Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

February 27, 2012

Japanese Masters: Kawashima Yuzo (film director)

Kawashima Yuzo (1918-1963;川島雄三) came from Mutsu in Aomori and was educated at Meiji university in Tokyo. He entered the Shochiku Studios in 1938 and became an assistant to the great classical director Kinoshita Keisuke. Kawashima made his first own film in 1944, and continued after the war at Shochiku with a number of comedies. These were second features (the second and least important film on a bill of two) and not very well received.

In order to improve his opportunities, in 1955 Kawashima moved to Nikkatsu, where he received better treatment and indeed made his best films, such as Bakumatsu Taiyoden (1957), which was voted the "fifth best Japanese film of all time" in an influential poll of the film magazine Kinema Junpo. In the early 1960s, he also worked for other studios and made some literary adaptations. He worked hard - before his sudden death in 1963 (Kawashima suffered from ALS), he made 51 films (during a career of only 19 years). Kawashima was the mentor of Imamura Shohei who worked under him as assistant director.

Kawashima is perhaps the greatest unknown in the West of all Japanese film directors I can think of, and one who least deserves it. His films are quirky, original, satirical, iconoclastic - and great fun. Kawashima's films are about people trying to survive in a world without morals. Kawashima was a forerunner of the Japanese New Wave and the connection between the classical directors of the fifties and the angry young men of the sixties. In fact, one of his last films, Beautiful Beast, which has been filmed from interesting angles in a claustrophobic environment, is very close to the New Wave.

In Japan, if only for the everlasting fame of Bakumatsu Taiyoden (that never made it to the West, yet), Kawashima is an established name and my local DVD rental shop even has a "Kawashima section." There is still a lot to discover, but that, after all, is one of the pleasures of Japanese film.

Selection of films:
  • Burden of Love (Ai no onimotsu, 1955)
    Burlesque social satire about a government minister who advocates birth control (we are in the baby boom years here), even as all women in his family become pregnant one after the other. Kawashima's first success after his move to Nikkatsu.
  • Our Town (Waga machi, 1956)
    An account of an Osaka suburb from the Meiji-period to the 1930s. Adept handling of a large number of characters in this comedy.
  • Suzaki Paradise: Red Signal (Suzaki paradaisu: Akashingo, 1956)
    Satire set in Tokyo's seamy milieu of bars and brothels. A young couple has fled to Tokyo to marry. Looking for income and a roof above their head, they end up in the Suzaki brothel area - the woman only works in a bar at the entrance to the district, but even that makes her man madly jealous.
  • The Shinagawa Path (Bakumatsu Taiyoden, 1957)
    Witty account of events in a brothel where reformers gather around the time of the Meiji restoration. Typically, they are interested in money and other things, rather than politics. A hustler (Frankie Sakai) who can't serve his debt is taken into custody by the owner of the establishment and has to work his debt off. Title also translated as "Sun Legend of the Last Days of the Shogunate." Script by Imamura Shohei and Kawashima Yuzo.
  • Room to Let (Kashima ari, 1959)
  • Hilarious portrait of Osaka low life. 
  • Shadow of a Flower (Kaei, 1961)
    Touching study of the unhappy lives of bar hostesses, notable for the sympathy for their pain.
  • Women Are Born Twice (Onna wa Nido Umareru, 1961) 
    Sensitive look at the condition of women after WWII, seen through the eyes of the geisha of a downtown area of Tokyo. Subtle delineation of character.
  • The Temple of the Wild Geese (Gan no tera, 1962) 
    Film version of the novelistic masterwork of Mizukami Tsutomu about the destructive love triangle between a lecherous priest, an ex-geisha and a novice. Set in a Kyoto temple and full of atmosphere.
  • Elegant Beast (Shitoyakana kedamono, 1962)
    Parents with two grown-up children make a living as fraudsters, turning to crime out of fear that the former years of utter poverty will return. Deceit, lies and surveillance determine the film. In Kawashima's hands the family becomes a symbol for Japan itself. Completely filmed inside the apartment of the parents, with many interesting camera angles (like Rear Window). Modernist style. With Wakao Ayako. The script was written by Shindo Kaneto. Review in Slant Magazine.
French retrospective held in 2003; portrait in French.
Also see A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Stone Bridge Press, 2008) - an important resource.
I would recommend Elegant Beast, Temple of the Wild Geese, Women are Born Twice, Suzaki Paradise and The Shinagawa Path as the best of Kawashima's movies - with the exception of Temple of the Wild Geese, these are also the films that Imamura Shohei recommended for a retrospective at the Rotterdam Film Festival.