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Writing (MA)

Mickey Schulkes

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book cover displaying a man and woman in ecstacy

Excerpt 1

‘Nothing that is expressed is obscene. What is obscene is what is hidden.’ - Oshima Nagisa

The first time I ever saw an erotic Japanese art house film was the night I moved to Tokyo. Having screwed up my arrival date with my landlord - ergo, having no access to my humble new ‘danchi’ abode - I ended up crashing at a Polynesian themed Love Hotel in Shinjuku for the night; one of those neon-sign-baring sex dens with the gaudy wallpaper, futuristic robo-toilets and battery-powered beds that cater to Japan’s sexually frustrated youth. Or at least that is the type of clientele these joints aimed to accommodate during their inception in the 70s - a time when youngsters still living with their folks were unable to consummate their sexual desires behind the wafer-thin walls of their parents’ stifling post-war block apartments. These short-stay suites - whose mirror-plastered ceilings, water mattresses and gussied up decor became synonymous with the sleazy bubble era nightlife of the 80s - provided Japan’s youth with some much-needed privacy. As for me, they simply provided a cheap, no-res-needed crash pad for a night or two.

I got to the reception at a little past one and was immediately greeted by a delicate pair of alabaster hands that had emerged from a slit in the wall. After ever so discreetly handing me my keycard, both of our anonymities still intact, I made my way up to my Kabukicho ‘no-tell motel room’ - rotating circle bed, artificial silk sheets and all. Having used up all my Ambien and not disciplined enough to try and fight off the jetlag without, I reclined and felt around for a remote in hopes of finding something decent on TV; a subtitled Satoshi Kon picture or a Yakuza flick or something like that. I eventually located a Toshiba clicker alongside some litre containers of lubricant not so subtly disguised as bottles of shampoo (for modesty, of course) and once I got my bed to stop spinning, I began flicking through the channels for some late-night siesta-inducing entertainment.

The genitals of an old homeless guy fill the screen as they are hit by small fistfuls of snow. Naughty children have found the man sprawled out, laying comatose outside a Tokyo hotel - surely anaesthetized from a few too many Asahi’s the night before. They seize the opportunity to lift open his scraggy kimono with the stick end of a Japanese flag and get up to some devilry. 

The film I had landed on was Oshima Nagisa’s 1976 release, In the Realm of the Senses - a film based on the true story of Sada Abe, a geisha/prostitute who killed her lover via erotic asphyxiation before hacking off his genitals and carrying them around Tokyo in a kimono. While not quite a porno, (despite its wealth of unsimulated sex acts including a blow job that makes Brown Bunny look like it's rated PG and a geisha gang bang that left me never looking at wooden bird sculptures quite the same way) the film wasn’t really a regular Oshima New Wave picture either - something i’ll get into later. It was more of an arthouse meets grindhouse type of film - a blurring of art and pornography, kind of like the films of Gaspar Noé or Lars Von Trier - but without the kind of titillation you’d expect from the sexually injected television screens of Japan’s love hotels.

It was in the late 60s that the first tape players hit Japanese markets and by the time love hotels had started becoming hot commodities in the early 70s, personal televisions became something of a love hotel staple. Naturally, with the kinds of activities that such establishments aim to accommodate it made sense that the channels would showcase something a little kinkier than Mobile Suit Gundam-style anime and indeed, production companies like Shintoho and Ôkura Eiga seem to have supplied love hotels with videos of a steamier kind.

Oshima’s biopic nudie shouldn’t have seemed that unusual in a place like this and yet it most certainly was. Sure, there was lots of nudity and a ton of sex, but it seemed to me that this was a porno with no real intention of arousing its audience at all. In fact, for any couple seeking to enhance their sexual escapades with a bit of erotic stimulus playing in the background, Oshima’s lurid film would have been one hell of a turn off. 

Oshima and Unerotic Pornos 

Oshima had been somewhat of a shot in the arm when it came to my enamorment with Japan and its cinema. I had been mildly obsessed, if there is such a thing, with the New Wave cinema of Hong Kong and in particular its second wave, of which Wong Kar Wai acted as head honcho in terms of the movement’s defining auteurs. Inevitably this got me sniffing around some of Asia’s other New Wave movements and once I dove into the rabbit hole of Japanese cinema, I found I couldn’t get back out. Interestingly, the term honcho is derived from the Japanese ‘hanchō’ or ‘group leader’ - it’s not Mexican in origin as many people have come to believe. The term gained popularity in the States in the early 60s but was initially absorbed into the American lingo in the 40s by US servicemen stationed in Japan who brought the term back with them when the occupation ended, and troops returned home. These occupation and early post-occupation years represent an era that marked and bred a generation of avant-garde filmmakers in Japan - those of the Nūberu bāgu, the Japanese New Wave - and Oshima Nagisa, as it turned out, filled the position of head honcho. 

It is surprising then that this film of Oshima’s that I watched that first night in Tokyo is probably his best-known work despite the fact that it wasn’t anything like the New Wave films that made him a household name on the international film festival circuit. In fact, his tour de force wasn’t actually released until 1976 so it didn’t really belong to the New Wave genre anyway with the movement having already faded away by the early 70s. And it can’t even really be considered Japanese, as while it was shot in Kyoto, L'empire Des Sens (its original title) was technically a French production - one that wouldn’t have come into fruition were it not for Oshima’s Cannes-born friendship with Anatole Dauman (the guy who produced films like Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour, Christ Marker’s La Jetée and Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-Feminin). 

