The Political Context of Ecstasy of the Angels, an article by Phoebe Hadaway

Ecstasy of the Angels screens at HOME on Wed 14 Sep as part of an ongoing series of Cinema on the Edge: Japanese Film in the 1970s.

In 1972 Kōji Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels, written by Masao Adachi, was released in Japan. The film follows a left-wing terror cell’s internal disputes and self-destruction, released only a month after the Asama-Sansō incident (an incident that Wakamatsu would later revisit in United Red Army). Taking influence from Jean-Luc Godard with the angular editing and didactic ideological storytelling of his late 1960s work, Ecstasy tapped into a growing current of Japanese society at that time. Primarily the political violence following the nominal end of US occupation in 1952 with the Treaty of San Francisco as well as the factionalism of the left after the failure of the 1968 student movement. This article is going to act as a short exploration of the political climate that served as the inspiration and context for Ecstasy of the Angels, from the early anti-US military base movement to the later “New Left” student protests.

While the Treaty of San Francisco may have formally ended the occupation alongside the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan it allowed the American military to remain in Japan for an indefinite period of time. This led to popular and violent protests against their presence over the following decades. Bloody May Day in 1951 was one of the first. On this day in Tokyo, police and left-wing labour and communist organisations clashed outside of the Imperial Palace. This event led to an estimated injured protestors being injured and the rapid passing of the ‘Subversive Activities Prevention Act’ to clamp down further on “terroristic subversive activities” (Chapter I, Article 1.). However, this act did not stop the various popular movements that were emerging at the time. One of these was the Sunagawa Struggle, which lasted from 1955-1957, where local families formed barricades on their land to stop the expansion of the Tachikawa Airfield, which would lead to their eviction from their homes and farmlands. This struggle was bolstered by labour unions, members of the Japanese Socialist Party and radicals from the Zengakuren student movement. Over the two years there were violent clashes between the protestors and police until the plans were halted indefinitely in 1957.

In 1960 the first of many “Anpo protests” began in the country. Named “Anpo” after “Anpo jōyaku” the colloquial term for the US-Japan Security Treaty, the protests were a broad bipartisan movement formed in resistance to the revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty. As with the previous protests there were violent clashes between the protesters and police, now bolstered by right-wing nationalists. On 15 June 1960, as the protesters marched upon the National Diet in Tokyo, they were attacked by the right-wing nationalists. Despite this, members of the Zengakuren managed to storm the Diet itself but were met with a large police presence who began to beat the largely unarmed students in front of TV cameras and reporters. During this clash Tokyo University student Michiko Kanba was killed by the police. The protests would ultimately fail to stop the revision of the treaty, having to settle for the concession of Kishi’s resignation. Four months later in October 1960 during a televised debate, the chairman of the Socialist Party, Inejirō Asanuma, was assassinated by Otoyo Yamaguchi, a far-right nationalist who had been one of the many counter-protestors during the Anpo protests. Yamaguchi had become disillusioned with the right-wing radicals he’d fought alongside during the Anpo protests and decided that there was not enough being done to quell what he saw as an imminent communist threat. This paranoia around an imminent communist threat can be taken as a template for right wing thought at this time.

Following the Anpo protest there was a split within the Zengakuren. At protests now were several factions, who broadly agreed ideologically yet would spend as much time fighting each other as they would their ideological enemies. As the 60s continued there would be protests against the Vietnam war, against the construction of an airport outside of Tokyo which mirrored the earlier Sunagawa struggle and for better diplomatic relations with Korea, all to lesser impact and public support than earlier protests. Despite this, among sections of the radical right wing there was still the lingering paranoia of a communist takeover of Japan. In 1967, Yukio Mishima would become one of the leading right-wing figures proposing a Japanese National Guard, personally convincing right-wing college students to undergo basic army training. Then in 1968, the student movement re-emerged in Japan.

Starting with protests by medical students against an internship program that was seen as tantamount to half a decade of free labour, the student protests rapidly spread across the country. The students started to shut down and occupy campuses, some took professors hostage, whilst others simply protested tuition costs. On 21 October 1968, student protestors, alongside workers, non-radical students and other members of the public, stormed Shinjuku Station and rioted in opposition to the ongoing Vietnam war. This riot was ended by the invocation of the anti-riot act which brought 25,000 police officers to Tokyo to violently quell the protestors. This turned public support against the student protestors, as the broader public saw the riot simply as an act of chaos and violence with no political purpose. This defeat led once again to factions forming within the student movement. As with the earlier Zengakuren student movement these factions would begin brawling with each other, wearing distinctive coloured helmets to denote which faction they were a part of. The idea of solidarity that had once held together the struggles of the 50s had become eroded by the late 60s and as the student protest movement was beaten down and destroyed by increased police violence and aggression the left-wing became more violent. Turning toward smaller terrorist cells over broad organisations. Finally, in 1970, informed by his paranoia that the failed student protests would still lead to a communist revolution in Japan, writer Yukio Mishima would stage a fascist coup attempt. Mishima’s goal was to foment a coup that would return power to the emperor. He gave a speech to awaiting soldiers which was heckled and largely drowned out by the sound of helicopters. Mishima then committed ritual suicide.

Finally, in 1971, a year before the release of Ecstasy of the Angels, Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi travelled to Beirut after attending Cannes Film Festival to premier their film Sex Jack. While in Palestine they would co-direct the agitprop film Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War. The film opens documenting a plane hijacking by the Japanese Red Army in 1970 stating “The best form of propaganda is armed struggle”. This film makes Wakamatsu and Adachi’s stance on left-wing terrorism clear; they are both for armed agitation from the left. Along with their 1970 collaboration Shinjuku Mad we can infer that their views on the student movement’s violence and terrorist acts it that they are ununified, lacking the solidarity and clear objectives of the Red Army. In 1974, two years after the release of Ecstasy of the Angels, Adachi would leave filmmaking and Japan to fight with the Japanese Red Army and PFLP in Palestine until he was extradited back to Japan in 2001.

This sets the stage for Ecstasy of the Angels, Wakamatsu’s all too relevant and cutting lament on the factionalism of the student movement. Influenced not just by the political climate of the time but by active involvement in the left-wing attempts to build a better world. A film released in the shadow of a failed right-wing coup attempt and the growing aimlessness of the former radical students whose factionalism eventually destroys them.

By Phoebe Hadaway, University of Salford.