Dare to Stop us (2018) review

Introduction

With Dare To Stop Us (2018),  Kazuya Hiraishi, known from narratives like last year’s gritty yakuza-film The Blood of Wolves (2018), the romantic drama Birds without Names (2017) and the pink-movie Dawn of the Felines (2017), returns to deliver his first drama/biopic about Wakamatsu productions, an independent pink eiga production house founded by Wakamatsu in 1965.

While one could say that these pink-eiga emphasized the tryptic of sex, life, and death, it would be more correct to say that pink eiga continually showed how sexuality perverts life and death or, in other words, how the sexual is inherent to the force of life (Eros) and the force of death (Thanatos). While this truth does not form the focus of this narrative, another insisting struggle at the level of sexuality is.

Review

Shinjuku, 1969, springtime. On night, Ghost or Michio Akiyama (Soran Tamoto), in his search for an girl who might be able to pass as a high-schooler, meets his acquaintance Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki). A slightly surprised Megumi asks out of curiosity why he is looking for such kind of girl. Ghost explains that Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) and Wakamatsu (Arata Iura) need an amateur actress for a pink-eiga of theirs. Interested by the way Ghost, Michio (Soran Tamoto) speaks about pink eiga, she asks eiga if she can be a female assistant director for Wakamatsu productions. Ghost takes her with him, to introduce her to Wakamatsu and the gang.

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While Dare to Stop us might seem like a normal biopic at first glance – set between the period between 1969 and 1972, it is, at its most fundamental level, a slice-of-life drama touching upon the problematic element of femaleness. The biopic nature of Dare To Stop Us is most felt in the rhythmic alternation of subdued moments of discussion and more passionate moments of shooting as such. The former allows us an intimate and enlightening look in relational dynamics in the ‘backroom’ of Wakamatsu productions, while the latter gives us a feeling of their passion in the act of filmmaking as such (Narra-note 1). By inserting these acts of shooting – and by inserting fragments of those narratives being shot – Hiraishi succeeds in crafting a truly satisfying exploration of Wakamatsu and his contemporaries.

If we only consider this structural alternation, one can say that the Dare To stop Us acts as an ode to the passionate and rebellious art of politically motivated guerilla movie making as such – Cinema as political statement, as critique of society. One could even say that Dare to Stop Us honours the moving power of the moving image as function of the poetic effect created by the combination of speech/vocals and image.

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But the focus on Megumi’s passage in Wakamatsu productions – the central narrative thread, complicates this one-sides view of Dare To Stop Us as a mere celebration – and certainly not a hagiography. As the deepening of Megumi as struggling subject – a struggle related to the enigma of femaleness – is central in the narrative, Hiraishi subtly reveals the problem of femaleness as central theme of this narrative. Yes, are we not presented with the fact that, beyond the focus on Megumi’s struggle with her coming-into-being as sexed subject, this struggle – the struggle of femaleness runs, as a theme, throughout the oeuvre of Wakamatsu as such?

The reason why the drama concerning Megumi becomes so touching is due to two tensions present in the narrative, the general tension between the power of cinema and its possible failure and the specific tension between Megumi, our orientation point, and the quick-tempered, self-aggrandizing but ever passionate Koji Wakamatsu (Narra-note 2). By giving an insight in Wakamatsu’s subjectivity (e.g. his  past, his life-style, his working-methods, and his no-nonsense vision), a subjectivity beautifully brought to life by Arata Iura, the beauty and the cruelty of his passion comes sensibly to the fore. Both these tension are nevertheless function of the position Megumi gives to Wakamatsu. Is it not ultimately the fatherly position given to Wakamatsu – Wakamatsu, a father Megumi passionately wants to impress through cinema in order to find a confirmation of her way of dealing with her inner struggle – that forms the basis for Megumi’s drama (Narra-note 3)?    

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The cinematography of Dare To Stop Us consists of a natural pulsating blend of fixed shots, semi-fixed shots and moving shots, be it following or spatially moving in the narrative space. When framing the sequences of movie-shooting – maybe in an effort to evoke the rebellious nature – the cinematography shifts to a more fluid concatenation of shaky moving shots and shaky semi-fixed shots. Even though moving shots are used for a myriad of characters, the following shots introduce and underline Megumi as the narrative’s point of identification/orientation. Her position as central point of orientation, our way into the ‘culture’ of Wakamatsu productions, is further emphasized by the application of semi-subjective moving shots.

