This post contains spoilers
With the exception of Godzilla (1954) my viewing history of movies made in Japan in the 1950s has thus far been restricted to the art and prestige pictures that established a new international reputation for Japanese cinema following World War II: Rashomon (1950), Gate of Hell (1953), Ugetsu (1953, my favorite), Tokyo Story (1953), Seven Samurai (1954), and The Burmese Harp (1956). So, when TCM broadcast Ko Nakahira's Crazed Fruit (1956) a few months ago I decided to give the film a look. I'm glad that I did. In a way, the reckless youth tragedy is more fun to watch, more titillating, and more in touch with its own social milieu than the great prestige pictures. And something about the experience of watching it almost makes me want to forget all about those more famous films from Japan and seek out other gems from the popular cinema.
|Impudent Natsuhisa, shy Haruji, and vampish Eri form a tragic love triangle in Crazed Fruit.|
Crazed Fruit is a tale of tragic love and revenge among mid-fifties university students that uses the tradition versus modern trope to explain the reckless behavior of its disaffected characters. Brothers Natsuhisa (Yujiro Ishihara) and Haruji (Masahiko Tsugawa) form two sides of a love triangle. They vie for the affections of Eri (Mie Kitahara), a three-timing young wife neglected by her older American husband. Haruji is inexperienced in the ways of love and life, and believes that he and Eri are beginning a romantic love affair. Eri is using him to recapture her own lost innocence and to "be who I was long ago." Meanwhile, the competitive and sexually jaded Natsuhisa extorts sex from her in return for keeping his mouth shut about her marriage and casual affairs. As we expect Haruji eventually discovers the truth about Eri and Natsuhisa. However, as we might not expect, he then hunts them down and exacts a terrible revenge in the middle of Tokyo Bay.
|Nakahira breaks up the narrative flow with an extemporaneous dance number (was Godard watching?).|
The brothers are part of a group of affluent students who spend their days complaining about boredom and seek to overcome it through excessive drinking, gambling, petty crimes, sexual competitions, mindless pleasure seeking, and the conspicuous consumption of material wealth. They sport crew cuts, dress in aloha shirts, drive around in sporty cars, and spend their days on the water cruising for girls. Dubbed the Sun Tribe after Ishihara's book, Season of the Sun they eschew the teachings of their professors, traditional ideas about morality, social responsibility, the work ethic, and capitalism as outdated and unexciting. They see the past as worthless and the future as hopeless. Their only concern is a giant boring void of the present that they seek to fill with mindless diversions. We can ask if they behave this way simply because they are somehow incapable of anything save the pursuit of the satisfaction of their physical desires or because after distancing themselves from traditional ways of living they simply have no ideas of their own beyond a fear of boredom, but director Nakahira isn't going to tell us. He's more concerned with their actions than their psychologies.
If Crazed Fruit has anything in common with last week's picture it is an easy dislocation of time through editing. Almost the entire story unfolds in flashback so Nakahira is not tied to the restrictions of conventional storytelling. Hence, the director displays some events as they're haphazardly recalled through quick cuts, unexpected edits that break the linear narrative, the glaring artifice of back projection, dialogue-free scenes that rely on facial expressions, matching close-ups in the dialogue scenes, and action scenes with unusual cutaways in an impressionistic style that lets us see not only what the action looks like but how it feels for the characters to take part in it. The result is a film experience that burns with as much brazen energy as its erratic characters. It's not exactly New Wave style but it feels as though we're being pulled in that direction. Musically, events float along on a snaky Swing and Hawaiian guitar infected score by Takemitsu Toru and Sato Masaru. This is the first time I've knowingly heard music from either one, and I plan to keep my ears open for more as the score is superb (anybody know of a soundtrack album?).
|An unusual aerial shot and the elegant design painted on the water by Haru's craft belie the violence about to unfold at the conclusion of Crazed Fruit.|
Nearly every time I see a motion picture adapted from a novel I wish I'd read the book first. Not only because when I experience them the other way 'round (reading the book after seeing the movie) I find the characters concretized as specific actors in my mind, but also because I like to see if I can figure out why a producer considered the book ideal to adapt to cinema. That said, even though I hadn't read Ishihara Shintaro's 1956 novel about depraved youth Crazed Fruit nor its award-winning predecessor Season of the Sun before watching this week's Film of the Year it's pretty clear why Nikkatsu studio produced them as part of a strategy to establish a new youth genre in the mid-fifties. According to information on the DVD Ishihara's popular tales of depraved rich young things in post-Occupation Japan sparked a cult following that reflected the style of the characters (and the author too). So, the studio was simply savvy enough to try and cash in on what looked to be a growing trend. Of course that leads me to question why the books and movies would be popular in 1950s Japan in the first place. The Criterion website sums up the movie as "an anarchic outcry against tradition and the older generation" but I think its popularity had as much to do with the economic realities at the beginning of a new era. Recall that the six years, eight months occupation by American forces extended the war experience for Japan until April 1952. The majority of the population had to overcome great social, economic, and personal changes and hardships through those years. The young, affluent, carefree characters in the movie happen to be carefree and affluent at a time when the vast majority of the country were not. 1956 may have been the year when Japan's Economic Planning Agency issued an Economic White Paper that declared that the post-war period of the economy was finally ended and the country's economic rise was about to truly begin, but according to a Time magazine article on the Sun Tribe some seventy-six percent of college seniors in Japan that year had no prospects for employment ("Japan: The Rising Sun Tribe," Time, 17 December 1956). If that staggering statistic is anywhere near accurate then this film displays still mostly imaginative frontiers of personal gratification. The popularity of the film, then, probably had less to do with breaking with tradition than the fact that these mostly unavailable pleasures appealed to the voyeurism of its young audiences. Besides, the quick pace, fresh style, young actors, and the naughty happenings are a lot of fun to watch.
One last thing: In some ways the screenplay reminds me of the old Warner Bros. gangster cycle. The history buff in me noted that if WWII and the Occupation had never been then this story would not have existed. Yet in the same way that prohibition and the Depression are left out of Little Caesar (1931) these events, which it can be argued changed society and culture in Japan more than any other factors in the century, are not included in this picture. The characters may have been too young to remember much about the social solidarity, regimentation, and state-enforced public morality of the war years (we caught glimpses of these in The Most Beautiful (1944) previously on this blog) but given their ages they would have grown up among the economic hardships suffered during the Occupation. Their repudiation of traditional ways in favor of more modern Westernized styles and their declaration to embrace an irresponsible way of living would be influenced by the great social changes that occurred in this period yet like the 1930s gangster pictures Ishihara's screenplay tells his tale from the perspective of the characters and excludes any scenes of past events influencing their behavior. Despite the constant presentations of moral depravity this approach prevents the film from becoming a juvenile delinquency-as-social problem picture like Blackboard Jungle (1955), and it also keeps the characters from being written off as merely dangerous, antisocial heavies instead of infantile anti-heroes. And also like the old gangster films, the screenplay actually affirms traditional ideas by showing that those who behave in such ways are ultimately destroyed through faults of character.