Any number of conventional movies could have been made about the lives of Japanese anarchist Sakae Ōsugi and his lover Noe Ito: a thriller-like investigation into his death; a romance about his various relationships, and so on. Kijū Yoshida's Eros + Massacre does none of these things. It’s not fiction or historical reconstruction, but an open-ended meditation, a way to show us the ideas that informed his life, not just talk about them. It is hypnotic, exasperating, pretentious, fascinating, tough to get into, difficult to sit through, hard to set aside, impossible to forget. I don't know if I like it, but I do think I love it.
Past, meet present. Present, meet past
Ōsugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa) was a fiery advocate for building a society beyond the strictures of authority imposed from above and out of the past. He was also a proponent of free love, and practiced what he preached by way of keeping a succession of lovers and mistresses, Ito among them, something that made his private life as fractious and troubled as his public one. Ito (Mariko Okada) was also a towering figure in her time and place: she edited a groundbreaking feminist magazine that was threatened with censorship for its radicalism, and called for the incremental deconstruction of Japan's existing conformist political matrix. She also fought for primacy in Ōsugi's life, going so far as to nearly stab him to death when he flaunted his other relationships. All their work made them into targets. In the immediate aftermath of the 1923 earthquake, military police took advantage of the chaos, arrested Ōsugi and Ito, murdered them, and threw their bodies into a well.
Eros + Massacre uses two parallel storylines to deliver this material and to comment on it. It presents us with scenes from Ōsugi’s history, real and imagined — his work, his dalliances with women, and his comrades. All this is contrasted with sequences set in the present day, as a cadre of young students influenced by Ōsugi and his ideas grapple with these concepts, enact them, and try to understand their significance. They fail more often than they succeed, as they're as much prisoners of their own conceits and their own messy erotic urges as they are prisoners of the modern world they claim to resent so much and want to overturn. "Free love" sometimes just means "sleeping around" (as Ōsugi and Ito find), and the righteousness of a cause doesn't neutralize messy emotions like lust and jealousy (ditto). If anything, it amplifies them, because "rational", "enlightened" people don't do such things, right?
Most films with a historical framing device of some kind rigidly enforce it, and so we are never in doubt whether a given scene is happening in the past or the present. Eros + Massacre toys with this freely. It doesn't insist on keeping its two time periods distinct by way of props, scenery, and so on. The past is constantly bleeding into and co-opting the present, in the real world and in the minds of those entertaining Ōsugi’s ideas. When the prodigious young Noe Ito leaves her country home at the tender age of nineteen and journeys to visit the editor of an influential feminist magazine (one Noe will in time take over), she does so by boarding the bullet train; when she arrives at a visibly modern train station, she’s greeted by a rickshaw driver, clad in the same period dress as she.
The effect is subtly unnerving, and it took me a while to figure out why. It's actually not all that unusual to see someone in her clothing in the modern era. In that sense, the film is not actually inventing anything or being fanciful. It is just finding a novel way to show us something that already exists: how Japan's present is in thrall to its past in ways that are out in plain sight and often go unadmitted.
The weights of history
One can always watch the movie just as straight drama, with the Ōsugi segments being the most rewarding. If the ways Ōsugi goes about embodying his ideas are problematic, he harbors no doubts as to how valid they are. He sees a future he wants to inhabit in the here and now, and every time something gets in the way, it’s to be treated as nothing more than an embodiment of the existing power structures. Hence his disdain for marriage, even while he benefits from it: it’s his wife who provides him with material support while he lands in and out of jail, or ekes out a living with his pen (the real-life Ōsugi translated Kropotkin’s autobiography, among other things). But great ideals about free love and a society free of abuses of power are just that, ideals — they wither and weaken in the face of the emotions felt by people in the real world and in the heat of the moment.
The parts of the movie set in the present day are even less formally structured. There, the female and male students, Eiko and Wada, each embody and echo many of the principles espoused by Ōsugi. Eiko and Wada are ostensibly lovers, but she is also openly carrying on an affair with an older man, a film director (he doesn't even stop pawing her when Wada enters their hotel room), and apparently garners money from her involvement with a prostitution (free love, again). Wada is bursting with revolutionary fervor, but also frustrated by how his feelings for Eiko run headfirst into the way she chooses to embody her principles. Again, there's that whole contradiction: great intelligence doesn't always come with great wisdom, or even any measure of personal grace.
