Sunday, 29 January 2012

Warping the Conventions

If you haven't explored "The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara" (the 5-disc set released by Eclipse last year), it really is time you do yourself a favour and take a closer look. The 1960s were a fertile period of movie-making in Japan and Kurahara was right at the front lines with the likes of Seijun Suzuki, Masahiro Shinoda, Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima and Hiroshi Teshigahara who were all considered part of the Japanese New Wave. Essentially, there were a number of filmmakers who were simply tired of the same-old, same-old style of filmmaking and decided to blast open the doors of conventionality.

I've enjoyed diving headlong into Kurahara's work and over the past few months I've posted reviews on J-Film Pow-Wow of each of the 5 films in the box set that spans his career between 1960-67 (he had about double that output in that period). What follows are edited versions of all five:


I can't help but feel that the cracking opening of "Intimidation" is Kurahara's attempt to throw down in front of his peer directors - "So you think you can make a noirish crime thriller? Well look at this!" The blast of a train whistle kick starts the fast paced affair as the camera rides the back of a locomotive through a wintry country side and mountain tunnels while the blaring soundtrack accompanies the ride. As the train pulls into the station (and delivers a character that will begin the film's chain of events), you know you're in for your own ride. It's a short one (the film is a mere 65 minutes long), but there won't be many stopovers or delays before getting to the final destination. In fact, the train is also where our main characters meet their fates at the end of the movie and, in the greatest tradition of noir, they are appropriate to their actions.

One of those main characters is named Takita who is an assistant manager at a district bank and has just received a promotion to head office. The promotion may be a bit questionable since he's married to the president's daughter, but that doesn't stop him from puffing out his chest and smirking just a little bit more than he normally would. On the flip side is his old friend Nakaike - a man who would rather hide in the back room during Takita's farewell party and help heat the sake. He's slightly nebbish, unsure of himself and comes across as someone who is perhaps a bit too scared to "make a move" and get what he wants out of life. Takita stole his woman (and therefore his chances of upward mobility) and his sister won't forgive him since she was actually with Takita at the time and now has to make do with simply being his mistress. Takita makes it seem as if he is doing Nakaike a favour by still addressing him in friendly terms and offers to drink with him like they were old friends. Nakaike can't help but remain in deference to his superior and when he's reminded by another superior that they are supposed to be drinking as friends, Takita gives a wonderful backhanded compliment to Nakaike: "I hate to call him slow, but I actually I like that about him."

Takita's confidence gets knocked down a few notches when he meets up with the passenger brought in earlier by the train. The shifty individual claims he has proof of some very illegal loans Takita has made and he will expose him unless he gets paid 3 million yen. Takita believes his only recourse is to rob his bank before he leaves for the head office and it's at this stage that the film jumps into its higher gear - it becomes a heist film with numerous small and big twists. Particularly when Takita needs to work around Nakaike who just happens to have inherited the role of night guard on the evening the theft is planned. The story shifts around as the role of intimidator moves between the characters: blackmailer over Takita; Takita over Nakaike's sister; sister over Nakaike ("you're a spineless fool"), etc. Kurahara seems to have complete control over the pace of the plot and the switching of roles. Though he doesn't overdo the genre conventions or pile on an overabundance of style, he does bring a great deal of energy to the proceedings by using quick cuts and close framings. If it sounds like the film might be pared down to the bone at 65 minutes, it isn't. But it certainly is efficient as hell.

Though the characters of "Intimidation" don't have much personality - Kurahara is using archetypes and playing them broad - the film still flies by with such speed and is, simply put, a great deal of fun. Whether Kurahara's cutting extra close on Takita's eyes or using the camera to make yet another encircling move, there's always something of note happening. His rebellious youth film "The Warped Ones" (also released in 1960) goes several steps beyond in regards to playing with style, but "Intimidation" uses it to craft its story with all the right beats. In all likelihood, Kurahara had no intention of intimidating other filmmakers via this film - given how he treats his intimidators in the film, one would expect he would know better - but it doesn't mean that we can't still be impressed by a young artist's use of his medium.

