Tokyo’s period of acute urban unrest extended across the 1960s, beginning with widespread rioting, and demonstrations around the parliament building, in 1960, and culminating in sustained protests and confrontations that lasted throughout 1968 and 1969, before mutating into other forms; film constituted a sensitised medium for the exploration of that uproar, with a number of directors initiating stylistic experiments and outstanding approaches to the representation of urban space in transformation. In particular, two films from 1969, Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (Bara no sôretsu) and Nagisa Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Shinjuku dorobô nikki), probed the intimate rapport between the dynamics of Tokyo’s on-going urban unrest and the intensive artistic and sexual experimentation during that period in the city’s Shinjuku district. This essay gives an account of the unique cultural history of post-war Tokyo, and its relationship to filmmaking; it then examines the particular challenges faced by filmmakers in creating images of the excessive space of Tokyo, looking in particular at sequences in films by Chris Marker and Andrei Tarkovsky. The essay then considers Funeral Parade of Roses and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief as exceptional filmic explorations of the urban culture of Tokyo (a culture viewed by many of its participants as a revolutionary one); it then concludes by evaluating the enduring relevance of that strand of urban filmmaking for contemporary Tokyo’s visual culture.
Urban filmmaking in Tokyo at the end of the 1960s reflects the very particular dynamics and range of filmmaking practice during that era, as well as the wide-ranging architectural expansion and experimentation that had been taking place in the city during the preceding decade. In the face of a studio system which appeared to be increasingly disintegrating, Tokyo based filmmakers operated in a vast range and combination of forms and styles, from the structuralist experimental filmmaking exemplified by Takahiko Iimura, to independently or collaboratively funded projects, often preoccupied with issues of sexuality and dissident political issues, as in the films of Shûji Terayama. Filmmakers often oscillated between working on studio funded projects and more independent projects, at a time when the hard-pressed studios were focusing their attention on previously peripheral genres, such as pornographic and horror films, often commissioning directors to work on entire series of such films. To some extent, this flexibility and mutability of late-‘60s filmmaking in Tokyo replicates that of European filmmaking of the same period, including its concerns with political and sexual issues and with stylistic experimentation; however, the particular historical and cultural context of Japan in the late 1960s, and its influence on urban life and on urban representations in film, is distinctly different from that of Europe.
Both the visual form of Tokyo as an urban entity, and the tensions which generated the exceptional filmmaking of the late 1960s, have their origins in the large-scale destruction of the city during the Second World War, and the Occupation by US military forces which succeeded that destruction. As with many other industrial cities in Japan, Tokyo was extensively fire bombed, especially in March 1945, with enormous casualties in the urban population; entire areas of the city vanished, and four million people fled the city in the war’s closing months. As well as the human losses, the firebombing also engulfed Tokyo’s libraries, film archives, and historical buildings such as temples and shrines, so that much of the city’s historical and cultural history became erased. The American film historian and filmmaker, Donald Richie, arrived in the city in the following year, 1946, and commented on the visual reconfiguration of the city which its destruction had generated: “I stand at the main crossing on the Ginza, nothing between me and the mountain [Mount Fuji] … I stand and watch the mountain fade. From this crossing it had not been seen since Edo times, but now all the buildings between are cinders. Between me and Fuji is a burned wasteland, a vast and blackened plain where a city had once stood.”(1)
For many young filmmakers, artists and architects in Tokyo, such as Arata Isozaki and Juro Kara (the theatre director who plays one of the central characters in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief), the erasure of the city also entailed the sweeping-away of the constrictive militarist and familial structures of the pre-war era, so the city’s destruction also possessed an exhilarating aspect, with the sense that the city could now be transformed from scratch into an entirely new entity. However, the US Occupation of Japan, which extended from 1945 to 1952, created its own unprecedented cultural impact, including that upon cinema, since the American authorities imposed an often idiosyncratic censorship regime on Japanese filmmaking. American military forces remained in Japan, and during the era of the Vietnam war, air-bases close to Tokyo were to be used extensively to supply and reinforce the US war-effort. However, the most significant legacy of the US Occupation was the imposition upon Japan of a long-term treaty which many Japanese citizens, students and filmmakers, saw as subjugating the country to both the military and cultural power of the USA. The treaty, known as the ‘Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan’, needed to be ratified once a decade after its initial signature in 1960, and the violent urban protests and street battles – which form the key narrative event that frames late-‘60s films such as Funeral Parade of Roses and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief – were related in part to the treaty’s imminent renewal.
