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KVIFF 2023: A Yasuzô Masumura Retrospective

"The Red Angel"

Many filmmakers from post-war Japan have had major career reassessments in the last few years. A handful of Yūzō Kawashima’s films were featured on MUBI in 2020. Restorations of actress-turned-director Kinuyo Tanaka’s six-film directorial efforts screened at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and have since been programmed in theaters around the United States. Criterion Channel is currently featuring a wonderful selection from wild man Seijun Suzuki. The eclectic films of Yasuzô Masumura are the next ready for new audiences to rediscover. 

When I saw that this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival included an eleven-film retrospective of Japanese New Wave filmmaker Yasuzô Masumura’s work, I immediately knew I was going to plan my festival around this rare opportunity, and I was not disappointed. While a handful of Masumura’s films were screened at the Metrograph in New York City in 2021, the selection at the festival, which was programmed by curator Joseph Fahim, included several rarities that have not been widely screened outside of Japan. From the packed houses I saw at the festival, I was not the only one excited by the possibilities in Masumura’s diverse filmography. 

Masumura’s winding path to film included studying law and philosophy at university. In 1952 he won a scholarship to study in Italy with Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Luchino Visconti at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. Upon returning to Japan, he worked for several years as a second-unit director for Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa. While the influence of all these filmmakers pulses through the vast genres and themes Masumura explored, right from his very first film, the Sun Tribe teen angst picture “Kisses,” Masumura established his unique worldview, combining the genre’s freewheeling nihilism with social commentary. 

Masumura made 58 films in almost every conceivable genre in his decades-long career, mostly at Daiei Studios. There he found his muse and longest-running collaborator in actress Ayako Wakao, who appeared in twenty of his features. One aspect of Masumura and Wakao that set them apart from their peers was this adaptability to work in any film genre, and together they brought to life a cadre of distinctly memorable characters. Of the eleven films screened in the retrospective, five featured Wakao, offering a rich sampling of her tremendous talent. From an unflappably cheery schoolgirl to a wife on trial for her husband’s murder to a beguiling bisexual art student caught up with a married couple to a woman sold into sex work bent on revenge to a war nurse attempting to cling to her humanity, Wakao’s shrewd intelligence shines through in each of her unique performances. 

The collaboration last highlighted in the retrospective is perhaps the greatest of Masumura’s anti-war films, a thematic perspective he explored throughout his career. Set towards the end of the Sino-Japanese War, in the melodrama “The Red Angel,” Wakao plays a war nurse named Sakura (literally cherry blossoms) who sees firsthand how war brings out the worst in people. Even after being brutalized by a ward of soldiers and falling for a doctor who has become addicted to morphine to dull out the fact that he’s no more than an arbiter of death, she attempts to cling to her inherent kindness and humanism. 

On the other end of the genre spectrum is “Hoodlum Soldier,” a war comedy a la “M*A*S*H” or “Stalag 17,” in which Shintarô Katsu (best known as the titular lead in the “Zatoichi” series) is a hoot as Omiya, a kind-hearted, yet hell-raising ex-Yakuza, who forms an unlikely friendship with the intellectual Arita (Takahiro Tamura), who is just doing his best to wait out his time in the army doing the least he can. Masumura uses cartoonish humor to critique the brutality inherent in the military-industrial complex and the humanizing effect camaraderie can have among the soldiers, even amongst rampant violence, machismo, and blind patriotism. 

He explores this same thread of blind loyalty to the Army in “Nakano Spy School,” in which a group of college-educated soldiers are recruited for the titular spy school. Their training pushes them to abandon their morals—and even those they love—for their country’s future. In one bleak sequence, a group member makes a grave error in judgment after falling in love with a bar hostess, only for his cohort to pressure him into an honorable death by suicide so the school can save face. 

Masumura’s fascination with the lingering effects of war on Japanese society also found its way into more contemporary set films. For example, in the pitch-black film noir “Black Test Car,” we see how ex-military men brought their same deadly methods to corporations. In the film, as two rival car companies attempt to bring the first sports car to the market, their employees resort to espionage, blackmail, extortion, and sabotage. Again, Masumura asks his viewers to think critically about the pitfalls of placing loyalty—in this case, to one’s employer—over one’s humanity. 

While the 1960s saw a rise in Japanese noir, many of these films—like the popular Nikkatsu noir and Yakuza films—centered on the criminal underworld as it adapted to modern times. Masumura, however, used the genre to expose the criminality embedded in what was considered just regular business tactics and found ways to bring these noir sentiments to other genres. 

Although it doesn’t end nearly as bleakly, the Frank Tashlin-eque comedy “Giants and Toys” is a candy-colored critique of this same loyalty to corporations. In a clever nod to the absurdity of the space race, the film traces two caramel corporations attempting to corner the market through any means necessary. Caught in the middle is the working class Kyōko (an irrepressible Hitomi Nozoe), who becomes an instant celebrity after becoming a poster girl. As brightly colored as pop art and with sparkling dialogue as fizzy as Coca-Cola, Masumura’s film is chock full of laughs and eye candy while deftly critiquing capitalism's craven desire to sell us things we do not need and the intense planning that goes into the manufacturing a celebrity. 

Like his one-time mentor Kenji Mizoguchi, Masumura’s films often centered on women, exploring how the patriarchy of Japanese society put undue pressure on them to act as moral compasses and to put the needs of men, family, and the nation above their own. Masumura’s women, whether in his period or contemporary set films, rankle against this oppression, always pushing towards a sense of autonomy, although they don’t always achieve this end.