The feeling of being allowed a look behind-the-doors of Wakamatsu Productions is evoked by the thoughtful use of the shaky exploring shot – i.e. those shots that, irrespective of any following moment, linger through the narrative space (General-note 1). One can say that is by way of these shots, by the very insertion of these shots, that the narrative becomes marked with a sense of documenting a certain history (Narra-note 4). The narrative’s visual pleasure is not only caused by the thoughtful naturalistic way of framing, but also by the way lighting is applied and the colour schemes that support the framing of the various narrative spaces (Music-note 1).

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The use of black-and-white sequences also deserves to be mentioned (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2). Even though these are used at various points in the narrative, these sequences are often used to separate those moments that constitute the framing of a cinematographical narrative, a pink eiga, within the narrative sequence of framing a narrative. By evoking the cinematographical reality of pink eiga in this stylistic way – remember that almost all Wakamatsu’s movies were black-and-white at that time, the overall authenticity of the narrative is subtly heightened.

While Dare to Stop Us already constitutes an insightful look into the inner-workings of Wakamatsu productions, the true moving beauty of the narrative is to be found in the unearthing, through Megumi’s drama, of the lingering enigma (i.e. female sexuality/female sexuation) that underpins pink-eiga as a genre in general and Wakamatsu’s oeuvre in particular. Beyond the celebration of the power of politically motivated and activist cinema, Hiraishi beautifully and touchingly evokes that cinema can always fails one’s subjective struggle.

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Notes

Cine-Note 1: The opening montage – shot largely in black-and-white – is really enjoyable and instrumental in introducing, albeit in a rough way, pink eiga as such. Furthermore, the opening montage acts as an ode to the very pink eiga (produced by Wakamatsu productions) whose culture the narrative aims to highlight.

Cine-Note 2: The perceptive eye will have noticed that the imagery of Shinjuku station used in the opening montage is obviously imagery of the present Shinjuku. While this may be a problem for some, it does, in our view, not disturb one’s visual enjoyment.

Narra-note 1: Note that the first conversation in Wakamatsu’s production company concerns a complaint concerning the lack of political motivation present in the narrative.

Narra-note 2: The subsequent disappointment following the lukewarm reception of her narrative by Wakamatsu and the fellow members of Wakamatsu’s production is really made sensible for the spectator. This sensibleness is central for the narrative’s gripping ending.

Narra-note 3: Through Megumi’s failure to find a way to assume her femaleness – or to assume a subjectivity not at odds with gender – through movie-making, we are movingly confronted with the possible limits the art of movie-making may pose.

General-note 1: Narratives that are featured in the narrative are: Female student Guerilla (1969) by Adachi Masao, Gewalt. Gewalt. Shojo Geba Geba (1969) by  Kôji Wakamatsu, The conditions of the Night (1969) by Tora Osugi, Wakamatsu’s pseudonym, Go, Go, Second Time Virgin (1969) by Wakamatsu, Kamasutra: book of love (1970) by Kōji Wakamatsu, A Gushing Prayer (1971) by Masao Adachi, The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971) by Masao Adachi, and The angel is Frugal/Ecstacy of Angels (1972) by Wakamatsu. It really fun to see, albeit through a ‘narrativation’ of this slice of history, the movies we have come to love so much given some contextualization.

Another important director that is featured in the narrative is Oshima Nagisa (Sousuke Takaoka).

Narra-note 4: Through narrative fragments and visual elements (e.g. a poster of Che Guevarra) – visual elements subtle inserted in the exposition of the narrative space – the political situation of the societal space (e.g. protest to free Okinawa, The Mishima-incident, …) as well as the left-wing and communist undercurrent of Wakamatsu’s production of pink Eiga is brought to the fore.

Music-note 1: Music often comes to underline the underground nature of the pink eiga as well as the joy of movie-making.

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