Black Sun (黒い太陽, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964)

black sun still 2The Warped Ones showed us a nihilistic world of aimless youth living not so much on their wits as by their pleasures, indulging their every animalistic whim while respectable society looked on in horror. By 1964 things have only got worse. Tokyo might have got the Olympics, Japan might be back on the international map, and economic prosperity might be on the rise but all around the city there’s an arid wasteland – a literal dumping ground in which the unburied past has been left to fester as a grim reminder of historical follies and the present’s reluctance to deal with them.

Akira (Tamio Kawaji), now calling himself “Mei” (perhaps a play on the reading of the character for his name 明), seems to have mellowed since the heady days of his youth. Living alone save for a dog named Thelonious Monk, Mei has co-opted a disused church and turned it into a shrine for jazz. The walls and ceilings are covered in photographs of famous jazz musicians and posters for club nights and solo shows. He has his own turntable and a well stocked selection of LPs, though he still seems to frequent the same kind of jazz clubs that so defined his earlier life.

Change arrives when Mei boosts a fancy car and is almost caught in a police net caused by the body of an American serviceman found floating in the harbour. Apparently the crime is the product of an internal GI squabble, but the offending soldier is on the run with a machine gun. As coincidence would have it, the wounded killer, Gil (Chico Lourant), fetches up at Mei’s church and, as Gil is a black man, Mei assumes that they will definitely be friends. It is, however, not quite that simple.

As in the earlier film, jazz is the force which keeps Mei’s mind from fracturing. His life still moves to improvisational rhythms even if apparently not quite so frenetically as it once did. Rather than the rampant animal of The Warped Ones, this Mei has embraced his outsider status through literally removing himself from the city in favour of self-exile and isolation as a squatter in the house of God – a place about to be torn down.

While Mei has been literally pushed out with only his beloved dog as evidence of his latent human feelings, his formerly delinquent friend, Yuki (Yuko Chishiro), has gone on to bigger and better things. No longer (it seems) a casual prostitute catering to foreigners, Yuki has repurposed the skills her former life gave her to shift into an aspirational middle-class world as a translator for those same American troops she once performed another service for. The American occupation is long over, but the US Army is everywhere.

Mei thinks of himself as one of Japan’s oppressed outsiders – an outcast in a land subjugated by a foreign power. He squats in a ruined church while the Americans “squat” in his ruined country. He likes jazz because it fits the rhythms of his mind but also because he believes it to be the music of the oppressed. In Gil he thinks he sees another like him, a man oppressed in his own homeland and ironically enough by the same forces that are (in part) oppressing him. Mei has a lot of strange, stereotypical ideas about black men – he’s excited to meet Gil because he thinks all black men must love jazz and that Gil must be some kind of jazz god, but Gil is a frightened rabbit on the run, terrified and bleeding. Thinking he’s in the middle of a visitation, Mei tries to make plain his enthusiasm despite the obvious language barrier, pointing wildly at his shrine to jazz, but all Gil wants is quiet and help with the bullet wound currently suppurating on his thigh.

The “relationship” deteriorates, but a strange kind of camaraderie is eventually born between the two men. Things take a turn for the surreal when Mei dons black face and paints Gil’s white, only to get stopped by GIs who want to see an ID from a “foreigner” driving a fancy car, and for Mei to introduce Gil at his favourite jazz bar as his new “slave”. In hindsight it’s all a little awkward as Kurahara throws in stock footage of the civil rights movement and tries to equate it both to the recent protest movements in Japan and to Mei’s self-identified status as one of Japan’s oppressed masses. Still, you can’t argue with the fact that the two men have found a bond in their shared alienation and desire to escape from the impotence of their current situations.

Ironically enough Kurahara does seem to believe in an escape, though it’s perhaps not so positive as it sounds. The tragic friendship of the two men in which one must save the other by releasing him towards the sea and the sun pushes Mei out of his self-exile and back into the “real” world even if he still considers himself to be an outsider within it. The sun is bright but it’s also dull, shining not with hope but with consolation for a hopeless world in which the only victory lies in the final act of surrender.

