segunda-feira, 25 de abril de 2011

Koreyoshi Kurahara's Early Years

(Kyonetsu no Kisetsu, 1960)
By Nick Palevsky (2009)
(see his page on Mubi)
Republished with permission from MUBI

Black Sun and Sun Tribe

This year’s TOKYO FILMEX featured a retrospective on Koreyoshi Kurahara, a director whose long-term international reputation may rest on his taiyozoku, or “sun tribe” films. He did these for Nikkatsu Studios in the ‘50s and ‘60s. This is not what he was best known for in Japan in the decades before his death in 2002, though: after he left Nikkatsu, he mostly made family films about animals, far-away places or both. The retrospective omits these, and features films about and for an angry and confused generation, growing up in the wake of Japan’s defeat and during the American occupation.
Black Sun was made in 1964, when the “sun tribe” genre of films was going into decline, and Nikkatsu was losing out to new styles of action and genre films introduced by other studios. The tale of a black GI, it may have been influenced by Nagisa Oshima’s The Catch, made a few years before. The two are very different movies, however. The Catch is about a black American soldier captured during WW II, in a remote Japanese village; Black Sun is about Gil, a GI on the lam from American MPs, hiding in the heart of modern Tokyo.
The movie opens as Akira, a young drifter, picks out a jazz LP. The fight he gets into with a young middle-class couple over this record serves to show his passion for jazz. That night, Gil breaks into Akira's makeshift abode. (One wonders if the name “Gil” is stretched out from G.I., or if it is a reference to the then-popular musician, Gilberto Gil.) The young Japanese welcomes him with childish delight--a real, jazz-playing black man!--although he doesn’t have much choice, because Gil is carrying a gun (as well as a trumpet). Even though it turns out that Gil can only play a single note on that trumpet, this movie is more explicitly about jazz than any of its predecessors.
Who are the predecessors? The original pair of “sun tribe” films were made by Nakahira Ko—along with Kurahara, another one of the “Three Nikkatsu Directors,” the Filmex catalog tell us. The first two “sun tribe” movies were adapted from novels by Ishihara Shintaro: Season of the Sun and Crazed Fruit (both 1956). Both starred Ishihara’s younger brother Yujiro—he became Nikkatsu’s biggest star—but Crazed Fruit has drawn more retrospective critical attention. This is partly, no doubt, because of sultry sexuality of Yujiro’s counterpart, Mie Takahara.
These films quickly became a genre, often including “sun” in the title. But none of the variants dreamed up by a score of directors is as striking as the oxymoronic “Black Sun”. The film lives up to its contradictory title, which reflects contradictory or self-destructing elements implicit in the taiyozoku genre. For example, the filmmakers had to keep upping the ante, having the characters do increasingly outrageous things to grab the audience’s attention. Yet, Shintaro Ishihara, who is now the LDP party governor of Tokyo, said early on that he was much more conservative than his readers believed. These tales are, in a sense, about conservative morality: rebellion and impulsiveness do not ultimately bring happiness to either the boys or the girls.
The taiyozoku films, made—at least at the outset—during a difficult time, have an escapist element. The original Ishihara novels were partly fond reminiscences of an insulated and privileged youth sailing boats around Hayama and Zushi—hence the “sun” emblem—but Black Sun is darker. Since the fugitives mostly move about at night, this is even true in the most literal, physical sense. Metaphorically, it is clear from the get-go that both characters have death or a jail sentence hanging over their heads. Rather than messing with a few police on the way to the beach like their taiyozoku predecessors, they end up taking on the entire US army and their Japanese-police “running dogs.”

