Terayama’s iconoclastic classic is full of unfiltered madness and moments of political cogency. The main political push is in the title, and it is something that carries throughout the film: throw off apathy and disillusionment and take action. It’s deeper than this though, it is about throwing out traditional forms of art so that we can embrace different possibilities, and escape the shackles of cultural imperialism.
The title refers to books, and the film alludes to this directly: a later scene having a stuffy looking, bourgeoise restaurant patron – at a Western restaurant no less – proclaiming the import of a book he read. He speaks in purposefully obtuse language, trading only in vagueness. His notions of political growth from this text juxtaposed by his presentation and his surroundings. This is a core moment, a symbolic signifier of the attitude this film is railing against. Yes, it is ‘anti book’ but only in this specific way: it is against overly theoretical, traditionalist and dryly academic art. This is a film that sees no time for anything but praxis and sees theory as a stumbling block that holds action back. One stumbling block is the nature of film itself: its language, expectations and repetitions.
Marx is cited many times, his influence – and beyond – spilling through the work. As mentioned before, this is an iconoclastic work and established art is one of the main icons the film is combatting. Cinema is a central focus of the film: we start with a blank screen, then cut to a character (or is it the actor?) speaking directly at us, commenting on the black screen and questioning what we want. A dynamic is already clear, this is a film that is going to counter or evade expected rules – and it is interested in questioning cinematic expectation, as well as the audience that harbours these beliefs. Our initial discomfort takes us straight back to Marx, as this is an arresting opening. The film expects us to be in the theatre, to be with the film, and is aware that this is a semi-sacred space – one of semi-religious reflection and reverance. After all, this film understands the growth of commercialism and capitalism, and is deeply aware of the new gods, the things we look up to for meaning. Our cinema seats are our pews and the projected film is the glory we look up to.
So, to follow the thought logically, this film presents cinema as the opium of the people. These respected but static art forms are soporific and mollifying. Every entrenched rule decreases political impact and cinema, so the film implies, has been boiled down to something inert. We expect pleasing narratives – pleasing in a structural sense not even an emotional sense; we come to a cinema knowing the language of film and what follows is a conversation – a shared experience. This sounds nice, reverent even (after all, the community of religion is a pleasing feeling – an opium indeed), but it is stale, static and unmoving. It is hard to describe this film without stating that it diverges from all of our expectations of cinema, cinematic language specifically, and to say so is to admit that the medium is static. Diversions are defined only in relation to expectations; difference only exists because of sameness – because of homogeneity.
There are many films that play with form, though. Various New Waves the world over take the root scale that is cinematic language and then improvise on it. This film does not improvise; it does not obey the melodic rules of a scale; this film embraces dissonance. We have constantly shifting aesthetics and styles, jarring diversions, atypical cinematography and no clear central narrative. This is a chaotic work, but necessarily so. It is a call to arms, after all, a call for consciousness: wake up, throw away your sacred cows and rally in the streets. And, echoing this perfectly, the film speaks through those very streets – using graffiti as direct expression. Where traditional works speak to their audiences through narrative or character – or wider filmic details – this film spells its messages out on floors and walls. At frequent points, we cut away to see emblazoned, anarchistic – or more broadly reflective – graffiti. It is a film using the very streets it wants the viewer to take to as the vessel for its message. Say what you will about this film, and there’s a lot you could critique, but it is not a hypocritical work.
The wider philosophy on cinema also takes on an anti-imperialist, and definitively anti-capitalist, bent. Anti-Americanism is rife throughout the film, the US flag is shown early on, burning away to reveal a pair behind it, on the floor in a trainyard, having sex. This explicit imagery is rare in cinema, especially without context, and rarer still in US cinema. The transition seems purposeful and the argument clear. For, if the film is anti-cinema – and a speech at the end clarifies some key points – the film is against the way cinema has become. To return to the book metaphor, cinema has become traditional and dull. Books, to a younger generation, are a symbol of the past – of old media and culture – traditionalist expressions at odds with direct action. This film, like a lot of wider, counter-cultural Japanese cinema, is on the side of the youth. It sees the generationally divided nation of Japan as one of oppression, in which a youth population – made apathetic and powerless by a stifling society ruled by their elders (book folk) – need to rise up.
This spreads out to capitalist thought though, and American influence over Japan. Cinema is not an American art-form, but the global situation following World War Two, and during, placed America in a unique position to gain cultural hegemony over film. Relative stability made the States cinema’s temporary home, and the still nascent medium flourished there. Maybe not artistically, but definitely financially. Now, cinema is synonymous with Hollywood, a term used to now describe American output in general, but also an aesthetic. That aesthetic is the default aesthetic: the mainstream. What do we think when we think of cinema? Well, deep down, we think of the American model. This film comes from 1971, near the start of New Hollywood. While this was a great time for American film, one – from a distance – could also see it as a time of increasing hegemony, in which the Americans finally borrow the aesthetics and sensibilities of world cinema to spice up their mainstream features. It is an interesting time for film but it is a further dominance for Hollywood, adapting via imitation – flattering perhaps but really just a way to stay on top.
