Secrets Behind The Wall

July 11th, 2014 by Vanity Celis

Secrets Behind The Wall   segretidietroDSloc 1 82x120 reviews drama Director: Kōji Wakamatsu
Writer: Yoshiaki Ohtani and Kōji Wakamatsu
Release Year: 1965
Original Japanese title: ‘Kabe no naka no himegoto’
Alternative English title: ‘Affairs Within Walls’

Keeping tabs on the post-Hiroshima generation.

In Wakamatsu’s take on the subject of a Peeping Tom, a young man keeps a close neighborhood watch with disastrous results.

(Spoilers follow…)

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The backstory to Kōji Wakamatsu’s ‘Secrets Behind The Wall’ is quite amusing. Directed for the Nikkatsu Corporation, Japan’s oldest film studio and leading presence on the post-war market to specialize in popular genre films for a new audience of teenage consumers, I have a great time imagining how Wakamatsu must have pitched his idea to his superiors. In my mind, the scene is quite similar to Joel McCrea’s plea at the beginning of Preston Sturges’ ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ (1941):

Sullivan: “I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man!”
LeBrand: “But with a little sex.”
Sullivan: “A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.”
LeBrand: “But with a little sex.”

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Truth be told, Wakamatsu failed to supply what the moguls had in mind. Sex was definitely in the picture, but its depiction far from uncomplicated and not as pleasurable as one might presume. Once a construction worker-turned-Yakuza gang member-turned-film devotee, it stands to wonder why Nikkatsu let a man with such a questionable résumé see the inside of a film studio in the first place, let alone settle in the director’s chair. The reason is simple and exemplary of a Zeitgeist that has gone distinctly out of fashion: following the steep decline in audience attendance due to the modern individual’s disquieting taste for the television set, studios tried hard to fight the tide by green-lighting budgets for a more daring generation of filmmakers who were often given carte blanche if they promised their end result to be sleek, sexy, and thoroughly entertaining. Nikkatsu’s best-selling product, the taiyozoku, embodied the ideal as a vehicle giving center stage to disenchanted youth gone wild, catering exactly to the audience expectations of those it portrayed. The typical taiyozoku-protagonists were teenagers with way too much time on their hands, easily straying from ice cream, petticoats and swing dancing to more lurid pastimes in the criminal underworld. With a little jazz, a heap of hormones and a dash of good-natured violence on the side, it was all so… modern, and the industry boomed: loose morals were hip and happening. When twenty-nine-year old Waka entered Nikkatsu’s premises, he had a string of seventeen more or less ‘dirty’ movies to his name, most of them produced for small-scale adult film companies. Having had adequate training in bringing sex to the screen, the man couldn’t be much of a box office bet. Or so Nikkatsu thought.

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In a 1999 interview included in Chris Desjardins’ book on the “Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film”, Kōji Wakamatsu remembers the trouble with Nikkatsu:

Since they wanted me to make something, I wrote several scripts for them. But they kept refusing them. I thought, ‘Fuck these guys, I’ll fool them!’ I wrote a script with a bunch of naked chicks and people in love, stuff like that, and they were happy. They gave me the initial production money, and I took the money and got going, but also took everyone out, and we got loaded. Of course, I’d had a different shooting script ready. Once you start shooting, the film is yours. We shot the real ‘Secrets Behind The Wall’, then I gave the film to the distributor. When they saw the rough cut, they were so angry. They cried, ‘Fraud! This isn’t the script; we can’t run a film like this in our theaters!’ I explained that a lot of crazy things happened, and changes had to be made. This was the film, and there was nothing they could do about it.”

What are we to make of this? It’s an insidious action by an angry man, for one, who, as scholars would say, carried off the feat of ‘subverting the system from the inside out’. And even when we wouldn’t want to impose such high political notions on a man with a zest for foul language, I find it downright hilarious to see how Wakamatsu forced through will and ambition by using the same alley cat tactics Nikkatsu was flaunting in its films – not bad for an ex-con.

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It is within this scope that I came to see Wakamatsu’s first big film during a screening held at the Brussels Cinematek on May 14, as part of their Japanese Red Cinema program. Being familiar with the later ‘The Embryo Hunts In Secret’ (1966) and ‘Ecstasy Of The Angels’ (1972) and remembering Amos Vogel’s reading of Waka’s oeuvre in Film as a Subversive Art (one that, at first, led me to believe that sitting through a ‘Wakamatsu film’ should be rightly seen as enduring a form of slow torture that complimented your stamina if you managed to stay with it until the very end), I was prepared for another smack in the face. Wakamatsu’s reputation precedes him, and rightly so, as most of his films are filled with glorious depictions of rape, beatings, whippings, knifings, suicide, sexual deviancy and penetration of all sorts (by means of cucumbers or other), both in black-and-white and color film, spanning a good 49 years of cinematic activity. Add to that track record a short-lived foray into far-left politics by teaming up with the Palestine Liberation Front, and you have reason to believe this man to be a loose cannon. And yet…

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And yet, the first half of ‘Secrets Behind the Wall’ is far removed from Waka’s ‘fauvist’ reputation, showing instead a surprisingly soft and poetic portrait of the Japanese post-war condition.

