Eclipse Series 28: The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara

On Film / Essays — Aug 23, 2011

Intimidation: The Weird Dream Maker

Impassioned and dedicated craftsman of some of Japanese cinema’s biggest box-office successes and most eccentric off-genre sorties, longtime Nikkatsu studios mainstay Koreyoshi Kurahara (1927–2002) was a filmmaker with two opposite yet inseparable signature points of view. One of them was directed straight into the sky, as when (in film after film) his camera would suddenly drift from a close regard of one of his ever fraught and often frantic antiheroes or antiheroines and pan quickly up and away, into a low-hanging tangle of tree branches and, through it, into a whiteout of blinding sunlight, into freedom and beyond, into oblivion. The other looked directly down at the earth from above, gazing coldly at the antlike scurry, the bunchings-together and sudden atomizations, of people and crowds from a vantage often many stories high, certain that—come celebrity or calamity, sociopathic nihilism, wealth-curdled family psychosis, or twist of everyday middle-class fate—those frantic scrambles (our lives and those lived all around us) amount to little more than a hill of amoeba-sized beans.

But beyond those simple opposing perspectives—air and earth, liberation and confinement, artistry and reality, the infinite and the constrained—consider the peculiar pluralities and far-flung outposts that further define Kurahara’s long and unusual career, taking in glossy and emotionally complicated star vehicles for teen heartthrobs like supersensations Yujiro Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka and panicked paeans (featuring studio second-stringers) to psychotic loners lost in worlds of jazz-induced delirium and sexual ambivalence; a carefully calculated, noose-tightening 1960 corporate-office noir and an artfully pensive and ultraerotic late-sixties adaptation of a Yukio Mishima literary classic; blockbuster 1980s nature documentaries about elephants and heroic South Pole sled dogs. It seems as if nothing was beyond (or beneath) Kurahara’s capabilities or curiosities, no project set in remote enough a location to dampen his restless energies (which took him to a Mexican desert, the canals of Amsterdam, temples near Bangkok) and relentlessly inventive variety of filmmaking styles. Starting out during the moment of the taiyozoku-eiga (sun tribe films)—the jazzed-up and morally murky youth pics of 1956 that skyrocketed the brothers Ishihara (star Yujiro, soon crowned the Japanese Elvis, and Shintaro, novelist and author of numerous taiyozoku screenplays and future governor of Tokyo) into the cultural limelight—Kurahara would go on to produce cinematic outrages and candy-colored matinee confections in rapidly alternating succession, and quickly became one of Nikkatsu’s star directors and a box-office giant in Japan, though he remains little known and rarely shown in the West.

Kurahara reached his creative zenith in the sixties, during a season of widespread and revolutionary bursts of creativity at all levels of Japanese cinema, industrial to underground. The almost unprecedented 1960 youth-gone-wild masterpiece The Warped Ones was Kurahara’s most exhilarating contribution to the exigencies of the moment: a vibrant snarl at all things respectable, flush with a crazed sense of freedom and momentum, despite its origins deep within the studio system. Kurahara would continue working for Nikkatsu until 1967, his globetrotting, road-movie-ing, and itinerant location-shooting tendencies nurtured by the studio’s unfolding production mode of the time: the newly inaugurated and soon to be trademarked mukokuseki (borderless) action film, filled with Western cars, way-out pop art production design, and international fashions sported by Japanese contenders for coolest guy on earth—Ishihara, Akira Kobayashi, Joe Shishido, and numerous other handsome hunks from the studio’s ever-evolving “diamond line” of “mighty guys.” Always in the mainstream—even as he energetically detoured into breathtaking French New Wave–inspired improvisations like The Warped Ones, off-kilter variations on themes from Fellini’s La strada in the extraordinary 1962 Shishido star vehicle–cum–art film Glass Johnny, and off-the-charts freakouts like 1964’s taboo-charring Black Sun—Kurahara wasn’t of Japan’s early 1960s New Wave so much as alongside it: a contemporary if always more commercially minded fellow traveler of Oshima’s and Imamura’s whose imagination was ever riffing on the innovations and explosive rhythms of the moment, even as he expanded upon that vocabulary and added distinctive shadings and personalized pulses all his own.