The Warped Ones

The obvious comparison point for Koreyoshi Kurahara's frantic 1960 film "The Warped Ones" is Jean-Luc Godard's own little burst of energy "Breathless". The central characters of both films are rebelling against society at large and have no concern for law and order while the filmmakers throw you into their worlds via a slash and burn style of editing. Though Godard may have influenced a greater swath of future filmmakers, in my opinion Kurahara made a far more satisfying and consistently interesting piece of work. The energy of "The Warped Ones" never flags, it never wavers from its callous "heroes" straight line sprint away from societal conventions and it never feels overly stylized. It feels like a genuine account of the disaffected which uses the visual medium to reinforce how their world must have felt.

Chuck Stephens in his liner notes on the Eclipse edition of the film states that it is "filmed....just as its central character....feels". It doesn't take long to figure out that Akira - the leader of the gang of three disillusioned youngsters - is angry. Angry at anyone who talks over his beloved jazz music, angry at society's rules and simply angry at the world in general. When we meet his partner Fumiko at the start of the film, she's his co-conspirator in cons they run. While she flirts and comes on to wealthy businessmen, Akira seizes the opportunity to relieve them of their wallets. He gets caught in one such instance and, because he is still under 18, gets sent to juvenile detention. Fumiko turns to prostitution in order to bring in money and by the time Akira serves his time, she has what seems to be a stable of regular customers and approaches her job with an odd sense of detachment and amusement. Everything is a joke to her. The third member of this callous lot is Masaru, a typical short-sighted, act-on-impulse, wanna-be gang member that Akira meets during his incarceration. He immediately falls for Fumiko who initially spurns his advances but soon caves in since he actually pays her some attention. A quick stop for a car theft and the trio is off and running.

After heading out to the beach, their first task becomes clear - spotting Kashiwagi (a conservative follow-the-rules reporter who set up Akira's capture), they run him down and kidnap his girlfriend. The entirety of this opening sequence - from the introduction of the characters through their reformatory days to their sun-drenched, sweat-soaked day in the sun - lasts about twenty minutes and there's barely a moment to pause except for the freeze frames during the titles (and even those have blurred stills due to the fighting and roughhousing in the jail cells). It's a perfect representation of how these three live their lives as they careen from one moment to the next with barely a thought for the consequences (no matter how serious) to anyone around them or to themselves. Fumiko and Masaru talk about building a future together, but their plan consists of Masaru joining the local Yakuza. She sees the immediate possibility of monetary gain and he sees the chance to be in a tough gang, but there's no consideration paid to the inherent danger.

The blown-out white of the bright sun beating down on Akira is stifling for him. It may indicate possible escape (as do the trains running past the small room shared by the three of them and the occasional loud airplane), but he doesn't seem to care to make an effort. His only respite (aside from jazz music in the car or at his favorite club) is breaking societal rules (from minor infractions like stealing people's daily milk bottles all the way to rape) and provoking the members of that society - particularly those who benefit from it. There's a great, unbroken 2-minute scene of Akira loping through an art gallery and showing contempt for the people and the art at every chance. It ends with him trying to cool himself off by tearing into an ice cream cone after having just forced his beloved jazz onto the jukebox. It's a perfect summation of the film as it focuses on one of the alienated youth (born likely around the start of WW II) showing mocking contempt towards his elders and what they hold dear until his frustrations boil over and he seeks refuge. That constant strain is bound to warp someone.

I Hate But Love

Who knew Koreyoshi Kurahara could make a rom-com? Well, OK, not your typical Hollywood romantic comedy, but a quick look at its plot and structure could easily lead you to believe the resulting film was being targeted at a multiplex crowd. That is, if you also assumed that mainstream fare had a crashing jazz score, in your face handheld cameras and a dynamic editing style that you could never really anticipate. And that it was acceptable to mostly abandon its initial rom-com feel half way through so it could turn into a road movie, bring in melodrama and tackle the subject of media manipulation while examining the idea of true love. Not your average date movie to be sure.