Short scene from the beginning of the film (English subtitles)

The Warped Ones (狂熱の季節, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960)

warped ones posterYouth was at an intense point of crisis in the Japan of 1960. The old pre-war ways were out, but what was youth supposed to do now – a question which found no answers. Whereas the intervening 15 years since the end of the war had been filled with somber soul searching and an intense dedication to forging a way through, the young of the late ‘50s were losing interest in rehashing the past and becoming keener to voice their concerns over what some saw as an undue influence wielded by the Americans. 1960 saw the biggest public protests in public memory as the citizens of Tokyo – many of them students and young people, took to the streets in protest of Japan’s continued reliance on America for military protection and the various comprises and complicities they felt that entailed.

Meanwhile, in cinema rebellious youth had become a bone of contention – the so called “Sun Tribe” movies of the mid 50s, inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara, had painted an unflattering picture of decreasing morality among the young. Rising economic prosperity had given birth to a class of overindulged, privileged young men and women who frittered their parents’ money away on fast cars, drugs, jazz, and promiscuous (often violent) sex. The bright young things of the early ‘60s, young people who lived without morality or purpose, terrified the older generations who feared their kids too might wind up devotees of the sun tribe and reject the world they had strived so hard to rebuild.

The Sun Tribe movies were so controversial that the studio, Nikkatsu, was eventually forced to halt production but Japan’s rebellious youth was a subject which refused to go quietly. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones (狂熱の季節, Kyonetsu no Kisetsu), released in 1960, revised the myth of the Sun Tribe by looking at it from the other side – these were no ennui filled elites, the crazed youth of the Warped Ones are poor boys and dropouts living by their wits and caring nothing for the rules of a society which has continually rejected them.

Akira (Tamio Kawaji), a petty teenage delinquent, gets caught pickpocketing in a jazz club and is sent for a spell in a reform school. Inside he meets another young man in a similar situation, Masaru (Eiji Go), and decides to team up with him after they’re released. Meeting up with fellow delinquent Yuki (Yuko Chishiro) – a casual prostitute hooking foreigners, the three decide to have some fun. Boosting a car and heading to the beach, they spot additional spice in the very reporter who got Akira arrested in the Jazz bar out for a promenade with his fiancée. The trio drive fast at Kashiwagi (Hiroyuki Nagato), knocking him flying before Yuki jumps out and grabs the girlfriend, Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto), and bundles her into the car. Driving to a secluded spot, Masaru and Yuki pair off while Akira rapes Fumiko and then cruelly abandons her with only the “kindness” of pointing her towards a local police station.

Akira is the new kind of delinquent so feared by traditional society. He has no job or intention of forging a career – he lives on the thrill of petty crime, giving full vent to each and every urge his adolescent body conjures. His friendship with Masaru is perhaps his only redeeming feature but it’s unclear how far this really runs even if his only particular code makes the idea of any non transactional action with Yuki off limits. Masaru’s romance by contrast does appear to be deep and genuine – he can get past Yuki’s life as a casual prostitute and is even willing to support her when she falls pregnant with a child that is most likely not his. To does this, Masaru considers joining a gang which is something Akira’s individualism will not permit him to do. “Only people who don’t listen to jazz join gangs” he opines superciliously. His is a life of freestyle joys and hedonistic pursuits in which his will is all and his body his only instrument.   

Kurahara opens with a heady, swirling shot of the ceiling in the jazz club Akira likes to frequent while the score dances wildly in the background. Akira’s head is filled with the sound of “good” jazz. He moves, breathes and lives his own symphony. His world is indeed noisy – cramped tenements with paper thin walls and and the ever present rumble of passing trains give his life its own kind of oppressive rhythms, echoing the inescapability of his dead end existence. The music is his escape and the only thing keeping him “sane”, only “sane” means his self destructive tendencies become externalised as a cruel and sadistic game of revenge on the society which refuses to accept him. Akira is indeed “warped”, life is an absurd joke to him, but he is far from alone and his alienation has very real causes which lie not in the evils of Jazz music and American individualism but in a stratified, high pressure society which leaves its restless young with little to survive on save the instant gratification of their baser urges.

Opening (English subtitles)