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Thursday, 9 July 2009

Crazed Fruit (1956)

Director: Ko Nakahira
Stars: Masahiko Tsugawa, Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara

In this early Japanese youth culture film from the fifties, we focus on two young brothers, Natsuhisa and Haruji Takishima. The first time we meet them, they're in so much of a rush that they run onto the train at Kamakura Station without even buying tickets. Of course they're not just eager for catching trains. At this point it's water skiing on their brains but usually it's girls. What else would young men be thinking about all the time? Well this is what made films like this revolutionary in Japan in the mid fifties. At that point, Japanese kids did precisely what they were told, because the culture was all about respecting those older than yourself.

Natsuhisa is the cool one of the pair, a confident girl chaser who smokes, plays the ukelele and sings in a powerful voice that all the girls can't help falling for. He's played by Yujiro Ishihara, the real life brother of the man who wrote the script, Shintaro Ishihari, so presumably utterly in tune with the intent of the film. While Haruji is definitely the innocent younger brother, played by sixteen year old Masahiko Tsugawa, that doesn't mean he isn't interested or even able to find a girl of his own.

And so he does, by accident when he loses his hat at Kamakura Station. He's instantly smitten with the girl who picks it up for him, but he has no clue who she is. Luckily for Haru, he finds her again later in the day, out on the water where she's swimming a long way out. They give her a lift in the boat and sure enough, she oh so accidentally leaves her bathing cap behind and appears on the station the next day so he can give it back. So Haru has himself a girl to take out in the boat and make out with.

It's good timing too because there's a party coming up soon at Frank Hirosawa's house. Frank is the leader of their particular clique, the band of older friends that their parents disapprove of. He looks too tall, probably because of actor Masumi Okada's mixed heritage (his father is Japanese but his mother is Danish), but he has the utter confidence to make him the coolest one of the bunch, very Rat Pack in his demeanour. Of course his house and car and boat can't hurt in the slightest as focal points for this youth culture. His party is a sort of competition, where all these young men have to bring the most and the most beautiful girls with them. Innocent young Haru wins that contest with his Eri.

Unfortunately Eri isn't what she seems. While she honestly falls for young Haru, she has a husband already, a much older American husband to boot. What she's experiencing with Haru is the youthful freedom that she never got round to before she got married. And while this is obviously not a good situation, Haru falling deeper in love with her as time goes by, there's a further spanner in the works. Natsu falls for her too, in his own less innocent and more deliberate way. After all if she's going to cheat on her husband, why can't she do it with him too? And so the coil tightens.

This is a tight and tense little film, acted well by its youthful cast. Masahiko Tsugawa is amazing for a sixteen year old, while Yujiro Ishihara was 22 and Mie Kitahara, who plays Eri the older woman Eri, was still only 23. Ishihara and Kitahara apparently became married after this film, but I don't know how soon. Together they portray something new in Japanese cinema, part of what became known as taiyozoku or 'sun tribe', affluent youths who can spend their time boating and driving and doing nothing except enjoying themselves. In an early rapid fire discussion, they joke that they make boredom their credo, simply because they can.

Everything in taiyozoku seems to stem from Shintaro Ishihara, the godfather of the tribe. Initially it was his 1955 novel, Season of the Sun, but then cinema took over. Season of the Sun was adapted into a film in 1956, as was another Ishihara novel, Punishment Room, making this film with its original Ishihara screenplay the third of three important Ishihara films that year. I haven't read or seen the other two, but this film would appear to reference them in more than just theme: the Takishima's motorboat being called Sun-Season, a name that is prominently displayed on screen throughout the movie.

It's tame by today's standards, of course, but it would appear to be compare well to the similar work sprouting up elsewhere, notably France and the US. The Wild One was three years old at this time and didn't touch on anywhere near as much as this film. Rebel Without a Cause was only a year old and I really need to get round to seeing it. The real marker for 1956 in the US is probably Rock Around the Clock, which highlights how edgy this one really was. It predates the French New Wave wouldn't arrive for another couple of years, Breathless in particular in 1960.

The music is mild jazz, which is as dated as the poor rear screen projection work. Technically this really doesn't meet the imagination of the filmmakers: while static scenes look very nice indeed, with more than a few beautifully framed shots, many of the motion shots are jumpy and often obviously against a rear projection. It's what the film says that matters, along with how the actors manage to make it believable. This was something new, something as un-Japanese as Matsu's Hawaiian shirts and Eri's older husband, both American influences on Japan that the film looks down upon.

When Matsu and Haru's parents badmouth Frank and his friends, they're effectively acting as surrogates for the Japanese establishment, the respected elder generations, who would no doubt badmouth this film and other taiyozoku films in much the same way. That's the point here. Japan was changing in a major way and it was stories like this one that told it how it was. How much of that we care about today is a whole new question, but I feel that as tame as much of this has become, it's still pretty interesting stuff and it's a lot less tame than many of the American films of the same era that tried to be as edgy at the time.

1 comment:

Bob said...

I saw this film over the weekend and found it oddly fascinating. This depiction of 20-year-old Japanese playboys is unusual at a time when Japan was still very much a poverty-stricken nation. I wonder how much of that society actually existed. The female lead is strangely undefined. She's searching for true love and making it with three guys at the same time, but there's no value judgments made. The Fifties in Japan is a fascinating period, and this movie further enhances my interest. BTW, I think Donald Ritchie's (sp?) commentary on the DVD is worth listening to, but then again I like everything he does.