“Some have seriously asked themselves if they were part of the Revolution or if they just made films. For me, the two are one and the same thing,” says the great Japanese auteur Masao Adachi in “It May Be That Beauty Has Reinforced Our Resolve,” the French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux’s subtitled 2011 cinematic portrait of him. Grandrieux’s title, which comes from a freedom fighter’s words in Adachi’s 2007 film “Prisoner/Terrorist,” encapsulates Adachi’s lifelong conviction that making art is a form of political action. Both films will screen in the Harvard Film Archive’s retrospective “Film = Activism. The Revolutionary Underground Cinema of Masao Adachi,” running Friday through March 4.
Adachi was born in 1939 to a peasant mother who taught him that the emperor was to blame for Japan’s involvement in World War II, and for the related problems that followed. As a university student in Tokyo, he protested against the 1960 signing of the United States-Japan Security Treaty, which allowed US military bases to operate on his home soil.
Many of his peers worked within a thriving, state-supported system that allowed for experimentation by artists across different mediums. Adachi befriended painters and poets, pursued theater, and studied French Surrealism, which led him to focus on cinema.
His early films, such as “Bowl” (1961) and “Closed Vagina” (1963), were black-and-white, abstract, sexually explicit depictions of young people fighting a violent adult world’s repression. The films shared imbalanced framing, sharp editing, and soundtracks full of free jazz intrusions. As his films gained more coherent narratives, their style remained consistent with his previous, overtly experimental works. He told Grandrieux that his goal throughout was not to tell stories, but to evoke “the entire suffocating atmosphere” of Japanese society.
“AKA: Serial Killer” (1969), codirected by Adachi and five other artists, conjures that atmosphere through how it presents the true story of a young male drifter who murdered four people in different Japanese cities. The film juxtaposes narration recounting his cross-country movements with color images of landscapes and storefronts that he might have seen, and even spent time in. For the film Adachi and collaborators developed a “landscape theory,” in which an area’s physical layout represents its social power structures. Shots of narrow alleyways and crowded, impersonal train stations unnerve by refusing to offer clear explanation for the killer’s development, instead suggesting that all these places and people are somehow responsible.
In addition to directing, Adachi wrote screenplays for prominent filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima (“Diary of a Shinjuku Thief”) and Kôji Wakamatsu (“Violated Angels”). Together he and Wakamatsu filmed a guerrilla group near the Israel-Jordan border, whose members’ subsequent hangings inspired Adachi and Wakamatsu’s “Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War” (1971). The movie opens by declaring itself a “news film,” with title cards and members of both the newly formed communist terrorist group the Japanese Red Army and the slightly older PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) calling armed struggle a worthy form of propaganda. The film posits group action against Israel, reactionary Arab governments, and world imperial powers as a way to help unite all leftists against imperialism. Images of deteriorating settlement homes lead into tender scenes of people educating each other about how to fight for survival. The film, inspired by recent and ongoing revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, the US, and other countries, argues for “a borderless army” led jointly by the world’s oppressed peoples, and welcomes all volunteers.
Adachi spread a message of solidarity through filmmaking, then essentially gave it up after moving to Beirut in 1974 and fully joining the Japanese Red Army — although, he has maintained, as a teacher and organizer rather than as a fighter. He completed no films for nearly 30 years afterward, and all his Beirut footage was destroyed by Israeli bombs.
He was arrested on charges of passport forgery in 1997 and deported three years later. “Prisoner/Terrorist,” the one film he has completed since returning to Japan, is based on his own experiences and those of fellow prisoner Kozo Okamoto, the lone survivor of a Japanese Red Army trio that killed 26 people in 1972’s Tel Aviv Lod Airport massacre. After helping commit the opening massacre, the film’s protagonist, M (played by Taguchi Tomorowo), is subjected to solitary confinement and beatings. The immediate violence of his terrorist group’s shootings is dwarfed by the seemingly limitless physical and psychological violence that can be perpetrated by military officials. The film offers only a few brief respites from pain, impressionistically rendered through M’s memories of forests and friendships of his youth.
“Prisoner/Terrorist” ends with its protagonist still imprisoned. In real life, the 73-year-old Adachi is effectively imprisoned as well: All of his applications for a passport since returning to Japan, including a request to attend an extensive retrospective of his films at last year’s FICUNAM festival in Mexico, have been denied. He will appear on Skype after the HFA’s “Prisoner/Terrorist” screening on March 3. Adachi hopes to soon complete another film, partly with images he shot himself and partly with footage of Beirut landscapes shot for him by the French filmmaker Eric Baudelaire. In a New York Times story published in February of last year, he said that the film will be a self-portrait, and that he is still interested in “young people searching for a way to revolt against sociopolitical oppression.”
For screening times and ticket information on “Film = Activism. The Revolutionary Underground Cinema of Masao Adachi,” visit the Harvard Film Archive website: hcl.harvard
Aaron Cutler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.