Following an apprenticeship under Toho’s Kajiro Yamamoto, and a short stint at Shochiku, Koreyoshi Kurahara joined Nikkatsu in 1954, the year the studio recommenced production after the war. He served as an assistant director on Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu 1956), Kô Nakahira’s ground-breaking taiyozoku-eiga (sun tribe film), before going on to direct a couple of films per year for the studio between 1957 and 1967, enlivening potentially formulaic material in a manner every bit as distinctive as that of his better-known contemporary, Seijun Suzuki.
Kurahara’s debut film, I Am Waiting (Ore wa matteru ze 1957) – included in the earlier Criterion Eclipse collection, Nikatsu Noir – seems less like American film noir than French poetic realism. A moody, melancholic tale centred on a dockside café, it tells of the apparently doomed love between the café’s owner (an ex-boxer, stripped of his license after killing a man in a brawl) and a woman (a former opera singer, reduced to warbling in a mobster’s nightclub) he dissuades from committing suicide. Their respective backstories, however, contain the cruellest of coincidences and traps. This sense of inescapable fate is key to the earliest of the films included in this boxset, Intimidation (Aru kyouhaku 1960). Like La Bête humaine (1938), it begins with a train approaching a town, but where Jean Renoir’s film concentrates on the rails which run relentlessly ahead, crossing and merging but always driving forward, remorselessly conveying the hapless driver to his fate, Intimidation’s opening shots are misty – oneiric – with steam and condensation. Kurahara’s train races through the tunnels cut into snow-covered mountains, taking us beneath the cold heights that rise above but are inseparable from the darkness below.
Intimidation focuses on the relationship between Takita, the assistant manager of a regional bank, and his childhood friend, Nakaike. Many years earlier, Takita had been involved with Nakaike’s sister, Yuki, but abandoned her to steal Kumiko, the daughter of the bank president, away from Nakaike and thus accumulate nepotistic advantages. While Nakaike is still a lowly clerk, and Yuki an embittered geisha, Takita is being promoted to the Tokyo head office, where he is to be groomed as his father-in-law’s successor. The train, though, has brought a stranger to town who threatens blackmail: unless Takita rob his own bank, Kumaki will reveal his financial irregularities and sexual infidelities. Takita hopes to take advantage of the fact that Nakaike is on guard duty on the night of the robbery. But – as an eerie dream sequence, deploying a subjective camera far more effectively than either Dark Passage (Daves 1947) or Lady in the Lake (Montgomery 1947), warns us – nothing is quite what it seems.
The economy of the film’s set-up enables Kurahara to focus upon set-pieces – such as an almost-silent heist, every bit as remarkable as the one in Rififi (Dassin 1955) – and upon unpacking, through a series of reversals, multiple layers of manipulation, revenge, humiliation and despite. Lacking the claustrophobia of film noir’s Academy ratio, Kurahara uses his widescreen format (and a frequently mobile camera) to emphasise movement through physical space, which he contrasts to the relative absence of social mobility. Depth of field, along with startling cuts along the 180° line, stress the gulf between classes. Kurahara also often favours high angle shots that strengthen the diagonal arrangement of rival characters, craning down as the balance of power alters to shift their apparent relative height. Other high angle shots seem to pin characters to the floor, as if on a dissection board. Juxtapositions within and between shots jab the viewer in the eye like a boxer, compressing information with all the swagger of Sam Fuller.
Such bravura flourishes become the core of Kurahara’s style by The Warped Ones (Kyonetsu no kisetsu 1960). Reworking the taiyozoku-eiga by turning from Crazed Fruit’s privileged kids to the disenfranchised youths of the unhomely, post-war tenements, it follows the story of petty criminal Akira. Thanks to journalist Kashiwagi, he is caught pick-pocketing a tourist and sentenced to Tokyo Juvenile Reformatory, where, amidst brutality and violence, he meets another young thug, Masura. After this dazzling title sequence, the film proper begins with their release. Teaming up with the prostitute Yuki, they begin a summer of casual crime. Revenge, rape, street-fighting, murder and abortions follow, interspersed with hi-jinks, impulsive thievery, mucking around and mockery of bourgeois pastimes. Driven by Toshiro Mayuzumi’s jazz score, Yoshio Mamiya’s lively hand-held cinematography and Akira Suzuki’s snappy editing, The Warped Ones is, at times, even more exhausting than it is fascinating – as if Neveldine+Taylor had directed a mash-up of Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) and Bande à part (1964) co-written by Jim Thompson and a young Harlan Ellison. Kurahara’s camera is constantly distracted, preferring to move through space rather than cut to reaction shots. Its gaze often drifts upwards to swirl across the collage of jazz greats decorating the ceiling of Akira’s favourite bar or, more tellingly, to flood the screen with the brilliant white blaze of the summer sun. This is not the Impressionist dappling of light found in Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950), but light as a monumental, sublime energy: on the one hand, it suggests the transcendence of earthly conditions for which Akira yearns but lacks the patience to attain; and on the other, an oppressive weight, pinning him down, exposing his purposelessness. As with Intimidation, life presses hot and hard, and Kurahara cannot resist showing us every bead of sweat.
Although not exactly a sequel, Black Sun (Kuroi taiyo 1964) returns to this milieu. In The Warped Ones, Akira threatens Kashiwagi’s pregnant girlfriend Fumiko with a broken bottle. Gill, a black American who hangs out in the same bar, intervenes, dragging Akira away and driving him to the beach. In a totally unexpected sequence – which echoes earlier shots of Masura and Yuki cavorting while Akira rapes and impregnates Fumiko – Gill and Akira run hand in hand across the sand before plunging into the sea harmlessly to exhaust Akira’s rage. In Black Sun, Tamio Kawachi plays Mei, identical to his earlier Akira in almost every respect, Yuko Chishiro plays another prostitute called Yuki, and Chico Roland plays Gill, a wounded GI on the run after killing two other servicemen. The film starts with the desolate wasteland before an ominously alien-looking nuclear power station, where tiny figures scavenge for scrap. The jazz-obsessed Mei, who lives in a bombed-out church with his dog Thelonius Monk, thinks nothing of robbing these weary middle-aged mudlarks so that he can buy the new Max Roach Quartet album. When he finds Gill hiding in his squat, Mei assumes they will automatically be friends, since he loves black American music, and thus all black Americans. The culture-clash melodrama that follows (perhaps the oddest of rashamen films) plays like some demented, infernal rendition of The Defiant Ones (Kramer 1958) – part John Cassavetes, part Shinya Tsukamoto. Roland plays Gill as a feverish, distracted brute, wielding a ridiculously large machine gun, sweating profusely, mumbling and yelping his lines. Kurahara draws awkward parallels between post-Occupation Japan and the American civil rights struggle – and at one point even has Mei don blackface and whitewash Gill’s face so that they can escape by posing as street entertainers.
But all this bizzarerie ends magnificently. The increasingly incoherent Gill is obsessed with reaching the sea, which he associates with his mother and with redemption. Mei manages to get him first to a filthy, oil-slicked estuary, and then to a rooftop overlooking a heavily industrialised port. Somehow Gill gets caught in the ropes tethering an advertising balloon. He pleads with Mei to release it. And as the pursuing MPs close in, the delirious Gill rises up towards the sun, an absurd, black, blasphemous, jazz Christ.
Made between The Warped Ones and Black Sun, I Hate But Love (Nikui an-chikusho 1962) moderates and modulates Kurahara’s stylistic excesses, as one would expect of a colour vehicle for Nikkatsu’s – arguably Japan’s – biggest stars of that year, Yujiro Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka. (Ishihara, an overnight success thanks to his performance in Crazed Fruit, played I Am Waiting’s ex-boxer and had already in 1962 co-starred with Asaoka in Kurahara’s hit Ginza Love Story (Ginza no koi no monogatari)). Kurahara’s camera remains restless, but not so unanchored that it cannot cope with sets and occasional back-projection. This time the contrived set up comes straight from a 1930s screwball or 1950s sex comedy, but the movie that ensues is more of a melodrama. Sort of.
