Delusional Praxis & Cinematic Immolation in Ecstasy of Angels
in Un, Volume 3 No.2, Melbourne, 2009
If politics is about praxis (as political discourse still believes itself to be at some vague yet imperative point of intersection between itself and all other discourses of action and statement) then it is at such phantom intersections that political effect reveals itself. Socially engaged art sets itself up for such a disclosure, as it especially prides itself on declarations of its assumed and subsumed politicised values. Many artists merely mutter something about detention centres or Chinese oppression or global-geo-ethics and most people seem to unquestioningly think they’re somehow contributing to great social changes.
But let’s leave the international biennale-ised noise-market of pumped-up political art which lulls curators to sleep tight at night in the belief that ‘art is making a change’. Let me highjack you away from ossifying Eurocentric ideas of revolution and social change that have been the pantomime of internationalist art discourses since the 90s. Let me force-land you on the runway of what is maybe an equally delusional realm – but one that is salaciously so: Red Army-era Japan.
The period loosely from the mid-60s to early 70s in Japan is one of quite peculiar socio-cultural turbulence which bears only superficial resemblance to the more familiar US-centric counter-cultural youthquake. Japan’s comparable youthquake is not simply qualified by an intersecting site of praxis, wherein societal events and social momentum are catalysed by their simultaneity. It fades up after the end of the American Occupation (1945-52) through to the finalization of the US-Japan Peace Treaty (1960); carries across the economic miracle prophesised by the urban renewal of the Tokyo Olympics (1964) and proselytised by the technological pavilions at the Osaka World Fair (1970); and echoes with codas provided by the quarter-century anniversary of both the death knolls of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic attacks (1945) and the silencing instigated by Article 9’s prevention of Japan rebuilding its military infrastructure (1951). Framed this way, the era is far from a binary argument of 60s’ generational clashes, and even further from the good-versus-evil parables therapeutically played out in Allies-versus-Axis historical recounting by radicalised European artists in the 70s. It evidences a dimensional warp not between distinct lines of force and action, but between whole matrices of force and action.
The ‘salacious delusions’ of this period arise from how Japanese society and culture evaluated its Self (both holistically and through schizophrenic fragmentation) and formulated debates centred on how Japan perceived its own nexus between a moulding past and a vacuumed future. Most art literati are familiar with the European trope of radicalised historicism, rehearsed like evergreen ballads since the heady onset of Documenta and hence nationalistically performed within the grand proscenium of ‘institutional critique’ with Germanic, Middle Eastern and Chinese accents since (and – rarely acknowledged – originally staged in the many post-war ‘new wave’ cinemas from around the world). However unlike Eurocentric art communities’ post-war repudiation of wartime ideologies still being played out by the State through its post-war economic growth (vis-à-vis Germany’s unstoppable grandstanding of ‘art and politics’ which still smacks of children admonishing their grandparents’ unacknowledged complicities), the Red Army’s delusional state is the crux of its praxis. The United Red Army, the Japanese Red Army and the intertwined Maoist and PLO paramilitary units which comprise the Red Army genealogy presented themselves from the outset as a self-immolating locus of nothingness which was to be embraced in order to transform into a ‘somethingness’. Despite its ideological furore, Red Army social reprogramming advocated a ground zero of the Self – not a rebirth of an idealised Self reconstructed by progressive societal change.
In this sense, the Red Army’s actions constitute a peculiar form of theatre. Far from addressing ‘reality’, they were staging projections of their disfiguring selves. Their lifespan was embarrassingly contracted; their objectives outrageously unrealistic; their logistical management vaporous; their social contract liquefied. In fact, their actions are possibly the inverse of any politicised intervention of society as a stage as variously advocated by Dziga Vertov, Bertolt Brecht or Jean Luc Godard (to cite key figures of the politicised mergers between ‘art and life’). The game was already up when the Red Army formulated its frighteningly short-circuiting acts of terrorism – a string of hijacking, kidnapping and executing with a wild abandon that allowed their delusions to control their trajectory. Some continue to hold the Japanese Red Army (and its links to the Italian Red Brigade and the German Red Army Faction) as a most extreme form of radicalism, as if their political commitment was its core strength due to their unremitting refusal to compromise. But such a view is painfully romantic (not to mention politically utopian), and presupposes that the eventual dystopian collapse of the Red Army was an unwanted and unjustly meted outcome of adverse ideological forces. My counter view is that the Japanese Red Army’s delusions were the basis of how it perceived and defined the world, and that any political intervention had to embrace this delusional status.