Like I said, the film really didn’t give off even remotely the same feel as Oshima’s usual New Wave stuff, or anything else he had made up until then for that matter. It could be that he was influenced by his New Wave counterpart, Imamura Shohei, who aroused controversy with films like The Insect Woman (1963) for his intense interest in sexual themes - in the relationship between the lower part of the human body and the lower depths of Japanese society. Or perhaps it was the fact that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s equally fabled Salò came out just the previous year - a film adapted from the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. While it would be far too simplistic to whittle the film down to an ‘orgy of violence and degradation,’ the nausea-inducing feces force-feeding scene combined with the mass rapes, pedophilia and executions makes Pasolini’s magnum opus something like ‘the mother of repulsive and controversial films’ - at least in the cinema of the West. And while Oshima’s picture isn’t nearly as depraved, when it comes to pushing the boundaries with politics and sex, Salò could have certainly been an inspiration. It is also notable that Oshima wasn’t the first to adapt the story of the sadomasochistic castrating geisha into film, as A Woman Called Sada Abe came out just a year earlier - a film directed by Noboru Tanaka, known for his work in the theatrical pornographic film world of the ‘Roman Porno’. If you look up the film’s credits, however, another even more direct influence will hove into view with Koji Wakamatsu listed as the film’s co-screenwriter and assistant director - a guy known in Japanese cinema as the Godfather of the independently produced, low-budget, softcore porno movies known as pink films. 

The pink film 

The pink film (or pinku eiga) has lurked in the murky underbelly of Japanese cinema since the early 60s. It's the type of film you may have found flicking through the channels of a love hotel television set before the hardcore porn tapes of the adult video industry took over. Yet it wasn’t on the small screens of these hedonistic short stays that most pink films were originally enjoyed but rather the remodelled ‘adult only’ cinemas whose softcore screenings would help keep Japan’s movie-going industry afloat. Satoru Kobayashi’s 1962 erotic crime drama, Flesh Market, is generally accepted as the first ever pink film and it was born out of an era marked by the rise of television, the resultant crash of box office returns, the bankruptcy of the major studios and a nation of emptying theatre seats. With theatres unable to fill their double or triple bills, a new kind of film was needed to lure audience members back to the cinema in ways that the majors had not. This is where the kinky softcore indies of the pink film ‘genre’ came into play and by the 1970s this sub-industry was already booming with audiences flocking to their local Pink theatres to catch the triple-bill screenings of a genre that now made up almost half of all the films produced in Japan. 

I put genre in quotation marks here because despite a couple of unwritten rules that pretty much congealed into place by the early 70s, (shooting 1 film of around 1 hour in around 1 week on 35mm film, guerilla-style and with a rather pathetic budget) these ‘three-million-yen films’ or ‘eroductions,’ as they have also been called, don’t actually fit into any particular genre in the traditional sense. According to Jasper Sharp’s 2008 work, Behind the Pink Curtain - a Pink bible of sorts that summons its readers into the hinterlands of Japan’s underground erotic cinema scene - what really defines the pink film genre is not its content or even its eroticism but rather its means of distribution and production.When it came to subject matter, as long as pink filmmakers met their quota on sex scenes and nudity, they could pretty much make anything from a surrealist cyberpunk slasher to a cowboy space operetta. 

For pink filmmakers, most of whom were university graduates, (a prerequisite for those wanting to get hired in the Japanese film industry) working on a skin flick provided just as good of a starting point as any. And while titillation may have been the main target, things like mise-en-scene, camera angles, script and soundtrack were given much more attention in the production of a pink film than that of your average dirty movie. The subgenre provided young filmmakers with a directorial gateway drug of sorts and a space of seemingly infinite artistic freedom. But while the pink film industry has produced some genuine cinematic knockouts - turning out some of the most mind-bending, wildly experimental and hallucinatory pictures of the Japanese indie scene - the reality is that the bulk of these types of pictures delivered little more than the cheap titillation and paper-thin narratives that they promised. 

It’s true, most pink films were trash - smutty stag films that were dispassionately watched and then taped over to be consumed again. Pink Theatre patrons were no cinephiles either, but most likely horny salarymen on their lunch breaks chasing after an airconditioned room. You could find them lounging around the theatre like a bunch of sweltering legumes, their chain-smoking fumes flirting with the dust particles by the projector as the no smoking signs remained diligently ignored. Other Pink Theatre frequenters were the seedy individuals of Japan’s bubble era 80s who used the sheltering darkness of the cinema’s dimmed lights to solicit blowjobs and double masturbations. But pink films and their theatres weren’t always this tragic, if you consider the exception and not the rule. And Wakamatsu Koji was certainly an exception. 

