- 4 December 2007
by Tom Mes
Koji Wakamatsu needs little introduction. But if the earlier works of this pink film pioneer have conquered their place in the pantheon, it's less well known that he continues to make movies that touch the sore spots of Japan's post-war history. His latest epic, United Red Army (Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama Sanso e no Michi), an engrossing, three-hour plus retelling of the final days of the titular terrorist group and the famed Asama-sanso hostage case, is a film that fills in some of the blanks in the officially sanctioned accounts of history.
This interview took place in the fall of 2007 in Paris, where Wakamatsu was promoting the French release of one of his classic films, The Embryo Hunts in Secret (which was scripted by his old cohort Masao Adachi). Having an already turbulent past, the film quickly became something of a cause célèbre, when the French censor board gave it the local equivalent of an X-rating. This not only barred anyone under 18 from seeing it, but also drastically limited the film's distribution and commercial potential, with restrictions on DVD release, television broadcast, etc.
You've been back and forth to Europe several times over the past eighteen months or so, which struck me because I remember you used to have difficulties obtaining visas for certain countries.
Yes, that was because of my various stays in Palestine. I remember one occasion when I came to France to shoot a music video. We arrived at Orly airport and every crew member and all our equipment was allowed through customs, except for me. They stopped me, took me to Charles de Gaulle airport and put me on a plane straight back to Tokyo. They first discovered the $50,000 cash I was carrying on me. Then when they checked their computers they found that I had ties with the Red Army, so they immediately suspected that I was going to deliver all this money to Red Army members. They only started listening to me once I got an interpreter and explained to them that I was a filmmaker and that I had produced In the Realm of the Senses.
These days, with the European Union, it's gotten easier. On this trip they didn't even check my passport properly. But it's true that I still can't get into the USA, Russia, and Australia to this day. Aside from those three countries I can basically go where I like.
How does it feel to see The Embryo Hunts in Secret find a new and appreciative audience so far and so long from its place of birth?
Nobody took the film seriously after I'd made it. Most people said it was rather mediocre, in fact. It took me five years to actually get it released in Japan. That's how long it took for people to grasp what I was on about. In the movie I talk about the relationship between those in power and the people, but I do it through the relationship between a man and a woman. I didn't address any political issues directly, but I'm sure most viewers will understand what the film is trying to say. You could give it a more philosophical reading if you were so inclined, but it's not a difficult or complicated film. I mostly wanted to talk about politics, but without judging what's right and what's wrong.
In the 1960s, The Embryo Hunts in Secret caused a bit of a scandal at a festival in Belgium. Back then you said that people would come to understand the film better in the future. It looks like you were right.
That's true, they even threw raw eggs at the screen. Some people got up to stop the projection, so there was this crowd gathering in front of the screen. Then there were others who wanted to see the movie and they started launching those eggs at the protesters. Yoko Ono was also at that festival, with her movie about one hundred women's bottoms. She was so poor she begged me to let her sleep in my hotel room. To thank me, she gave me some grass. I discovered marihuana thanks to Yoko Ono.
How did you experience that incident, you as a filmmaker who likes to provoke his audience in order to get a reaction from them?
I thought it was better to have a ruckus like that, with two very polarized opinions, than to have everyone agree. Consensus is boring. It was really fascinating to see such diverse reactions. When I see now how people react to my new movie about the United Red Army, where everybody just finds it "interesting", I must admit feeling disappointed.
It's true that nobody throws eggs at movie screens anymore, but even a touchy subject like the Red Army doesn't provoke any strong reactions anymore?
Directors and producers in Japan all hope to receive funding from the Ministry of Culture. It's logical that they should follow the ministry's guidelines, but it leads to boring films. Pretty soon there will be no more films like mine in Japan. The money for that fund comes out of taxpayers' pockets, but the committee that takes the decision which projects to support is made up of various industry figures: directors, producers, scriptwriters, etc. I call them illiterate, because they have no idea how to read a screenplay, they don't have a clue how two directors can bring entirely different visions to a similar storyline or subject. These committee members are puppets of the ministry. They use the people's money, but they act like it's their own.
I am a member of the Directors' Guild of Japan. My colleagues in that organization had heard that I was making a film about the United Red Army, and they told me they really wanted to see it. So I set up a special screening, but I told them they had to pay for their tickets. Aside from Sogo Ishii and a handful of others, most of them declined. Those guys are idiots, parasites. They are useless and I have every intention of continuing my struggle against them.
In that sort of climate, what are your plans for your film United Red Army?
I will self-distribute it and handle all the promotional aspects too. It will be shown in one theatre in Tokyo, in Shinjuku. In Nagoya I will show it at the movie theatre I own there at least until March of 2008. After that it will play around the country. We've got Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Okayama, Sapporo, and Niigata already lined up. Once you have a hit in smaller theatres, the multiplexes start to show an interest. That's what happened with Aleksandr Sokurov's movie about Emperor Hirohito, The Sun. It made 300 million yen that way, starting out in a tiny number of small cinemas. Also, that theatre in Shinjuku recently scored well with two documentaries, an American one called Hiroshima, and another on the battle of Okinawa called Himeyuri.
