Damaged Goods: Japanese New Wave by Craig Hubert

Craig Hubert discusses The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara, a box set gathering five Japanese New Wave films directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara.

Damaged Goods Japanese New Wave

Still from Black Sun (1964).

The Japanese New Wave, for all its stylistic and thematic diversity, has been marginalized in the strained narrative of cinematic history. In the United States, recorded histories tend to leave only a small corner for world cinema, a dwindling space occupied by a handful of “masters.” This is not to discredit the few names who do receive recognition; these directors certainly deserve the close critical readings and repertory programming they’ve received. But this insular history of cinema, which privileges films and filmmakers who embody preconceptions of freedom and subversion, limits the depth of national cinemas and the conversations they engage in with society. The Criterion Collection has been making significant changes to this notion with the simple fact of making these films available to see. They have been long supporters of the Japanese New Wave, releasing many of the films from the period on DVD, and have made a huge dent with the release of The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara; a box set produced by their Eclipse label, gathering five of the genre-jumping films directed by Kurahara for Nikkatsu studios—a compendious study of the questions and concerns of post-war Japanese cinema.

Kurahara’s best work was done as a contract director for Nikkatsu, the oldest studio in Japan, during a particularly fruitful time for the company; in many ways Nikkatsu was the nexus of the New Wave. Founded in 1912, the studio was formed as a merger between a handful of prominent production companies and theater chains; the initial name of the studio was the Nippon Katsudo Shashin (Japan Cinematograph Company), but soon shortened to the more concise Nikkatsu. The company was a popular producer of historical swordplay films during the ’30s, when the film industry in Japan was beginning to rapidly grow, but by 1941 they were effectively put out of business. After being regulated to third-rate status following a merger forced upon the Japanese film industry by the government, reducing the ten major production companies to four, Nikkatsu was smothered for being the one studio that did not approve of the merger.

Struggling through the ’40s and ’50s, Nikkatsu became popular once again, tackling youth oriented films highlighting sex and violence. They were called taiyozoku (sun tribe) films, the name deriving from the popular Season of the Sun (1956), which became template of-sorts for Nikkatsu over the next few years. The film was an adaptation of a story by Shintaro Ishihara, a controversial and popular author who focused his stories on the wild ways of the upper class youth in post-war Japan. (It should be noted that Ishihara today is the governor of Tokyo and most famous for his ultraconservative screed “The Japan That Can Say No”). Kurahara’s first film for Nikkatsu, the moody noir I Am Waiting (1957), was an early success for the studio, and they quickly had him making his own youth film. On paper, The Warped Ones (1960) can seem formulaic, a combination yakuza and taiyozuka; out of jail for petty crimes, teenage Akira hits the streets for a full-on assault on civilization, targeting the girlfriend of a former rival and anybody else who happens to cross his path. But the film doesn’t fit smoothly into either of the Nikkatsu templates, and is angrier and more biting than anything the studio had released before. This was another side of Tokyo youth, unhinged and uncontrollable.

Kurahara’s sun-stroked teenagers are the unacknowledged descendants of the sweaty, sex-obsessed juveniles in Crazed Fruit (1956), the archetypal Nikkatsu sun tribe film, but they are far from privileged summer houses and relaxing days on the beach. The morally inept kids in The Warped Ones live in the slums, hang out in jazz clubs, fight, steal, and generally cause havoc; in most sun tribe films, the kids are guilty of nothing more than raging libidos. This is evident in Kurahara’s vision of Japan as a jungle of broken buildings and tightly cramped spaces as opposed to idyllic open waters and seaside vistas. Black Sun (1964), a stunning chamber play set against a crumbling wasteland featuring a stuttering black American G.I. and a gutter jazz obsessive, both social outcasts, opens and closes in the outskirts of Tokyo that could easily double as an aborted battlefield—a stunning backdrop on par with the Night of the Barricades sequence in Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers. The claustrophobia of the setting is as much an extension of the characters as a reflection of Japanese society.

The stark world Kurahara’s characters move through is propelled by bristling bursts of bebop. Jazz is not merely noise, but informs the style of the films; the camera is free of constrictions, whirling, stammering, and falling down. The Warped Ones opens with a literal twist: the camera, angled at the ceiling of a Tokyo nightclub, spins at a dizzying pace amid the clatter of drinks and voices. Still moving, the camera cuts in closer to the faces, cheeks puffed, beads of sweat riding down their foreheads. The faces are frozen is agony, an image Kurahara will return to again and again in his films with razor-sharp freeze-frames. There are moments when the camera will be following one of Kurahara’s characters, moving through the maze of corridors and city streets, and barley contain the jittery body in the frame—the camera is doing everything in its power to not shoot off toward the sky, which it sometimes does. In Black Sun (which features a score by Max Roach), the main character’s dump of an apartment is being held together by jazz, almost literally; records scattered among the floor seem to be the only thing holding the walls in place. The apartment is littered with posters ripped from magazines, and Kurahara uses the faces as part of the scenes, sometimes for comedic effect—at one moment, a character in the middle of a scuffle looks down to see the face on the cover of Charles Mingus’s “The Clown” looking back up at him.

To understand the way jazz infuses every aspect of Kurahara’s film, it might be helpful to look at his work next to Nikkatsu’s other big player, Seijun Suzuki. In films like Branded to Kill(1967) and Tokyo Drifter (1966), Suzuki’s style is a pop explosion—a kaleidoscope of careful compositions, controlled performances, and a wild array of colors in the costumes and set design. The difference is staggering, like standing still and running at full speed. If the films of Koreyoshi Kurahara embody one thing, it is motion—literally and figuratively. Characters are constantly moving, on foot or by car, running away or running after somebody. There is not a moment to catch your breath, or relax—a dark world with no direction. Kurahara’s critique is not of the emerging youth culture, with all their anger and sexuality, but of the world that surrounds them. The warped world that created them.

Craig Hubert is a writer based in New York City.

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