In 1936, the 10th year of Showa, Japan was torn between the ideas of modernization and conservative forces. With the power of military on the rise, certain extreme right-wing politicians and authors fueled the ultranationalists' ideals, and one of them, Ikki Kita, is particularly notable for influencing the notorious attempt of overthrowing the government in February 1936, which cost him his life as he was later executed. He strongly believed in "kaigenrei" (martial law), a step toward the inception of a totalitarist regime controlled by the Emperor.
Coup D'Etat, like some other Yoshishige Yoshida films, also sports an annoying alternative title, Martial Law (which is basically the literate translation of the original title, Kaigenrei), and is the third movie in Yoshida's Japanese Radicalism Trilogy, preceded by Eros + Massacre (1969) and Heroic Purgatory (1970). It is structured like an expressionistic biopic of Ikki Kita's final days. The movie doesn't provide any exposition (except maybe for those title cards in Japanese I couldn't read because I've seen the film with faulty subtitles which left the text screens untranslated), and doesn't seem to focus much on building an accurate picture of the period it's set in, or detailing the coup itself. Instead it mostly focuses on Kita's psychological motivation, his relationship with his childless wife and adopted son, as well as with a young soldier who ends up betraying him, symbolically demonstrating that Kita's uber-traditionalist world-views don't resonate much with younger generations. By the way, the 1936 incident also inspired famous writer Yukio Mishima's story, later adapted into film - Patriotism. Interestingly enough, Coup D'Etat was released the same year as the Chilean coup d'etat took place - 1973.
Rentaro Mikuni delivers a fantastic performance as Ikki Kita and completely owns every second of his screen time with his dark presence. He's frequently seen praying to a shrine in his house or masochistically punishing himself for betraying his principles in a while. The movie is very minimalistic in tone (after all, it was produced with the help of Art Theatre Guild and filmed with a small budget), but it surprisingly works very well. There's no much, if any, action, and the film is completely dialogue-driven, most of which you won't understand if you've seen the same crappily-subtitled version as I did.
The cinematography is, as usual with Yoshida, quite striking. The establishing shots are unconventional, the shots themselves never repeat, even in the mundane conversation scenes, and the characters are always obscured by a foreground object, or placed somewhere on the screen's very boundaries. They are often seen as dark figures with half- lit faces in midst of a huge slice of negative space.
The soundtrack is also very interesting - it goes from orchestral and traditional music to schizophrenic electronic beeps and bloops reminiscent of the soundtrack to CrazyBus on Sega Genesis. The movie also has plenty natural sounds, most prominent of which are crows squawking, therefore serving as an omen to the coup's ultimate failure and Kita's demise. The music, especially at the start, sounds actually pretty creepy, and, together with claustrophobic shots of characters enveloped in darkness, makes you feel like you're in a nightmare.
Coup D'Etat was actually the Japanese submission for the 46th Academy Awards, for the Best Foreign Language Film category, but unfortunately wasn't accepted as a nominee. Yoshida considered the film to be a completion of his work and left filmmaking for the next 13 years (he even lived in Mexico for a bit), returning with A Promise (1986). During his pause, he directed a documentary series about art, called Beauty of Beauty (Bi no Bi), from 1973 to 1978, which is so obscure that it isn't even listed on IMDb. I'd like to see this little series as well.
Coup D'Etat has great atmosphere and performances, but unfortunately the story didn't do much for me. You really need to have a grasp on the political current in '30s Japan, or you'll get completely lost, so in a way this is Yoshida's most "Japanese" film, as opposed to his anti- melodramas which felt like French New Wave films instead.