I want the Japanese people to see this film. Those who remember the period will surely be moved by it, but I want young people to see it above all. The film talks about the years between 1960 and 1972, the things that really happened. Kids don't know about these things, because they're not treated in their school textbooks. In the 60s you had the assassinations of Kennedy and Malcolm X, you had the Vietnam War, May 68, Mao in China, all these major events happening around the world. In Tokyo we had the Shinjuku riots, when students stopped a transport of material destined for the US Army in Vietnam. Some of those young people ended up going to North Korea, others wound up in Palestine, and the ones that stayed behind formed the United Red Army. They holed themselves up in a mountain lodge, which became the famous Asama-sanso case. It's a simple story, I guess, but I wanted to record it and pass it on to others. I saw that movie The Choice of Hercules, directed by Masato Harada. What he shows is completely wrong. Film has the power to influence people, and they're going to believe that that's what really happened. I wanted to present my take on the story, which is why I put all my money into this film. I mortgaged both my houses and spent more than 100 million yen. But I will do everything in my power to have this movie make back at least ten times that amount.
I heard you used your own country house as the stand-in for the Asama lodge.
Yes. The story required that I destroy it for the filming of the police siege, so that's what I did. I leveled my own house to make this film.
You said the people who remember the period will be very moved by your film. But those people are all responsible citizens now. They've left whatever ideology they had behind them.
Yes, they live like nothing happened. That's the generation that lived through the bubble era and also experienced its burst. It's a big group of people, and if one in ten comes to see my film, I'd be happy. In the sixties, when they were young, it was easy to express your dissatisfaction. You could go out into the streets and demonstrate. Today if you do something like that, express your discontent in public, you'll get arrested much more quickly. Back then, we threw stones when we were angry. When I meet kids today, I tell them they should throw stones while they're young, because they won't do it when they grow up. But nobody does that sort of thing anymore. Maybe today's kids are more conservative in the sense that they think more about their individual futures. They figure that if they want a good job later, it's better to not get in trouble today.
It's interesting that the student activists of the 1960s were all from well-off, middle-class families. They weren't poor. When you're poor, you are too busy worrying about surviving. Even finding a bowl of rice to eat is a struggle in itself. But when you're a little better off, you have time to spend on things like activism. It's something for the young, though. When you have a job and kids, you can't go out throwing stones anymore.
Do you believe that movies are still an effective way to inform young people?
I'm not talking about education. What I'm after is telling the truth. Movies are entertainment, but that doesn't stop us from telling the truth through them. In Harada's film you get Beethoven on the soundtrack and Koji Yakusho as the chief of police. It's a hymn to the cops, but it was those same cops that pushed those kids to go as far as they did. If it's a profit you're after, there are other ways to make money than by making films. Me, I try to at least remain truthful when I make my films. Also, a true filmmaker doesn't make films from the point of view of those in power. To me, that's a fundamental rule: you have to make films from the perspective of the weak. Take Akira Kurosawa, for instance. His films were always about the downtrodden.
Those five young people that wound up at that mountain lodge swore an oath to never reveal what really happened in there. Two of the survivors are still in prison waiting for their death sentences to be carried out, a third committed suicide in jail, but another one managed to escape and flee to the Middle East. I met him there and he told me the whole story. With this movie I tried to get his words across as faithfully as possible. I didn't choose sides. My film doesn't condone what those students did, but it's also not on the side of the police. What I wanted to show was the truth. I wanted to show the history, what happened and why, how things changed. It's their history. It starts with the riots against the Anpo treaty and the rise in university tuition fees that was the actual reason for the students to unite and start protesting, and continues all the way up to the aftermath of Asama-sanso.
Knowing your own history, your neutrality will come as a surprise to many viewers expecting a political pamphlet.
I show the good sides, but also the bad sides of their actions. The truth is that they didn't have enough courage. That's the last line of dialogue in the movie. Once we get a bit of power, we start trying to consolidate it, because we are weak. That happened here too. The head of the United Red Army wanted to stay in charge, that's why he had his own comrades killed. It's like Joseph Stalin. Such people are completely responsible for the consequences of their actions, but at the same time their wish to stay in power is understandable, which also makes them very tragic. So both the victims and the perpetrators are tragic.
Does your film have any relation to the long-rumored Red Army movie that Kazuhiko Hasegawa has been planning to make?
The two films have nothing to do with each other, but I did show Hasegawa my film. I wanted to hear his reaction, but he didn't say anything. I did hear recently that he is now seriously preparing that film. He's been working on it off and on for twenty years now, so I assume that seeing my film gave him the motivation he needed to finally get the ball rolling, out of a healthy sense of rivalry. I also showed my movie to Yoichi Sai. Afterward he invited me to a drink and he ended up buying me two bottles of Dom Perignon.
Do you think that you've had an influence on today's young filmmakers?
There are quite a few directors that saw my films when they were students and then decided to start making films themselves, because they felt they could do at least as well. Before I came along, you had to have a degree to become a director. The only place I ever graduated from was a country high school where they taught you how to be a farmer. My career inspired a lot of young people who otherwise could never have hoped to become filmmakers the old-fashioned way.
How did you feel about Shinzo Abe stepping down as Prime Minister?
The first time I saw his face on TV, I was convinced he was going to end up killing himself. I had a feeling that he wasn't going to complete his term, but I thought he was going to commit suicide instead of resign. His father and grandfather were politicians, and I think he wasn't capable of filling their shoes. It's the family curse.
The family curse. Those words sum up Japan's political arena and its problems very succinctly.
Most of our politicians are the children and grandchildren of politicians. Anyone with a half a brain can see that nothing is going to change in our country under those conditions.