Now, it’s generally a damn shame when anyone dies for whatever reason, but it’s especially vexing when an elderly person dies a violent death. I expect the elderly to die of heart attacks or strokes, and that’s what I initially assumed had happened when I saw the news that Wakamatsu had died. But nope, hit by a car.
Perhaps 76 is for filmmakers what 27 is for rock stars, because Wakamatsu’s death eerily parallels that of Greek master Theo Angelopoulos back in January of this year. Angelopoulos, also 76, was midway through shooting on a film about the Greek financial crisis when he made the risky decision to cross the street in Athens, and he was promptly struck by a motorcyclist and killed. Angelopoulos’s death—which again, is a damn shame in its own right, and I don’t want to trivialize it—but it seems emblematic of the collapse of Greek society. Just as Pablo Neruda’s death took on symbolic resonance when it occurred a few days after the 9/11/73 coup in Chile, so the death of Angelopoulos becomes invested with symbolic weight, as Angelopoulos was in many ways an exemplar of modern Greek art and culture, just as Neruda had been for Chile.
Wakamatsu’s death doesn’t have quite the same resonance, but it can still tell us certain things when placed in context. At a time when Japan finds its relations with its neighbors troubled (Senkaku, Dokdo, the pathological inability of Japanese politicians to stay the fuck away from the Yasukuni Shrine), Wakamatsu had just returned from the Busan International Film Festival in Korea, where he was named the Asian Filmmaker of the Year, the first Japanese filmmaker to be so honored (the NHK seems to have somehow won the prize in 2005, sort of like the EU winning the Nobel Prize for Peace, but that hardly counts). And Wakamatsu, throughout his career, was a vigorous enemy of the kind of nationalism and chauvinism by which the Japanese right has alienated Japan’s neighbors and maintained an unhealthy and thoroughly dubious relationship with Japan’s militaristic past.
Now, as I’ve said of Koji Wakamatsu in previous posts, few of his movies are currently available and in print on Region 1 DVD, so some of this is based on the testimony of others, but here are a few highlights from Wakamatsu’s career. In the mid-to-late ‘60’s, he made a serious of violent and subversive “pink films” (Japanese softcore-ish pornographic-ish films that invest far too much in extra-sexual matters to be mere pornography, but which definitely have the focus on sex-for-the-sake-of-sex that one associates with pornographic films). These films—with their frank sexuality and their focus on marginalized people in Japan—seemed to have followed in the tradition of the more “mainstream” (only in the sense of not being pink) movies of Shohei Imamura, who was once quoted as saying that he was interested in “the lower orders and their lower parts.”
In 1969, he “pulled a Godard” and became a Maoist, except with greater ballsiness (sp?) than the Franco-Swiss subversive. Godard may have paid lip service to Maoism and revolution, but in 1969 Wakamatsu collaborated on a film with Masao Adachi, one of the founding members of the Japanese Red Army who would go on to spend twenty eight years on the lam in Lebanon; this film, which is something of a manifesto for the terrorist group, has the glorious title of The Red Army/PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] Declaration of World War. Now, I don’t approve of Maoism or terrorism or any of that, but so few filmmakers have the opportunity to declare World War. Can you picture an American filmmaker today doing anything like that? Fuck, if asked to name a “radical” filmmaker, most Americans would probably name Michael fucking Moore (or they would misunderstand what was meant by radical and say “Quentin Tarantino.”)
In terms of films he actually directed, I don’t really know what Wakamatsu did between circa 1970 and 2008 (Criterion people, there’s an Eclipse Collection here, wink wink), although I do know that in 1976 he served as one of the producers on Nagisa Oshima’s seminal In the Realm of the Senses, which explores in graphic detail the themes of sex, violence, and rebellion that were so central to Wakamatsu’s oeuvre.
One of the things that’s so tragic about Wakamatsu’s death is that, in his seventies, he had suddenly established (or re-established) himself at the forefront of contemporary Japanese cinema with a series of films about the recent Japanese historical experience. 2008’s epic United Red Army was a heartbreaking excoriation of the far left-wing militants that Wakamatsu once supported, and it remains for me the most moving and effective of recent films about leftist militants (including Olivier Assayas’s Carlos and Uli Edel’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex, both of which were exceptionally strong films). In 2010, he released Caterpillar, an adaptation of an Edogawa Rampo story about a Japanese soldier who returns from 1930’s China with his limbs blown off, his face disfigured, and his ability to speak completely gone. The film is fucking brutal to watch, as it provides an unblinkered depiction of Japanese military crimes in China as well as the degradations that Japanese militarism inflicted on Japanese civilians back home. He released several films in 2012, including the aforementioned 11/25: The Day Mishima Chose his own Fate, which I have not yet seen but which will hopefully get released in the US at some point (I have a long-standing interested in Yukio Mishima), as well as a film called The Millennial Rapture, which depicts the burakumin, Japanese descended from people who engaged in “unclean” labor (corpse handling, leather-working, waste-disposal) and who still face entrenched discrimination as a result. Now, again, I haven’t seen this movie, but I should imagine it would have much to recommend it if it was made with the same sensitivity and intelligence as Wakamatsu’s recent films.
So now, just as he was starting a veritable second career—which could have lasted for decades! After all, his countryman and fellow filmmaker, Kaneto Shindo, died this year at the age of 101, and he’d only been retired for a few years—Wakamatsu’s life has been snuffed out in a meaningless accident (I suppose all accidents are meaningless by definition). He has left behind him an enduring and diverse body of work and we can only hope that the hole he has left in the world of Japanese cinema will be filled by a new crop of filmmakers who will have absorbed the lessons of his craft and his moral and historical intelligence.