Kurahara's only colour feature included in the box set is a great deal of fun for that first half as we get to know famous DJ and television host Daisaku and his manager Noriko (played by two of Japan's biggest stars at the time - Yujiro Ishihara and the gorgeous Ruriko Asaoko). She's scheduled just about every move of his life for the last two years and, even though they are attracted to each other, has laid down the rule that they will not have intimate physical contact in order to focus all their energies on his career. For Daisaku, this is beginning to be a distraction all of its own as he is getting burned out by the jam-packed itinerary of daily meetings and events while also wrestling with how women fit into his life. He's not in a very happy place and hates the thought of yet another late night of making club appearances when he'd rather just sleep. Noriko keeps him on schedule, though, as she is efficient, very confident and approaches challenges in a positive way. She even keeps track of their "relationship" via a whiteboard - incrementing each day how long it has lasted in different coloured markers. At the 730th day, she outlines the number in a heart to mark the two year anniversary and it's characteristics like this that make her pretty lovable during this first section. Daisaku's sad sack demeanour wears thin, but she delights in things like waking him in the morning and tricking him into a cold shower. Doris Day and Rock Hudson would slot quite nicely into this framework.

That style and pace stays clicking along and rarely lags on either the story or visual fronts. If it isn't laugh out loud funny, it's enjoyably silly and with Kurahara's shot selections and strong use of colour (focusing on the pop of different hues from objects like car seats, blouses and markers), it easily keeps you engaged. At the halfway mark, Daisaku ignores all advice and decides to help a young woman by driving a jeep to the remote area of Kyushu (900 miles away) so that the doctors can make use of it to help the injured and sick. The main doctor in Kyushu and the woman have fallen in love via their correspondence and Daisaku is fascinated by this version of "true love". The road movie idea can fit nicely into the broader realm of the light romantic comedy, but this is where Kurahara veers off route. As Daisaku's determination to finish the task of delivering the jeep on his own becomes stronger, so does Noriko's need to gain control of him and his career. As she chases after him in his Jaguar, it becomes less of a fun-filled excuse to bring the lovers together as it does a heightened melodrama used to explore aspects of how the media exploits the masses and how the concept of "love" is misunderstood.

It handles both of these in reasonably interesting ways, but it becomes difficult to stay as engaged with the characters during most of this journey. Noriko's frantic need to gain the upper hand on Daisaku and make sure that his career (and her well-being) does not suffer begins to wear down the good will she built up with the viewer initially. When she can't physically stop him, she starts to turn his trip into a media circus as if he had planned it that way. When that too fails to dissuade him, she starts to break down emotionally. Daisaku doesn't gain many points either - his single-minded focus on the trip is incredibly selfish as he ignores the impact it has on the many people who depend on him and isn't even doing it for those who will benefit. All he wants to get out of this is a deeper understanding of "humanism". Some of that is achieved by the end (with both couples coming to interesting conclusions about their relationships), but doesn't add much as it goes along. Were it not for the barbed attacks on Daisaku's media image, the effect the reporters and fans have in slowing down his progress (every day the jeep is not available in Kyushu means more people may die) and some very lovely scenery as they wind through a big chunk of Japan, the long journey would become somewhat tiresome. By its end, Kurahara has smashed some oddly disparate genres into an overall entertaining and even illuminating work. Though he loses some of the charm of the characters along the way, it's an interesting and well-crafted enterprise.