Not surprisingly, it is cinema history not social history that best illuminates my claims of the Red Army’s embrace of political delusion. In Koji Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of Angels (Tenshi no kokotsu, transliterated as Angelic Orgasm, 1972), every frame quivers at the nexus of political praxis. There are two major factors that constitutes the film’s flammability.
Firstly, Wakamatsu had spent the preceding decade averaging a staggering twelve feature films a year, assembling a corpus of work that both defined and demolished the formal qualifications of the pink eiga (soft porn film) by focusing less on erotic depiction and more on psycho-sexual evocation. Most of his sex films tersely and feverishly depict the gendered collapse between sex and violence by portraying a world where the Self is a nullified node roaming a psychologically razed terrain. To the intellectually myopic, these films’ confrontational explorations of sexualised violence leaves little recourse along humanist lines of explication. But Japan is arguably bereft of humanist compulsion – especially so since WWII and the manifold events cited earlier. Reflecting a Japanese sensibility and mode of self-critique, Wakamatsu‘s (and others’) films of the era were rehearsing and workshopping ways in which the Self could be perceived as a slug whose only way forward was to dream that it could be a human. Synchronising with Japanese modern transcendentalism (where humanism never occurs and humanity is defined by all it is presumed not to be), Wakamatsu’s cinema embraces the status of slug – in marked contrast to the European mode of existentialism which implicitly bemoans Man’s status as cockroach.
Secondly, Ecstasy of Angels specifically portrays a group of radical terrorists, and is engaged in a hysterical enactment of the type of events and situations in which the Japanese Red Army was embroiled while the film was being made. Wakamatsu had ties with the Red Army (as did a number of underground and non-mainstream filmmakers also associated with various student protest activities across this period), and these interior perspectives colour aspects of the film. Scriptwriter of the film Masao Adachi soon after left to reconstitute a cell of the JRA within the PLO in Lebanon, remaining there as an operational terrorist until prosecution and conviction in 2001. His 1971 film Red Army/PFLP – Declaration of World War (purportedly produced by Wakamatsu) is a taxing yet fascinating philosophical tract about how war needs to be total and global rather than territorial and nationalistic. However, while Ecstasy of Angels might be interpreted as a dispirited and disillusioned portrait of the personal conflicts unleashed by people engaged in such activities (which Wakamatsu’s much later film United Red Army partially paints in 2007), it utilises the social dressings of Red Army politics to stage a typically ‘Wakamatsuian’ immolation of the Self.
Ecstasy of Angels is densely veined with binary contradictions which both fuel and enflame politicised art practices. The group of terrorists (each named after a day in the week who collectively report to their unseen leaders named after months in the year as they carry out actions named after seasons of the year) are forever bickering about the conflict between the ego and society, the self and the group, the ideal and the reality, the purpose and the condition. The films is a delirious swirl of these classical ideological debates which leaden political cinema worldwide born of the era. Yet Wakamatsu stages and directs these interactions like the recitation of delusional tracts espoused by characters in the grip of forces shaping them despite their intent to transform those forces. Notably, these dialogue exchanges merge into ego-less sexual encounters of random occurrence and transient appeal.
Is this unintentionally comical or intentionally absurdist, as many people have presumed? Far from it: Wakamatsu systematically merges any sexual act with any social action. When the on-screen terrorists fuck while continuing to debate sexual repression within societal liberation, the effect is as unsettling as the oil-and-water agitation in his numerous films depicting sexual psychopaths and serial murderers. In this light, the transliteration of the film as Angelic Orgasm viscerally recalls a death erotic which has held a strong place within erotic and grotesque literature in Japan for centuries. The nervous laughter elicited from Wakamatsu’s ungainly fusion of social behaviour, societal spectacle and sexual exploration is an expected reaction to audiences who think Betty Blue is a deep emotional experience while Showgirls is lo-grade exploitative fodder.
Wakamatsu’s insistent collisions between sex and violence are engineered at both superficial and sub-strata levels of his films. The climax of Ecstasy of Angels is emblematic of his compacted dramaturgical axis wherein allegory and abstraction meet. Strobe-like editing deliberately confounds the senses as one of the male terrorists drives with an explosive-laden truck directly into the Diet Building of the Japanese government. A brutish Eisenstein-like montage features verite-footage of the building, various angles inside and outside of the truck, and approaching and still shots of one of the female terrorists stranded alone on a desert road with Mount Fuji in the background. Some of the footage is colour; some of it black-and-white. It constitutes a searing poem of penetration – of fucking the world with dynamite and getting an explosive hard-on as political praxis is detonated. This magical cinematic moment is the ground zero of the post-war Japanese Self as it immolates at the consciousness of its delusional praxis. This is the cum shot of art that knows there is no such thing as social change.