Yasuzo Masumura - Blind Beast (1969)

Another one from Masumura. And Blind Beast is definitely the most crazy and fucked up, but also the sexiest of the bunch I have seen so far. Upon viewing all these films, it becomes increasingly clear to me why Masumura has been such an influence on the Japanese New Wave and beyond. His films continue to be important even today, as Blind Beast contains quiet a few elements (from the haunting symphony-like score to the possessed characters who roam about dark sets) that Chang-Wok Park, for example, rehashed profusely in his own cinema.

Michio, a blind masseur and sculptor, kidnaps the beautiful model Aki and brings her to his studio. He has converted the space into a sort of shrine dedicated to the senses. Giant replica of different body parts (eyes, ears, mouths, hands, legs, female breasts, etc) adorn the walls. And in the middle of the room, there are two giant sculptures of female bodies (resembling the oversized woman in one of the dream sequences in Almodovar's Hable Con Ela). Michio wants to make a sculpture of Aki that is supposed to be his ultimate masterpiece, thus inventing a new art form, the art of the senses, an art from a blind man for blind men. And what begins as a simple kidnapping story degenerates fairly quickly into a wired S&M-love story that ends with both of the main characters heading to certain death (although Masumura's camera is quiet ambiguous whether Michio and Aki are really dead at the end of the film).

The script has many, many problems, one of them being that it's thematically all over the place, but it seems to me that Blind Beast can be read as a very fierce critique of love. As Michio chases after Aki in his studio and they both climb the giant female bodies while eyes and ears observe them from the walls, I couldn't help but think that this sequence in particular addressed how tedious flirtations can be in a world where gender roles are still pretty much engraved in stone, every move of men and women is observed and judged by society, the whole spiel being dominated by women's sexuality and whether or not men can find access to it. The script then focuses on Michio's loneliness as a blind man and virgin. And in order to give us the spectacular finale, the script goes on to spend quiet some time on how our main protagonists finally hook up for real. But once they do, Masumura goes completely nuts.

The couple engages in what seems to be days of a time of constant touching and love making until one day Aki goes blind as well. The overly literal metaphor that love makes blind is followed by a long descent of Michio and Aki into utter madness, as they begin to hurt each other by biting or cutting because the simple act of love making is not enough for them anymore. Here, Masumura seems to offer that love not only robs us of objectiveness (at the beginning of the film, Michio gives a long speech about how sight is the most superior of the senses) but acts ultimately like a drug. It numbs all of our senses and forces us to act foolishly in order to feel alive. Maybe here, hurting someone else by cutting into his thigh to feel alive can be equated with committing adultery in order to escape the routine of a relationship. In any case, the couple begins to suck each other's blood. Here, Masumura gets obvious again: by numbing our senses, love literally sucks the life out of us. It is only logic then, that Aki demands of Michio at the end that he cuts her in pieces in a final act of sado-masochism. The moment where she feels most alive is the moment she will die and maybe, in a more functional relationship, this would be the instant she leaves her lover to go on with her own life. After Michio does as told, he throws himself into the blade and collapses on top of Aki's body.

Certainly not Masumura's best film, not by a long stretch, but a very memorable one. I am not sure if there actually is a common theme here but a second viewing should bring more clarity.

Yasuzo Masumura - Giants And Toys (1958)

My fascination with Masumura continues. This time, we have Giants And Toys which was, by all accounts, Masumura's first real box office hit. And it is the most successful of his films I have seen so far. As always with Masumura, it is almost impossible to summarize the plot in a few sentences, but the film centers on two advertisement executives, the veteran Gondo and his fresh out of college apprentice Nishi, who discover Kyoko, a girl with bad teeth and ugly clothes and make her the mascot of their campaign for caramel sweets. She goes on to become a star and wants to pursue her dream of becoming a singer and actress, while the two men who discovered her have to fight for their integrity, mental sanity and jobs.

More than a simple satire, Giants And Toys is a fierce critique of Japan's unleashed capitalism in the 1950's. Masumura already touched on this subject matter in Kisses, his feature debut, but he makes it much more explicit in this film. The first shot of the movie is of a large crowd of men wearing suits and ties, on their way to work, all looking identical, all suppressing their inner-selves for the illusion of a decent wage and economic freedom. And immediately, the characters not only start arguing about sales, commercials and profitability, but discuss whether or not the western model of economics is superior to the Japanese, until one of the characters exclaims "America is Japan!" (When Kyoko is featured on the cover page of a magazine, one of the editors says "Kyoko is a bigger hit than the James Dean special edition", which underlines Masumura's contempt of Japan's obsession with applying western-style economics to a completely different indigenous culture). Capitalism then is scrutinized and dissected in all its unhumanness: "sales are everything" and "I'll do anything for money" are just a few quotes from characters who give themselves plainly to this philosophy of pure profitability (Masumura also critiques the unrelenting nature of capitalism, when one of the characters offers "If we stop and think, we'll be crushed")

It is no wonder then, that the few characters who don't believe in this particular brand of capitalism and/or insist on more traditional Japanese values are depicted as weak, sick, dying, or all of these together. When Nishi finds out that his best friend double-crossed him to make a quick buck and reminds him of their childhood, his friend simply hurls at him: "These days are over. Forget them!" When Gondo's superior questions his add campaign, the creative over-achiever simply tells the old man "you're outdated. You should resign". Everyone who admonishes this crazy race for profit and market-share is laughed at and ridiculed. Humanistic values don't seem to go with an economic model that has no regard for everyday people and is exclusively directed towards the future.

