The Radical Cinema of Kiju Yoshida

Kiju Yoshida

When Kiju Yoshida, whose work will be celebrated with a weeklong, sixteen-film retrospective at Film at Lincoln Center in New York starting Friday, died last December, several obituaries began along the same lines as Jean-François Rauger’s in Le Monde: “Along with Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, and Masahiro Shinoda, he was one of the great figures of the Japanese New Wave. He was the most secretive and the most intellectual, too.” Yoshida probably would have raised a few objections to that first sentence, but he may well have given a modest yet affirmative nod to the second.

The critic and director known for years as Yoshishige Yoshida—he later decided that an alternative transliteration of his first name, Kiju, was simply easier for everyone to deal with—often graciously conceded that it was difficult to resist the temptation to group a generation of filmmakers with similar backgrounds into a movement, especially during a period when there were New Waves rolling out in France, Czechoslovakia, and other regions of the world, but just as often, he added: “We never thought of ourselves as a movement, then or ever.”

Like Oshima, who was one year older, Yoshida went straight from university—Kyoto and political history for Oshima, Tokyo and French literature for Yoshida—to the Shochiku production company after graduating in the mid-1950s. Both men in their early twenties spent about five years working as assistants—Oshima to Masaki Kobayashi, Yoshida to Keisuke Kinoshita—at a time when Japanese moviegoers were increasingly choosing their living-room televisions over going out. The studios were anxious to pull young audiences back in, and both Oshima and Yoshida directed their first features before they turned thirty.

Talking with Yoshida for Midnight Eye in 2010, Alexander Jacoby and Rea Amit noted that there was a tendency in the west to draw comparisons between Oshima and Jean-Luc Godard on the one hand and between Yoshida and Michelangelo Antonioni on the other. Yoshida did not take the bait, but he did note that he wrote “a short book” about Antonioni, who “wrote a commendation of the book that was published in an Italian magazine” and that, like himself, Antonioni “completely rejects the notion of film as a story [because] for him what is most important is the ‘real image’ of the human being, or existence, in Sartre’s interpretation of the term.”

Yoshida contributed to Film Criticism, the journal Oshima edited, and they occasionally went drinking together. But Oshima said, “I have never approved of his views about society and politics and his revolutionary desires, which he thought should take a violent form. Apparently, he liked violence. That was a big reason for me to establish a distance from him.”

We briefly surveyed Yoshida’s oeuvre last fall when the Viennale and the Austrian Film Museum presented a retrospective. He remains best known for the youth-oriented films he made for Shochiku in the early 1960s and for a loose trilogy—Eros + Massacre (1969), Heroic Purgatory (1970), and Coup d’état (1973)—he made with the independent production company, Gendai Eigasha, that he founded with his wife and frequent star, Mariko Okada.

In his remembrance of Yoshida for Little White Lies, Marcus Iwama wrote that the second feature, Blood Is Dry (1960), “holds its own today as a unique, antihumanist voyage through the dynamism of the Japanese ’60s.” Japan at the time “was democratized, yet its labor movements were being squashed from above; it was demilitarized, yet it had just helped America wage a violent war in Korea; it was promoting a ‘bright life’ under capitalism, yet much of the working class had fallen into debt trying to afford televisions. What Yoshida saw was not a country on the precipice of greatness, but rather, as [one character] muses,  ‘a house of cards,’ suspended only by the lattice of its own contradiction.”

This was a pivotal period for Japan, a turning point reflected, as Yoshida saw it, in the nation’s cinema as well. As early as 1970, talking to Pascal Bonitzer and Michel Delahaye in Cahiers du cinéma, Yoshida was drawing lines between the “postwar humanism” in the films of Kinoshita and Akira Kurosawa and the “political stance that was antihumanist” taken by “Japanese in general” after 1955. The Cahiers interview is a rich and fascinating source of Yoshida’s views on many of the central figures in Japanese cinema. Kurosawa, for example, presented a stoicism that was “precisely what [the] power establishment was seeking. In this sense, his films are quite dangerous.”

Yoshida’s relationship with Yasujiro Ozu was more complicated. His wife had appeared in Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962), and Yoshida conceded that the early films, “which depicted a vanishing family life, were very effective, they were profoundly realist. But once peace was established, he felt obliged to deal with young people who leave their families, and all of these young characters were very banal: this is how he lost his realism.” Yoshida revised his assessment in his 1998 book Ozu’s Anti-Cinema, which won the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2003. Midnight Eye coeditor Jasper Sharp called it “a fascinatingly readable reappraisal of Ozu’s life and philosophy from a director who initially came from a fundamentally diametrically opposed viewpoint.”

When Chris Fujiwara interviewed Yoshida in 2009, he observed that in each of the films, “he starts with a rigorously limited subject, a small number of locations, and a small group of characters, and proceeds to free the patterns formed by these elements from their moorings in time and space. He multiplies angles on scenes, thwarting and denying the narrative function of cinema in favor of a dynamic interplay of different points of view. A Yoshida film doesn’t narrate a story, but describes gaps: the intensely charged spaces across which his characters look at one another.” As Yoshida himself put it, his work is “ultimately not about what I tell the audience to see but about what the audience sees and discovers for themselves.”

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