The Japanese New Wave of the late 1950s/early 1960s introduced the world to a number of rising directors who are now icons of cinema like Nagisa Oshima, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Shohei Imamura and Masahiro Shinoda but it has only been in recent years that Yoshishige Yoshida aka Kiju Yoshida has started to receive the belated acclaim he deserves. His 220-minute masterpiece Eros + Massacre (1969), which told the parallel stories of two student activists and Sakae Osugi, an anarchist and free love advocate, startled critics with its radical take on sex and politics, not to mention a fragmented narrative approach with unusual camera compositions of widescreen black and white imagery. Long before that, Yoshida learned his trade at Shochiku Studio at a time when the company began making films about the disaffected post-war generation such as Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth (Seishun Zankoku Monogatari, 1960) and Good-for-Nothing (Rokudenashi, 1960), Yoshida’s debut film about an aimless youth and his attraction to the secretary of a rich friend’s father. The director would eventually part ways with Shochiku over creative differences and start his own production company in 1964 but his final movie for the studio, Escape from Japan (Nihon Dasshutsu, 1964), shows Yoshida imposing his own aesthetic and stylistic approach to what is essentially a B-movie melodrama.
Escape from Japan, which is bookended by avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto creating abstract paintings of intense colors on glass to the experimental music of Toru Takemitsu and Masao Yagi, is set before the opening of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. As the country is preparing to celebrate their emergence on the world stage after the war, poverty, corruption and crime are still widespread problems and Tatsuo (Yasushi Suzuki), a local yakuza’s underling, feels trapped in this milieu. His fantasy is to escape to America where he hopes to become a famous jazz singer. His drug-addicted boss Takashi (Kyosuke Machida) has promised to help launch his career but first Tatsuo must drive the getaway car for a planned heist of a Turkish bath house. Takashi’s mistress Yasue (Miyuki Kuwano) works as a hostess at the business but soon becomes a liability when the robbery ends badly.
During the getaway, Tatsuo hits a policeman trying to halt his car and the officer lands on the windshield, where he is shot dead by Takashi. The three thieves go into hiding with the stolen loot and Yasue joins them but is deemed untrustworthy and a security risk. After trying to make her take an overdose of sleeping pills, Takashi orders Tatsuo to kill Yasue but he refuses and it culminates with the death of Takashi’s partner and Tatsuo and Yasue on the run with the stolen money while Takashi is incapacitated from heroin withdrawal.
Once the press identifies Tatsuo as the hit-and-run driver/murderer, a police manhunt ensues while Yasue tries to find a way to help Tatsuo escape the country. To make money, she is briefly coerced into working at a brothel but when that ends badly, Yasue appeals to her friend Mitsuko (Sumiko Sakamoto), who is dating an American soldier with connections at the nearby U.S. Air Force base. A plan is hatched to smuggle Tatsuo onto the base where he will hide in the cargo hold of a plane bound for Korea and try to get to America from there. Unfortunately, the scheme unravels quickly due to Tatsuo’s impulsive behavior and he finds himself trying to go underground amid the Olympic opening festivities.
Shochiku expected Escape from Japan to be another troubled youth crime drama that was currently in vogue but Yoshida, who was chafing against their artistic control, managed to inject the formulaic plot with unique stylistic choices, moments of sly satire and social commentary. His depiction of the two main protagonists – Tatsuo and Yasue – is equally unconventional in the sense that instead of being sympathetic, they come across as pathetic losers, who often sabotage their own efforts to change their lives. Their downward spiral works better as a dark comedy of errors instead of a romanticized tale of young fugitive lovers. In fact, there is hardly any romance between them but more of a spiritual bond between two unlucky nobodies.
In the role of Tatsuo, Yasushi Suzuki is not sympathetic and almost impossible to like with his manic, hyperactive behavior and impulsive decision-making that is more appropriate for a temperamental child than a man in his early twenties. He also appears to have no discernable talent despite his dreams of becoming a famous singer. When we first see him in the film, Tatsuo is lip-synching a song being performed by a nightclub singer in the room below and the Americanized lyrics and music are closer to a goofy pop song than a jazz number. In real life, Suzuki was a popular jazz singer in clubs and on TV but, in Yoshida’s subversive take on the character, Tatsuo is a delusional no-talent.