This is seen even in his first feature, “Kisses,” also starring Hitomi Nozoe. A twist on the popular Sun Tribe genre of youth films, Nozoe plays Akiko, a girl torn between paying her father’s bail and her mother’s medical bills while also finding herself swept up in youthful dalliances like going to the beach and dancing to pop songs with Kinichi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), whose father is also in jail. Through the plight of these two characters, Masumura explores the tension between their youthful desire to embrace newfound freedom and the family loyalty that ties them to the mistakes of a previous generation. Though largely an optimistic film, there are kernels of Masumura’s trademark criticism of the imbalanced pressure placed on women in society.

This theme is picked up in the Sirkian melodrama “A Cheerful Girl/Blue Sky Maiden,” in which Wakao is a ray of sunshine as Yûko, a girl raised in the country “for her health,” only to discover upon her high school graduation that she was the result of an affair between her office president father and one of his employees. As she makes her way from the bucolic paradise of her seaside schooling, Masumura signifies the drastic differences in the city by having her first encounter with a queer-coded character and a ranting doomsday conspiracy at the train station. But rather than find safety and security once at her father’s home, she finds herself in the middle of the tension between modernity and tradition. While her father’s family loves things like Western fashions, orange soda, jazz, and ping pong, they cannot accept her as a sister because she is the product of an affair. Although she takes everything in stride, her sunny disposition only serves to aid Masumura’s deft critique of the crumbling facade of the nuclear family, which has been beyond repair long before her arrival. 

Masumura’s fascinations with both women’s place in society and the damaging effects of misogyny collide in the courtroom drama “The Wife’s Confession,” which, funny enough, actually has a lot in common with this year’s Palme d’Or winner “Anatomy of a Fall.” Both films blend the structure of courtroom room drama with the character studies examining the blistering decay of marriages gone bad. Once again, Masumura crafts a film that gives Wakao a platform to display her acting prowess. While on stand deafening her decision to cut her husband’s ropes during a hiking accident, Wakao is reserved, delicate, a pale flower. But in the more melodramatic sequences, we see how the pressures of living under oppressive misogyny can push any woman to the edge of extreme emotional breakdown. 

These emotional extremes also find their way into Masumura’s most transgressive films. This includes his adaptations of the works of novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, two of which were included in the retrospective. Masumura’s penchant for finding the violent undercurrent in any situation makes him a perfect match for Tanizaki’s sadomasochistic eroticism. 

In “Manji,” based on Tanizaki’s 1928 novel of the same name (which wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1994), Wakao stars as Mitsuko, a fashionable art student, who beguiles fellow student, the more traditional—and married— Sonoko (Kyōko Kishida). As the film progresses, the women’s bond intensifies from admiration of each other’s beauty to a carnal obsessiveness that pulls in Mitsuko’s possessive, impotent fiance Eijirō Watanuki (Yūsuke Kawazu), and Sonoko’s incredibly understanding husband Kotaro Kakiuchi (Eiji Funakoshi). Although not as visually explicit as some of Masumura’s later erotic works, the film takes the audience on an unforgettably deranged, pansexual odyssey into the perils of unchecked desire, jealousy, and possession.

The first film I saw from the retrospective was “The Spider Tattoo.” I knew I’d be in for a good time when I saw Tanizaki's name in its opening credits. Shot in seering Eastmancolor (those reds!), this proto-rape-revenge film is an adaptation of Tanizaki's 1910 story Shisei (The Tattooer). The film opens with a woman forcibly having a giant spider with the head of a fanged woman tattooed on her back—her delicate skin is considered the greatest canvas for the deranged tattooist. She is Otsuya, the strong-willed but naive daughter of a businessman who, after running away with her lover, is tricked into a life of sexual servitude. Featuring another fierce performance from Wakao, Masumura brings violence to the forefront towards women and as a means for women to assert their bodily autonomy. Yet, this is not pure exploitation cinema. Masumura mines the situation to once again critique the emotional violence of the society that forced Otsuya into the position where she finds herself. 

These themes come to a head in “Blind Beast,” often considered Masumura's last great masterpiece, made just as his home studio Daiei Film folded financially. The most explicit in terms of its sexual content and its violence, the film centers on a blind sculptor (Eiji Funakoshi), who, along with his mother (Noriko Sengoku), kidnaps a model (Mako Midori, who gives one of the most viscerally compelling, physically demanding performances I’ve ever seen) so that he can pioneer a new form of “sensation” based art. With shades of “The Collector," “La Captive,” and even "Boxing Helena,” Masumura pushes the boundaries of believability—and taste—to explore the dangerous yet alluring power of giving into sensual pleasure above all else. I almost wish I had watched this film last, as sharing its deranged denouement with a packed audience was the most memorable experience I had throughout the festival. 

Few directors working in any country can boast a filmography as diverse in genre and theme as Masumura, and it’s clear from this impressive retrospective that despite the many surface-level differences between his many films, he is a filmmaker of unwavering persistence of vision. It’s also clear from the reaction from festival goers to this retrospective that his works still speak directly to modern viewers. Hopefully, this delicious sampling of his work not only finds its way to even more audiences all over the globe but also spurs a complete reexamination—and maybe a release in some form or other—of the rest of his diverse body of work. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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