The Other Japanese New Wave : 1958-61
Sometimes… just sometimes… a film program feels like it was made just for you. A collection of films that excite every corner of one’s interests and alight the possibilities of the cinematic medium as both corporeal and transcendent, surgically incisive and bludgeoning abrasive, political and personal. I felt this way in 2009 when Hirasawa Go of Japan Society of NY curated Shinjuku Ecstasy and introduced me to the radical inventiveness and potency of late 60’s cinema from the land of the rising sun. Most of those selections issued from the Art Theater Guild of Japan, among which Yoshida Kijû’s epic EROS PLUS MASSACRE still inhabits me (and has only just received a US release on physical media). Like the fractious and fluid expression of reality in Yoshida’s brazenly philosophical historically-laced angst-fueled new wave fever-dream, time and space have folded and a decade later Japan Society of NYC now presents The Other Japanese New Wave, what could only be described as a companion, even a prequel to that memorable rebellious program. TOJNW collects some of the earlier and less salient names like Tamura Tsutomu and Takahashi Osamu that helped propel a movement of sharp social criticism and cinematic invention in Japan that would arc in the early 70’s, where diverting and exploitation cinema would reign. The series, not surprisingly also curated by Hirasawa, now enters its second phase from the 20th -27th and is well worth the day trip, being that some of these films have never before screened in the US until now, and on 35mm no less!
The late 50’s and early 60’s were a formative period of demilitarized Japan’s modernization to say the least. The rebuild from wartime was rounding out in the major cities, the US occupation had ended the prior decade and transformed into a formal allyship founded in treaties, military and business interests. However, the psychic scars of the war and the transmutation of old institutions into new models of westernized commerce created a hotbed of unrest, expressed most outwardly by student organizations. Even in the face of censorship, Cinema cannot help but reflect in a most visceral way the complexity of social experiences, whether in content, form or presentation, by address or antithesis. The world over was building a concert of “new wave cinemas” in the 50’s and 60’s because the world over had things to rebel against, something to scream about as the magma of wartime cooled into new jagged shapes that conflicted with evolving ideas about social formation, the role of government, the power of the rich, the invalidity of archaic norms, access to resources, job security, access to education, rejection of newer forms of war and wartime participation, etc. “…postwar Japanese society was dealing with its war responsibility—an issue that splintered the preexisting left wing establishment (primarily made up of the Japanese Communist Party) and gave rise to the student-led New Left. Among the most volatile issues for these young political activists was the proposed 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, or Anpo, around which many demonstrations and fights erupted. The filmmakers that birthed the New Wave in the late 1950s and early ’60s directly and indirectly responded to these emerging ideologies and movements through their work, which they imbued with newfound subjectivity and self-awareness as auteurs.” (Hirasawa Go)
Among all the selected works of TOJNW, Yoshida’s Blood Is Dry (1960) is truly a brutalization of the human spirit with primal instincts at play in a world of bureaucratic and market-based mannerism, a nihilistic exploration of growing commercialization and commodification of identity in an increasingly corporate Japan, a prying into the dubious practices of the media eager to force open the aperture on any and all failings, and as complex an inversion - if not dismantling - of the historic Japanese suicidal inflection as I have ever seen this side of Suicide Club (Sono Shion, 2001) or Hara-Kiri (Kobayashi Masaki, 1962). When his employers announce massive layoffs to save the company money, Kiguchi Takashi (Sada Keiji) a salaryman with a downtrodden disposition and a lukewarm marriage, on the corporate chopping block with his colleagues, puts a pistol to his head at a rooftop rally in a plea for mercy. His thwarted suicide attempt, the true extent to which we are left to ponder, unwittingly thrusts Kiguchi into the heroic limelight as the subject of an insurance company’s advertising campaign. In Blood Is Dry, Seppuku is taken from an Edo era act of sometimes-honorable-sometimes-not-so-honorable forced self-destruction, to the post-war ascent of corporations as the “new Daimyou”. Yoshida morphs the gesture of suicide into a form of protest against workplace injustice and then perverts it into an imagistic tool of manipulation and wealth generation for the elite. Both iterations are inherently tragic. Loyalty to one’s company is in a sense a sublimation of loyalty to one’s clan and feudal lord, thus there is a direct corellation between past and present ideologies of identity through association, purpose through participation not through popularity, and hints at the complexity with which emergent individualism is perceived and expressed in mid-20th century Japanese society.