Black Sun

"Black Sun" is an odd beast...While it has all of Kurahara's typical chaotic energy and style and it reaches for a grander message about the disenfranchised, it struggles to keep its characters interesting and stretches some scenes to their breaking point. It focuses on two outcasts from society - a homeless thief and a black American G.I. - who are at odds with each other for the majority of the film due to language barriers and various misunderstandings. Akira tries to shelter Gil in his ramshackle abode (a half bombed out church where he squats) while Gil nurses a bullet wound to his leg. As their predicament worsens, their relationship grows not only more volatile, but closer as well. You could easily be forgiven for sensing a bit of a "The Defiant Ones" feel in spots as they begin to understand each other and realize they need to stop their in-fighting, but will you care anywhere near as much about these two characters as the ones from that classic 1958 film? It's doubtful.

When we meet Akira at the beginning of the film, he appears in a desolate junkyard of a field that could easily be a freshly bombed out city bulldozed to the ground. He steals some of the few possessions that belong to the bums who scavenge there and sells them off to get money to buy a jazz album. He's a huge fan of the music (his dog is even named after Thelonious Monk) and considers any black man to be his friend. On the way out of the store, he almost gets run over by a rich man and woman who barely even notice his presence. The woman crushes his album and when the man half absent-mindedly waves some money to pay for it, Akira becomes enraged. He demands that they apologize to the respected black man on the album cover (drummer Max Roach - performer of the film's music) and will not stand to be ignored by them. He has a highly emotional disposition that can be quick to anger, but is also typically bright and happy-go-lucky - especially as he listens to his beloved jazz music in a freshly stolen car. After driving by the scene of a murder, he realizes when he gets home that the suspect has hitched a ride in the back of his jalopy. Though the wounded G.I. brandishes his machine gun at Akira, all he can think about is that a black man stands before him and therefore he must be a great man too.

Gil has been accused of killing a fellow G.I., but the only additional piece of information we ever get about it is that the victim was white. No details as to whether there was prior intent or whether it was justified - just that Gil is desperate, in pain from the bullet in his leg and feels everyone is against him. Unfortunately - and this is a big problem - Gil is portrayed with zero subtlety and is all bluster, anguish and breathless statements. Since he speaks English, none of what he says is translated via subtitles and so it's very difficult to understand him the entire film. As it turns out, most of what he says can be deciphered from context or it simply isn't relevant, but it's frankly still a very annoying aspect of the film and combined with Akira's constant highly melodramatic mood swings ("I love you!", "I hope the G.I.'s find you and kill you!"), it's a bit straining to spend any time with these characters at all. And there lies the problem - the film stays almost entirely with the two of them. There are excursions into the real world - Akira's favourite jazz bar, a few driving expeditions and a final, wonderfully filmed chase sequence - but there's a lot of time spent between just the two of them.

Granted there are valid points to be made here - both men have felt isolated from their environments and typically are judged quickly by others due to their outward appearances (even Akira assumes Gil can play and sing jazz music simply because he is black). Kurahara uses some flashbacks in Gil's head to bring these points to the fore while allowing the visuals to do the rest (the film is beautifully lensed). He brings such a dynamic feel to their world using handheld cameras, attaching them to moving vehicles and using a few timely freeze frames that there really does seem to be a high level of chaos in their lives. Particularly when the score crashes in with Roach's thundering drums and vocal/horn sounds that feel as cathartic for the musicians as they are for the listeners. A blues tune called "Six-bit Blues" plays several times and contains lyrics that Gil can certainly understand as he contemplates any form of escape: "Gimme six bits worth o'tickets, on a train that runs somewhere". Kurahara also uses the same names (and same actors) for his characters as the ones in "The Warped Ones". Since Akira and Gil knew each other in the previous film, this obviously isn't a direct sequel, but it sure has that feeling sometimes due to the style and where Akira's life is currently headed (a direct line from the previous film). Even his prostitute friend Yuki feels like a perfect map to her character in "The Warped Ones" (again, played by the same actress). The jazz bar is the same set as their hangout from 4 years previous too, but it also is not the "same". Many of these touches add a great deal to the "world askew" feeling of the film, but even Kurahara's stylistic choices can't quite pull enough of an entertaining yarn out of this message movie. He certainly grabs your attention at times though.