Those two films, then, are impelled by a very specific set of cultural and historical traumas, which impact directly upon the urban space of Tokyo as the location for the fast-moving riots and protests which inflect the films’ narratives. Urban space is in a multiple state of turmoil in such films, and therefore needs to be captured in a mobile way which accentuates the on-going process of urban and human mutation taking place; filmmakers such as Matsumoto and Oshima responded to those imperatives by adopting styles of filmmaking such as extensive use of handheld cameras and blurred or manipulated images, to indicate the speed with which the city’s uproar is being perceived.
In many ways, the process of filming the urban space of Tokyo presents very distinctive challenges and imperatives for filmmakers. The city has often been perceived, especially by visitors, as an excessive urban space, impossible to grasp in its entirety, labyrinthine in structure, extending into limitless suburban sprawl. Those demands of the city upon its filmmakers are present in works such as those of Matsumoto and Oshima, and the turmoil of the period of fast-moving street protests, at the end of the 1960s, served only to exacerbate that aura of excess. But the urban gestures and movements of Tokyo have also been revealingly seized by filmmakers from other countries, who have often incorporated fragments from the engulfing space of the megalopolis into films which are composed of trajectories across the city, generated in order to probe issues of memory and representation. From this perspective, Tokyo requires images which approach it at a tangent, either those resulting from a distinctive style of urban filmmaking, or those which disregard the archetypal images of a city of packed crowds, image-screens and multi-storey corporate towers, and seek to reinvent or realign urban space, in a parallel way to that in which the street protestors of the late 1960s aimed to do.
The French filmmaker and traveller, Chris Marker, visited Tokyo over a period of time that spans the city’s seminal filmic moment of 1969. Marker arrived in Tokyo with the plan to film the Olympic Games of 1964, the preparations for which entailed a wide-ranging transformation of urban space, including the construction of many inner-city highways, often poised one on top of the other in the city’s most crowded areas. During that visit, Marker made the film The Koumiko Mystery (Le mystère Koumiko, 1965) , about his obsession with a young Japanese woman. But the most revealing of Marker’s Tokyo images were collected in his film Sunless (Sans Soleil), from 1982, in which Marker returns to the city after a long absence, and films the locations of the city in which his memory has concentrated past moments – with those moments represented by past film images, so that film itself supplants the city. Marker visits sites with individual resonances for him, such as the Gotokuji temple, dedicated to the cats of Tokyo, but also amasses his images on the move, in transit from site to site, and from moment to moment, filming the sleeping inhabitants of subway trains, and interposing the hallucinations and nightmares – drawn from Japanese popular culture and television shows – which occupy their mental space. In his commentary, Marker evokes Tokyo’s unique urban space: “Tokyo is a city criss-crossed by trains, tied together with electric wire, she shows her veins … One could get lost in the great architectural masses and the accumulation of details, and that created the cheapest images of Tokyo: overcrowded, megalomaniacal, inhuman. He thought he saw more subtle cycles there, rhythms, clusters of faces caught sight of in passing, as different and precise as groups of instruments.” Marker also filmed confrontations between protesters and riot-police, just as Matsumoto and Oshima had done, though Marker’s images are primarily those of protests about the construction of the Narita airport in the countryside outside Tokyo, which involved the uprooting of numerous farming communities. He includes images of those violent riots in the computer-treated sequences of Sunless, as images which have entered the area which he calls the ‘Zone’: an area, inspired by Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), that propels the human eye beyond the habitual parameters of both the filmic and the urban, into an amalgam of future technologies and endless spatial mutations.