(Kuroi Taiyo, 1964)

By 1964, however, this is an anachronism. Japan was no longer a bombed out, occupied nation, but was in the midst of a startling economic resurgence (How many bombed-out churches were actually left in Japan by 1964?) Nevertheless, this is where Akira squats, and Gil takes refuge. Jazz-lover Akira’s initial enthusiasm for Gil—a living and breathing black man rather than a photo on an album cover—segues into disappointment when he discovers that Gil knows nothing about jazz. (The GI prays desperately, and finally sings a bit of the blues. The song turns out to be Langston Hughes’ “Six Bit Blues,” and drummer Max Roach’s score for the film, similarly literate, does a jazz rendition of Hughes’ piece.)
After several false starts—in one moment of panic, Gil shoots Akira’s “racist” dog, Monk—the two make a sort of last stand against the whites. One funny scene—grimness needs comic relief—has Akira in blackface, and Gil white as a clown, totally confusing the (inevitably) knuckle-headed MPs as the pair drive through a checkpoint.
This is one of relatively few sequences set during the day. Mostly, the pair only leave the church at night, and there are occasional, dramatically-lit cuts to the edifice’s precious, ornate madonnas, which, like Yukio Mishima’s detours into Western art and style, serve to symbolize Japanese ambivalence towards white—and in Akira’s case, black—culture. (Kurahara would later do a Mishima adaptation for Nikkatsu, and it is interesting to note that Shintaro Ishihara and Mishima moved in the same literary circles at this time.)
Among the various movies in the Kurahara retrospective, two heroines drown their sorrows in the ocean, and several anti-heroes also vent their forbidden impulses there. Gil asks Akira to get him to the sea, but after reaching a disappointingly polluted inlet, the best Akira can do is get him to the roof of a building. There, an advertising balloon is moored. Gil mounts the balloon, gets caught in the ropes, and ends up splayed, Christ-like. As the pursuing troops take SWAT-like positions on the roof, he asks Akira to cut him loose and he sails into the sky.
Taiiyozoku is sometimes translated as the “The Japanese New Wave,” and like the nouvelle vague, besides a film style, the term is meant to refer to a generation, as well. But by 1964, that generation was getting older: a younger generation with different tastes was going to the movies.
After Black Sun, Kurahara’s last pictures for Nikkatsu are mostly adapted from novels—as before—but from a wider selection of genres. Even Black Sun evidences a move away from the taiyozoku genre, as it is hardly characteristic of it. An early adaptation from a Kenzaburo Oe novel, The Time of Youth (1959), is arguably Kurahara’s first taiyozoku film, although it also fits the genre imperfectly. Nevertheless, many elements from it were recycled into the film most often mentioned by critics. Giving a nod to Ko Nakahira’s Season of the Sun, Kyonetsu no kisetsu (1960), would directly translate to something like “Season of Fever.” Apparently, however, a New York porno distributor billed Kyonetsu no kisetsu as The Warped Ones, and the translation stuck, (Japanese audiences at that time would have regarded these films as sensationalistic, but neither they nor present-day audiences anywhere would regard them as pornographic.)

(Kyonetsu no Kisetsu, 1960)