Yoshida also uses Tatsuo’s character to make some pointed cultural insights about Japan’s national identity such as the scene where Tatsuo meets a Korean stowaway in the plane bound for Korea toward the end of the film. The Korean mistakes Tatsuo for someone who is fleeing Japan for ideological reasons but when he realizes that the Japanese man merely wants to be a jazz singer, he denounces him for his decadent interests and tells him he doesn’t want his kind in a communist utopia. The irony is that Tatsuo has no interest in going to Korea but is using that option as a means to get to the U.S. The fact that Tatsuo hungers for fame in America was not typical of any Japanese youth at the time but Yoshida also makes it clear that corruption and crime exists in every culture as noted by the American soldiers who secretly work with Japanese black marketeers for profit.
Yasue’s character is less impulsive than Tatsuo but, as a woman, she often plays the victim card and wears it like a badge of honor. At one point, she says to him, “You and me, We’re the same…often betrayed.” She even finds humor in their desperate situation, often laughing at their bad luck, even when she is the cause. For example, she loses the bag of stolen money on a golf course at night while fleeing military personal. The next day as the police close in on Tatsuo, he sees the money being scattered to the wind across the pastoral landscape in a scene that mirrors the ironic finale of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and other classic noirs.
The executives at Shochiku and Yoshida had had creative differences in the past but when they imposed their own ending on Escape from Japan, Yoshida quit in protest. In the existing prints of the film, Tatsuo becomes increasingly agitated and, after forcing a van of Japanese reporters covering the Olympics to help him escape the authorities, ends up dangling from a ship’s crane between the dock and the vessel’s cargo hold, singing and laughing hysterically. In an interview with Cahiers du Cinema, Yoshida revealed that the last reel was supposed to show a young man going mad; Shochiku withdrew it from distribution in theaters. I knew at this moment that I could not in any way continue working for Shochiku.” Tatsuo does indeed go mad at the end of Escape from Japan but the final shot leaves him suspended in mid-air as if in limbo. According to another source, the original ending had Tatsuo blending in with the parade marchers at an Olympic welcoming ceremony and vanishing into the crowd. But this has yet to be confirmed by other sources.
In an interview with Alexander Jacoby and Rea Amit of Midnight Eye, Yoshida addressed his years at Shochiku,”I was originally intending just to follow the regulations there, as I thought of my job there merely as a small part in an industry, and of their films simply as something that needed to be produced. Then they asked me to write scripts for youth films, so I was trying to do exactly that, to write what I thought of as Shochiku-style psychological scripts. However, and this was a crucial aspect in my work for Shochiku, for me youth is necessarily a destructive force. Or youth is something that is really impossible. The idea that youth is a splendid thing, as they show in commercials, is merely an illusion, this is how I thought then and still, actually, think today…. I became an anti-Shochiku-style youth film director. And this was my starting point there, and from that point I continued making anti-Shochiku, anti-cinematic, and most of all, anti-commercial films. Needless to say, continuing like this in the long run is impossible. I knew it right from the beginning and always had in mind that every film I made might be my last.”
Escape from Japan is not a typical genre offering from Shochiku and most viewers will be frustrated by Yoshida’s quirky handling of the narrative which is often as chaotic and unpredictable as Tatsuo’s behavior. The film, most of which takes place in a nocturnal world, achieves a noir vision of hopelessness and despair in direct contrast to the upbeat optimism and national pride surrounding the Summer Olympics of 1964. The striking color cinematography by Toichiro Narushima (Double Suicide, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) is distinguished by offbeat camera angles (overhead, from below or peeking around corners) and unconventional framing such as a scene of a dead gangster in a bathtub in which we only see a bloody leg hanging over the edge.
Yoshida would strike out on his own after Escape from Japan and marry actress Mariko Okada, who would become his most important leading lady in A Story Written with Water (Mizu de Kakareta Monogatari, 1965) and such later career highpoints as Farewell to the Summer Light (1968), Eros + Massacre (1969) and Heroic Purgatory (1970). He often said he was influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman during his New Wave years and you can see aspects of that in his evolving work which is intellectual and contemplative but also experimental and radical in the look and tone. He was often overlooked outside Japan in terms of international recognition but he was nominated for the Palme d’Or for his 1988 adaptation of Wuthering Heights and recognized by Awards of the Japanese Academy for the 1987 drama A Promise (Ningen no Yakusoku). Yoshida died in December 2022 at age 89 but he lived long enough to see Arrow Video release a 3-disc special edition entitled Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism, which includes his unofficial trilogy of Eros + Massacre, Heroic Purgatory and Coup d’etat.
As for Escape from Japan, it is not currently available for purchase on any format in the U.S. but you might be able to buy a Japanese import DVD from online sellers. You can also stream it in a decent print on Youtube (without the aid of English subtitles). As film buffs continue to discover his work, I predict that most of his work will someday be available in the U.S. on Blu-ray or some format.
Other links of interest: