politics – Japanese Style. It began:

"In a quiet corner in one of the tiny nomiya drinking establishments in the crowded warren that is Tokyo’s Golden Gai area, I sit listening attentively to the greying figure seated opposite. He avoids eye contact, staring into the middle distance as he talks yet remaining attentive enough to ensure my glass is kept generously topped up from the shochu bottle by his side. His conversation wanders through details of a life of almost seven decades, of experiences more than a lifetime removed from my own: a brief spell in Hachioji Prison during the early 60s following his involvement with a local yakuza group shortly his arrival in Tokyo from his small provincial hometown in the north; the quirk of fate that led to Secret Acts Behind Walls, the low-budget sex film he directed, being screened at the 1965 Berlin International Film Festival, causing quite the furor back at home that saw him becoming one of the most successful independent producers of the decade; his difficulties sneaking the notorious pro-Palestinian documentary PFLP: Declaration of War past the authorities and onto university campuses during the early 70s; his time spent hanging out with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the 1972 Cannes film festival where he was accompanying Nagisa Oshima as part of the Japanese delegation, and how this in turn led to his role as one of the producers on Oshima’s best-known film, the controversial French-Japanese co-production of The Realm of the Senses that saw its director on trial for obscenity in his home country."

What I didn’t mention in the article was that towards the end of our conversation, a man of similar age who had been sitting at the other end of the otherwise empty bar, listening studiously to my host referring to himself in the third person, got up and wandered over to join us, his opening gambit: "So, you know Koji Wakamatsu, then?" It turns out that this character had been very much part of the radical scene of the late 60s and had known Wakamatsu and his colleagues from around this time - although clearly not well enough to recognize him four decades on. They spoke about Adachi, who had only returned to Japan a few years previously, and the stranger told of his own parallel story, about how he had ended up heading to North Vietnam in the 1970s, in search of his own role in the revolution, before returning in recent years to run a nearby bar in the area. "I heard Wakamatsu has retired to Nagoya to run a cinema," he announced, "and now just spends his time playing pachinko all day." The conversation began to draw to a close, ending with the parting ritual of the meishi exchange in which this former associate finally divulged his identity, only to be battered down with the rejoinder "Koji Wakamatsu!", as the unruffled director coolly handed over his own business card, and sent him scuttling back into the corner.

A fair amount of alcohol passed our lips that night, but what struck me most was his energy and passion when talking about film. He looked like he still had years of life in him. It was a fun experience, simultaneously enlightening yet bewildering. As we left the bar, Wakamatsu immediately jumped on his pushbike and cycled off into the darkness of Shinjuku. My immediate thought was "That looks a bit dangerous…."