The Wraped Ones and its antecedents

The first four films from the Filmex’s Kurahara retrospective, all from the ‘50s, show that he was experimenting with different genres. Although this is partly because these movies are based on different novels by diverse authors, he is also evolving as a director, feeling around for the kind of story he can comfortably adapt into film.
It is important to remember that in the mind of the public, the films Nikkatsu churned out were associated with their stars, rather than directors. Kurahara’s first non-apprentice film (omitted in the retrospective) was I’m Waiting (Ore ga matteru ze!), starring the pair from Crazed Fruit, Ishihara and Kitahara, Nikkatsu’s “alpha couple.”
Previous retrospectives, (including the Nikkatsu Action Films retro Mark Schilling put together for Udine) have included a few Kurahara films, but this year’s Filmex offering shows that in his best films, Kurahara often used certain members of the second rank of Nikkatsu performers, and got very good performances from them.
One was Nagato Hiroyuki, who stars in the opening film, a rediscovered (and restored) print of Daisan no shikaku (The Third Dead Angle). About corruption, plots and counter-plots inside and among Japanese companies, in some ways it prefigures Intimidation, the film in the retro made shortly before The Warped Ones. Often labeled Japan’s first film noir, Intimidation is moodier and more psychological than its predecessor. This is an early example of Kurahara’s ability to make “each film build upon [previous] themes in constant progression,” according to the Filmex notes.
The adaptations he did in-between—at least those in the retrospective—similarly culminate in one of his best films: The Warped Ones (1960). By this time, many directors had made taiyozoku me-too knock-off films, and Woman from the Sea (Kaitei kara kita onna) has the romantic marine background of the Ko Nakahira movies, but lacks much social or psychological edge. The beautiful underwater photography of Woman from the Sea really prefigures his documentaries of the ‘70s and ‘80s, about exotic nature. (I will touch on these in Part III).
The ocean, both as a setting and a metaphor, becomes important to Kurahara around this time. Perhaps the only film in the retro to lack a beach or ocean scene—a group of youths do explode a bomb by a river, though—is his Oe Kenzaburo adaptation, The Time of Youth (Wareera no jidai), but this film has many other elements that would go into The Warped Ones, including some of the psychological edge.
A bit of studio background helps here. Nikkatsu was Japan’s oldest studio, but it emerged from the War as a distribution, rather than a production, entity. In spite of obstruction from the other studios, it managed to break back into production in the mid-50s with several adaptations of the elder Ishihara’s novels, beginning with the taiyozoku films mentioned in Part I. This was Kurahara’s opportunity to graduate from working for Shochiku as an AD, and in time, become one of the ‘Nikkatsu Trio’ of directors, along with (the famous) Imamura Shohei, and Nakahira Ko.

(Yoake no Uta, 1965)

Ko’s loss was Kurahara’s gain when EIRIN, an industry self-censorship body asked Nikkatsu to stop making taiyozoku films, which supposedly damaged to the morals of youth, towards the end of the ‘50s. By not using Ishihara and Kitahara as stars, and because he was less known than Ko, Kurahara was able to “wedge” back into the genre without being closed down by EIRIN.
Nagato Hiroyuki appears again in The Time of Youth, playing a young student, Yasuo, who is thrilled at the prospect of leaving Japan, after winning a scholarship to study in France,. His self-hate as a Japanese is intertwined with a sense of dependence: on an older, more athletic student, who helps to evolve his political views and—for food and shelter—on an older woman who is a prostitute (and in turn depends on her arrogant American patron).
He also falls in love with a pretty fellow student. When she gets pregnant, her ultimatum to him finally makes him stand on his own two feet. He moves out of the prostitute’s apartment, rejects the scholarship (because of French colonialism), and gives his erstwhile American “benefactor” a good slug. Up until now he has viewed Japan as “pitiable,” like the American, but in the end he accepts a fate intertwined with his home country.
Although it would be several years before he explicitly used “sun” in the title--by 1964, the year Kurahara made Black Sun, the summer of the Nikkatsu Action Film was fading anyway—the literal meaning of The Warped Ones gives a coy nod to the first taiyozoku film by taking “sun” out of the title: the literal translation is “Season of Heat,” while Ko’s title was Season of the Sun.
This may be Kurahara’s best film, not to mention the one that best fits into the taiyozoku genre. Tamio Kawachi, in the role of Akira, a young criminal just released from prison, gives an impulsive zing, as does the jazz in the movie’s score (which would be reused so effectively in Black Sun). Among the elements recycled from Time of Youth are a near death by gas cock, discussions about abortion (a frequent topic, but none of these films seem to have an abortion within the confines of dramatic time), and a criminal act—this time a rape—on a deserted beach, with the rhythmic sound of waves as a background, instead of the explosion next to a little stream as in Time of Youth.
The only plan Akira ever makes is to revenge himself on the detective who sent him away to prison: he starts by raping the detective’s fiancée. Unlike the rather sober Yasuo in Time of Youth—the lead actor in that film, Nagato Hideyuki, plays the straight-laced detective in this film—Akira is the perfect embodiment of the impulsive taiyozoku hero, heedless of the effects of his acts on himself or others: in fact, exactly the sort of role model the EIRIN censors feared. A new addition is Matsumoto Noriko in the role of Akira’s prostitute girlfriend, who adds some dim-witted pizzazz to the movie.
It was about this time that Kurahara’s scriptwriter, Nobu Yamada, joined his creative team. After the success of The Warped Ones, they took a break from adaptations and decided to write a couple of their own stories. Although one need only look to Europe or Hollywood to find models for these more “auteured” films, they nevertheless showed greater originality and independence from the run-of-the-mill Nikkatsu style.
The first of these, I Hate But Love, features the one “Diamond Line” (first-ranked) performer to work with Kurahara over and over again in the latter part of his Nikkatsu career, Asaoka Ruriko. Critic Mark Schilling finds the second one, Glass-Hearted Johnny, reminiscent of Fellini’s La Strada. This may not be Kurahara’s best, but it is probably his most distinctive film.

