project > Cut/Gash/Slash—Adachi Masao—A Militant Theory of Landscape


Cut/Gash/Slash—Adachi Masao—A Militant Theory of Landscape

The filmmaker, screenwriter, film theorist, artist, and political activist Adachi Masao (b. 1939) is considered—along with Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima—a leading figure in Japanese New Wave Cinema. Since the 1960s, Masao has produced many experimental films and written film scripts on a range of political topics. In the 1970s, Masao joined Nihon Sekigun, the Japanese Red Army (a communist group founded by Fusako Shigenobu in Lebanon in 1971), for the purpose of supporting the Palestinian struggle. After a trip to the Cannes Film Festival, Masao and Wakamatsu stopped in Beirut to interview and film Palestinian fighters. Masao declared himself a militant for the World Revolution and the Arab cause. He then spent 27 years in the Middle East: for the most part in the Bekaa Valley and, after the withdrawal of the Red Army from the Bekaa in 1997, in Beirut.

There is little information about this period of Masao’s life. He claimed to have worked on several projects, but all film material was destroyed during air strikes. In 1997, Masao, along with four other members of the Japanese Red Army, was arrested. The arrest—which the newspapers of the day saw as part of the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace process, and the Lebanese government’s intention to boost its international image­—provoked a wave of indignations among Lebanese and Palestinian leftist groups, university students, local intellectuals, government ministers, and religious leaders. The arrest also mobilized, according to different accounts, from 100 to 160 attorneys, who declared their intention to be part of the defense team. In the end, the team was reduced to 50 lawyers due to the space constraints of the courtroom. Beginning in 1997, Masao spent three years in Roumieh prison in northern Beirut for passport forgery, illegal entrance, and residency in Lebanon—accusations he categorically denied in court. Due to the absence of an extradition treaty between Lebanon and Japan, he waited several years in a legal limbo until the completion of the juridical procedures. While in prison, Masao converted to Orthodox Christianity and married; he also practiced acupuncture and produced a series of drawings. In 2001, he was extradited to the Japanese authorities. Local media explained the extradition, and its timing, as part of the Lebanese government efforts to secure much-needed resources and investments for post–Civil War reconstruction from the USA and Japan.

Over the past decade, there has been an increased worldwide interest in Masao’s films, writings, and cinematic theory. Many world institutions and leading newspapers (from the Cinémathéque Française to the Harvard Film Archive, the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and The New York Times, to mention only a few) have reported on him, studied his writings, or screened his films. He has not, however, been able to enjoy the hard-earned recognition due to problems with his legal status. Masao currently resides in Japan but is still considered a radical, and a “terrorist,” and is forbidden from attending the screenings, festivals, and conferences organized in various countries around his films and writings. His work has nevertheless provided recent inspiration for a number of contemporary French, British, German, Japanese, and American filmmakers, scholars, and artists.

AUB Art Galleries opens its current exhibition, Cut/Gash/Slash—Adachi Masao—A Militant Theory of Landscape, with the aim of reintroducing Adachi Masao to the Lebanese public following his eighteen-year absence from Lebanon (2001–2019). While his name may sound familiar within certain Arab political and cultural circles, Masao’s art, films, books, and film theories are much less known or studied. In addition, the exhibition seeks to introduce Masao’s films and theory of cinematic landscape into AUB’s academic community and curricula. Specifically, the exhibit brings to the public and students’ attention the so-called discourse of cinematic fukei-ron (literally “theory of landscape” in Japanese) that emerged in Japan at the end of the 1960s. Masao was one of the main contributors and practitioners to the theory.

The “Cut/Gash/Slash” of the exhibit’s title is a reference not only to the techniques of cinematic montage but also to the complex imbricated relationships that inhere between artistic, social, and political practice. Coming from the tradition of radical left-wing documentary filmmaking—a tradition that, in Japan, developed in relation to the Zenkyoto movement: the student movement galvanized by protests following the signing of the U.S.–Japan Security Treaty (the so-called Anpo, or Nichibei Anzen Hosho Joyaku) in 1960—Masao proposed his own take on the relationships between the formal problems of art and sociopolitical contradictions. Masao provides a unique historical model of the artist, who does not merely equate artistic and cinematic practice with political practice; he makes them self-identical, one in the same. And his theory of landscape plays a central part in this equation.

