[The following was originally written for Cinelogue. I've edited and changed a few things, but otherwise this is the same article.]
Why has revolution not swept the West in recent years as it did in the ’60s? We’re engaged in two wars (now potentially three) to the sole conflict in Vietnam, civil rights remain an issue, and the world economy is vastly worse than the prosperity of the mid-‘60s. Maybe that’s the reason: people don’t have enough money to go play Maoist and instead have to fight just to keep a crap apartment or a house someone assured them they could afford.
Perhaps our relative sexual freedom is the issue. One of the major demands of practically every national youth movement in the sixties was the demand for coeducation, a call for the end of repressive gender segregation. Student riots in America, Japan, France and elsewhere began on such terms and soon exploded into larger sociopolitical stances against the status quo. While Godard and Marke pieced together the remains of these leftist uprisings in their direct and indirect treatises on May ’68, Japanese New Wave director Yoshishige Yoshida traced the revolution back to its unlikely source, and in the process he revealed how the personal and political overlapped.
Eros + Massacre is a film of collapsing dialectics, as if the two magnetic poles of the Earth suddenly shot through the core and stuck together, obliterating the planet’s axis and causing an implosion. This annihilation is reflected in the film's aggressive aesthetic. The overexposed lighting, bright to the point of obscurity, gives the film an apocalyptic feel, as if filmed in the afterglow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Over the course of its three and a half hours, Yoshida’s film shatters nearly every barrier between past and present, fiction and reality, theory and practice, even as it stresses the distance between people. As with May ’68, the political situation that informs Yoshida’s contemporaneous present is as much personal and political, dealing directly with the political implications of the free love movement on traditional gender roles and even the social building block of the nuclear family. The students in France shut down colleges demanding coeducation, while the radical students in the film’s present reflect upon the life of Sakae Ôsugi, an anarchist-leftist living in post-WWI Japan and setting forth the philosophy of free love.
The principle student, Eiko, reads up on Osugi’s life as she pursues her own attempt at a sexually liberated life. When she first appears in the flesh, she’s having sex with Unema, a young filmmaker who inexpertly paws all over her as another man, the pyromaniac Wada, casually enters and reads a newspaper as if nothing’s happening. His boredom matches Eiko’s own, and when her lover finishes, she goes into the shower and masturbates to finish herself off. As she does so, the film flashes back to the 1910s to follow Osugi’s story. At once, Yoshida aligns the film’s structure to the same personal/political harmony of Osugi’s preaching, and he toys with that dichotomy for the remainder of the film.
That Eiko’s mind should wander to romantic shots of cherry blossoms in full bloom to frame her thoughts on Osugi’s teachings suggests a passion for the anarchist’s philosophy that goes beyond mere political agreement. Indeed, what makes Eros + Massacre so singular is how directly it deals not with history but historiography, the study of how history itself comes to be. While we first meet Eiko in the nude in her bedroom, she first “appears” as the disembodied, interrogating voice using an actress to project questions at the daughter of Noe Ito, one of Osugi’s mistresses and the one to die by his side when police assassinated him in the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. The blatant falsity of the set up—a black box of infinite darkness with blinding light peeking through a window as the student questions a facsimile of someone actually tied to the story—demonstrates the separation from fact and Eiko’s interpretation of it.
Each time period uses a different style: the flashbacks of Osugi’s life are stately, immaculately composed, and they reveal a quintessentially Japanese approach to film as painting. The present-day scenes, however, are radically framed; shots are off-center, tilted too far up or down or panned too far away from the action. These shots adhere to the rule of thirds but in unorthodox ways. A shot that would make for a great close-up instead shows a character walking into that close-up, turning careful composition against itself to reveal the falsity of a pleasing image. Radical content, as they say, demands radical form, and Yoshida displays a keen knowledge of traditional film theory as he precisely flays it to pieces.
Linking the two timelines is the use of lines within the frame to divide and isolate characters. In a film about free love, where Marx and Freud rub shoulders (and perhaps other body parts), people look alone even when mere feet from another human being. Visually, Yoshida undermines Osugi’s philosophy long before the anarchist comes to despise and reject his own theories. Osugi is the first modern proponent of free love, a notion that breaks down social structure at its most basic, an especially devastating cultural shift in a deeply filial society like Japan’s. However much Osugi wants to craft a new world order on an intimate scale—and that may be giving him too much credit, as he seems only to enjoy the chance to bed as many women as he can—all he manages to do is alienate people from each other by removing the social ties that people use to interact with others.
After all, if Osugi is the first to practice his philosophy in the modern age, he’s also the first person to suffer for it when his wife, Itsuko (the real woman’s name changed), stabs him in a lover’s spat over his other relationships. It is this failed assassination, more than the successful one conducted by police, that drives Eiko’s thoughts, and slowly Osugi’s story is revealed to be her interpretation of it. Eiko, unsatisfied with the love revolution, tries to parse out meaning from Osugi’s teachings, only to slowly take out her frustrations on him.
