One of the opening scenes in Wakamatsu Koji’s film, Ecstasy of the Angels, presents two lovers in bed in a provocative display of groping flesh and cries of pleasure. Close-up shots of the leading man, October’s, hands and face on his partner, Fall’s, nipples, introduce an undeniably pornographic component to the scene. Post-coitus, they casually discuss their relationship and hint at future conflict. Though seemingly ordinary from this description, the scene is emblematic of the film’s fusion of erotic images and critical story elements and by extension of the Japanese Pink Film genre in its blending of sex and narrative. It is this combination that compels Pink Film to be discussed in the context of Linda William’s concept of body genres; genres that give our bodies an “actual physical jolt” on one level and that require examination in terms of form, function, and effect on the spectator (2).
Pink Film emerged in Japan in the 1960s partly in response to changing tides in filmmaking and film viewing. In the early part of the decade, the studio system began to decline as production costs soared but attendance numbers and revenues plummeted (Domenig 32). Studios were forced to decrease production and focus on fewer big budgeted films, leaving a gap for independently produced, low budget films to fill in market demands. One of the tenets of Pink is that it is produced independently in five to seven days with an original budget of 3 million yen (approximately $30,000) (Nornes 3). Pink Films are shot on 35mm and include roughly five simulated sex scenes per film that are situated within a narrative story. Because of their soft-core pornographic quality, Pink Film audiences are largely made up of adult males. (Domenig 17).
Other than the budgetary restrictions, emerging Pink filmmakers were free to experiment outside of the control of the previously dominant studio system. This enabled new and unknown filmmakers to begin careers with no formal studio training which, by nature, places it in opposition to mainstream film. As Abé Mark Nornes notes in “The Pink Book: Introduction,” in its development, Pink acted as a “free space where talented artists could accomplish unique and compelling films that would otherwise never be made.” One of these artists, Wakamatsu Koji, stands out as successfully navigating the Pink genre in unique, compelling, and politically provoking ways.
In the 1960s and 70s Wakamatsu worked within the structure of Pink Films to create politically and formally experimental films. His work often focused on the political activism of the extremist group, the New Left, referencing media events and using journalistic images to create relationships to current events. As Yuriko Furuhata explains in “The Actuality of Wakamatsu: Repetition, Citation, Media Event,” “despite being fictional, the diegetic worlds of Wakamatsu’s films are contiguous with the historically ‘real’ world outside the screen” (151). Wakamatsu was not the only filmmaker making politically charged Pink films. Furuhata argues that the nature of Pink Film’s short turnaround time can partially account for Pink filmmakers’ journalistic tendencies, as films were churned out constantly, in a cycle similar to news. Wakamatsu’s use of political and sexual violence is also indicative of the larger genre as these adult themes were often the subject of Pink films. Again, the nature of the turnaround times and Pink’s proximity to the media cycles may account for the similarities between the subjects of Pink Films and violent events that tend to be the focus of media (154). Wakamatsu’s work in the 60s and 70s focused on this link between cinema and media as he often referenced current media events in his work. In Sexual Reincarnation: Woman Who Wants to Die, Wakamatsu references the unsuccessful coup attempt of Mishima Yukio in his film about a failed coup and even includes newspaper clippings and press photographs from the actual event.
The cultural reflection and journalistic elements of Pink Film align it with Williams’ exploration of “body genres” as more than a gross excess of bodily sensations. In her essay, “Film Bodies: Gender,” Williams outlines three categories that fit into Carol Clover’s original concept of the term, “body genres.” Where Clover explores the idea of spectatorship in the sensational genres of horror and pornography in her essay, “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,” Williams adds melodrama to the list. She elaborates on Clover’s focus on gender identification to contemplate the nature of these body genres and their cultural functions. At its most basic, a body genre is defined by its affect on the body of the spectator. Horror, pornography, and melodrama are all treated as culturally low genres with the direct aim of stimulation. It should be noted that both Clover’s and Williams’ illustrations on pornography focus on heterosexual male-female pornography, though in the context of body genre a more general view of pornography seems to work as well. These genres are viewed as reveling in their excesses in order to impose bodily responses. In horror films, the body reacts to unsuspected scares in a jump of fear or even a gasp or scream; in melodrama, accumulated loss and disappointment lends itself to empathetic tears; in pornography, sexual acts are meant to arouse and culminate in orgasm. Williams states, “alone or in combination, heavy doses of sex, violence, and emotion are dismissed by one faction or another as having no logic or reason for existence beyond the power to excite” (Williams 3). She goes on to argue that this is an incomplete categorization as it ignores the ends to which these genres aim to affect.
