Saturday, June 29, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Dare to Stop Us

Generally speaking, if you want to understand a nation’s collective angst, you check out its monster movies. In Japan, that arguably extended to their naughty Pinku Eiga films. Several prominent directors initially cut their teeth in Japan’s blue movie trade, but none was as notorious as Koji Wakamatsu. The auteur and his circle of collaborators and barely paid employees get a relatively evenhanded treatment in Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dare to Stop Us, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Wakamatsu was a former real deal yakuza, who became a close ally of the United Red Amy terrorist group, whose exploits he later chronicled in the surprisingly unflattering United Red Army. He was also an arrogant blowhard and a terrible boss. Yet, he could inspire loyalty in his crew and admirers, especially long-suffering assistant director, Megumi Yoshizumi.

Yoshizumi will become the tragic heroine of Wakamatsu’s world and Shiraishi’s film, learning to tune out the sex scenes and sexism with the help of booze. Rather than Wakamatsu, the most sympathetic male figure is Masao Adachi, his frequent screenwriter collaborator and an auteurist filmmaker in his own right. Adachi is the only character in Wakamatsu’s orbit who can stand up to him. Yoshizumi also carries a torch for him, despite his being at least a generation older.

One thing is pretty clear throughout Dare. Militant leftists are absolutely miserable people. Seriously folks, start buying into bourgeoisie consumerist values. You’ll be so much happier for it. The film certainly is not a puff piece for Wakamatsu either. Frankly, many viewers coming in without baggage will start to suspect his dirty movies are really just dirty movies. However, Shiraishi and screenwriter Jun’ichi Inoue ultimately humanize him and argue for forgiveness of his excesses.

Regardless, Mugi Kadowaki is rigorously reserved yet strikingly vulnerable as Yoshizumi. It might just be one of the great feminist performances of our postmodern era, but it is unlikely to be recognized as such, since the chauvinism she endures comes from the left (hmm, would the Wakamatsu studio be considered a hostile work environment by today’s standards?). In contrast, as Wakamatsu, Arata Iura is tempestuous and larger than life in big-screen-friendly ways, while Hiroshi Yamamoto anchors the film as the self-effacing Adachi.

Dare is a colorful period production, to put it mildly. However, the Pinku Eiga production scenes are played more for their value as eccentric spectacle rather than for prurient interest. Plus, the soundtrack is pretty groovy. Recommended for both Wakamatsu’s fans and detractors, Dare to Stop Us screens this Thursday (the Fourth of July, an irony that would amuse Wakamatsu) as part of this year’s NYAFF.