The Man Who Left His Will on Film - Nagisa Oshima - Kazuo Goto - Motoki - Emiko Iwasaki - Yasuko - film projector

The Man Who Left His Will on Film
1970, directed by Nagisa Oshima

Until the midpoint of The Man Who Left His Will on Film it would probably sound insane to compare it with All About Eve. But when the protagonist Motoki reveals that he joined the revolutionary collective of documentary filmmakers because he felt film was more real than life, he starts to sound like Eve, who had found theater more real than life even before she wedged her way into Margo’s circle. Furthermore, both movies end with twists when the title character’s actions beget a new cycle of evil – an aspiring starlet is about to repeat to Eve what Eve did to Margo, and a young man in Converse sneakers grabs the camera from Motoki’s lifeless hand and runs off with it.

Unlike All About Eve, however, The Man Who Left His Will on Film presents itself as a puzzle, filled with contradictions. It is not necessarily obvious, for example, that the cameraman Motoki chases, who jumps off the office building in the opening scene, is Motoki himself – but the movie begins to make sense if we take this opening as a premonition of Motoki’s own real end. When a bystander asks him, “You trying to get killed?” they are standing at the same corner where the cameraman will die. The cameraman is barely ever seen, but a quick zoom to the rooftop reveals that his mane of hair is just like Motoki’s, and the body on the sidewalk is dressed identically to Motoki except for its black socks.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film - Nagisa Oshima - Kazuo Goto - Motoki - street - crosswalk - camera

In this case, if there is no real suicide at the outset, then Yasuko’s version of the April 28 events can be presumed accurate. At the Okinawa Day protests that afternoon, she, Motoki, and Endo had gotten separated from their comrades and harassed by police for filming the confrontation. When Endo tripped and fell, Motoki took the camera and gave chase to plainclothes policemen who ultimately beat him and confiscated the camera. Upon waking up among his friends, Motoki begins telling the strange tale visualized in the opening, even telling Yasuko in private that Endo (who had just been with them when he woke up) was the man he chased who had leapt to his death.

Subsequently, Motoki seizes on the idea that a particular short film, consisting of six static location shots plus a seventh held while the cameraman flees Motoki, is the last will and testament of “that man”, somehow imbued with a mysterious meaning. For much of the movie Yasuko and Motoki investigate this riddle. For a while she adopts his version of the story while he recants, but finally they both converge on the assumption that the film is the man’s last will. Other members of the cell say the film is just a series of test shots spliced together by Takagi, and that the footage inside their only camera is still in police hands. At its second screening a number of extra shots appear in the film, but no one remarks on the discrepancy. All the evidence suggests that Motoki is fantasizing about the short film’s origin and significance.

Motoki’s hypothesis, that this abstract short film is an urgent message from a young radical who committed suicide, is bound to his own idea that film is more real than life. His motivation exposes a defining quality of the modern world, a tendency to privilege the abstract over the real. Motoki’s preference for abstraction, like Eve Harrington’s, is ultimately an excuse to reject life, and Oshima’s movie reveals how this leads to cruelty and violence.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film - Nagisa Oshima - map

Like All About Eve, which pits Eve’s destructive ambition against Margo’s natural talent, The Man Who Left His Will on Film stages its argument in a contest between two characters, Yasuko and Motoki. The two are sometimes at odds, sometimes in accord, but their motivations are as divergent as Eve’s and Margo’s. Whereas Yasuko absorbs and makes the best of whatever life deals her, Motoki tries to force life to correspond with his ideas. His preference for film over reality is one symptom of this habit. The superior wisdom of Yasuko’s attitude may be obvious, but it will reach an unforgettable expression at the conclusion of their contest. Let us examine, then, how this contest evolves and how it encodes the underlying philosophical argument.

At the end of the first day, after the big protests and the purported suicide, when they are left alone together Motoki and Yasuko trade competing versions of the day’s events. Besides being at odds with everyone else’s statements and with Endo’s recent presence, Motoki can’t even keep straight whether the suicide happened in the morning or afternoon. After exchanging stories Motoki tries to make love, and when Yasuko resists he rapes her. From here on, their sexual relationship will be a metaphor for their clash of attitudes. As Motoki tries to force his story on Yasuko he likewise forces her sexually; when they reverse positions she accepts his advances and shows tenderness; and when their viewpoints are about to converge they roll on the ground slapping each other, as if signalling their equality.

So far, it would seem that Yasuko is losing this “contest” at every turn. Motoki forces sex on her; she submits to him physically and emotionally; she accepts his tale of the cameraman’s suicide; and when they quarrel whether to turn off the lights before or after starting the projector, she lets him have his way. However, by giving in to him each time, she draws him to commit to his own original and indefensible premise, which is rooted in his preference for abstraction over life. The quarrel by the film projector mirrors the greater argument – Motoki wants to shut out reality (turn off the lights) before exercising imagination (turning on the projector). After this last argument they both accept Motoki’s imagined version of the April 28 events, and they make love consensually.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film - Nagisa Oshima - Kazuo Goto - Motoki - street

Throughout their relationship, i.e. the contest, the dialogue suggests that “that man”, the suicide, whether it was Endo, someone else, or a future projection of Motoki, was Yasuko’s lover. When she and Motoki begin to make love, she describes how her boyfriend had made love without a word that fateful morning. “He made love to you. Like this?” “No, he was gentler.” “Like this?” “No. It was like the wind blowing. No. Everything was different. It was like water flowing, like clouds racing by. It was dazzling, like the blazing sun.” These words will be repeated a few times, stressing the difference between them and defining the terms of their contest. Only she, willing to embrace life, can find wonder and poetry in it, whereas he only finds abstraction, words, and death.

