Crazed Fruit (Criterion Collection)
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Crazed Fruit ushered in a new era for Japanese cinema. Shot in 17 days (extravagant by Nikkatsu Studio standards), the film's strong language, intimations of casual sex, and complete disregard for authority, would unsettle an entire nation, while blazing a path for the likes of Seijun Suzuki and Nagisa Oshima. (Even François Truffaut was impressed.) It begins one leisurely summer as brothers Natsuhisa (Yujiro Ishihara) and Haruji (Oshima star Masahiko Tsugawa) sail, water-ski, and make "boredom their credo''--until both fall for the married Eri (Ishiharas future wife, Mie Kitahara). In short order, boredom will be replaced by tragedy. Inventively lensed by Shigeyoshi Mine (Tokyo Drifter), Ko Nakahira's controversial debut was the centerpiece of a 1956 trio of taiyozoku, or "Sun Tribe," films about affluent youth written by novelist-turned-politician Shintaro Ishihara (Yujiro's brother). The suitably dark and jazzy score is by Kurosawa vets Masaru Sato (Yojimbo) and Toru Takemitsu (Ran). --Kathleen C. Fennessy
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The story revolves around two restless brothers - older, predatory Natsuhisa and virginal, self-righteous Haruji - who battle over a mysterious girl named Eri, seemingly innocent and ideal at first but a more decadent character emerges as the plot unfolds. There are lots of scenes of bored, immoral youth with cash to burn and no aspirations beyond water skiing and getting drunk and laid. The love triangle inevitably leads to tragic, almost Baroque consequences in its brief, 86-minute running time with some surprisingly effective camera angles tightening the vise of the characters' illicit behavior. The performances seem rather derivative of American icons like Clift and Dean though effective within this context - Masahiko Tsugawa effortlessly brings out the teen angst in Haruji, Yujirô Ishihara portrays the jaded horn dog that Natsuhisa has become with abandon and a certain élan, and pretty Mie Kitahara does manage to elicit sympathy to a character that seems to reveal one moral weakness after another. I have to admit the over-the-top elements are what makes this film memorable - the great title, the foreboding clarinet solos and twangy Hawaiian guitars of Masaru Sato's and Toru Takemitsu's insinuating score; Masumi Okada as Frank, a half-white, half-Japanese observer of the brotherly unraveling (and by default, the film's moral conscience); and the extended and truly suspenseful circling boat sequence at the end. Definitely take a look if you want a peek at the nihilistic youth culture of mid-1950's Japan, certainly a universal theme during that period.
At a seaside resort, a jaded youth and his innocent brother lust after a young woman who is married to an older American and who is a human cypher. The brotherly triangle is resolved with two murders, but not before a really chilling sequence in which a speedboat repeatedly circles a sailboat. This story, a tad homoerotic and (unbeknownst) told in flashback, may be cliché but the details were new to Japanese audiences (water-skiing! sunbathing! pair dancing!) and owe much to European and American movies; note the homages to George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" (water sports, sudden swooping close-ups, that radio on the dock.)
By issuing this DVD, The Criterion Collection rightly assigns the picture its proper place in the pantheon of world cinema. Film historian Donald Richie, in his informed commentary, maybe makes more of its relevance than the movie actually earns; a second viewing with Richie is oddly more rewarding than a first viewing without him. That's because period context is crucial to our interest. "Crazed Fruit" was a breakthrough in the evolution of Japanese filmmaking; thanks to it, the movies that came after were more complex, innovative and sophisticated.
Nakahiran Kô's "Crazed Fruit" ("Kurutta kajitsu") was the first film to explore these children, projecting their lifestyle and discontent onto the screen for all to see. Based on famed author (and current governor of Tokyo) Ishihara Shintaro's story, the sex, rough language and blind selfishness (the ultimate crime under the previous generation's Confusion code) was like a bomb in the minds of the viewing public. A new genre was born, and other films followed in suit, like Oshima Nagisa's "Cruel Story of Youth." These films are the parents of "Battle Royale" and "Suicide Circle," which still peer into the discontent of modern Japanese youth-culture.
Aside form its political and societal ramifications, "Crazed Fruit" is just a good film. Raw and beautiful, the actors clench the story in their fists and squeeze the juice. A nice blend of the subtlety of which Japanese film is so famous, blended with an unusual dynamism and sharpness. The music is almost all Hawaiian ukulele, and there is a large presence of English-speaking Westerners, something almost unheard of in Japanese film. Both of these lending a strange atmosphere to the Japanese setting.
The Criterion DVD is splendid, with an improved subtitle track that makes good use of the slang and colloquialisms so important to the youth dialog. Donald Richie, the Dean of Japanese film, gives an insightful commentary, as always. The booklet, with two separate essays, helps put the film into perspective in Japanese society.
