Friday, November 6, 2009
(Re)REVIEW: Ecstasy of the Angels
天使の恍惚 (Tenshi no kōkotsu)
Running time: 89 min.
(Re)Reviewed be Marc Saint-Cyr
Over a year ago, I sat down to watch Kôji Wakamatsu’s “Ecstasy of the Angels” for the first time, then proceeded to write quite a scathing review of it based on what I perceived as its tactless exploitative methods and shallow, inadequate exploration of big topics like political revolution. However, it wasn’t until later when I picked up a copy of Jasper Sharp’s book “Behind the Pink Curtain” and, upon reading it, discovered to my chagrin that Wakamatsu was actually a figure of some importance in Japanese cinema, with “Ecstasy” occupying a quite pivotal place in his body of work.
After I mulled over the new information I had acquired about Wakamatsu and his film, I decided to give them both another chance. I realized that my first review measured the film based mainly on its surface qualities: the often convoluted plot; thinly-drawn characters; frequent, jarring moments of sex and violence. I think the main factor that threw me off with “Ecstasy,” which portrays the actions and gradual deterioration of a group of political rebels, was its various, conflicting motives. I recognized its exploitation elements easily enough, but because they were mixed in with the heavier, more ambitious political content inspired by then-contemporary events (more about this later), I interpreted them as more of a hindrance to the film than a fully-intended part of it. In short, I was confused that a film trying to take a serious approach to serious topics would deploy such cheap, ill-suited strategies as gratuitous sex scenes and nudity, which resulted in annoyance, which in turn resulted in my damning verdict.
So, I’d like to give “Ecstasy of the Angels” a fair reading this time around, but this is not an about-face, or to say that my initial reaction to the film was “wrong;” instead, this review will hopefully illustrate the importance of context, and show how knowledge, or lack thereof, of a certain film or filmmaker can play a significant part when forming an opinion about them.
The three main elements made aware to me by “Behind the Pink Curtain” that inspired this revisit to “Ecstasy” are 1) Kôji Wakamatsu and his role as a distinct artist within Japanese film, 2) “Ecstasy”’s place alongside the pinku eiga (erotic film) genre and 3) the turbulent political climate of 1970s Japan reflected in the film. The one thing that surprised me the most was how I had so casually shortchanged Wakamatsu’s stature and artistic merits. It can be determined at least from noting the reception Wakamatsu’s films have received abroad and over time (resulting in a number of career-spanning retrospectives, including at least two in France and one currently taking place in Los Angeles) that he is more than just another work horse in the industry – he is a figure of genuine cultural significance. In his book, Sharp makes the following astute observation: “Junk or not, Wakamatsu’s films do mean something, or at the very least are representative of something.” This is mainly because Wakamatsu always seemed to have something to say in his films that exceeded the forms with which he worked. He entered into the softcore film industry virtually by chance during his early period when he was trying to find a creative outlet for his distrust of authority. Therefore, it could be said that the pink film genre serves as little more than a platform for his unique expressions, and in some cases, it’s obvious that sexual content is included into his films just so that they meet the requirements of the genre. This is clearly the case with “Ecstasy of the Angels.”
