For those keeping score, Hara’s first three documentaries follow these individuals:
- Goodbye CP: outspoken poet, disability activist, and wheelchair-refuser Hiroshi Yokota
- Extreme Private Eros Love Song 1974: Hara’s aggressively nutty former girlfriend Miyuki Takeda
- The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On: Second World War veteran Kenzo Okuzaki, who beats up interviewees and throws pachinko balls at the Emperor
Inoue doesn’t seem to belong in the lineup; he’s not, in Hara’s words, one of the “troublemakers.” That is to say, he makes only well-precedented kinds of trouble. Does he womanize? Sure. Does he angry up the blood of Japanese communists? Sure. But he doesn’t take to the streets with his bent and hobbling buddies, he doesn’t drive around in a sound truck denouncing society, and he doesn’t run off to Okinawa and shack up with a black G.I. By Hara’s standards, Inoue is a normal subject and A Dedicated Life is a normal movie, with color and speech that matches the onscreen lip movements and everything!
Part of me actually regrets Hara’s relative freedom from technical limitation here, since his seventies films’ bare-bones production so positively influenced their style, their form, and thus their interestingness. I feared this one, shot in the late eighties and early nineties, would go down a bit easy. As it turns out, it does go down a bit easy, but don’t take that to mean Hara has lost his daring; in a dead-silent sequence oddly reminiscent of Extreme Private Eros’ childbirths, he gets the camera into the operating room and shoots one of Inoue’s liver tumor surgeries. Funny how... abstract the human body’s interior looks when you really get in there.
Whatever the film lacks in roughness, it makes up for in scope: cut from 70 hours of footage shot over Inoue’s final years, it runs nearly as long as Goodbye CP and Extreme Private Eros combined. What makes it different from them in kind rather than just in degree is that Hara films around Inoue, not just Inoue himself. His previous documentaries stay pretty much locked on their characters, although you can see beginnings of the breakaway in The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. Here, he learns as much about Inoue indirectly as he learns directly. Before and after Inoue’s death, he sits down with his friends, his colleagues, his smitten middle-aged women, etc., and gets their impressions of the impassioned writer.
Good thing he did, since it turns out that Inoue lied a lot. His claims about founding the Japanese communist party he eventually spurned? Not so much. His claims about falling in love with a Korean prostitute in childhood? Not so much. Allowing Inoue to build up his own mythology — sometimes helping along with seriously Hara-atypical dramatic reenactments — as the others quizzically tear it down, Hara obviously got even more to work with than he’d bargained for. But this happens without judgment, and if you think about it for a moment, you couldn’t judge Inoue’s tall tale-telling without looking stupid: what does a novelist make his name on if not, uh, constructing elaborate lies?
I often think about the notion of living one’s own life as a work of art in and of itself; Inoue approaches that in a way hadn’t previously considered. If your art is fiction, it makes sense that your life as art would involve fiction as well. I assume that, like most of the Japanese novelists of his generation of whom I’m aware, he worked in the form of the “I” novel, a slab of autobiography with a light dusting of inventedness. (I know a bit more about mid-century Japanese novelists than most American readers, and Inoue never even made my radar before this movie, and it looks as if the entire Anglosphere only knows him through it. This piques my curiosity as to why.) Why not complete the circle and augment your autobiography with a dose of the invented even as you live it?