Yasuzo Masumura: Passion and Excess

1 June 2010
picture: Yasuzo Masumura: Passion and Excess


One of the key influences on Japan's new wave, venerated by Nagisa Oshima, the subject of Western auteurist study as early as 1970 - there are those who consider Yasuzo Masumura to be Japanese cinema's fourth master. Other voices, on the contrary, point to his reliance on genre tropes and excess as proof that the director of such films as Giants and Toys, Red Angel and The Blind Beast is undeserving of such plaudits.

Born on August 25, 1924, Yasuzo Masumura was an active filmgoer from a young age. A lucky one too, since one of his childhood friends was the son of a theatre owner, so that throughout much of his youth, Masumura watched movies for free. In his late teens he entered the law department of Tokyo University, but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army at the later stages of the Pacific War. As with later Daiei colleague Kenji Misumi, few details are known about Masumura's tenure in the Imperial armed forces, but the fact that he didn't return to Japan until 1947 indicates that he too was likely made prisoner of war after the conflict ended.

picture: films by Yasuzo Masumura

After his return to Japan, Masumura showed himself hungry for knowledge. He finished his studies and joined the Daiei studio as an assistant director in late 1947. This job gained him enough money to finance a return to university. He graduated as a philosophy major in 1951, all the while continuing to work at Daiei. The following year Masumura was awarded a scholarship that allowed him to depart for Rome to study at the Centro Sperimentale Cinematografico, where, according to some reports, he struck up a friendship with Michelangelo Antonioni. Returning to Japan and Daiei in 1955, he became assistant director to Kenji Mizoguchi, Daisuke Ito and Kon Ichikawa before making his own directorial debut in 1957 with Kisses (Kuchizuke), the story of a romance between a delivery boy and an artist's model. The market for this type of youth film was a large one at the time, discovered a year earlier through the unexpected success of Seasons of the Sun (Taiyo no Kisetsu, directed by Takumi Furukawa), a Nikkatsu-produced adaptation of Shintaro Ishihara's novel about the hedonistic lives of post-war youth. The film launched the vogue of taiyozoku, literally 'sun tribe', films and the career of a new breed of movie star in the shape of the novelist's younger brother Yujiro Ishihara.

Despite the genre's popularity, Masumura's debut didn't fare well at the box office, due, according to some accounts, to the unusual speed and rhythm Masumura gave the film. What with Japanese film studios each turning out close to a hundred films a year for film-hungry audiences, a single flop didn't carry grave consequences for those involved. All talent was under contract and demand for features was so high that no studio could afford to lay off its employees so easily. Masumura consequently made two more films the same year. His second, The Blue Sky Maiden (Aozora Musume), starred Ayako Wakao, a rising young starlet in the Daiei ranks who would become the director's favourite leading actress - even if their working relationship would prove rather tempestuous: in 1970, in an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Masumura called her "selfish and calculating […] she's hardly a pure-hearted woman and she knows it."

Mentoring the new wave

It was his fifth film Giants and Toys (Kyojin to Gyangu, 1958) that brought Masumura his first success and recognition. Although sources report that the mainstream press was largely hostile to Masumura's idiosyncratic style of filmmaking, the director found himself an early supporter in a young Nagisa Oshima, then an aspiring director at Shochiku studios and film critic. In a series of essays, Oshima lauded Masumura for his "sharp sociological perceptions" and claimed the Daiei director as an influence on his own filmmaking - which led to the birth of the Japanese New Wave.

The 1960s saw Masumura coming fully into his own. During this decade he directed his best films, while working at an average pace of three to four films a year. He penetrated the upper echelon of Daiei's director hierarchy - alongside former mentors Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa - and was assigned a succession of prestigious literary adaptations, bringing to the screen the works of Junichiro Tanizaki (Tattoo / Shisei in 1964, Manji in 1965, and Love of an Idiot / Chijin no Ai in 1967), Genjiro Yoshida (Seisaku's Wife / Seisaku no Tsuma, 1965), and Yasunari Kawabata (Thousand Cranes / Senbazuru, 1964), among others.

picture: films by Yasuzo Masumura

A set of themes and preoccupations soon emerged in Masumura's films. Chief among these is human passion. Functioning in a more general sense through the youthful protagonist in first few efforts, this trope would gradually fixate more and more on the erotic, as in his many adaptations of Tanizaki and Edogawa Rampo. Indeed, eroticism and cruelty would often go hand in hand, with Masumura revealing himself as an heir to the erotic-grotesque tradition that originated in Japan's relatively liberal if brief Taisho-era (1912-1925).