Throughout his career, Wakamatsu gradually established himself as a fairly popular and highly original filmmaker. Under his own company, Wakamatsu Pro, he made such films as “Secret Acts behind Walls” (which was shown at the Berlin Film Festival), “The Sun is Redder than Blood,” “Notorious Concubines” and “The Embryo Hunts in Secret,” which marks the first time he used a screenplay by Masao Adachi. Adachi was heavily involved in the experimental art scene that was going on at the time. As a member of the Nihon University Film Study Club and, later, VAN Film Science Research Centre (which served as a hangout for artists and filmmakers), he made a variety of avant-garde films that he would later “screen” in chaotic, Dadaist events that featured performances, loud music and mind-altering substances. With 1966’s innovative “The Embryo Hunts in Secret,” both he and Wakamatsu embarked on a new and fruitful artistic partnership (Adachi had previously served the director as an assistant on “The Sun is Redder than Blood,” but he apparently wasn’t a very good one), with Adachi often credited under the pseudonym Izuru Deguchi. “Embryo” soon gave way to a string of collaborations that includes “Violated Angels” (which, along with “Sex Jack,” was shown at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival), “Japan Assault Dark History: Blood of an Abnormal Man,” “Go Go Second Time Virgin,” “Violent Virgin” and “Shinjuku Mad. ”
These works not only demonstrated the artistic talents of Wakamatsu and Adachi, but also reflected the changing times that surrounded them. Tokyo in the late 1960s and early 1970s was gradually making a transition from a stimulating, youth-based artistic utopia very much in tune with experimental and pop forms to a more oppressive and turbulent atmosphere in which angry students and militant leftists such as the Communist League were rebelling more violently and frequently against the government and forces of imperialism, which in turn led to increased efforts on the police’s part to keep the peace and suppress anti-terrorist activity. It soon got to a point where the radicals were waging all-out war with authority figures using firebombs, pipe bombs and other dangerous weapons. Wakamatsu and Adachi were also becoming steeped in the political events of the times, most drastically by making a trip to Beirut to document the struggles of the Palestinians to regain their lands from Israeli forces which resulted in the 1971 film “Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War” by Adachi and Masao Matsuda. From this climate of ideologies and uprisings came “Ecstasy,” which was inspired by a number of true events. One of the film’s first scenes in which a U.S. military base is raided by guerilla rebels is based on the Asaka Incident of August 22nd, 1971, when the Asaka base was raided by the leftist Red Army Faction. However, the film doesn’t propagandistically offer up the rebels as heroes, but instead takes a more critical view of their actions by commenting on the self-destructive tendencies of the left-wing extremists, an element mirrored in fact by the internal murders of many of the United Red Army’s members at the time.
All of the above information certainly gave me more to think about as I watched “Ecstasy of the Angels” the second time around – not to mention that, with a budget of ¥10 million, it was Wakamatsu’s most expensive film to date, a fact which completely contradicts my original judgment based on the fake-looking special effects I observed on my first viewing. But just because I now know more about the events that inspired the film and the artistic importance of its makers doesn’t mean that its flaws magically disappeared in my eyes. Sure enough, the film still has its definite weak points: much of the dialogue between the various rebels concerning their party’s motives is repetitive and flat, and even when viewed as an erotic film (or a political film masquerading as one), its sex scenes still often throw one off with their abruptness and juxtaposition with the strikingly different political scenes. But this time around, I found myself paying more attention to the individual rebels’ feelings towards their cause and the party (referred to as “the Year”). The story mainly focuses on four rebels who splinter off from the main organization to carry on attacks on their own, among them October, who is blinded in the raid on the military base; Saturday, a bespectacled, conflicted loyalist for the party; and Monday and Friday, a young, impulsive couple. Saturday spends most of the film expressing his inability to separate his loyalty to the Year from his commitment to the group’s revolutionary acts, but the others are much less indoctrinated. At one point, Monday appears almost indifferent to their causes, occupying himself instead with photo shoots with two young prostitutes in school girl outfits, but later, he declares to Saturday that he works alone, and that true anarchism operates regardless of some party’s regulations. October and Friday harbor similar views, with October often coming across as the true revolutionary of the bunch from the scenes in which he “sees” what needs to be done and describes with conviction his commitment to liberation through violent revolt. One of the most effective sequences in the film shows him sitting before a newspaper he can’t read that details the various attacks that have been conducted across the city.
I also found myself paying more attention to the style Wakamatsu used for “Ecstasy.” Most of it is shot in black-and-white, but there are a handful of color sequences that highlight moments of passion and, particularly towards the end, personal revelation experienced by the characters. The climax of Ecstasy is a striking, frenzied montage of guerilla attacks and bomb blasts over wild jazz music that fittingly illustrates the chaos that the group willingly brings about. There may even be a Jean-Luc Godard homage to be found in the color shot of Friday’s car exploding on an empty country road and leaving a pillar of black smoke against the blue sky, which evokes the visually and thematically similar ending at the end of “Pierrot le fou.” The film isn’t as formally creative or rigorous as a Godard film, but Wakamatsu still includes a number of interesting flourishes that are definitely designed to leave a strong impression upon the viewer.
It’s clear to me now that there is a lot more going on in “Ecstasy” than I originally gave it credit for. While I’d still hesitate to label it a masterwork, I’ll at least acknowledge Wakamatsu and Adachi for creating an interesting and often relevant documentation of the point in history that had engulfed them and influenced so much of their work and output. In other words, perhaps “Ecstasy of the Angels” is junk, but regardless of whether it is or not, I now cannot refuse that it does mean something.
Note: the background information for this review came from Jasper Sharp’s incredibly informative and highly recommended book “Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema.”
Read Marc's original review of "Ecstasy of the Angels" here. Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.