“The fundamental theme is: how to change the world, and what is it that needs to be changed? Reflecting on the present situation through the medium of an era already past, I came to believe that Osugi’s problems continue to be ours.” – Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida, Cahiers du Cinema, Oct 1970.
Writing on Eros + Massacre, Yoshida’s 1969 abstract epic, will be an incomplete task by its’ end. I say this not only due to my own limitations as a writer to grapple fully with the range of historical context and the extremely intricate construction/style. I say this because Yoshida’s film is like a maelstrom in the sea, the currents of past, present and future swirling around each other in an ocean which contains them all. If an artwork or a film begins to sprawl out, it becomes tougher to comprehend; to remember, to be sure or confident in the judgements you make concerning any analytical or emotional responses/interpretations. Conventional cinematic viewing can often lead to two responses to material which you don’t understand; hostility or reluctance to speak at all. For several reasons I’m sure, Yoshida’s films have travelled in high places but their release and exposure to the wider mainstream of cinema and it’s viewers has been largely invisible throughout common film education. In fact, until I saw Eros + Massacre, I was not aware a Japanese New Wave in cinema even existed.
So I am grateful to Arrow Video’s work in restoring the film (alongside others) in a 2017 release. I am also grateful that Yoshida’s work has managed to travel continually in some form, because that maelstrom you experience when watching the film is reflective of the same one we live in continously. By design, Eros +Massacre takes the alternating streams of conflicting histories, narratives we tell ourselves, and half-remembered reveries and unleashes them through the screen, releasing a dam of cinematic forms that has been continually choked by the need to fix a singular narrative in place, a singular plot with a singular story. In a film concerned with what it means in the present when we try to construct ‘a usable past’, it is difficult to cope with a visual presentation closer to the real life experience of our own, consciously navigating ourselves through societies different conflicting accounts of “what really happened”, “who really did what”, “why did that happen the way it did?”. History is built from the ruins of the present, interpretations from different arenas of society (with differing amounts of pressure), and the narrative channelings of any one human writer looking to find out why things are the way they are. To put this onscreen is no easy task.
So my writings on Eros + Massacre will forever remain incomplete, and I think Yoshida would be contented to know that. At the very least, love and its’ limitless potentials combined with its’ consequences, is a good place to start.
It feels strange to pick a starting point when discussing the film, if only because it’s reflecting the film’s own obsession over how malleable the temporal world that we navigate can be. Eros + Massacre starts in the 1960s, but it’s tracing a circle back to the 1910s/20s, where the principal characters are displaced by their visions of the future, and the actors of the present are grasping the sands of the past running through their fingers.
Pinning the story to the wall reveals some facts, Eiko (Toshiko Ii) and Wada (Daijirō Harada) are two students in the late 60s, adrift in the modern cosmopolis of Tokyo. Beginning with an interview, Eiko spends much of the runtime trying to make sense of her past, and her relationship to her mother Itō Noe, who was involved in the feminist and social upheaval happening in Japan in the late Meji and Taishō periods of history. She was also involved with Ōsugi Sakae (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), a radical Japanese anarchist who entertained three simultaneous couplings; one with his wife Yaruko Hori, one with journalist Kamichika Ichiko (played by Yûko Kusunoki, she is referred to in the film as Masaoka Itsuko due to the real Ichiko attempting to sue Yoshida for violation of privacy which led to a theatrical recut for release), and one with Itō Noe (played by Mariko Okada). He did this through a radical profession of free love, in the denial of the self and of the social pressures enforced on society through monogamous coupling and private property ownership. His philosophy was in conflict with the state pressure and forces of Japanese politics, but also at odds with the desires of each of the women he was in relation to. It is from this pool of love, politics, philosophy and time that Eros + Massacre spends it’s time swimming in.
