The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara

7 Oct

I’d never heard of the Japanese director Koreyoshi Kurahara until I saw the film I AM WAITING (1957), included in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 17 box set, “Nikkatsu Noir,” a collection of five black-and-white crime films released by Japan’s maverick Nikkatsu studio. The film is a low-key crime drama that recalls some of the quintessential examples of late 1940s Hollywood film noir in the way a working man’s involvement with a woman with shady connections gets him embroiled in a confrontation with underworld characters and a murder investigation. (I’m thinking of films like CRISS CROSS, 1949, and DEAD RECKONING, 1947.) 

Yujiro Ishihara, Mie Kitahara in I AM WAITING

The film is set in a waterfront district in Yokohama and the protagonist is Joji Shimaki, an ex-boxer who runs a coffee shop that serves port workers and abuts some busy railroad tracks. A woman singer flees a nightclub gig after an attempted rape by the boss’s brother and Shimaki offers her shelter and a job. When the nightclub owner’s gang shows up to take her back, Shimaki learns of a connection between the nightclub and the disappearance of his brother, who had made a small fortune and was headed to Brazil to buy land and start a new life. He never made it to Brazil and Shimaki soon learns why, leading to a violent confrontation with the nightclub owner and several members of his gang. It all sounds more exciting than it actually is, and it’s kind of derailed by an unbelievable coincidence that propels the plot a little too conveniently, but the concise direction and sense of lived-in urban spaces keep it compelling throughout. It looked right and moved right. The star was Japanese heartthrob Yujiro Ishihara, brother of popular postwar novelist Shintaro Ishihara, a nationalist who’s been Governor of Tokyo for the past 13 years. 

Not long after I saw I AM WAITING last year, Criterion released Eclipse Series 28: “The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara,” and I promptly picked it up. There were five films on it: INTIMIDATION (1960), THE WARPED ONES (1960), I HATE BUT LOVE (1962), BLACK SUN (1964), and THIRST FOR LOVE (1967). They’re dramas, but they don’t fall into easy genre categories. From THE WARPED ONES on, they’re fueled by a filmmaking spirit that infused many national cinemas during that time. One can definitely see a lot of inspiration from the French New Wave here. If I had to sum up Kurahara’s style it would be: Robert Altman meets Takeshi Kitano meets Jean-Luc Godard, with Godard being the only one who was actually in a position to influence Kurahara at the time. All have contemporary settings, with three of them firmly immersed in the youth culture and popular culture of their time. After seeing these, I had to conclude that Kurahara is the most underrated Japanese director I’ve encountered.

 

I HATE BUT LOVE (1962) is one of my two favorites in the set and the only one of the five in color and it focuses on a popular TV/media star of the time, Daisaku Kita, played by Yujiro Ishihara, and the unbearable burdens put on him by a nonstop schedule of TV, radio and film appearances arranged by Noriko (Ruriko Asaoka), the female manager with whom he’s involved in a romance restricted by both partners’ insistence that it remain platonic, in order to keep their business relationship free from the messiness that a love affair would bring. Still, the pressure builds up on Daisaku until one day on TV he interviews a lady who’s taken out a classified ad requesting a driver to take a needed jeep to the lady’s doctor fiancé in a poor village in a remote part of Japan. In a burst of spontaneity, Daisaku offers to chuck everything and drive the jeep himself. His manager, Noriko, and all of his handlers and bosses freak out at this disruption in their lives, but, in a foreshadowing of the kind of media frenzies that would become much more common in later eras, everyone decides to turn his impromptu road trip into a reality TV show (decades before that term was invented) and follow him with hidden cameras. The story is covered nationwide and, much to his chagrin, he is greeted by crowds of well-wishers along the way, many of which seem to be made up of actual on-lookers rather than paid extras. While there are several shots of Daisaku at the wheel photographed against projected rear-screen backdrops, Hollywood studio-style, the majority of the film is shot on locations where the actual trip to Kyushu would take him, with handheld cameras documenting much of the action.

Ruriko Asaoka, Yujiro Ishihara in I HATE BUT LOVE

There is plenty of humor in the incidents that occur during the trip, with great snapshots of the state of the media in Japan in 1962, as TV producers scramble to get footage of Daisaku on the trip without arousing his wrath. Eventually, things turn quite dramatic as Noriko, ever in pursuit, suffers a breakdown as their relationship undergoes an inevitable crisis because of Daisaku’s impulsive act and his determination to follow through. There’s an original twist ending that makes a powerful comment on the nature of love and commitment. While it’s doubtful that a Japanese TV star of Daisaku’s status would ever have broken out of his routine in such a bold manner, it makes for a very enjoyable “what-if” kind of story, especially in such a rigid society as Japan. And it’s exactly in this area where a director like Kurahara is so valuable—the way he satirizes Japan’s social structure and focuses on outlaw, outcast, and rebellious elements.

