She’s Come Undone: Longing and Agency in Kazuo Hara’s Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974

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Extreme Private Eros

Image credit: Shisso Production

Director Kazuo Hara’s documentary Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 follows the story of the director’s ex-wife, the outspoken twenty-six-year-old radical Japanese feminist Miyuki Takada. While navigating the relatively new terrain of their breakup, Miyuki is also politically invested in challenging traditional conceptions of women’s roles at home and in Japanese society. The film is a documentation of Miyuki’s attempts to articulate her erotic desires, as well as of her quest for individuality. However, given the fraught relationship between filmmaker and subject in Extreme Private Eros, the documentary does not just revel in self-discovery, but also betrays a growing sense of disconsolation. While it is ostensibly a record of Miyuki’s life—presented in her voice via a series of monologues and in snippets of conversation—we are also made aware of Hara’s point of view. The sense of intimacy stems from their three-year marriage, but is also tinged with a sharp competitiveness, as the two struggle for creative authorship of the work. Over time, Miyuki asserts her own centrality, and her radicalism lies not only in her confrontational tactics vis-à-vis Hara, but also in her deep sense of the film as a stage—and as a record of her sexual rebellion.

We begin in 1972 with a crisis: Miyuki leaves Hara and takes their young son to Okinawa. The opening sequence of black-and-white portraits shows a pregnant Miyuki, her newborn, and then mother and child together. The smiling images belie the marriage’s abrupt ending, which Hara glosses over cryptically in a voiceover, saying: “a lot of things happened.” From the start, when Hara finds Miyuki in her new city and begins filming, we are aware of unspoken questions that motivate his investigation. Since Miyuki has rejected traditional marriage—and by extension, his love—will she find consolation, or ecstasy, beyond it? Will she find some form of affirming self-actualization through her identification with new partners, or will she reject love altogether as too narrow, too philistine a construct?

The first time we see Miyuki on camera, she is living with her lover, a young woman named Sugako. Without introductions, Hara takes us directly into a heated quarrel between the two: Miyuki wants to stay together, but Sugako is withdrawn and non-communicative amidst the barrage of questions Miyuki is hurling at her. “So women need men? Making love means a connection?” says Miyuki. “Living with me isn’t normal?” The volatile exchange evinces Miyuki’s feminist critique of heteronormative relationships and gender binaries, here arising from personal hurt and betrayal. We learn that Sugako has had sex with her friend, Tommy. In addition, it becomes clear that Hara’s presence, as both a man and Miyuki’s former partner, has contributed to a growing rift between the women.

In the intense early scenes (shot in claustrophobically close, long takes) we sense Hara’s fascination with Miyuki and his own vested interest in the study of her culturally rebellious pursuit of eros. As Miyuki despairs over losing Sugako, the camera trails her in the small, cramped apartment, taking an almost sadistic pleasure in her pain. This could be read as revenge, a replay of the painful rejection that Hara himself suffered when Miyuki left. But the extent to which Hara wants to punish Miyuki remains undetermined. Does Extreme Private Eros level a critique at her for leaving him? Or does the director castigate himself for failing to be an adequate or supportive partner? Even though Hara describes his project in psychoanalytic terms—he is a spurned lover, wielding the camera as a therapeutic tool to remain close to the lost object of his affection—this attempt at closing the wounds of the past does not involve Miyuki, who is uninterested in “healing” her ex-husband. For Miyuki, it is impossible to conceive of her own role as conciliatory, since she increasingly views Hara as yet another stifling male figure in a patriarchal system that continually thwarts her desires. Not unexpectedly, the relationship between the two grows increasingly thorny. Later, when Hara shows up on the shoot with his new assistant (and lover) Sachiko, Miyuki is derisive of what she sees as Sachiko’s accommodation of Hara’s personal and professional needs. In this case, Miyuki condescends to another woman whom she does not consider sufficiently independent.

Miyuki’s affective trajectory is fluid, easily crossing registers from hurt, to courage, to outspokenness, to ecstasy and liberation—followed by the darkening of her mood and an impending sense of doom. It remains unclear, however, how much of this emotional arc is cast by Miyuki herself, and how much is Hara’s narrative construction. The point where agency ends and manipulation begins is unclear. Even though Extreme Private Eros is a portrait, we are never offered the complete picture: Miyuki’s shifting political allegiances, in parallel with the film’s discontinuous representation of time and space, fragment her process of self-discovery. The compression and manipulation of time privileges a narrative (presumably Hara’s own) that shows Miyuki slipping, losing ground, spiralling rather than evolving. To an extent, then, what’s being represented is not Miyuki, but what remains enigmatic about her for Hara.