Born in the sprawling city of Kuching, in Sarawak, Borneo (where his father managed a rubber plantation), Kurahara returned to Japan as a boy and served in the Navy near the end of World War II, without seeing action, then entered the film program at Nihon University. An early acquaintance with a pre-Godzilla Ishiro Honda led to an apprenticeship under Toho Studios veteran Kajiro Yamamoto (former mentor to Akira Kurosawa), but Kurahara kept studio shopping, working briefly as an assistant director at Shochiku before settling on Nikkatsu in 1954, the year Japan’s oldest film factory resumed production after a lengthy wartime hiatus. Still an assistant director during the brief heyday of the taiyozoku-eiga, Kurahara worked on influential auteur Ko Nakahira’s sun tribe box-office smash Crazed Fruit before making his directorial debut with 1957’s I Am Waiting, a moody, noirish romantic vehicle for young on- and offscreen lovers Ishihara and Mie Kitahara. (Nikkatsu colleague Seijun Suzuki had begun his directing career just the year before.) Working well within the studio’s formulas of the season, Kurahara spent the remainder of the fifties honing his chops on carefully constructed robbery capers, interoffice espionage potboilers, and dream-logic post-sun-tribe youth flicks like 1959’s The Woman from the Sea, about a love affair between a taiyozoku-esque teen yachting enthusiast and a shark that has assumed voluptuously female human form.

The year 1960 transformed the scope and tenor of Kurahara’s career forever, bringing both the tightly wound suspense yarn Intimidation—a summation of everything he had learned about seamless studio craftsmanship up till then—and the legacy-assuring howl of The Warped Ones. While aesthetically disparate in almost every way, Intimidation and The Warped Ones in fact share one of Kurahara’s keenest interests: Japan’s class-relation cages and the hypocrisies of the upwardly mobile. This focus is quickly found in Intimidation’s fate-bound fable of Takita (familiar Nikkatsu face Nobuo Kaneko), an assertive and rising banker in a regional branch who’s about to be promoted to the main office, and his mild-mannered underling and boyhood friend Nakaike (the cadaverous Akira Nishimura, a key player in Kurosawa’s 1960 The Bad Sleep Well), whose face he has been stepping on all along to get there. Shakespearean by way of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“I’ve been waiting for you, Lord Muck . . . always thinking, plotting how to beat you”), Intimidation’s simple twists of fate may raise a few goose bumps (especially during the film’s chilling final gaze offscreen), but it’s in the fever-dream dress rehearsal for, and quasi-Melvillean, hypermethodical silent enactment of, the central heist that Kurahara’s screw-tightening genius truly shines, ratcheting up his material into a symbolic realm where everything and everyone has an evil twin lurking in its shadow and a “blooming” alarm clock doubles for a suppurating wound or a mesmerist’s hypnotic, spiraling charm. Even the film’s title is double-edged, for this is a world where extortion is but one sort of intimidation—and as intimidations go, a pale pretender to Japan’s deeply entrenched systems of class-based promotions and restrictive social advancement, the after-effects of which can be seen written (in Nishimura’s career-best performance) across Nakaike’s at first jellylike but eventually solid-granite face as he crushes, and then recrushes, the puny dreams of success of his ostensible better.

Welcome to the warped world of Koreyoshi Kurahara, one of the weirdest—and most successful—dream makers from that factory of the fast-paced and the further and further out known as Nikkatsu studios in the sixties: the coolest spot in the history of Japanese filmmaking, and just maybe the coolest film production house of all time.

The Warped Ones: Crazed Brute

“Look, one of those wild types is here . . . What extraordinary fauvism!”