Ishihara's writing tends toward a Mishima-like discursive style, but this film is terse and believable. Two brothers, the sons of some shady businessman or other, arrive at their summer home. They spend the days in idleness, lounging around in their house or their boat, and hanging out with their drinking, gambling friends. The friends like to flaunt their modernity and disdain for tradition in conversation. But the film finds the right note for these dialogues -- the boys talk like arrogant, pseudo-intellectual young men, not like philosophically inclined writers. They talk in order to demonstrate their swagger, without putting too much thought into the content. I actually wish that the relations between the boys were a little more developed in the film, since it catches this atmosphere of bravado so well.
The distinctions between the brothers are what one would expect from this story. The older brother is an accomplished rake and debaucher, and likes to brag about his conquests to everyone within earshot. The younger brother is naive and inexperienced, but wants to emulate his brother's cool image. But the film's depiction of these standard character types captures a few details that make them much more real. First of all, the brothers are not the chiseled movie-star types that represent Decadent Youth in French and Italian films of that time. The younger brother is handsome, but in an ordinary way, and has the boyish, sullen awkwardness of someone who just started thinking about girls instead of sports. The older brother is fairly plain in appearance, and relies entirely on his confident sneer to impress girls. But his confidence is largely an act, and when something happens that he doesn't know how to deal with, the sneer vanishes and he looks lost. It becomes clear -- much clearer than in, say, Antonioni's L'Avventura -- that these youths are not really ready for the cool and independent lifestyle that they claim for themselves.
Of course, the story needs a beautiful girl. As expected, the younger brother falls for her, but it turns out that she has a dark secret, and so on, and everything ends badly. But the film's portrayal of the girl is also interesting. In keeping with the archetype, she is older than the boy, and much more experienced. But she's not the cold, selfish, androgynous seductress of the French New Wave. She's very girlish and feminine, without the ideological exhibitionism of the boys. She is unhappy, but does not ostentatiously display her unhappiness to her lovers, unlike the New Wave heroines. Her unhappiness is not thought out at all -- she's just very confused, and ready to fall in love with anyone who shows her the least affection. It's clear that she is not intentionally deceiving the younger brother, that she really loves him. When the older brother goes after her, she feels that it's wrong and objects, but she is drawn to him anyway, despite herself.
That's the endearing thing about Ishihara's work -- his characters are nihilistic and arrogant on the surface, but deep down, they're all sentimental romantics. The cool, cynical older brother decides to play around with the girl, but quickly finds himself in over his head. The younger brother wants to be cool and cynical, but instead falls in what he thinks is true love. The girl seems like a knowing, mysterious vamp, but is actually sweet and vulnerable. She's not really any wiser than the boys.
The ending is suitably gloomy, but it's the one unsatisfying part of the film. I could see the young man bottling up his anger and hating the girl and his brother, but still, she's his first love and he can't imagine life without her -- I'd think he'd probably just break under the pressure and ignominiously crawl after her, desperately begging for affection. But, well, Ishihara was not a subtle writer, and he wanted chaos to befall his overreaching, prematurely adult characters. And there was the shock value to consider. Then again, any other ending would have probably been just as unsatisfying. In reality, this kind of story could have no ending, just a very long, painful and tedious decline. This way, at least it reflects the film's overall dark tone.
But that tone is very affecting. The scene where the younger brother takes the girl to a secluded grotto after the party is brimming with passion. There is a yearning feeling throughout the film, and it's especially strong when the setting appears casual. Like when the boy goes looking for the older brother, and finds him and his friends in a house with lazy, half-dressed girls. That languid indolence, in that radiant sunshine, is overwhelmingly intoxicating to a young man who on one hand has too much free time, and on the other hand is not confident or cynical enough to enter the world he idolizes. With the film's luxuriant setting and energetic pacing, the story becomes a forceful evocation of hungry, insecure desire.
I won't go into the plot, since that seems to have been covered fairly accurately and completely by others. I will say that within moments of watching the open scene with Haruji speeding along in his boat, the jazzy background music playing in the background, I was hooked. The movie is full of fascinating camera movements, music, and acting. The characters are selfish, decadent, and rebellious... and yet we somehow feel sympathetic for them, even before it leads to disaster.
I was certain I'd go searching for more films by Director Ko Nakahira, but according to the fantastic commentary by Donald Richie, after this commercially and critically successful film, he was forced to make standard dribble by the studios. That's a shame, because this is a film where he obviously took risks with the camera, dialogue, and sexual innnuendo. Richie's commentary helps the Western viewer put a lot of the movie into context, explaining Japanese social and film-making trends at the time as well the fate of the major actors. I was dying to know why the car was right hand-drive though, and he never answered that one!
The essays included in the Criterion set are also insightful for putting the movie into context, although none of this "context placing" material is necessary. Watch the movie and you'll find yourself feeling nostalgic for the late 50's in Japan--a time and place I doubt most knew about before.
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