Wednesday, September 12, 2007

日活

Even if you don't read Japanese, those two kanji characters in this blog post's title should be familiar to you, if you're a fan of '60s and '70s Japanese cinema. They appeared on the opening logo for films produced by Nikkatsu Studios, the oldest of the major studios, and the one that arguably produced the greatest number of the country's most popular cinema stars.

A project we've been working on for most of 2007 is finally coming to fruition: an eight-film retrospective of Nikkatsu Action films produced in the studio's fruitful period between the late 1950s and 1971, when the entire output of the company was shifted to Roman Porno, in a response to declining box office.

This series, entitled No Borders, No Limits: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Films, launches later this month with a pair of events. The first, chronologically, will occur at Fantastic Fest, a neat genre film festival now in its third year, and held at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in downtown Austin, Texas. Their mini-series, entitled "Violent Nikkatsu," will present three films from the series.

The first, on September 24th, is the chilly, noir-inspired, widescreen black-and-white hitman saga A Colt is My Passport (1967), starring Jo Shishido and featuring many similarities to Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill, produced the same year. This movie is one of my personal favorites of the series (the other being Toshio Masuda's spectacular Gangster VIP, but you'll have to wait until 2008 to see that one), and I think it gives the better-known Suzuki film a run for its money. It's not nearly as stylish or crazy, but that's not its intention - it's simply a lean, mean, sparse story of survival boiled down to its essence: tough killer, sympathetic partner, cruel bad guys, and a difficult situation. There's the same kind of weapons fetishism presented in Branded, plus a good dose of the kind of Platonic homoerotic relationship we'd later see in gangster movies from John Woo, plus a mind-bending finale featuring an armored sedan, an open plain, and a time bomb.


The second film at Fantastic Fest (on September 26th) will be another one from 1967, director Toshio Masuda's freewheeling crime movie Like a Shooting Star, better-known in the U.S. under its alternate title, The Velvet Hustler. (Even though it's about guys in the mob, it's too light-hearted for me to call it a "gangster movie.") The film stars Tokyo Drifter Tetsuya Watari as Goro, a Tokyo gangster who flees to western Kobe to hide out after a hit. A year goes by, and he's bored and dying to return to the cosmopolitan, big city, but complications ensue in the form of a cop on his tail, a hitman out to get him, and a beautiful heiress who comes into his life but might be bad news. The plot devices are rote and cliched, but what sells this film is its hip style and likable characters - even the hitman (Shishido again!) gets a few good scenes and has a personality of his own. Masuda was the top director at Nikkatsu during the 1960s, and was chosen to helm many of the studio's biggest projects, including most of the films starring top studio draw Yujiro Ishihara. (He was also one of the two directors of the Japanese portions of the Pearl Harbor re-creation war film Tora! Tora! Tora!, the other director being Kinji Fukasaku!) Masuda certainly is at the top of his game here, but he's aided immeasurably by one of Suzuki's frequent collaborators: genius art director Takeo Kimura, who creates a jazzy world of colorful nightclubs, dark hideouts and lonesome streets. Again, it may not be as over-the-top as his work on Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter and other films, but such restraint allows the filmmakers (and the viewer) to concentrate more on the terrific performances of its charismatic cast.

The final film in Austin's mini-series screens on September 25th, and it's a doozy. Koreyoshi Kurahara's The Warped Ones is known by several alternate titles: its Japanese title literally translates to Season of Heat, and it was given a theatrical release in the U.S. in the 1960s (in English-dubbed form) by Radley Metzger's Audubon Films as The Weird Lovemakers (a title that would also grace a Something Weird Video VHS release of the film). When the movie came out in 1960 in Japan, it was part of a short-lived "movement" of films about rich youth living idly and acting out amongst a background of surf, sun and sand. Called "Sun Tribe" movies, these films created enough of an outrage among mainstream moviegoers and politicians that there was a call for them to be stopped. Yujiro Ishihara's star vehicle Crazed Fruit (directed by Ko Nakahira) is one of the more notable Sun Tribe movies, and was even graced with a Criterion Collection DVD release, at the behest of film critic Donald Richie. (Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth could be seen as inspired by the popularity of the Sun Tribe movies, too.) Anyway, The Warped Ones trumps them all, and in our opinion is a much better film than the more "important" Oshima movie. Tamio Kawachi stars as one of the most antisocial characters ever presented in a youth film, especially considering the time the film was made. While the youngsters in Crazed Fruit and Cruel Story pick a pocket or two and swap girlfriends, Kawachi and his gang rape and terrorize their way across a beach community in a manner that wouldn't be seen again until the 1970s with the rise of punk cinema. Fueled by a relentless jazz soundtrack and some amazing hand-held camerawork (widescreen, to boot), Warped Ones should be a real discovery for filmgoers who think that late 50s foreign cinema has to be slow and boring.