The stammering, sullen and frustrated every-man Kiguchi, coerced at first by his new agent, must play the part over and over in commercials and rally’s and lecture halls, placing the pistol to his temple imagining that he is pleading for the rights of workers and the under-served while being exploited for profits as a puppet. Against expectations Kiguchi slowly gains a kind of confidence that he has never exhibited, a kind of agency of his own destiny and appointments, or so it seems. He still doesn’t quite know how to navigate the rough waters, and seems lost internally. In this world, the claws that ensnare are never truly so loose as to let us more than wriggle and call it freedom. Kiguchi’s slighted agent and a hot headed, get-the-story-at-any-costs no-scruples journalist (Mikami Shin'ichirô) who evokes a younger less prosaic but equally conniving Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis, Sweet Smell of Success ) endeavor to destroy him, she on an existential tailspin for her sudden loss of control, and he for reasons without specific origin that boil within him and urge him to reveal the fallibility of all things posited as good. Sada Keiji, whom I only know as a docile and gentle young man from Ozu films like Good Morning (1959) and Late Autumn (1960) feels very much like what his Ozu characters might be reduced to if they were thrust into this gritty, uncaring, manipulative meat-grinder of a world. The tragedy is not his alone. Made the same year as Seijun Suzuki’s Smashing the O-Line, the two form a strong criticism of the media as partners in crime with the prevailing powers and suggest a certain Sisyphean struggle and a moral ambiguity if one is to rattle the chains at the gates of corruption on an unimaginable scale.
THE OTHER JAPANESE NEW WAVE 1958-61
Saturday, April 20, 7 PM - THE WARPED ONES
The game-changing experimentation of Nikkatsu taiyozoku (“Sun Tribe”) films like Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit (1956) and Toshio Masuda’s Perfect Game (1958) paved the way for this representative work of the studio’s New Wave by Koreyoshi Kurahara. A jazz-obsessed delinquent and a reckless sex worker are released from juvenile detention and wreak havoc on everyone in their paths, including the newspaper reporter who got them arrested and his bourgeois artist fiancée. Kurahara’s indelible portrait of amoral youth features striking high-contrast black and white compositions, bold camera movements and a propulsive jazz score, anchored by Tamio Kawachi’s mesmerizingly feral performance.
1960, 75 min., 35mm, b&w, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara. With Tamio Kawachi, Eiji Go, Hiroyuki Nagato, Noriko Matsumoto.
Tuesday, April 23, 7 PM - BLOOD IS DRY
Kiju Yoshida's second film for Shochiku is a fierce critique of mass media, advertising and capitalist consumerism. When his employers announce massive layoffs, a salaryman takes a gun to his head in a plea for mercy on behalf of his colleagues only to unwittingly become the center of an insurance company’s advertising campaign that exploits his desperate gesture for profit and markets him as a hero. Paired with Nagisa Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan (1960) as a double bill, both films were pulled from theaters days after opening due to the politically motivated censorship of Oshima’s allegedly inflammatory film.
1960, 87 min., 35mm, b&w, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Kiju Yoshida. With Keiji Sada, Kaneko Iwasaki, Shinichiro Mikami, Mari Yoshimura.
Friday, April 26, 7 PM - THE SAMURAI VAGABONDS
Virtually unknown outside of (and even within) Japan, this Shochiku New Wave gem is set in a desolate mining town wherein a woman who survives a double suicide becomes entwined in a peculiar relationship with her dead lover's brother and a stuttering drifter. Another significant yet overlooked progenitor of the New Wave’s theoretical and formal ideals, Tsutomu Tamura only made this one film as a director before leaving Shochiku to create an independent production company with Nagisa Oshima and write scripts for many of the renown director’s films, including The Catch (1961), Violence at Noon (1966) and Boy (1969).
1960, 83 min., 35mm, b&w, in Japanese with live English subtitles. Directed by Tsutomu Tamura. With Kayoko Hono, Fumio Watanabe, Masahiko Tsugawa, Masami Tsukioka.
Saturday, April 27, 5 PM - THE TRAGEDY OF BUSHIDO
Written and directed by newcomer Eitaro Morikawa for Shochiku’s Kyoto studio, The Tragedy of Bushido is the first jidaigeki period drama produced by the New Wave. After a clan lord dies, a young samurai in 17th century Japan is forced to follow him in death through ritual suicide in accordance with an archaic bushido custom. Drawing a connection between the oppressive values of absolute fealty within the samurai moral code and the bureaucratic political systems of postwar Japan that continued to place priority on obedience and obligation over individual freedoms, Morikawa gave birth to a new kind of post-Anpo jidaigeki.
1960, 74 min., DCP, b&w, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Eitaro Morikawa. With Miki Mori, Hizuru Takachiho, Junichiro Yamashita, Fumio Watanabe.
Saturday, April 27, 7 PM - ONLY SHE KNOWS
The debut film by Osamu Takahashi, assistant director on Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) and a Shochiku New Wave leading figure who launched the film journal Shichinin (The Seven) with his circle of fellow assistant directors (including Nagisa Oshima and Kiju Yoshida). A young woman is attacked by a serial rapist and murderer whom her detective father (played by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu) is investigating. Though she survives, the impact of the event creates increasing discord and agony for her and her loved ones. After this auspicious debut, Takahashi went on to make a couple more films for Shochiku before going independent and eventually becoming well-known as a novelist.
1960, 63 min., DCP, b&w, in Japanese with English subtitles. Directed by Osamu Takahashi. With Chishu Ryu, Mitsuko Mito, Akiko Koyama, Fumio Watanabe.