Koreyoshi Kurahara established himself as an essential filmmaker from the end of the 1950’s to his final film, 1995’s Hiroshima. His early films are often categorized along with his French filmmaker contemporaries and La Nouvelle Vague — sometimes referred to as The Japanese New Wave.
Not only is this categorization overly-simplistic, it is not sensical. Post-WWII Japan youth culture experience was an entirely different situation than being a youth in France as the world entered the 1960’s. If one must apply his early films to a genre, The Seishun Eiga genre makes more sense. Japan entered the modern arena quickly and as Western influence started to merge with East, the youth of the time found themselves in a world that was paradoxical. Freedom and fun were changing in meaning and access while the culture remained rooted in a problematic elitist class structure that both attempted to oppress and repress. The atmosphere was ripe for rebellion.
Kurahara’s The Warped Ones opens with some truly ingeniously frantic camerawork. The viewer hears what sounds something like American Jazz and is then shown several key American Jazz artists. As if looking a vinyl record starting to spin on a turntable – the view begins to open up. The spinning increases, the music’s jazzy sway begins to verge into something similar to what we would now call Acid Jazz. As Toshiba Mayuzumi’s music slips into a sort of fevered pitch, Yoshio Mamiya’s cinematography spins faster. Within a matter of seconds the action on the screen starts with a failed con attempt by a young woman and young male friend who turns a Western tourist’s attention away so that the male friend can successfully pick the man’s pocket. As the two gleefully prepare to leave with their “earnings,” their grift is called out by a male journalist in a pressed suit.
Our two leading protagonists, Akira and Yuki, have been caught. Kashiwagi and his fiancee, Rumiko, watch as the two are led off to jail. Before the audience even has a chance to catch it’s breath, Kurahara drops us into a mail prison where where we see Akira sweat, scream, scowl, fight, brawl, party and create chaos during his frenzied stay in jail. As the music stays in pace with the cinematography and action, credits are presented in a stylistic way. Everything we see in the jail is brutally primal — yet Akira seems to be somehow enjoying everything we see.
Once the credits finish, Tamio Kawachi’s Akira is being released. He appears to have made a new best pal, Eiji Gô’s Masaru. These two boys are from the same coin, but Masaru might be from a different side. A rebellious criminal, it is immediately clear that he is a bit more stable than Akira. As these two steal a car and race ahead it, Akira’s behavior is more than just bit disturbing. Kawachi’s performance is a true work of film acting art. Almost constantly in motion and distorting his face to match what we can only imagine what must be churning in his psychopathic mind. Akira’s movements, actions and manner of speech are less human and more animalistic. His brutality shines through even in brief acts of passive “kindness.” It is an unforgettable acting turn.
Masaru is not nearly so unhinged, but he is most certainly operating within a very skewed moral compass. It doesn’t take Akira long to find his partner in crime, Yuki. Yuko Chishiro’s performance as Yuki seems like it could be the prototype for The Hyper Japanese Girl that we now see so often represented in Japanese Film and Anime. Ever bouncing and seemingly positive in energy and almost manic-like gleeful high-pitched laughter, she is almost a walking stereotype. There are a few things that set her apart from this stereotypical idea: she is a scheming, rage-filled street prostitute grifter who would also appear to be more than a bit of a sociopath. Her bouncy energy and high-pitched laughter are a disguise to the sour intentions waiting to happen If Akira represents The Id, Yuki represents a feminized version of cruel menace.
When these three walking vessels of aggression bond in an elaborate plan of vengeance on the journalist who put two of them in jail, a sort of Satanic Trinity is formed. Charles Manson would have run in fear of these three.
Koreyoshi Kurahara’s classic tale of human cruelty and vengeance still packs a strange punch to the gut. This might be the main reason I cringe when I read or hear this movie referred to as part of The Japanese New Wave or that Wave that was going down in Japan. There is nothing of cinematic reference to be found in The Warped Ones. In fact, every single thing we see and hear on the screen feels not only new and fresh — 50 years on, this movie still feels disorientingly current. The Warped Ones is also startling because it manages to be vibrantly alive and simultaneously one of the most nihilistic movies I’ve ever seen. This being stated, Kurahara’s mean little movie represents a major shift in Japanese filmmaking.
Aside from being a deeply weird, this film operates from several different perspectives that alternate between the obvious and the ambiguous. On the one hand , Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones is a perverse cautionary tale of Western influence and youth run amok. Akira, Yuki and Masaru are not grooving to rebellious rock music. No, they seemed to be steeped in American Jazz. The young couple whom they view as their enemies are fairly innocuous but easily tempted toward sexual influence. Akira holds them and their classical music tastes in disdain. When he breaks one of their classical record albums it is clearly an act of anger against the sound of elitism as much as it is against their desired style of living.
