This fascinating article is a guest contribution by Ethan Race, a young, prize-winning filmmaker based in London. You can see some of his films online his Vimeo page. If you are interested in contributing to Real|Reel Journal as well, then please take a look at our submissions page.
The current exhibition at the Gasworks of Eric Baudelaire’s new film featuring Masao Adachi, avant-garde filmmaker and previous member of the militant communist group the ‘Japanese Red Army’, accompanied by several of Adachi’s own works, provides an interesting opportunity to revisit the controversial Battle Royale 2: Requiem (2003), the last film by the master of the Yakuza genre, Kinji Fukasaku. Snubbed by Fukasaku fans and Japanese film enthusiasts alike, as well as fans of Battle Royale (2001) – one of the most popular ‘foreign’ films of the past 10 years – Fukusaku’s film, about a young group of guerrilla fighters called the Wild 7 and their “war on all adults,” was broadly rejected by the apolitical Japanese youth to which it directly appealed.
Set 3 years after the original Battle Royale, where a class of school children are captured by the Japanese government and forced to kill each other in a bloody scramble for survival, a new law has been passed forcing school-children to seek out and kill Shuya Nanahara, survivor of BR1 and now leader of a band of terrorists called the Wild 7. But in discovering the young and deprived who, exiled from society, have found asylum on Shuya’s island, the class turn their guns on their adult oppressors as Shuya’s hideout is besieged by the Japanese army and the threat of an American air-strike looms.
“The grim reality of living under U.S occupation in a post-war moral disaster zone informed Fukasaku’s early works.”
Fukasaku chose to pursue the film despite being diagnosed terminally ill with bone cancer, which resulted in his death after filming just one scene. In a fittingly symbolic move, Fukusaku’s son Kenta, who co-wrote the screenplay for both BR1 and BR2, took up the reigns and directed the rest of the film himself, making Fukasaku’s comment about his motivation behind the film all the more poignant: ‘What can I leave the children of my country, blessed as they are with everything but hope?’
So what exactly does Fukasaku leave the youth of today? Once we have waded through the film’s Hollywood gloss and fast-paced action sequences which, following the worldwide success of BR1, are clearly designed to appeal to a Western and Westernised Japanese audience, some potent medicine can be found under this easily digestible exterior; that is, a portrayal of the seemingly impossible actualization of resistance within the current political climate of Japan and the West.
It is from the earlier years of his career that Fukasaku found inspiration for this portrayal, a time during the 1960s and 70s when violent demonstrations were sweeping Japan. The renewal of the Security Treaty with the United States which led to U.S military bases being built on Japanese soil, combined with the Japanese government’s support of U.S policy in Vietnam, enraged students who felt that their country was implicated in the war. The grim reality of living under U.S occupation in a post-war moral disaster zone informed Fukasaku’s early works, which, with their back-drop of slums, criminality, and black-market traders, depicted the cruel underbelly of a country whose economic growth policy and promises of democracy benefited the few whilst depriving the many.
“The film was no less than a call for armed uprising and the Japanese establishment quickly banned screenings of the film.”
From this turbulent political climate emerged the Red Army Faction, a militant communist group who believed that in order to escalate the struggle students and workers must become more militant and take up arms against the establishment with the ultimate aim of world revolution. Fusaku Shigenobu, a leading member of the group, believed one way to do this was to form alliances with the other armed groups around the world such as the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), in order to fight imperialism and oppression on a global level. So a small group of the Red Army Faction created an alliance with the PFLP and splintered off to travel to Lebanon to form the Japanese Red Army (JRA).
Prior to his involvement with the JRA, Adachi was working mainly in the genre of pinku eiga (Japanese sexploitation), a market that gave him the freedom to experiment and develop ways in which to integrate film and revolutionary struggle through new forms of expression. In 1967, working completely independently with former members of Nihon University Film Club, he made Galaxy – a sprawling surrealistic journey which shatters the boundaries between the psychological and the political. Shot in grainy black and white on the backstreets of Shinjuku, it is an astounding feat of low-budget filmmaking and the most experimental of his three films being shown at the Gasworks.
