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Kichiku dei Enkai
cast: Sumiko Mikami, Shunsuke Sawada, Shigeru Bokuda, Toshiyuki Sugihara, and Kentaro Ogiso

writer and director: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri

104 minutes (unrated) 1997
Artsmagic NTSC DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
With the head of a left wing student political party languishing in jail, his girlfriend assumes leadership of his small radical group. She attempts to keep control by using her sexuality, but it begins to fragment especially after the failure of some small time crimes. After the suicide of the imprisoned leader, and the joining of his ex-cellmate, a crisis is reached as the disintegrating former comrades leave for the mountains to settle internal scores...

Kichiku dei Enkai (aka: Banquet Of The Beasts) is an impressively put together student work, made over a period of two years by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, also its writer and editor. The storyline is inspired by real events, specifically the so-called 'Asno Sanso incident', a widely televised event when members of the United Red Army took a hostage and seized a mountain lodge near Karuizawa. From what one can see, Kumakiri took the idea of radicalism in moral collapse, and group violence escalating out of control, from this source rather than anything more specific. Amplifying matters stylistically, some use is made of what looks like contemporary news footage. The resulting narrative is thus grounded in the radicalism and feel of the 1970s, at the height of the Japanese student revolutionary movement. The maker claims such a debt extends to the way his film is shot and scored with deliberately straightforward editing, characteristic of the period, as well as some acoustic guitar work on the soundtrack - but this does not preclude Kumakiri's additional, and effective use of what sounds like Kodo drumming, as well as some disorientating camera shots at crucial moments.

With its peculiar combination of dialectic and dismemberment, at times Kumakiri's film resembles Nagisa Oshima doing Herschell Gordon Lewis, and certainly contains a self-awareness, which, in their own different ways, the two directors also share. The first half is almost entirely taken up with claustrophobic and sweaty scenes set indoors as the group stresses, then fractures, under the leadership of the newly elevated girlfriend Masami (Sumiko Mikami). In addition to subjugating her crew with her dubious charms she also sends them out robbing, before organising a limited invitation wild party where she dances and seduces wearing a ceremonial mask. Trapped thus behind the metaphorical bars of their ideologies and allegiances the radicals are, arguably, just as imprisoned (and ultimately, as doomed) as their leader Azawa proves to be in his prison cell.

Its been suggested that at the heart of the film is a demonstration of what can happen when strong leadership is removed, creating a power vacuum, thereby reducing a body of followers to nightmarish dissolution. This being so, it appears to posit a dictatorial solution to contemporary Japanese social problems. However, one can also argue that the narrative demonstrates reactionary bias in other ways, for instance by demonstrating that females unable to control a radical agenda, even with the lowest persuasive denominator, the drastic application of sexual wiles. As critics have pointed out, a weakness of Kumakiri's story is that it fails to provide the radicals - and the audience - with a clear agenda for their actions. We never know about what they are protesting, let alone the philosophy that presumably binds them.

For many viewers, the lack of any real social dynamic means that the first part moves very slowly indeed and, while initially the too-vague motivation of those we see is intriguing, by the end of the film such lack of sympathy is telling; we are left simply with unattractive people doing bloody things to each other.

It's the violence of Kichiku that has made it so notorious. Tagged a 'political gore' film, the film has divided viewers into those who have dismissed it as alternating confusingly between boring and violent, and those others who see between these extremes a pertinent political allegory. For the latter camp at least, as one of the characters says, it is a case of having to "face the reality and get the message." As part of the special features to the Artsmagic edition (it has formerly appeared in a far less grand single disc release on the continent) critic Tom Mes does a good job of special pleading for a narrative scheme to which some credence at least can be given, and some of the film's obscurities can certainly be ascribed to the first-time nature of the project. Mes is too kind though to mention the weak performance by lead actress Mikami, whose manic laughter is especially unconvincing in her central, if underwritten part, even while he allows for doubts as the film's occasional obscure play on the theme of chickens (sic). But at the very least Kumakiri is to be congratulated in producing a work that at least raises the discussion of gore films above the techniques of grisly special effects, while his film has been widely exhibited around the world, including the festival circuit.

The newly enlightened BBFC clearly believes it all has some merit too, as the new Artsmagic two-disc DVD set apparently reaches UK viewers uncut, despite the inclusion of what one fansite has gushingly described as "the greatest head explosion of all time!" - not to mention one notorious scene involving a shotgun barrel's penetration, and discharge, into a very delicate female anatomical area. It has even been suggested that the 'boredom' of the first part is a deliberate attempt to balance and contextualise the extended mayhem that follows. It's an idea which has been applied, but in reverse (and to my mind more successfully), to Takashi Miike's Dead Or Alive where the kinetic editing of the opening and extreme comic climax bookend a more leisurely main section. Certainly for a more robust 'political gore film' one may look no further than the scenes of consumer zombiedom which make up Romero's Dawn Of The Dead.

The problem with the last part of Kichiku is that much of the bloodletting is so gratuitous and occurs after such unfocused interaction that, if it intends to make a point, then it is a very blunt one indeed, and hammered home insistently. Some have theorised that the student rebels are a microcosmic version of Japan's ultra-conformist society at large, and that ultimately all they have done is recapitulate all of its worst tendencies. Conversely it might also just as easily be argued that the final internecine devastation ironically reflects the only violent 'revolution' of which they are really capable, while Azawa's former cell mate (the independent witness to the group's last days) samurai sword and all, reflects the mute judgement of traditional values.

Whatever the case, gorehounds have been, and will be, content to fast-forward through the first parts onto where the body count begins to mount, while those who are content extracting a more thoughtful framework from Kumakiri's broken backed scenario will hesitate at calling his scheme a complete success.

Besides the generous introduction by Tom Mes, the two-disc set also includes pieces on the making of, and the reception accorded to, the film as well as interviews with the director, cameraman and four main leads. The most interesting moments of those show the lighthearted antics on set between the principals, as well as the polarisation of opinion as the work was received. There's also a trailer and biographies and the film is in the original Academy ratio in an excellent transfer.

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