Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Early Seijun: THE BOY WHO CAME BACK (1958)

Streeting next Tuesday in the UK and the US is SEIJUN SUZUKI, THE EARLY YEARS VOL. 1 (SEIJUN RISING: THE YOUTH MOVIES) - a four-disc box set (two Blu-ray, two DVD) collecting five of the maverick Japanese filmmaker's earliest works for the Nikkatsu studio, ranging from 1958 to 1965. Seijun (1923-2017) is primarily known in the West for his flamboyant crime dramas TOKYO DRIFTER (1966) and BRANDED TO KILL (1967), whose often dazzling yet off-kilter verve is frequently compared to Sam Fuller in his prime, and which has influenced filmmakers from Oliver Stone to Quentin Tarantino to Sion Sono. His career led to some increasingly abstract action films like the shot-on-video PISTOL OPERA (2001), which could be said to have influenced more recent Japanese work like Sion's dazzling ANTIPORNO (2016). But the stylistic extremes of Seijun's later work do beg the question of where his journey began, which makes Arrow's issuing of this comprehensive package all the more welcome and exciting.

The films included in this first set are THE BOY WHO CAME BACK (Fumihazushita haru, 1958), the story of a wayward delinquent and his difficult relationship with the female mentor assigned to him; THE WIND-OF-YOUTH GROUP CROSSES THE MOUNTAIN PASS (Tôge o wataru wakai kaze, 1961), a colorful film about a student on holiday who joins a travelling circus; TEENAGE YAKUZA (Hai tiin yakuza, 1962), about a high school vigilante who becomes the protector of his village against incroaching threats from a neighboring mob; and THE INCORRIGIBLE (Akutarô, 1963) and BORN UNDER CROSSED STARS (Akutarô-den: Warui hoshi no shita demo, 1965), both based on novels by Toko Kon, set in the 1920s and dealing with young love. 

The title assigned to the set may lead to some confusion, because not all of the films in this first set pre-date some of Seijun's best-known and widely available titles, including YOUTH OF THE BEAST (Yajû no seishun, 1963), GATE OF FLESH (Nikutai no mon, 1964), and STORY OF A PROSTITUTE (Shunpu den, 1965). The set is intended to be considered en suite with VOL. 2 (subtitled BORDER CROSSINGS: THE CRIME AND ACTION MOVIES), which is scheduled for release on April 17 and will include five more films dating from 1957 (EIGHT HOURS OF TERROR, the oldest film in either set) through 1961.  



Not really knowing what to expect, I decided to watch THE BOY WHO CAME BACK last night and was immediately won over by its anamorphic 2.35:1 black-and-white cinematography. I also found it was also fascinating to see a Japanese film about juvenile delinquency, a film in Japan's history comparable to something like THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955) or BEAT GIRL (1959) in English-speaking cultures, or TEENAGE WOLFPACK (Die Halbstarken, 1956) in Germany. Watching it, I quickly became aware that the comportment of Japanese films I've seen has either been very orderly, extremely chaotic surrealistically chaotic, or a stylistic combination of the two; so I found it a bit startling to see a serious, socially constructive film in which most characters act with reserve that even a character shown chewing gum seems downright bizarre, and contrasted with an artistically accomplished but emotionally scarred teenager whose wild ways (and two past arrests) are unlikely to assure him anything but a future with the yakuza unless he can straighten up. To this end, the troubled Nobuo (Akira Kobayashi) is assigned a mentor from the BBS (Big Brothers and Sisters) to act as his counselor to keep him on the straight-and-narrow following his second release from juvenile detention. It is the first such assignment for Keiko (Sachiko Hidari), an idealistic and wholesome young woman whose assignment is basically to keep him out of trouble, hopefully to get him gainfully employed, and to guide him back into the arms of his former girlfriend Kazue (Ruriko Asaowa). In doing so, Keiko discovers she may be biting off a bit more than she can chew, insofar as she finds herself falling under the spell of her difficult, violent, whoring and self-loathing young charge - and there are also hints that she may be one of those "he hit me... and it felt like a kiss" types. 

Taken as an entire package, THE BOY WHO CAME BACK (according to its trailer, adapted from a controversial novel of the time with the "genius direction" of Seijun) is a captivating melodrama that functions at appreciably deeper, more sober levels than comparable JD films from America and the UK of the same period. According to the IMDb, it was Seijun's eighth film but made only two years into his frantically paced career - which would explain its technical competence and the sensitivity Seijun was able to draw at this stage from his actors. Though the film has a certain docudrama look and quality, it also explodes now and again into more stylized moments, especially during Nobuo's outbursts of derangement - in a couple of frenzied jazz club scenes, and during an extended sequence where he is beaten by a street gang and, while in custody, driven crazed with anger by a rumor that his girlfriend was gang-raped while he was left unconscious.          

I may post further responses as I continue to make my way through the box. If you're at all interested, I would hop on this soon as the set is strictly limited to 3000 copies. In addition to the films, a 60-page illustrated booklet is included featuring new writing on the films by BEHIND THE PINK CURTAIN author Jasper Sharp - an outstanding authority on cutting-edge Japanese cinema who delivers book-quality work, well above the liner notes standard. He's a most helpful guide to have around. I've not yet found Tony Rayns' contributions to the set, but he's said to be on hand with introductions.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.  

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