In conjunction with the launch of the film series, all the Austin screenings will be introduced by Tokyo-based film critic Mark Schilling, who originally programmed a larger version of the series for the Udine Far East Film Festival back in 2005, and who has written a book on the genre that will be published by FAB Press in early October. Early copies of the book will be available for sale at the Austin screenings, as well.

After our Texas adventure, the series moves to my current hometown of New York City, where we'll be screening Colt on Friday night, September 28th, at Japan Society on East 47th Street. As in Austin, Mark Schilling will be introducing the film, and the screening will be followed by a reception and book signing. The night also kicks off a new series at JS called "Monthly Classics," which will present ongoing screenings of films selected by film world personalities. Mark's picks are, of course, the eight Nikkatsu films, which will continue to screen from early November to May of 2008. The full Japan Society schedule is currently online.

So what's next for the series? Well, we are currently in talks with a number of other cinematheques around the country and in Canada, and we hope to place the series (or a selection of its films) in several of these venues for screenings in the first half of 2008. Keep your fingers crossed, film fans, and if you're living in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or Seattle, you might just have some Japanese Action coming your way!

8 Comments:

Anonymous ms said...

Also in America ?
In Paris, next month, a huge Nikkatsu retrospective will be screened at the "Maison De La Culture Et Du Japon À Paris". I'm saying that, because most of the movies will be subtitled in ENGLISH ! I mean even Branded To Kill (which was released in france by HK Vidéo) !

To give some names : Tatsumi Kumashiro, Ko Nakahira, Buichi Sato, Toshio Masuda, Koreyoshi Kurahara, Shôhei Imamura, Sadao Yamanaka, Shinji Sômai, Toshiya Fujita (M. Lady Snowblood)... So yes, there'll be action, sex, violence and a lot of classics.

Check the complete schedule

In one word : 日活 :)

(But unfortunately most of them won't be released in dvd.. and a roman porno box has just been canceled... I hope your work will be successful in America)

10:26 AM  
Blogger 追放マーク said...

Dear ms,

Thanks for the kind words and congratulations on your terrific website, Wild Grounds. (Did you noticed I've got it in my list of links?) Even with my limited French ability, I enjoy the stuff you post there daily.

I am aware of the MCJP festival in Paris, and am desperately envious that I can't make it there for any of the screenings. I didn't realize that most of the films will be subtitled in English - that's fantastic. Do you know offhand if the actual prints will be subtitled, or whether they're doing digital subtitle projection? I assume the latter, for French subtitles, but are the English subtitles burned-in?

Only one of the eight films we're screening is going to also be showing in Paris, and that's Toshio Masuda's RED HANDKERCHIEF. The programming of the series is really great, equally balanced between the arthouse classics and Roman Porno and other genre films.

Enjoy the movies and you never know - maybe I can jet over there from Barcelona after the Sitges film festival!

10:53 AM  
Anonymous ms said...

«Do you know offhand if the actual prints will be subtitled, or whether they're doing digital subtitle projection? I assume the latter, for French subtitles, but are the English subtitles burned-in?»

From what i've heard about the MCJP screening, when they're announcing rare movies, it's not remastered prints. For example, the Seijun Suzuki's retro in June had poor prints with (apparently) burned english subs (like an old print). And when they're saying "VOSTA" (Version Originale Sous-titrée Anglais"), it means, no french subs on it at all. That's quite cruel but at least, some movies can be seen (well, by parisians... that's also cruel for a lot of french)

On the contrary with the Masumura retrospective (by La Cinémathèque) where most of the prints have French subtitles (especially done for the event !!).