In both THE WARPED ONES and BLACK SUN, he focuses on a petty thief who’s obsessed with black American jazz and is essentially the same character in both films, although he’s named Akira in one and Mei in the other. (He’s played by the same actor, Tamio Kawachi, in both.) In THE WARPED ONES (1960), he’s part of a footloose outlaw trio that includes a Yakuza wannabe and a hooker named Yuki who specializes in servicing westerners, including a cheery rotund Englishman. At one point after Akira has gotten out of jail, they steal a car and come across the reporter who fingered him to the police and his girlfriend, Fumiko, an artist. They abduct Fumiko and Akira rapes her. Instead of calling the police, she dogs Akira’s every step. Unsettled by the way her boyfriend behaves as if nothing happened, she hounds Akira with a bizarre request that will serve as a peculiar form of justice, in her mind at least. It’s the most disturbing of the six Kurahara films I’ve seen, with the rape scene divesting Akira of any sympathy we might have felt for him, but it offers a wild, unrestrained glimpse of a subculture of disaffected youth untouched by Japan’s postwar “economic miracle.” There’s an amusing scene where Akira crashes a party of pretentious art world habitués and they marvel at his primitive qualities. “Look, one of those wild types is here,” they gush, “What extraordinary fauvism!” It’s all shot on location with lots of handheld camera amidst real summer crowds.

 

BLACK SUN (1964) is more focused as it zeroes in on the odd alliance between Mei and a black American G.I. named Gil (Chico Roland), who’s on the run from the military police for a murder he committed. Toting a machine gun, the wounded Gil sort of holds Mei hostage and demands shelter and food, all while muttering “I don’t wanna die” and other improvised, sometimes incoherent dialogue. Mei doesn’t speak English and Gil doesn’t speak Japanese so the two have difficulty communicating. Given his devotion to black American jazz, Mei is initially excited at the prospect of having a black comrade and, with the two ensconced in his squatter’s hideaway in a bombed-out church, insists on showing off his many magazine photos of black American jazz greats (e.g. John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins) and the dog he’s named Thelonious Monk, as well as playing his prized phonograph record of “Six Bits Blues,” performed by vocalist Abbey Lincoln on the Max Roach album, “Black Sun,” which provides the film with its title. (I’m not sure this album exists outside the film—it doesn’t appear in the Roach discography I found on-line.) To Mei’s dismay, Gil, delirious from a gunshot wound in his leg that curiously goes untreated throughout the film, doesn’t care about jazz or Mei’s interest in black people and behaves quite horribly toward him, even killing his dog in one burst of rage. The bitter Mei gets away and stalks off, retreating to a bar frequented by other jazz buffs where he declares, “Jazz and niggers suck!” There are some amusing scenes, including a bit where Mei is in blackface and Gil in whiteface and they drive past the laughing MPs who are looking for Gil.

 

It’s a fascinating depiction of culture clash and is beautifully shot by Kurahara on a mix of studio sets and actual locations, but it suffers from the lack of characterization accorded Gil. We never learn the context of what happened to him nor do we ever really learn anything about him. He makes no real attempt to communicate with Mei until very late in the film and he mutters stock lines over and over again. He’s also not terribly well acted by Chico Roland, who played a similar character in THE WARPED ONES, where he was already a friend of Akira, but had fewer scenes. If there’d been just one scene where Gil unloaded his grief and pain and revealed something about himself, the whole thing would have been much more dramatically compelling. Still, Kawachi’s central performance keeps us engaged throughout and his naïve faith in the power of his jazz obsession to bridge national, cultural and racial barriers is quite touching.

