The accepted stereotype is that the Japanese are an orderly people who wait for the light to change before crossing intersections on foot and who can be trusted to purchase their train tickets on the honor system. Although it’s largely forgotten now, a single film released in Japan in 1956 did more than anything up to that time to refute this stereotype; it presented, for mass consumption and arguably for the first time in Japan, a portrait of an idle class of post-war youth who didn’t much respect their elders, questioned traditional values, and dumped convention in favor of such youthful pursuits as gambling, lying around by the sea, and diligently pursuing the opposite sex. The film is Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit, and the good people at the Criterion Collection have polished it up for DVD; here’s hoping that this influential and worthwhile film doesn’t get forgotten again.
How influential was it? If you charted Crazed Fruit‘s influence alongside its shock value you’d probably find a pretty strong correlation. And in 1956 it was an eyeful indeed. The film opens on two teenaged brothers, Haruji (Masahiko Tsugawa) and Natsuhisa (Yujiro Ishihara), as they create an ungentlemanly disturbance while racing to catch a train. (They do not buy tickets.) Once aboard, they sling their belongings onto an overhead rack and proceed to talk loudly about their eagerness to water ski (the younger Haruji) and meet girls (Natsuhisa). Haruji even strips off his shirt to rebut the claim that he’s scrawny. Already it’s impolite, but before long Haruji has taken up with an older girl (Eri, played by Mie Kitahara) who, unbeknownst to him, is married to a much older American. When Natsuhisa learns Eri’s secret he blackmails her into sleeping with him behind the smitten Haruji’s back. As this central conflict plays out, director Nakahira fills screen time with the adventures of the boys’ similarly aimless friends as they go about living their sunstruck, unsupervised lives. During one evening, in the course of which a plan is hatched to play poker with girls instead of cards to see who can get the best hand, the teens pause from their drinking and gambling to talk through their beliefs: ‘Look what the older generation tried to sell us,’ they complain. ‘Do you find anything exciting in that? We live in boring times so we make boredom our credo.’ But young Haruji, at first, isn’t having any of that. ‘You guys have no idea what you want to do,’ he says. ‘They call people like you the Sun Tribe. I’m not going to live like that.’
This schematic will of course sound familiar to American ears, and in fact our very own Crazed Fruit, here titled Rebel without a Cause, had come out just one year before. As Haruji notes, the rebellion that Crazed Fruit both documented and contributed to was dubbed the Sun Tribe by the press, parents, and other concerned parties; the name reflecting the tendency of these rebels to spend their time in close proximity to the sea. (The phrase soon denoted a sub-genre of Japanese film as well, Kon Ichikawa’s Punishment Room being the other noteworthy title in that particular canon.) Save for the marine locale, the delinquency on view in Crazed Fruit tightly parallels its American counterpart, down to and including the tragic consequences that idleness and indifference bring about. It’s intended as a lesson when young Haruji, learning at last that he’s been deceived by both his brother and his best girl, makes a catastrophic decision at the conclusion of Crazed Fruit, changing forever the lives of all involved. But, like Rebel, the appended message does little to nullify the seductiveness of what’s come before. Yes, the film says, this life leads to heartbreak and despair. But you know that its young audience is thinking that it looks like a lot of fun just the same.
It’s not just the absence of parents and (historically factitious) surplus of cash that seduces. When Crazed Fruit was made, there was a cinematic and cultural revolution called the French New Wave raging elsewhere, and director Nakahira clearly saw that that movement’s off-the-cuff, invigorated style fit his material hand in glove. A contemporary audience could never apprehend the newness Crazed Fruit conveyed in its day: the way its shot/reverse shot sequences defied traditional Japanese composition, the dizziness of its continuity, Nakahira’s jarring use of close-ups and steamy American jazz. Was Nakahira a great director? Probably not; you’re aware, during Crazed Fruit, that what you’re seeing is sometimes the result of skill and sometimes luck. But the film captured a mood convincingly – and, in cinematic terms, appropriately – and it plugged into a cultural zeitgeist that bore it up and away. In the film’s opening scenes aboard the sweltering train one brother remarks to the other that the wind is picking up, and the comment feels right; you sense that there’s not just a film, but a big, irrevocable change getting underway.
Criterion’s edition of Crazed Fruit includes a fascinating commentary by film scholar Donald Richie that sheds a lot of light on both the movie at hand and the often mysterious world of Japanese film in general, as well as a pair of useful essays and a lovely transfer of the film. Thanks are due them for making this key Japanese film available again.
Aka Kurutta kajitsu, Juvenile Jungle.