Shūji Terayama’s Throw Away Your Books, And Rally in The Streets

 A Visionary Movie on a Blinded Society?

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I was misled by the title of the film into thinking it was a film about radical Japanese students rioting in the street to protest against Vietnam but it is nothing of the sort. The main story is on a much smaller, individual scale, looking at a specific family. Nonetheless the film uses dream-like sequences and editing techniques to spice things up. This works some of the time but at others it does not.

Film Synopsis: The story of a young Japanese man, Eimei, and his attempts to lift his family from an all-encompassing misery (material, moral and existential) while fighting the urge to “fly away” from it all after hearing the story of a Korean man who died in an attempt to take to the skies and return to Korea with a man-made man-propelled airplane; just like the wishful dream of that flying machine, both those lives shall crash and burn: one at the beginning of the movie, one at the end.

Interspersed within this story, we see dream sequences, family scenes, visual representations of the various characters’ state of mind, scenes of various “outliers” in the streets, experimental scenes (some in which the camera work could cause nausea) and bizarre musical numbers, to a ratio of 50% story to 50% other sequences, be them connected or not with the main plot and central characters.

Central to the story is the theme of “dispossession” when it comes to one’s identity: the main character wants to redeem his father, and it does look like it is talking about the broader Japanese society as being portrayed in this bizarre duet of the new generation and the one who had to go through the war and see their Country and Emperor lose all their lustre. A sense of deranged lack of direction simmering under the skin and ready to rear its ugly face, moving the characters at times like marionettes whenever it takes control over them, is always in the background, and often times the audience is left dreading whenever this subterranean river will break free and come to the surface.

One scene when the traumas of the past, the anxiousness of the present, and the terror which fills the future seem to be at their peak, in conjunction with the editing and soundtrack, is during a scene where the character, led by the nose by the strange mentor figure of Mr. Omi, is in bed with a prostitute, and he cannot feel anything but distress and disgust at all which is going on within and without him in that moment, and what has happened to him in the past at the hand of his mother: all these emotions seem to project also into his views of the future, as he runs away without even caring to take his shoes (and, like in other scenes throughout the movie, there’s a sort of sarcastic humorous ending to what is a tragic scene which shows the vulnerability of the protagonist). That scene was over the top, self-indulgent and too long but it does get the point across pretty well. I was left nauseated, like the protagonist.

Undersold or Overhyped?

Chiasmo's Personal thoughts: This is a movie which is easily undersold and yet can as well be over-hyped due to its uniqueness: the soundtrack, the editing, the writing, its vignettes-leaden flow, and messages; its “pastiche” nature lends itself to be its strength and weakness, its building blocks being also the wrecking-ball which can destroy a viewer’s enjoyment of this movie: many of the choices and strange images do enhance the experience, as they add to the individual characters’ mental state, or reveal parts of their past; while others fall flat or drag the story to a crawl due to how they add details to the “themes” (materialism, decadence, dissolution of values, restless youth with aimless desires of revenge or redemption and “self-ransom” from and against their failed fathers and these father’s faltering world) while being divorced from the small scale story of Eimei, the main “hero” whose quest is doomed to fail as a result of his frailty and his bad choices.

A story of exploiters, both aware of their ruses or not, and of the exploits of a confused, exploited, (self) abused youth…ideologies and society both failed him, but he keeps throwing himself in the endeavour to help his father, despite his apparent passivity; Eimei has also the contradictory dream of a flight from his home and his Country which goes against his desire to push his father into working again at a noodle stall which he bought from Mr. Omi.

Betraying Fiction & Politics.

Otaking/TGS's Personal thoughts: Betrayal, betrayal, and betrayal! Eimei has little agency or will, and is betrayed by the world around him and the people in it. He doesn't do anything particularly wrong to deserve this either. Then at the end of the movie there is an interesting fourth wall breaking scene where Eimei gives a speech about how this is just a movie, he is just wearing a costume as an actor, while still being in-character. It didn't feel like he was mocking the audience for taking the film seriously. Maybe it was just the movie telling the audience to get back to their lives, or simply a reminder that that is what they'll do regardless of what they feel right now, I am not sure what to make of it myself but I like that in a way this makes it a film about cinema rather than real life.

