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A Ball of Resentment

Revolution+1 cleverly uses the story of Shinzo Abe’s assassin to chronicle the ills of contemporary Japan.

Shinzo Abe’s state funeral in Tokyo on 27 September 2022. An early cut of Revolution+1 was premiered in Japan at the same time. (Photo by Eugene Hoshiko / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

In the West, Shinzo Abe is perhaps best remembered for two things. In February 2017, on a visit to the White House, he had his hand crushed for almost half a minute in one of Donald Trump’s notorious ‘handshakes’. Then, five and a half years later, he was murdered with a homemade rifle by Tetsuya Yamagami while campaigning for Kei Sato.

Revolution+1, the new film by Masao Adachi, opens with footage of Abe’s assassination. Adachi appears to have used the worst possible footage available to reinforce the contrast between the news and his own film, a semifictional treatment of Yamagami’s life. Those who have followed Adachi’s career will see some similarity between this film and Red Army / PFLP (1971, co-directed with Koji Wakamatsu), where television broadcasts of a terrorist highjacking are opposed to the everydayness of true guerrilla life. Now, as then, it is Adachi’s conceit that cinema can correct the distortions of mainstream media. Revolution+1 is, among other things, a portrayal of Yamagami as a sympathetic figure: one willing to stand up to oppression in a country that has long been in the grip of American interests.

Other connections could easily be found between this new film and the early work of Adachi, whose life is so closely bound up with his films that it threatens to overtake them in any discussion. Adachi, an early member of the Japanese Red Army, moved to Lebanon in 1974 to work on behalf of Palestinian guerrillas. He continued to film in Lebanon for a number of years, but the footage was inevitably lost or destroyed in bombings.

The Japanese Red Army was, in many ways, a peculiar organisation. Founded in 1969, it committed itself to the revolutionary overthrow of the Japanese monarchy but, under the pressure of state repression, shifted much of its operations to the Middle East. There, it was primarily involved in operations alongside the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); its attack on Lod airport outside Tel Aviv in 1972 is the best known example. After decades in the Middle East, Adachi was finally arrested in 1997 and confined for three years in a Lebanese prison. He was returned to Japan in 2000 to be sentenced, and he spent another three years in prison. He claims that he never participated in operations: the formal charge against him was the use of false passports.

Revolution+1 is the third film Adachi has finished in this second, post-insurrectionary phase of his filmmaking career. He is not, or is no longer, a bright-eyed polemicist: anyone who hears him talk for even a few minutes cannot help but be impressed by his aura of reasonableness. ‘I am making these films to take responsibility for my past actions,’ he has said. Clearly, he identifies with the ex–prime minister’s killer: in an obscure way he feels that their fates are entwined. That Yamagami’s father knew Kōzō Okamoto, a Red Army member involved in the Lod airport massacre, is a curious detail that makes its way into the film despite its irrelevance to Yamagami’s concerns.

As is now well established, Yamagami killed Abe to draw attention to the close ties between the Liberal Democratic Party and the Unification Church, otherwise known as the Moonies. In this endeavour, Yamagami was remarkably successful: support for the government continued to decline as revelations of involvement with the Moonies leaked out. The church is now as famous for fleecing its members as it once was for holding mass weddings in stadiums. Yamagami’s mother was a victim of its system of modern-day indulgences — but her children, arguably, suffered even more. Unlike her, they did not believe that salvation could be bought with the family’s savings, and they had to forgo everything from hamburgers to university in order to live the Moonie life, according to Adachi’s version.

Their father killed himself when Yamagami was only 4 years old, leaving the kids entirely at the mercy of his wife’s enthusiasm. ‘I imagined the hardships that Yamagami must have endured before the shooting,’ Adachi told Ethan Spigland and Go Hirasawa. ‘As far as method goes, the idea was to explicitly depict the protagonist’s emotional changes … his inner life.’