At the same time the film can be perceived to function as both societal and cultural commentary. These lost kids aren’t grooving to rock, but to the music of classic American Jazz. These hoodlums are most certainly rebelling against their world, but are attempting to act out against their established institutions. The police and the prison systems are little more than jokes. It is in jail that Akira seems to have a great deal of fun and meets a new friend. Once released from their shared cells, they have “learned” nothing and feel no need to “repent” for their “crimes“. They simply seem to have been given the opportunity to get a bit of a rest and are fully re-energized. Once they hit the streets they are literally high on rebellion. They know that what they do is wrong. They simply do not care.
Yuki has been released sooner and has returned to selling her sex without any seeming issue, problem or regret. She is equally eager to return to conning and grifting her clients as soon as she meets up with Akira and his new friend. She is also more than eager to tease Masaru with her sexuality. Faking anger and cloyingly demanding that he look away as she changes outfits, she clearly enjoys his noticing. She quickly falls into a relationship with Masaru. Akira has no interest in relationships or bonding. He is interested in sex and satisfying his sexual urges, but beyond an orgasm he has no interest.
I generally dismiss the idea of this film as “cautionary.” I am not even certain if Kurahara was trying to teach his audience anything. This perversely entertaining movie is concerned with plot. Not any sort of lofty intention. The Warped Ones is, however, very much concerned with realism and artistry. Even on a limited budget and shooting on location, the filmmaker pushes his cinematographer, cast and post-production musical composer and Akira Suzuki (his superb Film Editor) to push toward only the highest level of creativity and skill. Even though the action and movements are fast, chaotic and frenzied — all is presented with style and off-kilter beauty. It would be unfair to deny this film’s sensuality.
It is clear that Akira rapes Fumiko. She is violently kidnapped, thrown into what appears to be a dry beach sandbar with such strength that she loses consciousness. As Yuki and Masaru romp off to make out and have some fun at the beach, Akira is left alone with the innocent and beautiful young victim. While we know this is rape, the scene is filmed in a shockingly sensual manner. Both the rapist and his victims’ bodies are captured to accentuate their mutual youthful beauty. The horror of what has happened it only clear after the act is over.
This is a unique and twisted tale of human cruelty in which the idea of vengeance is taken to a whole new level. The pursuit of this vengeance is truly psychopathic, psychosexual, disturbing, realistic and unapologetically perverse. But it is Yoshio Mamiya’s hyper and artistically disorienting cinematography that really seals the deal. The opening shot of this movie is jaw-dropping. The whole film is prone to make the jaw drop. It is all the more fascinating to note that this movie was shot in 1959.
It has an oddly current feel. It is also important to note that this film features one of the more memorable cinematic endings. The ending almost presses into circular logic. The camera sprints up, spins and sends us into the human void. From beginning to unforgettable end, The Warped Ones is a twisted ride of a movie. Dark, angry and lusting for blood, this movie is a strange and brilliant cinematic experience.
Koreyoshi Kurahara was a varied filmmaker. He never stuck to one style or core idea. But in 1967 he adapted Yukio Mishima’s third novel. Mishima’s brilliance as a writer is well noted, but film versions of his work usually fall painfully short of capturing anything close to what his words created. However, Kurahara came very close with his re-working of Thirst for Love. Koreyoshi Kurahara adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s novel is a bit dated, but brilliantly conceived. Brilliantly edited, lit and featuring valid use of sound design, it is once again Yoshio Mamiya’s cinematography that takes a crucial role in making this film work.
The other major asset for the film is the performance given by the great Ruriko Asaoka. The success of Kurahara’s adaptation wisely depends on her acting skills. It is tragic how uninformed most of Western Culture is to the Eastern Film Art. Ruriko Asaoka, like her director, never seems to gain the recognition deserved outside of hardcore cinephiles. Aside from being ethereally beautiful, oozing eroticism with little effort, born with expressive eyes and gifted with an uniquely effective manner of acting — Asaoka was and remains an actor with charisma and true screen presence.
She worked for Kurahara more than a couple of times, but it is in Thirst for Love that she is given full reign.
Unlike most who have attempted to adapt Mishima’s work, Kurahara does not aim to exploit the transgressive or exploit the often perverse sexuality. Instead he employs Mamiya’s camera skills to show us just enough for us to know what is going on. The editing and sound design also play strong roles in conveying tone.
