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September 24, 2013

Running in Madness, Dying in Love

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Kyoso joshi-ko
Koji Wakamatsu - 1969

Watching Japanese "Pink Films" when their reason for being was mostly about the sex, I felt the need to see something older, something with higher aspirations. Koji Wakamatsu could be counted on for busting taboos. Running in Madness has its fair share of sex and nudity, yet doesn't feel like an exploitation film as none of it is particularly erotic.

There is a lot of running, though. A student activist, Sahei, is running from the police following a student protest and riot, taken from documentary footage shot by Wakamatsu. In the small apartment of his brother, a policeman, the two men get into a violent argument where the politics are personal. The sister-in-law, Yuri, attempts to stop the brothers from fighting. While the three are tangled together, a gun goes off. Did Yuri shoot her husband with the gun he was wearing, intentionally or accidentally? Neither Sahei nor Yuri knows for certain. The two leave Tokyo for a journey through northern Japan.

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Primarily a two person film, what Wakamatsu is more interested in here is a criticism of Japanese society. As Sahei and Yuri venture further north, the landscape becomes more desolate and colder. Life is to be understood as following specific rules. In one small village, a young woman is punished for falling in love with a stranger. The two lovers are subject to ritualized punishment in the name of preserving the village. Sahei and Yuri go against the grain with their relationship, even with Sahei addressing Yuri by her given name, rather than using the honorific title of sister-in-law.

Jasper Sharp's book, Behind the Pink Curtain is quite helpful concerning the production of this film. Wakamatsu and screenwriter Masao Adachi became informally associated with Nagisa Oshima during this time, with Wakamatsu and his crew making their film while following Oshima who was making Boy, traveling north to Hokkaido. At a time when several filmmakers internationally, most famously, Jean-Luc Godard, were discussing making films based on intellectual theories, Oshima influenced Adachi, who created his "landscape theory" of filmmaking. As Sharp explains, "Landscape Theory drew attention to the political implications of fixing a landscape on film: how environment shaped personal and political identity; how State power was embedded in everyday landscape and came to yield its force over the individual; and how it should be represented by filmmakers."

The treatment of women is certainly subject for debate. I think Wakamatsu is criticizing how women fare in traditionally minded Japan, with both Yuri and the village woman shown beaten by men, including Sahei. At the same time, the use of nudity might be seen as self-contradictory. While there is a love scene with both Yuri and Sahei nude, that scene is followed by the village scene, with the nude woman running in the snow, pursued by men fully dressed for winter. The debate is at least as old as when the MPAA rules changed with the then new rating system, introduced in part due to the challenge of what was depicted in European 'art" movies, which in turn caused a liberalization of what was shown in films internationally. I am reasonably certain that the audience that came to see Running in Madness in search of titillation, probably left the theater confused or disappointed. In a snowy landscape lies the suggestion of vast emptiness, a blank page. In the end, there is only nihilism.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 24, 2013 07:28 AM