UMETSUGU INOUE: JAPAN'S MUSIC MAN
How have I never heard of Umetsugu Inoue (aka. Umeji Inoue)? I scoured the pages of Donald Richie’s 100 Years of Japanese Cinema… not a whisper. I looked back at years of repertory programming only to find the recent mentions of Umetsugu Inoue: Japan’s Music Man, a traveling retrospective about to hit NYC. Having been away this summer, I would have known that it indeed graced Philly screens at International House’s Lightbox Theater in July. Credit where credit is due, landing in Philly before the Big Apple. If, like me, you missed them when they were at your doorstep, your can catch these three kegs of cinematic dynamite at the Japan Society of NYC Dec. 15th-16th. These are indeed meant for the big screen and for big sound. They need that much real estate and resonance to accommodate their utter fullness, their depth and their energy. The Stormy Man, The Winner and The Eagle and the Hawk, all produced in 1957, demonstrate the director’s penchant for sharp cinematic technique, ambiguous moralities, a strong sense of place and the vitality of music, as well as his restless process.
Inoue is one of the most prolific feature filmmakers I can conjure, having directed 83 films, and written/co-written 68 of them (imdb) in a career of roughly 35 years. In addition, Inoue split his time between Japanese film studios like Nikkatsu and the Shaw Brother’s Studios in Hong Kong from 1967-72, sometimes remaking or reinterpreting his previous works. Rare as such a dedicated international discipline like this may seem there was indeed a precedent for it. 1954 saw the first Southeast Asia Film Festival (later the Asia Film Festival), established by Daiei and Shaw Brothers Studio Presidents as part of an attempt by Japan to “rebuild the burnt bridges with the country’s Asian neighbors”, and across several years hosted it “in other regional centres including Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and Seoul”. * (Jasper Sharp) There were even subsequent Shaw-Daiei co-productions, which prefaced Inoue’s later exploits abroad. Sadly, save for the presentation of Hong Kong Nocturne (1967) as part of Harvard Film Archive’s iteration of the program, this international aspect of his career goes unexplored in any expansive way. What is explored is Inoue’s collaboration with actor and consequent megastar Ishihara Yūjiro, as well as his emphatic and integrated use of music and musical performance without making ostensible musicals. Music is used for texture, attitude, and drama. It is intrinsically linked to, rather than lavished upon, the material and makes a world vitalized by its performances even more expressive.
What grips in these three films are the nuanced central performances (the kind you want to watch with a microscope), what compels throughout are the existential questions of free-will vs. fate / nature vs. nurture deftly playing out in actions, and what impresses constantly is how each films’ reality is whole. Everything bee-boppin’-and-scattin’ around the anecdotal action of every scene feels authentic. There is something naturally unhinged about everything and everyone, and so each scene is a riveting animated display as calibrated as they are fluid. Inoue’s cinema is as much Jazz as it is motion picture.
Ishihara Yujiro is at the heart of each film, and in a sense, his brutish charms are used similarly in each work, though he somehow makes the subtlest calculations to seem different. Its because he is able to metabolize his characters’ motivations in a way that come across in slight tonal shifts and gestures. It has been remarked that Yujiro Ishihara, darling of the Taiyo-zoku (Sun Tribe) “problem youth” genre that emerged post-US Occupation, is “the James Dean and Elvis of Japan”, equating both his magnificent voice, boyish handsomeness and unvarnished swagger that simmers with impulses, but I would rather not qualify his excellence by comparison to equivalent white talent. Ishihara’s seemingly unrehearsed demeanor, his manner of being both deeply interior while at the same time feverish, instinctual and explosive is all his own. It comes across singly. His characters may not have the vocabulary for the kinds of things he feels or understands on a base level, but his “existentialism” is hewn through action, pushing extremities and testing with abandon.
Kitahara Mei (Crazed Fruit, Rusty Knife) is another thread in these selections, appearing alongside Ishihara in The Stormy Man and The Winner. Her range is absolutely remarkable, fully realized in these abutting performances. In the Jazz rivalry-fueled The Stormy Man she is centered, strong and intelligent. She has to be, and she holds sway over the goings on of the Tokyo Jazz scene despite the machinations of arrogant, greedy, scheming men. Her simultaneous cynicism and sincerity is peerless. Alternately she expresses an entirely different sort of determination in Shori-sha (The Winner), one that grows vs. one which had already grown. In The Winner, her motivations are more ostensibly emotionally. Her initial vulnerability (and her talent as a ballet dancer) is foregrounded, whereas it is only glimpsed in The Stormy Man. Between films she seemed to transform internally from someone someone so mature and sure to someone so young and unsure, a change so detectable perhaps because I watched them back-to-back just as they were made back -to-back, and because the evolution appears regressive in chronology. Incidentally, Kitahara and Ishihara were frequent co-stars throughout her unfortunately short but remarkably prolific career (banking 44 credits, mostly starring roles between 1952-1960) and they eventually married, remaining together until his death in 1987.
THE STORMY MAN Saturday, December 15, 7 PM Sunday, December 16, 4:30 PM
“Ishihara plays a rough-hewn drummer out to make it in the seedy Ginza jazz world. An enormous success, The Stormy Man was Japan's third-biggest box-office hit of 1957, made the Nikkatsu studio solvent and solidified Inoue's reputation as a maker of hit musicals. For its young audience, who clapped and cheered as Ishihara sang "I'm a drummer, a no-good drummer," the movie was an event and a generational marker. Today it still packs musical excitement — and presents Japan's premier screen idol at his most charismatic.”
The complexity of this film issues from its psychology, its characters’ shifting (or seemingly shifting) allegiances, their apparent (or seemingly apparent) motivations and a cumulative sense of tension tied to the lofty heights of pursuing greatness at all costs, and to the bonds of family loyalty (inherited and found).
THE WINNER Saturday, December 15, 2:15 PM Sunday, December 16, 6:45 PM
“Eikichi, a nightclub owner and former boxer with unrealized dreams of being a prizefighter, picks up a talented but wildly undisciplined amateur fighter (Yujiro Ishihara) and decides to mold him into a champion. When a beautiful, destitute ballerina also comes under Eikichi's tutelage, however, romantic entanglements and jealousies threaten to undo his vicarious triumph in the ring. A box office success upon release, The Winner proved to Inoue's satisfaction that Ishihara could carry a film (though his studio bosses needed more convincing). It also established the action-with-musical-interludes template for dozens of Nikkatsu films to come.”
THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK Saturday, December 15, 4:30 PM Sunday, December 16, 2 PM
“A high seas adventure, murder mystery and revenge-driven melodrama all rolled into one, Inoue's follow-up to The Winner casts Ishihara as a cocky, musical seaman who joins the crew of a rusty cargo ship headed to Hong Kong. Amidst fist fights and scuffles along the way, two women on board vie for the ukulele-playing sailor's attention: a sultry stowaway and the captain's high-spirited daughter, who is also pursued by the ship's first mate. Morally ambiguous, Ishihara's character offered something new to Japanese cinema: a dirty hero with his own sense of justice and a way with song.”
* Seijun Rising: Border Crossing by Jasper Sharp published by Arrow Video 2018 as part of Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2