My original description of the opening sex scene of Ecstasy of Angels helps to place Pink in the category of body genre as well as separate it from Willliams’ concept of pornography. The naked bodies, close-ups on body parts, and audible moaning undoubtably create bodily sensations and the genre’s mandate of routine sex scenes ensures that those sensations are never too far removed from the narrative of the story. Contrary to pornography, Pink films are not solely measured by their ability to arouse to the point of orgasm. Their fusion of sex and story as well as their place in political and experimental spheres delineates them as distinct from pornography.
In a further study into the features that link body genres, Williams outlines a few major identifiers. Whether it is weeping in melodrama, terror in horror, or pleasure in pornography, these genres center on the spectacle of intense emotions. Pink, too, can be linked by emotions of intense pleasure (in sex scenes) and intense pain (in torture or violent scenes). In Ecstasy of the Angels, pleasure and pain intersect when a love scene between Fall and October’s political followers, Monday and Friday, is interrupted by a threatening rival: February of Winter’s group. Though their leftist faction is led by The Year, October’s divisions faces an ideological crossroads that creates an enemy of the previously allied Winter. The scene begins with a Monday and Friday joyously rolling around in bed, groping each other and shouting happily. The doorbell interrupts them and February’s soldiers rush in, immediately placing both Monday and Friday in positions of exposure. When they resist February’s demands to divulge the location of their recently acquired weapons, his cronies beat and stab them into submission. Wakamatsu frames their pain in close-up shots of their bleeding and tortured faces.
Another aspect of Williams’ body genres is their focus on forms of ecstasy and their mutual inclusions of spasms of the body, or images of the body “‘beside itself’ with sexual pleasure, fear and terror, or overpowering sadness” (4). Pink Film can easily be categorized with the inclusion of images of the body in both sexual pleasure and often in intense distress as well. Williams explains that these depictions of ecstasy are traditionally portrayed through female bodies: in melodrama through the leading lady who is most often the bearer of anguish and sadness; in horror through the fears of the final girl who is often tortured by a monster or killer; in (non-homosexual male-male) pornography through the image of a woman experiencing intense pleasure. The spectacle of the female body in ecstasy is certainly a characteristic in Pink Film. In the aptly named Ecstasy of the Angels, it is most often female pleasure that is highlighted within sex scenes. Though both male and female bodies are displayed engaging in sex acts, the women are much more visually and aurally expressive in their enjoyment. When October and Friday are seen masturbating together, Friday continues to pleasure herself long after October ceases and lays down.
According to Williams, the low status of body genres is a result of this relation to the female body and the spectators’ impression of manipulation through alignment with victimization, and through a gendered lens, feminization (5). Traditionally, certain pornography has been categorized as sadistic, melodrama as masochistic, and horror as walking the line between the two. Williams argues that the body genres act as both sadistic and masochistic in their fluctuation between passivity and activity. If we assume passivity lends itself to masochism and is gendered female and activity lends itself to sadism and is gendered male, Williams’ notions on gender’s role in body genres adds to further understanding of Ecstasy of the Angels.
Activity and passivity intersect throughout Ecstasy of the Angels in shifting ways. Centered on the political activism of October’s leftist subgroup, an early scene shows the group stealing American weaponry from a U.S. outpost. The American soldiers become aware of them and retaliate with explosives, and October is blinded in the exchange. From early on in the film, October is weakened by his blindness and becomes a passive character as he recuperates. His torment when he discovers his permanent injury is magnified through close-ups on his face and newly sightless eyes. Despite his permanent blindness, he quickly regains not only his status as a determined, active character but a renewed outlook on the goals of his newly separated faction.
Passivity through weakness is likewise explored through Monday’s and Friday’s violent interactions with February. After barging into their apartment and beating them for information, he gives the command to rape Friday “until she talks.” Friday is already incapacitated from pain and the rape doesn’t have a visibly physical effect on her compliance. It does, however, affect Monday, who is forced to sit by as his lover is assaulted in front of him. His bloody face is shown grimacing in turmoil as he struggles against his own submission. As he moves towards her unconscious body, his passivity gives way to activity as he decisively reveals the location of the weaponry that February seeks. Larger themes in the film reflect this struggle between activity and passivity as well in the constant in-fighting within The Year’s offshoots. From October’s decision to branch away from Fall and her ties to Winter to the resolution to continue in a more anarchistic form of activism, questions of apathy and activity are posed throughout.
In examining the gendered politics of passivity and activity within Ecstasy of the Angels, the most valuable conclusion is the idea that they are not fixed and by their ties to the sex, violence, and emotion of the genre, they exhibit the functionality of these elements. As Williams’ argues on behalf of all body genres, these elements of body spectacle thought to be excessive and gratuitous are actually at their foundation purposefully functional (9). Because Pink Film emerged as a place for filmmakers to experiment and create outside of studio limitations, the sex scenes can be used as opportunities to fulfill narrative functions in addition to their fulfillment of genre restrictions. This is especially true in Ecstasy of the Angels in which the sex scenes function as both narrative guides as well as maps through the politics and power struggles unfolding.
