A young activist named Motoki (Kazuo Goto) comes into the view of a rolling Bolex camera as he accosts the silent, unseen operator to demand its return, arguing that the presumptuous filmmaker can shoot landscapes at any time while his need to film a nearby demonstration in order to create “a documentary of the struggle” is far more pressing and socially important. Refusing to relinquish custody of the camera, the two men struggle to wrest control of the object, destabilizing the image of the filmed, unfolding altercation into a near indistinguishable, uninterrupted sequence of wild pans, odd angles, and unfocused, herky-jerky frames, before the faceless filmmaker breaks free and runs off with the camera still in hand down the street. The perspective then shifts from the disorienting images of the stolen camera to one of ominous foreboding as Motoki carefully surveys the street in search of the filmmaker, spotting him as he leans over the side of a building, only moments before deliberately leaping to his death. Making his ways past the crowd that has inevitably gathered at the gruesome site and through the makeshift police containment area that has been set up to secure the scene for an investigation, Motoki discovers that the camera has sustained little damage as a result of the fall, and impulsively snatches it from the hand of the dead man. Unable to run away before being intercepted by the police, the camera is promptly whisked away into the back of a squad car for confiscation as material evidence, before Motoki is able to break free from the authorities and continue his pursuit of the camera on foot, the interminable (and visibly fruitless) chase seemingly ending within the obscured recesses of a long, dark tunnel. However, the reality of the preceding sequence would soon prove to be amorphous when Motoki awakens from an extended sleep in the presence of members from his film collective who have assembled to plan a course of action in order to retrieve the camera that, as the group asserts, was taken from Motoki (who had apparently been subsequently beaten into unconsciousness) by the authorities as he was filming the Okinawa Day civil protest. In confusion, Motoki turns to the filmmaker’s lover, Yasuko (Emiko Iwasaki) who equally subscribes to the collective’s version of the preceding day’s events, but soon becomes increasingly convinced of her troubled lover’s (former) existence when they become witnesses to a curious footage of unedited landscape shots – a high (crane) shot of a tree-lined, residential roofline; a narrow, bustling market street; a low angle shot of a retaining barrier on the other side of a high traffic street; a mailbox situated on the side of an underpass; a blocked shot from between a pair of rough hewn, concrete posts that overlooks a shop across the street; and a shot of high voltage, electrical poles – that had been recorded by the phantom filmmaker as an abstract, silent testament of images that he would enigmatically leave behind.
Evoking the ingeniously constructed logic puzzle and oblate reality of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, along with the densely structured parallelism and tongue-in-cheek cerebrality of Raoul Ruiz (most notably, Three Lives and Only One Death), The Man Who Left His Will on Film is an elegantly wry, engagingly challenging, and provocative exposition on identity, fantasy, and memory. Using bookend structure, recurring permutations of imagery and dialogue, and narrative disjunctions through film projection (and figurative interpenetration, as represented by Yasuko’s (self) arousal as the footage from her dead lover’s film is projected onto her body), Nagisa Oshima creates a virtual, infinitely recursive film within a film that explores the conceptual dualism (or more appropriately, multiplicity) innate in the filmmaking process. One aspect of this conceptual dualism is the idea of the camera as a revolutionary weapon, a philosophy that is farcically embodied by the highly ideological – but also perpetually idle and ineffective – film collective whose engagement in the social revolution is limited to trite, reductive regurgitations of Marxist one-liners, distanced (and botched) film documentation of an uprising (note that a member subsequently rationalizes that being in a demonstration does not necessarily mean that one is part of it), and principled acts of subversion through group authored formal protests (for the police seizure of the camera). This metaphor of “film as a weapon” is subsequently reinforced in an apparent daydream sequence as Motoki attempts to revisit the sites captured by the phantom filmmaker in order to drive his ghost away: Motoki begins to chase the phantom through the streets, and the image is unexpectedly intercut with a shot of a running Motoki rapidly firing a machine gun into the street. Contrasting the (comedic) inertia in the film collective’s inability to act independently of one another, the film illustrates the innate hypocrisy (and inutility) of armchair intellectualism and unrealistic, impractical application of ideology as a means of effecting social change.
Oshima further explores a second aspect to film’s dualism in its capacity to enrich culture through artistic creation, an implicit power of the medium that the film collective trivializes as simply the empty aesthetic of beautiful images (such as that of a couple gracefully dancing, as a member suggests) and a wasteful (and meaningless) misuse of its true potential. In an episode near the conclusion of the film, a traumatized and violated Yasuko declares her victory over her dead lover – and consequently, over Motoki – by deliberately “not seeing” his landscape. Ironically, the act of not seeing becomes a dual negation: initially, as Motoki attempts to reconstruct the images from the “phantom” film in order to exorcise the ghost of the dead lover, then subsequently, in Yasuko’s intentional self-insertion into each re-staged composition shot in order to prevent its exact visual replication by her surrogate lover, Motoki. The unforeseen consequence of this defiant intrusion into the (re)creation of images inevitably becomes the realization of an apparent reality that cannot truly be reconciled with the characters’ own perceived reality – a sense of irreparable rupture and profound dislocation that is similarly captured in an earlier scene through the film collective’s failed hope for social change when the Okinawa Day Unity march devolves into factionalism and chaotic violence. It is in this contextual conflation of “film as art and revolutionary weapon” that the phantom filmmaker’s “will on film” may be seen, not as visual abstraction from the imminent concerns of cultivating social transformation, but rather, as an unarticulated (and perhaps, inarticulable), underlying reflection of the invisible travails of the human soul – a quixotic quest to capture an ephemeral state of enlightenment, transitory beauty, and self-actualized immanence that is hopelessly foundering, unregarded, against the banality of cultural turmoil, instinctual brutality, and willful ignorance.
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