Primer - Dangerous Liberation: The Japanese New Wave of the 60’s and 70’s

Wakamatsu: Lyricism Amid Exploitation

More accessible, both in terms of availability and as conceptual works, are the films of Koji Wakamatsu, one of the more popular and controversial directors of the New Wave. In films like The Embryo Hunts in Secret (1966), which graphically portrays a twisted sado-masochistic “romance,” and Ecstasy of the Angels (1972), Wakamatsu gives us a populist, sensationalized, more sex/action-oriented take on the emerging leftist, liberative urges rousing young Japanese and disrupting societal norms. Ecstasy involves a subversive political group, who are anonymous to each other except for an elaborate and poetic structure of code names (based on the seasons – which creates some fascinating dialogue in itself), who maneuver against the government and each other while also becoming entangled not only on the battlefield of night raids and secret missions, but also in bed. The collective mission splinters and then implodes into a mess of ambition and paranoia, as sex and violence are used as weapons internally amongst activists who come to represent the same evils they purport to fight against.

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Ecstasy reiterates the precariousness of movements aimed at liberation: the ideals of a new egalitarian community subverted by the seduction of power and ego, the confusion of romance with mission, the resort to violence that gets out of control, and the naivete of youth caught between wanting change and not knowing what to do with it once achieved (familiar themes across international cinema, then and now, when it comes to the era’s militant Left – from the recent acclaimed saga The Baader Meinhof Complex to the underground America film Ice to the 1997 Japanese shocker Kichiku: Banquet of the Beast, about a group very reminiscent of the one in Ecstasy). Like Jissoji, Wakamatsu focuses on the follies, excesses, tragedies, and skewed idealism of a rebellious era, but he is not as artistically ambitious or serious as the former, and cannot match the skill or vision of films like Mandara. Rather, his works are an entertaining, odd brew: pulp elements – soft-core sex and violent action, sometimes mixed together – embedded in the context of social upheaval, but obviously intended for titillation – that nevertheless contain touches of cinematic experimentation, visual boldness, and meaning more akin to auteurs like Jissoji.

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For instance, Running in Madness, Dying in Love (1969), which precedes Ecstasy but is far more mature both in emotional weight and narrative, tells the story of two lovers on the run after a wife murders her traditional-minded, tyrannical husband and flees society symbolically and literally with his embattled brother. Like Ecstasy, it too has a generous dose of fairly explicit sexual sequences; but here, they are tied to genuine passion and a desperation evocative of the time (one thinks of the desolate loneliness of people on the run in Coppola’s film The Rain People, released the same year). The two lead performances are moving and convincing, and the romantic passages, although certainly perverse and off-kilter, attain moments of genuine lyricism.

Even Go, Go, Second Time Virgin (1969), a sordid tale about a gang of hippie rapists and the effects of their violence upon a female victim’s psyche, in which Wakamatsu largely succumbs to his simpler, more sensationalistic impulses – contains enough moments of artistry and pathos to simultaneously frustrate those hoping for a pure kinkfest or those simply seeking affecting cinema; similarly, Violated Angels (1967), about a group of nurses held hostage by a sadistic madman with a gun in their dormitory, is bound to consternate fans of both trash and art: certainly exploitative, sometimes shamelessly so, it nevertheless opens with a striking montage of still black and white erotic photographs that again parallels Jissoli’s avant-garde approach, and features effective eerie dream sequences and other touches outside the purview of the usual crop of the pinku (Japanese sexploitation) genre.

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A tremendously successful commercial force in the industry at the time, Wakamatsu is an auteur partly caught between his instincts for the garish potboiler or seat-filler filled with moaning women and gunplay, and his interests in the more subtle human dilemmas and anxieties behind sex, violence and revolution. Both Jissoji and Wakamatsu continued to be prolific filmmakers well beyond the New Wave, continuing their fascination with sex, violence, experimentation and general weirdness. Even a children’s series Jissoli produced in the later 1970s, Utamaro’s World, is renowned for its unnerving, surreal qualities, and boundary-breaking style.

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