In the scene in which October discovers his blindness and begins to fall into despair, Friday grabs his hand and declares, “I want you to hold me.” In the subsequent sex scene the two writhe around together for a bit and then move on to the simultaneous masturbation referenced above. Though they are propped against each other, the two bodies function separately and they independently exit the experience with a sense of determination in their faction’s new path towards anarchic activism, as if Friday’s sexual advance reinvigorated herself and October.
The politics of The Year leftist group are complicated and ever-changing. The sex scenes serve as navigation through the alliances and power struggles between parties, as evidence in the first scene between Fall and October. The hierarchy of The Year is easy to understand as leaders’ names branch from the four seasons, to individual months who act as leaders of their own subgroups, and then days of the week as activist soldiers. In this understanding, Fall and Winter work within an alliance as part of The Year, Fall is October’s direct supervisor, and Monday and Friday act under October’s control. The power dynamics change drastically within this structure, from the beginning of the film, when all four seasons meet in partnership, to the end of the film, when Fall’s faction has spiraled out of her control and they depart ominously, leaving Fall wailing in distress.
Wakamatsu navigates the power shifts through sex scenes that define and question the hierarchy. After the first sex scene between Fall and October, as they lay together in bed, October muses on his role within the system and the potential position of power he has by sleeping with Fall. “If I overthrow Fall… If I ruin you… What will I be then? Will I be Fall? Or the Year?” he asks. To which Fall reassures her dominance by demanding, “be quiet and hold me.” Later, when Winter and Fall discuss the insubordination of October’s group during a sexual encounter, Winter lectures Fall on her inability to control her soldiers. In this case, the ability to sexually satisfy indicates power as Winter focuses on pleasuring Fall while he criticizes her leadership.
Wakamatsu combines experimental elements with sex scenes in Ecstasy of the Angels, which further defends the notion that these scenes are intentionally functional. Though the film is predominantly in black and white, the previously discussed first sex scene between Fall and October is in color. October’s musings on his place in the militant group in this scene appear to be the first time he entertains notions of defection. In the sex scene between October and Monday in which he regains his political clarity, the black and white film suddenly turns to color as October has his epiphany, “there’s a fire in my head! Burning forever!” And with that realization he appears both sexually satisfied, and politically reinvigorated. In this way, Wakamatsu uses jumps to color to indicate ideological revelations which initially coincide with sexual experiences.
In addition to being narratively functional, sex in Pink Films can also act as reflections on larger social issues. This is common thread between body genres, as understood through Williams’ conclusions. She argues that sex, violence, and emotion in these films, “address persistent problems in our culture, in our sexualities, in our very identities.” These elements are not gratuitous, they are functional and can be examined as “a cultural form of problem solving” in the ways in which they approach problematic subjects. As a genre that emerged as a format for filmmakers to experiment outside of the studio system, Pink continues to fit into this categorization of body genre. Wakamatsu is an ideal candidate to explore this idea of excesses functioning as cultural reflection because of his focus on journalism and media events.
A month before Ecstasy of the Angels was released, the Asamo Sanso incident occurred in which the leftist group, the United Red Army, took a hostage and engaged in a nine day shootout with police. The event was momentous both because it led to destructive in-fighting within the movement and because it was an incredibly sensational media event that was broadcast on televisions across the nation. Even excluding the understanding that Wakamatsu often referenced media events in his work, a clear parallel can be drawn in Ecstasy of the Angels and its focus on in-fighting and ideological crossroads within an extreme leftist organization.
Wakamatsu’s “cultural problem solving” in Ecstasy of the Angels does not appear to stop at the exploration of themes referencing the Asamo Sanso incident. He seems to be exploring larger ideas about the nature of the media event itself and the ways in which subversive political movements function within a culture of journalistic spectacle. As Furuhata outlines in the “Actuality of Wakamatsu,” many of Wakamatsu’s films focus on the “mediatization of politics” and what that means for the political agendas themselves. According to Furuhata, he explores these themes in his films through displays of sex and violence in which, “pornography and political activism are rendered equivalent to one another insofar as they circulate as commodities in the economy of journalism” (173). In other words, sex and revolutionary politics are treated as spectacles in Wakamatsu’s work as a criticism of the ways in which they are treated as equally spectacular in the media.
