Instead of replacing the camera with the rifle, why not have one in each hand?"
– Masao Adachi
Masao Adachi (b. 1939) is a true revolutionary artist, a filmmaker whose unshakable political beliefs have shaped his vision of cinema as an intense engagement with its audience and with its time. A recognized and widely published theorist, a profound thinker about cinematic form Adachi realizes his ideas through his films, inventing avant-garde techniques to shatter cinematic conventions and challenge viewers to understand the complex, often incendiary, issues grappled with in his work: sexuality, politics and the always forestalled but ever urgent promise of revolution.
Adachi's films and career testify to the impressive vitality of the underground film movement as a little recognized shaping force of postwar Japanese cinema. Indeed, formative to Adachi's cinematic imagination was his membership in the late 1950s in the radical student film clubs so instrumental in the student protest movement that crested and ultimately splintered with the massive strikes against the controversial ratification of the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1960. Working as part of a collective, Adachi realized his seminal early films, Bowl and Closed Vagina which are equally legible as experimental films and allegories about political activism. The notion of a non-hierarchical collective, with the director just one voice among many, would remain a core principal of Adachi's cinema. The complex layering of meaning in Adachi's student film continued in his work with the late Koji Wakamastu (1936-2012), first writing and eventually directing a series of politically outraged "pink films" whose combination of perverse sexuality and radical politics were like nothing seen before on Japanese screens. Demented and visionary, Adachi-scripted, Wakamatsu-directed films such as The Embryo Hunts in Secret and Sex Jack are recognized today as pioneering dark visions of another, secret side of the post-war Japanese miracle, a dark psycho-sexual nest of repression, trauma and guilt. Adachi's search for a radical cinema able to raise awareness of the invisible net of political hegemony gave way to his extraordinary AKA: Serial Killer, a pseudo-documentary about a nineteen-year-old murderer that gave form to the so-called "landscape theory" Adachi pioneered, offering a series of coldly objective images of landscapes and cityscapes that the young killer may have seen, environments that shaped his warped, troubled perspective.
In pursuing his belief in the cinema as an instrument and even a weapon in the struggle against the capitalist-imperialist juggernaut transforming Japan and so much of the post-WWII world, Adachi went further than just about any artist in Japan. Following their controversial and outspoken appearance at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, Adachi and Wakamatsu traveled to Lebanon to make a film in support of the Palestine resistance. The result was Red Army/PLFP: Declaration of World War a newsreel-style propaganda film whose fiery call to arms Adachi himself would follow in 1974 when he abruptly abandoned filmmaking and returned to Lebanon to join the Japanese United Army. For the next twenty-eight years Adachi withdrew from the film scene he had so electrified, his activities remaining largely unknown until his arrest in Lebanon on passport violations and his extradition to Japan where he served a brief prison arrest and where he remains today in a kind of limbo, forbidden by the government to leave the country. Under the watchful eye of the authorities, Adachi's return to cinema revealed none of his powers diminished, his revolutionary beliefs still strong, although tempered now with a distinct melancholy. This quality is apparent in his impressive first feature film in over thirty years, Prisoner/Assassin, an abstracted and partially autobiographical meditation on imprisonment, exile and the consequences of sacrifice for a higher cause. Affirming Adachi's status as one of the masters of political counter-cinema, his latest work testifies to his unfailing conviction and vision of film as an artistic weapon for awakening its audience to the revolutionary struggle for truth.
Special thanks: Go Hirasawa – Meiji Gakuin University and the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University
Directed by the Nihon Universtity Film Club
Japan 1961, 16mm, b/w, 25 min
Overripe with psychosexual poetry and stark, oneiric rituals, Adachi's filmmaking debut, made while he was still an undergraduate, counts among the more resonant accomplishments of the now famous Nihon University Film Club. Adachi's obvious fascination with the wide-eyed watchfulness of childhood and the uncanny is an expression of the important surrealist strand running throughout the post-WWII Japanese avant-garde.
Directed by the Nihon Universtity New Film Club
Japan 1963, 35mm, b/w, 56 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Adachi's follow-up to Bowl using the figure of a woman suffering from an unusual sexual aliment has often been taken as a controversial allegory for the political stalemate of the Leftist student movement after their impressive wave of massive fiery protests failed to defeat the neo-imperialist Japan-US Security Treaty. The ritualistic solemnity of the charged sexual scenes contribute to the oneiric qualities of Closed Vagina which Adachi would later insist was an open work, not meant to deliver any kind of deliberate political message.
Directed by Masao Adachi and Koji Wakamatsu
Japan 1971, 16mm, color, 71 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Returning from the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, Adachi and Koji Wakamatsu traveled to Lebanon to collaborate with the Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (both of whose ranks Adachi would later join) to make a radical propaganda newsreel promoting the Palestinian resistance against Israel. The purest expression of Adachi's call for a "cinema for the revolution,” Red Army/PLFP: Declaration of World War interweaves footage of Palestine refugee camps, freedom fighters in training and landscape theory-style imagery of city and landscapes over which plays a soundtrack of fiery speeches openly embracing armed violence and Maoist revolution as an effective means to reinvent the world order. Adachi and Wakamatsu used guerrilla methods to independently distribute and exhibit Red Army/PLFP: Declaration of World War, sending the film via the "Red Bus Film Screening Troop" throughout Europe and Palestine.