Wakamatsu films weren’t at all like the other cinematic junk food that was out there. For one, several of the films he produced in the late 60s and early 70s were screened at European film festivals - something unheard of in the eroduction orbit at the time. While most pink films were made to be scarfed down and forgotten, Wakamatsu’s pictures - often drenched with maddeningly elusive political allegory - crossed over into the realm of subversive art. Art still venerated by Japanese cult film enthusiasts to this day. His socially conscious pornos, as I like to call them, were not consumed in the usual dispassioned salaryman fashion. Rather, ‘people would watch them quietly and intensely, even reverently’when Wakamatsu was in his prime. The political porno brainchildren that branded Wakamatsu a radical filmmaker blurred the lines between art and pornography, serving as visual testimonies of an age of sexual expression, student rebellion, burgeoning left-wing radicalism and sweeping post-1960 disillusionment. For Wakamatsu, who died in 2012 after being hit by a Shinjuku taxi, these films are the legacy of a director that was forever raging against the machine. 

As an ex-con and ex-Yakuza member whose connections got him into the biz, Wakamatsu’s entry into the pink film arena was almost as unconventional as the movies that made him famous. Back in his directorial salad days however, Wakamatsu drank the Pink industry Kool-Aid just like the rest of his eroduction compatriots did. The workaholic director produced something like 100 films and most of his output - titles like The Love Robots, Dark Story of a Japanese Rapist and Orgy - simply catered to the flavour of the month. It was through these run-of-the-mill features however, that Wakamatsu and his collaborators could fund his more experimental works - films like his 1966 psychosexual bondage masterpiece, The embryo Hunts in Secret, for instance - and exploit the distribution system that the eroduction industry hereby provided. 

The Dawn of Political Pornos 

Wakamatsu’s first real stand-out picture was released a year following the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when, by the sweat of Japan’s brow, the games had restored the country’s global status ‘from post-war pariah to high-tech go-getter,’ leaving the land of the rising sun to bask in a state of modest pride (á la Japonaise). Broadcast for the first time in glorious technicolor, the 64’ Games provided Nippon with a tentative sense of security. Their global popularity was at an all-time high as somewhat of a selective amnesia took over, shrouding the atrocities of war under a new kind of patriotism - one that involved some good-old fatality-free combat between nations. It was but a year later that an overseas screening of a different sort would once more garner international attention; one that threatened to corrode Japan’s recently achieved lily-white image by drenching it in pink-tinged controversy. We are of course talking about Wakamatsu’s iconic tenement block flick - his 1965 “succés de scandale”, as David Desser calls it - ‘Secret Acts Behind Walls’. 

Secret Acts Behind Walls was the first of Wakamatsu’s eighteen prior works and the first picture from within the pink film ether to catch the glimpse of overseas eyes after a succession of strange fortuities led it all the way to the 1965 Berlin Film Festival. The picture wouldn’t have even made it to domestic screens if Wakamatsu hadn’t presented a different script to its financiers, potentially risking any future funding if things backfired and they didn’t rake in a profit. The commissioning company, Kanto Movie, approved the project and it wasn’t until the whole thing was wrapped and edited that they realised Wakamatsu had taken them all for a ride. Needless to say, upon seeing the final product, with its Little Boy aftermath overlays, incestuous rape scenes and Vietnam War references (all of which I will delve into in a later chapter), the people at Kanto were foaming at the mouth. As it turns out however, the film would have its investors lining their pockets - in large part because of some German guy from Hansa-Film (As Wakamatsu referred to him) who, after catching the film during a visit to Tokyo, ended up submitting it to the Berlin Film Festival. It wasn’t the prestige of the festival that led to the film’s domestic success, however. Quite the opposite in fact. 

Any of the film’s artistic merit was hastily dimmed by scandal as domestic newshounds ventilated the dirty linens of Japan’s film industry for the second time that year. The first director to land in the gutter press was Takechi Tetsuji whose 1964 and 1965 cult-classics, Daydream and Black Snow led to a high-profile obscenity trial. It wasn’t the full-frontal nudity or rape scenes that got the censors on Takechi’s track, however - far more salacious and pornographic films had gone unscathed in the past. Rather, it was his treatment of the nude body as a political allegory for the US military presence on Japanese soil that got him into trouble….

Warning: This section contains mature or explicit content.

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two images - one of a half nude woman in front of a mountain. The other of a woman spying through a door

The Great Wave off Kurosawa - Fleshing out the New Wave

I had rented out a shitty little apartment in Shinjuku - one of those khrushchyovka looking buildings that cropped up all over the city in the 50s and 60s and 70s - and I would often hang around the Big Box movie theatre at Takadanobaba Station where a lot of the students from nearby campuses loitered and smoked Seven Stars cigarettes and got wasted off half-litre cans of Chu-hi. From there you could almost see the concrete soviet bloc-esque buildings of which one small cubicle became my home, and one stop on the train from Takadanobaba took you straight to my university’s Campus.

I moved to Tokyo in the summer of 2019 to study Japanese film and anime at Waseda University. It was there that I met Professor Sasaki and where my deep dive into the Japanese New Wave would streamline from late-night Asian film blog perusals, in which superficial comparisons were perpetually drawn between Godard and Oshima, to actual class time. Professor Sasaki was quick to denounce the oft repeated and reductive notion that the Japanese New Wave emerged as some kind of second-rate wannabe Nouvelle Vague. And Oshima himself also disapproved of such fatuous classifications, firing back in frustration at international critics who equated him to the big daddy of the Nouvelle Vague with a verbal ejaculation. “GODARD IS THE FRENCH OSHIMA!”

