Criterion/Eclipse continues to be Nuts for Nikkatsu as they have put out yet another boxed set (see "Nikkatsu Noir: Eclipse 17") featuring an eclectic collection of films from the youth-orient Japanese studio. "The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara" includes five films: "Intimidation," "The Warped Ones," "Black Sun," and "Thirst for Love."
"Nikkatsu Noir" was a studio sampler featuring films by multiple directors, yet this set of five movies by a single director, Koreyoshi Kurahara (whose debut film "I Am Waiting" was included on the "Nikkatsu Noir" set), is every bit as varied in style and tone. Kurahara was one of the powerhouses of the Nikkatsu studio as they emerged as the hippest gang in Japanese film during the ‘60s, at the center of the Japanese New Wave that arose simultaneously yet separate from the French New Wave. Kurahara worked in multiple genres, including crime, comedy and juvenile delinquency films – he even shot documentaries. Judging from the three films I've watched, it's hard to pigeonhole a specific Kurahara style, but his films tend to move briskly, feature kinetic camera work, and punchy editing.
"Intimidation" (1960) is a short and sweet crime film that only runs 65 minutes. But even in such a brief time, Kurahara fleshes out his characters while also delivering the goods vis-à-vis the actual crime. A bank manager is set for a promotion but gets blackmailed for some shady loans he once approved. The only way out is to rob his own bank! His old friend, a simpering milquetoast who has failed to climb the corporate ladder, is set up to be the patsy, but these kinds of stories never go as planned. The actual bank heist is brilliantly executed, pragmatic and low-key, and definitely does not turn out as expected, but Kurahara spends most of the film exploring the power dynamic between the successful professional and the hard-luck schmoe with very interesting results.
"The Warped Ones" (1960) was a huge hit for Kurahara, and remains one of the milestones of the popular juvenile delinquency genre in Japan. It is certainly one of the most extreme examples of its kind. Once again, Kurahara wastes little time, starting with Akira (Tamio Kawachi) getting arrested while trying to roll a mark. The opening credits feature a whiplash montage that careens through his time in juvie (lots of freeze frame fights) and takes us up to his release. He doesn't waste any time returning to his old ways. Akira (Tamio Kawachi) is like an early version of Alex de Large (Akira loves jazz instead of Ludwig Van) mixed with Michel from "Breathless" which was released the same year. Constantly mugging for his own imaginary camera, he is a giant ball of rage gathering momentum as he rolls downhill through the city, lashing out at the establishment which is, essentially, everyone other than him. For starters, he runs over the journalist who helped put him in jail then rapes his girlfriend. There is nothing redeeming about Akira. He feels no empathy for anyone, including his friends, and the film places us alongside him almost the entire time. Kurahara sandblasts jazz all over the soundtrack, and his jangly camerawork matches the music. This can be a rather trying experience, but for those who enjoy sociopathic protagonists, this is a unique film.
"I Hate But Love" (1962) has a great title, and finds Kurahara in a somewhat mellower register, though not as much as you'd think for a film described as a "romantic comedy." Television and radio celebrity Daisaku (Japanese mega-star Yujiro Ishihara) has legions of fans and a wall-to-wall schedule designed to keep his brand fresh, and he's starting to burn out. His manager Noriko (another Japanese mega-star, Ruriko Asaoka) tries to keep a tight leash on him as well as on their relationship, a tightrope walk between the professional and the unrequited personal. When Daisaku interviews a woman who claims to know "pure love," he abruptly announces that he will fulfill her request to drive a desperately-needed Jeep to a distant village. Her doctor boyfriend is there, and Daisaku wants to meet him to prove or disprove this "pure love" thing. I think. I couldn't figure out why that particular Jeep was so desperately needed, or why Daisaku's drive was played up as such a monumental quest, but Kurahara packs several elements into the journey: Daisaku's increasing sense of urgency, the media uproar that follows him, and Noriko's pursuit of her sort-of, but-not-quite lover. It makes for a surprisingly complicated, if rather absurd, story with multiple narrative strands vying for center stage at different times.
The set also includes two films I didn't get a chance to see, 1964's "Black Sun" in which Kawachi once again plays a jazz-obsessed young man named Akira, and "Thirst for Love" (1967), an adaptation of a novel by the famous Yukio Mishima.
"I Hate But Love" is in color, the other four films are in black and white. Just for kicks, they're in various aspect ratios. "The Warped Ones" and "I Hate But Love" are 2.35:1. "Black Sun" is 2.25:1. "Thirst for Love" is 2.45:1. "Intimidation" is 2.20:1. Eclipse does not offer restored digital transfers like parent company Criterion, but as usual, they have still found good prints to work from. "Intimidation" isn't particularly sharp in terms of image detail, but it still features good black-and-white contrast and is a pleasing picture overall. "I Hate But Love" is the only color film, and the palette isn't all that dynamic, but is still more than satisfactory. "The Warped Ones" has an austere, slightly high contrast look to it which is just right for the material. Brief samples of the other two films suggest that they are solid but unremarkable transfers – however I can't provide any detailed judgment on them. I certainly didn't see anything to complain about in any of the transfers.
All five films are presented in Dolby Digital Mono. I won't go through each film. In general, there are minor instances of distortion and a few pops along the way, but nothing to get bent out of shape about. The jazz music in "The Warped Ones" doesn't sound quite as dynamic as I think it is meant to, but it's still good. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
Eclipse does not include any extras. However, all five films (each housed in a separate slim case, all five of which are tucked into a cardboard sleeve) are accompanied by liner notes by critic Chuck Stephens, who also wrote the notes for "Nikkatsu Noir."
Criterion is pumping out the ‘60s Japanese films (most of which would be categorized loosely as Japanese New Wave) at a furious pace (including Nagisa Oshima's work along with the Nikkatsu films) and I have yet to fall in love with them as a group. However, I enjoyed "Intimidation" quite a bit. I have a soft spot in my heart for good films in the 60-75 minute range, and this one is brisk without feeling self-consciously lean. "The Warped Ones" irritated me because I didn't find its monstrous protagonist to be particularly charismatic; he was simply vile and dull. But for those who find him a little more magnetic, the film could be quite a trip. "I Hate But Love" started off well for me (it helps that the gorgeous Ruriko Asaoka just happens to strip down to her undergarments a few times) but lost me in the hectic final half. I'm on the fence regarding Kurahara, but his versatility and his energy are manifest in these movies.
The films are not currently available for sale individually, only as part of this Eclipse boxed set.