Directed by Masao Adachi
Japan 1969, 35mm, color, 86 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Among Adachi's most audacious and chilling works, AKA: Serial Killer was the film that defined the "landscape theory" for which he is credited as one of the founders: the radical Marxist theory that the visible landscape around us, from its most picturesque to its most banal aspects, is a pure expression of the dominant political power. To demonstrate this theory embraced by a group of filmmakers and artists that notably included photographer Takuma Nakahira, Adachi focused on the story of a nineteen-year-old boy, Norio Nagayama, convicted for the 1969 murders of four people in four different Japanese cities. Led by Adachi's own sober voiceover reciting the facts of Nagayama's life, and accompanied by a bracing free jazz score, AKA: Serial Killer proceeds through a series of landscapes along the paths of the young killer's life and final rampage, an unrelenting, accusatory gaze fixed on the Japan nation itself as the environment that warped the young man into a frenzied assassin. Adachi's controlled structuralist film is often discussed for its anticipation of the topographical cinema of Straub-Huillet.
Directed by Masao Adachi. With Michio Akiyama, Yuji Aoki,
Japan 1971, 35mm, b/w, 72 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Adachi's first truly radical film, Gushing Prayer is a stylistically audacious mediation on sexuality and political consciousness quite literally embodied in a quartet of teenagers trying to simultaneously discover and disarm their own sexuality. Just as the youth interrupt their earnest, orgiastic sex with philosophical debates about desire and corporality, so too does Adachi's camera disavow traditional visual pleasure, abstracting and fragmenting the young bodies through avant-garde cinematography and montage. Dizzying, hallucinatory and bracingly intellectual, Gushing Prayer engages theories of Bataille and Freud to understand how the struggle between Eros and the unconscious defines gendered relations and power.
Directed by Masao Adachi
Japan 1967, digital video, b/w, 75 min. Japanese with English subtitles
The breakdown of an automobile along a remote seaside sets a young man suddenly adrift through visions and strange hallucinations in this important milestone of postwar Japanese experimental cinema. While clearly inspired by the oneiric cinema of Jean Cocteau, Galaxy’s remarkably hypnotic and seamless passage through a rich, often startling dreamscape belies Adachi's youth and relative inexperience. Featuring an abstract soundtrack by noise artist and Fluxus member Yasunao Tone, Galaxy had the distinction of being the first work selected to screen at Tokyo's legendary showcase for avant-garde cinema, the Scorpio Theater whose title paid homage to Kenneth Anger and the tradition of the trance film to which Adachi's film is also clearly indebted.
Directed by Masao Adachi. With Tomorowo Taguchi, Panta, Taka Okubo
Japan 2007, 35mm, color, 113 min. Japanese with English subtitles
A harrowing yet restrained cri de guerre, Adachi's return to directing after over thirty-five years is a sobering but nevertheless defiantly unapologetic portrait of resistance offered in a kind of homage to Japanese Red Army member Kozo Okamoto, the only JRA member to survive the infamous 1972 Lod Airport massacre. Disavowing any literal bio-pic transcription, Prisoner/Terrorist instead follows the path of poetry, loosely adapting French revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui's Eternity Behind the Stars and offering an abstracted protagonist called simply "M", not identified with any official history but openly inspired by both Adachi and Okamoto during his thirteen years in Israeli prison. Set entirely within the prison where "M" fights against sadistic guards and insanity, visited by dream-like apparitions of Blanqui, Gramsci and other theorists of revolution. A meditative and more conceptual companion piece to the late Koji Wakamatsu's celebrated revisiting of his revolutionary past, United Red Army (2008), Adachi's latest film offers the promise of a career revival.
Directed by Philippe Grandrieux
France 2011, digital video, color, 74 min. Japanese and French with English subtitles
Adapting a line spoken by a Red Army member in Prisoner/Terrorist for its title, Philippe Grandrieux's latest film offers a lyrical portrait of Masao Adachi, crafted from four Tokyo nights spent in the company of the veteran yet still galvanizing radical. It May Be that Beauty... is the first in a series of unconventional portrait films created with French film scholar and curator Nicole Brenez and dedicated to those brave filmmakers fearlessly committed to political ideologies and causes. Inspired by the celebrated Cinéastes de notre temps series created by André Labarthe and Janine Bazin, the series inaugurated by Grandrieux's film will seek to create an intimate spark and dialogue between the artists before and behind the camera: "The series does not stem from a dogmatic list of the rules of the game. It is precisely the opposite, which conducts the movement of films; a gesture of freedom, without weight, by which the filmmaker can witness the work of another filmmaker, of his aesthetic, ethical, and political engagement, of his struggle with the world and with himself. In other words, at which point is the cinema at the heart of the project, the cinema and friendship." – Philippe Grandrieux.