An immediate contemporary of, and cousin to, the New Wave earthquakes of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, The Warped Ones (1960) is at once Koreyoshi Kurahara’s personal coming-of-age film and his indelibly berserk magnum opus: an unrestrained banshee wail of libidinal frenzy and lunatic vengeance, filmed (by master cinematographer Yoshio Mamiya) just as its central character, a jazz-crazed young pickpocket named Akira, feels—in a nonstop riot of obsessively ogled gleaming car bonnets and barely glimpsed passing women, vertiginous tilts and woozying pans across skylines speeding by, and sudden distracted camera reveries that reject all things earthbound and spiral off into the sky. Few films have the forward momentum of The Warped Ones: its manic will to madness, its caustic cavalcades of mocking freeze-frames, its flurries of savagely plucked chicken feathers and rude blasts of classical gas. And no other film has a protagonist quite like the barely articulate, bebop-on-the-brain raging id that is Akira (save Kurahara’s own 1964 Black Sun, in which he reappears), whose loathing for respectable society is played out like a piece of what Archie Shepp once termed “fire music”: a wordless, soul-scorching improvisation on pain and confusion and the last-ditch possibility that music may blow all the sorrows of existence away.

Standing the mid-1950s taiyozoku-eiga (sun tribe films), with their rich kids and careless morals, on their head, The Warped Ones burrows inside a few days with Akira (“bad boy” specialist and later Seijun Suzuki regular Tamio Kawachi) and his two pals, a devious and fun-loving hooker named Fumiko (wild-eyed Noriko Matsumoto) and Masaru (Eiji Go, Joe Shishido’s real-life kid brother), a perpetually randy yakuza wannabe Akira meets during the brief stint he spends at the Tokyo Juvenile Reformatory at the start of the film. Sent up for lifting one of Fumiko’s fat Western johns’ billfolds while drinking at their favorite jazz pub with his African American buddy Gill (Chico Roland, né Arthur Lourant, Nikkatsu’s go-to black actor throughout the sixties), Akira was plenty guilty—though the bust was engineered by self-righteous journalist Kashiwagi (Hiroyuki Nagato). The newly free Akira and Masaru steal a car and head for the beach with Fumiko, where they conveniently run across Kashiwagi (literally: they plough him down with their car) and abduct his girlfriend, the beautiful, pensive artist Yuki (Yuko Chishiro). From there, Akira continues to wreak an alternately inchoate and ideological revenge on the stuck-up squares who keep jamming his groove with their laws and their inopportune pregnancies and their whole grown-up respectability bag. Shocking straight through to its diseased last laugh, the film climaxes in an abortion-clinic class-comeuppance twist that Fassbinder might have adored.

Originally entitled Season of Heat—an intentional echo of the very first sun tribe film, Takumi Furukawa’s 1956 Season of the Sun—The Warped Ones acquired the title by which we know it today in its American rerelease, after first being distributed, dubbed into English and disguised as a sexploitation flick, as The Weird Love Makers (“They do everything!”) through auteur-pornographer Radley Metzger’s Audubon Films in 1963.

I Hate But Love: Nine Hundred Miles to Kyushu

Yujiro Ishihara wasn’t just one of Nikkatsu’s biggest stars; he was the biggest star Japan had ever known, and beginning with Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1957 debut, I Am Waiting, the director and “Yu-chan” worked frequently together, shooting everywhere from Italy to Africa and churning out success after success. When Kurahara’s 1962 Ginza Love Story, with Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka, the studio’s top female star, proved Nikkatsu’s biggest moneymaker of the year, an immediate follow-up was mandatory. The result was I Hate but Love (1962), an emotionally fraught and deeply dyspeptic meditation on media manipulation just brightly colored and briskly paced enough to pass as a road movie rom-com, with Ishihara—as diffident celebrity disc jockey Daisaku, hell-bent on embodying “humanism” and understanding “pure love,” even if it costs him the woman he longs for most—largely playing himself and Asaoka turning in one of her greatest performances as his increasingly panicked manager, Noriko, whose career-drive monomania (and refusal to requite his advances) masks a seething desire that will impel her either to the summit of joy with Daisaku or a Valley of the Dolls–style pill-choked grave. Taking pages from both Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1942) and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), Kurahara turned in one of his most popular, and in some ways oddest, works: a savvy but never exactly satirical show-biz love story that veers back and forth between romantic occasions and passionate beatings, through suicide attempts and forced vomiting, up apparently fecal mountainsides and into open-air passion plays ringed with Stonehenge-like semicircles of bewildered onlookers, to a final, panting, sweat-soaked climax in the sky.

