Primer - Dangerous Liberation: The Japanese New Wave of the 60’s and 70’s

Kurahara’s Black Sun: Unexpected Jazz

Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun (1963) will come as an unexpected treat to American moviegoers who think mostly of samurai thrillers or somber family dramas when it comes to Japanese cinema: it tells the story of a young Japanese squatter/hipster/punk living in an abandoned Catholic church whose great love is jazz music, and how he befalls a wounded black GI on the run from the authorities.

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Told in a freewheeling, breezy style of immediacy reminiscent of early Godard and the French New Wave, suffused with great jazz music, but also filled with lush, black and white camerawork and its own kind of noir atmosphere, Black Sun is a charming, funny, and bittersweet tale of two outsiders who remind us of the long-standing love affair that post-war Japanese youth had with American music and culture. Particularly wonderful is the scene in which the squatter repeatedly exclaims to the soldier he finds hiding out in his house “I love you!” while pointing to pictures of jazz heroes plastered in his makeshift room, an affection he understands as a logical extension of his reverence for Max Roach, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, etc. and the fact that all of his American heroes are black. Though often light and comic in tone, the film also has moments of sadness, as underneath the exhilaration and idiosyncrasy of this unlikely friendship and the adventures it inspires lurks the violent subtext of America’s complicated, tragic history in terms of both its own black citizens and those of Japan. Black Sun is a quirky, humanistic wonder not to be missed. Also worthwhile is Kurahara’s subsequent Thirst for Love (1966), a passionate love story about romantic and social transgression in which a widowed woman begins a relationship with her father-in-law while falling in love with an oblivious gardener.

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Mishima’s Patriotism: Culture in Transition

Thirst For Love is based on a novel by Yukio Mishima, the controversial Japanese writer who is generally considered one of the finest literary powers his country has ever produced. A man living out many of the paradoxes and conflicts marking the Japanese New Wave, Mishima was a gay, militant, ultra-macho Nationalist whose activities included body-building, swordsmanship, and forming his own private army – but who also brought stunning sensitivity and insight to famous works like the Sea of Tranquility tetralogy.

During the Japanese New Wave, Mishima himself jumped into the avant-garde filmmaking fray, appearing in a number of well-regarded films, among them The Rite of Love and Death (1966), and Black Lizard (1968), and directing the terrific short film Patriotism (1966). In Patriotism, filmed with the look of a stage play (Mishima was also a playwright), a samurai is torn between supporting a coup d’etat by his fellow soldiers and coming to the defense of an emperor whom he knows is about to be attacked. The basic conflict of the story is acutely symbolic of the driving impulses behind the New Wave itself: how people survive the liminal, excruciating psychological and cultural space transfixed between the old guard and the new rebellion.

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It is also in significant ways the story of its own auteur: in Patriotism, the samurai, after looking to the love of his wife for solace, decides the only viable solution to this dilemma is to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Mishima, who rigidly defied the Westernization and modernization of Japan in its technical, cultural, and military aspects, but was also an artist sublimely attuned to human emotion and drawn to the fresh modes of expression and experimentation occurring in the New Wave, publicly committed seppuku in 1970. That (in)famous act spoke poignantly about the tragic conflict the transitional phase documented by the New Wave created in the Japanese soul; it illuminated the pain of a country attempting to negotiate the competing forces of old-school pre-war nationalism and cultural codes with a youth movement breaking those codes on a daily basis, trying to retain a cohesive national identity amidst the chaos of disparate social forces – a chaotic spirit mirrored in parallel political/social outbreaks occurring in Berlin, London, San Francisco and Paris.

Paul Schrader, the American director and screenwriter, whose own work centers on the intersection of machismo, violence, loneliness, and sensitivity in films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, was sufficiently moved by Mishima’s dilemma and personality to make the wonderful avant-garde Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters in 1986, which combines elements of the author’s life with scenes from his novels.

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Tellingly, the figure of the samurai, so much a part of the creative palette for Japanese filmmakers of a previous generation, and so revered by the mindset of a man like Mishima, came to be often derided as a clown in the New Wave films, an authoritarian icon worthy of being smashed and ridiculed – as when the two lovers encounter a man with a sword while walking on the beach in Running In Madness, who at first appears to be as threatening as Toshiro Mifune washed up on the shoreline, but then turns out to be a harmless prankster who takes off his stern persona only to join a bunch of harmless hippies having a picnic.

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