Andrei Tarkovsky himself visited Tokyo during September 1971, at a time when the urban protest movement of two or three years earlier had itself mutated, with many of its young participants despairing of the possibility of radical or revolutionary social change, and entering a kind of ‘internal exile’ within the ascendant corporate Japan of the 1970s, while others, inspired by terrorist movements in Europe, joined Japan’s own terrorist groups, notably the Japanese Red Army, the ‘Sekigun-ha’, founded in 1971 and allied to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Palestine. Tarkovsky perceived Tokyo as a salutary urban space, writing in his diary: “Japan is a wonderful country, of course. Nothing in common with Europe or America. Tokyo is an amazing city. There’s not a single factory chimney, not a single house that looks like any other.”(2) In this sense, Tarkovsky’s perception of Tokyo’s urban space is at profound variance with many other visitors to the city, who saw it as a site enduringly imprinted with the residues of its US Occupation, and also noted an extreme homogeneity in its architectural forms, especially those of its suburbs. Tarkovsky effectively streamlines and reconfigures the city for his filmic purposes. He had arrived in Tokyo to shoot a sequence for his film Solaris (1972), in which an astronaut, Berton, is inhabiting what Tarkovsky calls “a town of the future”: an unnamed megalopolis entirely composed of highway underpasses and overpasses, bordered by immense towers. Berton has an argument with another astronaut, Kelvin, who is shortly to leave on a mission to the planet Solaris; Berton then abruptly leaves Kelvin’s rural house, and in an extended five-minute sequence, the astronaut drives through the urban terrain of Tokyo at speed, from underpass to overpass, through the dense network of highways which had been constructed in advance of the 1964 Olympic Games. Finally, the camera ascends, away from Berton’s car, in order to view the chaos of intersecting highway-junctions from above. Once the sequence is over, Tokyo, which has never been identified, vanishes from the film. The city may be reinvented by such fragmentary apparitions within the films of visitors to Tokyo, such as Marker and Tarkovsky, in which memory, imagination and duration are intensively probed by transits across the face of the city, using the film camera to examine urban facades and to unleash sensations. But in films actually centred within the axis of Tokyo’s unrest of the late 1960s, as with Funeral Parade of Roses and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, that charge of urban tension comes to generate very distinctive stylistic forms of urban filmmaking.
Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses was principally shot on the streets of Tokyo, notably in the district of Shinjuku, which in the late 1960s was intimately associated with experiments in visual arts, as the location of nightclubs for the city’s gay cultures, and especially as the axis for the mass street protests which took place throughout 1968 and 1969. One area, in particular, a large plaza alongside the area’s railway station, was seen as a gathering place for both demonstrators and for sexual outcasts; it also formed an impromptu space for spectacles by performance artists, and also comprises the key location for Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. The department stores and business towers surrounding the plaza were already illuminated with immense neon hoardings advertising technology corporations, and by the end of the following decade, those hoardings had been replaced by the moving-image screens which reputedly inspired Ridley Scott, in planning his film Blade Runner (1982), for the depiction of an urban amalgam that oscillates between Los Angeles and Tokyo. The Shinjuku district had a heavy police presence, and Matsumoto was unable to obtain official permission to film there. As a result, the exterior sequences of the film were done covertly, usually in one take, before the police arrived to break up the filmmaking process. This urgency and spontaneity in part determines the stylistic form of Funeral Parade of Roses, as it does with Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, shot in similar conditions of rapidity. The film image becomes one infused with a sense of immediacy, with urban space caught by handheld cameras in single takes, which focus primarily on the faces and bodies of the characters in their juxtaposition with the surrounding buildings’ facades; such approaches resonate from the strategies of neorealist filmmaking in Europe. The film’s interior spaces form similarly improvised ones, shot in small rooms, often crowded with figures dancing or undertaking sexual acts, so that the camera has to manoeuvre and negotiate its way through space, with a perpetual sense of mobility.
