Ask most stateside aficionados of Japanese movies for their impressions of Nikkatsu Studios, and you’ll undoubtedly hear about yakuza shoot-’em-ups and “pink” sexploitationers. And it’s true that the venerable Tokyo production company made a splash in this country with Seijun Suzuki’s gaudy gangster pics and nudie shockeroos like Apartment Wife: Lust for an Orgasm, products of the Sixties and Seventies.
But there’s far more to Nikkatsu than that, as the Pacific Film Archive’s “Life Is Short: Nikkatsu at 100,” running September 1 through October 27, is poised to demonstrate. The studio, founded in 1912, is one of the world’s oldest, and the fifteen-title retrospective — curated by the PFA’s Susan Oxtoby and Mona Nagai with major participation by Japan’s National Film Center and the recently reorganized Nikkatsu itself — offers a surprising range of work, including key films by masters Kenji Mizoguchi, Masahiro Makino, and Kon Ichikawa, in addition to the popular Suzuki-san.
Who would have expected a samurai musical? Singing Lovebirds, Makino’s dazzlingly romantic 1939 comedy, populates its feudal-era fantasy with swing-music-crooning ronin, giddy dancing maidens, and bumbling elders like the umbrella maker, played by none other than Takashi Shimura — best known in the US for his dignified roles in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ikiru. Here, he’s the singing, antique-collecting father of a shy but determined lass (Haruyo Ichikawa) who’s bonkers over a handsome swordsman (Chiezo Kataoka). Almost as silly as Gilbert & Sullivan. For fans of actor Shimura it’s an adjustment to see him so frivolous, but he’s terrific. Singing Lovebirds may be the rarest pic in the series. It’s certainly the most unexpectedly entertaining. It plays on September 22.
Makino is sadly almost unknown to American cine-addicts, but Nikkatsu also nurtured the careers of the illustrious. Ichikawa’s Harp of Burma (1956), with its transcendental soundtrack and overtly spiritual story of a WWII Imperial Army soldier who forsakes the brutality of war to become a Buddhist monk, remains one of the most penetrating Japanese films on the Pacific War, a palm-of-the-hand epic of loneliness and compassion in the midst of chaos. See it October 14. Mizoguchi’s 1930 Hometown represents a dual milestone: It’s one of Japan’s first sound films as well as the master’s very first talkie. Classical tenor Yoshie Fujiwara stars as a Western-style art singer who gains fame by switching his repertoire to Japanese traditional melodies. Of course this is a Mizoguchi product, so the emotions of women are front and center, especially those of his neglected wife (Shizue Natsukawa). You can see the actors’ breath in the cold studio air. A gorgeous early Mizoguchi, it shows on September 15.
Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate goes under a variety of other English titles — Tricksters: The Last Days of the Samurai Era; A Decadent Tale of Waning Glory, etc. — but whatever it’s called, director Yuzo Kawashima’s 1957 Bakumatsu taiyoden is a hilarious whorehouse farce with no pretensions other than giving comedian Frankie Sakai plenty of room for clowning. Sakai, the Nippon Red Skelton, revels in the role of a rascally vagrant living by his wits as a brothel hanger-on, where he crosses swords with the girls (Yoko Minimada, Sachiko Hidari) and the boys, all the while warbling a ditty: I’ll kill all the crows in the whole wide world/So I can sleep in with my man. Mix in a subplot about a gang of anti-foreigner rebels and a catfight or two, and you’ve got a genuine Nikkatsu popcorn movie (if only the PFA allowed such things). Don’t miss out when it screens on September 30.
Nikkatsu was a major player at the dawn of the youth-market era in the mid-20th-century. Season of the Sun (1956) looks demure today, but its combo of defiant middle-class students, antsy Western jazz, and hormone-driven violence, plus a little sex, turned director Takumi Furukawa’s cautionary tale into the studio’s all-time biggest hit. Once that trend was established, the deluge included frantic exploitation items such as Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones (1960), a hand-held juvenile delinquent riot of rape, rumbles, and modern art (screens September 7). But let’s not forget another social-problem drama, Yuzo Kawashima’s 1956 Suzaki Paradise: Red Light District, in which a poor-but-headstrong woman and her weak husband try to eke out a living in the title Tokyo neighborhood, to their chagrin. It opens the series on Saturday, September 1, at 6:30 p.m.
The series does not neglect Seijun Suzuki. Alongside the director’s kinky Gate of Flesh (October 19), his sterling anti-war paean Elegy to Violence (October 27), and the mobster melodrama The Young Rebel (October 25), we get to leer at Takashi Nomura’s terse, noirish A Colt Is My Passport (September 1) and Toshi Masuda’s yakuza-boiler Rusty Knife (September 22). Alas, no pinku. This is the Pacific Film Archive, after all. See BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu for more information.