In just two years, Daisaku Kita has been transformed from a penniless poet into a radio and television star, thanks to a deal he struck with Noriko Sakakta: she would manage him, initially for free, but they would never consummate their romantic entanglement with so much as a kiss. Fed up with an unfulfilling life of constant bustling activity, and frustrated by his relationship with Noriko, Daisaku encounters Yoshiko Igawa. She has devoted her life to buying a jeep with which to aid Toshio Kosaka, a doctor in a remote village, in his work. Yoshiko insists that she and Toshio, who have conducted their entire relationship through letters, possess a ‘pure love’. Daisaku agrees on air to deliver the jeep to Toshio, so that he can experience some trace of this love – a love so different to that which he shares with Noriko. And Noriko pursues him across Japan, trying to bring him back in order to save his career from his multiple breaches of contract – at least, that is what she tells herself.
Kurahara’s road movie never becomes as achingly romantic as Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) or Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi (1997), and his melodrama eschews the oedipal intensity of Nicholas Ray. His comedy has neither the bite of Preston Sturges (although one sequence resembles Sullivan’s Travels (1941) more than slightly), nor the brashness of Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu 1958), although Masumura – and Frank Tashlin – would undoubtedly have enjoyed the sequence in which Daisaku and Noriko struggle through a cloacal tunnel onto the fecal mud of mountain roads. But somehow Kurahara pulls it off – his stars, especially Asaoka, are a delight – and he even manages to conclude with a shot looking up at the sun, here betokening a pure love of hope and renewal.
The light that saturates Asaoka’s Etsuko – and the entire frame – in Thirst For Love (Ai no kawaki 1967) signifies something rather different: sexual ecstasy, erotic distraction, amoral desire. Etsuko, widowed soon after her marriage, submits to the attentions of her father-in-law, fends off those of her brother-in-law, and yearns for the family’s young groundskeeper, Saburo. Despite desiring Etsuko, Saburo does not know what to make of her, and her pursuit of him is confused, impulsive, uncertain. The class gulf between them is too great for her imagination to bridge, and she becomes increasingly cruel to him, trying to make him suffer just as she (feels she) suffers. Based on a Yukio Mishima novel, and offering the perfect set-up for a film by Luis Buñuel or Douglas Sirk, Thirst for Love instead more closely resembles Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman (Nippon konchuki 1963) and Intentions of Murder (Akai satsui 1964) in its study of a feminisuto (but hardly feminist) woman.
While occasional shots and scenes possess the still formality of Yasujirô Ozu, these are odd moments of calm in another stylistically mercurial movie, incorporating voice-over narration, interior monologues, negative footage, slow motion, extreme close-ups, stills, sound distortions, intertitles, flashes of violent fantasised action, brief flashes of colour film (bright red, of course), a conversation that suddenly jumps into long-shot and switches from audible dialogue to subtitles, and, most remarkable of all, a two-and-half minute shot in which the camera cranes around an ornate light-fitting, showing the eight people seated at the family dinner table, before moving off to one side to look down at them as they converse, and then craning around and down behind Saburo as he rises to leave, before zooming in on Etsuko, sitting at the other end of the table, as she watches him depart.
Thirst for Love was Kurahara’s last film under contract to Nikkatsu. Studio bosses purportedly found it too arty and delayed its release, prompting Kurahara to quit the studio (in the same year, Nikkatsu fired Suzuki for turning in the brilliant absurdist hitman movie, Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin 1967), rather than the sane, polished and pedestrian Joe Shishido vehicle they had expected). Kurahara continued to make movies, albeit at a reduced rate, eventually transforming himself into the reliable and unchallenging director of such films as Antarctica (Nankyoku monogatari 1983), the biggest Japanese box-office hit prior to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime 1997). But in his decade as a Nikkatsu contract director with an output as eclectic as Suzuki’s, he developed a personal style and vision every bit as striking as those of such contemporaries in the Japanese New Wave as Imamura, Masumura, Nagisa Oshima and Hiroshi Teshigahara. And by making this selection of his films available, Criterion have once more done us invaluable service.