To try and separate the stories in order to make better coherence of them, is precisely what Yoshida’s construction is designed to resist. The histories of this time are thrown together in parallel, at times bleeding into the reality of each other with such actuality that the timelines and their characters quite literally unify together in the same space on screen. Eiko is subject to the role of the interviewee from the beginning, the camera (and by extension its’ operator Wada) becoming a cypher for our own way into this world, but Eiko also becomes the interviewer and tries her best to get answers from her mother, who’s enigmatic appearance reveals only enigmatic answers.
To be living in the present means you do not have full access to the past, and cinema for a long time has carefully glided over that fact by creating an external frame to witness the events of the past, which are in fact only interpretations filtered down through the creative process that any film crew embarks on when producing a film. So the film continually investigates and re-investigates itself, freed from trying to pretend that the past is both fixed and fully accessible, the film is continually reflecting on the impressions and echoes of the positions we place ourselves in in our spatio-temporal existences, the echoes of the paths previously tread and the imagined ones we have yet to walk.
All of this sounds very metaphysical, and that is perhaps because it is. One of the struggles of trying to give shape to writing about this film, is the very fact that it wants to be oriented in this tangle of metaphysical tensions. It’s revolutionary bent in style and substance means the film is a chaotic mass of roots growing downwards, it’s divisions only allowing you to see the more complex relations between each strand. Take the monumental work of cinematography in the film (fulfilled by Hasegawa Genkichi), which contains some truly exquisite and deft compositions. It’s long focus and depth of field means the surroundings are filled with an atmosphere of the Japanese architecture, a sense of understanding is built between the environment and the people who inhabit it. The compositions themselves then not only possess a treasured sense of environmental scale lost in modern cinema, but the compositions are radically de-centred; they resist being images easy to process, reflecting the turbulent and complicated relations between the characters they are not easily found on screen, lurking in the corners of frames or partially shielded from view.
This grows as the architecture becomes an active element in the environment; characters are reflected through windows and mirrors as they speak to each other heightening their fractured distance; they burst continuously from shōji (Japanese paper-style walls) appearing from hidden pockets and frames within the cinematic one. But this is the cinematography only of the earlier period, and the shooting style of the 60s era embraces the nouvelle vague‘s more confrontational camera work, of a more direct exposé of the characters onscreen. Here Wada and Eiko are not just subjecting themselves to the looming stare of the long spiral of history, but they are in the throes of confronting themselves and their own gazes. So the cinematography expands here, visual extremism as the analysis digs and digs in the ruins of time. Eiko even has the past projected onto her literally through a screen projector, as she confronts Wada on notions of love, manhood and the gap between desire and fulfillment of them.
As the film progresses, that visual extremism or dynamism starts to affect the more traditionally composed cinematography of the past sections building upon it even further. The film’s most reknowned sequence is a tri-part replication of the Hikage Teahouse Incident, where Kamichika Ichiko stabbed Ōsugi Sakae after discovering him living with Noe. The tri-part, comes from it going over different depictions of how the event could have taken place, each version of events with its focus and dynamics shifted. Here the camera bleeds through an abstraction of archaic stage-play kabuki theatrics, classical cinematography and the more experimental angles of it’s present day focus and artistry. The past becomes the present reflected through the past, and all of these complicated tensions never unify into a single position; the variants and perceptions of history are shrugged off by Eiko (complaining that the incident may never have even happened), and so too the cinematographical strands are left untied into a neat knot. The cinematography fuses together in the moments of brilliant experience when the story is being encountered, but it refuses to contain itself to the limits of past/present/future. It is all those at once, and more.
