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Kiju Yoshida Fêted in Vienna

Kiju Yoshida in Paris in 1969

Through November 1, the sixtieth Viennale will present not only around 120 Austrian premieres but also strands devoted to the work of Elaine May, whose “genius” Christoph Huber extols in the current issue of Cinema Scope; Med Hondo, one of the most vital directorial voices in African cinema; and Ebrahim Golestan, the Iranian writer and filmmaker most recently seen in Mitra Farahani’s See You Friday, Robinson, a playful record of Golestan’s correspondence with the late Jean-Luc Godard. On Wednesday, Golestan celebrated his hundredth birthday.

Each year, the festival collaborates with the Austrian Film Museum on an extensive retrospective, and this year’s—opening today and running through November 23—comprises twelve features by Kiju Yoshida, also known as Yoshishige Yoshida. A student of French literature, Yoshida apprenticed under Keisuke Kinoshita at Shochiku, one of Japan’s major studios. Yoshida’s directorial debut, Good for Nothing (1960), announced an “immediate, restless talent, vision fully formed, grasp of cinematic tools and expressions already mature,” as Daniel Kasman wrote in the Notebook in 2010. “While other Japanese New Wavers were trying to capture a youth audience through filming flighty takes on the too young and too irresponsible, Yoshida aims squarely at the malaise of post-college new adults and the newfound prospect of becoming a tired salaryman in your twenties.”

“Together with early gems such as his absurdist black satire of corporate culture Blood Is Dry (1960),” writes Haden Guest for the Museum, “Yoshida’s Shochiku films revealed two predilections that would become important constants in his cinema: a talent for inventing bold, often exhilarating mise-en-scene and a fascination for characters driven by an insatiable, potentially self-destructive, and ultimately obscure purpose.” One of the studio’s most popular actresses, Mariko Okada, asked him to direct her in a brightly colored, big-budget melodrama that she was producing, Akitsu Springs (1963).

Okada had worked with Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse, and Yasujiro Ozu, and when Akitsu Springs—her hundredth film—scored at the box office, it may have been just another feather in her cap, but for Yoshida, it was a vital career boost. It also sparked a romance between the director and star that eventually led to an enduring marriage; both Yoshida and Okada will turn ninety early next year.

Yoshida remains best-known internationally for three films, Eros + Massacre (1969), Heroic Purgatory (1970), and Coup d’état (1973). Writing for Slant in 2017, Budd Wilkins described these films as “a loose-knit trilogy on political themes, investigating the ramifications of different political ideologies—anarchism, communism, and a particularly virulent strain of nationalism—on key moments in twentieth-century Japanese history.”

Eros tells—and then jumbles—two stories, one centering on anarchist Osugi Sakae, who was murdered by military police in 1923, and the other on then-present-day students devoted to Sakae’s ideas. “Over the course of its three-hour-plus running time,” wrote Michael Glover Smith in 2013, “the intercutting of these stories—based on fascinating thematic parallels—achieves an awesome Griffithian velocity, although Alain Resnais might be the best point of reference: Yoshida’s complex editing patterns fragment time and space in an almost-Cubist manner and the black-and-white cinematography is frequently dazzling in its Marienbad-like brightness.”

Heroic Purgatory, in which an an engineer for the Japan Atomic Energy Agency is confronted with his past life as a radical revolutionary, is “the world-beater, a more condensed and intense dose of Yoshida-ness,” wrote Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice in 2017. “Every vertiginous shot is an idea, and Yoshida musters the dislocation living in an arthouse science fiction film, when in fact it’s just life at the end of the 1960s.”

Coup d’état focuses on the last years in the life of Kita Ikki, the writer and philosopher often referred to as the “ideological father of Japanese fascism.” Ikki was executed in 1937 after allegedly attempting to overthrow the government—twice. “In its abstraction,” wrote Daniel Kasman,Coup d’état reveals the complete strangeness ingrained in the prewar revolutionary ideologies that called [on] Japanese to pay ultimate respect and homage to their country and its leadership by radically and violently attacking it.” Nearly half a century on, Coup d’état is freshly, infuriatingly relevant all over again.

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