Another contrast grows between the "then" and "now" parts of the film. Once, the principles and Ito embodied were matters of life and death; in Eiko and Wada's hands, they're posturing and game-playing. Ōsugi lived and died for his beliefs, if badly; the kids don't really risk anything at all. They have some idea of what's at stake — as when Eiko interviews one of Ito's descendants, and then later Ito herself, about the impact of that terrible day of the earthquake. But they have no idea what to do with what they learn. They aren't even able to learn that the messiness and contradiction of individual human lives makes larger, abstract ideals difficult, if not impossible, to embody on that level.
For me the greatest and most emotionally stirring parts of the film involve Noe Ito. The book Beauty in Disarray, available in English, covers her story in greatly expanded detail, if only in a more conventional historical-fiction package. I enjoyed that book, specialized as it was, for all the light it shed on that particular not-well-illuminated corner of modern Japanese history. Eros + Massacre touches the highlights of her story, but they are the right highlights, the ones that burn her and others around her most fiercely, and that revolve around Ito's thirst for both freedom and love. When she discovers her own husband Tsuji's infidelity (although it was she who approached him originally, and he who supported her without strings attached), and realizes Ōsugi cannot be wholly hers (because he cannot be wholly anyone's), she pledges to cut him loose and make her own way, knowing full well how difficult that will be for a woman in that time whose livelihood isn't some kind of physical labor. Ōsugi's commitment to his principles comes at a cost, the cost of making all three women in his life despise him and each other, and the cost of their animosity finally exploding in violence.
What it is that we can know
If Eros + Massacre isn't told like any other film I know, it also isn't photographed like any other film I've seen. Yoshida and his cinematographer Motokichi Hasegawa (who also lensed Yoshida's other movies in this vein, Heroic Puragory and Coup d'Etat) use widescreen not so much to fill our field of vision but to isolate and confine the subjects. Many shots are positioned with the camera pointing high, such that everyone's heads are at the bottom of the frame, and the vast expanse of the ceiling (or sky, or treeline) is above them, crushing them. There are no shots that make us feel like these are epic figures in history, stalking through scenes larger than life, because that would be antithetical to the movie's own ideas.
People reared on conventional filmmaking will grind their teeth at the way all this works. What’s wrong with just telling a story about the man and his ideas? I felt like this early on; the movie jumped around too much, was too abstract for its own good. But somewhere along the way, it started to sink in for me how “just telling a story” about Ōsugi wouldn’t have done the trick. The movie wanted to embody what a struggle with his ideas might look like in the form of a film, to show them in all their contradiction and complication, and maybe even to find a way to reconcile them with both each other and the modern age. As Faulkner once said, the past is never dead; it’s not even the past.
If the movie has anything else to say about Ōsugi and Ito, it’s an insight central to any historical figure: Any attempt to provide a single, fixed interpretation of what his life “meant” or what his struggle was “about” is doomed. People resist labeling, and good for them: as soon as we put a label on something, we make it easier to talk about, but harder to grasp without the label. Through its presentation and style, the movie is arguing against such labeling. Those who dare to put a single, fixed, unchanging meaning on history run the risk of turning it into dogma, from which only a single lesson — typically one meant to consolidate existing power — can be learned. Sometimes the movie embodies this by way of things like the way the present and past freely bleed into each other (Ito on the train). Sometimes it’s through black humor, as when a soccer match takes place, and in place of the ball we have the urn containing Ōsugi’s bones.
But mutability of meaning is not the same as no meaning at all. Small wonder Yoshida spends a fair amount of time at the end of the movie lingering on shots of the corpses of Ōsugi and Ito. If historical truth exists, it is not for the sake of self-flattery or self-aggrandizement. It is a process by which we humble and sober ourselves. "Appreciation [of these ideas] requires an ambivalent participation," notes the film in its opening cards. That’s what the movie does; that’s what we’re invited to do along with it.
Note: For many years Eros + Massacre could only be seen in a cut-down 164-minute version. This was not due to any dispute between the director and the movie company (although ATG, the distributor, did want the modern-day segments of the movie cut because they didn't work as well in their eyes). Rather, it was a legal issue. One of the characters in the film, Ōsuge's rival lover Itsuko Masaoka, was based on a woman, Ichiko Kamichika, who still had a real-life political career by the time the film came out. She resented the portrayal of her character in the film, and successfully sued Yoshida for invasion of privacy. Yoshida himself cut the film significantly in the wake of this. The Arrow boxset provides both the 164-minute version and the full 215-minute version, from which this review was prepared.