The year 1959 marked the baptism of two distinct New Wave movements. “Après tout, je suis con” is the line that kicked off the French New Wave with the release of Jean Luc Godard’s first feature, À Bout de souffle (Breathless); a film that pays tribute to the classic chase sequence movies of Godard’s youth; the kind of American gangster flicks or film noir popcorn movies made during the Hollywood Golden age by the B Movie studios of Poverty Row - studios like Monogram Pictures for instance, to which Godard dedicates his film. À Bout de souffle was the first of a slew of French films in the late 50s to early 70s to reject the so-called ‘Cinema de Papa’: the kind of hackneyed, studio-bound and script-heavy cinema that François Truffaut talks about in his1954 essay, “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema.40”It was an old-timey cinema reliant on literary adaptation - a cinema about as innovative as a stagnant ditch - that directors like Godard of the Nouvelle Vague strove to turf out.

The other New Wave movement to hatch during that cinematically auspicious year in 1959 was the Japanese Nūberu bāgu - a movement inaugurated by Oshima Nagisa when his debut feature Ai to Kibo no Machi (A Town of Love and Hope) hit the scene across Japan’s picture houses. While the Nūberu bāgu is a term that may have been pinched off the French, the katakana-ized label is about the only thing that can be said to have emerged out of the nouvelle vague as, while both filmic movements do share a number of things in common, they pitched up their tents within quite distinct circumstances and so, their contexts have got to be set asunder if you’re gonna fully appreciate the art.

Admittedly, the fact that so many New Wave movements crashed into the established cinemas of this particular period and the fact that all New Wave cinemas are yoked together at a most basic level by a desire to buck the conventions of filmic tradition, and by an engagement of directors with the social and political ills of their time, does point to a kind of inaugurating cinema. And presumably it is the nouvelle vague cinema of France whose moniker got slapped onto so many avant-garde film movements of this era. Movements like Brazil’s Cinema Novo, the Czech New all cropped up at around the same time - or at least not too long after - and despite their similar raison d’être and their poached name, you really can’t consider any of them dime store knock offs of the Nouvelle Vague. In order to ‘get’ the films of each movement - to extract the wax from the carapace and get to the gold, “á la Sembène” - you’ve got to appreciate the backdrop in which they were produced.

Desser makes a good point of this in Eros Plus Massacre when he brings up the British New Wave and a cultural development of the same blood known as the Angry Young Men movement; that is, the fact that few would make the claim that the British New Wave was but an imitation of the French Nouvelle Vague or even a response to it - not merely because of its chronological impossibility but because of the obvious British context from which the films of the former emerged. In fact, what influenced the directors of the British New Wave had little to do with the nouvelle vague films being produced in neighbouring Panane and much more to do with the notoriously archaic class structure within which they grew up. With their pictures, the directors of the British New Wave (the likes of Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger and Lindsay Anderson) wrung out the sweat of their nation’s scornful brow over kitchen-sink dramas and stories of gritty realism written by a generation of ‘angry young men’ - men like John Osborne, John Braine and Kingsley Amis whose sardonic problem plays, Look Back in Anger (1956, filmed in 1959), Room at the Top (1957, filmed in 1958), and Lucky Jim (1953, filmed in 1957), wound up on the big screen in the late 50s and early 60s.

The bottom line here is that people don’t look at the British New Wave as some sort of Xeroxed nouvelle vague as it was a distinctly British reservoir of historic and cinematic events from which the movements’ cineastes of social change leaked out. After defining the Japanese New Wave then, with the movement having its own distinctly Japanese ancestry of filmic and socio- political events, it should be shocking to find that anyone would still view this development in Japanese film as some sort of counterfeit to the ‘real deal’ in France or as some kind of reprint of an avant garde movement that was never much of an inspiring force to the Japanese to begin with. Besides, it’s not as though anyone thinks of the esteemed French Nouvelle Vague as a back issue anyway. Similarly, when looking at the sociopolitical context of Wakamatsu’s more experimental films, his works resonate much more with the Japanese New Wave than the Pink film.

So, let’s get into defining the Japanese New Wave, for which I will again look to Desser and his late 80s work, Eros Plus Massacre - a book in which he churns out the sine qua nons of the movement in a way that trashes any useless cannon-fodder but still makes sure to touch on the essentials of what makes the Nūberu bāgu so distinctly Japanese. First of all, we’ve got to make a note of the fact that the Japanese Nūberu bāgu, with its commercial and mainstream origins, is immediately set apart from other New Wave movements that burst out of the independent scene; as unlike Hollywood whose studio system got killed off by the Supreme Court in the late 40s, Japan’s studio system was still very much alive.

