Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – November 2015

In this monthly column we look at the newest releases in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, with a particular focus on the best of cult and classic cinema. This month we tackle Arrow’s extremely impressive Kiju Yoshida collection, Love + Anarchism. We also take a look at John Frankenheimer’s dark vision of the American dream, Seconds.


Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism (Blu-Ray & DVD, Arrow)

The films of Kiju Yoshida emerged from what may well have been the most interesting era in all of Japanese cinema. Japan had been having something of a cinematic golden age, which saw the work of directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi (among many others) receiving international acclaim. As a new generation of younger, more politically engaged filmmakers began appearing in the next decade, the Japanese film industry started producing an incredible variety of experimental, forward-thinking cinema. Kiju Yoshida wasn’t just part of this change, he was one of its most ground-breaking and challenging examples. His work immediately leapt out for its sophistication and intelligence, a skilful melding of content and style. His work has also, until now, been relatively difficult to see. This month’s Arrow boxset, Love + Anarchism, collects his political trilogy of the late 1960’s and early 70’s, including the film many agree to be his masterpiece.

At the heart of the set lies Eros + Massacre, the hugely ambitious film Yoshida is most well-known for today. The story concerns real life figure, Sakae Osugi, an anarchist and advocate of free love who lived in Japan at the turn of the century, up until his politically motivated murder in 1923. Osugi was notable too for his complicated personal life, which involved relationships not only with his wife Hori Yasuko, but also two other women, both of whom were early advocates of women’s rights in Japan. Osugi’s life would make for an interesting story even if approached in a straightforward manner, but there’s nothing straightforward about Love + Massacre. Yoshida built the film around a secondary twin narrative, in which two nihilistic students in present day Japan research Osugi’s life and the principles he followed. As well as employing two different casts, each of the narratives features a noticeably distinct directing style and soundtrack. These two stories are woven together throughout the film, often drawing intriguing thematic links along the way. Amongst this we’re also treated to occasional more surreal sequences, which can feel like accidentally tuning into somebody’s dreams. The best of these is the scene where two groups of men play rugby with the bones of Osugi, itself a play on the way people fight over historical legacies. Yoshida renders the whole scene with a wonderfully otherworldly quality, which transforms ordinary human activity into something genuinely bizarre, as if we’re alien observers seeing it for the first time. Also very much of note is the film’s mesmerising cinematography, which over lights and over exposures its images, resulting in a film that almost feels as if it’s been bleached. This of course adds a great deal to the film’s already distinct tone, as if everything we’re seeing if bathed in some strange, distant light.

All of this would be an interesting enough approach for a film, but what really makes Eros + Massacre so extraordinary is that Yoshida doesn’t stop there. In Eros + Massacre the past isn’t some irrelevant distant thing, it’s something that engages with the present. This is seen through the story, but also through some of Yoshida’s bolder directing decisions, which blur past and present until the boundaries no longer seem to function. When we see Osugi fighting off assassins in 1923, the incident occurs inexplicably alongside a busy contemporary highway. Likewise, when a character from the Taisho period of the past sets out on a journey to Tokyo, they do so using the modern transportation of the 1960’s. In an outright rejection of the way we usually see the past depicted in period films, here it’s presented as something subjective and ever shifting. This release comes with two versions of Eros + Massacre; the original 169 minute cut, and the director’s originally intended 220-minute cut. The longer cut in particular adds more emphasis on the events set in the past, pushing the focus of the story more heavily in this direction, but also adding slightly greater narrative clarity. In either version, this is a hugely complex, multi-faceted film, which will take patience to unpack and process. Eros + Massacre is an extremely stylistic film, but one in which every framing, every cut, works in service of a greater artistic aim. In other words, Eros + Massacre is great art.

It’s perhaps revealing that the special features that accompany the collection’s second film, Heroic Purgatory, are immediately drawn to one question – what is the film actually about? The stylistic flourishes and fragmentary storytelling of Yoshida’s previous film are here pushed to greater extremes, resulting in a mysterious and somewhat perplexing film. I’ll openly confess here that I haven’t yet been able to make sense of everything Heroic Purgatory contains, but at its most simple level the film immerses itself in the same relationships that lay at the heart of Eros + Massacre: politics and sex, the past and the present. In this case we focus on Shoda, an engineer whose existence is disturbed when a young woman arrives claiming that Shoda is her father. This event seems to trigger memories that take us back into Shoda’s politically active youth, as well as into a peculiar future. All of these timelines entangle as the film progresses, making the overall narrative elusive and difficult to grasp. Thankfully, Heroic Purgatory is the kind of film that doesn’t need to be fully understood to be appreciated, thanks largely to the absolutely stunning cinematography of Motokichi Hasegawa. In the little I’ve read of Heroic Purgatory I’ve already seen its imagery compared to many of the greats of the European arthouse, including Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, and particularly Michelangelo Antonioni. The echoes of all of these filmmakers can certainly be seen, but Heroic Purgatory also has a style very much of its own. Otherwise recognisable environments are framed in a disorienting, asymmetric way, giving everything the feel of a Ballard-like dystopia. It’s a cinematography that manages to feel endlessly inventive, and easily stands out as some of the most striking imagery I’ve ever seen in an art-house film.