This is where the presence of the luscious Ayako Wakao adds an extra dimension. She excelled as the untouchable, manipulative but irresistible femme fatale in films like Tattoo and Manji. More than simply genre archetypes, the characters she played were strong-willed women who saw in their sexuality a way to liberate themselves from the habitual oppression they suffered in society. As more than a few critics and historians have argued, sexuality, whether acted out or imagined, is one of the rare areas in which Japanese society - past and present - allows for the existence of individuality, meaning that sex and eroticism can become instruments of political freedom. The country's extensive legacy of political sex films by the likes of Koji Wakamatsu and Tetsuji Takechi would seem to support this reading, but the argument would be most famously explored by Nagisa Oshima with In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Koriida, 1976), in which an amour fou allows one couple to isolate themselves completely from the rapidly militarizing society around them.

The flipside to the coin

Another of Masumura's preferred tropes, which in effect forms the flipside to the coin, is formed by corporate life and the sacrifices, both human and moral, demanded by the post-war economic miracle. Films like Giants and Toys, Black Test Car (Kuro no Shisosha, 1963) and With My Husband's Consent (Otto go Mita, 1966) all take place in the world of corporate espionage and strict hierarchy, where, as American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum put it, "everyone winds up betraying everyone else because the system itself is intrinsically rotten". As applied by Masumura, this total subordination of individual wishes, qualities and personality is a mechanism shared by capitalism and militarism alike, and is very much fundamental to Japanese society at large. His war films like his 'corporate' films are parades of mindless characters dutifully going through menial tasks, be it advertising consumer goods, getting hit by enemy bullets, or amputating limbs. Nakano Spy School (Rikugun Nakano Gakko, 1966) chronicles the foundation of the titular institution on the eve of the Pacific War. To make up Japan's arrears in the field of military intelligence, fifteen elite soldiers are selected and trained in the art of espionage. For this, they have to leave their former lives behind them - families, wives and children included - and devote themselves body and soul to their duty. Faced with a climactic choice between his fiancée and his country, the protagonist played by Raizo Ichikawa chooses the latter, even knowing that this means having to assassinate the woman he loves.

picture: films by Yasuzo Masumura

In the same genre, Red Angel (Akai Tenshi, 1966) sees Ayako Wakao playing a field nurse in China during World War II whose only escape from the horrors of the front line and the pressures of her job comes in the shape of physical relationships with a crippled soldier and her surgeon superior. The drama culminates in a nightmare scenario in which the distant Japanese outpost is ravaged by a cholera epidemic while simultaneously coming under attack from Chinese forces. In a scene whose shadow looms large over In the Realm of the Senses (and which is repeated in the finale of The Blind Beast), Wakao and her superior officer retreat to the isolated safety of his bedstead, where neither war nor disease can penetrate.

picture: films by Yasuzo Masumura

Mothers and wives

This brings us to the third motif in Masumura's work, that of the plight and position of women. Here too, Ayako Wakao forms a crucial presence. In addition to the films mentioned above, in which her individual, sexual presence was the lynchpin, Masumura often cast her in roles that made her half of a pair of women either rivaling or complementing each other - which often comes down to the same thing. The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (Hanaoka Seishu no Tsuma, 1967) sees her vying with her mother-in-law for the affections of her surgeon husband, to the point where both volunteer to be guinea pigs for his medical experiments. Prior to that, Disorder (Tabare, 1961) and Thousand Cranes pitted her against an older woman (to underline the point, Masumura cast veteran stars as the aging antagonists: Machiko Kyo of Rashomon fame in Thousand Cranes, Hideko Takamine in The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka). Manji repeats the ménage-à-quatre scenario but shifts the conflict from a generational one to one of personality, with Kyoko Kishida playing the naïve foil for the worldwise Wakao's schemes.

picture: films by Yasuzo Masumura

Kenji Mizoguchi is often credited as a major influence on Masumura's depiction of women, but the director specified that it was not women's behaviour he sought to capture, but human behaviour. In the aforementioned interview with Cahiers du Cinéma he explained his approach thus: "I don't try to portray women. It's just that women are the more human. Men only live for women, all their lives they carry their burden the way a horse pulls his carriage, and then they die of a heart attack. Only by focusing on women can we express humanity. I don't choose women so I can talk about women. I'm not a specialist of women's issues like Mizoguchi is."