Thus, Masumura frames the scenes in which executives and suit wearing lemmings conceive of add campaigns and seemingly make decisions in wide angles, populating the space with a lot of different people who all have an individual but ultimately meaningless tasks, suggesting a nation full of bustling energy, but with no clue as to where to direct it sensibly. On the other hand, when Masumura films individuals, he frames them lopsidedly, upside-down, or otherwise quizzically. Even in private life, the director seems to tell us, communication is malfunctioning and the picture has to be straightened out.

Giants And Toys is a full-blown success on many levels and highly recommended.

Yasuzo Masumura - Afraid To Die (1960)

Afraid To Die is a by the book (some might say generic) Yakuza story. Takeo (played by novelist Yukio Mishima) is released from prison, has to settle an old feud with a rival gang, falls in love with a civilian, Yoshie, gets her pregnant and tries to leave the gangster life behind him only to get bitten in the ass by it at the end. But the script has fun with the characters, twists and turns occur at every corner and the film releases a raw energy that prevents it from feeling too bland.

One theme the screenwriters Hideo Ando and Ryuzo Kikoshima toy with a lot is the idea of two worlds colliding. The phrase "maybe this is true in your world, but not in mine" is used in different variations in exchanges between gangsters and civilians, and I wonder if Masumura had as much contempt for the Yakuza as Akira Kurosawa did. One of the civilians says at one point: "in your world, the only thing that counts is who dies first".

It is precisely this idea of different worlds that plays into Takeo and Yoshie's love story. He is fascinated by her precisely because she refuses to take part in his lifestyle and tries to impose the more stable life of a civilian on him. But that also drives him mad. So mad in fact that, towards the end, he almost beats her to death. And the film seems to suggest that the both worlds of Yakuza and civilian life are not permeable. When Takeo finally decides to leave the gangster life, he (spoiler alert!) gets killed in the end nonetheless (he collapses on an ascending escalator which could indicate that he finally did the right choice and repented enough to deserve to go to heaven after all).

This idea of two worlds is also reflected in the framing of the action. As the story suggests, Masumura asserts that one cannot escape the world one has chosen to live in. The story begins in a prison, the day of Takeo's release, and the idea of imprisonment dictates the way he frames the characters. Most of the time, three characters populate a scene at a time, so that Masumura always positions them in a triangle and frames the speaking protagonist as he if he were captured between the two other characters. And if the characters are not trapped between human beings, they are trapped between objects. The narrow spaces and gutters and low-ceiling rooms the action takes place leaves them no escape - no matter if they're gangster or civilian.

A fast paced and fun ride, although it is surely by far not Masumura's best.

Yasuzo Masumura - Irezumi (1966)

Another interesting film by Masumura, although it drags a bit towards the end. Otsuya is a beautiful young woman coming from a middle-class family. When she gets abducted and forced into geisha life, she catches the eye of a tattoo artist who marks her back with a horrific spider. From there on, mayhem ensues as virtually every man who interacts with Otsuya gets killed. At the very end, almost all the characters we have encountered over the course of the film are dead.

Whereas Kisses, the first film I ever saw from Masumura, was an intimate character piece, Irezumi (Japanese for Tattoo) is a plot-driven revenge story, a sexy costume piece that verges on the melodramatic and pulpy. The story moves along quickly and characters get killed off with no remorse (the most disturbing death scene is without a doubt the very first one, where Shinsuke, Otsuya's lover, drives a knife through the scull of an assailant).

What sounds like a simple guilty pleasure, is, upon the first viewing, indeed just that. The story is, at times, all over the place and can't find its focus thematically. There is a common trait to most characters, in that they get killed over what they want most: being with Otsuya. But Otsuya's actions are not rooted into any sensible emotion or want other than taking revenge. And for what it is, the movie works just fine.

The character of Shinsuke is another interesting piece to this film, as he starts the film as a pansy and goes on to kill three different people. He quarrels with himself and over his deeds and finally tries to kill Otsuya, only to be overpowered by her and stabbed to death himself. Unfortunately, neither his actions nor Otsuya's for that matter, make much sense by then, so that the spectator is pushed aside emotionally and cannot invest himself fully in the movie until the end.

Yasuzo Masumura - Kisses (1957)

Akiko and Kinichi meet in prison where they both visit their father. Kinichi has to come up with 100,000 yen to post bail for his dad. Akiko also needs 100,000 in order to pay the clinic where her mother is being treated for TB. They bet on a bike race and win a significant sum that they immediately spend the same afternoon on food, drinks and various activities. When Akiko asks the rebellious Kinichi to confess his love for her, the young man refuses and leaves her.

Yasuzo Masumura's directorial debut is a terrific film and a fierce critic of the postwar obsession with financial success and economic profitability. It seems that every verbal exchange in the movie ends up being about money or financial issues of some sorts. Relationships are defined in economic terms, characters seek each other out in order to address financial issues.

It is no wonder then that Masumura paints such a world in rather grim strokes. Both Akiko and Kinichi are being told over the course of the film that they are not valuable enough to deserve to get money. When Kinichi asks his mother to lend him the 100,000 yen to bail out his father, she tells him: "first grow up to be precious." Akiko plays with the idea of prostitution and asks a colleague if she could ask for 100,000 yen for one night. The answer: "not even you are worth that much!"

The fact that Akiko wants to hear from Kinichi that he loves her has nothing to do with romanticism or sentimentality. She simply has the wish to be judged in non-economical terms. But in such a market-driven and profitability-centered world, such things have no place. In this sense, it is no wonder that when we first meet and last see Akiko (after Kinichi finally confesses his love for her), she is crying.

The black and white photography is gorgeous. A highly recommended film.