Besides a couple of great new movies at the INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL ROTTERDAM, the true revelation for me was the discovery of the films of YOSHIDA KIJU, one of the leaders of the Japanese New Wave. Not many people outside Japan and France have ever seen any of his beautiful and intriguing films so I count myself very lucky for having seen 4 of the 7 selected films on the big screen. The focus on Yoshida Kiju was part of a more extensive retrospective of 13 films (Yoshida made 19 fiction films in total) organized by the Norwegian Film Institute who also published an enlightening and highly recommended catalogue called “Yoshida Kiju: 50 Years of Avant-Garde Filmmaking in Postwar Japan”.
“I was never really conscious of doing something to be anti-something, but whenever I wrote a screenplay, it naturally came out like that.”
University-educated Yoshida made his raw debut film in 1960 when he was 27 years old, after only five years of apprenticeship mainly under Kinoshita Keisuke, master of comedy and melodrama. He had graduated in French literature from Tokyo University, Japan’s top university, and was heavily influenced by Sartre’s existentialism. Yoshida brought his academic views of society to the screen and rejected harmony and resignation.
The Affair at Akitsu (1962) is a beautiful and intense melodrama and marked Yoshida’s first collaboration with the star actress Okada Mariko. Before long they became inseparable, married and established their own independent production company Gendai Eigasha. About The Affair at Akitsu, Yoshida says the following: “I was thinking of trying to make a romance film. But romantic love is always betrayed by time, because it’s only for a very short period of time that a man and a woman can think in unison. So for me a true romance film is a film that shows the gap between the woman and the man and shows that they go past each other without really finding a common meeting point.” A wonderful and powerful film!
Yoshida’s filmic analysis of human relationships and female nature is experimental in both style and structure. Eros + Massacre (1969) is a complex yet enchanting tour de force and almost unanimously acclaimed as his true masterpiece. The film takes on Osugi Sakae, the pre-war anarchist and advocate of free love, and his relations with three different women, but has them mingle and interact with a couple of student radicals from the 1960s. Yoshida denies the narrative function of cinema in favor for a dynamic interplay of different points of view. It’s a long and complex film, but the inspiring content (the struggle between male logic and female passion) and the enchanting cinematography ensures a most rewarding experience.
Looking at it more broadly, I also went beyond the normal set of rules for setting up the camera and framing a scene. The common rule is that when you make a close-up, the focus of the shot should be at the center of the frame, so that for most people it’s easy to look at, it’s comfortable. Which also means that as part of the set of rules of cinema, the person at the center is often unconsciously defined as the protagonist. So I very often frame only half of the face of the actor. It’s a kind of resistance, telling the audience, “Don’t trust so blindly what you see on the screen. Please try to find by yourselves what is really important to you as the audience, in what you see within this frame.” That kind of feeling became stronger and stronger for me.
Coup d’Etat (1973) is a beautifully accomplished attempt to journey into the mind of the rightist revolutionary Kita Ikki, and which takes on the position of the emperor in the modern Japanese setting. It’s a difficult film to understand but the strangeness of the style of the film makes watching it an altogether unique cinematic experience.
At the age of 40, Yoshida took a thirteen-year break in making feature films during which he challenged the format of documentary. During the 1980s, he made two more films: The Human Promise (1986) and Wuthering Heights (1988).
Yoshida returned to fiction filmmaking after another fifteen-year interval with The Women in the Mirror (2002). Three generations of women question their identity but, with the atomic dome of Hiroshima in the background, have to admit that there can be no definitive answer to their query, due to the irrational character of the atomic bombing. According to Yoshida, the film took him 13 or 14 years to make and reunited him with Okada Mariko on screen after an absence of three decades.
The Women in the Mirror was also the last Yoshida film I saw in Rotterdam and I hope I will be able one day to see his other films too. According to Yoshida, what a filmmaker – as an artist – really wants to do is express something that one doesn’t understand. I myself didn’t understand a lot of what I saw on the screen, but I was completely enthralled by his challenging and brilliant films.
“A film is ultimately not about what I tell the audience to see but about what the audience sees and discovers for themselves.”