Thirst For Love

You're not even a minute into "Thirst For Love" when your senses have been jarred. As a woman pauses while shaving an elderly man, we suddenly catch flashes of a chicken thrashing in (one can only guess) its last dying gasps while its sharp piercing squawks fill the soundtrack. Those images and sounds quickly convey some important information: the woman with the blade in her hands is not in a good headspace and she likely has some issues with that old man. It also signifies that director Koreyoshi Kurahara is going to tell his story with more than just conventional narrative techniques. As it turns out, it must have been deemed very unconventional since Nikkatsu delayed the film's release because they felt it was too "arty". In the same year that Seijun Suzuki got fired from Nikkatsu for delivering "Branded To Kill", Kurahara decided to quit the studio over their decision.

Call it arty if you want, but I call it effective. Rapid cuts, long takes, a restless camera, freeze frames, still photos and daydreams all combine with the layered sound field (and occasionally no sound at all) to tell us the story of Etsuko - the woman in question above. She is the daughter-in-law of wealthy Sugimoto (the old man) and lives in his rather crowded household. He counts ten people in the house: himself, Etsuko, his son Kensuke and his wife, his divorced daughter Asako and her two children as well as the two servants. If you're paying attention you'll notice the sum only comes to nine. Etsuko's husband (Sugimoto's youngest son) has passed away, but it appears that his father still counts him in the family and retains a seat for him at the family dinner table. This despite the fact that Etsuko has become his mistress. Apart from the servant Saburo, the old man has little use for the rest of the household and considers them all to be lazy and leeching off his good will.

While the rest of the family don't seem to want to let go of Sugimoto (Kensuke admits freely that he and his wife love their carefree loafing existence), Etsuko appears to feel somewhat trapped. Her marriage was initially wonderful, but then she learned the truth about the man she married: the first flashback shows still photos of a fun-loving, mischievous and very happy couple, but the second flashback (telling its story through the same technique of multiple still photos) shows a cheating, self-satisfied scoundrel who couldn't care less about her feelings. The remaining male members of the family - her father-in-law (though she has become his mistress, she still insists on calling him "father") and Kensuke - are both quite smitten with her, but offer nothing more than their desire. None of the men in this family seem to have the ability to truly love her. This leaves Etsuko's attentions on the young and strong Saburo.

The film is filled with close-ups of Etsuko - staring at Saburo's sweaty neck or his glistening back or just lost in a daydream of the two of them skipping along the road to Osaka in a heavenly white glow - and she appears to be a tightly coiled spring ready to unravel. She's constantly noticing physical ways of leaving - that road to Osaka, a helicopter, the train, etc. - but they simply aren't available to her. So she focuses on Saburo and her own desires increase to the breaking point. Her torment isn't reserved just for herself, though, and as the dynamics change within the family, she ensures she doesn't remain alone in that state. Ruriko Asaoko (star of "I Hate But Love") uses her big eyes to wonderful effect throughout the film - though her physical actions don't always show what she is thinking, her eyes give away every lustful thought and every internal struggle. Based on Yukio Mishima's novel, the film keeps the viewer unsettled with its sudden bursts of sound and has a willingness to do whatever it takes to pull you into how Etsuko feels. Meanwhile it doesn't skimp on pulling in side issues like class distinctions and the impotence of the rich while also providing some gorgeous imagery and precise framing of its characters. The Eclipse boxed set "The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara" has been quite the revelation and you couldn't have picked a better way to close it off.


Dave Enkosky said...

Loved the reviews. Kurahara is one of the few directors of the Japanese New Wave I have yet to catch up on. I'll definitely make a point now to check out his work.

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks Dave!

I had only seen his one film from the previous Nikkatsu Noir Eclipse box ("I Am Waiting") before this, but I'm totally a convert now. I'm definitely behind on Oshima as I've only watched a single film from his Eclipse set plus "In The Realm Of The Senses". I have to admit, he scares me a bit...B-)