A giant of Japanese cinema rediscovered: the wild parables of Yasuzo Masumura

Garnering rave reviews at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, a retrospective of the films of Yasuzo Masumura has brought new attention to one of Japanese cinema’s wildest and most uncategorisable directors.

11 July 2023

By Joseph Fahim

A Wife Confesses (1961)
In the future, for the cinema to be able to be commercially exploited, we will have to find really crazy, really extraordinary subjects. It may be the end of cinema, but without a doubt, it will also be its most fruitful moment.Yasuzo Masumura, 1969. Cahiers du Cinéma

Who are the great post-war Japanese filmmakers? The average film enthusiast will probably name Akira Kurosawa. Critics may go for Shohei Imamura or Nagisa Oshima or Masaki Kobayashi. Cult aficionados may choose Seijun Suzuki. Avant-gardists are certain to vote for Hiroshi Teshigahara or Masahiro Shinoda. One name has habitually been overlooked however: Yasuzo Masumura, a filmmaker whose close affiliation with the studio system led to his marginalisation by critics and curators alike for nearly 60 years. 

Of all these directors, Masumura was the most difficult to grasp, and certainly the most elusive to classify. His European sensibilities made him too artsy to have been a journeyman; the emotional extremity of his narratives was worlds apart from the subtler, more calculated pictures that appealed to international festivals; the unabashed fierceness of his politics was too serious to have him grouped with the exploitation helmers.

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The cinema of Masumura defies simple categorisation. His stories, all reliant on largely classically structured narratives, are by turns angry yet clear-headed, pulpy yet sophisticated, broadly drawn yet discernibly controlled, nihilistic yet moralistic. And they’re undoubtedly among the most-envelope-pushing studio films of the late 1950s and 60s – no less personal or ingenious than those of Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Fuller or Nicholas Ray.  

A hazily concocted biography of Masumura – albeit one filled with large gaps and jarring ellipses – has emerged over the past two decades after American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum made a discovery of Masumura’s work and took it upon himself to introduce it to the English-speaking world. 

He was born in 1924. He was drafted for the army at the end of World War II – a period whose particularities remain a matter of guesswork. He studied law at the University of Tokyo, where he befriended a young Yukio Mishima, but dropped out two years later. He worked as an assistant director at Daiei – one of the elite studios of the 50s whose illustrious productions included Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1953)  – before going back to university to earn a degree in philosophy. A year later, he became the first Japanese film student to study at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografica alongside Alessandro Blasetti (and not Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti or Michelangelo Antonioni according to film scholar Michael Raine). In 1954, he returned to Daiei, working as assistant for Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa. 

The rest of Masumura’s story has been subject to diverse interpretations. From 1957 to 1970, he worked exclusively for Daiei. His greatest work was produced during this highly prolific 13-year stint – a period that saw him rapidly develop his voice, themes and aesthetics over the course of 45 pictures, churning out three to four films annually.

After Daiei went bankrupt in 1971, Masumura became an independent agent, working for multiple studios and seeing his output gradually decrease. That said, contrary to myth, Masumura’s post-Daiei work produced some brilliant films, including the tantalising Mishima adaptation The Music (1971); the New Age allegory of female resilience Lullaby of the Earth (1976); and the sardonic period romance Double Suicide of Sonezaki (1978).

Each one of the post-war directors sought to engage with the new world of post-war Japan in their own singular way. Masumura took the less glamorous and trickier route of mainstream filmmaking, shaping every project he was assigned to in his own image. He tackled various genres: ‘Sun tribe’ teenage flicks, women’s films, thrillers, noirs, sex farces and sexploitations, yakuza film, satires, domestic dramas and period pics. No other filmmaker of his generation matched his range, and few succeeded in juggling, reshaping and subverting genre conventions so seamlessly, so confidently, so shrewdly. 

Masumura’s primary preoccupations were already evident in his debut and second features, Kisses and The Blue Sky Maiden, both released in 1957: the class disparity, the post-war familial dysfunction, the oppressive web of patriarchy, the encroaching consumerist culture, the moral cost of modernity, and, most recurrent of all, the ferocious fight for individuality.  

Kisses (1957)

Conscious of the boundaries and requirements of popular cinema, Masumura gave what studios demanded: larger than life entertainment with big emotions and high concepts, all impregnated with Masumura’s own confrontational politics. Anticipating the competition soon to be faced with the rise of TV, Masumura wanted to give his audience “a show”: carnivals of emotions that challenge what mainstream cinema was and has become; thoroughly engrossing, sensationalistic parables intended not to manipulate the viewers into submission, but to jolt. If present-day Hollywood suggests the commodified spectacles theorised by Guy Debord, Masumura’s cinema was the ‘détournement’: the expression of the capitalist system turning against itself. 

