Crazed Fruit: Imagining a New Japan—The Taiyozoku Films

Youth was a global problem problem in the mid-1950s, in literature, journalism, and film. The cultural old guard was in retreat from the likes of Françoise Sagan in France, J. D. Salinger in the United States, and the angry young men and Colin Wilson in Britain. In film, too, Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause (released in Japan in 1955 and 1956) announced a global youth explosion that would decisively reorient Western commercial cinema away from the mythical family audience to the more spendthrift and cynical younger generation. The authorities had worried about juvenile delinquency since the war, but by the mid-1950s—with the Teddy Boys in England, the halbstarker in West Germany, the blousons noirs in France, and the taiyozoku in Japan—that anxiety had reached moral panic on a global scale.

Like the French term nouvelle vague, the word taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) referred to a postwar generation before it was applied to the cinema. It was coined to describe the rich, bored, and vicious characters populating the pages of writer Shintaro Ishihara’s books, such as Season of the Sun (1955) and Crazed Fruit (1956). Those characters embodied all that Japan’s postwar disillusioned youth desired, and that Japan’s new conservative government feared: absent parents and an excess of money, leisure, and sex. Ishihara won the prestigious Akutagawa prize for new novelists and became a celebrity when his stories were collected in a paperback edition that became one of the biggest sellers of 1956. He received thousands of letters from frustrated young people who said they finally recognized themselves in his nihilistic young characters—quite a feat of imagination, considering that Japanese youth were paid one-tenth what their American counterparts were and could only dream of nightclubs, motorboats, and villas by the sea.

Many established writers complained that Ishihara’s stories were not literature, and that Ishihara himself was not fully literate, but there was no denying his impact. Some even argued that Ishihara’s celebrity marked the end of the literary salon and the final victory of celebrity culture in Japan. His novels confused two currents in postwar popular literature: the existentialist legacy of the “body literature” authors, who rejected Bushido (the traditional code of Japanese samurai, stressing honor, self-discipline, bravery, and simple living) and other wartime spiritual propaganda in favor of the only certainty left—the individual body; and the moral hysteria of the later “pregnancy melodramas,” which tried to restore proper order in the wake of the salacious, and foreign-identified, “dregs culture” that had emerged during the occupation. Ishihara claimed that his jumbles of sentiment and self-assertion were “novels of ideas,” like those of Camus and Hemingway, but with a half century of hindsight, the stories seem informed by more immediate concerns: a generational and geopolitical resentment toward Japan’s postwar gerontocracy and its American masters. Perhaps that explains why this enfant terrible is now the governor of Tokyo and one of Japan’s most popular conservative politicians.

In retrospect, it was neither Ishihara’s writing nor the debate over his literary merits that changed the nature of literature and celebrity in postwar Japan. The real agency belonged to the growth of middle-brow weekly magazines in the 1950s, and especially in 1956, as an alternative to the existing opinion journals. With Ishihara as their model, the weekly magazines recognized the fiscal potential of the taiyozoku and rushed to publish lurid stories of Japan’s angry and highly sexed youth. These voyeuristic narratives followed policemen in search of fornicating teenagers in the woods, described bodies draped on rocks by the sea in the moonlight, and speculated on illicit behavior in the sailing boats floating all night out at sea. The magazines also staged many interviews and debates with Ishihara and his critics, playing both sides to profit from his charm and his notoriety.

The weekly magazines almost always included photographs of their subject: in these articles, Ishihara became not so much the voice of a new generation as its image. He was feted for his embodiment of a new postwar masculinity, a sportsman with a lithe body and a love of “thrills.” Even his hairstyle was famous.

In the film Crazed Fruit, that new masculinity is embodied by Shintaro’s brother, Yujiro Ishihara, who models the looks, diction, and attitudes for which Shintaro had become famous. In this early incarnation, Yujiro was compared to James Dean (posthumously idolized in Japanese film magazines in the summer of 1956), as well as Marlon Brando and even Jack Palance. At the same time, he stood in for Shintaro’s more active masculinity, one that could stand up to foreign men. Later, Yujiro achieved fame in a softer guise, as a multimedia celebrity closer to Elvis Presley (the big foreign “new face” of 1957 in Japan), going on to become the most celebrated film, TV, and recording star in the history of Japanese popular culture. Cinema had always been crucial to the remaking of attitudes and bodily ideals in Japan, but the mid-fifties intensification of celebrity culture, and the consumer culture that these stars often advertised, marked the beginning of the end of cinema’s reign as the “king of mass entertainment.” From this point on, the studios would struggle to hold on to audiences tempted by record players and rice cookers, televisions and apartments in the suburbs.