(Nikui an-chikushô, 1962)

Asaoka Ruriko and the final years at Nikkatsu

Before Kurahara and his scriptwriter Nobuo Yamada laid the taiyozoku genre to rest with Black Sun, they made two “road” movies. Their models are clearly Western films, rather than Japanese novels. They are not, however, slavish imitations, and both give the director and the screenwriter a freer hand to experiment with different styles: the two films are also quite different from each other.
The first, Nikui anchikusho (1962), starring Ishihara Yujiro as Daisaku, is a Hollywood-style star vehicle. Ishihara had married Nikkatsu’s previous leading actress, Mie Kitahara, who then retired, so Asaoka Ruriko plays Daisaku’s girlfriend. The English title, I Hate But I Love, reveals the director’s intention to make a kiss-and-make-up romantic comedy, along the lines of Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve.
The formal model is actually Sturges’ Sullivan's Travels. Daisaku is a busy celebrity who tires of his narrow, overly regimented life: his domineering manager/girlfriend, played by Asaoka, seems to embody his frustrations. On an impulse, he answers an ad to deliver a jeep needed by a medical volunteer in a remote Kyushu village. His employers try to stop him, but then the PR people, led by Daisaku’s girlfriend, decide to run with Daisaku’s “humanism,” sending a bevy of reporters to follow the fleeing celebrity along the length of Japan: Honshu, the Inland Sea, and finally Kyushu.
The second, road segment of the movie offers a fascinating view of the early ‘60s Japanese countryside. Kurahara doesn’t quite measure up to Sturges’ comic panache here, but this is the part of the movie where Asaoka’s character develops. She follows Daisaku—after cheerfully helping herself to his sports car—along the increasingly dangerous roads. As her bossiness gives way to fear, Daisaku finally sees her vulnerability. This is what he needs: only when she is desperately holding onto him, her car hanging off of a cliff, does his love for her truly gel.
As they travel through the Japan of 1962, Kurahara exaggerates the road’s perils. As in his taiyozoku films—with the pam-pams, their fat, white Johns, and arrogant GIs—one senses that Kurahara is exorcising problems from the recent past—in this case, rural backwardness—rather than showing the precise present.
This banishing of the past explains why almost every film shows some monument to progress: one film from the end of the ‘50s, perhaps Warera no jidai, shows Tokyo Tower (from which Japan’s first color TV programs were broadcast). In Song of Dawn (1965), it is Asaoka herself who now plays the frustrated celebrity: Noriko, a popular actress, has a plush apartment looking out onto the Yoyogi Olympic Stadium. This both places her and the film in the context of a more confident Japan, enjoying economic success and international esteem. As Noriko “makes the scene” at compulsory public appearances and—to let off steam from them—at impromptu wild parties, the soundtrack now plays rock-and-roll as well as jazz.
One might compare Song of Dawn to Sunset Blvd., except that Noriko is young and energetic—her mood swings wildly up as well as down—so that the tone, even in adversity, is primarily upbeat. As in I Hate But I Love, Asaoka’s character is essentially good, her weak point being that she takes herself too seriously. In order to become a real professional, she needs to approach her roles with a certain humility, or at least, versatility and dedication.