This is especially true in Ecstasy of the Angels, in which October’s group struggles to reestablish its ideological goals, oblivious to their roles of spectacle in the film. Wakamatsu juxtaposes sexual acts and acts of extreme violence with images of actual newspaper articles and headlines reporting on violent events. After October’s group sets off a bomb in their apartment, Wakamatsu cuts to Fall reading about it in the newspaper, with headlines reading “Apartment Explosion,” and “Radicals’ Bomb Kills 11.” Assuming these are actual newspapers, as was Wakamatsu’s tendency to use, the headlines align the fictional narrative with real-world events and with the mediatization of violent political acts.
Wakamatsu’s focus on spectacle can also be examined in his treatment of passivity and activity and the ways in which he formally creates an identification with passivity. In the previously explored scene in which Monday and Friday’s sexual bout is interrupted by February and his brutal cronies, Wakamatsu highlights the forced passivity of the soldiers and draws the viewer into an identification with the abused. First, he spends an excruciating amount of time focused on the torture of Monday and Friday. Ten minutes of real-time torture elapse from the point at which the lovers are interrupted to the end of the scene. Within that time Wakamatsu leads the viewer to an identification with the newly passive Monday through the framing of his torture. The beatings begin in a long shot, clearly displaying the kicks and punches to Monday’s gut. The camera then moves directly into close-ups of Monday’s & Friday’s faces as they continue to be tortured. Monday’s nose bleeds into his mouth as he watches February beating Friday, in a gruesome pairing of close-ups of suffering faces. When February stabs a sharp object into Friday’s thigh the wound is shown in close-up, followed by close shots of Monday fighting against his own captor in an attempt to defend Friday. By forcing the viewer to experience the torture in real-time and from a very close position, Wakamatsu is compelling the viewer to indulge in the spectacle of the violence. In the context of the larger narrative’s focus on the fracturing of a group of political activists, the characters’ ignorance in their roles in this spectacle draws connections to media events surrounding real-world political violence like the Asamo Sanso incident.
Wakamatsu likewise uses sex to draw parallels between the political activists of the narrative and media culture. Some time after being tortured by February, Monday shows up at October’s headquarters with two women to photograph them nude. He tells Saturday, another member of October’s subgroup, that he’s taking the photographs for work and he insists Saturday join in the staged pornography. Saturday’s refusal to participate does not hinder Monday, though, until he screams “Stop it! It’s not the time for this!” and slams Monday’s camera on the bed. Only Saturday seems to question the place of the pornographic spectacle within their sphere of activism. The politics of Ecstasy of the Angels is not always clear within the constantly shifting power dynamics and adapting ideologies and the film does not necessarily lend itself to overt comments on actual political factions.What is clear from Wakamatsu’s treatment of themes of political activism and media spectacle is that he is creating a dialogue between the two and critiquing the mediatization of revolutionary politics.
This cultural introspection within the container of Pink Film makes Ecstasy of the Angels an ideal illustration of Pink’s place within the larger body genre category. Williams outlines body genres not only by their focus on the spectacle of intense emotion but on the functionality of that emotion. Mandated by its genre restrictions, Pink includes an abundance of sex and by its proximity to journalism - in regard to expected turnaround times - it often includes an abundance of violence as well. Wakamatsu specifically explores this connection in his films from the 60s and 70s and often brings in journalistic elements such as newspapers and photographs to accentuate this relationship. Williams’ notion of body genres also hinges on gender politics and the roles passivity and activity play in spectator identification. In examining Ecstasy of the Angels in these terms, it is apparent that activity and passivity in the film are not fixed states and characters move fluidly between these poles. In this way, Williams’ theories on manipulation through spectator alignment with victimization in horror, pornography, and melodrama echo in Wakamatsu’s tendency to place the viewer physically close to the tortured body. Pink Film’s own genre confines and its history as an outlet for experimentation lends itself to Williams’ notion of body genres as ideal candidates for social reflection, which is the core of her argument in favor of closer consideration of these genres. Pink fits well into her concepts both in its focus on spectacle and its functionality of excesses. In addition to the narratxive functions of sex and violence within Ecstasy of the Angels, these elements are also critical in Wakamatsu’s attempts at cultural problem-solving, in his reflections on political activism, spectacle, and media events.
Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations, no. 20, 1987, pp. 187–228. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2928507.
Domenig, Roland. “The Market of Flesh and the Rise of the ‘Pink Film.’” The Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and its Contexts, edited by Abé Mark Nornes, Kinema Club, 2014, 17-46.
Furuhata, Yuriko. “The Actuality of Wakamatsu: Repetition, Citation, Media Event.” The Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and its Contexts, edited by Abé Mark Nornes, Kinema Club, 2014, 149-180.
Nornes, Abé Mark. “The Pink Book: Introduction.” The Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and its Contexts, edited by Abé Mark Nornes, Kinema Club, 2014, 1-15.
Wakamatsu, Koji, director. Ecstasy of the Angels. Art Theater Guild, Wakamatsu Production, 1972.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1991, pp. 2–13. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1212758.