Of course, as I’ve already mentioned, the Japanese New Wave figures in any films produced or released on the back of A Town of Love and Hope - that feature that Oshima directed in 1959. On top of that, the directors of this movement deliberately deep-sixed many of the previous filmic norms of Japanese cinema, making their film form consciously disjunctive. I’ve got to say though that this second point is one that is too often harped on as while the Japanese New Wave could be thought of as a reaction against the older gen of filmmakers - guys like Ozu or Mizoguchi or Kurosawa - there’s much more to it than that. Which brings me to the third facet of Desser’s definition - that is, the glaringly political position taken on by films of the Nūberu bāgu, whether that be in a broad sense or toward a specific issue. Naturally, this definition on its own really does separate the wheat from the chaff and yearns for some further explanation. But one of the things I've cottoned onto during my cinematic trek through this decidedly elliptical film movement is that there’s a master key of sorts when it comes to decrypting the films of the Nūberu bāgu and that master key has got the term ‘Anpo’ written all over it. Before we get into Anpo, however, I’d like to start off with one of the ways that political stances were taken in the New Wave films of the 60s in a more general sense and this was often through a socio-political commentary on the era itself.

Swinging Shinjuku

When I was living there, Shinjuku had in recent years unveiled a 12-foot Godzilla statue on the rooftop of one of its many Kabukicho high-rises, the Shinjuku Toho building. The massive monster head had been erected following a Hollywood remake of Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 Kaiju picture and a domestic version was already under way. Godzilla’s release preceded the sea change that took place across the silver screens of Japan’s meigaza picture houses, from the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, the rise of the indie sector, the introduction of technicolor, and the proliferation of the eroduction and samurai flick, to the lost decade of the 80s with its (mostly) shitty live action blockbusters. It was within this sphere of time between the denouement of Allied occupation - when Japan was still prophesying whether it’d be facing an aquarian age or the Armageddon - and the death of the Showa emperor in 89’ that the Japanese New Wave would arrive on the scene, ferment and fizzle out. And in its development the ward of Shinjuku played a title role. Godzilla’s initial 54’ release (by none other than Toho) took place just three years before the Anti-Prostitution Act was passed, leading a bunch of brothel owners to close up shop in the ‘akasen’ red light districts of Tokyo only to relocate to Shinjuku (and more specifically to the district of Kabukicho - that place I stayed in that tacky love hotel for the night). Failing to obliterate the profession, the Anti Prostitution laws merely decamped sex workers to a different part of town; and with the Kabuki district having several gaps to fill, the passing of the 1956 Act could be seen as the equivalent of a maître d showing guests to a new table.

The 60s were fast approaching and Shinjuku was rapidly emerging as the marrow not only of Tokyo’s red-light district but of the Japanese counterculture itself. Past Kabukicho, and past the Godzilla statue, the pachinko lots teemed with stale cigarette smoke and the Chinese street walkers strutting outside hostess bars, you will find the Ginkgo-tree-lined streets of Waseda’s campus - trees that sour the air with the smell of shit and vomit when their fruit falls in the autumn - and another 10 minutes down the line is where I rented my cabin fever- inducing studio in that complex of concrete coops by Takadanobaba station. I spent most of my days and nights in the ward of Shinjuku and spent a good deal of time wool-gathering about the kinds of folks that would often appear in the 60s and 70s flicks I'd been watching since I got to Japan - the bedroom community drifters, the American Vietnam War deserters looking to make it to Sweden, the coffeehouse Marxists and above all else, those twenty-something year-old Japanese college kids who had also walked to class along the shit-scented paths of Shinjuku’s university campuses some 60 years before I did. And so, a slight sense of anemoia set in - being a young student living in Shinjuku and all. That is, a feeling of nostalgia for a time or place I'd never known. But the youth that figured into the kinds of pictures I was watching digested a scene of Shinjuku history that was altogether different from mine. Different in that they experienced Shinjuku during the era that it became and then ceased to be the countercultural metropolis of Japan’s youth - an era in which Japan entered into an age of student-led rebellion, sexual freedom, and post-Anpo disillusionment.

By the 60s Shinjuku had become the pith of artistic ferment as well as the nerve centre of sexual liberation and of a youthful vanguard. Watanabe Katsumi’s photographs from his The Gangs of Kabukicho collection provide a pretty good sense of the types of figures that roamed the streets of Shinjuku during this time and confirm that when it comes to 60s stereotypes, the disseminated image of ‘Swinging Shinjuku’ holds a fair amount of truth. Prostitutes carried out business in makeshift brothels while young go-go boot clad women and mala-bead wearing men wandered the alleys of Golden Gai, delighting in the vices of the post- war mecca of self-expression that Shinjuku had become. Home to the Yakuza, to Japan’s hippie: the glue-sniffing futen, to chanting Hare Krishnas and guitar-stroking folk guerrillas. To the pomp of Kabukicho whores and Ni-chome drag queens of the neighbouring ‘blue light district’, the influx of avant-garde artists, playwrights, and poets. To photographers, jazz musicians and any other beat-generation devotee or member of the anagura/underground scene, and to the masses of university students leading the New Left into insurgency - Shinjuku was the emblematic site of post-war Japanese countercultural activity, and when it came to making movies much of this activity revolved around sex and revolution. 

a man and woman in ecstasy and a keloid scar in front of a poster of stalin

Tear Off My Meat Suit and Cry

An osseous cavity where I may continue to be lapidified, and all the soft and fleshy parts of myself can be remade as concrete. 

