He is blind, and he is walking through central Tokyo. Barging his way through the crowds, he has no idea where he is going. We wonder, as he walks through these streets, the city’s shopping district, if this walk will ever finish; although for us, of course, it never will: forever forcing his way through the happy crowds in front of our fascinated gaze.
He is a man, he is blind, and he is walking through central Tokyo. In his bag there are explosives; his one weapon against the world… We have no idea where he is going. Does he? He is going someplace to blow something up. Anything will do, we know, having seen the recent history. Of course he will never reach his destination; he is trapped inside an image, a beautiful metaphor, which we carry carefully away, mine jumbled up in a plastic bag, as we leave the emptying cinema; none of us speaking for fear of breaking it. And what an image it is! The Japanese characters roll down the screen and we see a man, who is blind, who has explosives in his bag; a man walking into a future he cannot see.
Groups of leftwing radicals are circulating around Tokyo. One group has stolen explosives from an American army base; another tortures its members to acquire it. The leader of the original group, October, blinded by a raid on the base, has a personal supply of dynamite. He and his acolytes use it to randomly blow up places across the city – an apartment block, a police box, vending machines are some of their targets. Apart from generalised chaos there seems no purpose to these attacks. To create panic and a sense of apocalypse, an itch for action, and the need for violent ritual, that glue which holds these tiny groups together, are possible explanations; we are looking into the dark with a weak torchlight. What we see is strange, opaque and absurd. People act according to rules we do not comprehend, enmeshed in a conflict they themselves have created, and which now controls them. They are members of a cult, it seems all too clear; and it has a terrible and unforgiving god, Violent Revolutionary Action; insatiable in its demands for sacrifice.
October’s group is accused of privatising the revolution, because they won’t give up the explosives. That is why Winter and his mates beat up Monday and rape September, sticking a syringe into her thigh: they want to monopolise the possibilities for destruction. Although we are never told what happens to this dynamite. Its potential for revolutionary violence is reason enough to have it; we have to assume.
Fall, who controls these interlocking groups mostly through her body, sex is her revolutionary tool and she uses it like a professional, mistakenly falls in love with October. This is suicide for a leader, who lives through manipulating others. Her emotional weakness highlights her political weakness, the decline of her strength, her hold over the splintering groups. A federation of interlocking cells has broken into isolated fragments; who start to do their own thing. When she is strong she strings slogans across the screen: self-legitimatising force of revolutionary action; vanguard consciousness… They verge on the meaningless. Often they read as if picked randomly from a sociology textbook; jargon held together by force of personality. They are the ritualised words, the magic formulas, the adhesive holding these radicals together. For where words have no sense they are invested with the hopes and desires of those who believe in them. Emotion flooding these phrases with religious exhilaration and profound meaning the believers feel and intuit. Joseph Roth captures it well:
…’Dear friend,’ wrote the general, ‘I like you. Be zealous for God, Freedom and Fatherland. Yours, Ludendorff.’
Theodor read the letter over and over: in the tram, at the tram stop, in college and while he ate. Even on the street and in the traffic’s whirlpool the desire to read the letter overcame him… Like a pious commentator on Holy Writ, Theodor was constantly finding new interpretations for the general’s letter. He soon persuaded himself that the general was aware of Theodor Lohse’s entry into the secret organisation… ‘Mr dear friend,’ the general had written. This is the manner in which one writes to someone who promises more for the future than he has accomplished so far. (The Spider’s Web)
Disciples need leaders to interpret these mysteries; those rocks of certainty and insight amongst the chaotic ignorance, that enormous sea of misunderstanding, that surrounds and sometimes engulfs them. It is the danger of the cult and the small political group – few institutions are as totalitarian.
Power is everywhere before us on the screen. These small, fissiparous groups are obsessed by it: it is the only thing that holds them together. No wonder it becomes all they are interested in; and which they project onto everyone around them – so of course the state is “objectively fascist”; it follows from their own premises, determined by their circumstances, their revolutionary slavery. They are so small and insignificant. But they think they will change the world! Within this tiny universe they have created such fantasies become realities; as large-scale politics is played out between a few dozen people in tiny apartments across the capital. And because these groups are so small, and their views so extreme, their politics are extraordinary intense; they often hate each other; that most valuable of qualities; the strongest glue of all to bind strong willed individuals one to the other. Thus even Fall’s well spread legs cannot tempt October’s disciple; who at times abuses and ridicules his leader; taking advantage of his disability, his momentary weakness when he realises he will never see again. When the moment comes to make a decision it is October he will follow.
They talk about the revolutionary struggle, and believe in it clearly, but that struggle seems to have no other purpose but itself. They are a vanguard party. Elitists in their own right. And they have their own priestly language, as we have seen. However, they have no vision of a future society, or a programme of political action. The intoxication of creating a revolution, the excitement of destruction, appears to be the only motivating force. You blow things up because blowing things up is what revolutionary parties are supposed to do. It is that age-old millenarianism that a certain kind of intellectual loves so much. Though how odd to watch this film during the London riots… the film, as the small audience quickly realised, sometimes comic in its appropriateness to the moment.
A recurrent problem of the avant-garde is that what in one decade is very new becomes in the next old-fashioned and out of date. For too much of such “advanced” artistic opinion is freighted with the fashionable pieties of the time. Those few people with highly sensitive antennas picking up on the zeitgeist's new ideas; and promulgating them. (Could this be the definition of the avant-garde: not exponents of original art but its propagandists and imitators?)
The film seems overly influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, particularly his Weekend; and is thus saturated with the conventional radicalism of the 1960s. Sadly nothing dates so quickly as the clichés of popular intellectuals. While the cinematic originality of Godard is watered down, for not being thought and created afresh but copied from another source: the flashes of colour, the newspaper stories a scene in themselves, the collages of gestures and actions; a group argument punctuated by Monday and September having emotionless sex; and the fusion of sexual intercourse and revolutionary politics – Fall dominating the groups with her breasts and vagina; Monday buying explosives through the money he earns photographing porn. And into the mix there is a tender moment between Fall and October; an adventure caper at the US base, and a shoot out to follow; there is the opening scene in a nightclub, a singer and her sad song – a great opening sequence. Like Godard at his weakest we sense a too conscious mind at work; a piece of art constructed rather than created, thought rather than felt.
The avant-garde can appear amateurish. Often they are indeed amateurs: young professionals still learning their trade. The use of new techniques - non-professional actors, snippets of colour film amongst the black and white, the collage of images - can increase our sense of this. When the film was made these weakness may have been masked - by the contemporary rhetoric, and the startling cinematic effects, the expanse of sex across the scenes - but over time, as the once fashionable clothes are removed, we see the film naked, and become all too conscious of its failings. One of them, like the group it follows, is that the film seems to have no other purpose than to flaunt its political and cinematographic sympathies; to exhibit a series of radical gestures. Ecstasy of Angels? The title describes the mentality of extremists, of the emotional intensity generated by tiny self-enclosed groups. However, the film does not convey this feeling to the audience; we remain resolutely on the outside; and at times it seems that we are simply watching a confused treatise. The point perhaps. But even in the year it was created this idea was tired and dated. You can create a film out of ideas, but the effects are limited, and become more so over time. Art needs something more than this, it needs that last scene at the beginning and in the middle; not just at the end. We need to be saturated in such images; drying out later in the warm summer months.
We want to see a man walking through the shopping district of central Tokyo. He is blind and he has explosives in his bag…