Sayonara Cinema

"Japanese New Wave Cinema"
Walker Art Center, through January 29

Movie labels can be both helpful and frustrating. I'd guess the average person appreciates the blank simplicity of "Action" on a video-store shelf, while academic classifications ("Post-Glasnost Transgressive Feminist Documentary") can be unnecessarily forbidding even to a die-hard cineaste. So what do we do when the label doesn't say enough?

The Walker's "Japanese New Wave Cinema" is something of a mislabeled package, gathering movies from 1960s Japan that don't feature strutting samurai or an animated Atomic Boy (and which are extremely rare in these parts). But the series has even more to offer: Like surprise shirttail relatives at a reunion, some British and French documentaries (and a few more films from several years later) have shown up along with the exciting and upsetting movies from the '60s. This makes for shaggy curating--but hey, who's complaining?

It should be noted that "New Wave" is itself a loose handle: First applied to the style-breaking works of Truffaut, Godard, Varda, Rohmer, et al., it later denoted movies (and movements) in Sweden, Hungary, Cuba, Poland, the U.S., and elsewhere. Most of these works were chip-on-the-shoulder challenges to entrenched industries, made outside of (or in defiance of) established institutions. But the twist in this case is that the Japanese "New Wave" was actually created by a studio, practically as a marketing ploy. Nevertheless, what happened after this conference-table decision was just as rebellious: In terms of sex, violence, and storytelling edginess, the Cinemascoping Japanese directors were every bit the equal of their lower-budget counterparts elsewhere.

The "New Wave" wrapper did bring in younger audiences, but the term came to have cultural as well as marketable meaning. Nagisa Oshima's claustrophobic, nihilistic Cruel Story of Youth (screening Saturday at 7 p.m.) is a great example. Appearing somewhere between Rebel Without a Cause and Godard's Breathless, this watershed movie (1960) dared its audience to keep up with a sad and sadder story, shot in widescreen but at close distance.

More than any other film in this series, Cruel Story is a must-see to complete anyone's moviegoing database. It's about Mako, a dewy teen who takes up with Kiyoshi, a brute schemer. They meet violently when Kiyoshi saves Mako from the advances of a drunken older guy, and proceeds to roll the pursuer. Shortly afterward, Kiyoshi wickedly introduces Mako to sex by having his way with her on top of floating logs in an industrial lumberyard. Their living-together relationship sinks into a sex/money scheme, as they turn their first encounter into a routine business. Mako deliberately lures older guys; Kiyoshi beats them up.

This is a pretty lurid story, shot in garish color and off-centered compositions, but it has larger cultural dimensions. In the flush of economic recovery (when "Made in Japan" was turning from a joke into a promise), ideology and tradition meant little to a younger generation that hadn't witnessed war. Japan itself was in turmoil in the summer of 1960, since the government had just renewed its Mutual Security Pact with the U.S.; there were violent protests, and many of the "New Wave" films either dramatize or allude to this sense of outrage over a culture's hypocrisies.

Oshima went on to become even more confrontational, making the political-yet-funny Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Saturday at 8:45 p.m.) in 1969 before taking on eroticism for real in the hard-core In the Realm of the Senses (1976). I am told Oshima later became a cantankerous talk-show host--so who knows where a rebellious spirit will lead? The intriguing thing about this whole bundle called "Japanese New Wave" is that, more than other such film movements, it extends beyond filmmaking alone into deep cultural changes and individual quirks. Take Hiroshi Teshigahara, for example, who made one of the great moody allegories of the mid-'60s--Woman in the Dunes (Friday at 8:45 p.m.)--and then became a master ikebana (flower-arranging) artist who in recent years designed a Dayton's display.

I can't recall that department store installation, but the erotically charged desert hideout of Dunes is arid and vivid. Here's the perfect date-movie for emotional daredevils: A wayward entomologist in search of a night's lodging is led by local villagers to a woman's house--and it's at the bottom of a sand pit. He's quickly trapped in a perverse situation, digging sand and either plotting escapes or falling into lust. He's a man of science, yet he falls for this odd and narrow ritual. Still, many would say that in giving up he is transcending modern futility. While it's easy to find allusions to existential literature here, there's some comedy, too: The woman (who's never named) mentions wanly that "the young people don't want to stay" in this masochistic place, and later admits that, "well, of course, it's not Tokyo!"

Comparable conflations of sex and social traps show up in several of the other '60s films. Funeral Parade of Roses (Wednesday at 7 p.m.) and Manji (Swastika) (January 22 at 9 p.m.) deal more openly (if sometimes melodramatically) with homosexuality than films anywhere else in the world did at that time; and 1964's Gate of Flesh (January 27 at 7 p.m.), directed by Seijun Suzuki in the raw manner of Sam Fuller, pits prostitutes, gangsters, and U.S. soldiers together in a grungy Tokyo. Saved from other cultures' religion-based morality, the Japanese directors set free by their "New Wave" found a way to flaunt social beliefs with outrageous explorations of taboos. Sex in these movies seems to be more of a test than an erotic opportunity, as in the shabby Super-8 quasi documentary Hair Opera (Wednesday at 9 p.m.) from 1992, in which two hair fetishists try to outdo each other.

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