Reviews

Blessedly Imperfect Studio Work: 'Eclipse Series 28: The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara'

Intimidation (1960)

Kurahara’s solid craftsmanship and breadth across genres recalls Howard Hawks, but the irreverent barnstorming with which he interprets the material evokes the bizarre iconoclastic filmmaking of his Nikkatsu studio cohort, Seijun Suzuki.


Thirst For Love

Director: Koreyoshi Kurahara
Distributor: Criterion
Release date: 2011-08-23

The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara is an ideal example of what Criterion’s Eclipse series sets out to do: present the lesser works by well-known directors or collect the greater works by less well-known directors into an attractive and affordable no frills package. If anything, this set succeeds too well; shining light on the gonzo Nikkatsu studio work of Kurahara that can only beggar the question “Where the hell did this come from?” A quintet of brief essays by Chuck Stephens provides some useful and entertaining historical and artistic context for his work, but these boldly stylistic and technically accomplished films could stand for the more in-depth analysis of a standard Criterion release.

These are the kind of blessedly imperfect movies that tend to spring from periods of artistic innovation, and Kurahara’s movies share many broad similarities with the “waves” of international cinema in the '60s: a spirit of individualism, rebellion, and experimentation. Though the films in this set range from 1960-67, Kurahara’s career spanned a huge time frame both before and after the waves, and were rooted within a commercial system that had him tackling everything from frothy teen comedies to sentimental animal documentaries. This set includes a minimal psychological thriller (Intimidation), two irreverent jazz-scored explorations of racism and economic outcasts (The Warped Ones and Black Sun), a Buddhist interpretation of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedy (I Hate But Love), and a high-end literary adaptation (Thirst For Love).

His solid craftsmanship and breadth across genres recalls Howard Hawks. but the irreverent barnstorming with which he interprets the material evokes the bizarre iconoclastic filmmaking of his Nikkatsu cohort. Seijun Suzuki. As studio work, the set is also a tribute to the talents of the technicians and artists at Nikkatsu as well, particularly the cinematographers Yoshio Mamiya and Shigeyoshi Mine, the actor Tamio Kawachi, the actress Ruriko Asaoka, and whoever designed the dynamic opening credit sequences.

The sheen of rebellion that hangs over these movies masks Kurahara’s complicated deployment of individualistic style. The Warped Ones (1960), one of his most noteworthy movies and the box set’s namesake, is the berserk end point and rebuke to the social realist and teen rebel “sun tribe” movies of the ‘50s. Its hero, Akira (Tamio Kawachi) is pure anarchy, a petty criminal jazz freak and rapist who ping-pongs around his equally no-good friend and his prostitute girlfriend and a bourgeois journalist and his artist girlfriend. Kurahara dares us to form some sort of attachment to Akira, who in Kawachi’s constantly twitching representation is made to resemble a wild animal (the camera is almost always moving when he is in the frame), while bitterly mocking any attempts to romanticize him an ideal of the “free” outsider.

The incredible camerawork by Yoshio Mamiya seeks to approximate the stuttering and propulsive angularity of bebop with severely tilted frames, jump cuts, hand-held camerawork, and sweeping complicated long takes (most notably in moving cars) that exceeds the visual experimentations of the French New Wave at that same period. The combined effect is to paint a portrait of post-war Japanese society – wounded, pop-obsessed, class riven -- more threatening than anything put out by the sun tribe clique or social realist proselytizers of the period.

Kurahara would later make a quasi follow-up to The Warped Ones with Black Sun (1964). Here Kawachi plays Mei, a more puppyish version of the savage street mutt Akira from the previous movie. (Though the characters are never literally said to be the same person the similarities are striking: both hang out at the same jazz club, are poor drifters, move with the same bodily tics, and are symbolically associated with cars and dogs.)

When a black American soldier Gill (Chico Roland, who also appears in Warped) hides out in the crumbling church where he’s squatting, Mei is initially overjoyed saying, “All black men are my friends, so you are too.” But he soon becomes resentful when Gill threatens him, when they cannot communicate, and Gill shows no interest in his jazz records. The two quickly become antagonists, assailing each other with the racial and nationalistic rhetoric of their societies. However, they are both viewed as outcasts by their political and mainstream cultures and they form a tentative bond when Mei decides to try and take Gill to the sea as the American MPs close their nets around them.

Thematically and tonally, this is the craziest film in the set – shifting from the hep cat noir of The Warped Ones to absurdist comedy sequences (including the below white face/black face scene), social criticism and boiler room drama in the vein of ‘60s political theater, and bitter denunciations of the simplistic racial politics of movies like The Defiant Ones. Kurahara occasionally leans too hard on histrionic dramatics and plodding symbolism, but the overall treatment of his themes is more mature, if equally cynical, to those in The Warped Ones. Holding it together is a score by Max Roach with bluesy avant garde vocals by Abbey Lincoln, whose wail embodies the character’s emotional pain, which climaxes in a piercing and disturbing ending.

I Hate But Love (1962) may be the set’s greatest example of Kurahara’s versatility and ability to upend expectations, as what appears to be a conventional if high-spirited romantic comedy starring superstar heartthrob Yûjirô Ishihara -- shot with a slickly art-directed candy-colored sheen by Shigeyoshi Mine -- morphs into a serious analysis of what constitutes love in a relationship.

Ishihara plays a multimedia star, Daisaku, who is exhausted from his endless rounds of radio and television shows and screaming fans and frustrated with the stalled relationship with his girlfriend and manager Noriko (Ruriko Asaoka). Ishihara, through plot mechanisms too tortured to go into here, decides to drive a jeep with medical supplies to a doctor living in a mountain village. Noriko follows and, ever the professional, constantly creates schemes to attract media attention that will keep Daisaku in the news. However, her machinations infuriate Daisaku and drive them further apart.

The journey into the increasingly rural mountains becomes a sloughing off of the pop surfaces with which Noriko (and the movie) has been defining herself. Kurahara manages to venture into some surprisingly dark places in exploring the isolation and loneliness of frustrated love while never entirely forsaking the feel-good promises of the studio romantic comedy that was being sold to the public.

Intimidation (1960) and Thirst For Love (1967) demonstrate how Kurahara was able to handle carefully developed, no frills storytelling in the service of a studio system. (Although the latter film got him booted from Nikkatsu for being too “arty”.) Intimidation is a terse crime thriller involving a bank manager skimming money off the books. Thirst For Love is a complicated adaptation – measured yet highly dramatic -- of a Yukio Mishima novel, about the twisted young mistress (Ruriko Asaoka) of the elderly patriarch in a crumbling aristocratic family. Though it contains Mishima’s usual conservative message about the decline of a “true” Japanese system of values, it's also roomy and subtle enough to allow various interpretations of the characters and the sources of their problems.

As in all of the films in this set, Kuraraha is vocal in presenting political dilemmas while remaining elusive about where exactly his sympathies might lie.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image