August 30, 2011

Eclipse Series 28 - The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): 

Intimidation: ****
The Warped Ones: ***½
I Hate But Love: ***½
Black Sun: ****½
Thirst for Love: ***½
SET:  ****

Koreyoshi Kurahara is most well-known for the 1983 ”sled dogs overcome cruel nature” piece Antarctica (Nankyoku Monogatari) which was Japan’s number one box office smash for over a decade. Diving into the five early Kurahara features featured in this set, however, it’s hard to imagine him being picked for such a Disneyesque enterprise.

The set begins simply enough with Intimidation (1960), a tamped-down caper that twists and turns right up to the last of its scant 65 minutes. Just as bank manager Mr. Takita (Nobuo Kaneko) is enjoying his ascension to the upper echelon of society, his past sins return to haunt him whilst compelling him to embezzle three million yen from his bank’s vault. Takita enlists his long-suffering “friend,” a pathetic underling named Nakaike (a heartbreaking, soulful Akira Nishimura), as a sort of fall guy. Naturally, nothing goes according to anyone’s plan and it’s only a matter of time before fate sinks its teeth into all involved.

Though the plot is boiler-plate film noir, there’s an itchy formalism at work; the camera can never be trusted to stay prim and locked down, with Kurahara often opting for invasive close-ups and nervous hand-held. The central set piece is a near-silent bank robbery that feels like a distillation of Jules Dassin’s famous heist sequence in Rififi. There’s a high anxiety staring match to rival Sergio Leone and a brilliant use of first person POV that I'd spoil if I went into any more detail. Intimidation is a perfect crime story (and also features one of the most hilariously piss-poor bank security “systems”) that’s not to be missed by fans of the genre. However, it also showcases a director getting his bearings in anticipation of more personal work.

If Intimidation has a nasty bite, The Warped Ones (which Kurahara made the same year) is downright venomous. The film belongs to a sub-sub-subgenre that I’m only aware of thanks to Chuck Stevens’ liner notes accompanying this set: the Sun Tribe film. From what I can gather, these were early ‘60s Japanese youthsploitation films that were an Eastern corollary to The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause and certain AIP films.

To call Warped’s lead character, Akira (Tamio Kawachi), an antihero is a bit generous. He’s a droog without a vocabulary, a shaved ape whose principal interests are jazz, car theft, and rape. Initially, Akira and a friend, Masura (Eiji Go), are set up in a club raid by an opportunistic journalist (Hiroyuki Nagato) and sent to junior prison for a stint that’s just long enough to make them even more nihilistic. Over the opening credits, a prison melee – depicted with frenetic cuts between shaky cam and freeze frames -- plays out over skittering jazz. The opening is a shot in the arm, setting an amphetamine pace that doesn’t relent for the rest of the film.

Soon Akira and Masura are back yowling through the alleys of Shibuya, stealing anything that isn’t nailed down while making a few bucks pimping out Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto), Masura’s equally hell-bent girlfriend. A trip to the beach results in an encounter with the journalist and his artist girlfriend, Yuki (a staggeringly luminous Yuko Chishiro) and Akira enacts a brutal dose of revenge on both. Rather than horror, Yuki begins to regard Akira with a perverse fascination and develops a wrongheaded attachment to him.


Thus begins Akira’s cat-and-mouse with Yuki and her world of art sophisticates. They’re all too happy to glom on to the street tough, whom they romanticize as an extraordinary example of fauvism. He enjoys playing with them and, above all, injecting his Shiva-the-destroyer energy into every scenario he encounters.

The Warped Ones represents Kurahara in his rawest, most primal state. The film depicts a Tokyo populated only by juvenile delinquents and their victims and the anxious, impatient cutting and camera mimics Akira’s id-driven trajectory. It’s a visceral experience but, since everyone’s crazy dial is switched to eleven, it can also be a taxing one. The film is driven by a measured, hard bop jazz soundtrack but the characters behave more to the pandemonic avant-skronk of Albert Ayler et al. In fact, I’d say The Warped Ones is a jazz movie in the same way Easy Rider is a rock movie or Repo Man is a punk movie. Akira and his gang are on an extended freeform riff and the meandering camera does its best to keep time. The film whips and contorts its way to an act of “social justice” appropriately warped, with Kurahara extending a huge middle finger toward class pretense and posturing. The Warped Ones is not for the weak-stomached but, even at its worst, has style to burn.

The next film in the set, I Hate But Love (1962), is a romantic melodramedy shot in vibrant color, with two good-looking movie stars playing ennui-tainted rich people. On the surface, it has little in common with the two shoestring-budgeted, mean-spirited films that precede it. But I Hate But Love still traffics in tortured love/lust, class dissatisfaction, and the search for authenticity in a sea of pampered phonies.


A thoroughly dissatisfied television celebrity Daisaku Kita (Yujiro Ishihara) decides to jettison his career in favor of a “humanistic” pursuit – driving a beat-up Army jeep to a medical mission in a village 900 miles north of Tokyo. His sudden breach of contract chagrins his handlers to no end, especially Noriko (Ruriko Asaoka) his manager, with whom he’s having a Platonic love affair (they’ve made a “no physical contact, not even kissing” pact that perplexes everyone around them). She commandeers a Jaguar and pursues her cracked lover, hoping to convince him to return to his day job of being loved by millions.

