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February 15, 2012

Japanese Masters: Masumura Yasuzo (film director)

In the West, those interested in Japanese literature and film, have made their own "canon" of Japanese books and films, which is different from the canon the Japanese have made. Not only is the emphasis different, it is also narrower - perhaps by necessity - and many true talents have been left out. Ozu Yasujiro, for example, is part of the Western canon, but not his friend and contemporary Shimizu Hiroshi - who has now been barely introduced via a Criterion box set. Oshima Nagisa is part of the canon, but not Kawashima Yuzo, who has remained an outsider in the West. And so on. In the series "Japanese Masters" we will look at a number of Japanese authors and film makers, who still await (further) discovery in the West. We start with prolific film maker Masumura Yasuzo.
Masumura Yasuzo (1924-1986, 増村保造) first attracted my attention thanks to the several films he made based on novels by Tanizaki and Kawabata. He was an older contemporary of Oshima Nagisa, and is seen as an iconoclastic precursor of the New Wave in Japan.

Born in Kofu, Masumura was from an early age interested in film. As a high-school student he three times went to see Kurosawa's Sugata Sanshiro. He studied law at Tokyo University, but dropped out to become an assistant director at the Daiei studio's because he needed money - he would return to college and graduate in philosophy in 1949. Next, he won a scholarship to a famous film school in Rome (the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia), and after graduating, worked on the Italian-Japanese co-production of Madame Butterfly. He returned to Japan in 1953.

From 1955, Masumura started working at Daiei for Mizoguchi Kenji (assisting wih the last three films of this great director) and after that, on three films for Ichikawa Kon. Although Masumura later was critical of Ichikawa's films, his work displays a considerable debt to the older director - if only in the frequent choice of literary sources. Masumura made his first film, Kisses, in 1957. He stayed with Daiei until the demise of the company, and made about three films a year, to a total output of 58 films.

Masumura's films are characterized by visual inventiveness and dark satire, they often are a strong indictment of social injustice, and an unsentimental look at what it means to be human. You could say that his films, usually by borrowing the vocabulary of the genre film, show the cruel beauty of life. Social realism of the type he learned in Italy, was not suitable for Japan with its regimented society and lack of individual freedom, he says - that is why he opted for exaggeration and over-the-top depiction. If I would have to characterize his work in one word, I would choose "obsession." The fact that he often used literary sources, from Saikaku and Chikamatsu to Tanizaki and Kawabata reveals a classical streak that links him to his "teacher," Ichikawa Kon.


Some of his major films are:
  • Kisses (Kuchizuke, 1957)
    Known for its handheld, fluid camerawork, this first film is a cruel story of youth as Oshima would also make a few years later. A boy and girl meet in prison where they happen to visit their respective fathers. They decide to spend the day together and, after successfully gambling on a bicycle race, head for the beach.
  • Giants and Toys (Kyojin to Gangu, 1958)
    A critique of the Economic Miracle and more vicious than the "Company President" films made around the same time by Morishige Hisaya. Still, there is no lack of humor in the endeavor of a sweets company to make an unknown girl with bad teeth into the star of their new commercial campaign. After a story by Kaiko Takeshi.
  • Afraid to Die (Karakkaze-yaro, 1960)
    A mean yakuza film in the first place remarkable for having author Mishima Yukio in the main role. He plays a yakuza who has wounded the boss of another gang, and whatever he does, can't escape revenge. As befitting for Mishima, the death scene is the highlight of the film.
  • Passion (Manji, 1964)
    This is a famous story by Tanizaki Junichiro, translated into English as "Quicksand." A bored middle-aged housewife (Kishida Kyoko of The Woman in the Dunes) falls obsessively in love with a young model (Wakao Ayako). When her husband and the fiance of the model also join the fray, we have the four arms of the Buddhist swastika and an emotional quicksand. By far the best among various films based on Manji.
  • The Hoodlum Soldier (Heitai Yakuza, 1965)
    A cynical look at life in the barracks of the Japanese army in Manchuria as a miniature version of Japan itself with its suffocating hierarchies. The cruelty that characterized certain divisions of the Imperial Army leaps off the screen in the continual beatings that small-time sergeants enforce on their inferiors. The hoodlum soldier of the title is played by Katsu Shintaro, his good-willing mentor Akira by Tamura Takahiro. In the end, when told they will be sent to the killing fields of Leyte, they desert by stealing a train. Review on Midnight Eye.
  • The Red Angel (Akai Tenshi, 1966)
    A young angelic nurse played by Wakao Ayako serves in China during the war years. She is raped by her patients and when she complains, sent to the front lines. It is like a gruesome version of MASH. Amid the carnage, she falls in love with a morphine-addicted surgeon (Ashida Shinsuke). She also provides comfort to a soldier whose arms have both been amputated. A strange, but very human and engrossing film, perhaps Masumura's masterwork.
  • The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (Hanaoka Seishu no Tsuma, 1967). Based on a novel by Ariyoshi Sawako ("The Doctor's Wife"), this is a period film about the first doctor (played by Ichikawa Raizo) who performs surgery using general anesthesia. His loving but neglected wife (Wakao Ayako) offers herself as a guinea pig for his experiments. Another study in obsession.
  • Blind Beast (Moju, 1969)
    A blind sculptor kidnaps a young fashion model and keeps her in his Dali-esque warehouse filled with huge sculptures of female body parts. His dream is to sculpt the perfect female form. Visually inventive, this is another tale of madness and obsession, after an original story by Edogawa Ranpo. Review on Midnight Eye.
  • Love Suicides at Sonezaki (Sonezaki Shinju, 1978)
    Based on the classic Joruri play by Chikamatsu, with Kaji Meiko ("Lady Snowblood") in the main role. A period piece that is lurid, bloody and gorgeous at the same time.
Other interesting films are The Precipice (Hyoheki, 1958) with Yamamoto Fujiko and based on a novel by Inoue Yasushi; The Woman who Touched the Legs (Ashi ni Sawatta Onna, 1960), a comedy about a female pickocket (Kyo Machiko) and a remake of a film by Ichikawa Kon; A False Student (Nise Daigakusei,  1960) based on a story by Oe Kenzaburo; The Life of an Amorous Man (Koshoku Ichidai Otoko, 1961) based on a novel by Edo-period master Iharu Saikaku; A Wife Confesses (Tsuma wa Kokuhaku suru, 1961), an existential film with Wakao Ayako; Tattoo (Irezumi, 1966) based on the well-known short story by Tanizaki, and again with Wakao Ayako; Love for an Idiot (Chijin no Ai, 1967), again an obsessive film based on a Tanizaki novel, translated into English as "Naomi"; Thousand Cranes (Senbazuru, 1969), based on the eponymous novel by Kawabata Yasunari, and with Wakao Ayako and Kyo Machiko.

The Cruel Beauty of Masumura Yasuzo; Tales of ordinary Madness.