Too often films with a heavy social-message just become a self-refuting lie because real people don't act like their movie characters, nor is there any reason for movie characters to act like real people. The protagonist repeatedly declares that he's not in love with cinema but the movie certainly is in love with cinema as a medium - you can see that even through all the angst in the film because of all the weird effects and imagery used in the movie. It's not pretending to be real life.

The director Shuji Terayama claims that the intention of his work is “to revolutionise real life without resorting to politics.” This is really just another way of saying that direct political action and discourse are ineffective, this isn't inaccurate, but it is also an excuse, because anyone with a brain realises that they're not going to enact political change by creating art either. Art usually does not set political trends for society but rather art usually follows political trends set by society. At best art might predict where things are headed and at worst it will simply mirror back the hopes and fears of the audience.

When Eimei said that he was not in love with cinema, I take it to mean that it's the director's frustration of reality not being subservient to his art. The frustration of these artists then is that they can't fully let go of politics and let go of the wish to affect politics. They can't fully embrace art for its own pleasure rather than any "practical" social use. A particularly satirical scene stands out in which Japanese workers sing a homoerotic ode to action films starring Takakura Ken, one of the most popular actors in Japan at that time and a symbol of manhood. This scene is mocking the contrast between the emasculated reality of Japanese working class men, such as Eimei's father, and the masculine escapist heroic fantasies of the fiction they watched in their spare time. In fact, in its mundane scenes, this film is probably not much less fantastic than Takakura Ken's films from the perspective of most ordinary people.

Just like people get off watching heroes like Takakura Ken's characters so too they get off watching misery porn like Eimei's character. It is all the same, equally fake, equally ineffectual on the real world. At any rate watching a movie is not a political act because there is no action in a movie theatre, the action happens outside in the streets, in real life. Real life of course, for Terayama, is outside political movements.

At one point some characters do throw away their books on the street, and throughout the film you can see quotes from radical authors, presumably from the books which had been thrown out into the streets, written on walls, on the ground, taking up the whole screen.

Here is the little speech by Eimei Kitagawa at the end:

If you think about it, a film can only exist within the darkness of a cinema. The world of the film ends the moment the lights come on; it just disappears. […] Even the worlds of Polanski and Ōshima Nagisa and Antonioni, all of them disappears when you turn on the lights. Think you could show a film on the side of a building during daylight? […] I loved Humphrey Bogart. I loved Cinemascope, town shooting, love scenes… I loved Mr. Sukita, the cameraman; Mr. Terayama, the director; Mr. Usui, the assistant. The whole of that world, but I don’t love the cinema. Goodbye. Goodbye, cinema.

Needless to say the film is self-aware that the same is true for the worlds of Mr. Terayama which makes you wonder why does he bother.

Characters of Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets:

Eimei, the main protagonist and main narrating voice of the story: young, idealistic and naive, he seems to represent the “dispossessed” youth of Japan in the decades after World War II and the end of the Emperor’s divine presence over the Country. He has long term goals, but his emotional nature and past  traumas hinder his growth and his interactions with the rest of the people around him; in the end, his attempt at relieving his father from a life of degeneracy and abandonment turns out to be a delusion and leads to a final betrayal and his being cast aside by all characters and ending up in jail.

Masaharu, the father, an unemployed lecher who lives off of his son, an obsequious loser, and a war criminal according to his son. He used to be a boxer. It is implied that the war might have made him who he is. On one occasion he does show a bit of kindness to his daughter but nothing more.

Setsu, The sister, introduced by Eimei as a “slut who hates men.”

Tome, Eimei’s selfish and lonely lying grandmother.

Mr. Omi, the scruples-less football coach who justifies his lack of morals with being contemporary ideology. The point of his character is that to get ahead in this era you need to be a deceitful and self-serving scumbag.