I have cured over time.

My fleshy skin manure has amalgamated with a thousand others and has hardened like the callus of an ever-kicking heel.

I am the stuff that makes up the grounds of a Nevada parking lot. 

Off of interstate 55, I sit ashy and grateful and grey. 

We are one, me and my coagulated friends. 

We are the earth!

We are each other! 


Never have I felt more a part of something. 

Never have I felt so complete. 

My purpose as ~ parking lot ~ is set in stone. 

I am not I. I am we

“Forget your meat suit. You’re in the suburbs.” 

Shabbat dinners need preparing and our indurated flesh exists solely and honourably for rattling carts and hurrying feet. 

The tarmac next door is made of feeble cretins. 

Much less attractive than we and so often in need of maintenance…

We are thanked with honks and parking metres and hot leather seats and spilled juice and maggots. 

It is under our watchful cement eyes, our gravel lenses, that things get done. 

We feel— No, we ARE so important. 

We are the psalm of everyday life; the permanent crust that bears witness to life’s impermanence. 

We fill and empty 

And fill and empty 

And fill and empty 

But we are always here.

dead bodies and apartment blocks

Response to Phrase - Rubber Room

‘Because our stories will not stop’

Our stories would get us locked up in a rubber room. 

We’d look at the walls and say, ‘how the devil are you?’ 

Thinking we were somewhere, elsewhere, hanging ‘round some Venice Beach motel room. Chomping at the bit to yell at that wet-brained neigbour of ours 

Who won’t stop spouting about those entrails in the sky. 

Those entrails and those damn chemtrails. 

The calcification of the peneal third eye. 

The ductless gland that he already fried sniffing glue back in the 80s. 

Back in that shopping mall someplace deep in America, the taste of copper on his tongue from getting punched in the nose by a Pritt stick one too many times.

A Kansas City liturgy, that’s what he called it all the time. 

But he’s above all that now. 

Hindsight’s always 20-20 he said as his dog bit me in the leg.

I limp toward my old twin bed, abuse some ambien to make the day end quicker. 

More talk of nuclear winters - the spread of mold and of disease - and wet-brain finally takes a hike. 

And I wake up and I'm soaking. 

Sweating like a sinner on a Sunday, like a cow primed for slaughter. 

A fruit cake in a rubber room. 

dead woman and woman with silver caps on teeth

The Curse of Dune and its Eco-Conscious Post-Pandemic Defeat

The War that Never Was

Clad like some kind of Yupik of the Eastern Siberian taiga and far too timid to disrobe myself in the deathly quietude of the cinema, I perspired heavily in my excessive hibernal get-up as I near-crawled to my velvetine seat. My amour propre - which had been left slightly bruised by this ungainly entrance - steadily returned to form, however, with the assistance of a much-needed glass of vino as well as my eager anticipation for a film that had the devilishly delightful potential to spark a cinephile-platform internet war…

Between the Denis Villeneuve-devotees, the cult following of Frank Herbert-purist boomers, and perhaps even the hoard of hormonal, horny Chalamét groupies, I was sure to relish in the post-screening havoc that the film would certainly arouse - a film (if it hasn’t been made obvious by now) called Dune

With bated breath I imbibed the optic and aural bonnes bouches of Villeneuve’s pandemic-delayed tour de force; its Jordanian and Emirati desert-scapes mainlined with the astral sounds of Hans Zimmer’s distorted Tibetan long horns, modified ancient Armenian woodwinds, repurposed cryogenic storage tanks, and the carnal screams of divine feminine beings whose chants echo the vocal traditions of a distant past (the south Indian ‘konnakol,’ the Jewish ‘niggun’ and the Tuvan practice of overtone throat singing come to mind). For those hardcore Zimmer fans out there, the film - with its anus-faced monster worm, trippy space drugs and brutalist architecture - is basically just a 155 minute-long music video for the man’s 2021 album; and that in itself makes the film worth watching. Yet, there’s much more to be said about this ecologically prescient sand saga and by the time I had downed my chianti, I could already sense that Villeneuve would be the man to finally put an end to the half-century-long mission to adequately adapt Herbert’s original 1965 novel for the big screen. 

With my first sampling of Villeneuve’s filmic interpretation, the internet war that I had been banking on seemed increasingly unlikely. And while scrolling through fandom combat on Letterboxd would have undoubtedly been entertaining, the rarity of watching a good movie in theatres and the intoxicating sense of delight that comes with that far outweighed such futile amusement. 

The Curse of Dune 

One could not possibly blame me for my off-target forecasting of a virtual cine-war when taking into consideration the impressively absurd and bitterly comical history of failed Dune movie adaptation ventures. The track record of cinematic misfires and impotence of well-established directors (auteurs nonetheless) whose technicolor fantasies were left unsatisfied or unfinished is forever etched into cinema history as ‘The Curse of Dune’; a curse that Herbert unfortunately lived to see in his old age all the while organising the ‘We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society’ - a farcical reaction to the patent similarities found between the plots of Herbert’s Dune and Lucas’s Star Wars, the former of which had yet to be adapted into motion picture (much to Herbert’s chagrin) and the latter of which was already on its way to becoming one of the most influential franchises in all of cinema history. By the time the first Star Wars was released in 1977, however, screen adaptations of Dune were already cooking with David Lean (Laurence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, etc.) as director, Rospo Pallenberg (Exorcist II: The Heretic, Excalibur, etc.) as screenwriter and Arthur P. Jacobs as producer. 

