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Friday, Oct. 19, 2012

Sense of mission a hallmark of iconoclastic artist's life, work


Special to The Japan Times

Director Koji Wakamatsu, who died Wednesday six days after being hit by a taxi in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, was known throughout his five-decade career as an iconoclast, rebel and industry outsider.

These traits began in the 1960s, when he made wildly experimental "pinku" (soft-core porn) films, and continued in the 1970s as he allied himself with leftist radicals, including the notorious Japanese Red Army (although he distanced himself from their deadly terrorist attacks).

This image, I found when I interviewed Wakamatsu in 2005 for his film "17-Sai no Fukei" ("Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw") about a youthful serial killer, was all true, beginning with our first contact: He answered his own phone. In Japan's film industry, where directors of any status are surrounded by layers of assistants and PR flacks, this was all but unheard of.

As he gave me directions to his office near Shinjuku Gyoen park in his distinctive growl, minus the usual telephone "keigo" (polite Japanese), I wondered if he had fallen on hard times, a not-uncommon fate for an indie filmmaker.

But my first look at the building housing his company, Wakamatsu Production — a trim-looking two-story structure painted a cheery shade of yellow — disabused me of this notion, as did my meeting with Wakamatsu.

Despite a long battle with lung cancer that had thinned and weakened him, he was feisty, opinionated and totally without the airs of the distinguished auteur, even handing me a business card that listed his job descriptions in English: film director, film producer.

"I don't think I've changed that much over the decades," he told me, "but I'm getting older, and with '17-Sai no Fukei' I wanted to leave behind a kind of testimony."

That "testimony" had less to do with the troubled psyche of his young hero than the war experiences of elderly people the boy hears while on the road. "Somehow we have to make kids understand the horror of war, so it won't happen again," Wakamatsu told me. "People who can talk about that kind of thing are dying off."

This sense of mission was still vividly present when I interviewed Wakamatsu for The Japan Times on two subsequent occasions — once for the 2007 "Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama Sanso e no Michi" ("United Red Army"), his gruelingly realistic account of the leftist paramilitary group's rise and violent fall, and again for 2010's "Kyatapira" ("Caterpillar"), his dark drama about a decorated — and horrifically mutilated — soldier who returns home from the China front in 1940.

At each of these meetings, Wakamatsu was as unmellowed as ever. Instead of passing down his wisdom to the next generation like an elderly sage, he wanted to shake them by the scruff of their collective neck like a teed-off, if affectionate, uncle.

"We've got college kids now who don't know an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, who don't even know we fought a war with America," he told me. "I'm really fed up with that sort of thing. Now that such idiots are being born, I want young people to see ("Caterpillar"), to make them understand, even a little what Japan was really like."

He hadn't, however, lost his dry sense of humor. Mentioning Spain's win over the Netherlands in the recent World Cup, he commented that the Dutch were "sorry they lost, but the next day they go out for a drink and forget about it.

"So let's fight wars with soccer," he said. "Let's stop people from killing each other."


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