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‘Dare to Stop Us’: Japanese cinema’s bad boy as seen by one of the women who worked with him

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

In the 1960s Koji Wakamatsu was Japanese cinema’s enfant terrible: A real-life outlaw — he once joined a yakuza gang and served time in prison — he made pioneering “pink” (softcore porn) films such as “The Embryo Hunts in Secret” (1966) and “Go, Go, Second Time Virgin” (1969), whose extreme sex and violence, filmed with raw energy and wild invention, gave censors and industry guardians conniption fits.

His defenders (including Wakamatsu himself) claimed he was reflecting the era’s trends and critiquing its crimes, from the Vietnam War to the Manson family killings.

I interviewed and met Wakamatsu several times prior to his untimely death in a road accident on Oct. 17, 2012. He was feisty and outspoken, but his sense of mission also struck me. He saw himself as a truth-telling guerrilla in a business, society and world dedicated to peddling convenient lies.

Dare to Stop Us (Tomerareru ka, Oretachi O)
Rating
Run Time 119 mins.
Language JAPANESE

All that and more is reflected in “Dare to Stop Us,” Kazuya Shiraishi’s new film about Wakamatsu, his circle and his era. A former Wakamatsu apprentice who has directed noirish films such as “The Devil’s Path” (2013) and “The Blood of Wolves” (2018), Shiraishi has made an affectionate and hard-hitting homage, not a hagiography.

Covering the years 1969 to 1972, when Wakamatsu was at the height of his creativity and notoriety, the film shows him as brusque, quick-tempered and self-aggrandizing. But in Arata Iura’s inspired performance he is also passionate, dedicated and big-hearted. Not an easy man to work for — or leave.

The story’s true focus, however, is Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki), a 21-year-old newcomer when she joins Wakamatsu Production in 1969 at the urging of a hippy free spirit and Wakamatsu employee known as Ghost. Here she encounters not only the fearsome Wakamatsu, who at first barely acknowledges her existence, but also Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto), a radical scriptwriter and director, and Haruhiko Arai (Kisetsu Fujiwara), a caustic film critic and assistant director.

These and other members of the Wakamatsu “family” (including Megumi herself) are based on actual people, some still living, but in the film they begin as caricatures, introduced with broad, semi-comic strokes. As the years pass and the story grows more complex, they becomes less cartoonish and more rounded, though they remain subjects in a group portrait.

Meanwhile, Megumi quickly adapts to her testosterone-charged environment, smoking, drinking and even shoplifting records to supplement the company coffers, but she’s slow to shake her self-doubts. As she moves up the ladder while catering to Wakamatsu’s whims and doing whatever it takes to keep his little movie factory going, she gains competence and confidence.

Then Ghost, her one confidant from her pre-Wakamatsu days, departs the company saying he’s used up his “energy deposits.” Shaken, Megumi stays on and even makes her first film as director, a 30-minute porno for the love hotel trade, but her old enthusiasm has evaporated. What, if anything, can revive it?

As Megumi, Kadowaki nails the anything-goes vibe of the era’s counterculture while thoroughly inhabiting her character’s isolation, insecurities and, as Wakamatsu shifts from experimental filmmaking to radical politics, crushing uncertainty. She is by turns funny, likeable, dark and unknowable.

More than Wakamatsu himself, she raises the film above the level of a nostalgia piece to a tragic drama of a woman who deserved more than the times — and her own heart — would allow.