by Vassilis Economou
Yoshishige Yoshida was one of the most important figures of the “Japanese New Wave” (Nuberu Bagu). He is lesser known than his colleagues Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda but he played a major role in the creation of the New Wave at the Shochiki studios in early 60s. In 1969 he directed his masterpiece Erosu purasu Gyakusatsu (Eros Plus Massacre), a historical drama that is set in the 20s. This is the first part of a trilogy that is composed by historical political films. Two years later, he shot the second film, Rengoku Eroica (Heroic Purgatory), which deals with his student years in the 50s. Kaigenrei (Coup D’État) is the third and final film of the series and was released in 1973.
Kaigenrei is a political historical biography and recounts the events that led to the failed coup d’état of February 26, 1936. The main character is an author and political philosopher, Ikki Kita (Rentaro Mikuni), whose life is chronicled from 1921 until 1936. The film presents the methods that Kita used to inspire a military troop in order to restore Japan’s lost greatness. The film also focuses on the psychological and ideological aspects of the philosopher, especially his strict opinions and his beliefs on the importance of Japanese discipline. During his preparation, he will meet a young soldier (Yasuo Miyake) whose views and unstable temperament will affect Kita’s plans.
The highly politicized decade of the 60s led many intellectuals and filmmakers to analyze and explore radical personalities of the past like Ikki Kita. In his book “An Outline Plan for the Reorganization of Japan” (1919), he expressed some views that were very closely related to socialism, although they gained popularity mainly among right-wing and nationalistic groups. Among other things, in his book, Kita refers to the nationalization of large enterprises, the minimization of private property and the demand of free education for all. Of course the whole plan could only be realized under the protection and blessing of the Emperor. His ideas have also ideological similarities with kokutai, the traditional politico-economic system of pre-capitalistic Japan. His books were popular in military groups that also were under his spiritual and strategic guidance. In this way Ikki Kita was able to arrange the assassination of Prime Minister lnukai Tsuyoshi in 1932 and the coup of 1936 that aimed at the restoration of Emperor Hirohito.
Yoshida does not follow a conventional storytelling and he remains faithful to the elliptical narrative that he had developed and perfected in the past and especially during the trilogy’s previous parts. Theoretically the film is a historical biography, but in fact it doesn’t provide many details on the historical period and the information on the real events is rather insufficient. The director prefers to focus more on Kita’s psychology and his particular personality. He also gives importance to the relationship that has emerged between the philosopher and his protégé, the young soldier. Yoshida also offers a direct confrontation between past and present, and tries to demonstrate how the older inapplicable techniques could not have a substantial presence in modern day society. The young soldier’s role is purely symbolic since he actually represents and encapsulates the controversial and rebellious youth of the 60s. Initially he seems enthusiastic for the upcoming changes, but briefly he seems unable to follow the preparation that is needed to achieve these goals.
There is a loose and intelligible connection among the films of Yoshida’s trilogy, so none of them is a successor of the other. Apart from the political and historical character, all the films have a strong connection with eroticism and the negative effects of love. In Kaigenrei the existence of the erotic element is not distinct at first sight. This erotic part of the feeling of love comes after a painful battle between ideology and personal desires. Kita is trying to stay strictly faithful to his ideas and believes that he must punish himself every time his ambitions dare to surpass his love for the homeland and the Emperor. The soldier’s love towards his spiritual mentor follows similar painful processes since he must remain unswervingly loyal to the discipline imposed on him, even when he feels weak.
Taking into consideration all these costs that were necessary in order to satisfy the needs of true love, it is extremely harsh when this love leads to betrayal. The philosophies and the alleged leaders betray their loyal followers. Firstly the Emperor betrays Kita and subsequently he himself betrays his soldier. Yoshida chose this intense way to express the emotional and ideological devastation of an entire generation, his own generation. He feels that despite the sacrifices and the great efforts for political and social changes through an established and acceptable system, this system has betrayed everyone since there was no positive change. This is his way to experience the depression of the unfulfilled hopes that had emerged during the 60s and he depicts this disappointment through the defeatist and sensitive young soldier.
Kaigenrei was not just the end of one cycle it was also Yoshida’s significant work of artistic maturity. Through his claustrophobic cinematography he managed to capture all the knowledge that he gained as director and screenwriter. According to him, this film has been the completion of his work, both in content and style. For that reason he took a thirteen-year break in making feature films.