The initial transition from masturbatory interlude to nostalgic view of the past set the stage for a dreamy view of history, and Yoshida mines the depths of Resnais to craft a subtly, then overtly, oneiric film, one that fuses second-hand memory with idealistic explication until fact begins to slowly slip out of frame. The segues in the calm past begin to disrupt, moving from lilting shots of blossoms to a train rocking and blaring over nearby tracks, an invention that certainly existed at the time but seems too modern for Japan’s lingering feudal dress and architecture. Osugi’s ostensible feminism gives way to chauvinism as Eiko uncovers his flaws: he says everyone in a relationship should be self-sufficient, yet he relies on his wife’s money so he can sit around theorizing all day, coming up with facile, hollow gems like “People are born free. But despite this, or perhaps because of this, people fear freedom.” In the present, Eiko and her colleagues go over writings and rehearse dialogue as if putting on a show of the flashbacks we see. It adds a Rivette flavor to the film, using theatre and theatricality as a microcosm of the world, albeit one that always acknowledges the manipulating, unreal elements. (I especially enjoyed Unema’s directorial non-sequitur “Don’t smile! You’re models, not humans!”)
All these threads coalesce into a climactic staging of Itsuko’s stabbing of Osugi, which Yoshida, through Eiko, shows in three different iterations. The first version adheres to the historical record, Itsuko stabbing her lover in a fit of pique over his preference for another woman. It is a matter-of-fact moment, a quick stab and exeunt. The second version is far more theatrical: the actors talk more, openly discussing the failure of Osugi’s theory instead of playing out a moment of warped passion. In fact, in this variant, Osugi grasps Itsuko’s quivering, reluctant hand and forces the knife into himself, a more romantic death that permits the man to go out as a martyr instead of a failure.
But even that is not enough. The final version moves beyond alternate staging into full-on fiction. Instead of Itsuko, it is Noe Ito, the radical feminist and favorite lover of Osugi, who stabs him. Throughout the film, Yoshida has aligned Eiko with Noe, finding parallels between Noe’s contradictions (a feminist who demands to be in charge of her life but is defined by her two lovers) and Eiko’s (a proponent of “free” love who occasionally charges for sex). By having Noe stab Osugi, Eiko gets to symbolically strike him down for his failed ideas, upon which she assigns blame for her contemporary anger. Yoshida’s framing of this version is his most daring, using extreme-high-angle shots, avant-garde blocking and a downright Shakespearean dying monologue from Osugi to unleash Eiko’s anger in futile revisionism. As he collapses, Osugi seems happy to have been stabbed by Noe, as if it solves some conundrum he couldn’t work out.
As soon as the film returns from its intermission, the boundaries between present and past fade—Eiko takes a microphone and walks with Noe asking questions as if conducting an interview for that night’s news broadcast. But this triplicate envisioning of the turning point in Osugi’s life, the death of his ideals before his actual demise, breaks everything apart. Eiko, already visiting the past through Noe’s eyes, now becomes Noe, and the past at last collapses under the scrutiny and selective cultural memory even of those seeking to cut against the official history.
From that moment, Eros + Massacre maintains its steady pace but generally abandons all ties to traditional narrative. Coming down from her sexual/political cathartic orgasm, Eiko comes across the bodies of Osugi, Noe and Osugi’s young nephew arranged on a street with nooses around their necks, a counterpoint to the earlier black-box staging of their deaths in the same void room where the film opened. It also reminds Eiko of her own police pressure, as a detective hounds her the entire film about her prostitution.
Like Wada, Eiko toys with fire routinely in the film, trying unsuccessfully to burn Unema’s film strips and later setting her stockings ablaze before making love to Wada. The implication is clear: the radicals play with fire, loving to rock the boat but unaware of the consequences of their actions, and they’re as likely to be immolated as the world they seek to tear down.
In one scene with Osugi, a disillusioned devotee responds to Sakae’s dismissal of practical issues for more meditation by shouting, “That’s just intellectual masturbation. It accomplishes nothing!” For many, Eros + Massacre might seem much the same, an exercise in extreme Brechtianism that destroys everything in its path. That view is even further supported by the recurring theme of suicide in the film, which reaches its apex at the end when Unema, dejected by Eiko’s preference of Wada over him, makes a noose of 16mm film and hangs himself.
But that, of course, is the payoff. Placed in context with the disturbingly symmetrical arrangement of Osugi et al.‘s corpses and Eiko’s psychosexual release, eros and massacre finally join at this point, and Unema’s method of death naturally connotes the death of cinema as much as it does his political involvement or his lovelorn sorrow. By the same token, Eros + Massacre tears down so much the only thing left to do is rebuild. By being stripped to its foundations, film can reemerge more intricate and varied than ever thanks to Yoshida’s efforts. Then again, I don't think anyone had the ambition or skill to build off this little-seen masterpiece.
P.S. This film, by dint of its heady nature and lack of physical distribution, dwells in obscurity, but I begin to think that Allan Fish had the right idea when he proclaimed this the greatest film of cinema’s most experimental and intellectual decade.