The idiosyncratic and prolific Japanese director Yasuzô Masumura was commemorated with a retrospective at the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The 11 films presented at the festival allowed the audience and the critics to rediscover a neglected master.
A highlight of the rich programme of this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival was the retrospective dedicated to the Japanese director Yasuzô Masumura (1924-1986). Even though some critics and film historians consider Masumura a forerunner of the Japanese New Wave and one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers, his body of work is surprisingly overlooked in the rest of the world. Despite few retrospectives in the USA and Europe, his films have mostly been rediscovered via DVD and Blu-ray releases. As Masumura’s unique and often disturbing genre films are winning new fans and enjoying a re-established cult status among cinephiles, the tribute at KVIFF for the director’s upcoming 100th anniversary was very exciting to experience.
The programme consisted of 11 films focusing on Masumura’s Daiei period in the 1950s and 60s. He was active almost until his death and directed 55 feature films, as well as TV movies and series. The careful curation from his large filmography was chosen by film critic, programmer, and lecturer Joseph Fahim, who as the presenter of this retrospective screened the films to enthusiastic crowds who—as a result of sold out, packed screenings—sometimes had to sit in the aisles or floor.
The hopeful era
The oldest film in the programme was also Masumura’s debut, Kisses (Kuchizuke, 1957). Masumura, having studied film in the early 50s in Italy under the likes of Antonioni, Fellini, and Visconti, translated the aesthetic and thematic sensibilities of European cinema from that period to his native country. Kisses could have easily been a French New Wave film, if it took place in Paris instead of Tokyo. Masumura tells a typical boy-meets-girl story, focusing on the daily lives of ordinary people mostly in real locations. The film is still full of life, with dynamic black and white cinematography and editing. With these common characteristics, Masumura was obviously influenced by the Italian masters while predating the French auteurs of the New Wave. American films from the 50s focusing on young people were another obvious influence. Kisses tells the story of young men and women in post-war Japan, trying to cope with life. The main characters of the film, Kinichi and Akiko, meet during a visit in prison, both their fathers incarcerated. Yet, they end up spending a carefree day together, winning at the races, riding a motorbike to the beach, skating, and later getting drunk. They end up falling in love. Despite the helpless situation its young protagonists are in (they both need a large sum of money to bail their fathers out of the prison), Kisses has a feeling of lightness and optimism that is harder to find in Masumura’s 60s work. Upon its release Kisses won raves from Japanese film critics, including Nagisa Ôshima.
Masumura’s second film A Cheerful Girl (Aozora musume, 1957) was also screened as part of the retrospective. Aesthetically very different from Kisses, A Cheerful Girl looks and feels much like a Technicolor melodrama from the 50s. In that sense, comparisons to Douglas Sirk are very accurate. The film tells the story of recent high school graduate Yûko’s journey from her rural village to Tokyo and presents a story highlighting the juxtaposition of traditional and modern Japan. As much as it’s a modern fairytale and coming of age story, A Cheerful Girl dissects and deconstructs post-war bourgeois family values. The title of the film comes from a game Yûko plays with her arts teacher; whenever they need hope and joy, they look at the blue sky above them. Even though Masumura borrows a lot from highly stylized American melodramas, hope prevails in this film as well.
The third film from Masumura’s 50s period in the programme was Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu, 1958). This fast-paced and talkative comedy is rightfully compared to Frank Tashlin’s satires of popular culture. Giants and Toys tells the story of a ruthless PR campaign pitting three chocolate factories against each other. Celebrity culture and a quick rise to stardom are very much the center of the story as well and therefore it’s quite possibly Masumura’s most contemporarily relevant film. Despite its rapid dialogue, jokes, and bright colours, Giants and Toys is cynical and darker in tone in comparison to Masumura’s earlier films.
The dark age
Post-war Japanese society, capitalism, and the American influence are all easily noticeable subjects in earlier films of Masumura. However, his films became darker, excessive, and much more violent and provocative in the 60s. From this period eight films were chosen to the programme and I will focus on four of them.
All Mixed Up (Manji, 1964) and The Spider Tattoo (Irezumi, 1966) are among Masumura’s most well known films in the west. Both are adaptations from the famous Japanese author Jun’ichirô Tanizaki. While All Mixed Up tells a story set in the 1920s, The Spider Tattoo is set in the Edo period. Both films focus on sexual obsession and use art as a form of expression or access to the object of desire.
All Mixed Up is truly ahead of its time, with a very open lesbian love story. Unhappy housewife Sonoko falls in love with the younger Mitsuko in a painting class. After she imagines Mitsuko naked and paints her as a goddess, the incident sparks rumors, but also brings the two women closer. Soon their intimate friendship turns into a love affair. The Spider Tattoo, featuring the director’s favourite actress Ayako Wakao in the leading role, is a revenge story. Young and beautiful Otsuya is kidnapped and sold to a geisha house. There a tattoo artist draws a large spider tattoo on her back without her consent. This triggers a series of events, where she becomes a hunter and preys on the men who have exploited her.
Both films play with genre conventions, most notably film-noir. The characters portrayed by Wakao in both films are presented as femme-fatales. Whereas this perspective is confusing in All Mixed Up, The Spider Tattoo benefits greatly from her charismatic screen presence. It’s also a gorgeously shot period drama that is among the director’s best work.
While the (desired) human body is either drawn or drawn on in All Mixed Up and The Spider Tattoo, The Red Angel (Akai tenshi, 1966) and Blind Beast (Môjû, 1969) take it further still. The Red Angel is a horrifying war film, where sex and violence, life and death are intertwined. The rape scenes and constant objectification of the nurse character Nishi are followed by equally disturbing surgery scenes that feature dismembered body parts. She still finds love amidst the war in a field hospital and loses her heart to one of the doctors. Unlike Masumura’s early films, there is no sign of hope in The Red Angel, however. Released almost 60 years ago and recently restored to 4K, it is still effective with its violent black and white images.
Blind Beast, arguably Masumura’s most famous film, was the final entry in the programme. It’s usually perceived as one of the many sexploitation films of that era, but Blind Beast goes much deeper and to more disturbing places than the usual film of its kind. It tells the story of a fashion model who is kidnapped by a blind amateur sculptor who wants to use her as a model. The erotic obsession is examined in a similar manner as All Mixed Up and The Spider Tattoo but has an unmistakable quality of self-awareness, constantly shifting the power dynamics between the artist and its subject. The shocking and extremely violent finale adds a whole meta level to Blind Beast and makes it one of the most effective films to examine the themes of art, body, and exploitation.
Yasuzô Masumura might have been underestimated by some critics in the past as a genre director, especially after sex and violence started to become more and more dominant in his films. However, his films and especially Blind Beast prove the true intentions and deeper politics in the highly controversial films of this neglected master.
Edited by Robert Horton
© FIPRESCI 2023