A few weeks ago the Consulate-General of Japan at Denver sent me a stack of titles by Yasuzo Masumura (1924 – 1986), a director largely unknown to American audiences despite a prodigious body of work and plaudits by film critics who have placed him within the same pantheon as Kenji Mizoguchi (with whom Masumura worked with as an assistant director), Yasujiro Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa. Masumura also had an influence on Nagisa Ôshima and the Japanese New Wave. Despite Masumura having about 60 films to his credit, only a half-dozen of those can readily be found on Region 1 DVD’s here in the U.S.
I now have the chance to select from 18 Masumura titles to screen as part of my fall film program. All are available in rare 35mm prints that would be flown from The Japan Foundation Film Library as part of a traveling package. The prints were in Europe last year, and this year head south of our border before coming to Colorado and then being shuttled elsewhere. The caveat is that a very narrow window of opportunity will force me to whittle this selection down to only five titles. Here are the 18 films I have to choose from:
Kiss (Kuchizuke, 1957)
Also known as Kisses, this was Masumura’s directorial debut and tried to tap into the success of Takumi Furukawa’s Seasons of the Sun (1956) which helped to launch the popularity of the “youth film.” Kiss is a romance between a bakery delivery boy and an artist’s model who both meet while visiting prison to see their respective fathers. Masumura later identified both Kiss and Giants and Toys (1958) as the only commercial flops from his early career.
The Blue Sky Maiden (Ao-zora Musume, 1957)
Although Kiss disappointed at the box office, Daiei Studios was churning out about 100 films a year and they were eager to keep their contract actors busy to meet up with the demand created by film-hungry audiences, so Masumura would go on to make as many as four films a year. The Blue Sky Maiden is Masumura’s first collaboration with Ayako Wakao, a young starlet that would become became a familiar face in many of the director’s future projects. The Blue Sky Maiden, a melodrama involving wealthy teenagers, finds its western equivalent in the work of Douglas Sirk. “But what gives it a specific Japanese inflection, and a highly transgressive one,” according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, “is the climax in which Wakao denounces her father in his sickbed and gets him to agree that he’s to blame for all the family’s troubles.”
Warm Current (Danryu, 1957)
Masumura’s third feature is a remake of a 1939 film that, like The Blue Sky Maiden, also has Sirkian aspects revolving around upper-class frictions between a daughter and the patriarch in what one German reviewer (in IMDB’s only review) refers to as “ein wundervolles, knallbuntes Krankenhausmelodram.” (My German is rusty, but I’m pretty sure this means “a wonderful, and very colorful Hospital melodrama.”)
The Precipice (Hyoheki, 1958)
Based on a story by Yasushi Inoue and featuring some great mountain scenery and a horrifying avalanche, what starts out as an adventure shifts gears into romance and melodrama thanks to two mountaineers who love the same woman, played by Yamamoto Fujiko – a Japanese icon of 50′s cinema.
Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu, 1958)
Masumura’s fifth film is also the first on this list to be available on DVD in the U.S. (In 2001 Fantoma released six Masumura films on DVD.) Although originally a financial disappointment, it garnered support from a young director and film critic at Shochiku studios: Nagisa Ôshima. It was also championed by fellow Morlock Kimberly Lindbergs on November 11, 2010 with this post:
This thoughtful and darkly humorous film takes a broad swipe at the world of advertising in corporate Japan. Three rival candy companies are competing for business and they’re willing to do just about anything to get ahead. The cutting-edge director Yasuzo Masumura tackles the negative effects of capitalism on popular culture and explores the way that advertising cleverly manipulates people and sells products. This smart and innovative Japanese film offers outsiders a fascinating look at the late 1950s Japan and the way business was practiced at the time but it’s not as cut and dry as it may sound. Human relationships also play an important role in this unusual film, which includes some great musical numbers and hearty laughs. GIANTS & TOYS also happens to be one of the best looking movies that Yasuzo Masumura ever made.
Man of the Biting Wind (Karakaze Yaro, aka: Afraid to Die, 1960)
Going chronologically, this is Masumura’s second film to be available on DVD. Dennis Schwartz says it’s a “satirical yakuza pic (that) is an unsentimental look at the underworld types, their macho fantasies and unbridled egotism.” He also adds that it’s “bold, weird and unpredictable.”
A Woman’s Testament (Jokyo, 1960)
Interestingly, this particular print made the rounds ten years ago as part of a Kon Ichikawa program that played at the University of California, Berkely Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. James Quandt’s notes explain further:
This rare anthology film brings together Ichikawa with his assistant Yasuzo Masumura. (That Masumura was openly contemptuous of his “mentor” gives this film an extra kick.) Three stories about “immoral” women and their money: the first (by Masumura) is about a nightclub waitress who cares only for cash but falls in love with a young man on the night before his wedding; the second, Women Who Sell Things at High Prices (Ichikawa), involves a young real estate agent who tricks a novelist into buying a beach house; and the last (Yoshimura) centers on an ex-geisha who inherits a restaurant from her husband and promptly falls in love with a forger. Yukio Mishima admired the “Poe-like sweetness” of Ichikawa’s tale. A fascinating entrée to the burgeoning Japanese New Wave with its sexual frankness and irreverent attitude, A Woman’s Testament features superb color ‘Scope cinematography and three top actresses as the enterprising trio. (-James Quandt)
The Woman Who Touched Legs (Ashi ni sawatta onna, aka: A Lady Pickpocket, 1960)
A color CinemaScope comedy involving female pickpockets on trains. Quandt says Masumura here “manages to satirize almost everything about postwar Japan: capitalism, class, high art and low, and relations between the sexes. The eponymous thief is none other than Machiko Kyo (Rashomon, Gate of Hell) here playing a coy criminal who uses her fishnet stockings to distract her victims, something Bresson’s pickpocket never thought of.”
