While the West was being introduced to Japanese cinema via the Shakespearean epics of Akira Kurosawa and the subtle domestic dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, Japan itself was starting to feel the influence of the various European New Waves and the youth movement worldwide. Nikkatsu studios capitalized on the nationwide interest in fashionable criminals and rebellious teens, giving young directors the license to experiment with modernist style, so long as they delivered movies packed with enough wild action and violence. The Eclipse box set The Warped World Of Koreyoshi Kurahara collects five films from one of those bold Nikkatsu directors: 1960’s Intimidation, a terse noir about corporate malfeasance, class snobbery, and a pathetic bank heist; 1960’s The Warped Ones, an edgy drama about a young ex-con lashing out at the world that made him; 1962’s I Hate But Love, a delirious romance about a media personality on a mission of mercy; 1964’s Black Sun, a jazzy interracial road picture that serves as a semi-sequel to The Warped Ones; and 1967’s Thirst For Love, an avant-garde melodrama about an heiress who embarks on a dangerous dalliance.
Kurahara has a few stylistic signatures: frequent handheld shots, pointed switches to a subjective point of view, and occasional characters framed against blinding sunlight. But he genre-hopped a lot, and switched his tone depending on the project. Intimidation is lean and Hitchcockian, contrasting the lives of a cocky bank manager and a dim underling, the latter of whom gets the upper hand once the manager gets himself into trouble. I Hate But Love, on the other hand, is colorful and vivacious, commenting on the shallowness of the media and the importance of “humanism,” all while laying in a dizzy romantic score and enough chaste sexual suggestiveness to fill half a dozen Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies. And Thirst For Love takes a soberer approach, emphasizing sensuality and the heroine’s sexual urges, while noting how her material needs may have doomed her to a loveless life.
As the Eclipse set’s title implies, Kurahara made his reputation with The Warped Ones, an unhinged film about unhinged youth that was one of the rare movies of its kind to get distributed in the States—albeit on the sexploitation circuit, under the title The Weird Love Makers. Tamio Kawachi gives a singular performance as a kid who can’t sit still: He shrieks, scats, and squeals, like Cookie Monster crossed with Beavis, and he struggles to pay attention to the women in trouble around him because he gets easily distracted when jazz music plays. The Warped Ones can be read as a commentary on how irresponsible youth are unprepared for the consequences of their actions, or it could be seen as sympathetic to a free spirit who shoves his face right into the paintings at an art exhibit rather than hanging back cautiously like everyone else. Kurahara brought Kawachi back for Black Sun, a noble but ultimately too-one-note drama in which the hero befriends a troubled African-American soldier, then travels around with him—one in whiteface, one in blackface. But then Kurahara masterfully applied the artier aspects of The Warped Ones and Black Sun to Thirst For Love, a movie that uses still-photo montages, off-kilter close-ups, atonal soundtrack noise, and flashes of color to tell the story of a woman (Ruriko Asaoka) who becomes her father-in-law’s lover after her husband dies, and has to internalize her romantic fantasies. Kurahara’s fragmented cinematic techniques represent what’s going on inside her brain and heart.
Thirst For Love was Kurahara’s last film for Nikkatsu, which began to feel that its star directors were pushing too far into arthouse territory. But the spirit of Kurahara and the other Nikkatsu brats lives on in modern Japanese cinema, in directors like Takashi Miike and Sion Sono. There are eccentric movies, there are grim movies, and then there’s Sono’s 2010 neo-noir Cold Fish: one long, unflinching wallow in the muck of human desire. Mitsuru Fukikoshi stars as the meek owner of a tropical fish store, who meets a much more successful fish-slinger (Denden) when his daughter gets busted for shoplifting in a nearby store. Denden offers the girl a job, and asks for a favor from Fukikoshi in return: that he pretend to be Denden’s partner in a deal to breed rare fish for 10 million yen a pop. Before Fukikoshi even has a chance to say yes or no, Denden has him in a room with the prospective client; not long after that, the client is lying dead on the floor, poisoned.
Sono opens Cold Fish with jittery jump cuts and bursts of noise and color, but then slows the movie down to the pace of a classic crime thriller. At times, Sono is too infatuated with process; Cold Fish wouldn’t need to be 140 minutes long if there were fewer long scenes of corpses being dragged out to Denden’s remote “disposal unit.” But for the most part, Cold Fish moves with the inexorable pull of a nightmare, as Fukikoshi keeps getting in deeper and deeper with Denden. The leads’ relationship is sometimes reminiscent of Kyle MacLachlan and Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. Make no mistake, though: This is one messed-up nightmare. Denden is a great movie villain, glad-handing his way into people’s lives before bullying them into horrible acts that, on some level, they actually want to commit. (To be clear, this includes graphic rape, dismemberment, and child-slapping. This movie isn’t nice.)
Sono is exploring a number of themes, from gender and generational clashes to the notion of being “made invisible”—all familiar ideas from Kurahara’s work as well. But what’s most striking is Fukikoshi’s fascination with astronomy, and the idea that the Earth is 4.6 million years old, and has 4.6 million years left before it dies. What’s more disturbing: that we’re now on the downward slope, or that we’ve got so much goddamned time left to go?
Key features: Nothing on the Eclipse set; a brief Sono interview on Cold Fish.