The differences between I Hate but Love and Kurahara’s earlier hit The Warped Ones go beyond color and black and white; they’re day and night—one film a grown-up and ultimately uplifting bag of matinee-idol popcorn for all ages, the other a raw and relentless adults-only journey through the moral turpitudes and sanctimonious self-satisfactions available to the worst of both the upper and lower classes. What unites them (as Andrew Sarris once noted of Douglas Sirk) is Kurahara’s complete confidence in, and refusal to snigger at, his material, no matter how ridiculous it might seem. In I Hate but Love, the Ishihara character rejects his constrictive schedule as a popular radio and television personality, along with his sporty Jaguar, in order to drive a ramshackle jeep halfway across Japan, delivering it to a doctor in a remote village near Kyushu for a woman in Tokyo who loves him from afar. The radiant (even when retching) Asaoka, who has pledged her love, if not her body, to Ishihara—insisting they focus only on his career—sets off in determined pursuit; objects in the mirror, as they say, are often closer than they appear. Their climactic coming together takes place in a realm so hyperbolic that even Sirk wouldn’t have dared to imagine it, with a helicopter rotor’s backwash scattering love letters in the mud and Ishihara and Asaoka finally merging in crypto-Shinto union with the mountain range behind them—and a palpable sense of Kurahara himself just off camera, wryly smiling at the outrageous pulp poetry of the moment, but never so much as skeptically batting an eye.

Black Sun: Bebop Apocalypse

Opening on an endless plain of rubble and sea slag, with nuclear reactors puffing silently in the distance, Black Sun—Koreyoshi Kurahara’s jaw-dropping 1964 return to, and bizzarro minstrel-show expansion of, the characters (and actors), propulsive jazz rhythms, and cultural chaos of The Warped Ones—joins Nagisa Oshima’s The Sun’s Burial (1960) and Seijun Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh (1964) as one of the most extreme visions of Japan as apocalyptic postwar inferno. Now living in the bombed-out ruins of a church, the still young, still thieving Akira (who goes by Mei here and is again played by Tamio Kawachi) is more bebop-obsessed than ever, his crumbling walls adoringly covered with photos of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins; his dog named Thelonious Monk; his goal for the day accumulating enough scratch to buy an album (which shares the title of Kurahara’s film) by drummer Max Roach, whose quartet, along with vocalist Abbey Lincoln, provides the film’s raucously bluesy and occasionally blistering soundtrack. Mei’s old drinking buddy Gill (Chico Roland, in a performance critic Mark Schilling called “a piping screech of fear and desperation”) has, on the other hand, undergone some radical changes: he’s now an American GI unknown to Mei—deranged, gunshot, on the run, and brandishing an impossibly outsize machine gun after killing a fellow soldier under uncertain circumstances. Still, Mei’s reaction upon finding the crazed soldier, muttering furiously in barely comprehensible English and demanding temporary harbor in Mei’s decrepit digs, is one of almost equally inarticulate delight: “Today’s my lucky day! . . . All black men are my friends . . . Negro jazz! . . . I love you!”

The lesson in race relations that follows—filled with blackface outrages and whiteface humiliations and dialectical (if dubious) conflations of civil-rights-era atrocities and postwar Japanese deprivations—is like nothing you’ve ever seen, a blackening of the sun so gloriously preposterous it demands its own cinematic logic. While Gill, now at his former prisoner Mei’s mercy and painted Bozo white, tortures a trumpet, Mei, painted black, drives his new “slave” across Japan “to the sea,” where Gill insists his “mother” waits. Night and fog lie directly ahead, though unforeseeable, for them and us, is a final sunrise that will fry your mind’s eye. Beautifully photographed by Mitsuji Kanau (cinematographer on Yoshishige Yoshida and Susumu Hani art films as well as Nikkatsu youth flicks), Black Sun’s ravaged panoramas of tortured concrete and dreamily dolorous montage passages prove some of Kurahara’s most glorious filmmaking, even if the final “meaning” of the film remains as reluctant to be grasped as its closing helium-filled balloon. One thought: while Black Sun may at first glance suggest a kinship with Oshima’s 1961 The Catch, in which an African American soldier is captured by Japanese villagers during World War II, a more resonant correlation can be found in Oshima’s short 1965 documentary Diary of a Yunbogi Boy, a condemnation of Japan’s involvement in the Korean War structured as a portrait of street children and scored to the plaintive cries of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” In Yunbogi Boy, as in Black Sun, the sufferings of the voiceless are central and the blues are being sung.