The tension between our seeming proximity to Miyuki and the impenetrability of her psychic landscape comes to the fore in the next meeting with Hara, when we find her in the company of a 14-year-old prostitute named Chichi, a new friend from the fringe culture of Okinawa. Although Miyuki is not a sex worker herself, like Chichi she is in a relationship with an African-American GI (in her case, a man named Paul), who is stationed on the island. Miyuki sees her new affair as progressive and liberating—a far cry from the traditional relationship she had with Hara, in which she felt like an object to be admired. She exults in crossing boundaries of language and race, but is also troubled by Paul’s profession, which represents everything she fears, from violence and imperialist power to systemic male misogyny. Hara keeps his documentary direct and immersive, without commenting on the fact that Okinawa was turned into an American military base after World War II. However, through Chichi he gives us a keen sense of young Japanese sex workers who service American soldiers; and through Miyuki, the appeal of the American GI to women wanting to unsettle cultural sex norms.

Despite the liberation Miyuki feels she can gain through her relationship with Paul, her quest for erotic love and radical independence is doomed. Only three weeks later, her view of intimate relationships, particularly with men, has darkened. For unknown yet antagonistic reasons, her relationship with Paul and her stay in Okinawa ends. In response, Miyuki writes a pamphlet advocating—possibly sarcastically—the castration of men. She takes aim at “black men with large dicks,” referring to her own inter-racial relationship with Paul, and fetishizes male anatomy. Seeing herself as a feminist crusader, Miyuki distributes this pamphlet to women in Okinawa, but is mostly ignored by the women and eventually harassed in the street by men whom Hara characterizes as “gangsters.”

In 1973, now settled again in Tokyo, Miyuki gives birth to a baby girl on the floor of Hara’s apartment without any medical assistance—and with Hara and Sachiko as witnesses. Since the two are filming, Miyuki must deliver the baby alone. When Miyuki’s water breaks, Hara trains his camera closely on Miyuki’s vagina as the baby’s head begins to crown. Hara’s blunt, graphic approach is mitigated only by the blurred focus, possibly pointing to his distress, or to his awareness of the camera’s intrusion during such an intimate scene. To Miyuki, however, this is not an invasive but a culminating moment—a triumph. Having struggled with stultifying and pervasive perceptions of women as homemakers, Miyuki nevertheless turns to the one thing that biologically marks her as a woman: her capacity to give birth. She exults in her body’s natural abilities, and in her power to withstand pain. To give birth without relying on others reaffirms her capacity for absolute independence, as does her determination to raise a baby on her own. Keeping with the minimal-commentary approach, Hara doesn’t clarify that the baby is Paul’s until later in the film, though Miyuki comments right after birth on the child’s mixed race.

Miyuki’s precarious financial status as a single mother leads her to the Orange House, an all-female commune in Tokyo. When Hara returns to film Miyuki, he shows her assisting in childbirth, then jumps to 1974, when she is already at another commune. There she is seen with a group of small children, including their son, at a shared dining table, and later washing the children in a large tub, in which she herself is also bathing. The image is joyful, yet it hints at a denial of sexual desire, as lovers have been removed from Miyuki’s narrative. Unable to reconcile her sexual life with motherhood, Miyuki has chosen the latter. Immersed in a hot tub and surrounded by smiling children, she appears to have found tranquility—but behind this image of joy, there lurks a troubling question as to whether Miyuki’s revolt against the status quo has been fruitful. After all, her insistence on sexual difference has come at the price of physical love. On the other hand, she has not merely survived at the margins of social acceptability but thrived, and found solidarity and support previously lacking. By joining a commune and becoming a midwife to other single mothers, Miyuki’s struggle for independence has found strength, paradoxically, in collectivity. In this sense, Miyuki has moved from speaking out to mobilization, from recognizing her own marginalization to counteracting it by joining other marginalized women.

Yet we may wonder to what extent Miyuki’s refuge still operates within, and is structured by, patriarchal forces. Ultimately, the image Hara leaves us with is of women’s naked bodies gyrating in a dark strip club, not the ecstatic image of Miyuki in the tub. In doing so, he offers a footnote to Miyuki’s passionate manifesto, pointing us back to the economics of sexual exchange. It is possible that Hara intended this closing image as a vision of liberation rather than of doom—a woman outside the home—but the shot of bare skin flashing under cool psychedelic lights is void of jubilation, hinting instead at the demands of survival. The image resists any resolution to Miyuki’s enigmatic journey, and leaves the question of women’s liberation necessarily open-ended.

Ela Bittencourt's writing on film and art has been published in Cineaste, Frieze Magazine, Artforum, Senses of Cinema, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications.

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Ela Bittencourt's writing on film and art has been published in Cineaste, Frieze Magazine, Artforum, Senses of Cinema, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications.