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.”
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.)
In Part II, I’ll discuss Kurohara’s golden age—from The Time of Youth up until Black Sun—and the circumstances that helped him truly hit his stride with The Warped Ones.