Eros + Massacre (エロス＋虐殺, Erosu purasu gyakusatsu) is a Japanese black-and-white film released in 1969. It was directed by Yoshishige Yoshida, who wrote it in cooperation with Masahiro Yamada. It is the first film in Yoshida's trilogy of Japanese radicalism, followed by Heroic Purgatory (1970) and Coup d'Etat (1973).
It is considered to be one of the most representative films from the Japanese New Wave movement, and often one of the finest Japanese films. David Desser named his book on the subject after Eros + Massacre. The film touches upon many themes, such as free love, anarchism and the relationship between the past, the present and the future. Although the film is a biography of anarchist Sakae Ōsugi, Yoshida states that he didn't focus on Ōsugi as a historical character per se, but rather on how reflecting on the present influences reflecting on the future.
Like most of Yoshida's films, Eros + Massacre is characterized by the immense visual beauty, the appearance of the director's wife, actress Mariko Okada, and richness in psychological and historical complexities.
The film is a biography of anarchist Sakae Ōsugi, who was assassinated by the Japanese military in 1923. The story tells of his relationship with three women: Hori Yasuko, his wife; Noe Itō, his third lover, who was to die with him; and his jealous, second lover, Masaoka Itsuko, a militant feminist who attempts to kill him in a tea house in 1916. Parallel to the telling of Ōsugi’s life, two students (Eiko and Wada) do research on the political theories and ideas of free love that he upheld. Some of the characters from the past and from the present meet and engage the themes of the film.
The film begins with Eiko interviewing Noe Itō's daughter Mako in order to shed some light onto Noe's life. After that, we see a glimpse into Eiko and Wada's lives. Eiko believes in Ōsugi's principles of free love and the first time we meet her (after the cold opening), she's making love with a film director but gets interrupted by Wada, so later she finishes herself off by masturbating in the shower. She's also connected with an underground prostitution ring and is questioned by a police inspector. Meanwhile, Wada spends most of his time philosophizing with Eiko and playing with fire. The two sometimes engage in reenactments of lives of famous revolutionaries and martyrs.
Their story is interwoven with the retelling of Ōsugi's later years and death. The scene where Itsuko tries to take Ōsugi's life is retold several times with differing results. The 1920s scenes in general follow a different pace than the 1960s scenes, both musically and stylistically.
The story sometimes delves into surreal imagery, most notably the scene of two football teams playing a match over Ōsugi's ashes, or the segment where Eiko gets to interview Noe herself.
In the film's final scene, Eiko's lover/film director commits suicide by hanging himself with a length of film. Eiko and Wada gather all of the 1920s characters and take a group picture of them. The two then leave the building.
In his essay, Mathieu Capel addresses the following themes as crucial to the film: "As if Yoshida aimed at sounding the depths of history, testing its links with memory, putting under question the logical authority of the past over the present. Then, does the past exist beyond the words that state and organize it? Is what we call “world” anything but a tracery of “world views”? Then, how unlikely would it be for Itô Noe and Eiko to meet in a contemporary setting? In a probably conscious way, Yoshida grasps the same questions as contemporary structuralist thinkers do, mostly their obsession of the “text”, with logos as the leading organization principle."
In an 1970 interview for the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Yoshida explains: "The fundamental theme is: how to change the world, and what is it that needs to be changed? Reflecting on the present situation through the medium of an era already past, I came to believe that Osugi’s problems continue to be ours. Osugi is very well known in Japan – one could say almost legendary: he is someone who spoke of free love. He was assassinated in 1923 by an official of the state, massacred by the power of the state. This is what all Japanese historians believe; but this historical estimation only enlightens the past, and not the future. In making this film, I wanted to transform the legend of Osugi by means of the imaginary. Sure enough, Osugi was oppressed by the power of the state in his political activities. But most of all, he spoke of free love, which has the power to destroy the monogamous structure, then the family, and finally the state. And it was this very escalation that the state could not allow. It was because of this crime of the imaginary (or “imaginary crime”) that the state massacred Osugi. Osugi was someone who envisioned a future.
The two time periods in the film are filmed in different styles, even though they overlap at times. The 1920s scenes are slow, talky, with elements of the kabuki theatre. They are accompanied by dramatic orchestral music, while Yoshida utilizes the traditional Japanese interior architecture to portray alienation and distant relations between the characters by filming their faces and bodies separated by windows, doors, etc. On the other hand, the 1960s scenes are more avant-garde in terms of free-form visual approach and their psychedelic rock soundtrack.
To accentuate the notion of history being perceived falsely, the transitions between the two periods often feature characters seen from mirrors and reflected surfaces. For example, in the scene where Itō gets introduced to the staff journalist Hiraga Haruko, Yoshida frames their inverted reflections in a pond as they're conversing. The balance between the two time periods depicted in the film is very, very loose. For instance, when young Noe Itō travels from Kyushu to Tokyo in 1913 she does so in a shinkansen and arrives at modern-day Tokyo.
In an interview Yoshida states: "I adopted a style that brings Osugi back into the contemporary period. Therefore, when Noe Itō at age 18 comes to Tokyo for the second time having been called by [the feminist activist] Raicho Hitatsuka, she arrives at the contemporary Shinbashi Station with the shinkansen in the background and takes a rickshaw through today's Ginza. Ultimately, the frames of past and present completely disappear, in this way, there is the sense that contemporary young women and Noe Itō are able to converse. Therefore, this is one way in which I challenge history."
Yoshida's distinct visual style, using bright exposure and framing actors in unusual ways, is one of the most famous aspects of the entire film. Yoshida often frames the characters so that their faces are positioned at the edge of the screen, or separated by foreground or background objects. He explains that "when we look at the actual conditions of this world through the camera's lens, we must deny the random movements of the human eye and restrain the eye's constant movements in order to focus on one point. An image in motion pictures chooses one particular object from the unlimited space of the world, frames it, and excludes and ignores all other things as if they didn't exist." Mariko Okada as Noe Itō/Mako
Toshiyuki Hosokawa as Sakae Ōsugi
Yuko Kusunoki as Itsuko Masaoka
Toshiko Ii as Eiko Sokutai
Daijirô Harada as Kiwamu Wada
The film is generally considered to be one of the finest film to come out of the Japanese New Wave movement, and sometimes one of the best Japanese films in general. Although relatively unknown in the West, it has gained a small cult following.
Allan Fish, writer for Wonders in the Dark, considers Eros + Massacre to be the greatest film ever made. He writes: "Upon watching this film for the first time, even in the shorter 166m version that was for a long time the only one available anywhere with English subtitles, one is left drained, a quite literal mental wreck. Even those versed in the seminal works of Yoshida’s contemporaries, Oshima and Imamura, will be unprepared for this. That his work still remains unavailable to the English speaking world, barely mentioned in any major film guide or tome, is one of the greatest oversights of accepted film reference literature. If he only made this one film, Yoshida would be recognised as a giant. "