Cruel Story of Youth – An introduction to the Japanese New Wave

The Japanese New Wave of the sixties is one of the most difficult movements in cinema to discuss if you’re attempting to pin down a particular group of filmmakers, or even a specific time frame.

This was definitely not the work of a group of determined individuals focused on creating a movement, there was no manifesto, and many of those involved deny that any such movement existed. On the other hand, when one surveys the cinema of Japan from the early fifties until the early seventies there is a very identifiable shift. It’s what could conservatively be called a gradual sea-change, or perhaps more generously, a bona fide New Wave.

This somewhat amorphous movement is nonetheless a fascinating insight into a specific period of Japanese cinematic history. Not only this, but it also provides us with way to contextualise the preceding years just was well as we might measure how its influence rippled into the following decade.

Many academics, such as David Desser and Donald Richie, have defined the New Wave rather strictly but I’m looking to define the Wave, which is already somewhat easily debated, rather more loosely. My goal is to watch the wave’s gradual ascent from the fifties and descent into the seventies.

Also, in an effort to to tell this rather complex story clearly, I’ve omitted references to the Art Theatre Guild (ATG). Although it started in 1961, the ATG mostly intersected with the directors being discussed here later on in the sixties, once the New Wave was already fully in motion, or even in decline, to some degree.

To do justice to the ATG, a highly important movement and organisation, would take more space than is available here. I do urge you though to look into the ATG elsewhere if you are not already familiar with the films it spawned, and that research would make an excellent addition to any exploration of the Japanese New Wave.

One filmmaker that dominates any discussion of the Japanese New Wave, and with good reason, is Nagisa Oshima. He is perhaps best known in the West for either his controversial 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses or 1983’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, which earned a lot of its awareness here by featuring David Bowie.

Oshima was originally hired by Shochiku studios after studying political history at Kyoto University. His début feature film, 1959’s A Town of Love and Hope,was a bold early effort but it would be the electric Cruel Story of Youth that would cement Oshima as a bold new voice, and it would also go on to be considered the first film in this New Wave.

Making use of handheld cameras and location shooting, Oshima painted an intimate and intense portrait of youthful vitality, drawing on a recent trend in films about teenagers but infusing his own with far more political insight and raw drama than had been common.

Cruel Story of Youth was in many ways a natural expansion on the groundwork laid by the highly influential 1956 Nakahira film Crazed Fruit, and a trend of so-called Sun Tribe films. Oshima even wrote a piece about Crazed Fruit entitled Is it a Breakthrough? in which he answers his own question in the affirmative.

Crazed Fruit and fellow 1956 release Season of the Sun were were based on novels by Shintaro Ishihara, but it is the deftly handled darker elements of Fruit make it stand out above the far fluffier Season. Characterised by their beach locations and rebellious teens, these Sun Tribe films represented a new, more liberated generation in Japan and whilst there are examples, such as Crazed Fruit, that dealt with more serious subject matter, many of these films are very throwaway and unmemorable.

Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth was something different. It was even more serious than Crazed Fruit and more formally experimental. it was this film that helped launch a younger, more radically political trend that continued throughout the Japanese cinema of the sixties.

Political subtext and outright overt political messages dominated many of the most interesting films of this decade, with directors such as Oshima, Shohei Imamura and Masahiro Shinoda taking reins from the more traditional, but still very left wing, fifties work of directors such as Masaki Kobayashi.

Whilst Kobayashi continued to direct throughout the sixties, with Harakiri in 1962 and Kwaidan in 1964 being two of his greatest achievements, his films were clearly rooted in an older tradition, in both their form and subject matter. The sixties New Wave was about youth and this particular group of young people were angry about the past, idealistic about the future and increasingly interested in radical political action.

In the late fifties and early sixties, many members of Japan’s younger generation developed a clear distrust for the generation that had gone before, and an unease about the events that had defined Japan over the past twenty years. This distrust and unease turned into political rebellion and students, organised into multiple factions under the name Zengakuren, began to publicly protest those actions by the government that they strongly disagreed with.

The most controversial decision that solidified this movement amongst students was the renewal of The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, generally shortened to ANPO. The renewal of ANPO in the first few months of 1960 – originally signed in Washington in January, it was hotly debated until it was finally passed by The House of Representatives in May – led to demonstrations by students and trade unions and the forcible removal of the Japan Socialist Party from the House.

Oshima directly addressed the ANPO protests of 1960, whilst looking back on the opposition that had also existed in the fifties, with Night and Fog in Japan. Even more politically charged than Cruel Story of Youth, Night and Fog in Japan was also an incredibly topical piece that became even more controversial following the assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, leader of the Japan Socialist Party, by the 17 year-old Otoya Yamaguchi.

The assassination was actually of a far-left politician by a far-right extremist but the link to youthful political radicalism was too much for Shochiku, who had funded the film as part of their ‘Shochiku-Ofuna New Wave’ strategy, designed to focus on promoting the work of young directors. They pulled the film just three days after it was released.

Oshima wrote an angry letter to the studio, publicly stood against their decision and eventually left Shochiku to begin making films independently. Shochiku may have helped launch the New Wave, but it and Oshima would continue without them.

