After seeing Kiju Yoshida’s debut film Good for Nothing (1960), we can add the filmmaker’s name to the rare list of studio directors whose first films signal immediate, restless talent, vision fully formed, grasp of cinematic tools and expressions already mature. While other Japanese New Wavers were trying to capture a youth audience through filming flighty takes on the too young and too irresponsible, Yoshida aims squarely at the malaise of post-college new adults and the newfound prospect of becoming a tired salaryman in your twenties. Or salarywoman—because as tightly hued as Yoshida’s picture is of lean, exasperated men fidgeting for meaning in their impassive apathy, Good for Nothing devotes just as much time to its female heroine—out of her 20s but wants to be no simple lover, housewife, or member of society, and is just as beset with a need for fulfillment and meaning. With an ending that directly references both 400 Blows and Breathless but makes them its own, Yoshida’s energetic weariness, his precision with actors and sympathy for each one’s self-imposed social predicament makes Good for Nothing not just a successful debut, but a refreshingly sober and exact drama of crooks, the death of youth, and defunct love.
Sunday began with a fresh start, literally, with a lovely, and, most importantly, English subtitled print of Jacques Rozier’s debut feature Adieu Philippine (1962). Along with Luc Moullet (whose Land of Madness is also at the festival) but to an even greater degree due to the significantly fewer films he has directed, Rozier is one of the great lost members of the French New Wave. Masterpiece after masterpiece and the man still can’t catch a break; the last fictional feature of his I’ve seen is one of the great surreal works of cinema, Maine-Océan (1986), and I’ve yet to meet anyone who has seen, let alone heard of his only other feature since then, Fifi Martingale (2001). His debut film is, as a friend once described, “vanilla New Wave,” and strikes me as what a film would be like if the nouvelle vague was an actual genre of movies. In other words, Adieu Philippine is a “regular” film, not aspiring to showiness, cleverness, presumption or pomposity, but dedicated to youth, spontaneity, and the unfilmed between moments of life, all done in such a way to suggest all this is normal in cinema, which it most assuredly is not. Above all there is the Rozier touch, which is a talent for supreme fluidity of film movement, of a natural nonchalance as the story slowly weaves in a direction seemingly untouched by a filmmaker and directed instead by life. Such a gracious movement, so surprising and touching as we see where the world takes the film, makes Rozier’s films, regardless of subject or age, always a fresh discovery.
A remarkable New Wave counterpoint to Rozier’s debut is Yoshida’s 4th film, An Affair at Akitsu, also released in 1962, and made in collaboration with actress Mariko Okada, who married Yoshida two years later. A resplendently colored melodrama about an erstwhile pair of post-War lovers, this is Yoshida working near Sirk territory, taking and committing wholeheartedly to a superficially conventional romance produced at the height of a studio’s aesthetic powers. The undercurrent to the story, which is of a short country inn rendezvous between an infirmed student and the inn-keeper’s daughter that blossoms into a decade-spanning unfulfilled love between that two, is not of irony, satire, or subversion. Yoshida instead constructs something more akin to what perhaps an Alain Resnais studio melodrama might appear to be. An Affair at Akitsu’s drama isn’t one of love so much as one of time; as with the score, which contains a mere two themes but is overlayed and repeated throughout much of the film, the lovers meet again and again at the inn as time slips away from them (dialog exposes the ellipses, the actors barely looking older but years fly by), subtly repeating the same conversations, expressing the same passion and always being unable to unite in the ideal way they imagine.
By this point in the retrospective a portrait of Yoshida men has emerged: intellectual and passionate, but held back by an always vague and always self-imposed restriction on their lives. They never can do what they know they should, and they know they can’t; yet we never know why. Yoshida’s women have not as much intellect but are much more intelligent, always understanding themselves, the men they love, and the rules governing their relationships. They are always the ones willing to break their own rules, desire so strongly to get the men to do the same, but are far too respectful of the men they care for to act, to do more than implore. In An Affair at Akitsu, like Marienbad or Muriel, the past is repeated again and again as the present, comprehended but not understood, seen but unable to be changed.