Japanese cinema was not ready for the challenge. In the mid-1950s, the industry was in a crisis of overproduction and excess competition. Western audiences only saw the prestigious art films and blockbusters by Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa, but Japan’s was a high-volume, low-budget production system dominated by stars and genres. Nikkatsu was the oldest studio in Japan, but its production arm had been closed down by wartime rationing. When it restarted production, in 1954, the studio attempted to find an audience with high-quality literary adaptations. By the spring of 1956, however, it was close to bankruptcy. At the same time, the Toei studio—the newest and most profitable production company—upped the pressure by turning to a double-bill system, forcing the other studios to follow suit. Nikkatsu had already optioned Ishihara’s prize-winning novel Season of the Sun and bought the rights to Crazed Fruit, too. Lacking in stars and genres for which it was famous, the studio turned to the heightened sexuality and crowd-pleasing violence of the taiyozoku genre in order to compete with the other studios. The “Nikkatsu new wave” emerged from this struggle to increase production at the studio, which promoted young film technicians and assistant directors (for example, Ko Nakahira and Seijun Suzuki) to produce new youth films featuring mostly unknown young actors.

Crazed Fruit, then, was one of the most unpromising and opportunistic projects of the summer of 1956. Nikkatsu hoped to survive by advertising the notoriety of the author and the scandal created by that year’s other taiyozoku films. Yet, unlike Season of the Sun, which simply tried to visualize what the story had described, or even Kon Ichikawa’s far more interesting attempt to contextualize youth rebellion in Punishment Room, Nakahira keeps his distance from the source novel and script, turning a debate on youth disillusionment into a mocking serial montage, and focusing less on the script’s melodrama of sexual morality than on the less narrative elements of body and desire, rhythm and style. The two brothers’ rushing through the turnstiles in the opening scene may indicate their lack of respect for authority, but what really grabs the eye is the way the scene opens in the middle of the action, the angularity of the composition, the glaringly modern designs on their clothes. Nikkatsu films often scattered gratuitous foreigners in the background of shots, but Crazed Fruit turns the novel’s anti-Americanism into a cultural style. The waiter at the Blue Sky nightclub thinks Frank, played by Danish-Japanese actor Masumi Okada, is a foreigner and obsequiously asks for his drink order in English. Frank’s insolent reply, “Got any shochu?” claims a preference for this coarsest of Japanese liquors that rejects Western privilege and identifies him with the Japanese group. Cut to a close-up of Frank snapping his fingers in the next scene: the scene, in which the cut becomes part of the performance, establishes “cool” through an intimacy between character and youth audience.

Nakahira claimed that films should create images, not pictures. That is the essential novelty of this film. A shot of an old-fashioned fishing boat in a quiet bay, with a pine branch in the foreground, reminds us of another way this coastline has been represented—as a bucolic scene in woodblock prints—but the circular wake and raucous sound of Haruji’s motorboat destroys that atmosphere. The noise of the motorboat is matched by Toru Takemitsu’s jazz soundtrack (credited to Takemitsu and Masaru Sato, Crazed Fruit’s score was the first by Japan’s most celebrated postwar composer). Nakahira throws aside the usual moral and narrational obviousness of the genre film in favor of a more impressionistic editing style in which the action is not as important as its representation. His elliptical style creates continuity less by narrative logic than by ending and beginning scenes with graphically matched but causally unrelated movements. Like the frequent cutaways that give the film its unpredictable, impressionist mood, these juxtapositions do not so much amplify narratively significant details as evoke the texture of experiences (waterskiing, nightclubbing, driving fast cars and boats). Unlike in most films of the period, these activities were filmed outside of the studio: the high ratio of location shooting in Crazed Fruit connects it to Robert Altman’s and John Cassavetes’s first youth films, though with a cinephilic consciousness that links it to the early films of François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard. Like the later French new wave, Crazed Fruit pays homage to its foreign antecedents—Summer with Monika (1953), A Place in the Sun (1951), East of Eden (1955)—and comments on the domestic history of its genre. Haruji’s sexual desire for Eri is signified by repeating the setup of a similar scene in Imai Tadashi’s Blue Mountain Range (1949), one of the films that inaugurated the short history of cinematic sexuality in Japan. Nakahira adds a cutaway to the suggestive to-and-fro of seaweed in a gully beside the couple, before cutting back to Haruji’s obvious arousal, at the point where the earlier film ended the scene.

