Heroic Purgatory (Yoshishige Yoshida, 1970)

by Smart

Sex and politics go well together, and it is easy to understand why. They each offer what the other cannot, and jointly they help to form the internal structure of a human being, shaped through complex decisions, affiliations and identifications. Heroic Purgatory goes to great abstract lengths to bring such essential ponderings to the viewer, doing so through an elaborate aesthetic and exceedingly sporadic narrative. Flashbacks draw us into a political espionage plot that is filled with misinformation and confusion. The leader is guilty, perhaps of being a leader, but it does not matter as they are treated the same either way. Important discussions revolve around plans and events that never transpire, at least not to our knowledge. Frequent disagreements tend to suggest that fact is nowhere to be found, missing from the past and impossible to establish in the present. Such cerebral turns are at the foundation of this compelling meta-construction. Still, I feel the central focus of the film lands on the character of the daughter, and her peculiar, troubled relationship with her parents. This is where the aforementioned combination comes in, the striking of two discordant themes against one another, twisting them to such a degree that scenes begin to collapse together as intransient reality is discarded. In the end what allows this to work in such a provocative and meaningful manner is Yoshida’s outstanding stylization. Each shot rigorously adheres to a visual and aural framework that is established and expanded upon from the very beginning.

The unique framing is immediately apparent, as the majority of shots are composed extremely off balance with regards to what is traditionally expected. Actors find themselves relegated to the edge of frame, often with their bodies cut off completely from the neck down. The rest of the screen can then be filled with an expanse of ceiling, or used to showcase the futuristic architecture, which generates a lot of vital, stark, existential imagery. High contrast photography builds on this, even through costume, by blinding us with white and then drowning us with black. Geometric shapes appear endlessly, lines, circles, squares and curves, many of which form compositions within themselves, separating out characters and crafting a surrealistic take on physical space, where locations are free to transpose and evaporate with a single cut. Eerie music builds atmosphere when necessary, but sterile silence achieves this even more effectively. The past is just a memory that has become a mosaic, defying causality to blend and morph freely. Cold, unnatural acting is able to shed some light on this edifice, as self-aware dialogue comments on the manipulative nature of perception and of cinema itself. Cameras record inside the film and projectors project the falsified footage. Eventually the splintered narrative begins to create a perceptible web, and is from then on able to reference past, unrelated events, objects, words and concepts all by itself. Fetishism plays a subtle but recurring role, with elements of bondage and sadomasochism being brought about through the daughter. This is the inner workings of the mind, with a frightening lack of linearity, yet a captivating ability to fuse new ideas from nothing. After all, this is coming to us through the father, the husband, an electrical engineer remembering his youth. He is the source of the sex and the politics, the muddled structure and the symbolic extravagance. When a character demands to know what time it is, they do not receive a satisfactory answer. The same can be said of all the answers in Heroic Purgatory, for the real thrill is to be found in only knowing the questions.