That element of flexibility also relates to the particular forms of filmmaking adopted by young directors such as Matsumoto and Oshima in late 1960s Tokyo, and to the ways in which their films were financed and distributed. Filmmakers could form alliances with the studio system, and adapt their preoccupations to the demands of the studios’ prevalent genres of the time, such as youth-culture, pornographic, and horror films. At the same time, several collective organisations of independent film production existed in Tokyo, as they did at that time in European countries such as West Germany, and both Funeral Parade of Roses and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief were produced by the Art Theatre Guild company, which had been formed in 1961 and also produced films by Shûji Terayama. Although such production structures possessed relatively small budgets, they were associated with networks of autonomous cinema theatres which allowed the films to be widely seen. Both independent and studio-based filmmaking of the time presented combinations of flexibility and constriction, either in terms of the funds available for filmmaking, or the stylistic parameters of filmmaking. Funeral Parade of Roses was Matsumoto’s first feature film, and rather than moving subsequently into studio productions, his later work extended further into experimental forms, in short films which analysed issues of camera movement and the manipulation or multiplication of visual images.
The narrative of Funeral Parade of Roses, drawn obliquely from Greek mythology, concerns a young transvestite named Eddie who has previously murdered his mother and now works as a prostitute in a gay bar in Shinjuku, the Bar Genet. He also pursues friendships with other transvestites and with a group of young revolutionaries who are preoccupied with the on-going street-riots. Eddie has an affair with the bar’s drug dealing proprietor, but when the proprietor discovers that he is actually Eddie’s father, he stabs himself to death in their apartment, leading Eddie to then pierce his own eyes with the same knife, before going out onto the street, still clutching the knife, and attracting a crowd of onlookers; the final shot of the film circles through those onlookers before focusing on the knife, poised against the face of the city.
Funeral Parade of Roses is located in the gay subcultures of Tokyo, which literally take place underground, below street level, especially in bars, nightclubs and art galleries, as well as on the urban surfaces. In many of the subterranean, interior sequences of the film, dense crowds of figures amass, so that the film camera must infiltrate its way between the human figures. Similarly, once the action shifts to street level, the camera follows the film’s characters through enclosing masses of figures, who often obstruct or assault those characters. The filming of Tokyo’s urban space demands a sense of mobility that remains adhered to the bodies of the protagonists, as they attempt to penetrate that space. The opening out of urban space only emerges when the camera ascends to a viewing position above the city, in the same way that Tarkovsky, in the final image of his Tokyo sequence in Solaris, films the highway junctions of Tokyo as a panorama, from above. In Funeral Parade of Roses, those openings of urban space, from density to expansion, are situated at moments when the camera either looks down on the plazas of Shinjuku, from the summits of adjacent buildings, or else when the characters ascend to the viewing platform of a tower which gives a perspective of the entire city.
In Funeral Parade of Roses, the urban space of Tokyo is seen by its characters as being involved in a process of disintegration, reflecting the widespread perception of the time in Japan that rapid urban proliferation, together with pollution and the exhausting of natural resources, had radically destabilised the environment of the country, whose precarious existence was also mediated by the culture of violent protest against the US military’s presence in the country. Urban space constantly fragments in the film. In one of its sequences, a funeral takes place for the manager of the Bar Genet, who has committed suicide out of jealousy over Eddie’s affair with the bar’s proprietor. After the funeral, Eddie notices that much of the vast, decrepit cemetery has become waterlogged, and that many tombs have subsided, vanishing below the water. That disintegration of the cemetery is explicitly that of Tokyo itself, and Eddie exclaims that he wishes that not only Tokyo, but the entirety of Japan, would sink below water and disappear. The city is moving in precarious transits between moments of past disappearance, such as that of its destruction by firebombing in 1945, to future moments in which its excess, or the violence generated by its protest movements, may also entail the vanishing from sight of its space.
The title of a film directed by Shûji Terayama in the same era incites its spectators to: Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Out Into The Streets (Sho o suteyo machi e deyou, 1971). However, the young revolutionaries of Funeral Parade of Roses are never seen in the streets of Tokyo, and decline to participate in the demonstrations taking place at the moment in which the film is set. Instead, in company with Eddie, they remain enclosed in interior spaces, engaged in wild sex parties, and watching television news broadcasts which show images of the on-going confrontations between young protesters and riot police. They also make films of the television news images, and then project those films, of the media images of riots, to themselves, in the same room, with the film images distorted by technological processes of replication, in a parallel way to those which Chris Marker includes in the ‘Zone’ sequence in Sunless. Matsumoto anticipates a global obsession with media images of conflict, and the loss of a direct physical contact with urban protest. Revolution has been abstracted, and transformed into ever-diminishing media images, which form a source of excitation, for sexual acts or for the filmmaking process itself, but not for social activism.
