Before Kurahara and his scriptwriter Nobuo Yamada laid the taiyozoku genre to rest with Black Sun, they made two “road” movies. Their models are clearly Western films, rather than Japanese novels. They are not, however, slavish imitations, and both give the director and the screenwriter a freer hand to experiment with different styles: the two films are also quite different from each other.
The first, Nikui anchikusho (1962), starring Ishihara Yujiro as Daisaku, is a Hollywood-style star vehicle. Ishihara had married Nikkatsu’s previous leading actress, Mie Kitahara, who then retired, so Asaoka Ruriko plays Daisaku’s girlfriend. The English title, I Hate But I Love, reveals the director’s intention to make a kiss-and-make-up romantic comedy, along the lines of Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve.
The formal model is actually Sturges’ Sullivan's Travels. Daisaku is a busy celebrity who tires of his narrow, overly regimented life: his domineering manager/girlfriend, played by Asaoka, seems to embody his frustrations. On an impulse, he answers an ad to deliver a jeep needed by a medical volunteer in a remote Kyushu village. His employers try to stop him, but then the PR people, led by Daisaku’s girlfriend, decide to run with Daisaku’s “humanism,” sending a bevy of reporters to follow the fleeing celebrity along the length of Japan: Honshu, the Inland Sea, and finally Kyushu.
The second, road segment of the movie offers a fascinating view of the early ‘60s Japanese countryside. Kurahara doesn’t quite measure up to Sturges’ comic panache here, but this is the part of the movie where Asaoka’s character develops. She follows Daisaku—after cheerfully helping herself to his sports car—along the increasingly dangerous roads. As her bossiness gives way to fear, Daisaku finally sees her vulnerability. This is what he needs: only when she is desperately holding onto him, her car hanging off of a cliff, does his love for her truly gel.
As they travel through the Japan of 1962, Kurahara exaggerates the road’s perils. As in his taiyozoku films—with the pam-pams, their fat, white Johns, and arrogant GIs—one senses that Kurahara is exorcising problems from the recent past—in this case, rural backwardness—rather than showing the precise present.
This banishing of the past explains why almost every film shows some monument to progress: one film from the end of the ‘50s, perhaps Warera no jidai, shows Tokyo Tower (from which Japan’s first color TV programs were broadcast). In Song of Dawn (1965), it is Asaoka herself who now plays the frustrated celebrity: Noriko, a popular actress, has a plush apartment looking out onto the Yoyogi Olympic Stadium. This both places her and the film in the context of a more confident Japan, enjoying economic success and international esteem. As Noriko “makes the scene” at compulsory public appearances and—to let off steam from them—at impromptu wild parties, the soundtrack now plays rock-and-roll as well as jazz.
One might compare Song of Dawn to Sunset Blvd., except that Noriko is young and energetic—her mood swings wildly up as well as down—so that the tone, even in adversity, is primarily upbeat. As in I Hate But I Love, Asaoka’s character is essentially good, her weak point being that she takes herself too seriously. In order to become a real professional, she needs to approach her roles with a certain humility, or at least, versatility and dedication.
Her lesson in life starts when she is asked to spoof her own persona, like John Wayne did in True Grit (or, more recently, Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading). At the initial meeting, she hasn’t even read the script for the project. When she finally does, she initially refuses the role. There is also an element of “humanism” in Noriko’s character development, as she learns empathy for a young couple from the countryside, brave and loyal to each other in the face of misfortune. The focus on the personal growth of such a pampered character shows its kinship with earlier Hollywood classics rather than European social realism: “growing up” for Noriko doesn’t really mean radically changing her life or becoming politically engaged, but just learning how to handle her work—and her private life—like a pro.
In Kurahara’s other road movie, he experimented more boldly, looking toward postwar European films. Also completed in 1962—but after I Hate But I Love—Glass Hearted Johnny stars second-tier performers Joe Shishido and Izumi Ashikawa. Not having to make a star vehicle, Kurahara and Yamada wrote their most distinctive script, which, when realized into film, was free of many standard Nikkatsu conventions.
If I Hate But I Love is about romantic escape, Glass Hearted Johnny show escape as an act of desperation. The film tells the story of a girl (Ashikawa) sold into prostitution, who, seizing her only chance, jumps onto a train going back to Hokkaido. Her pimp tracks her down, but finds himself pitted against the girl’s new—if intermittent—protector, a self-absorbed bicycle tout (played by Shishido).
The film ends quite abruptly with the girl’s suicide—in the ocean, of course—but otherwise the film has an engaging open-endedness. Having mostly played girl-next-door characters, Ashikawa brings naïve simplicity to the role of the exploited girl. This and all of the wandering—whether aboard trains or walking—led Mark Schilling to compare her to Giulietta Massina in La Strada: Ashikawa’s charm is such that we don’t balk when the tout, finally giving up on his dreams of success, falls in love with her. So does the pimp, who turns out to be a guitar-playing romantic: “What is a poet?” he sings to his guitar. “Someone with a pure heart.”
Svelte, sophisticated Ruriko Asaoka’s on-screen qualities are very different from Ashikawa’s naïve purity. Nevertheless, in her 100th Nikkatsu role, Asaoka starred in Kurahara’s Flame of Devotion (1964), where she plays a simple “girl of the mountains,” whose troubled love with a “boy from the sea” leads her (where else?) to a watery grave. A classic giri-ninjo melodrama—in which a sense of duty is pitted against human emotion—the movie nevertheless displays Asaoka’s considerable acting talents: she, too, can play a simple country girl if she so deigns. The only movie in the retrospective set before (and during) the War, it is a matter of course that there is little of the soul searching about Western (especially American) influence on Japanese culture noticeable in the retrospective’s earlier films. The last film chosen for Filmex, Thirst of Love (1967), doesn’t touch this theme either, even though it is from a novel by Yukio Mishima, an author obsessed with the Japanese/Western dichotomy. Perhaps the audience just wasn’t interested anymore.
Kurahara soon left Nikkatsu and went on to make family pictures. Many of them were nature films, such as The Glacier Fox (Kita kitsune monogatari, 1978). Antartica (Nankyoku monogatari, 1983), in particular, was a huge box-office success. Partly because of this later career, the Filmex notes comment that “Kurahara’s image as an artist was scattered in pieces, lacking any unification.” Retrospectives focusing on Nikkatsu’s stable of stars, rather than any single director, have also left Kurahara’s artistic reputation hazier than it should be. But this year’s retrospective makes it clear that his work in the ‘50s and ‘60s had consistent core themes. Several times, Kurahara managed to supersede mere genre in order to create art.
This review is continued from Part II.