The third, and most stylistically conventional, of the three films again sees Yoshida examining Japan’s political past. Coup d’état, focuses on the real life figure of Ikka Kita, a right-wing political philosopher who was eventually executed by the state for his perceived involvement in a failed military coup. It’s an intensely and interesting turbulent period of history to set a story in, and allows the film to explore how the more liberal Japan of the 1920’s gave way to the hard-line military patriotism that eventually led to the Second World War. The film’s less experimental expression in this case also allows for a greater emphasis on character development, which does an excellent job of fleshing out its central protagonist. Again, Motokichi Hasegawa is on hand to provide the cinematography, which here feels like it’s drifted in the opposite direction to the radiant whites of the earlier films. In many scenes, Coup d’état feels like a film composed out of dense shadow, effectively underlining the film’s atmosphere of foreboding and inevitability.

The three films come packed with additional features, including several on-screen interviews with the director himself, who comes across as articulate and intensely intelligent. A 30 minute documentary, Yoshida… Or: The Explosion of the Story does an excellent job of exploring both Yoshida’s work and the times in which he worked. The most notable contributions to the collection though come from David Desser, the man who literally wrote the book on the Japanese New Wave. Desser’s recurrent appearances across the discs almost makes him feel like a personal guide when watching them, and his introductions to each film are particular useful. Finally, the set comes with a 70+ page booklet, featuring contributions by some of the most notable English language writers on the Japanese New Wave. These aren’t the types of films you’d usually see receive this kind of lavish collector’s edition attention, or even any kind of attention at all, so it’s excellent to see Arrow take a risk on them and do so here.

Seconds (Blu-Ray & DVD, Eureka)

Cinema history may be partly a story of classic films and great works, but much more than this, it can be considered a story of curiosities, noble failures and visions not quite realised. These are the ambitious films that don’t entirely succeed in their aims, whether that’s due to financial restraints, ego, or the messy collaborative nature of producing a film. In some cases though the flaws of these films actually serve to create something more intriguing than the more polished works usually considered their betters. Many of the great ‘cult’ films find themselves in this category, and it’s also where I’d place John Frakenheimer’s 1966 nightmare, Seconds. While Seconds may possess some noticeable flaws, it’s also an absolutely fascinating film that I would urge all fans of cult cinema to see immediately.

Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph, at least initially) is a man who has in many ways achieved the American dream. He has a successful career, and appears to be living a perfectly comfortable middle class existence with his wife. However, like so many people Arthur has spent his life chasing economic comfort, but ultimately found the entire thing barren and unfulfilling. Arthur dreamed long ago of becoming an artist, but such desires have long been repressed in favour of safe cultural conformity. This all changes when Arthur becomes the newest client of ‘The Company’, an organisation that targets the wealthy and dissatisfied and offers them a second chance at life. In exchange for an extensive fee, the company will fake his death, and build Arthur a new life, complete with a painstakingly constructed younger body.

Arthur is thus transformed into Tony Wilson (now played by Hollywood hunk Rock Hudson), a successful artist living among the wealthy and the beautiful. Here an identity is presented like any other kind of commodity, something to be selected and bought by those who can afford it. But like consumerism, buying a change of surroundings and possessions does nothing to help us escape any real problems we may have. Though his new friends may be glamorous and his new face may be blessed with movie star good looks, Arthur can never really escape himself, and soon he’s back at The Company, begging for yet another chance to buy again.

Seconds is delivered in a dark, expressionistic style that turns the film into an intriguing mix of psychological horror, dystopian science fiction, and black comedy. Director John Frakenheimer had already immersed himself in the darker side of the 1960s American cultural psyche in excellent films such as 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, but here everything moves one step further into the shadows. Seconds is the American dream drained completely of any hope, and the film’s visual style reflects this perfectly. Particularly of note is the cinematography of Hollywood legend James Wong Howe, whose distorted cinematography adds an additional layer of unreality to the film’s already surreal premise. To achieve its aims, Seconds borrows from a toolkit of tricks from the European New Waves, including hand held camerawork, jump cuts and shooting in real locations, leading to a film that also feels somewhat forward thinking for Hollywood in the mid-1960’s.

Seconds unfortunately hits a few bumps when it reaches its second half. As Arthur drifts through his new existence in a state of ennui, the film’s pace noticeably slows, and a couple of scenes in particular stand out as overlong. This is particularly frustrating as it’s easy to imagine how much more satisfying the film could have felt with a little more trimming in the editing room. However, even the less successful scenes still possess plenty to boast about, thanks in part to a completely unexpected performance from Rock Hudson. Though some had seen Hudon’s acting potential, most notably director Douglas Sirk, Hudson was thought of by many as a somewhat forgettable pretty boy. It’s hard to imagine then how confusing his appearance in Seconds must have been; a shadowy science fiction nightmare in a career defined by colour saturated romance. Even today, Hudson’s performance comes as something of a surprise, but a very welcome one.

It perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Seconds was not a success at the time. Hudson’s fan base had little desire to see their heartthrob in a film reminiscent of Orson Welle’s The Trial, and Seconds’ chilling depiction of the American dream disturbed and confused much of its audience. Even today, it’s the kind of film you finish watching and immediately ask ‘where on earth did that come from’. Of course, this also makes it exactly the sort of film that is ripe for adoption into the canon of cult films. Seconds is a daring, fascinating experiment of a film, which feels in many ways like it suffered from being released ahead of its time.