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Koji Wakamatsu Reflects on His Career in Final Interview Before His Death

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Koji Wakamatsu - P 2012
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In his last interview before his death on Oct. 17 at age 76, the Japanese director talked to THR about being named Filmmaker of the Year at the Busan film festival and weighed in on five of his most important works.

This story originally appeared in Day 1 of THR's Busan Dailies, which ran Oct. 5.

Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu has always walked the road less traveled. While his name may not be known outside of Japan and the international art house, the prolific Wakamatsu has made more than 100 films, from the highly erotic to the overtly political. Now, as the Busan International Film Festival prepares to honor him with its Filmmaker of the Year award, the 76-year-old helmer says the recognition is appreciated -- even though it has arrived late in his career.

“I’ve always made films according to my own agenda and it’s good to have them recognized recently," says Wakamatsu. “I’ve gotten a few awards in Europe before, and not being a major company, we [Wakamatsu Productions] can’t spend much on advertising. So the publicity is always a big help, as it gets coverage in the newspapers, magazines and on television.”

Wakamatsu’s entry into the film world was nothing if not unconventional. Having left his native northeast Tohoku region after being expelled from high school, he came to Tokyo with no job and no money. He ended up working with a yakuza (mafia) gang, with his job being to “supervise” film shoots in the Shinjuku area of central Tokyo. In the post-war period, filmmakers had to pay the powerful yakuza gangs for permission to shoot on their turf. Wakamatsu’s role was to bring the lunchboxes, which were provided by the gangs as a way of receiving payment for their “services,” to the sets. His new line of work resulted in a stretch in prison, where his brutal treatment at the hands of the guards helped shape the anti-authority attitudes that still burn inside him half a century later.

“When I got out, I really wanted to get back against the authorities, but I thought if I used violence, I’d end up in prison again. So I decided to use another weapon: films. If you use violence in your films, it’s only in the world of imagination, so at least you can’t get charged with anything criminal."

Utilizing the connections he had made on the sets he had previously been in the business of extorting, he got his start in the industry, eschewing film school, which he dismisses as, “all about making money.”

“Filmmaking isn’t something you need to learn in school, it’s about imagination,” he says. “The best place to learn about it is on a set, not by studying. If a person has got no talent, it doesn’t matter how much you teach them. It’s the same for stuff like crafting things with your hands, cooking or architecture; you either have a sense for it or not. Though these days with the spread of digital video cameras everyone thinks they can be a director.”

Like many of today’s leading Japanese directors, including Oscar-winning Yojiro Takita (Departures), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata) and Masayuki Suo (Shall We Dance?), Wakamatsu began his career making the soft-core porn films known as Pink Eiga in Japan.

Wakamatsu maintains that his films weren’t really Pink Eiga, though they bear many of the hallmarks.

“I just made films; I never set out to make Pink Eiga or sex films,” he says, “but it was a business, so we had to put erotic elements into them.”

These films gave directors a lot of creative freedom once the required quota of sex scenes were met, allowing filmmakers to hone their craft through the genre. Wakamatsu used his work to deliver his anti-establishment messages and test the boundaries of censorship. Eventually, a dispute with producer-distributor Nikkatsu over the release of one of his films led to him forming his own company, Wakamatsu Productions.

Now in full creative control, his films became more political during the 1960s, incurring the wrath of the police, who accused him of being in cahoots with left- wing militants in Japan. Following harassment from the authorities, Wakamatsu closed down his production company at the beginning of the 1970s and returned to making adult films for other companies.

During the decade he also travelled to Palestine to make a documentary about the Japanese Red Army terrorist group, which was based there at the time, which would decades later become the subject of 2008's United Red Army, one of his most critically- acclaimed films. But thanks to his previous association with left-wing groups in Japan, the trip saw him branded a terrorist collaborator and blacklisted from travelling to the U.S. or Russia to this day.

“I’ve never been involved with terrorists, or done anything like that, but I still can’t get into America, though I’ve tried a few times. Though these days, you can go to Palestine without any problems.”

Wakamatsu later revived his own production outfit and, while still making some

erotically-themed films, began to shift towards overtly political stories once more. His Ready to Shoot, released in 1990, is a semi-autobiographical tale that charts his disillusionment with the left-wing move- ment in Japan.

In 2004, Wakamatsu released Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw, a film that examined Japan’s wartime past, including the thorny, and often ignored, subjects of women from Asian countries forced to work as sex-slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army, and the atrocities committed by it in China. It was through films such as Cycling Chronicles, along with Caterpillar and United Red Army, that Wakamatsu began to garner attention from cinephiles around the world. This has in turn led to retrospectives of his films and a reexamination of his earlier works — quite a turnaround for a director once dismissed for trafficking in cheap erotica.

“Once I got to 50, I decided I wanted to make films that people can look back at in 50 or 100 hundred years and think, “That’s what it was like in those times.” That’s the kind of films I’m trying to make.”

To celebrate Wakamatsu winning the Asian Filmmaker of the Year Award, BIFF will hold special screenings of three of his works produced this year: 11.25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate, Kaien Hotel in Blue and The Millennial Rapture.

Next page: Wakamatsu weighs in on five of his most important works.