by Lauren Bliss
Masao Adachi’s A Gushing Prayer (1971) figures the possibility for lived contradiction. The film was produced in the wake of the American occupation of Japan and its forced assimilation of Japanese society to Western values, yet it offers a cross-examination of the struggle against the occupation. This structuring is typical of Adachi’s work and thus, despite the historical specificities of this film, A Gushing Prayer is a prayer for us all. It asks: how is it possible to escape the perceived totality of history and of capitalism?
The cross-examination is figured through the bodies of young people. A Gushing Prayer is the story of four teenagers coming to terms with their sexuality. The film is divided into vignettes that repeatedly return to the same question: “Can we beat sex?” Adachi has said of this period that he wanted to “describe the way in which society was blocked” and that his films are “are an image of society at the time: I wanted to describe the feelings of a generation whose story was beginning to be written. Violence was present in all structures of this society. I wondered how people who were not heroes could survive this”.
The film’s uptake of the body is similar to other radical works on youth and sexuality such as the I am Curious series, Breillats’ Une Vraie Jeune Fille (1976) or À Ma Sœur (2001) or the work of Larry Clark. The explicit, raw and the naked take a disorientating and, at times, violent turn. The teenagers’ contact with the new world of orgies, prostitution, and their exposure to the sexuality of their parents, is filmed in close-up and at angles that do not signify fetishized clarity. It can be difficult to discern what part of the body we are seeing, whose body belongs to whom, and what point-of-view we should assume. Yet, like a fairy tale, the lives of these young people – despite the looped narrative structure – slowly disintegrate; in this case, up until the point of suicide.
Despite this, the film manages to avoid nihilism through a battle with itself. During their experiments with sex, the teenagers continuously question each other and demand to know: “What do you feel?” Simultaneously, the film is organized as a meta-interrogation of form and style. The montage and mise en scene attempt to abstract us from its containment with the flesh. Shots are interrupted with political slogans and coloured filters saturate the shot with red, blue and green. But as each vignette ends, a new one begins in much the same way. This repetition ensures an active avoidance of linear order and fixity of meaning.
In the opening scene, the lead protagonist Yasuko (Aki Sasaki) announces she is pregnant, and leads her three friends to a foggy paddock where she claims to have conceived (as a result of sex with her teacher). She restages what happened, lying down in the grass and, as all discuss, the film cuts to shots of the ‘actual event’ between the teacher and student. This dichotomy of sensation and cognition, or of performance and spectatorship is played out over and over in A Gushing Prayer. One of the most spectacular examples of this is in the scene where the young people watch on as one of their mothers has sex. This restaging of the primal scene is interrupted by the mother herself and she attempts to explain – as objectively and scientifically as possible – what it is that she is feeling. The strange dispositif of the teenagers watching each other alongside we, the audience, watching the ‘actual event’ invokes Adachi’s project for the cinema as a relationship which “brings about a repetition and continuity”.
It would be wrong to read the bodies in the work of Adachi as transcendental. This film is not an attempt to liberate the sexual identity of the body, or to bring comfort to the shame of awakening sexuality. Just as what is taking place is abstracted, the film returns into its containment with flesh. Adachi presents a break with transcendental individualism and indeed, he critiques the notion that sexual liberation necessarily leads to a liberation of human people. If Clark or Breillat try to inscribe the individual experience of sexuality, one that operates despite society – the joy of transgression in Another Day in Paradise (1998), or of awakening in À Ma Sœur – Adachi, most radically, tries to totalize it as a question; one that will always return us to the relationship, or to the connection – however violent, clumsy or revolting – between an individual and society.
This can be addressed in a number of ways. For one, Adachi, like the work of filmmaker Wakamatsu, takes up the question of the sexual difference as one of unbridgeable violence between man and woman. Their figuring of the feminine, for many, may seem misogynist or anti-feminist at best, at worst distressing as they deal with questions that have caused suffering to women the world over: rape, prostitution, murder as a result of patriarchal society. Yet although both filmmakers figure these problems as archetypal, this is not to say that they are figured as insurmountable. Rather, these problems are represented as ones that cannot be solved by radical individualism, or by – to put it in feminist terms – self-empowerment. Society, Adachi reminds us, will still remain.
It is useful to consider the demands of the teenagers to know What do you feel? through the famous dictum of Lacan: “there is no sexual relation” (Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel”). If we think how, for many, the political upheaval of the 60s and 70s is located in the body as radicalized, naked, uncovered we can ask, through A Gushing Prayer, what this radical uncovering leads us to? The teenagers push the limits of their body and physical experience, but the surface titillation and violence carries no real depth beyond it. The questions posed by the teenagers can never be answered or fulfilled by their partner. The cross-over between object and subject, through fragmented montage, never dissolves into itself, literally inscribing the dictim: “There is no sexual relation”. But, (Adachi does remind us), a woman can get pregnant.
This reveals a new approach to the problem of capitalism. Within A Gushing Prayer, the pregnant body becomes the site where the dialectic between the individual and the collective and the past and the future can be interrogated. I have yet to see his other films, such as Abortion or Closed Vagina. However, judging by the titles and based on the strength of A Gushing Prayer, the pregnant body figures itself strongly in his works. Adachi’s philosophy is situationist – he critiques himself and his own values just as he critiques the dominant forces which he struggles against. He helped to formulate a theory for the cinema known as fukeiron (landscape theory). This is disentangled in his famous film AKA Serial Killer (1969) where he traces the path of the serial killer (Norio Nagayama) through shots of the landscape. Fukeiron is an act to remind us of the universality of landscape, that it refuses action in its interaction with power. But the figuration of the masculine and the feminine within his films also points to the universality of reproduction that is contained within the body.
Adachi figures the pregnant body as an upheaval, as a confrontation with the body itself. A feminist address is useful here, as Adachi considers the function of the feminine as reproducer – alongside the masculine role – ultimately figuring the containment of the pregnant body. This essay is titled: “Pregnant Resistance” – which is an oxymoron, precisely because the pregnant body cannot resist itself. To be pregnant is to be doubled, to confront oneself from both the inside and outside. For Masao Adachi, the cinema is a direct confrontation with possibility. Adachi’s prayer is for the power located in the reproductive body and the interaction between the masculine and the feminine. “I continued to think about communicating the falsehood of ‘possibility’ which discloses the true impossibility of humanity the more it reveals the nature of things (well, Mr Georges Bataille put it in easier terms: “the energy of fatal eroticism”).
Even if youth will ultimately be corrupted, it will still reproduce. This is his ‘prayer’ – which is essentially for ejaculation, to level and redeem any notion of progress and to figure the possibility that exists within continuity. Toward the end, as the girl prepares to kill herself, we see a flash of a man being raised on the cross. This is not a Christian film, but Adachi seems to be calling for redemption and for grace. Adachi dissects the body from every possible angle, cutting through scientific ideology to remind us that neither experimentation (with prostitution, money, capitalism) or abstraction (philosophy) will totally remove us from our bodies. All we can do is pray.