Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Some Notes on Japanese “Crazy Young People” Movies of the 1950’s and ‘60’s



Young people are a plague, teenagers especially.  They’re ignorant, they’re reckless, some of them are downright sociopathic.  They have no impulse control.  God damn the lot of them.  Americans realized this no later than 1953, with the release of László Benedek’s The Wild One.  This is the movie where Marlon Brando, a motorcyclist with a leather jacket, upon being asked what he’s rebelling against, famously responds, “Whadaya got?”

Now, it’s quite possible that the Japanese realized that young people were dangerous and insane long before 1956, but it’s 1956 that saw the release of Ko Nakahira’s epoch-making (or rather initiating) film Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu).  This movie would serve as the prototype for most of the “crazy young people” movies to follow, and we can find in it most of the key elements that would define the genre.

First, some background on Crazed Fruit.  The film—produced by Nikkatsu, masters of the Japanese b-movie—was written by the novelist Shintaro Ishihara, a friend of Yukio Mishima who would later go on to become a far-right wing, vigorously racist politician; he is currently the governor of Tokyo prefecture (after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, he said that it was the gods punishing the Japanese for becoming “too materialistic.” This is comparable to Jerry Falwell blaming 9/11 on gays and feminists; interestingly enough, I remember thinking to myself, shortly after the disaster, “I wonder if Ishihara will blame this on the Koreans or something.” Luckily he restrained himself, and we didn’t have a repeat of the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto plain earthquake, when dozens of ethnic Koreans in Japan were lynched for a variety of imagined crimes.  For instance, the water in many of the wells in the Tokyo-Yokohama area became cloudy—a natural result of the earthquake—and this was interpreted as the Koreans poisoning the well water!  Sigh, racism). 

Now, Shintaro Ishihara’s involvement is important because—slight exaggeration—all crazy young people movies were written by Ishihara.  Furthermore, Crazed Fruit stars Yujiro Ishihara (or “Yu-chan,” as he was known to his legions of fans; God, was he pretty), Shintaro Ishihara’s younger brother.  Yujiro Ishihara—against, slight exaggeration—is the star of all Japanese crazy young people movies, and God damn, but there are a lot of them.  Between 1956 and 1959 alone, he was in literally dozens of movies (perhaps actors in general were just more productive back then; I mean, how many movies was Ryan Gosling in last year? Three? Maybe four?)

There’s a  pretty girl in Crazed Fruit named Mie Kitehara.  She was similarly prolific and she and Yu-chan appeared in a number of films together.

Oh, what’s Crazed Fruit about?  Well, Yu-chan and his brother are spending their summer vacation at their father’s house on the beach.  Being wild and reckless, they do a lot of motor-boating and water-skiing with their hard-drinking, nihilistic friends, including a wealthy half-American with the exotic name of Frank.  Of all the crazy young people, Frank is the most hedonistic and the most amoral, which is not surprising, given that he’s not really Japanese.  This is another trope of crazy young people movies: the sinister presence of foreigners (and their nationalities are rarely specified; they’re just foreigners, or gai-jin. Frank is rather an anomaly in that his American-ness is noted; usually, the only foreigners to get a nationality are African-Americans, who are something of their own category in post-war Japanese cinema; more on this in a moment).

I see I’ve digressed.  The plot of Crazed Fruit: Yu-chan and his brother meet a pretty girl named Eri (the lovely Mie Kitehara) and they both fall in love with her.  This is problematic because Eri, as it turns out, is married to a paunchy, balding foreigner who must be at least twice her age (he has a British accent, for what it’s worth).  The image of young Japanese women “whoring” themselves out to foreigners is one of the main signs of decadence in these films, and it’s also the primary way for the women to demonstrate their depravity.  There are worse things a young Japanese woman can do than marry a foreigner in these movies.  She can openly prostitute herself to foreign businessmen and American soldiers.  And, most provocatively, she can have sex with an African-American soldier.  In Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1963 The Warped Ones, someone recommends to a prostitute—whose primary clientele consists of American soldiers—that she have sex with his black friend.  This is too much for her and she declines with disgust.  Even she has standards.  And in Shohei Imamura’s 1961 masterpiece Pigs and Battleships, a prostitute attempts to make her boyfriend jealous by threatening to sleep with American soldiers, even black ones!

One of the remarkable things about the Japanese cinema of this period is the complete lack of any notion of political correctness in its representation of African-Americans.  The depictions are by no means always hostile, although sometimes the best they can do is treat the African-American as a novel object of curiosity.  Or the Japanese character will see the African-American through a haze of stereotypes and received ideas.  This latter tendency is depicted most trenchantly in Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun (1964), in which a young petty gangster finds himself involved with a fugitive African-American soldier who has murdered two of his white fellow soldiers.  The Japanese man is a lover of jazz music, the prism through which he sees black people, and he assumes that this is all he’ll need to make friends with his new black guest.  In broken English he tells him, “All black people are my friend!  Thelonious Monk: buraku!” Now, the soldier has just killed some people and is in fear for his life, so he has no time for jazz music, but the Japanese gangster just can’t understand that.  When he finds that the soldier can’t even play the trumpet, and doesn’t even seem to like jazz, it’s downright incomprehensible to him.  Black Sun is probably the best Japanese movie I’ve seen which directly examines Japanese conceptions of black people, painful though it is often is to watch.  And in defense of Imamura’s treatment of African-Americans in Pigs and Battleships, I don’t think Imamura himself is expressing a racial prejudice; he’s just depicting his characters realistically, and alas, that’s how, realistically, they’re going to talk about black people.

I’ve digressed again.  Crazed Fruit.  Yu-chan, his brother, their love for Mei Kitehara’s character, her shameful marriage to a foreigner.  Well, it goes without saying that the relationship between the two brothers collapses, and they eventually end up engaged in open combat for Kitehara’s love.  I won’t reveal the ending; go get a Hulu Plus account and watch it there (they have a lot of Criterions available for streaming there, and it’s cheaper than Netflix).

A few more things that decadent Japanese youth will do in crazy young people movies: they like to drive convertibles, they listen to jazz and rock music, they use American slang expressions (quel horreur!)

It’s interesting how movies like Crazed Fruit and, say, Rebel Without a Cause, can be so reactionary (look at these crazy young people, with their cars and their music and their sex!) while simultaneously being so exciting to the young people that they purport to depict (“Wow, look at Yu-chan/James Dean! He’s so rugged and handsome and dreamy! Look at Mie Kitehara/Natalie Wood! She’s so sexy with her provocative, form-fitting sweaters!)

Now, as a cosmopolitan snob, I’m leery of American movies, so I’ve probably seen more Japanese crazy young people movies than their American counterparts (in fact, of the American variety, the examples I’ve given—The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause—are probably the only ones I’ve seen).  I sort of work under the assumption that if it’s Japanese, it must be better than the American version.  But I’m sure both Crazed Fruit and Rebel Without a Cause spawned legions of shitty imitations.  The only difference is that no one bothered to distribute the Crazed Fruit knock-offs in the United States, whereas the Rebel wannabes were free to flood the market. So the Japanese can produce crap too; it just doesn’t get exported.

As for Ko Nakahira, he’s something of a one hit wonder in the Japanese film industry.  After Crazed Fruit, he ended up making a string of similar young people movies for Nikkatsu, none of which equaled the success of his break-though, and then he ended up relocating to Hong Kong, where he directed, among other things, a Chinese-language remake of Crazed Fruit.  This movie has not yet been released by the Criterion Collection.

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