Nagisa Oshima had something in The Sun’s Burial (1960); it wasn’t just one of the most throat-gripping titles in English, and it wasn’t even the Shochiku-budget enabled, comic book energy zeitgeist of the so-called Japanese New Wave of the time. It was Kayoko Honoo. Her dress may be all late 1950s floral prints and sashay, but her eye liner angles sharply upward and she is the agitator and the aggressor, not the “son” of the title, the bums of post-War Japan. They are stuck in the slums and the petty yakuza gangs of a sun-burnt Osaka; Hanoo travels between them with a criminal and sexual assurance and fluency, hovering between, picking one up and dropping it for another, sleeping with the enemy to make him her friend only to betray that one for someone more lucrative. Money isn’t even really the issue, now that we are out from under the direct yoke of the American Occupation and sweltering in the generational malaise and activism of the burgeoning, promising 1960s. Yes, the milieu of gangsters and the jobless revolves around shaking people down for money, hooking girls out for money, selling Japanese citizenship and even Japanese blood for money, but neither Hanoo nor the gangs and rebel-rousing bums she travels with have anything to show for it (except maybe staying alive). What was it the yakuza said, if he doesn’t keep moving, he’ll die? That’s more like it. All sweat and grime, you need to move if only to keep cool.
And cool they are. The Sun’s Burial is what all multiplex cinema should be like: ribald with sex and violence, brashly styled in the artificial colors of manga and neon (nearly half a decade before Jean-Luc Godard took up the look of advertisements and comic books) but shot in the real slums with nothing but the sticky faces of our jobless, our petty yakuza, our youngsters with nowhere else to go, our cagey women, all these pacing faces of grime and disquietude to keep the frame moving, the movie moving, the characters moving, the country moving—and politics churning in this pulp genre like mad. That’s why Honoo is spectacular, as an emblem and as an existence: the new, hard-edged attractiveness of a hip youth in harsh conjunction with a vivid political existence in life, where the actions one takes simply to live inherently become political statements, maybe even political activism. In a world where a girl must be sexy in the grime of the slums, where the sun is always scorching the ghetto with its most fierce, fiery orange, where a girl is wanted as much for her sexuality as for her criminal scheming, and where loving, living, and fighting are all directly political expressions, Kayoko Hanoo is hot in all senses of the word.