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

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.

RATING 8 / 10