Thirst for Love: Parched Flower

Fragmentary, polyvocal, and erotically tormented, Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1967 adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s Thirst for Love would be his final film as a contract director for Nikkatsu, whose bosses allegedly found it too arty and delayed its release. Kurahara quit in response, though perhaps just in time: Nikkatsu famously fired Seijun Suzuki for his “incomprehensible” Branded to Kill that same year. Another Kurahara vehicle for Ruriko Asaoka—whose hundredth film for the studio, Running Fever (1964), Kurahara had also directed, garnering raves for his star’s unbridled performance—the hothouse gothic Thirst for Love was in fact only nearly as “arty” as many other high-profile Japanese films that year, during which Yoshishige Yoshida’s formally extreme The Affair, Nagisa Oshima’s protest-song palimpsest Sing a Song of Sex, and Shohei Imamura’s searchingly reflexive A Man Vanishes were also released.

Thirst for Love is the tale of Etsuko (Asaoka, her beauty matured and her acting more nuanced since I Hate but Love), a young widow who, having married into the wealthy Sugimoto family only to almost immediately lose her husband, submits to the caresses of her controlling father-in-law, even as she yearns for the family’s lean and bright-eyed young groundskeeper. It is one of Kurahara’s most eccentric and captivating films, told through an unpredictable interweaving of ominous narration, interior monologues, and infrequent intertitles, and filled with lust-fueled reveries, quiet hysteria, screeching chickens, and an oddball lapse into silent cinema. The net effect packs a dizzying punch as the film follows its heroine through inner torments and sufferings inflicted on others, only to climax—in typically exotico-nihilist Mishima fashion—in a shattered greenhouse filled with broken Western statuary and buried earthly desires, all beneath a bloodred sky.

Kurahara continued making star vehicles for Yujiro Ishihara for the remainder of the sixties, dabbled briefly in Nikkatsu’s rougher seventies fare with films like Bad Girl Mako, and codirected an all-star, two-part version of The Gate of Youth (1981–1982) with Toei studios’ 1970s yakuza-eiga kingpin Kinji Fukasaku, all the while slowly reinventing himself as a family-friendly and holiday-blockbuster-ready titan of smash-success pseudo docs about wily and courageous animals, like 1978’s The Glacier Fox and 1983’s Antarctica, a tale of Siberian huskies left behind on a scientific expedition—Japan’s all-time box-office champion prior to 1997’s Princess Mononoke. Ever game to shoot in far-off locations, Kurahara made his final theatrical feature, 1991’s Japan-U.S. coproduction Strawberry Road, on the California coast, then ventured into production one last time to direct the Japanese sequences of Roger Spottiswoode’s 1995 television miniseries Hiroshima. His lifelong sense of cinematic adventure never ebbed, but it was in his sixties Nikkatsu films that Kurahara gave those searching and itinerate energies their most varied and lasting forms—racing into the heavens to find the furthest extremes of cinematic transcendence in classic freakouts like The Warped Ones and Black Sun and fearlessly plunging back toward earth with commercial successes like I Hate but Love, before roaring skyward again. Kurahara stood astride one of the most fertile periods in Japanese filmmaking, and the wild and intoxicating films he made in the 1960s still retain their power to shock and delight—they’re the sort of idiosyncratic and indelible cinema that knocks you breathless, and leaves you gasping only, “Wow!”