(Ai no Kawaki, 1966)

Her lesson in life starts when she is asked to spoof her own persona, like John Wayne did in True Grit (or, more recently, Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading). At the initial meeting, she hasn’t even read the script for the project. When she finally does, she initially refuses the role. There is also an element of “humanism” in Noriko’s character development, as she learns empathy for a young couple from the countryside, brave and loyal to each other in the face of misfortune. The focus on the personal growth of such a pampered character shows its kinship with earlier Hollywood classics rather than European social realism: “growing up” for Noriko doesn’t really mean radically changing her life or becoming politically engaged, but just learning how to handle her work—and her private life—like a pro.
In Kurahara’s other road movie, he experimented more boldly, looking toward postwar European films. Also completed in 1962—but after I Hate But I Love—Glass Hearted Johnny stars second-tier performers Joe Shishido and Izumi Ashikawa. Not having to make a star vehicle, Kurahara and Yamada wrote their most distinctive script, which, when realized into film, was free of many standard Nikkatsu conventions.
If I Hate But I Love is about romantic escape, Glass Hearted Johnny show escape as an act of desperation. The film tells the story of a girl (Ashikawa) sold into prostitution, who, seizing her only chance, jumps onto a train going back to Hokkaido. Her pimp tracks her down, but finds himself pitted against the girl’s new—if intermittent—protector, a self-absorbed bicycle tout (played by Shishido).
The film ends quite abruptly with the girl’s suicide—in the ocean, of course—but otherwise the film has an engaging open-endedness. Having mostly played girl-next-door characters, Ashikawa brings naïve simplicity to the role of the exploited girl. This and all of the wandering—whether aboard trains or walking—led Mark Schilling to compare her to Giulietta Massina in La Strada: Ashikawa’s charm is such that we don’t balk when the tout, finally giving up on his dreams of success, falls in love with her. So does the pimp, who turns out to be a guitar-playing romantic: “What is a poet?” he sings to his guitar. “Someone with a pure heart.”
Svelte, sophisticated Ruriko Asaoka’s on-screen qualities are very different from Ashikawa’s naïve purity. Nevertheless, in her 100th Nikkatsu role, Asaoka starred in Kurahara’s Flame of Devotion (1964), where she plays a simple “girl of the mountains,” whose troubled love with a “boy from the sea” leads her (where else?) to a watery grave. A classic giri-ninjo melodrama—in which a sense of duty is pitted against human emotion—the movie nevertheless displays Asaoka’s considerable acting talents: she, too, can play a simple country girl if she so deigns. The only movie in the retrospective set before (and during) the War, it is a matter of course that there is little of the soul searching about Western (especially American) influence on Japanese culture noticeable in the retrospective’s earlier films. The last film chosen for Filmex, Thirst of Love (1967), doesn’t touch this theme either, even though it is from a novel by Yukio Mishima, an author obsessed with the Japanese/Western dichotomy. Perhaps the audience just wasn’t interested anymore.
Kurahara soon left Nikkatsu and went on to make family pictures. Many of them were nature films, such as The Glacier Fox (Kita kitsune monogatari, 1978). Antartica (Nankyoku monogatari, 1983), in particular, was a huge box-office success. Partly because of this later career, the Filmex notes comment that “Kurahara’s image as an artist was scattered in pieces, lacking any unification.” Retrospectives focusing on Nikkatsu’s stable of stars, rather than any single director, have also left Kurahara’s artistic reputation hazier than it should be. But this year’s retrospective makes it clear that his work in the ‘50s and ‘60s had consistent core themes. Several times, Kurahara managed to supersede mere genre in order to create art.

1 comentário:

  1. I've always wanted to see his films, but it was impossible to get copies anywhere. Great news is that The Criterion Collection is releasing a box set of film of his films: