Yoshishige Yoshida obituary: leading light of the Japanese New Wave

Along with Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda, Yoshishige Yoshida – later known as Kiju Yoshida – was among the younger directors pushing Japanese cinema in radical new directions in the 1960s.

14 December 2022

By Jasper Sharp

Yoshishige Yoshida’s 1969 film Eros + Massacre

Yoshishige Yoshida, the celebrated Japanese auteur who in his later years preferred to be known by the alternate reading of his name, Kiju, died of pneumonia on 8 December 2022, aged 89. His name is almost certain to be invoked in the context of the Japanese New Wave cinema of the 1960s. His 1969 masterpiece Eros + Massacre so encapsulated the ethos and iconoclastic approach to the medium that he and others associated with the movement are seen as representing, its title was adapted for the first book-length English-language survey on the subject, written by the American scholar David Desser and published in 1988.

And yet in more recent interviews Yoshida himself questioned the extent to which such a movement even existed, let alone whether he was a central part of it. It’s true, he was, alongside Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda, one of the three young representatives promoted by the Shochiku company as part of its self-styled ‘nuberu bagu’ (‘new wave’), hand-picked by the studio to make their directing debuts while still in their twenties in order to court a younger and more internationally attuned audience of postwar baby boomers. However, in an interview with Alexander Jacoby and Rea Amit for Midnight Eye, conducted in 2010, he denied any shared artistic or political agenda with his two contemporaries. 

Born 16 February 1933, Yoshida studied French literature at the University of Tokyo before joining Shochiku in 1955, an education that marked him out from the old guard of the studio’s directors, such as Yasujiro Ozu and Keisuke Kinoshita, under whom he started out as an assistant. Yoshida later wrote Ozu’s Anti-Cinema, a book-length reappraisal of the deceptively simple style of Shochiku’s master of the family drama, published in 1998 with an English translation following in 2003. 

Yoshishige Yoshida

Yoshida’s first run of titles, such as his debut Good-for-Nothing (1960), Bitter End of a Sweet Night (1961) and his final for the studio, Escape from Japan (1964), were essentially youth and crime dramas that fit in with the cynicism of the age while dealing with various issues of class and national and social identity. Akitsu Springs (1962) is generally held to be his masterpiece from this early phase of studio filmmaking, a melodramatic account of an impossible love between a soldier recuperating from tuberculosis and the daughter of an innkeeper at a hot-spring resort in the mountains. It was Yoshida’s first colour film, and his first starring Mariko Okada, whom he would marry in 1964 and who would appear in all of his films between 1965 and 1971.

Frustrated by studio interference in his work, after the ending of Escape from Japan was re-edited without his knowledge while he was on honeymoon, Yoshida left Shochiku in 1965 to found the independent production company Gendai Eigasha with Okada. Their collaborations from this period include the Yasunari Kawabata adaptation Woman of the Lake (1966), The Affair (1967) and Affair in the Snow (1968).

Yoshida’s best known films are those part-financed and distributed by that bastion of Japanese arthouse cinema in the 1960s, the Art Theatre Guild (ATG). Often referred to as his ‘anti-melodramas’, these are visually and structurally radical works, with a focus on failed political movements. Shooting in black-and-white, anamorphic widescreen, cinematographer Hasegawa Motokichi’s startling use of shallow focus abstracts the images into decentred geometrical arrangements, which reject any single viewpoint. 

Heroic Purgatory (1970) poster

Eros + Massacre portrays the early 20th century anarchist intellectual Sakae Osugi and his three lovers, including the pioneering feminist writer Noe Ito (played by Okada), with whom he was murdered by the military police in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Past and present elide as their story is framed through a student researching the incident in politically turbulent present-day Tokyo. Heroic Purgatory (1970) depicts the dynamics and personalities within radical left-wing groups protesting against Japan’s Cold War military relationship with America in the three distinct timeframes of 1952, 1968 and an imagined future of 1980. Coup d’état (1973) centres on Ikki Kita, the rightwing ideologue executed for his part in the thwarted ni-ni-roku insurrection of 1936.

After a hiatus of 13 years, Yoshida returned to filmmaking with A Promise (1986), a powerful drama about ageing and dementia, and Wuthering Heights (1988), a broodingly atmospheric version of Emily Brontë’s novel transposed to medieval Japan. After another lengthy spell away from directing, he made his final feature, Women in the Mirror (2002), which links three generations of women in Hiroshima back to the bomb.

While he was an active voice in film criticism and pedagogy in his homeland, Yoshida’s work remained tragically under-seen overseas compared with that of other filmmakers associated with Japan’s cinematic avant-garde of the 1960s, a situation remedied in more recent years by a 2010 retrospective at Rotterdam and Arrow Film’s release of the Love + Anarchism Blu-ray boxset in 2016.

He is survived by his wife and long-term artistic collaborator Mariko Okada.

  • Yoshishige Yoshida, 16 February 1933 to 8 December 2022
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