Credit: Sato Hisayasu/IFFR
by Zach Lewis Film

Dear Kaita Ablaze — Hisayasu Satô [IFFR ’24 Review]

February 2, 2024

France had the Comte de Lautréamont, a young writer who embodied the Romantic spirit even more than the Romantics, and thrust an entire generation’s literary energy into his Les Chants du Maldoror, a prose poem featuring a man so evil and ugly that he denies killing himself such that God may witness His mistake. This work would eventually spark the transgressive elements of European modernism, but Lautréamont himself would die in relative obscurity shortly after completing it. He was 24 years old, and historians posit that he died of disease in Parisian squalor.

Meanwhile, Japan had Kaita Murayama, a writer, poet, and painter whose life and influence shockingly mirror that of Lautréamont’s in France. He, too, died young (22) and unknown; he, too, made transgression itself his subject; and he, too, would provide the foundation for a flourishing modernist movement in his home country. His Maldoror was a painting titled Naked Monk Urinating, which features exactly what you’d expect, painted almost crudely in his signature garance pigment, a dark red that provides little contrast to the black landscape, making the figure blend into his environment like a spirit of the mountains. In 2018, several of Murayama’s early works were discovered for the first time, and, though these landscapes and portraits had none of the unsettling qualities of his holy pisser, this discovery revitalized interest in Japan’s young hellion who preceded even Edogawa Rampo in making ero guro (the “erotic grotesque”) a modernist art. It’s only fitting that one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Pink — a Japanese cinema genre heavily influenced by ero guro — would make a film honoring Murayama’s legacy.

That said, Hisayasu Satô’s Dear Kaita Ablaze ventures far away from the traditional biopic route. Instead, the film acts almost as a ghost story, as the spirit of Murayama has supposedly worked its way into a young man, Saku (Shintarô Yûya), in the present day. Meanwhile, a Murayama acolyte, Azami (Riho Sato), spends her days on the streets holding up an iPad with Naked Monk Urinating displayed and asking passersby to remember and to discuss Murayama’s work, but her chance meeting with Saku inspires an obsession with his claim to “hear” and “be” Murayama. Four street artists, all unfamiliar with Murayama, are simultaneously attracted to Saku due to their psychic powers (a detail just casually thrown into the mix), and follow him to his shrine in the woods dedicated to understanding the artist. This setup allows Satô to spend the remainder of the film following this troupe as they make performance art out of Murayama’s paintings and written work.

The prosumer digital camera tracks its subjects with a slight wobble here and a correction in framing there, but Satô’s filmography is filled with these imperfections, often calling the audience’s attention to the very act of recording. Much of his pinku work in the 1980s and ‘90s focused on voyeurs and snuff pornographers operating handheld camcorders; so, shots of the victims of these movies would frequently be matched with a POV shot filmed from the eye of demented desire. It’s certainly a way to justify extremely cheap and garish cinematography for those sequences, but it’s also a way to emphasize the act of recording as an action itself, not as passive observance (cinema’s own variation on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle). Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom was the first to literalize this in its camera-couteau as its protagonist’s camera-stylo, but Satô’s entire career has been an extension of this, using noise-filled CRT video monitors and cheap DV shots as long-running motifs of the dangers and detritus of obsession. So here, too, the frame quakes as the troupe records their obsessional performances. An occasional wide-shot directly from above or below (seemingly from a GoPro) disturbs this rhythm a bit as the camera remains still and flatly frames all six of our gang, only for them all to stare directly into the lens and announce they’ve found something — a secret POV shot, like seeing through the monster’s eyes in a horror film. Though the film never shows an audience for the troupe’s work, there’s always a foreboding sense that someone’s watching.

The performance art pieces are themselves fun bits of amateur choreography and set design (some are dotted with screens in typical Satô fashion — equal parts video art installation and CCTV room). Without the need for a physical space for their audience, they can dance and interpret Murayama’s work on top of a small Tokyo rooftop or deep in a forest. Saku claims that the pagoda trees of the forest are said to ward off evil, so the troupe sets up their home base in a nearby cave with Murayama’s work projected onto the cave walls, as if they were antediluvian messages. Since Satô’s work has previously focused so heavily on city life (both the basis of his noir-ish or sci-fi setups, as well as a logical place to see so many screens at once), these forest scenes, perhaps his first since 1996’s In a Thicket, stand out as a strange contrast to the video work of the troupe. In the 20th century, with the rise of an encroaching technology that documented our lives so as to better regulate them, it was at least comforting to know that there still exists a world out of reach, lest our Romantic ancestors rather than our utilitarian contemporaries be proven right. But, if Satô is making movies in the forest, that comfort is gone.

Along with these performances, a story about Saku’s “possession” fleshes out, featuring possible flashbacks to a barbed “demon tongue” that beckons its user to consume flesh as well as a destructive tryst between Saku and the obsessed Azami. These sequences carry the weight of Satô’s pinku past and deliver some beautiful, disturbing imagery, complemented by a stark color grading that wouldn’t have gotten past a bigger production’s bureaucratic instructions. A deep, monochromatic blue palette glistens in the fantasy sequences, the forest is made a garish green when made the subject, and a final ritualistic act of violence is blessed by Murayama’s signature Garance red. Though difficult to confirm (as hardly any primary or secondary sources about Kaita Murayama exist in English), it’s clear that his transgressive aesthetic has thoroughly influenced Hisayasu Satô, whose legacy can be seen as recorded performance art adaptations of the young master’s works — exactly like the troupe of Dear Kaita Ablaze. At one point, Azami reinterprets that masterwork of the sacred-profane, Naked Monk Urinating, as an act of genesis, the urine secretly being semen. To see such a picture and regard it as holy — such is the work of Satô, one of the greatest students of Murayama.

Published as part of IFFR 2024 — Dispatch 2.