For Truffaut, who saw the film by accident, these “bulging trunks” exemplified the “absolute simplicity and clarity” of a film made up of a series of blunt but striking images, as opposed to the “smooth cooking sauce” of mainstream cinema, which flowed into a preexisting mold. Truffaut used the film to attack the administration at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, the French film school, for training a generation of assistants who were so afraid of failure that they had lost the courage to put their own personality on the screen. Nakahira, for Truffaut, was a kind of primitive auteur, who shot his film by intuition, in just seventeen days. As Truffaut happily admitted in his review, he had very little sense of the film’s industrial context, but his limited viewing identified something important in the film. Nakahira’s bold mise-en-scène brought a freshness to the film that later studio directors sought to emulate. Of course, Crazed Fruit is still a studio production. The back projection and other studio devices lend it a mainstream gloss that the works of other new waves lack, but Nakahira also disrupts the stable expectations of the studio film—for example, by borrowing a helicopter from a newspaper company to film the final sequences. Like the opening of Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1949), these unstable images were the first in their respective cinema, an assertion of creative personality in the midst of industrial production, which was the Cahiers du cinéma critics’ definition of the auteur.

The taiyozoku films earned huge profits for Nikkatsu and Daiei, but they also became the target of a moral panic over the corrupting influence of film on Japanese youth. In the summer of 1956, almost every week brought new cautionary tales of young hoodlums terrorizing seaside resort towns, young women forced into sexual slavery, and lewd behavior among male workers on vacation. While the weekly magazine reports conveyed as much titillation as disapproval, the attacks on the taiyozoku by newspapers and opinion magazines produced results. PTA organizations and nominally independent housewives groups demanded that the films be banned and censorship reinforced. As the minister of education declared, “Youth today has taiyozoku tendencies—these must be removed!” Eventually, the bureaucrats were kept at bay by the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression, though the system of voluntary censorship was tightened, enforcing age limitations, restricting salacious advertising outside cinemas, and forcing U.S. and independent filmmakers to submit their films for classification. Conservatives also applied indirect pressure: the studio heads announced, in early August 1956, that they would make no more taiyozoku films.

Although the taiyozoku scandal seemed to strengthen Japanese censorship, the films also produced permanent changes in Japanese film style. Young filmmakers and critics were no longer satisfied with story-based, socially conscious films of emotion and atmosphere. They avoided the overt immoralities of rape and torture that ended the taiyozoku boom, but the more stylistically significant shifts in editing rhythms, shot scales, and antimelodramatic irony produced echoes in other new wave cinemas, as well as in the outrageously stylish action, musical, and yakuza genres of 1960s commercial cinema. Ko Nakahira was an auteur before the word was widely understood in Japan, but his work was always uneven. For a while, his brand of modernism kept him at the forefront at Nikkatsu, making irreverent, stylish, and sexy films with the studio’s most popular stars. Nakahira’s struggles with alcoholism, however, made his film work increasingly perfunctory, until, by the late 1960s, he was reduced to remaking his earlier triumphs in Hong Kong, under a pseudonym, for the Shaw Brothers studio. Part of a secret history of “technology transfer” between Japanese and other Asian cinemas in the period, the remakes—even when they mimic gestures and shots from the originals—have none of the volatile timing that makes Crazed Fruit so exhilarating.

Perhaps Nakahira’s real importance and influence, then, should be looked for elsewhere. Japanese studios turned increasingly to youth genres as the industrial crisis continued, giving freer rein to new scriptwriters and directors, such as Koreyoshi Kurahara and Shohei Imamura at Nikkatsu, Yoshio Shirasaka and Yasuzo Masumura at Daiei, Kihachi Okamoto and Eizo Sugawa at Toho, and (somewhat later) Nagisa Oshima and Kiju Yoshida at Shochiku. Several of those filmmakers broke with the studios and went on to smaller yet better things as part of the Japanese new wave, but as Truffaut, Oshima, and others understood, in the summer of ’56, the future of Japanese cinema was already here.

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