I don't have any more informations about all that, if you want I can ask some people to confirm about how are the prints or try to mail them to get further informations (but I'm not sure they'll give me an answer).

Here are the screenings w/ English Subtitles :
02/10
19h30 Pigs and Battleships by Shôhei Imamura

03/10
14h Foundry Town (?) by Kirio Urayama (RARE)
16h30 Branded To Kill by Seijun Suzuki
19h30 Mud and Soldiers by Tomotaka Tasaka

04/10
14h Crazed Fruits by Kô Nakahira
16h30 Red Lantern (litteral translation) by Toshiya Fujita (RARE)
19h30 The Eternal Breasts by Kinuyo Tanaka (RARE)

05/10
14h The Insect Woman by Shôhei Imamura

06/10
14h Man Who Causes a Storm by Umetsugu Inoue (RARE)
19h30 Ah, My Home Town by Kenji Mizoguchi (RARE)

09/10
14h Matasaburô on the Wind by Kôji Shima (RARE)
19h30 Ruuju (?) by Takashi Ishi

10/10
14h Red Lantern (litteral translation) by Toshiya Fujita (RARE)
16h30 Man Who Causes a Storm by Umetsugu Inoue (RARE)
19h30 Ah, My Home Town by Kenji Mizoguchi (RARE)

11/11
14h Un type méprisable (?) by Koreyoshi Kurahara
16h30 La maison des perversités (?) by Noboru Tanaka

12/10
14h The Eternal Breasts by Kinuyo Tanaka (RARE)

13/10
14h Love Hotel by Shinji Sômai
16h30 Insect Woman by Shôhei Imamura
19h30 Pigs and Battleships by Shôhei Imamura

17/10
14h Mud and Soldiers by Tomotaka Tasaka
19h30 Matasaburô on the Wind by Kôji Shima (RARE)

18/10
19h30 Un type méprisable (?) by Koreyoshi Kurahara

20/10
14h Kurobara shôten (?) by Tatsumi Kumashiro (RARE)

27/10
14h Kurobara shôten (?) by Tatsumi Kumashiro (RARE)

Each (?) is when I don't know the english title (and when it's a pinku, it's quite impossible to find the original title...)

(and thanks, I'm honored to know you're reading me, sorry to be french, at least I hope you can fully enjoy videos and sounds, feelings are not a matter of languages)

2:02 PM  
Blogger 追放マーク said...

Dear ms,

Thanks again for the detailed listings. It's unfortunate that the site only lists the titles in their French translations, some of which are pretty fanciful. If they'd at least include the Japanese titles, we could look them up online and figure out what the films are.

And it looks like they're doing a lot of the English-only films for free! Amazing. You'd never get something like that in New York. Even the ones you have to pay for are only 3 or 4 Euros, it seems.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Nicholas Rucka said...

And it looks like they're doing a lot of the English-only films for free! Amazing. You'd never get something like that in New York. Even the ones you have to pay for are only 3 or 4 Euros, it seems.

Great films, indeed. And not to be NY centric, but these things don't really come to Los Angeles either!

3:18 PM  
Anonymous ms said...

«Thanks again for the detailed listings. It's unfortunate that the site only lists the titles in their French translations, some of which are pretty fanciful. If they'd at least include the Japanese titles, we could look them up online and figure out what the films are.»

No problem. I think details are coming for the end of the month, the MCJP always gives much more informations (like this example, you can even know what kind of print they're using - 16mm/35mm).
And you're right about the price :
normal is 4€, discount is 3€, it can also be free (meaning: a lot of curious - or not ?).

«Great films, indeed. And not to be NY centric, but these things don't really come to Los Angeles either!»

:p
In France it's nearly the same situation, there is Paris and everything else (but who cares ?).

(Btw, I think french would never say "Monsieur Blogger" (I like it) or "blogmeister" (you've just taught me this word) but "blogger" only. We're not Quebec ;p
Sapristi de tabernacle !)

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Very cool. Here's hoping the San Francisco talks go well :) I'd love to see these.

7:39 AM  
Anonymous ms said...

Just to let you know, you can now find the press release with more details (including original names kanji or romaji).

;)

4:09 PM  

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