 INTIMIDATION (1960) is the most conventional of the films in the set and relates a drama with crime elements about a newly-promoted bank manager, about to be transferred to another location, who is forced by a blackmailer to rob his own bank before he moves away. On the night he has to do it, a co-worker is handling the night shift, a boyhood friend whom the manager has taken advantage of over the years and who is destined to remain in the lower echelons of the bank’s management. When the manager makes the former friend the scapegoat for the loss of money, it’s only a matter of time before his crimes catch up to him. While the basic plot is somewhat implausible, it offers a scathing look at how class distinctions and the drive for success in postwar Japan has led to a collapse of ethics and a winner-take-all mentality. The characters are none too sympathetic, although one can probably say that about all the Kurahara films I’ve seen, with the possible exceptions of I AM WAITING and I HATE BUT LOVE, the only two with a bonafide movie star—Yujiro Ishihara—in the cast.

 The second of my two favorites in the set is THIRST FOR LOVE (1967), a drama about Etsuko (Ruriko Asaoka, pictured above), a widow who lives with her late husband’s family and has embarked on a relationship with her aged and widowed father-in-law, partly out of loneliness and partly out of a drive to consolidate her position in the dysfunctional household. She becomes obsessed with Saburo, the handsome young man who does the gardening and groundskeeping, but he seems oblivious to her feelings. When she buys him some new socks, the jealous young maid, Miyo, takes them and throws them out. Saburo gets Miyo pregnant, but promises the patriarch that he’ll marry her and take responsibility, thus ensuring he won’t be discharged. Etsuko wants him to stay around, but not with Miyo, so she comes up with a plan to break up the relationship, but it leads to violent and tragic consequences.

The film is based on an early novel by Yukio Mishima so I went out and bought the novel and read it after seeing the movie and I then watched the movie again. I loved the book (I’m a fan of Mishima) and the film is as intriguing a literary adaptation as I’ve seen in a long time. While Etsuko’s often conflicting desires and the resulting emotional turmoil are laid out via sections devoted to her narration in the book, a lot of it is conveyed in the film by closeups of her and shots of the landscape of the world in this isolated villa as seen through her eyes. It uses cinematic means to get inside her head, including her occasional voice-over narration. This film is set in a much more insular world than that of Kurahara’s other films and does not have the same relationship to contemporary Japan. In the book, the family histories of the characters played a much larger role and the whole theme of conflict between tradition and modernity in postwar Japan was foregrounded. Here, those aspects are downplayed to focus on Etsuko and her state of mind and the way she relates to the other characters, from the family patriarch and her assorted in-laws to her little niece and nephew and the servants. There are only a few glimpses of the outside world and one clever reference to the “Popeye” cartoon show as broadcast to the household’s two children on an unseen TV set.

For a more detailed write-up on this film and a comparison to the book, please read my review of the film on IMDB:

THIRST FOR LOVE IMDB review

I would argue that I HATE BUT LOVE and THIRST FOR LOVE are the two films in this box set that should vie for classic status with the better-known contemporary Japanese dramas of the time, such as those by Nagisa Oshima and Mikio Naruse, among others. What I don’t understand is why these and other Kurahara films never played at the Japanese film festivals in New York I’ve attended since the early 1970s. I believe some of them played just a year or two ago at a Nikkatsu film festival in New York that I completely missed. But before that? I don’t recall any mention of them. As it turns out, there was some distribution of at least two of these titles. In Chuck Stephens’ liner notes for THE WARPED ONES, he says this about the film’s distribution history:

  • Originally entitled Season of Heat—an intentional echo of the very first sun tribe film, Takumi Furukawa’s 1956 Season of the Sun—The Warped Ones acquired the title by which we know it today in its American rerelease, after first being distributed, dubbed into English and disguised as a sexploitation flick, as The Weird Love Makers (“They do everything!”) through auteur-pornographer Radley Metzger’s Audubon Films in 1963.

According to the American Film Institute Catalog Credit Index, Feature Films, 1961-70, THE WEIRD LOVE MAKERS did indeed get released in the U.S. in 1963. But only two other Kurahara films are listed in that volume: LONGING FOR LOVE and THE HEART OF HIROSHIMA. LONGING FOR LOVE is an alternate title for THIRST FOR LOVE, so it’s evident that it got some play in the U.S., but I can’t determine how much. There are no New York Times reviews for either of the three films, so I doubt there was a New York opening at all.

For Stephens’ complete essay on Kurahara, incorporating all the liner notes from the box set, here’s the link:

Eclipse Series 28: The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurehara

Kurahara was active in Japan from 1957 to 1995, which means there are lots more films waiting to be discovered by his fans in the west. Here’s hoping we get more of them released in the U.S. soon.

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One Response to “The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara”

  1. Robert Regan October 9, 2012 at 6:26 PM #

    I’m sold, Brian. Gotta see Kurahara! Thanks.

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