Shortly after, Adachi developed ‘landscape theory’ in conjunction with Mamoru Sasaki and anarchist film critic Masao Matsuda, leading to the film AKA Serial Killer (1969), which is showing on loop in the exhibition space. Based on the diaries of real-life serial killer Norio Nagayama, the film consists of shots of the environment in which the killer-protagonist drifted whilst searching for a better job and a better life, and in this simple but radical act of turning the camera away from the individual to society, a political rather than psychological explanation for the killings is presented.
Adachi’s involvement with the Japanese Red Army was solidified when he and his longtime collaborator Koji Wakamatsu decided to visit Beirut, Lebanon on their way back from Cannes film festival in 1971. It was here that they shot The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War; an experimental documentary utilizing aspects of landscape theory intertwined with interviews with many prominent figures in the PFLP as well as Fusaku Shigenobu. The film was no less than a call for armed uprising and the Japanese establishment quickly banned screenings of the film. In response, the ‘Red Bus Screening Troop’ was formed, which travelled around Japan to screen the film in various underground venues. Adachi’s concern was not to just make a film about the PFLP’s struggle but to make a film that was actually a part of the struggle itself, and this further means of distribution outside the establishment epitomized the radical political filmmaking of the period.
“[Their] unbelievability stems less from their romantic get-ups and more from their incomparability with anything in Japan or the West today.”
One of the people who briefly travelled in the Bus was Kozo Okamoto, a young Red Army member who would later become the last surviving member of the JRA’s infamous attack on Lod Airport in Tel Aviv, where a shoot-out between 3 JRA and the security guards resulted in the death of 26 civilians. Made on behalf of the PFLP, this attack and Okamoto’s resulting imprisonment and torture by the Israeli government would form the main inspiration behind Masao Adachi’s most recent film Prisoner/Terrorist, another exciting addition to the exhibition. Made in 2007, it is Adachi’s first film after his eventual arrest in Lebanon in 1998 and deportation to Japan in 2001 after 27 years living underground as a Red Army soldier.
Parallels between the tale of the JRA and the Wild 7 in Battle Royale 2 start to become clear, though Fukasaku has adapted his tale of resistance to our current political climate. Whereas the threat to western liberal ‘democracy’ in the 60s was communism, used as justification for the imperial invasion of Vietnam, now it is radical Islamism, which led to the imperial invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Wild 7’s struggle is linked with the Afghan struggle through the interjection of documentary style footage of its impoverished children and the group’s eventual exile to the country in a manner similar to the JRA in Palestine.
However, one important factor has changed, and herein lies the true extent of Fukasaku’s efforts – whereas the climate of imperialism, war and oppression still remains, the actualization of any serious resistance in the ‘developed’ world has disappeared. It is this that forms the rationale behind the Wild 7, a fantastical band of warriors whose unbelievability stems less from their romantic get-ups and more from their incomparability with anything in Japan or the West today.
“It is the importance of hope and belief in human solidarity that Fukasaku attempts to impart upon the youth of today.”
It is the question of how to restore that essential spark of resistance – the ‘hope’ of which Fukasaku spoke – that forms the core aim of Battle Royale 2. Not only does he do this through highlighting the guilt of the old and the innocence of youth, born as they are into a dog-eat-dog world perpetuated and ruled by adults who have themselves become corrupted by the system, but also by proposing that the very innocence of youth can be the basis of revolutionary struggle, for the BR heroes transcend such a world through their ability to come together and establish true friendship, a kind of camaraderie of innocent youth yet to be corrupted by capitalist self-interest.
This emphasis on the importance of friendship is an obsession in both BR films, perhaps stemming from Fukasaku’s own brutalising experience as a child during WWII when he was forcefully withdrawn from school and made to work in a bullet factory which was regularly bombed: ‘We would try to get behind one another or beneath dead bodies to avoid bombs … it made me understand the limits of friendship’.
But Fukasaku’s ‘hope’ lies in the redemptive quality of an unconditional friendship, captured by the closing voice-over, ‘The road we have chosen is long and severe, but we know that wherever we are, we have friends’, that in itself defies the capitalist system and forms the basis of resistance. Hence the semi-mythical quality of the film’s implausible ending – the impossibility of their survival and the unlikeliness of Shuya’s reconciliation with his lover from BR1 – which exists, perhaps, only as hope. It is the importance of hope and belief in human solidarity that Fukasaku attempts to impart upon the youth of today, and my fear is that it is more down to our sense of hopelessness rather than any serious flaw in his film that we still do not understand the value of this final message.