A Wife Confesses (Tsuma wa kokuhaku suru, 1961)
Described by Rosenbaum as “Masumura’s supreme masterpiece,” this black and white Cinemascope melodrama is also: “A carefully structured and beautifully directed existential thriller, it centers on the murder trial of a twenty-eight year old woman (Wakao) whose husband, an abusive middle-aged college professor, fell to his death after a mountain-climbing mishap led her to cut the rope binding the two of them together.”
Manji (aka: The Goddess of Mercy, All Mixed Up, Swastica, 1964)
Here’s the third Masumura film that stateside viewers can pick up on DVD, and starring Ayako Wakao again. A good customer of my film program saw this and I’ll paraphrase her review: ” It’s Douglas Sirk meets John Waters in Japan…and that’s not all good. Some of the wrong drugs were in force, but it’s got breasts, three-ways, ripped sheets, gorgeous photography and rich girls gone kink.”
With My Husband’s Consent (Otto ga mita “onna no kobako” yori, aka: The Husband Witnessed, 1964)
Based on a novel and featuring beautiful CinemaScope (or – technically – Daieiscope) cinematography, my screener for this film had no subtitles and further information was frustratingly elusive. Any input from readers on this would be appreciated.
The Hoodlum Soldier (Heitai yakuza, 1965)
This one features a great example of Masumura’s ability to focus on something very specific, here the life of infantry and artillery men stationed in the barracks of Manchuria, to illustrate how individuality is no match for the larger hierarchical structure of Japanese society. It was a commercial success and sparked seven other films between 1965 and 1972, with Masumura only directing the first and last installments.
Seisaku’s Wife (Seisaku no tsuma, 1965).
War, romance, and melodrama. Set at the beginning of the 20th century, it stars Ayako Wakao again, this time playing a mistress to a rich and older man who inherits money upon his death. As with other Masumura films, love and madness are interchangeable and individuals face uphill battles against the larger collective (aka: mobs and society).
Nakano Spy School (Rikugun Nakano gakko, 1966)
The Sino-Japanese war provides the backdrop to this anti-war drama dealing wtih 15 elite soldiers who are selected for espionage training, and in the process sacrificing everything (family, wife, children) for their duty.
The Red Angel (Akai tenshi, 1966)
Here’s the fourth Masumura film you can easily get on DVD. Set in 1939 it explores similar themes to Robert Altman’s MASH (1970), and this, along with Blind Beast, are probably the two Masumura films to receive the most attention here in the U.S. Shot in beautiful, black-and-white Daiescope it shows Ayako Wakao playing the part of a nurse during WWII who establishes a physical relationship with a crippled solder and a surgeon. Rosenbaum refers to this one as “extraordinary.”
Dr. Hanaoka’s Wife (Hanaoka Seishu no tsuma, aka: The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka, 1967)
Ayako Wakao stars here as a young woman who marries into the family of a local physician. Cat lovers will probably want to steer clear of this one, as they end up taking the brunt of various scenes involving animal testing. Adding to the “ugh” factor are cancers, tumors, and ulcers.
Blind Beast (Môjû, 1969)
When Nagisa Ôshima made a big stir with In the Realm of the Senses (1976) he was clearly indebted to Masumura for Blind Beast – which was based on a story by Edogawa Rampo (aka – for obvious reasons – as Japan’s Edgar Allan Poe). Inspired sets add to the sexual madness and horror tropes of a woman trapped in a blind sculptor’s studio. I can’t help but wonder if Katherine Dunn was influenced by this film when she wrote Geek Love. If one wanted to add to the lust-absorbed gender wars, Woman in the Dunes would offer a nice set-up for a killer triple bill.
Play with Fire (Asobi, 1971)
The Masumura package is topped off by a youth film which strays into softer terrain and away from the grotesque. It still has moments of violence, but is ultimately an anti-climactic affair.
As I contemplate which five Masumura films to select, it seems that there are several options. One is to use the five categories outlined by Rosenbaum that he feels Masumura’s films can fall into, which are: Anti-Capitalist, Anti-War, Kinky Sex, Youth Films, and ones with Strong Heroines. But if I do this, there’s no way of avoiding the two or three that are already on DVD. The second choice would be to simply string together five titles that are not on DVD and base selection on individual merit. A third option would be to both select films not on DVD and that all star Ayako Wakao – thus letting Masumura’s leading actress share the bill.
For now, the jury is still out.