But Revolution+1 is far from a traditional character study. It has none of the texture we associate with realism. Instead Yamagami — called Kawakami in the film — often seems to be an amalgam of cliches when not acting simply as Adachi’s political mouthpiece. Sitting at home, watching the news, surrounded by photographs of Abe on the wall, he embodies the obsessive killer we know so well from other movies. What little we see of Yamagami’s life in the army is enough to suggest a kind of Gomer Pyle figure. At other times he looks like the pathetic loser in a high school comedy, although he is far too old and does little that is funny. But he mostly comes across as a social nonentity in a grey polo shirt and khaki cargo pants. He even wears a Covid mask on the day he shoots Abe. Soran Tomato, the actor who plays him in the film, makes sure to keep his mouth in a perpetual grimace. ‘The world is a piece of shit,’ he tells the audience. ‘I am also a piece of shit.’

Stills from Revolution+1

The gun, which provides Kawakami with his ego ideal, could be considered the real hero of Revolution+1. At the US premiere Adachi stressed that the protagonist uses it to send ‘a very clear and precise message’. Through the gun, he continued, Kawakami achieves ‘a deeply personal and individual expression’. Much of the film revolves around the construction and handling of the gun, a scary-looking mangle of tape and pipe and wood. The framing here is key: from a high angle shot of Kawakami on the street, Adachi switches to a low one that frames him against the sky: a sky that, in its blankness and whiteness, seems to become the canvas on which he will paint his destiny. Memories of his own defiance well up in Kawakami; it begins to rain, but only on him. He pulls the trigger and disappears in a plume of smoke. Abe, in the news footage, turns in his direction. Kawakami fires again and thus disappears again.

Red Army / PFLP ended with the follow- ing sequence of titles: GUN — BULLET — WEAPON — MUZZLE — TRIGGER. Many of those interviewed by Adachi in that film spoke of their desire to become a living weapon, to turn their whole existence into an act of war. The protagonist of Revolution+1 would probably say the same, for the film is as much a chronicle of the changes in his body as it is about his feelings towards Abe and the Unification Church. In the words of a female neighbour, he is ‘what they call a ball of resentment’. The description is apt insofar as it suggests the condensed force of a bullet resting in the chamber.

Perhaps the most remarkable scene in the film is Kawakami preparing for Abe’s assassination. After grabbing his diagrams and several handfuls of propellant, he begins to take the pictures of his enemies off the walls. When the walls are finally bare, he looks down at his hands, which look suddenly tortured and strange in a close-up. One palm starts to stroke the other, as if trying to slough off a layer of skin. The stroking becomes more forceful as it extends to the forearms, their high tone clearly visible in tensed and bulging veins. As Kawakami repeats these gestures in a more distant framing, he makes heaving movements from his pelvis towards the floor. Soon he is thrashing and kicking the air, yet he never really seems to lose control of himself. When he clenches his fists and holds his arms up high, we know that he is ready to perform the final act.

Though no one, to my knowledge, has yet remarked on this in writing, there is clearly some disturbance in the protagonist’s sexuality — and more than a century of psychoanalysis makes it difficult to separate it from the familial background. There are no real male figures in Kawakami’s life, and the early loss of his father means a collapse of the paternal function. The brother, for his part, is partly blind from cancer and also kills himself in a hospital for the insane. There is no maternal figure either; the mother is preoccupied exclusively with god. She does not even visit Kawakami in the hospital after he tries to kill himself by drinking a jar of benzene. All his adult relations with women prove abortive. He hides his groin behind a messenger bag as if behind a shield, and it is revealing that he later holds this bag up like a gun. His vital energy is deflected towards grievance and violence, and the conclusion of the film suggests a regressive tendency. He imagines himself walking on a beach to the coast; then he lies down on the ground and curls into a ball. Desaturation and overexposure soften the frame’s four corners as in iris shots of old. His figure appears suspended in a textured blue-grey oval. ‘Brother, I think I’m heading toward the stars,’ his voice-over tells us, but the dominant impression is of a return to the womb.

As a political filmmaker, Adachi never freed himself from the burdens of psychology. He has not even tried. He knows from experience that revolution requires phantasy, and this is why his title contains the ‘+1’.

About the Author

Seth Barry Watter is adjunct assistant professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. He is the author of The Human Figure on Film: Natural, Pictorial, Institutional, Fictional and of essays, most recently, in History of the Human Sciences, Medicine on Screen, Film International, Screening the Past, and Effects.