This film exists in that world, and at a downturn of Japanese cinema as a commercial force. It would only be six years later that Nobuhiko Obayashi would be told by a studio to revitalise the waning Japanese film industry by making ‘a film like Jaws’. This was the given instruction that led to the film House (1977), a bizarre conclusion that definitely did not fit the bill (but a real favourite of mine). So, while Obayashi definitely did not grant Japan its Jaws moment, this desire is a reflection of the state of cinema, as a popular art form, in Japan. This is a nation with a proud cinematic legacy and that legacy was falling into stagnation. Also, the want for Jaws shows the increasing desire for the Americanisation of culture – and this film knows that. One of the very best scenes is a speech that gives a clear metaphor. A character claims that Japan is a lizard inside a Coca-Cola bottle, it is unable to get out and is seemingly in love with its prison. These juxtaposing realities are fascinating, the natural against the commercial and an inherently suffocating scenario. From this we glean the idea that Japan is, at its core, fundamentally different – or that society is fundamentally different from capitalistic and American values. In this film, cinema itself is that Coca-Cola bottle: it is the Americanised art form that is trapping Japan, and artistic expression in general. Of course, the lizard is never going to climb out – and it can’t survive in there – the only answer is to smash it.
The wider film is littered with great metaphors, a central motif is a return to a Wright Brothers style flying machine – man powered. Our main character aims to take to the sky, and always fails. Towards the end, he stands over the burning frame of this vehicle, the dream of flight gone. On a simple level, this symbolises the man’s want for escape, an escape from humdrum realities into a more fantastical existence – a want to transcend. It also displays an atavism: the film is plagued by modern invention, here linked with capitalism’s spread, linked to the fetid train tracks the film often takes place in. Modern Japan is shown as is here, but is twisted – often through colour filters – to look like an industrial hellscape. The old fashioned plane is a push back into a past that had potential, one not weighed down by modernity. The failure, though, shows a need to push forwards and not back. For, though we wish to fly, this is ‘books’ thought. This is highfalutin theoretics out of the reach of most. This one manpowered machine will get nowhere, it is an insular act – at odds with the way the world works. These scenes represent another opiate, another pacifying element. We see how empty idealism, as opposed to collective and anarchic action, is doomed to fail. These scenes are quaint and beautified, a thing we laugh at before we witness the tragedy at the end.
But other prisons exist, we keep returning to a football (soccer) club. Again, this represents the proliferation of Western thought over Japan. These boys are stuck in this club, it is shot like a purgatory and is run by an unbelievably seedy individual who preys on those around him. The boys are pushed to barbarism and are emptily competitive, they also long for the days when football was played with human heads. This game being an import from the West, and a thing that now dominates lives, is a fascinating point. However, the want to return to a violent past could be Japan interrogating itself and its desires. This film is obviously not blind to Japanese guilt, it is a broadly anti-imperialistic work as opposed to simply anti-West. Though, it realises the cultural landscape of the time and shows Western hegemony – through football and Coca-Cola (and ultimately through film itself) – as one of the key architects of eternal ennui.
Here is the film’s central conflict. By breaking out of the bounds of cinema, it is a chaotic work. It is full of loud rock music, from progressive to punk, and stuffed with dissonant and transgressive imagery. It defies sense purposefully and is all the better for it. It is a bloated, over blown mess and its glory comes from this. Though, maybe a leaner film would push this point better – it certainly is an indulgent and self satisfied work. Yet, the world depicted in this film is not at one with this expression. We do have central characters that the film orbits around and they are not punk, they are not anarchic. We mainly focus on a brother and sister, the youth, who seem empty. Again, society and wider factors have ingrained ennui and passivity; the juxtaposing cinematic sensibility just reveals this. We are brought back to sadness by the only conventional elements of the film: the need to follow characters and represent a cogent view of society. This is a wonderful touch and allows the film to be an even more potent cry – and to ask the viewer what they even want out of film. There is action, excitement and anarchy around the corner, the stale sensibilities of art are holding it back – as is society. Therefore, throw those things away and rally in those streets. It is a potent, and electric, message – though one sometimes poorly, or uncomfortably articulated. Extreme content, or taboo busting sequences, are used to question the audience and to subvert their expectations. However, a scene of sexual assault seems deeply unnecessary – and is followed up with a crude visual metaphor of a man holding an animal carcass over his shoulder – ready to be processed into food. The film is primarily showing the younger generation as fresh meat to be fed on by society, and how society makes them turn on themselves, but in using sexual assault it plays into disturbing messaging. The people here are prey to their own passivity and to apply this logic leads us into victim blaming and presents muddied thoughts around wider messaging.
This is not the only misstep. It is a messy film. It is an overwhelming film and, at points, it is a boring film. It is also utterly terrific. The constant shifting of styles and perspectives is entrancing; the music is infectious (and lyrically hilarious) and the meta elements are incredibly clever. We end with a speech on cinema, and on what you have just watched. The curtain is torn down and we see a reality. We see the reality behind art and have art exposed as a façade. If all art can do, now, is mirror a sad society and be trapped by formal constraints, well, what is the point? Throw that away we say, rally in the streets we say. There are no credits here, just a parade of faces: look at the people you have just watched but look at them as they really are. Reconnect with people, humanity and urgency. Cinema viewers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your books: throw them away, rally in the streets.