Widely considered Yoshida’s masterpiece, Eros + Massacre brings an epic scale to its intimate portrayal of Sakae Osugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), a free-love-espousing anarchist who, along with his lover, Noe Ito (Mariko Okada), was murdered by a right-wing militarist faction within the Japanese government in 1923. Over the course of the film, Yoshida gives us a firm grounding in Osugi and Ito’s shibboleths concerning personal freedom and emancipated feminism. But this is just about the complete antithesis of a conventional biopic: Rather than offering a stable, seemingly authoritative narrative, the film keeps alternating unpredictably between episodes from Osugi’s life and modern-day events involving two students, Eiko (Toshiko Ii) and Wada (Daijiro Harada), who are researching Osugi’s philosophical tenets.
At first these timelines remain discreetly separate, delineated by two very different editing rhythms and styles of acting. The Taisho-era storyline is deliberately paced and at times features overtly theatrical performances. The present-day material, on the other hand, embraces the avant-garde abstractions of a Godard film, full of deliberate spatiotemporal discontinuities and fourth-wall-shattering “roleplaying,” with Eiko and Wada periodically amusing themselves by stepping into the shoes of various revolutionary heroes and other martyrs to the cause.
As Eros + Massacre unfolds, the time periods begin to bleed together. Characters from the 1910s suddenly show up in 1969. Eiko has the opportunity to interview Noe Ito in person, but she remains elusive and enigmatic. If, as David Desser points out in his commentary, the film is about constructing a “usable past,” it remains unclear at the end what use preceding events can possibly be to Eiko and Wada. The film’s centerpiece—a Rashomon-style restaging in triplicate of the 1916 attempt on Osugi’s life by jealous lover Itsuko Masaoka (Yuko Kusunoki)—seems intended to demonstrate the unreliable pliability of the past. With each repetition, the motivation for, and even the perpetrator of, Osugi’s stabbing changes.
Eros + Massacre foregrounds the idea that history remains a battlefield open to the countervailing forces of interpretation with a surreal early scene depicting a rugby scrimmage where Osugi’s burial urn takes the place of the football. His legacy is, quite literally, up for grabs. And, as far as the instrumentality of the past goes, the film ends on a suitably ironic note: Eiko and Wada gather the entire dramatis personae of the Taisho-era storyline for a group photo. “This will make a marvelous monument for the future,” Wada predicts. The past as scrupulous recreation, fantasia of possibilities, picture-postcard souvenir—Eros + Massacre operates on all these registers. In the film’s final image, a soundstage door in the bottom right of the frame clangs shut on one of Wada’s bad jokes. Maybe, after all, that’s what history is.
A version of this review first appeared in Slant Magazine.