Directors Masahiro Shinoda and Yoshishige Yoshida also cut their teeth at Shochiku, making their debuts in 1960, but would also eventually leave the studio to begin making films independently.

Both directors could also be considered very much part of the New Wave and both also made films in 1969, Shinoda’s Double Suicide and Yoshida’s Eros Plus Massacre, that represented some of the finest filmmaking and powerful political statements that the New Wave had to offer.

What may be so surprising about these directors’ New Wave contributions is the extent to which their careers were, despite their later moves away from Shochiku, the result of studio support and finance for new and often highly polemical films. It was not just Shochiku that fostered such controversial and thrillingly political talents though. Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest studio, came out of a fallow period to reopened their studios in 1954,and began hiring young assistant directors at very competitive salaries.

Both Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki, a pair of young and enthusiastic assistant directors, jumped ship from Shochiku to Nikkatsu, most likely influenced by the higher salaries that Nikkatsu were offering. Although Nikkatsu initially pushed Imamura into making lighter films, such as the Billy Wilder-influenced Nishi Ginza Station, they eventually let him stretch out and flex his more radical tendencies with Pigs and Battleships in 1961. Imamura truly arrived at his full potential with this film and it is one of the most remarkable Japanese films of the sixties, standing out even amongst Imamura’s hugely impressive filmography.

Set in the U.S. Navy occupied coastal town of Yokosuka, Pigs and Battleships comments directly on the then-current situation for those on the fringes of Japanese society. The film offers a deeply rich allegorical viewpoint, drawing parallels between the attitudes of its characters and of Japan in general.

The film is thematically rich and also hugely entertaining, and it’s where Imamura first cemented his ability to tell a gripping story and express strong political views at once, and without simply lecturing an audience. Imamura went on to make The Insect Woman in 1963, which continued the thematically richness while adding a more stylistically expressive approach, something that would become more and more distinct throughout his career.

Like most of his contemporaries Imamura also left studio filmmaking in 1965 to form his own production companies, and he continued making films until shortly before his death in 2006.

Seijun Suzuki developed a reasonably successful career directing B-movies. While he was less politically radical a filmmaker than his New Wave contemporary, Suzuki was possibly the most stylistically flamboyant director working in the early sixties. His disregard for traditional cinematic conventions was perhaps as radical a development in Japanese cinema as the political leaps of his contemporaries.

As the blossoming of political radicalism in the Japanese New Wave led to a proliferation of left-wing politics and sexual liberation into the Japanese filmmaking of the seventies, the lineage of Suzuki’s stylistic anarchism and expressive freedom can be seen, albeit with a darker and more exploitative edge, in the seventies work of filmmakers such as Toshiya Fujita, Shunya Ito and Yasuharu Hasebe, the last of whom worked as Suzuki’s assistant for many years.

Suzuki delivered the ultimate stylistic one-two punch in 1966 and 1967 with Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. The former is a deliriously candy-coloured Pop art piece about a roaming hitman and the latter is a startling black and white masterpiece of style with a story that’s almost impossible to unpack.

Branded to Kill’s nearly impenetrable plot would prove too much for audiences, who deserted cinemas, and for Nikkatsu, who promptly fired Suzuki. Since then, Suzuki has made very few films, especially in comparison to his very prolific period throughout the fifties and sixties, but he has lost none of his stylistic inventiveness and his 2005 picture Princess Raccoon was a dazzling visual feast.

Imamura and Suzuki weren’t the only ones exploring new ground and making radical films at Nikkatsu with Koji Wakamatsu and his frequent collaborator Masao Adachi also at work challenging traditional attitudes and advancing the New Wave.

Wakamatsu began working at Nikkatsu in 1963. Following in the wake of Tetsuji Takechi’s mainstream pornographic hit Daydream in 1964, Wakamatsu soon turned his attention to Pink or pinku eiga, Japanese adult films.

Wakamatsu’s films of the early and mid sixties might be seen in many ways as the utlimate expression of everything that made the Japanese New Wave such a thrilling period. His films are filled with youthful rebellion, stylistic anarchism, very free attitudes towards sexual liberation – albeit with often unsettling tendencies towards female subjugation that were not always obviously negative  – and a very strong line in radical left-wing politics.

But what is perhaps most surprising is that Wakamatsu was predominantly a mainstream filmmaker and his films were generally financially successful.

In the West it is hard to imagine films such as Secrets Behind the Walls, The Embryo Hunts in Secret or The Violent Virgin being anything like the commercial successes they were in Japan. They even seem too outré for modern Western attitudes, let alone those of the sixties.

It was Wakamatsu’s ability and willingness to shoot his films incredibly cheaply that helped them turn substantial profits. Unsurprisingly, he started to produce his own films from 1966 and continued to make movies until shortly before his death in 2012.

In 1965’s Secrets Behind the Walls, Wakamatsu strikes both sexual and political frustration with one deft blow. It’s a film that threaten to one-up almost everyone else in the new wave through its sheer force of will and directness.

