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Meeting Mr. Wrong In Japanese Cinema

Meeting Mr. Wrong In Japanese Cinema

Picture of Patricia Contino
Updated: 11 January 2017
The Japan Society’s Japan Cuts in New York featured Nagisa Oshima’s “Cruel Story of Youth” and the North American premiere of Lisa Takeba’s “Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory.” Oshima established his reputation as an unsparing filmmaker; Takeba questions the validity of her pop culture world. Fifty-four years separate the two directors, but they share common, timeless themes.
Cruel Story of Youth | © Japan Society
‘Cruel Story of Youth’ | © Japan Society

Including Oshima in Japan Cuts’ ninth anniversary was not arbitrary. Cruel Story of Youth (Seishun Zankoku Monogatari) recently underwent a $4,000 restoration process developed by festival co-sponsor SONY. The film’s cinematographer, Takashi Kawamata, supervised the celluloid-todigital transfer.

Released in 1960, Cruel Story of Youth unfolds in the slums of Tokyo. Bored, unsupervised teenager Makoto (Miyuke Kuwano) likes driving in cars with strange men. The film opens on the night her latest ride wants to take her to a love hotel. Coming to her defense is Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu), slightly older and hardened by post-World War II life. Their first date sets the tone for their relationship: she slaps him, he throws her in a lake, and then rapes her on a dock strung together with spiked carved logs. Still, she stays with him. They team up for a crime spree, repeating her pattern of driving off with strange men and his coming to her defense, shaking down the would-be attacker for yen.

Like his contemporaries in the French New Wave, Oshima was familiar with American film noir. Makoto’s hairdo and pouty expressions bring to mind Sandra Dee, making it no surprise that Kawazu channels James Dean. However, any further resemblance ends at the cosmetic. Intercut with the fictional narrative is footage of actual student demonstrations, but the pair are more interested in causing personal chaos than taking on the adult world.

In addition, unlike movie lover-lawbreakers such as Bowie and Ketchie in Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1948) or Barton and Annie Laurie in Joseph E. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950), there is never any genuine passion. She expects disrespect; he thrives on cruelty. Their destructive codependence is predictably short-lived.

Oshima would return to the battle of the sexes in later films, especially in his most notorious one, In the Realm of the Senses (Ai No Corrida, 1976). Based on a true crime of passion resulting in genital mutilation, the film was seized by US customs officers before its public screenings at the 1976 New York Film Festival.

The opening credits of Lisa Takeba’s Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (Haruko Chojo Gensho Kenkyujo, 2015) are a send-up of Japanese “pink” (erotic) cinema. Half-naked women who have nothing to do with the film arrange themselves in interesting group formations that left the Japan Society audience in hysterics. They recognized the Amy Schumer-type jab at an unfortunate stereotype that only a smart woman can take on.

Takeba goes on to bring the absurd together naturally in an unnatural setting, where the naked object of desire is a literal object. Aspiring artist and fan-girl Haruko (Moeka Nozaki) carries on an ongoing conversation with her television set. Fed up with her snide attitude, the television (Terebi) comes to life. Because film characters accept him as he is, the film audience does as well. His face framed in the picture screen of a 1953 Japanese set, Terebi wears the same confused expression Keanu Reeves built a career on. Terebi’s other distinctive feature is unseen, but all the male characters and Haruko’s cougar co-worker (Sayaka Aoki) refer to it nonstop.

Haruko | © Japan Society
Haruko | © Japan Society

Initially sweet, Terebi soon becomes a handful, trashing Haruko’s apartment and bar hopping. Things get worse when, thanks to his translation channel, he becomes a popular TV host. Subplots include UFO abduction, Terebi’s origin story, a traveling freak show, and a neighborhood thief disguised as Friday the 13th’s Jason.

Takeba’s imagination is at its wildest when showing what flashes across the television screen. Along with narcissistic celebrities, commercials, and lacy panties, it works because of its ridiculous premise.

Japan Cuts runs through July 19th. The Japan Society schedules films year round, along with special exhibits, lectures, and performing arts programing. The 118-year-old institution also offers language, cooking. and art classes for children and adults.