In that sense, the Sirkian melodrama of The Blue Sky Maiden becomes a startling denouncement of traditional family norms; the espionage thrillers Black Test Car (1962) and Nakano Spy School (1966) are transformed into denunciations of Japan’s economic miracle and its toxic history of imperialism. The sexploitation of Blind Beast (1969) is turned into a treatise on the death of love and the mechanical evolution of sex. The noir elements of A Wife’s Confesses (1961) are upturned into a self-reflexive criticism of the sexist tropes of its genre. 

Blind Beast (1969)

There are no easy gratifications in Masumura’s films; no straightforward, simple thrills. Masumura’s cinema is fashioned to shake the viewers out of their comfort zone via seemingly familiar aesthetic codes. The perversity permeating Masumura’s cinema was both a marketing tool and an ideology – a means for the studios to sell tickets and an integral component of the director’s discourse on repressive social traditions.  

A primary reason Masumura was relegated to a footnote in the post-war cinema was a claim that his film lacked tangible unifying aesthetics. A closer look debunks this misconception. The natural settings of his first features gave way to deliberate artifice that forces the viewer to ponder, if not identify, the unfolding action – an antidote to Debord’s “passive identification”. The visual clutter of Giants and Toys (1958) was replaced by what would become his signature unbalanced compositions whereby the emptiness of one side of the frame is used to emphasise the alienation of characters shown on the other crowded part. The heavy use of dialogue, often recited in breakneck speed that recalls Hollywood screwball comedies, augments the constructed nature of these worlds; its deceptive directness often comes off as a projection of what the characters want to be rather than who they really are.

Masumura’s legendary stock company was equally responsible for bringing his vision to life: scriptwriter Yoshio Shirasaka, editor Tatsuji Nakashizu, cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi, production designer Tomoo Shimogawara. Yet no other collaborator has left such an indelible impact on Masumura’s storytelling as actress Ayako Wakao whom Masumura was introduced to on the set of Mizoguchi’s last film Street of Shame (1956). Masumura saw in women the essence of individuality, as scholar Irene González-López put it, and it’s in Wakao that this notion came to full fruition.

Wakao was no mere blank canvas: she was an equal collaborator to Masumura – an unpredictable, incredibly versatile artist with a capacity to project every imaginable emotion while maintaining a carefully calibrated distance that shrouds her characters with an enigmatic veil impossible to penetrate. Wakao was never the traditional sex siren: sex, in its various manifestations, was treated by Masumura as a means for self-determination, and it’s chiefly through Wakao that this conviction was fleshed out and enriched.

Some ink has been spilled over Masumura’s relationship with his ex-college mate Mishima who starred in his 1960 crime drama Afraid to Die, yet nothing has been written about Masumura’s kinship to Shusaku Endo, another literary contemporary of his. When asked in the aforementioned Cahiers du Cinéma article if there are any projects he wished to realise, Masumura named Endo’s 1957 novel The Sea and Poison as the one adaptation he’d been keen to direct. Unlike the Japanese pics of its era, including Masumura’s, Endo’s story – a realistic horror about the vivisection of American POVs at the hands of the Japanese military – fully exposes the sadistic side of the Japanese army. Endo’s tortured morality can be traced in many of Masumura’s work, unsurprisingly for a man whose graduation thesis was on Kierkegaard. 

Irezumi (1966)

Masumura’s reputation has been growing over the past 15 years as some of his films have begun to be made available on home video. But he remains an outsider to the canon. His seminal essay ‘A Certain Defense’, written after the release of his third feature Warm Currents (1957), is still only available in Japanese. No full studies of his work are available in English, French or German, and only one has been authored in Italian and is out of circulation. More than half of the 66 films he directed, several of which are real masterpieces, are yet to be released on any form outside Japan.

Twenty-four years after his passing, Masumura’s work remains as contemporary, as radical, as playful as ever. His preoccupations have never felt as pertinent as they do now. At an age increasingly governed by blockbusters, he proved time and time again that the mainstream needn’t be so empty, so reductive, so artless. And for young generations in Latin America, in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, that are still grappling with the legacy of their own despotic military rules, Masumura had one key thing to say through his pictures: there is no easy way out of this. 

An 11-film Yasuzo Masumura retrospective screened at the 57th Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

Black Test Car, Giants and Toys, Red Angel and Blind Beast are all available on Blu-ray from Arrow.

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