16 May 2008

Japanese New Wave Weeks

I've mentioned my affinity for Japanese films before, but these were most usually either samurai films or films from the three great Japanese directors: Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Of course, there are certain exceptions every now and then, but for the most part my viewing has been focused on filmmakers of the older generation who started making films in the '30s or '40s (or earlier). In order to broaden my palette a bit I decided to start a mini-Japanese New Wave film festival for myself, focusing on the newer directors who were making different films against the tradition of the older filmmakers especially during the late '50s and throughout the '60s.

I don't know much about the Japanese New Wave, but I am slowly learning from reading various things, especially referencing Donald Richie's A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. To give a brief overview, there was a call for an alternate cinema in Japan, heralded mostly by Nagisa Oshima, who is considered by some to be the Japanese Godard. The term "new wave" was actually issued from the film studio Oshima and many other directors were commissioned, Shochiku, which wanted to attract a new audience to the theatres by offering something fresh and hip, especially since the theatres were suffering due to the widespread popularity of television. Oshima naturally opposed the label, but nonetheless made some very bold films that more explicitly addressed Japanese desires and passions. His most famous/controversial is In the Realm of the Senses which many describe as "hardcore" and which is the film that I will close my mini-festival with.

Naturally, I can only watch what's available to me on DVD, and, more specifically, through Netflix. I managed to come up with some key directors and some that fall in the general time period of the '60s; though maybe not all of them had the name "new wave" applied to them, they were definitely making interesting, unconventional films that were in the spirit of the new wave. These directors are Ko Nakahira, Yasuzo Masumura, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, Masahiro Shinoda, and Nagisa Oshima.

The first film I saw was one that can be seen as the seed for the new wave, a "youth in revolt" film that studios were trying to attract young audiences with; Ko Nakahira's Crazed Fruit. Oshima pinpoints the birth of a new cinema in this film: "In the rip of a woman's skirt and the buzz of a motorboat, sensitive people heard the heralding of a new generation of Japanese film" (Richie, 198). The freshness could definitely be felt when I watched this film; there was a swiftness to the editing, a swiftness in the dialogue, and unrepressed sexuality and violence on the screen that I hadn't really seen in Japanese movies from the '50s before. The story focuses on the relationship between two brothers and one girl, who form a type of tragic love triangle that ends in tragedy. The plot in itself is interesting as a type of thriller, but beyond that there are lots of nuances of style that are appealing and interesting, such as the fact that the kids in the picture are all rich and privileged - a demographic of the postwar 1950s not unlike the '50s families in America - and that they fight for fun, they speak in a type of "cool" embodied by James Dean - "I've given up trying. I'll find my own way to live" - and they are so openly sexual. In one scene a woman who is older than the group of boys she is staying with is seen and we later learn through the older brother that he and his group of friends "took turns wearing her out." I couldn't believe hearing that in a Japanese film of the '50s. I ended up really liking this film and would like to see it again. The filmmaking still translates as fresh (though some of the clothes are a bit old-fashioned) and it is both psychological and entertaining.

The other film I watched so far is Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh (what a title!) This was a B-picture that Suzuki was assigned from his studio, Nikkatsu. It focuses on the era of post-war Tokyo and specifically about the subculture of prostitutes that run a small corner of the city. The material is mostly a titillating "erotic" scenario, with screen opportunities for stripped prostitutes to hang and be whipped as well as plenty of sex and breasts, but the way the material is handled is actually very interesting. The rundown, bombed out buildings of Tokyo are recreated in a really artificial studio backlot with styrofoam and wood, making a very unrealistic setting for a very realistic scenario. However, the effect is not one of cheapness, but rather a type of campy, stage-like atmosphere that is further accentuated by unrealistic colors, lighting, and melodramatic acting. This film was full of instances where the distinction between bad craftsmanship and concept art are almost impossible to discern. For example, in one of many crane shots of the crowded street, the shadow of the cameraman and Suzuki sitting next to him can clearly be seen in the frame; is this just an accident or some type of self-reflexive point on the self-consciousness of the film? This film is a trashy B-movie done up in Sirk-like colors that feels almost like a stage play. Love it.

Where Suzuki fits in with the "new wave" label I'm not entirely sure, but his movies were more violent, sexual, and anarchic and thus more appealing to the post-war youth than other films being produced at the time. In this way, he fits in with the sensibilities of the new Japanese films that I am focusing on. I've seen one other Suzuki movie called Youth of the Beast, which was a yakuza picture he made a year earlier from Gate of Flesh. Suzuki was known for his elaborate use of studio sets, colors, and over-the-top visuals in filming mostly pulp material which the studio assigned him. In his film Branded to Kill Suzuki apparently went so over-the-top the studio fired him; I must see it. Youth of the Beast was beyond fantastic and I look forward to seeing more Suzuki movies, especially the gangster pictures.


James said...

Sounds like a very kinky film festival. I know someone who has seen IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES and they were quite shocked and they are not easily shocked. I was shocked to hear what occurred in the film. Let's just say it was an "emasculating" experience. I own a copy of TOKYO DRIFTER, but have yet to view it. It seems very intriguing. I love the widescreen usage in the newer Japanese films.

Mike said...

All these New Waves! I think after my French New Wave marathon, I will have a mini-Australian New Wave marathon.

yoshinorimike said...

hey man, nice post, as usual very informative and in-depth.

I just saw There Will Be Blood last night (finally!). I'm curious what your thoughts are on it; maybe you could make a short post to it, or just email me? In some ways it fit my expectations and yet in a lot of ways it was far different from what I expected (sorry, that sentence doesn't have much content in it, but it sums up my ambivalence toward the movie, which was too brutal and stark for me to truly admire, though I did find many of the formal aspects of its execution admirable).