Do you see why it is difficult to talk about Eros + Massacre? Even now I’m reflecting back the film’s own concerns with its’ presentation. As Eiko and Wada submerge themselves into the stream of the world around them, the film does the same. It concerns itself so much with its’ own construction it even exposes it, a sequence where the director and camera set up is shown initiating Eiko and Wada into their next scene. Their world is inextricably linked to the celluloid reality they’re being burned onto by Yoshishige and his editor Yasuoka Hiroyuki. By the end of the film, not only have all the characters come together across space and time to be preserved in a photograph (“a monument for the future”), but characters in both the past and present have simultaneously commited suicide and reached death and still possess life onscreen, one even hanging themselves with the celluloid and embracing that reality to a deliriously surreal conclusion. The film opens out like a puzzle box, where not even the conventions of mortal life need to necessarily be respected or entertained as they so often are in conventional cinema. You cannot throw off these boundaries, it is not that Yoshida’s work isn’t interested in them. It is more that the work approaches them and explores them intimately through film, a form which isn’t necessarily bound by the limitations of the human form.
Once you move through that, you then can see the huge chasm that is being carved into the psyche when the film communicates on love, on politics, on the massacre between them. Yoshida’s position on these matters is a culmination of the thought and ideals of those real historical figures for sure, but they are also very much his own. Grown from the environment of the 1960s, a time when across the globe cinema was experiencing an internal revolution in how to portray itself. So the theories of Ōsugi on free love are placed in chronic opposition to his undermined sense of self, as well as his betrayal of revolutionary ideals to become an informer. Itō Noe’s genuine desires of self-realisation are undercut by her inability to free herself from the tangles of her own pride and her love with Ōsugi, or rather than undercut they are simply challenged by. Itsuko (real life- Ichiko) listens to Ōsugi’s words, we can hear her agreeing with his philosophies even though you can see in her face that she does not believe them and it drives her to madness. Eiko’s ambition to make sense of her past can’t be fully reconciled with the impossibility of ever fully knowing what happened or even why. And all of this takes place against the barely visible backdrop of that metaphysical conversation of being both in society and of it, the white gloved hands of the state slowly grasping tighter around the necks of those who radically rebel against its’ structures.
I’m sure there are plenty of “answers” out there written by critics and academics alike on what the content of Eros + Massacre means, and I’m sure that plenty of those reasoned pieces provide valuable insight into how the film manifests meanings that are difficult to explain in language. But Yoshida’s masterpiece is a contemplation on the limits of love without end, and it is designed to flow through you and fill you with understanding, before closing it’s doors until you decide to enter again (quite literally!). For me to have written a piece which could ever claim to answer these questions in full, would be blind to the negation of self that Yoshida seems transfixed by in this film and the answers that can be felt when moving beyond the ego. There is wisdom in the film, but it is on you to define and shape it into a usable experience for your world, just like Eiko wants to create a usable past out of the infinite fragments and permutation of the human experience.
I would never fully claim to understand it, and I don’t need to claim to mindlessly agree with the full extent of its politics and discourse to show you it is worth watching. It is a film born in a maelstrom, its’ characters whipped and thrown through the seas of time and culture and memory and dreams. They are placed in the infinite set of tensions created by our own complex and ever-evolving desires; our reason, our regrets and our ambitions. All of which continues to evolve moment-by-moment against or with the society around us, and the lies and truths we tell to each other, to ourselves, to the world. Even in love, one of our most freeing feelings we can experience, we still cannot make sense of its’ complicated edges, the way our personalities can hold conflicting dissonances and enable us to repress our desires through multiple layers of filtration (society, lover’s egos, our own sense of self and how honest we can be etc.). If Yoshida’s film was the defining statement on these matters, we could all go home and rest easy, but Eros + Massacre is borne of a restless current, of a train surging forward from one side of the screen to the next.
So I leave the work here, incomplete and in ruins. And there is a humbling sense of peace in that, like Tsuji Jun (Etsushi Takahashi), Itō Noe’s second husband who she leaves for Ōsugi. He weathers this storm of life in the film, retreating into his shakuhachi (Japanese flute) playing as a way to cope with love leaving his world. Maybe there is more wisdom in this path, maybe less. Maybe the value of his choice is not dependent on how good or bad it is, but simply that it is at all. Maybe that is all we should ask from ourselves, from our art. It might not answer every question, and it might demand more from us in the future, but perhaps that at least might be a good place to start.
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