One of Masao’s most celebrated films is a documentary entitled A.K.A. Serial Killer (Ryakusho: Renzoku Shasatsuma, 1969). Here, Masao works with the real-life story of Norio Nagayama (1949–1997), a convicted serial killer and later best-selling political novelist. The son of a Japanese peasant (like Masao himself, whose father was a poor apple farmer), Nagayama would kill four people with a pistol stolen from a United States Navy base in the late 1960s. Cinematically, Masao tells Nagayama’s story through long deep-focus shots, oblique angles, and extreme close-ups, all of which convey an additional parallel narrative: that of the changing Japanese townscape and landscape lying in between those cities where Nagayama traveled to commit his crimes. The film is composed of images of trains, rioting students, marching soldiers, ports, ships, trucks, industrial sites, and architectural fragments—it is a composite image of Japan at one of its most difficult moments in twentieth-century history: post-WWII post-industrialization. And yet A.K.A. Serial Killer remains a film (ostensibly) about the 19-year-old Nagayama, even though the protagonist neither appears in nor receives a single mention in the film.

As later film critics would suggest, Masao was, effectively, using his camera as Nagayama’s eyes, creating a subjective point-of-view that showed what he might have seen while traveling in between various cities: mostly, redundant urban landscapes undergoing rapid standardization. In critical literature on fukei-ron, A.K.A. Serial Killer—co-produced with Kōji Wakamatsu and made in collaboration with other members of the Japanese film community (Mamoru Sasaki, Masao Matsuda, Yu Yamazaki, Masayuki Nonomura, and Susumu Iwabuchi)—has emerged as a classic example of landscape theory in Japanese New Wave Cinema. The main postulate of fukei-ron, as interpreted by Japanese critics of the 1960s (such as Mamoru Sasaki, Masao Matsudo, and Masato Hara), is that landscape representations in cinema can serve as a direct expression or manifestation of power. Through intentional choices in cinematography, editing, and mise-en-scène, Masao endows the landscapes of A.K.A. Serial Killer with poignant significance; and those artistic choices empower landscape to deliver a statement against the commercial media’s sensationalist treatment of Nagayama’s case through their fetishization and singularization of events, modeled on corporate advertising or capitalist agitprop.

The film’s landscapes, subject matter, and aesthetic attributes also work to question whether one can understand the complexities of this world through the depictions of isolated events, facts, and actions. Masao’s dissections catch a glimpse of the very dynamics of power in the process of manifesting social contradictions. His film seizes the material traces left by ideology on a constantly shifting landscape. In fact, Masao over-identifies himself with Nagayama. A.K.A. Serial Killer eliminates what Masato Hara called the “uncertain gaze,” or the “fetishism,” which interferes in between the object filmed and the process of filming in conventional cinematic techniques. In his 1971 manifesto “What Shouldn’t Be Done?”, Masao wrote that “there is no other method of participation in the frontline of the global revolution conflict (both in its political and cultural senses) than to dissect the film itself.” The dissections consist in separating the landscape from everything else. In A.K.A. Serial Killer, landscape is not simply background, against which social contradictions are played out—as, for instance, landscape is treated in the Western tradition of the fine arts, where it is subordinated to historical and genre painting, or to the portraits of eminent historical events and figures—but becomes, instead, foreground: the frontline of political struggle. Masao’s theory also departs from the pre-modern Japanese (and Chinese-derived) tradition of landscape understood in terms of “famous places,” and subsumed under the art historical concept of meisho. According to meisho conventions, the landscape acts as a container of sacred power, gaining its capital value—and, in the past, its divine “atmosphere”—through decades or centuries of association of a particular “famous place” in the landscape with a religious narrative, or accumulating its power from visits by illustrious travelers, monks, artists, or literati.

Masao’s militant theory of landscape was constructed along and through his engagement with other genres of film, realized during the 1960s and the 1970s (pink film, youth revolt, and political documentary). In the current exhibition, A.K.A. Serial Killer occupies a prominent place alongside another important early documentary, which functioned as Masao’s cinematic declaration of war. The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (Sekigun-PFLP: Sekai Sensō Sengen, 1971) is a propaganda newsreel that has been discussed in terms of the “cinema of actuality.” The latter term, as theorized by Yuriko Furahata, has been used with regard to Japanese politics and filmmaking during the 1960s and 1970s, or the so-called “season of politics.” The Red Army/PFLP was produced from material gathered during Masao and Wakamatsu’s visits and stays in Lebanon during the early 1970s. And the cinematic declaration is constructed of footage gathered from Masao’s interviews with Palestinian fighters and their leaders. The film takes a militant political stance, as well as a distinct approach to the question of what constitutes news: it enacts the making of the news rather than its appropriation by or from mainstream corporate media. The approach bears resemblance to, and is constructed in dialogue with, a range of cinematic techniques developed by filmmakers and artists in other countries: from the Soviet film avant-garde to the Situationist International strategies of derive and détournement, as well as in relation to the members of the French Dziga Vertov group (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin). Such productions do not merely function as illustrations or documentations of Palestinian struggle (echoing the Sanrizuka farmer protests against the appropriation of land for the construction of the Narita airport in Tokyo) but become what Ghassan Kanafani (1936–1972) identified as the communication of truth as the supreme form of armed struggle—or, “film as a weapon.”

