Friday, January 25, 2013

Fun with Japanese Anarchists of the Taisho Period: The Great Kanto Earthquake, the Assassination of Noe Ito and Osugi Sakae, Yoshishige Yoshida’s Eros Plus Massacre, and an Anecdote from the Life of Akira Kurosawa

Eros Plus Massacre (1969)
Here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, we speak about the Great Kanto Earthquake that struck Japan on September 1, 1923 with somewhat surprising frequency.  But it’s important, damn it.  The cities of Tokyo and Yokohama were virtually destroyed, and the happy-go-lucky spirit of the Taisho Period (comparable in many respects to the artistic ferment to be found in Weimar Germany) gave way to the militarism of the early Showa Period.  In previous posts, I have commented on the wide-spread lynching of ethnic Koreans in the wake of the Kanto Earthquake; the Koreans were suspected of looting and of poisoning well water.  They most certainly did not do the first thing and not only did they not poison any well water, but seriously, why would anyone think they had a reason to do that? But I suppose that if you’re a racist and you’re about to lynch people, then you’re probably impervious to reason.

Another shocking incident that took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1923 earthquake was the assassination of prominent anarchists (and lovers! more on that later) Noe Ito and Osugi Sakae, along with Ito’s six-year-old nephew.  They were kidnapped by military policeman Masahiko Amakasu, who had his soldiers beat them to death and dump their bodies in a well.  Now, why did Amakasu kill them?  Probably for the same reason that the US government killed Sacco and Vanzetti; anarchists are a cartoonishly scary bunch (at least if you believe the hype and the depictions in media like Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent) and Amakasu feared that the scary anarchists would take advantage of the earthquake to sow the seeds of chaos (which, given the fact that Tokyo had just been destroyed, seems like kind of a moot point, but again, we’re not dealing with reason here).  I have no idea how he justified killing the child.  He would go on to be the director of the Manchukuo Film Association, which made pro-Japanese propaganda films, and he committed suicide when the Soviets invaded Manchuria at the end of WWII.

The assassinations of Ito and Sakae are depicted in Yoshishige Yoshida’s epic 1969 film, Eros Plus Massacre (Japanese movies have the best titles).  The film alternates between scenes from Ito’s and Sakae’s turbulent relationship (and their relationship with Sakae’s first wife and one of his mistresses) and a weird, distinctly “sixties-ish” romance between two vaguely militant students who are researching Ito and Sakae in the Japan of 1969.  We know these students are “rebels” because everything they do is punctuated by the sinister jazz music of the “Japanese crazy young people movies” of the past decade, as well as a new musical element, acid rock guitar (the score was done by Toshi Ichiyanagi, who I’m sure is very talented in his own right but who is most famous for being Yoko Ono’s first husband).  The relationship between the sixties lovers and the anarchists is distinctly Brechtian (or perhaps just at second-hand, and so we should say that it’s very Godardian), with the sixties couple always showing up to distance us from the anarchists.  The story of Ito and Sakae isn’t necessarily accurate; it just exists in whatever manner the students chose to tell it.

Now, before I conclude this piece, I want to share one more anecdote relating to the earthquake.  This is a famous story from the childhood of Akira Kurosawa, so maybe you’ve heard it before, but if not, then it’s worth hearing (and if you have, it can’t hurt to hear it again).  The story goes like this: following the earthquake, young Akira and his older brother are wandering the devastated streets of Tokyo.  They see all sorts of horror, including numerous corpses.  And these aren’t corpses in the funeral home setting, mind you, but people who have died horrible deaths, crushed, burned, or asphyxiated by smoke.  And Akira wants to look away from the horror, but his brother tells him (paraphrasing here): “No, you have to look, Akira.  If you look these things square in the face, they can’t hurt you.  It’s only what you refuse to see that can hurt you.” Now, whether that was some sage advice that the older Kurosawa was imparting, or whether it was a really unnecessary trauma to inflict on a small child, I’ll leave you to judge (well, actually, I’ll judge it too; I certainly wouldn’t make a small child do that—although come to think of it, Kurosawa would have been about 13 at the time of the earthquake, so he’s hardly that small, but still, he’s child enough—but it’s good story.  Maybe it’s the sort of thing that makes an instructive anecdote but which one wouldn’t want to act out in real life).
This story is recounted in Kurosawa’s memoir, Something of an Autobiography.  If you want to watch Eros Plus Massacre, I think there are a few copies available on Amazon.  Mine was an all-regions DVD with a Portuguese title menu, but the English subtitles were superb.

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