Wakamatsu would later go on to make even more daring films, again clashing sexual themes with political allegory. The blisteringly bold Ecstasy of the Angels of 1972 was a particular stand out. He also helped produce Oshima’s controversial In the Realm of the Senses in 1976.

Wakamatsu’s frequent collaborator during the mid to late-sixties was Masao Adachi, who also co-wrote Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. The end of their working relationship, and the direction in which Adachi and the student movement then headed, signalled the end of the New Wave and a noticeable shift in Japanese cinema.

Adachi had also worked at Nikkatsu and in addition to writing for other directors, he also directed his own features. Like Wakamatsu he tapped into the trend for sex films, and with work such as Sex Play he mixed politics and erotica, but with markedly less success than Wakamatsu or any of the other New Wave filmmakers.

As the sixties progressed, Adachi became increasingly radicalised and his writing more politically charged. In 1971 he and Wakamatsu released PFLP: Declaration of War. This film was made after a somewhat off the cuff decision between the two friends to head on over to Palestine from Cannes, where Wakamatsu’s Sex Jack had been programmed in the Director’s Fortnight. They share credit on the film but it seems clear that Adachi was more involved in Wakamatsu.

Sex Jack had unsurprisingly stirred up some controversy at Cannes. The film, written by Adachi and directed by Wakamatsu, began filming in the spring of 1970 but political changes in Japan’s culture led to significant alterations to the script. On June the 14th, the ANPO treaty was renewed, and the reaction was similar to that of ten years prior, both on the streets and on the screens. But attitudes had hardened in the intervening decade, and this time, many protestors took more militant action.

Earlier that year the Red Army Faction (a left-wing revolutionary group that would later spawn the Japanese Red Army aka JRA) had hijacked Yodo, a Japan Airlines plane. Whilst the highjacking, despite the presence of samurai swords and pipe bombs, did not lead to violence and deaths it marked the end of the more peaceful protests that had gone before and the beginning of a new era of hijackings and highly motivated radical political groups who considered violent protests to be an important part of affecting change (‘The Lod Airport Massacre’ in 1972, for instance, involved members of the JRA and led to many deaths). Wakamatsu, with the quick wit of an exploitation master perhaps more than a politically motivated filmmaker, seized on the recent protests over the ANPO renewal and the recent hijacking and adapted Sex Jack, including real footage of the ANPO protests and a plot in which students head to the airport in order to hijack a plane to fly to North Korea, which was also the final destination of the hijacked Yodo plane.

Arriving in Palestine, where members of the Red Army Faction were supposedly to be found, and began filming a travelogue which would ultimately become PFLP: Declaration of War. The film is a very direct call to arms, with an opening that declares that it is “A news film to build a worldwide Red Army”, but it is an oddly factually flimsy film for all its strong declarations and severely lacking in detailed insight. Adachi seems to view the Palestinian struggle from a somewhat romantic point of view and the film is a fascinating example of propaganda filmmaking but it holds none of the well thought out content or depth of something like Octavio Getino and Fernando SolanasThe Hour of the Furnaces.

As was mirrored in films such as PFLP: Declaration of War the sixties protest movement became more and more radicalised as it moved into the early 1970s and the aforementioned move towards violent action became more prevalent. This reached something of a head in February of 1972 with the Asama-Sanso Incident, in which members of The United Red Army (a unified group made up of The Red Army Faction and a Maoist wing of the Japanese Communist Party) laid siege against police in a mountain lodge. The siege lasted ten days, was televised and avidly watched throughout Japan. Koji Wakamatsu would go on to make a fictional film about this incident in 2007 entitled United Red Army. If there was any doubt left, the Asama-Sanso Incident made clear that the youthful idealism of the sixties had long since passed.

Many of the New Wave directors changed course somewhat and there was a sense that many began to follow trends rather than set them. Filmmakers such as Oshima and Imamura also embraced their more artistically dense tendencies and found great success globally as Japanese arthouse favourites. Wakamatsu continued to make darker, more violent films but as the pinku genre moved more towards straight up exploitation, broader, less politically charged films overtook his in terms of popularity. In the early seventies, following the release of PFLP: Declaration of War Adachi joined the Red Army and in 1974 he left Japan to move to Lebanon, where he lived for over twenty years. Following a number of passport issues Adachi was deported back to Japan in 2007, at which point he made a film entitled Prisoner/Terrorist about the Japanese Red Army member Kozo Okamoto and in 2010 he once again collaborated with Wakamatsu on Caterpillar, one of Wakamatsu’s final films before his death in 2012.

Suggested Viewing
Crazed Fruit (Ko Nakahira, 1956)
Cruel Story of Youth (Nagisa Oshima, 1960)
Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)
Secrets Behind the Walls (Koji Wakamatsu, 1965)
Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, 1966)
Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967)
Double Suicide (Masahiro Shinoda, 1969)
Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969)
Sex Jack (Koji Wakamatsu, 1970)
PFLP: Declaration of War (Masao Adachi & Koji Wakamatsu, 1971)
United Red Army (Koji Wakamatsu, 2007)

This piece was originally published as part of the iPad film journal Periodical.

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