By the dawn of 73’, Pallenberg had completed his first treatment of Dune. Storyboards, set design and other pre-production work was already underway and a press release had already been sent out for Dune’s early 1974 release date when ‘The Curse of Dune’ first reared its ugly head in the form of a heart attack, the sudden death of Arthur P. Jacobs and the demise of the Dune project along with him. It was Jacobs’s untimely death that drew breath to a series of filmic miscarriages whose genesis was made fertile once the movie rights for Dune were finally handed over from the Arthur P. Jacobs estate to their next consortium - a move that would ultimately kick off what could possibly be considered one of the most ambitious and delectably absurd filmmaking attempts ever made; a rather uncontroversial supposition considering who took over the project as director. 

Jodorowsky’s Dune 

The next filmmaker at bat - and the one most worth talking about - was avant-garde artist, mystic, tarot wizard, spiritual guru, puppeteer and overall Renaissance man, Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose epic directorial odyssey is delightfully delved into in Frank Pavich’s 2013 documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune (a doc that I highly recommend). 

By the time I caught wind of Pavich’s film, I was already quite the Jodorowsky admirer so his involvement in and failed actualisation of Dune as a motion picture was both riveting and bitter. Before I ever knew of Jodorowski’s cult cinema paragons, however, I knew him as the guy who wrote some of the books I read on psychomagic, the healing power of shamanic psychotherapy, and the Tarot. Yet, as I soon came to find out, all of the psychomagic in the world could not have saved Jodorowski’s epic and outlandish production and it became quite apparent why. 

By 1973, the French-Chilean polymath had already directed several surrealist masterpieces when he began his conquest of Dune, pulling together a creative team that he would affectionately refer to as his ‘Seven Samurai’ (a reference to the iconic 1954 Kurosawa epic). Previous works included El Topo (1970) - a film that had been endorsed by the likes of John Lennon and Allen Klein - and another cult favourite, The Holy Mountain (1973). French and Swiss artists Jean ‘Mœbius’ Giraud and HR Giger would be in charge of visuals, Dan O’Bannon was to work on special effects after Douglas Trumbull - who did the SFX for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - was fired, and, after meeting Jodorowsky at Abbey Road Studios, Pink Floyd agreed to produce almost all of the film’s music - a collaboration that Hans Zimmer would later pay homage to in the trailer of Vileneuve’s Dune with his take on their 1973 song Eclipse.

Even more impressive was the film’s illustrious cast with Jodorowski envisioning David Carradine (best known for his martial arts roles in films like Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 (2003-4) and the 70s TV series, Kung Fu) as Leto Atreidis, Sunset Boulevard (1950) lead and Hollywood Golden-Age star Gloria Swanson as Reverend Mother Gaius Helem Mohiam, arthouse film icon Charlotte Rampling as Lady Jessica, HollyWood legend Orson Welles as the Baron Harkonnen, Surrealist mastermind Salvador Dalí as the Padish Emperor Shaddam IV, Rolling Stones lead vocalist Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, and Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky, - who underwent two years of martial arts training in preparation - as Paul Atreides. 

With an alternative ending in mind, an added castration narrative, an expected length of 14 hours and the aim to visually hypnotise his audience toward psychedelic hallucination, Jodorowsky’s vision for Dune deviated quite drastically from what the film’s Hollywood producers had in mind. And while the pre-CGI world of the 70s did not permit such filmic ambitions to come into fruition, I can imagine that Jodorowski’s film would have come to look something like if Hunter S. Thomspon wrote a Fear and Loathing space operetta on one of his Chartreuse and Dunhill benders: Jim-Morisson-esque acid flashbacks in a cosmic Mojave Desert and interstellar travel where peyote is replaced with spice. A lack of faith from the film’s producers, however, unfortunately meant that this psychotomimetic cinematic dreamscape would not be, leaving the Dune project once again orphaned and open for adoption. 

A Failed Success 

A brief attempt at the film was made in the early 80s by prolific movie-maker Ridley Scott - who was at this point still basking in the afterglow of his 1982 smash hit, Alien - yet the project was soon left behind in favour of another iconic novel-to-screen sci-fi adaptation when Scott cleared his own Pinewood Studios desk to start work on his LA-bound masterpiece, Blade Runner (1982). This would prove to be a much cherished decision among sci-fi-cult-film followers as it would not only lead to the production of one of the ‘classics’ of the neo-noir (and later, neon-noir) science fiction film genre but it would also blow the winds of change needed to finally bring Herbert’s literary oeuvre to the silver screen. 