It is here that the film sometimes has a “dated” quality. However this “datedness” is a result of far too many late ’60’s/’70’s lesser filmmaker over-use of similar stylistic choices that have caused us to feel this way. In Thirst for Love these quick edits, zooms and flashbacks via still photography are all put to exquisite use. Filmed in a lush and sensuous monochrome gone black and white, the movie lulls us into visual beauty as the characters’ individual and shared transgressions / perversities are presented and/or explored. But once these aspects have been revealed Kurahara uses jolting fast scenes of color. The color used is blood red and it further saturates the tone off the screen and into our brains.
Another major key in this adaptation is that Kurahara manages to largely avoid any alterations of Mishima’s novel. Please correct me if I’m wrong as I am writing strictly from my memory — but the only major change made in this film adaptation is that our female protagonist’s backstory involving her deceased husband has been made for us to suspect that the widow’s relationship with her husband was far more tainted. I do believe that all we are told in the book is that she was widowed as a result of her husband fatal battle with Typhoid. In the film version, his treatment of Asaoka’s “Etsuko” was bad. So bad that Etsuko may or may not have done something about it. The rest of the film seems to come directly from the great novel.
The plot revolves around a deeply dysfunctional wealthy family in which the elderly patriarch has not only taken his son’s widow, Etsuko, into his home — he has placed her in his bedroom. His daughter-in-law is now his mistress. The elderly man also provides home to another widowed sister-in-law and children as well as his lay-about buffoon of a son and his admittedly odd wife. This is a sick home. And all living within it fully accept the situation. Soon Etsuko develops a sexual attraction to the family’s gardner.
Younger and from a lower class strata Etsuko views her desire as inappropriate. This is of particular interest as she is clearly not bothered by her brother-in-law and sister-in-law constantly hinting that a three-way relationship would be more than welcome. Not to mention that it seems to be normal conversation that Etsuko should bear their father’s child and have the only living son raise the child as his own. But to desire sex with the hired help is inappropriate.
Ruriko Asaoka’s performance is interestingly minimal. For the first half of the film, all emotion is limited to her expressive eyes. As we “non-see” the elderly man she calls “Father” bring her to orgasm, it only takes a shot of her eyes or face for us to know that she is both repulsed and becoming numb the further she drifts into her place within the family.
Her desire for the young man grows to obsession. Obsession pushes her toward full cruelty and insanity. Nothing is hidden from us, but all is conveyed via careful lighting, truly unique camera work and Asaoka’s brilliant performance. This is Mishima. None of this is going to take us to a good place. As he leads us to the story’s disturbing resolution, Kurahara establishes a strange world in which Etsuko roams.
Sprawling but interesting claustrophobic, she walks about the home and grounds often in a state of drifting despair. She eroticizes and mentally imagines objects to self-destruct. When she does leave the home and it’s decaying grounds, she walks down a long road. A walk down this road is like being overshadowed by prison walls. The surroundings outside the grounds of the family home seem to almost be more threatening than the home itself. Isolated, sad and doomed — it is unclear if these massive walls are there to keep the family in or the rest of Japan out.
By the time Etsuko finally fulfills her true desires her choices and actions are shocking. The filming of violence throughout the film is all the more dire due to the monochrome black and white lack of color. Had this film utilized color for scenes of violence (both passive and horrific) it would have looked cheap and exploitive.
Thirst for Love is an uncomfortably beautiful cinematic experience captured by mixing the vile, the visceral, the sensual and darkest corners of human desires merged with the despaired. Is it melodrama? Art Horror? Experimental? Art House? Cinematic Provocation? …Yes. It is. And it is fucking brilliant.
Both of these films have been decently restored by The Criterion Collection and have been issued via their Eclipse Collection Series. Another bone I’ve been picking with Criterion for some time. While I understand that Western Audience is more familiar with films like Pale Flower, Tokyo Drifter, Vengeance Is Mine and the infamous In the Realm of the Senses — that doesn’t mean that films like these two need be pushed out with only limited restorations and no extra focus.
Please do not misunderstand me, I adore all of the above mentioned films and the work Criterion has done for each. But if you’ve not seen these two Koreyoshi Kurahara films, you are missing two amazing cinematic experiences. And I do feel both The Warped Ones and Thirst for Love are superior to these other full-fledged members of The Criterion Collection.
“Just let matters slide. How much better to accept each sweet drop of the honey that was Time, than to stoop to the vulgarity latent in every decision. However grave the matter at hand might be, if one neglected it for long enough, the act of neglect itself would begin to affect the situation…” — Yukio Mishima, 1968
Matty Stanfield, 11.12.15