The ingredients for the type of Technicolor romantic farce that Hollywood made in the ‘50s and ‘60s are all here, but something is a little… off. For starters, the brilliant, saturated mise-en-scene would be right out of a Frank Tashlin film but Kurahara’s acrobatic camera lurches and lunges, New Wave-style through scenes. The leading man slaps around his leading lady and calls her an idiot. There’s a suicide attempt. The two leads aren’t afraid to delve into the dark, unlikable corners of their characters’ psyches – she’s controlling and obsessive, he’s misogynistic and moody. There’s a lived-in sense to their relationship; they’re long past the part where they “met cute.” Much of what transpires is about them tearing down their relationship and mining the rubble for whatever is worth salvaging. Ultimately, the whole film takes a shot at the romantic notion of the so-called “pure love” the couple claims they’re in search of, underlining the very unpopular fact that real love is a lot of work.

1964’s Black Sun finds Kurahara revisiting the setting and a few of the characters from The Warped Ones. However, Akira (still played by Kawachi) has been retread and refined. Here he’s called Mei and, though the opening finds him once again thieving, it’s clear he’s a bit more vulnerable and less toxic than the Akira of The Warped Ones. Hell, in the second scene of the film he actually pays for a jazz LP and thanks the saleslady, already light years beyond the ill-mannered shoplifter of the prior film.

Mei is holed up in a collapsing church, squatting for as long as he can avoid the police or the bulldozers, making a living pinching cars and scavenging. He lives for jazz, his beloved mutt, Monk, and the occasional fling with Fumiko (Matsumoto again). His simple life is soon complicated when a runaway American G.I. named Gill (Chico Rolando, reprising a very small role in The Warped Ones) takes refuge in Mei’s hideout.

“You… you’re black!” Mei exclaims upon discovering the desperate, machine gun-wielding Gill. “Today’s my lucky day!”


Despite an impenetrable language barrier, Mei is thrilled to have stumbled upon an actual black man in his house. He assumes that they’ll get on famously and that Gill, being black, must be a talented jazz musician in his own right. Of course, Gill isn’t interested at all in making friends. He’s committed murder and wants nothing more than for Mei to escort him through the military dragnet and to the sea where Gil hopes to find a way back to his mother in the States. They’re relationship becomes quickly adversarial; Gill accidentally kills Mei’s dog and Mei quickly discovers that Gill isn’t a magical Negro jazz fairy but a living, bleeding human with very clear and present problems.

Black Sun dabbles in satire; at one point, Mei disguises Gill by painting his face white, culminating in the two of them gallivanting around town performing a sort of inverted minstrel show. There’s also a strange reverie juxtaposing images of violence from America’s Civil Rights movement and Japan’s post-war reconstruction. But any social commentary plays second fiddle to the very complex relationship that develops between the two men. As Mei eventually commits to helping Gill, the two outcasts forge a wordless alliance with a common goal: to reach the sea, a place where they will ultimately be cleansed.

If there’s a must-see film in the bunch, it’s this one. It’s more carefully considered and refined than The Warped Ones but retains that film’s frenzied empathy for marginal characters. There’s also a lot more to like about Kawachi’s character here; he’s still an anarchic street punk but he possesses strong undercurrent of compassion that he lacks in the other film. Roland plays Gill like a wounded tiger cub, childlike and heartbreaking but always on the verge of snapping. The two men play wonderfully off each other, so much so that a gritty scene where one man has to perform DIY surgery on the other is oddly moving while still being supremely uncomfortable.

Black Sun also employs the best use of handheld camera I’ve seen in a long time, using the disorienting, unpredictable technique to build genuine psychological/emotional tension, not just seasick unease. Further, the film has a must-be-seen-to-be-believed ending that takes its title image to a bizarre, literal level.

The final film in the set, Thirst for Love (1967), is the most formally controlled and, consequently, a bit chillier than the others. The stunning Ruriko Asaoka plays Etsuko, a woman who married into a collapsing aristocracy and was widowed soon after. When the film begins, Etsuko has already struck up an affair with her late husband’s father (Nobuo Nakamura), a coldly practical business men resigned to cutting his losses and enjoying his twilight years.


On the fringes of their lives is Saburo (Tetsuo Ishidate) a young groundskeeper at their estate and a reluctant Lothario who attracts the attention of his female coworkers and, most significantly, the increasingly unstable Etsuko. The upstairs-downstairs, May-December pairing of Etsuko and Saburo soon begins to unravel the social fabric of the family.

“I don’t care if I’m punished,” Etsuko announces when questioned about her relationship with Saburo. “In fact, that’s what I want.” Soon it’s clear that Etsuko is using the young man as a stepladder to her own self-destruction and is one of those unfortunate beings for whom happiness is impossible.

The film is based on a Yukio Mishima novel and Mishima’s doomed fatalism suffocates the film, from the beginning scene of Etsuko accidentally nicking her father-in-law/lover’s face during a shave to the baroque climax involving slow-motion showers of blood. While Kurahara’s forever-wheeling camera and asymmetric editing remain intact, the heavy atmosphere mutes his style. One could say this is the most “mature” of the set, but there’s a joy missing that was inherent in the other films.

Still, there’s plenty to commend Thirst for Love, most especially Asaoka. Miles away from her red-blooded turn in I Hate But Love, she rules over the proceedings here with a quiet tyranny. As a woman bound on making people hating her, Asaoka does a nice job keeping our sympathies for as long as we can stand it. But it’s soon clear that she’s a calcified version of the vibrantly destructive youths in The Warped Ones – a rebel against life itself. Another denizen of Kurahara’s warped world.

Criterion’s Eclipse brand prides itself in showcasing “lost, forgotten, or overshadowed” films for “the adventurous home viewer.” Koreyoshi Kurahara joins the ranks of Basil Dearden, Allan King, William Klein, Raymond Bernard, Larisa Shepitko, etc. etc. – filmmakers that Eclipse has wisely, graciously brought to light for our appreciation.

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Posted by maian at August 30, 2011 4:21 PM
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