The Highlights:

Editing: Alternates between dream-scenes and reality; the movie wears on its sleeves how it has an experimental vibe, and its deeply steeped post-1960s students strike tone is often felt in the scenes in the streets and in its bitter disillusioned view of booksmart “intellectuals,” and art as a direct approach to invoke change in the common person who/which is the base unit of the masses. Though it is questionable whether this is a movie that the masses, and not the cinema student, would want to watch.

This unique approach to themes and storytelling is both the strong point and main weakness of the movie due to its weird and often weary editing and pacing: slow silent scenes may descend in a cacophony of sounds and images overlapping, and oftentimes the central story of Eimei’s attempts at redemption are lost in a slew of vignettes, strange musical pieces and dissonant punk psychedelic rock lingering onto visually cryptic yet powerful images which may bring one to question if there is a deeper meaning to all that is shown on screen and to which extent it is our own personal views and experiences allowing us to “read into” these images (almost like if the “material” of the movie is malleable enough to take any shape our brain wishes to push it into).

A unique “solution” is used by director Terayama to implicitly make us understand when a scene is set in the grounded real world of the fiction, the movie itself, and when instead the images flashing before our eyes are fantasies, dreams or moments of social exploration: green scenes denote the ‘family moments’ widening our understanding of the household in which Eimei grew and lives in, a magenta/purple overlaying colour is what denotes everything which is in the minds of the characters (be them dream or vivid images of their minds), the main story is shown in colours, and moments when the main character speaks directly to the audience are in black and white. Scenes in the streets usually have a more vivid colour palette, almost as if the contrast is heightened for those scenes.

This gives an unique intuitiveness to the flow and changes in how the story is told and what is shown to us, and even if some scene transitions are rather jarring, it weirdly flows well despite the strong whiplash that can hit due to the editing or the soundscape changes which often happen all of the sudden in the movie.

Pacing: The film is two hours and 17 minutes long but it feels three hours long. Probably due to the issues in the editing mentioned above.

Soundtrack: August 1970. The soundtrack has been described as punk. It fits the angsty and nihilistic message of the story. Many tracks rely on a very psychedelic keyboard use which gives a unique vibe to the scenes where there’s no narration but only images or vignettes.

Evangelion: The scene in the last episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion where Shinji sits in a dark chair and answers some questions comes from Throw Away Your Books. Other influences from Shuji Terayama include the use of monochromatic colours and on-screen text that covers the city. The epilogue where the protagonist breaks the fourth wall at the end of the film is set on a theatre stage, which makes sense since this movie was originally a stage-play, the last episode of Evangelion is also set in a theatre stage. This could be just a coincidence.

The Rating: 7/10

rating good

ChiasmoRoss’s Rating: 8/10 on the creative/visual side, 6/10 story, 5/10 audio (terrible balancing in a few scenes, may induce headaches).

Otaking’s Rating: 7/10. The title misled me. I wanted to see Japanese students and riot police beating each other out.  There are some cool scenes like the stutterer’s speech which were spliced into the film but were disconnected from the story’s plot progression so they slowed the pacing and fragmented the film.

Another scene which I liked but felt disconnected was the satirical scene in which Japanese workers sing a homoerotic ode to action films starring Takakura Ken. Maybe there is some link to the main narrative which I missed but it sort of just happened. There are more scenes like this but I think I have made my point.

The realistic scenes of the main plot do not effortlessly weave into the dreams and vignettes but abruptly cut into each other. The film makes a point of making it obvious by the use of different colour palettes depending on the type of scene. After watching the film I realised how these dream scenes actually explore the character’s backstories so I may be exaggerating the issue.

This article was co-authored by Otaking/TGS and ChiasmoRoss.

The Podcast/Livestream we did on the movie:

The dream sequences are not just some random weird stuff so if like me you don't get them after watching the film, give the livestream/podcast posted below a watch. Chiasmo does a good job of going over them.