Matsumoto also demonstrates the estrangement and familiarisation of urban space through film by including a number of interview sequences in Funeral Parade of Roses. As documentary elements, clearly resonant of those in films by Jean-Luc Godard, the interviews are inserted into the film to intentionally fracture its linear narrative consistency. In the interview sequences Matsumoto converses with young transvestites in the avenues of Shinjuku, filming them at night against the background of the district’s illuminated buildings. Most of the interview sequences follow a set framework, in which the same questions are posed and the same answers are given, so that they form a repetitive element of the film, providing a sense of stability within the disintegration and furore which the narrative itself carries. In part, that stability is provided by the recognisable urban presence, of the familiar plazas and hoardings of the Shinjuku district. The city may be eroding and submerging into riots, and the film’s characters are all heading towards death, but the distinctive urban aura of Shinjuku allows for the momentary cohering of filmic space.
Oshima’s film Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, filmed around the same period as Funeral Parade of Roses, opens with a sequence set in the same Tokyo location: the plaza alongside the Shinjuku railway station, where a theatre company are staging an open-air performance. In fact, the film never leaves the Shinjuku district, focusing on a narrow psychogeographical area which the film relates to the interior journey of its central character, Birdey, a young book-thief who steals from the shelves at the huge Kinokuniya bookshop, located directly alongside the Shinjuku plaza. In many ways, the film attempts to generate a narrative element from the particular resonances of that urban location, and its reputation as a site for counter-cultures and sexual experimentation, in the way that filmmakers of the same era might have selected as locations the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, or the Kreuzberg district of West Berlin, in order to conjure a parallel aura of urban exploration. Oshima’s film is concerned more explicitly than Funeral Parade of Roses with making connections between sexual acts and revolution, cutting directly between sex scenes and shots of the street riots in Shinjuku; the film ends with an extended sequence of rioting, so that its narrative is one that is left open, as though prised apart by the engulfing violent uproar of the period.
However, one factor which unites the two films is their obsession with the work of the French writer Jean Genet, whose novels are cited in both films’ titles, and whose film Un chant d’amour, from 1950, had been distributed internationally via filmmakers’ co-operatives and seen by directors in Japan; it exerts a strong stylistic influence on the filming of sexual acts in Funeral Parade of Roses. The naming of the nightclub where Eddie works in that film forms a homage to Genet, and when Birdie steals books from the Kinokuniya bookshop, he heads directly for the works of Genet, who had himself been a book thief and was imprisoned several times for those thefts. Genet was at the height of his international reputation in 1969, engaged in that period in his support for the Palestinians, for the Black Panther movement in the USA, and for the rights of immigrant workers in France itself; all of his novels had been translated into Japanese, and he was a seminal figure for many of Tokyo’s experimental filmmakers, artists, choreographers and theatre directors, as he remains in contemporary Tokyo. By an aberrant urban coincidence, Genet spent part of 1969 in Tokyo, where he visited his friend Jackie Maglia, and took part in several of the largest and most violent of the confrontations between the student movements and riot-police, in November and December of that year. Maglia recalled Genet’s participation in the demonstrations: “People hooked up to one another … so they’d be harder to arrest. Genet pretended to be ‘reviewing’ the masked soldiers who’d come to control the crowd. He looked each soldier squarely in the eye (many of them were handsome).” (3) However, Genet declined to meet filmmakers and artists while in Tokyo.
Even more than Matsumoto’s film, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief is a film of urban fragments, in which narrative elements are disconnected and subordinated to the exploration of urban space. The film comprises a set of momentary encounters, transits and pursuits, between the book thief and a female assistant at the Kinokuniya bookshop who arrests him in the act of theft, and between them and a theatre director played by Juro Kara. As with Funeral Parade of Roses, the film focuses on the ability of the mobile camera to scan the surfaces and subterraneas of the city, and collect traces and residues, including those imprinted upon exterior walls and buildings in the form of graffiti and advertising hoardings, which then amass, to form a representation of the city, in many ways allied to those created by neorealist works, as one in a state of crisis. Although the exploration of urban space is largely accorded the work of defining and carrying the film – to the point at which, in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, the characters occasionally appear peripheral to the film’s preoccupations – that urban space is itself one which is seen as disintegrating, subject to perpetual amendment, and presented as a sequence of fragments which will never cohere.
