With so much gentility and desire for respect and accolades to be found in a random scan of any film festival program, the audacity of highlighting the films of someone with as checkered a history—to say the least—as Japanese director Masao Adachi might seem a provocation if this filmmaker was not in his venerable 70s, yet even so his home country wouldn't allow him to travel to Rotterdam for a spotlight on his career. Infamous first as a collaborator with prolific Japanese art-exploitation master Koji Wakamatsu—for whom he wrote a number of screenplays before then directing for Wakamatsu's production company—then for going with Wakamatsu to shoot 1971’s Red Army / PFLP: Declaration of World War in Lebanon, then for joining the Japanese Red Army and remaining in Lebanon for twenty years (an idea even more shameful in Japan than it might be considered elsewhere), Adachi was then arrested for passport violations, imprisoned in his home country, and is now living there, barred from leaving. (Two excellent films dedicated to this critical meeting point between mid-20th century political radicalism and filmmaking have recently been made: Philippe Grandrieux's It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve and Eric Baudelaire's The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and the 27 Years without Images.) In his introduction to the international premiere of Adachi’s new film, Rotterdam’s festival director remarked that Adachi "could not be here" because, unlike so many other attending directors, he so strongly combined beliefs, action and filmmaking—a forceful statement of support. (Adachi provided video introductions to his films showing at the festival, and was piped in as an imageless, disembodied voice to do post-screening Q&As, so Japan’s ridiculous travel ban has done little to keep the filmmaker away from us.)
Whatever cinema production Adachi may have been doing in the Middle East does not seem known, if it exists at all (Adachi says footage he shot was destroyed in Israeli bombings). Rotterdam is showing his directorial work up through his break away from Japan, and then, strangely skipping over his first post-incarceration film Prisoner/Terrorist (shown at Rotterdam in 2007, in fact, so perhaps occluded under the wrongful assumption it has been widely seen), is premiering with his new film, Artist of Fasting. While an early film like 1967’s Galaxy now looks more like the arty extravagances of a radical student, Adachi flourished when required to funnel his ragged formalism, flagrantly cynical political analysis, and dramatic variability through the lewd gauntlet of late 1960s pinku eiga—"pink" films. The condoned softcore sex films of the era, their popularity and production flourished as the Japanese studio system took a post-boom nose dive and provided cinematic vessels for filmmakers like Wakamatsu and Adachi to fill with outre politics, extreme technique and other provocative content so long as a quota of tits and ass were fulfilled.
And rape—lots of rape. Adachi's Sex Game (1968) and Female Students Guerilla (1969) pinpoint not just what make radical pinku eiga great, but the supreme discomfort they inspire as we grow distant from the era and cultural moment in which they were produced. Giddy with flagrant female nudity and the kind of casual sexual assault and off-hand rape common to much Japanese cinema of the time, it is impossible to ignore such aspects as Sex Game's opening scene of half play-acted, half "dramatic" gang rape—with the men insisting on needing to "make it real"—or that strange convention of Japanese cinema where after being brutally raped women seem to fall in love with their assailants. It would be naive to excuse the films these moments and needs because they must fulfilled a production requirement to exist and which allowed for "greater" expression once these needs are met. But the reason why these two Adachi films are still stunning despite their gratuitous exploitation of their actresses in specific and woman in general—though it should be noted that the men in these pictures are portrayed as completely inept, horny slugs with only a dim idea of what sex is—is that Adachi makes the sexual lives, in action and in body, inextricable from political stance and social revolt for his young protagonists.
Sex Game begins with a trio of nihilist student rapists who scorn (as the film does, in fact) student protests of the time and instead search for some kind of horrific ecstatic experience that they posit can be achieved by rape. This mission gets waylaid when a victim of their gang bang—a female protest leader—in her trauma attaches herself to the group, turns on her fellow male protestors, and torques the rapists’ activity in ambiguous directions. Amiri Baraka's poem "Black Dada Nihilismus" is heard on the soundtrack, a rare strip of color film is used for the woman’s entrapment and exposé of her protester brethren—who she reveals have each and all slept with her—and the film concludes open ended, our heroes splaying themselves out into the world, the rapists dressed as Nazis, their victim-cum-inspiration alongside, walking the streets of Tokyo and running past the National Diet.
Female Student Guerilla
Such twisted camaraderie is taken further in 1969’s Female Student Guerilla (also known as High School Girl Guerilla), which pushes the conceptual and political possibilities of subversive pinku eiga ever further. Again, prospective sexual assault unites boys and girls, in this case a cadre of high school girls rebelling from the gender conventions of their school who take a male duo—the boys bored with their lives, mocking white collar workers and the Japanese Self Defense force, and obviously attracted to the sexual rebellion side of the girls’ ideology—along with them in revolt. All five quickly retreat into a mountain hideaway, and the film in its spare, helter-skelter use of landscape, lo fi production, and goofball sense of plausible drama, psychology and staging resembles the best work of French political surrealist Luc Moullet from the same era. But Adachi of course takes it further, stripping his girls down to their bare breasts half way through, introducing a maniac runaway solider (or lunatic disguised as a soldier), swapping everyone’s partners, turning the group on each other before reunions and more fights, and on and on: a veritable catalog in nude farce of the aspirations, ridiculousness, vivacity, hypocrisy and ardor of radical group dynamics. (This film's central use of landscape leads uncannily into Adachi's 1969 pure-landscape masterpiece AKA Serial Killer, which brilliantly purports to coordinate our understanding of a Japanese mass murderer through the de-dramatized filming of the locations he visited.)
Artist of Fasting
Thirty six years later, Masao Adachi is back with a new film which has abandoned the group as a subject and pursues the revolting individual: Artist of Fasting freely adapts Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist into a modest, cynical drama of projection. A professional faster decries, as in Kafka’s 1922 story, the lack of appreciation of his art, and after he randomly plunks down against the wall of a commercial district to silently practice his starvation, is beset by inquiries, scorn, adoration, money, exploitation and all other manner of society trying to throw their own ideas onto a silent act of bodily protest. (We come again, like the women’s mixed sense of rape and liberation in the two earlier films, to the idea of the human body as the true locus or original point of revolution.) Working with an even smaller budget than in his political sexploitation days, Adachi is himself attracted to this mysterious, unpretentious figure of intentional suffering just as those various sympathizers, skeptics, curious, hateful and disinterested are who pass by the man. For those who fear the personal history of this director as something that might take the form of terrorizing cinematic ideology (whatever that may be), they have but to look at this new film to find that praxis can take the form of an exploration of what praxis itself looks like, what is asked and demanded of it, and what we ourselves think about all that surrounds moving from theory into action.