ANGELIC ORGASM – Sex and Resistance

This article was written as a hand out for a screening of Koji Wakamatsu’s ‘Angelic Orgasm’ at the Chapel Cinema, St. Margarets House, Bethnal Green, London on the 29/05/12.

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Koji Wakamatsu is one of the most significant filmmakers to have made Pinku eiga (Japanese soft-core pornography) during the 1960s and 70s. Recently attaining a retrospective of his work in France entitled ‘Sex is Politics’; sex has been a controversial aspect of his work both for the Japanese establishment and for the leftists who saw more than a hint of misogyny in his treatment of women. However, whether it’s using sex to express the existential confusion of post-WW2 Japanese youth in Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969), or to explore the oedipal-esque origins of patriarchal power in The Embryo Hunts in Secret (1966), Wakamatsu persistently re-invented sexual relationships as micro expressions of the dynamics of power on a macro level, often with shocking and revelatory results.

During a period from 1963 to 1965 Wakamatsu worked on contracted works for various studios. This established his market and gave him the freedom both to explore the radical politics of the student movement and to experiment in different forms of expression. Perhaps more from a desire for financial rather than creative control (his films were quite lucrative although virtually unknown to the mainstream), Wakamatsu then established his own production company, Wakamatsu Pro, and continued to market his films to the Pink audience.  His best and most famous works, including Angelic Orgasm (1972), also known as Ecstasy of the Angels, were made during this period. With sexual exploitation no longer a contractual necessity, Wakamatsu’s insistence on continuing to work in the genre could be attributed partly to the controversy and attention such sexual explicitness garnered due to the censorship laws.

Financed by Arts Theatre Guild (famous for producing works such as Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses), Angelic Orgasm had the biggest budget of any of his films up to this point. As an explicit portrayal of the revolutionary underground, the film’s iconic status was cemented when its prophetic tale of in-fighting and betrayal within a communist armed network called ‘The Four Seasons’ became a reality just months before its release, when it was revealed that the United Red Army, an armed revolutionary communist group then training in the mountains of Gunma prefecture, had murdered 12 of their own members in a bloody internal ‘purge’. Wakamatsu would later make this story into a film in 2007 entitled United Red Army, based on the account of the only free surviving member of the group, Kunio Bando, who had escaped jail and fled to the Middle East to join the Japanese Red Army. This splinter group included Wakamatsu’s long time collaborator and screenwriter Masao Adachi, who recently said in an interview that when he wrote Angelic Orgasm he had become frighteningly aware that the revolutionary leftist movements of the 1960s were going to fail. But rather than denouncing the protagonists’ suicidal anarchism, the film criticizes the failure of leftist organizations such as the United Red Army whose reactionary authoritarianism merely led to the same self-sacrificial disregard for the individual as wartime utilitarian nationalism.

Throughout the film, Wakamatsu uses sex to express the October Group’s descent into anarchism, for, like the Jazz of the Yosuke Yamashita trio, the October group’s lack of sexual restraint expresses their raw frustration both with the Japanese establishment and the hierarchical structure of ‘The Four Seasons’. Betrayed by their own network, which impedes rather than furthers their struggle, they become stigmatized ‘bomb-throwing’ anarchists as much out of desperation as necessity. The deterioration of October’s sexual relationship with his higher in command, the older leader Fall (who contributes to their betrayal), and his growing sexual interest in Friday, a younger member of his own group, expresses this transition. The differences between these two women becomes clear in the Jazz club towards the end when Fall grips her head in seemingly unbearable orgasmic pain at the chaotic Jazz music, while Friday, who sings with members of the band throughout the film, is coolly unmoved.

The themes of Angelic Orgasm are also expressed through the sexual impotence of Saturday, the only surviving member of the October Group who still feels loyalty to the rest of the network. This sexual impotency stems from a traditionally Japanese-style self-sacrifice to a mythical Party verging on self-flagellation, and reveals the reactionary nature of an authoritarian communism which merely replaces rather than extinguishes the old established order. When Saturday finally does have sex; it is with the older leader Fall in whose bosom he finds comfort and security, revealing his reluctance or fear to confront a ‘battle front’ within himself. When he finally does reject the network, it is out of a feeling of loyalty and indebtedness to his leader October rather than out of personal necessity, a decision which October rebukes, exclaiming: ‘Debt’s are borrowed from the dead. There’s no other kind’. Revolution must come from personal necessity; anything else is reactionary.

Wakamatsu’s films are from a period not too long ago when experimental filmmaking and politics seemed inseparable. At the beginning of his film United Red Army an inter-title proclaims: ‘Once, armed youth cried for revolution.’ When interviewed recently for Japan Times, Wakamatsu rebuked the apolitical youth of today, commenting: “now everyone seems to have forgotten how to be angry. Their bellies are too full.”

But with his clever manipulation of the film industries financial markets and astonishingly inventive use of extremely low budgets, Wakamatsu’s films form a pool of gems from which modern politically conscious filmmakers and artists can draw inspiration in the struggle against oppression through art, at a time when we are forced to utilize ever-smaller budgets in fulfilling our duty to portray the truths of our time.

About Ethan Race

Ethan Race is an independent filmmaker based in London. www.ethanrace.com
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