Long hair doesn’t go with Hawaiian shirts.
— Natsuhisa (Yûjirô Ishihara), Crazed Fruit
We hadn’t been prepared for the animality of it.
— Donald Richie, commentary, Crazed Fruit: Criterion Collection
“Youth was a global problem in the mid-1950s,” writes Michael Raine, “In literature, journalism, and film.” Introducing his essay, “Imagining a New Japan,” for Criterion’s fine DVD edition of Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu), Raine here articulates the assumption that framed so many films of the period, from They Live By Night to Blackboard Jungle to The 400 Blows. Teenagers are deviant by definition, no longer innocent and not yet adults, but caught between, undefined and frightening because of it. Today such assessment can sound quaint or pouty pop-starrish, and yet the concept lingers: as kids are supposed to be learning to be something else, they sometimes get waylaid by the rushy mess of temptation, violence, and desire that comes on around puberty.
Crazed Fruit has often been described as “ushering in” a new sort of Japanese cinema, with impressionistic, new-wavey images and sexual, wild-youth themes. Shot in 17 days, it’s adapted from a novel by Shintaro Ishihara, one of three taiyozoku, or “sun tribe,” films released around 1956, all concerned with bored rich kids who get into trouble. Sensational at the time of its release, the film was decried for its frank depictions of young people in the throes of postwar indolence and cynicism. These films initiated what came to be known as the taiyozoku, or “sun tribe” films, based on novels about juvenile delinquency.
But Kô Nakahira’s first feature, as controversial as it was, is not only a film about kids gone wrong, or even the seeping Westernization (read: corruption) of Japanese youth. It combines this seemingly sordid storyline with an exhilarating mix of combustion and revelation. East meets West in a next generation, resulting not in social debacle (this is the superficial reading), but in a new cinematic language.
As noted by Donald Richie, the renowned Japanese film scholar who provides commentary for Criterion, Crazed Fruit opens on action — two brothers, Natsuhisa (Yujiro Ishihara, brother of novelist Shintarô) and the less worldly Haruji (Masahiko Tsugawa) — rushing to a train for which they don’t bother to pay. Jumping turnstyles and nearly knocking down hapless bystanders, they travel from Kamakura Station to the beach, where they’ll be staying with their vaguely amoral friend Frank (Masumi Okada). Anticipating good times and girls, the brothers are also immediately set at odds with one another: the older boy, Natsuhisa, poses as something of a mentor to Haruji, but also reveals a low-grade competitiveness that will soon spiral into full-blown resentment and malice.
Their early hours at the getaway are gorgeous — a combination of long and short distance shots show them water-skiing and swimming, creating, as Richie notes, a kind of “impressionistic” look that speaks to deeper themes of rebellion, restlessness, and yearning. Richie adds that this group’s wealth means that they are not, in fact, “representative of that generation of Japanese at all,” and yet are “held up as typical of youth in general, how they would like to behave if they had the money to do so.” While such an assessment relies on the familiar logic that kids only mimic media images, it also gestures toward an underlying point concerning the apparent lack of context for the characters. They complain about the lack of wisdom dispensed by their elders, and specifically mock professors who offer up the “same old drivel,” for instance, that they are the “future captains of industry.” Capitalism or socialism, religion or tradition: it’s all similarly irrelevant for kids who feel no need to push themselves. Instead, as Natsuhisa puts it,
Intellectual high-minded talk isn’t worth a damn. The words may be pretty, but the ideas are as flimsy as those fish. Look at ’em, they’re fine now, but let the water get dirty of cold and they go belly up. Fancy words and old ways don’t cut it now. We need something with a fresh to nip it.
Haruji insists that he won’t be “like” his brother and his friends, who embrace boredom precisely to seem insolent. Rendered in a series of sharply angled close-ups, their mini-debate sets up Haru for a fall — he’s the idealistic innocent, the boy bound to be hurt, in a skewed way, Sal Mineo to Natsuhisa’s James Dean (and indeed, Yujiro Ishihara was deemed “the Japanese James Dean”). That Haru’s pain comes embodied in a beautiful girl, Eri (Mie Kitahara, who went on to marry Yujiro Ishihara), is no surprise, though her specific pathology is more complicated than her sinuous surface suggests.
The brothers first spot her out in the water, as she has been “carried out a little too far,” and they pick her up in their motorboat. When they drop her off on shore, the boys and the camera watch her trot up a rocky path, her bathing suited figured more enticing the farther it is. She leaves behind her bathing cap, which serves as what Richie calls a “fetish” for the boys — Haru in particular wears it while he’s lifting a barbell in order to imagine himself appropriate for the breathtaking Eri. As the boys fantasize about her, the film offers up a series of adolescent rituals: a visit to an amusement park, a fight between rival wannabe “thugs,” sailing and eating. Each of these images is portrayed from striking angles and through delicate frame movements, suggesting not only the technical care taken by Nakahira and cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine, but also, the film’s thematic interests in mobility and risk, vigor and innovation.
Before long, the boys learn that this girl isn’t precisely what she appears, as they spot her on a couple of occasions with a Caucasian man who looks quite old enough to be her father. Any exact significance of this coupling is left unexplained, which means the boys are left to project their own meanings onto this glorious girl, whose big-skirted summer dresses and sexual experience only make her seem more desirable. Sex is everywhere in the film, though the era dictated that none be explicitly represented. Instead, you see close-ups of hands jiggling, skirts twirling, and in one instance, swim trunks bulging. As deep, velvety shadows frame their yearning faces — each seeking something he or she can’t quite voice — the film sets up these young lovers as tragic figures, even as they inflict appalling violence on one another, emotional and eventually physical.
While the brothers’ competition over Eri accelerates slowly, its eventual explosion can hardly be called subtle. Crazed Fruit remains a stunning achievement, in part because so many films after have drawn from it, and in part because it retains a singular vision of youthful transgression and reiteration. The kids can’t escape the mass cultural, angry, and frustrated culture that produces them.