It was the summer of 1981 when Dune producer Dino De Laurentis finally decided which filmmaker would next take a pew in the director’s chair and it was after rejecting an offer for George Lucas’ Return of the Jedi (1983) that surrealist cinema wizard, David Lynch, would take this seat. It was perhaps a case of karmic retribution that the director that would first complete Dune as a motion picture did so in lieu of working for a franchise whose creator undoubtedly (although not openly) based much of the premise of his magnum opus on the novel that Lynch would adapt. Against The Curse of Dune, however, karma was no match as while Lynch’s efforts did finally bring Herbert’s novel to the big screen, the film ended up miserably bombing at the Box Office and quickly gaining a reputation not far off from Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2009). In fact, the 1984 adaptation of Dune that Lynch brought into being mortified him so much that he removed his name from the credits upon release. Lynch had given birth to his very own Eraserhead (1977) baby - nurturing the Dune project until its final trimester then disavowing the 35mm filmic body upon delivery. 

Despite the film’s Box Office defeat and despite my own disappointment at not being able to use the term ‘lynchian’ when describing it, some good things did come out of Lynch's adaptation. Not only did the film forge the epochal collaboration between Lynch and actor Kyle MacLachlan - who would go on to star in Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990-91) - but it would also gift its audience with the spectacle of a scantily-clad Sting gracing the screen against a Toto soundtrack. Despite Lynch’s rancour for this blemish on his filmography, such camp, iconic and charming elements have turned the first Dune film into a cult classic. 

The Ecology of Two Dunes 

Let’s go back to where it all began…

The year is 1959 and conducting some al-fresco research along the windswept sand dunes of Florence, Oregon is a young, broke and bearded Frank Herbert who was at this time working on a magazine story about some sort of program introduced by the US Department of Agriculture and something or other to do with European beach grass....The details of this article are not important, however, but the beach-research anecdote functions as the origin story for what would become one of the most politically cryptic, dense, and multifariously interpreted sci-fi epics of all time. 

There exists in the beach-research-turned-desert-research-turned-Dune-epic a dichotomous relationship between a political ambiguity and richness that directly mimics Herbert's own politics and the inferences drawn by generations of Dune fans to come. Herbert vehemently opposed the Vietnam war, was openly anti big government, took part in peyote rituals, read Jung and befriended beat/hippie-generation icon and Zen-Bhuddist propagator Alan Watts yet he also brazenly supported Richard Nixon, denied any association with the squatters or commune-living leftist hippy students of the 60s and 70s who helped popularize his novel, nor did he care for the anti-colonial liberation struggles that a counterculture marked by the distrust of government helped incite.

Herbert’s counterintuitive and murky personal politics coalesce in Dune with psychedelic imagery, a saturation of transcendental themes, and a subversion of religious, philosophical, and cultural strands that still siphon such diverse interpretations as political scepticism, eco-anxiety, anti-authoritarianism, utopian futurism, fascism, and neoliberalism to this day.  

Science fiction bestows its consumers with a medium through which to gaze upon the world, its people and all its complexities from an external perspective and as a world that exists in a state of constant flux so too do the ways in which cultural products are understood in relation to it. It seems that when Herbert wrote Dune in the mid 1960s he envisioned a world closest to that of today and this is perhaps why Denis Villeneuve was able to succeed where his predecessors failed in finally putting an end to The Curse of Dune. It turns out that the conservationist origin of Herbert’s novel has never been more relevant than it is right now and despite the novel’s propensity for innumerable interpretations, its ecological message is something that Villeneuve’s adaptation devotes particular attention to. 

If Herbert’s Dune is a prophetic tale of environmental destruction then Villeneuve’s Dune embodies the first successful incarnation of this portent; one that feels frighteningly close. Villeneuve’s ecological epic allegorises the coming-of-age trope by imbuing in its main character a sense of obligation - an obligation for Paul Atreides to adapt to a new reality or else cease to exist. The film plays knowingly yet tenderly with humanity’s increasing dread over the collapse of our ecosystems, the delicate and seemingly mercurial state of our climate, and our collective obligation to adapt in order to evolve. The light that it sheds on our world’s ecological position is at once harsh and sanguine. Villeneuve’s Dune transcends mere sci-fi-flick escapism. Rather, it takes on the reflective potential of the science fiction genre and capitalizes on its influence as a call to arms. 

My name is Mickey Schulkes. I'm a 'creative' (for lack of a better term) who has spent the larger part of the last decade nourishing a healthy obsession for visual culture and film, writing about and researching a slew of different interests of mine ranging from kitschy Hispanic horror cinema to the subversive Hong Kong New Wave to Japanese arthouse cinema - and most recently the genre of Japanese soft-core pornographic theatrical film known as pink film.

(While I haven’t got a favourite film, - and find the answers of those who do suspicious... - one I like to revisit every once in a while is Fruit Chan’s delightfully deranged 2004 horror, Dumplings. I also highly recommend ordering dimsum for this experience).

I’ve got a special fixation on East Asian culture; one I was able to temporarily satiate through extensive travel and during the year I spent studying Japanese film and anime at Waseda University in Tokyo. I’ve also got a penchant for getting lost in creative projects, whether that be through graphic design, wood-block print-inspired illustrations, or the digital manipulation of black-ink nudes.

Having had the good fortune of living in the US, France, London and Tokyo, and having been raised in a Dutch household, my multicultural upbringing has lent me a strong taste for culture and aesthetics as well as an appetite for delving into strange and niche subcultures - something that is reflected in my writing practice.