The first four films from the Filmex’s Kurahara retrospective, all from the ‘50s, show that he was experimenting with different genres. Although this is partly because these movies are based on different novels by diverse authors, he is also evolving as a director, feeling around for the kind of story he can comfortably adapt into film.
It is important to remember that in the mind of the public, the films Nikkatsu churned out were associated with their stars, rather than directors. Kurahara’s first non-apprentice film (omitted in the retrospective) was I’m Waiting (Ore ga matteru ze!), starring the pair from Crazed Fruit, Ishihara and Kitahara, Nikkatsu’s “alpha couple.”
Previous retrospectives, (including the Nikkatsu Action Films retro Mark Schilling put together for Udine) have included a few Kurahara films, but this year’s Filmex offering shows that in his best films, Kurahara often used certain members of the second rank of Nikkatsu performers, and got very good performances from them.
One was Nagato Hiroyuki, who stars in the opening film, a rediscovered (and restored) print of Daisan no shikaku (The Third Dead Angle). About corruption, plots and counter-plots inside and among Japanese companies, in some ways it prefigures Intimidation, the film in the retro made shortly before The Warped Ones. Often labeled Japan’s first film noir, Intimidation is moodier and more psychological than its predecessor. This is an early example of Kurahara’s ability to make “each film build upon [previous] themes in constant progression,” according to the Filmex notes.
The adaptations he did in-between—at least those in the retrospective—similarly culminate in one of his best films: The Warped Ones (1960). By this time, many directors had made taiyozoku me-too knock-off films, and Woman from the Sea (Kaitei kara kita onna) has the romantic marine background of the Ko Nakahira movies, but lacks much social or psychological edge. The beautiful underwater photography of Woman from the Sea really prefigures his documentaries of the ‘70s and ‘80s, about exotic nature. (I will touch on these in Part III).
The ocean, both as a setting and a metaphor, becomes important to Kurahara around this time. Perhaps the only film in the retro to lack a beach or ocean scene—a group of youths do explode a bomb by a river, though—is his Oe Kenzaburo adaptation, The Time of Youth (Wareera no jidai), but this film has many other elements that would go into The Warped Ones, including some of the psychological edge.
A bit of studio background helps here. Nikkatsu was Japan’s oldest studio, but it emerged from the War as a distribution, rather than a production, entity. In spite of obstruction from the other studios, it managed to break back into production in the mid-50s with several adaptations of the elder Ishihara’s novels, beginning with the taiyozoku films mentioned in Part I. This was Kurahara’s opportunity to graduate from working for Shochiku as an AD, and in time, become one of the ‘Nikkatsu Trio’ of directors, along with (the famous) Imamura Shohei, and Nakahira Ko.
Ko’s loss was Kurahara’s gain when EIRIN, an industry self-censorship body asked Nikkatsu to stop making taiyozoku films, which supposedly damaged to the morals of youth, towards the end of the ‘50s. By not using Ishihara and Kitahara as stars, and because he was less known than Ko, Kurahara was able to “wedge” back into the genre without being closed down by EIRIN.
Nagato Hiroyuki appears again in The Time of Youth, playing a young student, Yasuo, who is thrilled at the prospect of leaving Japan, after winning a scholarship to study in France,. His self-hate as a Japanese is intertwined with a sense of dependence: on an older, more athletic student, who helps to evolve his political views and—for food and shelter—on an older woman who is a prostitute (and in turn depends on her arrogant American patron).
He also falls in love with a pretty fellow student. When she gets pregnant, her ultimatum to him finally makes him stand on his own two feet. He moves out of the prostitute’s apartment, rejects the scholarship (because of French colonialism), and gives his erstwhile American “benefactor” a good slug. Up until now he has viewed Japan as “pitiable,” like the American, but in the end he accepts a fate intertwined with his home country.
Although it would be several years before he explicitly used “sun” in the title--by 1964, the year Kurahara made Black Sun, the summer of the Nikkatsu Action Film was fading anyway—the literal meaning of The Warped Ones gives a coy nod to the first taiyozoku film by taking “sun” out of the title: the literal translation is “Season of Heat,” while Ko’s title was Season of the Sun.
This may be Kurahara’s best film, not to mention the one that best fits into the taiyozoku genre. Tamio Kawachi, in the role of Akira, a young criminal just released from prison, gives an impulsive zing, as does the jazz in the movie’s score (which would be reused so effectively in Black Sun). Among the elements recycled from Time of Youth are a near death by gas cock, discussions about abortion (a frequent topic, but none of these films seem to have an abortion within the confines of dramatic time), and a criminal act—this time a rape—on a deserted beach, with the rhythmic sound of waves as a background, instead of the explosion next to a little stream as in Time of Youth.
The only plan Akira ever makes is to revenge himself on the detective who sent him away to prison: he starts by raping the detective’s fiancée. Unlike the rather sober Yasuo in Time of Youth—the lead actor in that film, Nagato Hideyuki, plays the straight-laced detective in this film—Akira is the perfect embodiment of the impulsive taiyozoku hero, heedless of the effects of his acts on himself or others: in fact, exactly the sort of role model the EIRIN censors feared. A new addition is Matsumoto Noriko in the role of Akira’s prostitute girlfriend, who adds some dim-witted pizzazz to the movie.
It was about this time that Kurahara’s scriptwriter, Nobu Yamada, joined his creative team. After the success of The Warped Ones, they took a break from adaptations and decided to write a couple of their own stories. Although one need only look to Europe or Hollywood to find models for these more “auteured” films, they nevertheless showed greater originality and independence from the run-of-the-mill Nikkatsu style.
The first of these, I Hate But Love, features the one “Diamond Line” (first-ranked) performer to work with Kurahara over and over again in the latter part of his Nikkatsu career, Asaoka Ruriko. Critic Mark Schilling finds the second one, Glass-Hearted Johnny, reminiscent of Fellini’s La Strada. This may not be Kurahara’s best, but it is probably his most distinctive film. In Part III, I will discuss this pair of films, as well as the final ones in the retrospective, which all star Nikkatsu’s petite grande dame, Asaoka Ruriko.
This review is continued from Part I.