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Rebel Movies of the 1950s: Imagining a New Japan in ‘Crazed Fruit’

Michael Raine writes: Youth was a global problem problem in the mid-1950s, in literature, journalism, and film. The cultural old guard was in retreat from the likes of Françoise Sagan in France, J. D. Salinger in the United States, and the angry young men and Colin Wilson in Britain. In film, too, Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause (released in Japan in 1955 and 1956) announced a global youth explosion that would decisively reorient Western commercial cinema away from the mythical family audience to the more spendthrift and cynical younger generation. The authorities had worried about juvenile delinquency since the war, but by the mid-1950s—with the Teddy Boys in England, the halbstarker in West Germany, the blousons noirs in France, and the taiyozoku in Japan—that anxiety had reached moral panic on a global scale.

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Like the French term nouvelle vague, the word taiyozoku (Sun Tribe) referred to a postwar generation before it was applied to the cinema. It was coined to describe the rich, bored, and vicious characters populating the pages of writer Shintaro Ishihara’s books, such as Season of the Sun (1955) and Crazed Fruit (1956). Those characters embodied all that Japan’s postwar disillusioned youth desired, and that Japan’s new conservative government feared: absent parents and an excess of money, leisure, and sex. Ishihara won the prestigious Akutagawa prize for new novelists and became a celebrity when his stories were collected in a paperback edition that became one of the biggest sellers of 1956. He received thousands of letters from frustrated young people who said they finally recognized themselves in his nihilistic young characters—quite a feat of imagination, considering that Japanese youth were paid one-tenth what their American counterparts were and could only dream of nightclubs, motorboats, and villas by the sea.

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Many established writers complained that Ishihara’s stories were not literature, and that Ishihara himself was not fully literate, but there was no denying his impact. Some even argued that Ishihara’s celebrity marked the end of the literary salon and the final victory of celebrity culture in Japan. His novels confused two currents in postwar popular literature: the existentialist legacy of the “body literature” authors, who rejected Bushido (the traditional code of Japanese samurai, stressing honor, self-discipline, bravery, and simple living) and other wartime spiritual propaganda in favor of the only certainty left—the individual body; and the moral hysteria of the later “pregnancy melodramas,” which tried to restore proper order in the wake of the salacious, and foreign-identified, “dregs culture” that had emerged during the occupation.

[Read the full story here, at The Criterion Collection]

Ishihara claimed that his jumbles of sentiment and self-assertion were “novels of ideas,” like those of Camus and Hemingway, but with a half century of hindsight, the stories seem informed by more immediate concerns: a generational and geopolitical resentment toward Japan’s postwar gerontocracy and its American masters. Perhaps that explains why this enfant terrible is now the governor of Tokyo and one of Japan’s most popular conservative politicians.

Disc Features

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer
  • Audio commentary by renowned Japanese-film scholar Donald Richie
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • Plus: A 16-page booklet featuring new essays by critic Chuck Stephens and film scholar Michael Raine

In retrospect, it was neither Ishihara’s writing nor the debate over his literary merits that changed the nature of literature and celebrity in postwar Japan. The real agency belonged to the growth of middle-brow weekly magazines in the 1950s, and especially in 1956, as an alternative to the existing opinion journals. With Ishihara as their model, the weekly magazines recognized the fiscal potential of the taiyozoku and rushed to publish lurid stories of Japan’s angry and highly sexed youth. These voyeuristic narratives followed policemen in search of fornicating teenagers in the woods, described bodies draped on rocks by the sea in the moonlight, and speculated on illicit behavior in the sailing boats floating all night out at sea. The magazines also staged many interviews and debates with Ishihara and his critics, playing both sides to profit from his charm and his notoriety.

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The weekly magazines almost always included photographs of their subject: in these articles, Ishihara became not so much the voice of a new generation as its image. He was feted for his embodiment of a new postwar masculinity, a sportsman with a lithe body and a love of “thrills.” Even his hairstyle was famous.

In the film Crazed Fruit, that new masculinity is embodied by Shintaro’s brother, Yujiro Ishihara, who models the looks, diction, and attitudes for which Shintaro had become famous. In this early incarnation, Yujiro was compared to James Dean (posthumously idolized in Japanese film magazines in the summer of 1956), as well as Marlon Brando and even Jack Palance. At the same time, he stood in for Shintaro’s more active masculinity, one that could stand up to foreign men. Later, Yujiro achieved fame in a softer guise, as a multimedia celebrity closer to Elvis Presley (the big foreign “new face” of 1957 in Japan), going on to become the most celebrated film, TV, and recording star in the history of Japanese popular culture. Cinema had always been crucial to the remaking of attitudes and bodily ideals in Japan, but the mid-fifties intensification of celebrity culture, and the consumer culture that these stars often advertised, marked the beginning of the end of cinema’s reign as the “king of mass entertainment.” From this point on, the studios would struggle to hold on to audiences tempted by record players and rice cookers, televisions and apartments in the suburbs.

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Japanese cinema was not ready for the challenge. In the mid-1950s, the industry was in a crisis of overproduction and excess competition. Western audiences only saw the prestigious art films and blockbusters by Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa, but Japan’s was a high-volume, low-budget production system dominated by stars and genres. Nikkatsu was the oldest studio in Japan, but its production arm had been … (read more)

Source: The Criterion Collection

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