The Call-Up

Masumura's perceptive treatment and critique of Japanese society come to the fore most clearly in his war films, in which all the aforementioned themes tend to combine. In Seisaku's Wife (Seisaku no Tsuma, 1965), Wakao has only her feminine wiles to aid her in her struggle to keep her husband from being shipped off to the front. Acting with total contempt for the customs and traditions of the small countryside village in which they live, she is a complete individual. When the call-up comes and the town eagerly wishes to see Seisaku become their local war hero, she pokes out his eyes so that he is not only unable to fulfil his duties, but also becomes entirely dependent on her.

The director's own experiences on the front obviously and inevitably shaped his excursions into the genre, as they did for the work of many of his contemporaries, including Seijun Suzuki, Masaki Kobayashi and Kihachi Okamoto. Although at face value the drastic measure taken by Seisaku's wife or the nurse's erotic games with an armless soldier could be seen as twisted and disturbed, the insanity of the war against which they take place makes them look positively wholesome in comparison. One of the best examples of this contrast was also one of the director's biggest commercial successes, Hoodlum Soldier (Heitai Yakuza, 1965), which stars Shintaro Katsu as a yakuza reluctantly shipped to the Manchurian front, where he fraternises with a pacifist sergeant (Takahiro Tamura, who also played the draftee Seisaku). The director portrayed the goings-on in the barracks and on the battlefield as utter insanity, making his insubordinate heroes come across as the sanest and most human characters. Throughout Masumura's films - all the way up to his far-out entry in the Hanzo the Razor series, The Snare - perversion (in its original meaning of bending the rules, but also in its more common sexual connotation) and transgression are pathways to personal freedom.

Amour fou

Seen in this light, Masumura's increasing penchant for the erotically grotesque becomes a logical development. Red Angel's sex scenes between the angelic Wakao and the disabled soldier played by Yusuke Kawazu (who also played the actress's partner in crime in Manji) echo the Edogawa Rampo novella The Caterpillar, which revolves around an officer who has returned from the war a mute, limbless torso and who becomes the hapless foil for his wife's increasingly sadistic erotic whims.

The apex is formed by the adaptation of Rampo's The Blind Beast (Moju, 1969), in which the kidnapping of a young artist's model by a blind sculptor leads to a Stockholm syndrome-induced amour fou between culprit and victim, culminating in bodily dismemberment. What makes the film great is that it is intensely erotic in spite of the ostensible nastiness of the plot. The great move by Masumura and his scriptwriter Yoshio Shirasaka was that they expanded one of Rampo's weaker novellas by replaying the mother-versus-lover rivalry from The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka, giving the blind sculptor a domineering old hag of a mother (Noriko Sengoku), while the heroine (played by young stage actress Mako Midori, now that Wakao had become far too big a star for these kinds of roles) attempts to manipulate her captor's Oedipal tendencies and self-loathing.

picture: films by Yasuzo Masumura

Similarly bloody is the fate of the doomed lovers in Double Suicide in Sonezaki (Sonezaki Shinju), Masumura's 1978 Art Theatre Guild production. Their illicit passion for each other knows no bounds, even in death. To spell out the inevitable fate of those who seek freedom through transgression, the director left ero-guro behind and returned to an older source, Monzaemon Chikamatsu's bunraku plays. By embracing the exaggerated performance style and two-dimensional archetypal characters, Masumura seemed to deliver an ironic final comment on his own preoccupations. Certainly after the far-out, comic-book antics of The Snare there was no way he could have gone back to playing it straight.

Still, even in the occasionally giggle-inducing Double Suicide in Sonezaki, one can notice a double-edged sword at play: death and oblivion are less the karmic fate of the transgressor than the logical vanishing point of authoritarian and totalitarian folly. The nurse is the only person left alive when the charge on the outpost is over in Red Angel. And the corpse of a Japanese infantryman decomposing in the Manchurian mud in the opening scene is a dark vision of the inescapable future of men at arms, an image that serves to put the madcap goings-on in the barracks into perspective.