Ultimately, Masao’s life in relation to art and politics can be put in the words of Takashi Tsumura, who, in commenting on one of Godard’s films, once declared: “We stand at a junction…where we either follow Godard and his proclamation of not shooting political films rather than shooting films in a political way, or we follow China and its ongoing cultural revolution and reject film altogether.” Masao’s work in some way stands at the same juncture: from his political films produced during the 1960s and early 1970s in Japan to his “27 Years Without Images” (to quote a part of a film title about him).

This exhibition, which is fully aware of the “archive fever” that has taken over the field of cultural production in our own times, also tries to reconstruct—or (to use the language of Russian Cosmism that has recently returned into prominence) to “resurrect”—those 27 years without images. The exhibition thereby brings back to life a range of archival material collected in Lebanon and Japan, including newspapers, books by or about Masao, treatises on the political theory of landscape, interviews with Masao, writings by other key theoreticians of landscape, Masao’s drawings from Roumieh prison, footage of Juro Kara’s Jokyo Gekijo (The Situation Theater) shot by Joji Ide. The material brings into prominence a peculiar (unofficial) form of cultural dialogue taking place between activists, artists, film-makers, writers, actors from Japan and the Middle East in the 1970s. For instance, the Japanese theater director Kara (b. 1940) brought his whole situation theater group from the Shinjuku district of Tokyo into the Palestinian camps in Lebanon and Syria during the 1970s. Karo and his troupe gave the political struggle of the Palestinian people, in other words, a local theatrical form.

The exhibition displays other material manifestations of fukei-ron as well. Representing the medium of photography, for instance, are books by renowned Japanese photographer and photography critic Nakahira Takuma (1938–2015). It also displays posters produced by Japanese neo-Dada artists of the 1960s: e.g. Genpei Akasegawa (1934–2014), who collaborated with Masao on numerous occasions. Additionally, four other films by Adachi Masao are screened. One is a more recent production made under the title Yûheisha – Terorisuto (The Prisoner, 2006)—a disturbing cinematic experience revolving around the tragic figure of Kôzô Okamoto, the only surviving agent of the Lod Airport massacre, who was subjected to many years of torture in captivity and who still currently resides in in Beirut. Also screened are three other early films by Masao: Bowl (1961), Galaxy (1967), and Female Student Guerrillas (1969). Lastly, we have put together an improvised collection of texts by or about Masao—which have been selected from a large body of writings in Arabic, French, Japanese, and English and written during different decades—as well as more specific writings on the theory of landscape by Masao Matsuda—which we have translated into English for the first time for this project.


Octavian Esanu and Go Hirasawa



The following books, films, articles, and newspapers have been consulted during the writing of this curatorial text: Adachi Masao, “What Shouldn’t Be Done? An Antithesis Necessary to ‘Film Activism,’” trans. by Siskia Lagomarsino, Eiga Hyhyō (April 1971); “Crackdown on Japanese Red Army Militants,” Monday Morning, February 24, 1997; “Japan Expects Handover of Red Army Members on Trial: Ishigaki Says,” Monday Morning, June 30, 1997; “Masao Adachi, Umaya Abboud ‘Enter the Golden Gate,’” Monday Morning, February 28, 2000; Eric Baudelaire, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, Japan/Lebanon, 2011, 66 minutes, color film; Nicholas Blanford, “Red Army Five Offer to Fight in South,” The Daily Star, June 10, 1997; Nicole Brenez, “Folk, Revolution, Landskap (Peuple, révolution, paysage. A.k.a Serial Killer de Masao Adachi et Trop Tôt Trop Tard de Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet),” Krystalbilleder: Tidsskrift for filmkritik (2014); Yuriko Furahata, Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); “Returning to Actuality: Fukeiron and the Landscape Film,” Screen 48, no. 3 (Autumn 2007): 345–362; Greg Hainge, Philippe Grandrieux: Sonic Cinema (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017); Harry Harootunian and Sabu Kohso, “Messages in a Bottle: An Interview with Filmmaker Masao Adachi,” boundary 2 35, no. 3: 63–97; Go Hirasawa and Alberto Toscano, “Walls of Flesh: The Films of Koji Wakamatsu (1965–1972)” Film Quarterly 66, no. 4 (Summer 2013): 41–49; Patricia Steinhoff, “Hijackers, Bombers, and Bank Robbers: Managerial Style in the Japanese Red Army,” Journal of Asian Studies 48, no. 4 (November 1989): 724–40; Jilly Traganou, The Tōkaidō Road: Traveling and Representation in Edo and Meiji Japan (London: Routledge, 2004).