Six years ago, the forty-third Lincoln Center New York Film Festival’s “The Beauty of the Everyday” retrospective celebrated a century-and-a-decade of Shochiku Company, a prolific survivor among Japan’s major studios. Now, a forty-ninth annual edition special sidebar showcases thirty-seven films for the centennial of genre-oriented Nikkatsu Corporation Studio.
Sidebar title “Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses” indicates the bent of Japan Cinematograph Company -- Nikkatsu, short for Nippon Katsudo Shashin Kabushiki Kaisha -- a cartel formed by consolidation in 1912 for three-quarters-of-an-hour shimpa, somewhat Westernized “new school” output. From the start, Japan was among the world’s great cinema cultures, though linguistic and cultural insularity kept that a secret abroad until Rashomon. The September 1923 earthquake, fire bombing during World War Two, cellulose nitrate deterioration -- married to Imperial and then Occupation censorship -- resulted in the physical loss of ninety percent of pre-1950 national productions. Thus, chronologically, aside from a twenty-one-minute fragment from 1921, the NYFF survey begins with a 1927 feature and continues, necessarily heavier on the last sixty years, on up to the devilish black humor of Sion Sono’s 2010 Cold Fish.
The first day of media and industry screenings was three back-to-back-to-back full lengths that illustrate as well as any small sample can, the variety within the staples of Nikkatsu: in the order of screening, sex, noirish trickery, and wartime chest-thumping.
Many viewers took offense at the first of them, A Woman with Red Hair/Akai kami no onna, as demeaning to women and indicative of a sick national male ego. But such is to miss both the point and, particularly, in our PC world, period. The 1979 Japanese award-nominated seventy-three minutes from Tatsumi Kumashiro rides the late crest of “roman-porno” (romantic pornography), the studio’s soft-to-medium-core erotica edging towards the famous pinku-eiga, pink films, and a supposedly more literary alternative to the blue films driven further underground for XVIII Olympiad image.
The story opens with a rape, when promoted-to-truck-detail laborer mates Kozo (Renji Ishibashi) and Takao (Kai Ato) force their boss’ not totally unwilling teen daughter. Driving through a seaside landscape of permanent torrential rains, they pick up the title redhead (famed erotic actress Junko Miyashita), for whom “any place’ll do” in her flight from husband, son and a cloudy past.
Kozo and the unnamed women live together in his place, where she is a disaster at housewifery but an insatiable fury in the sack, so constantly demanding that the man’s face reflects resignation rather than desire. At one point, after a fight, he even unhappily gives in to Takao’s insistence that he, too, make love to her, this despite the fact that the boss’ daughter is pregnant by him and planning for the two of them to elope during, of course, another downpour.
With a humorous “foam sex” scene, WRH is neither amoral nihilistic like the sidebar’s Breathless-variant 1960 The Warped Ones nor misogynistic like countryman Takeshi Miike’s erratic oeuvre, and is less degrading and banal in philosophy than Last Tango in Paris.
Humiliation, however, is the spur of Koreyoshi Kurahara’s stiletto-short 1960 Intimidation/Aru kyohaku, in which a justice-serving twist ending rewards years’ patient plotting to repay slights, bullying and kowtowing. Bank branch assistant manager Kyosuke Takita (Nobuo Kaneko) is promoted by his father-in-law owner to head a central office. Least among toadies at his send-off is self-debasing clerk Matakichi Nakaike (Kô Nishimura). Upbraided for timidity by his sister Yukio, who is to be discarded as Takita’s longtime mistress, the lowly employee had lost his youthful ladylove Kumiko to Takita and been defeated by him at every schoolboy competition.
The arrogant Takita, however, has been embezzling, and Shinji Kumaki (Kôjirô Kusanagi) shows up with proof and demands three million yen for silence. The terrified blackmailee shakily tries to rob his own bank and leave his former friend and now timorous employee as the fall guy. Things do not go as planned, though an inadvertent but convenient death-by-omission offers another way out, again victimizing the same patsy.
But worms do turn, as opposed to the understandably one-sided straightforward Mud and Soldiers aka Earth and Soldiers/Tsuchi to heitai by Tomotaka Tasaka. With a totally apt title, this narrative made by Japanese in China in 1939 must include actuality footage, especially in the long shots.
Far the longest of the three, it gets repetitious, but that is part of the purpose, from brief opening shipboard instructions through the long slog of Hirohito’s warriors across torrentially rainy country. The Corporal (Isamu Kosugi) leads his dedicated unit to one objective which, achieved, only leads on to another.
Only two men die, a messenger who despite difficulties is cremated for his ashes to be repatriated to the holy homeland and a youngster whose last breath praises Emperor and country. The few wounded, sick or exhausted are pained at being left behind and rejoin their comrades ASAP. No enemies are shown, stereotypes or otherwise, solely an infant left among massacred refugees -- perpetrators are only intimated -- to be rescued of course by the concerned imperial invaders.
All this was before the postwar Tokyo tribunals and much later revelations in, for example, Nanking and John Rabe. But, aside from insisting on the ant-like unit as opposed to our trite individualized one Brooklynite, one Italian- and one Irish- (but no African-) American, this is not more slanted than Allied war film fare of the era. Antiwar sentiment came as early as this sidebar’s 1956 The Burmese Harp, but, however obvious, the full airing of both sides’ own atrocities would have to wait decades.
(A Woman with Red Hair was released by Image Entertainment. The film is not rated by MPAA.)