The film opens with a sequence of shots on a drab apartment building. Due to the clinical attention given to the numbers of these flats (also called ‘living-units’ or danchi), we are immediately led to interpret the residents dwelling inside as – yes, you’ve guessed it – a body of numbers as well, lost in anonymity and stuck in a daily routine that slowly but gradually eats away at them, laying the groundwork for emotional bankruptcy.

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By using this locale, Wakamatsu speaks of the bleak living conditions in a society that desperately strived to be modern by its prolific development of cluster housing sites. Nagisa Oshima, Japan’s leading intellectual of the New Wave Cinema, shared Wakamatsu’s sentiment, and a great anecdote tells of Oshima initially considering the neoteric danchi superb in their radical break with the traditional Japanese housing quarters. Oshima’s infatuation did not last, however, and after living in one of these teeny-weeny cubicles for a period of two years, he wanted to throw himself out of the window. In ‘Secrets Behind the Wall’, Wakamatsu’s character study of a) a disillusioned housewife, and b) a student pushed to his very limit, takes place against this dystopian background, and with it, we get a slice of life out of two of Japan’s most emblematic post-war figures. When the two finally meet up by the end of the film, they interact in the only way they see fit: through sex and violence.

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Hiroko Fujino, who, for the record, limited her career to a single performance, plays the housewife. Equally alienated from her former ideals as from the husband who forbids her to find distraction in a day job (a dire insult to his role as the sole provider), Fujino spends most of her time in self-imposed hermitage. When a neighbor tries to quirk her into socializing by letting a piece of French lingerie tumble upon Fujino’s terrace, the attempt is dismantled by default. Only Fujino’s lover (immediately recognizable as a victim of radiation sickness, keloid tumors and all) seems capable of temporarily rousing her from a dragging state of apathy, and while they make love under a looming portrait of Stalin, Fujino delicately fingers the scar tissue on his back to remind herself of her former glory days as a peace activist. Contrary to her current state of mind, she did actually believe in something more than sexual gratification but gave up on these ideals along the way. Now, she tries to make up for a lost cause by bedding a man who’s marked by the wounds of the past, overcoming personal and national trauma by making love to it and attaining orgasm through a photo-montage of overlapping images (the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, a protest march being knocked down by the police).

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Their post-coital ambience is quite tender. Accompanied by the classical music of Noboru Nishiyama, Fujino and her paramour speak gently to one another, almost lapsing into French art cinema territory with a rerun of the bittersweet interplay between Maurice Ronet, Léna Skerla and Erik Satie in Louis Malle’s 1963 film ‘Le Feu Follet’. Still, this does not take away from the quiet desperation that lies in wait, as love is, so they agree, a short-lived truth that exists only ‘in the moment’ (or in Wakamatsu’s close-ups of lips, teeth, glazy eyes and fingernails), incapable of offering solace to those who so desperately need it. To make matters worse, Fujino’s lover has no qualms about telling her that he will not be the one to relieve her of her misery. Though saddened by her lover’s transformation from victim to victimizer, the shock does not last, and before long, Fujino is back to shrugging at life’s dreariness on listless walks around the apartment complex.

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Wakamatsu’s second protagonist is a wired-up teenage boy, too tightly strung by a family who expects the most of him and wants him to enter into university. Reluctant to study day and night for the entrance exams, the boy seeks his escape in sensual pleasures, masturbating furiously to nudie-cutie magazines (a sensibility Wakamatsu equalizes to our housewife’s extramarital activities by way of an identical photomontage), listening in on his parents getting it on and furtively eyeing his sister’s daily gymnastic workout (in hot pants).

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Further indulging his kinks by lurking after the tenants of the opposite building, it doesn’t take long before he sets eyes on Fujino’s affair and develops an unhealthy fascination for his front neighbor. There’s no genius required to figure out the rest of the story as the boy smoothly slips from perversion to psychosis. Unfortunately, the after-effects of excessive cramming stress left him with more (or less) than he bargained for: faced with a case of unexpected impotence, the boy is forced to channel sexual frustration through violation by proxy, savagely raping his sister with a vegetable stand-in while stabbing Fujino to death in a displaced enactment of sexual intercourse.

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What starts off here as an exercise in slow-creeping dread, thus ends with a bang. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in Wakamatsu’s ‘canvas of the suffering of humanity’ (remember Sullivan) the post-Hiroshima generation is a fundamentally unbalanced lot. No wonder Nikkatsu thought it better in the waste-disposal bin.

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Three minutes excerpt on YouTube.

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