As the mystery gradually develops, Motoki’s obsession with the abstract film appears to be a manner of pursuing his own death. After viewing it the first time, he goes out and stops a man in the street who looks, from behind, like the man who had jumped. Like Scottie in Vertigo, it’s as if he expects to find the fallen person still alive. He lets the man go but then resumes the chase (possibly a different man, though it hardly seems to matter) until the man gets into a car. After the love scene Motoki and Yasuko go out with a map to search for the locations from the short film. Finding the curved street, Motoki asks a shopkeeper whether he had seen a man Motoki’s own age and height filming nearby. Again he appears all too conscious of the cameraman’s likeness to himself. As he and Yasuko continue searching, a mysterious stranger assaults her twice, and ambiguous flashes of the fleeing assailant suggest that Motoki is chasing his own shadow – as if he were Yasuko’s assailant running after his own destiny. Their search, all too naturally, leads to Motoki’s own house, where he discovers that the first shot of the short film was taken from his own window.

Right before arriving at Motoki’s house, the scene veers into fantasy for a few seconds as the two youths run through Tokyo, Motoki firing a machine gun. His obsession with the film covers an inner wish for violence, and for a surreal moment the mask of civility slips off. The link between abstraction and violence is not far-fetched; both offer easy and cowardly solutions to the complexity of reality. Instead of negotiating a relationship with Yasuko, it’s easier to rape her. Instead of challenging injustice through democratic action, it’s simpler to promote abstract ideologies or instigate riots and revolutions.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film - Nagisa Oshima - Kazuo Goto - Motoki - Emiko Iwasaki - Yasuko - buildings

Motoki’s beloved abstraction is like a seemingly harmless petri dish where the bacteria of violence will inevitably grow. Frustrated by his inability to analyze the cameraman’s “last will”, Motoki tries to remake it, but Yasuko keeps inserting herself into the frame. With each shot, Motoki exposes her to increasingly violent acts, failing to protect her as she sacrifices herself. First she stands in front of a mailbox, where a postman and a policeman forcibly pull her away and restrain her. At the tobacco shop a man strikes her, annoyed by her speech to an out-of-order telephone. Then while crossing a busy street, she is abducted by four men who rape her in their car as Motoki watches from the floor of the front passenger seat. The logic in her actions might be puzzling, but she seems to realize Motoki is on a path to suicide because she ultimately runs ahead to take his position atop the office building. When she had said she hated “that man”, she was referring to Motoki’s own abstract projection of himself – in fact she wants to save Motoki’s life.

After the kidnapping, Yasuko and Motoki stand facing each other, framed symmetrically against Tokyo, and she declares that she won the contest because she did not see the same landscapes as Motoki and “that man”. Whereas Motoki was only able to see a dumb, abstract series of meaningless images and a chain of violent events, she had beheld something poetic, something beyond Motoki’s power of vision. While being raped in the car she witnessed an alien perspective of Tokyo viewed upside-down from the ribbon of highway, as if the whole city were a liquid reflection. Motoki only knows how to reject experience, but she – in the midst of a terrible experience – nevertheless manages to find wonder.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film - Nagisa Oshima - highway - upside-down

Ironically, the meaning of the short film, which Motoki found so elusive, was in plain sight all along. The first three shots, descending from rooftops to eye level to the pavement, recap the act of falling. The next three shots, the mailbox, telephone, and telegraph wires, suggest the idea of a message, the thing Motoki’s searching for. And the last shot, running toward the office building, represents the recurrence of an unending cycle. The seven shots summarize Motoki’s whole experience. Only someone like Yasuko can break this cycle of emptiness and violence, by facing experience and transforming it through imagination.

CONNECTIONS:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Visualized reality negated by the logic of the story

All About Eve – Cyclical ending; theater/film more real than life; character insinuates self into group

Vertigo – Someone seen on street reminds protagonist of someone who fell from a building

Fever Mounts at El Pao – Abstraction opposed to real experience

Vivre sa vie – Idolatry of putting art above life

Red Desert – Woman who discovers a sense of wonder in spite of rape and hardship

La chinoise – Critique of revolutionary students; abstraction vs. life

The Structure of Crystal – Contest between two points of view; unconventional perspective used to express wonder

Zabriskie Point – Critique of radical youths’ preference for abstraction over life in 1970; made with unprofessional actors

Solaris – Meditative passage filmed on the highways of Tokyo

The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting – Search for meaning in inert images

Blade Runner – Abstraction opposed to real experience