In continuation of my mini-Japanese New Wave film festival I watched a couple of movies from filmmaker Yasuzo Masumura. I stumbled upon Masumura pretty much by accident in Donald Richie's Hundred Years of Japanese Film, not having heard of him before. From the little bit I could come up with on Google, he was apparently a key figure for the new generation of filmmakers in Japan, one of the rare few who had Oshima's approval, though he is little known in the West.
The first film I watched of his was Giants and Toys, an incredibly over-the-top black comedy about corporate Japan focusing on the competition between three caramel candy companies and their promotional campaigns. The story shifts around a mostly boring character named Nishi (which is also the same name for Mifune's character in The Bad Sleep Well, another corporate slave in Kurosawa's own take-down on corporate life - this comparison is actually pretty interesting and worth looking into more) who is in an assistant position for the promotional campaign of World Candy. His best friend, we find out, works for one rival candy company and his love interest works for the other; betrayal, lust, and greed galore. The real main character, however, is Kyoko, a slum girl who is picked up by World Candy to become their new spokesperson/mascot with her incredibly sweet smile and rotten teeth (from eating candy!). As the story progresses we see the companies tear each other apart and Kyoko rise unscathed.
Giants and Toys really surprised me in the way it made its social critique so forcefully and with such lack of reserve. The corporate big cats are greedy, ruthless assholes, sure, but it seems like there's no one who isn't guilty for their greed or turning a blind eye. There are street shots of the average citizen or groups of such-like people, but these are the ones who end up buying the candy, who eat up Kyoko's picture in the magazines, and essentially help fuel the corporate machine. Who are the good guys in this picture? Kyoko could be seen as one - an innocent girl who rose to stardom out of luck and sass - but by the end I'm not sure if her coming out of the slum girl cocoon into diva status is really a good thing. There is one character, World's publicity head's father-in-law (nepotism in big business? sure), who is one of the big bosses, but is elderly and starting to see the hypocrisy and backstabbing he himself helped build up, like a type of corporate Lear. His protestations, though earnest and seemingly the only source of reason, come a little too late in his life.
The workplace, with everyone wearing suits and ties, and capitalist environment depicted is a result of American influence after the war and it is America that is really being attacked here as well as Japan. "Japan is America" is said at one point when someone questions whether Japanese children will react to certain promotional tricks the same way American kids do. Later, World's head promotional director in defense of his ruthlessness says to Nishi, "Don't blame me, blame Japan!" The idea is that the Japanese character trait of reliance on (and even pride in) a sort of unified national identity has taken a turn for the worse and has become an excuse for failing to overcome mass corruption.
A little less interesting as a film, but still interesting as a historical document is the second film I saw called Afraid to Die. The film stars the internationally known Japanese writer and celebrity Yukio Mishima. Mishima is of incredible interest in himself alone, regardless of his work. He was a public figure who was at once intellectual yet physical, traditional yet sexually experimental, private and exhibitionist. He was constantly urging for power to go back to the emperor and formed his own private army of imperialists, insisting on the samurai way as the true way of life. He had a particular fascination with death and spent the last fifteen years of his life working out and building up his body. He eventually committed harakiri (disemboweled himself) in 1970.
As part of the shaping of his public image, Mishima decided to try acting, insisting on certain elements in the screenplay: he could wear a black leather jacket, it would be a yakuza picture, and he would die in the end (spoiler alert? eh, not really). The film in itself is nothing fantastic and I think Masumura had trouble with Mishima (though they were former schoolmates) and his demands. It is really interesting to be watching Mishima on screen, though, and see such an enigmatic and magnetic historical personality captured on screen. His acting is incredibly self-conscious (he had no previous experience) and his body was of constant interest (this was five years after he started his intense workouts). In the film he is constantly hitting woman and sleeping with whoever he pleases, yet his masculinity is questionable as he is so short and small a person, despite his muscle tone (also questionable since his sexuality was always in question). Also, throughout the whole film he is basically hiding out from a rival yakuza gangster, making no real assertive moves against him; basically he's a coward. The plethora of contradictions seems quite fitting for Mishima the person and give the film some weight in terms of historical interest. Beyond that, however, the film is kind of dull and probably does not fit into the New Wave aesthetic I was aiming to experience. Anyway, it was worth a shot.