In both Funeral Parade of Roses and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, the revolutionary aspirations of the protesters are treated by the filmmakers with a degree of irony, and linked to the ideas of revolution as an art of performance which Genet had developed in his theatrical work. The revolutionary ‘cell’ in Matsumoto’s film never leave their room, and become consumed by the media images of the riots taking place in the avenues outside; the sexual imperatives around the relationship between the two characters in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief also render them largely oblivious to the riots which finally engulf the entire film. This preoccupation with an oblique, ambivalent relationship to activism and revolutionary commitment is also present in films by the director Koji Wakamatsu, who analysed the rapport between sexual and revolutionary acts in his films of the same era, structured in the form of exploitation or pornographic films. Wakamatsu was also preoccupied with the connections between the protest culture of late-‘60s Tokyo and the terrorist movements which emerged, directly or indirectly, from that culture; he visited the Palestinian liberation movements in 1971, and more recently made a film, United Red Army (2008), which looks back at the terrorist groups of 1970s Japan and at their implosive internal dynamics. Both Funeral Parade of Roses and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief appear prescient of the aftermath of the urban riots in late-‘60s Tokyo, in their depictions both of an all-consuming apathy, and of forms of terrorism whose imagery and definitions could be endlessly manipulated and distorted.
In that same period, the Tokyo based filmmaker Donald Richie made his film Cybele, which, like Funeral Parade of Roses, adopts a mythic narrative structure and uses a cemetery location, that of the vast Yanaka cemetery in eastern Tokyo, to explore its concern with urban and cultural disintegration. In the final sequence of his film, Richie depicted a group of naked figures who appeared to have been slaughtered and piled-up on top of each other – images which led to the censorship and banning of the film in numerous countries. In some ways, those images intimate an overturning of the sense of exhilaration and often playful experimentation which had occupied Tokyo based filmmakers during the second half of the 1960s, and resonate instead, even against the filmmaker’s intentions, more directly from wartime images such as those resulting from the US firebombing of the city in 1945. Those unexpected transits across time, in Japanese cinema of the late 1960s, are as revealing as the perpetual movements through urban space which propelled those films’ narratives and determined their distinctive stylistic texture.
The images of Tokyo’s urban space, in a state of violent turmoil, remain resonant ones for filmmaking and for digital arts in contemporary Tokyo, evident, for example, in the work of the director Shinya Tsukamoto and the mutating megalopolis of his films, such as Tokyo Fist (1995). The films of Takashi Miike carry an allied preoccupation, to those of Funeral Parade of Roses and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, with the city’s Shinjuku district as a unique urban environment in which events habitually occur that would otherwise be impossible and unconceivable, and which need to be seized at speed. The particular ethos of late-‘60s film-production and distribution structures in Japan, exemplified by the Art Theatre Guild, still survives in Tokyo through institutions such as Image Forum. After being rarely seen for many years, Funeral Parade of Roses and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief were, in many ways, resuscitated by the DVD medium, which allowed viewers the opportunity to reconstruct the time and space of their fast-moving urban transits. Even though the urban space of Tokyo, including that of Shinjuku, is now largely unrecognisable from its late-‘60s documentation in films such as those by Matsumoto and Oshima, it still presents an open environment for filmmakers and digital artists preoccupied with the scanning of urban mutations, and with the exploration of pivotal moments of disquiet and unease with the forms of the city.
That filmic exploration often took the form of an intimate examination of urban surfaces, and their interaction with the human figures poised against them. The urban surfaces of Tokyo, at the end of the 1960s, mediated a set of traces and indicators, about memory and conflict and sexual dynamics, that appeared precarious and unstable, and had to be recorded with both urgency and flexibility, in movements across the face of the city, generating films which enduringly appear as vital archives of the forms of urban space in a state of uproar and transformation.