By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor
I’m torn, really and truly, I am. Though I fell in love all over again with the Criterion Collection after they announced their plans to release several films by unsung Japanese New Wave director Koreyoshi Kurahara, I’m currently unconvinced that we need all of the titles from that group not named The Warped Ones. It’s a rather silly hesitation, I know, one that I wouldn’t even be able to ponder had it not been for the Criterion Collection’s generosity. After all, Kurahara is a name that deserves greater prominence, and The Warped Worlds of Koreyoshi Kuarahara, a new Eclipse DVD box set showcasing five of the director’s films from the early ’60s, is a very good primer. But only two of the films in this set are must-see viewing.
If anything, this new box set only confirms my opinion that the best DVD package released under the Eclipse label thus far has been their Nikkatsu Noir set, the only one of the Eclipse series not dedicated strictly to a single director. Nikkatsu Noir gave viewers a more comprehensive look at who was making what film at a certain period of time during Japan’s New Wave. To be fair, The Warped Worlds of Koreyoshi Kurahara also provides some great context for Kurahara neophytes (i.e., most everyone, including myself — I had only seen The Warped Ones before digging into this new box set). But after Kurahara’s two 1960 productions, the other featured titles are a little disappointing.
Kurahara’s movies are at their primal best when they’re most direct. In both Intimidation and The Warped Ones, his characters wear their disaffection with humanity on their sleeves. These two films are the best showcases of his talents because they are centered on characters with fundamentally basic motivations. For example, in Intimidation, sweat-drenched bank manager Takita (Nobuo Kaneko) is just trying to keep his head above water after Kumaki (Kôjirô Kusanagi), a young, sunglasses-clad pimp, blackmails him into robbing his own bank. The film’s plot is blisteringly simple, allowing for a few necessarily overheated plot twists along the way as Takita has to rob the bank and get rid of Kumaki.
This does not necessarily mean Intimidation is a crude thriller. On the contrary, Kurahara’s films are very sophisticated when it comes to establishing mood through dynamic mise-en-scène. The dialogue-free nightmare sequence where we, as Kurahara’s camera, follow Takita as he robs the bank is a fantastic, gripping set piece. Its atmospheric but meticulous lighting, especially as we’re looking through a door’s rectangular peephole, is worthy of Fritz Lang’s American film noir. The sinuous tracking shots give you the illusion of genuinely looking through the eyes of a frantic robber, even when the camera is poised behind Takita. Kurahara trains his camera on singular objects, like the dial of the safe as Takita opens it, or the “X”-marked handles of the screen door leading to an employee’s office. The scene ends with an extreme close-up of the robber in profile so that you only see his ear and his sweaty cheek. That close-up is astounding for its expressionistic detail, and it’s one of many times you’ll see Kurahara externalize his characters’ inexorable feelings of panic through sweat.
In fact, sweat is the biggest constant in Kurahara’s films. No other film best exemplifies the wonderful things Kurahara can do with perspiration than The Warped Ones. In it, Akira (Tamio Kawachi), a young, animalistic beatnik, runs amuck on an unsuspecting urban populace with several pounds of sweat on his face and a howl on his lips. He doesn’t want sympathy, understanding or analysis; he just wants to have his way all the time. He terrorizes art galleries and gulps down ice cream cones while shucking and jiving to “black music” (jazz, but nothing by any white guys or Japanese imitators). And he also can’t stop bumping into Yuki (Yuko Chishiro), a beautiful young artist whom he can’t help himself from coveting and subsequently raping on a remote beach. The shimmering reflective surfaces of The Warped Ones, especially the white-hot sand dunes during this rape scene, complement the inky shadows of Intimidation quite nicely.
Akira’s story is infinitely more satisfying in The Warped Ones than the way it’s reworked in Black Sun, a sequel/remake of sorts where Akira (still played by Kawachi) runs around with a black G.I. stationed in Japan. The vitality of The Warped Ones relies entirely on the combination of a savagely puerile sense of humor with Kurahara’s consummately refined aesthetic. Without the venom of The Warped Ones or Intimidation, you’re stuck with interesting but stodgy melodramas like the A Face in the Crowd-esque I Hate But Love and Thirst for Love, the latter of which is based on a novel by Yukio Mishima.
And yet — The Warped Ones! That film bubbles over with panache and bratty charm. Here you get a tongue-in-cheek indictment of the fundamentally barbarous nature of Japanese society at large, one that embraces Akira’s behavior with the strictly juvenile understanding that everybody gets a little regressive sometimes. Even Yuko, her high-brow intellectual friends and her oblivious boyfriend Kashiwagi (Hiroyuki Nagato) prove throughout Kurahara’s film that they too can lash out at their fellow men while turning their noses up at Akira’s delightfully obnoxious antics (look out, bicyclists!). The film’s misanthropy is presented in such a jubilantly buoyant way that one can’t help but fall in love with its Godard-inspired charms. With the exception of Intimidation, everything else in the new Eclipse set is optional.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.