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September 20, 2011

The Warped Ones

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Kyonetsu no kisetsu
Koreyoshi Kurahara - 1960
Eclipse Region 1 DVD

Did Koreyoshi Kurahara and his scriptwriter, Nobuo Yamada see Godard's Breathless prior to making The Warped Ones? Godard's film opened in Japan in March 1960, while Kurahara's film debuted the following September. A six month gap between the two films would be considered fast but not impossible, and definitely not that unusual back at that time. There seems to be an influence, not only in filming in the streets of Tokyo, but in the choice of characters.

Kurahara's main character, Akira, makes Godard's Michel seem almost like a model of decorum in comparison. First seen busted for grabbing the wallet of a bar customer, part of a scam with his young prostitute girlfriend, Yuki, Akira is sent to a juvenile prison where time is passed by getting into fights. Released from the joint, Akira and pal, Masaru, dive back into the life, stealing knives and a car, picking up Yuki, and heading out to the beach. At the beach, the guy who set up the bust, Kashiwagi, is seen, and knock over when Akira drives by with his car door open. The gang grabs Kashiwagi's girl, Fumiko, who unwillingly becomes part of Akira's life.

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What impresses about Akira, as played by Tamio Kawachi, is his almost unflagging exuberance. When he and Masaru first enter the streets from prison, they sound like Beavis and Butthead, yipping and grunting to each other in enthusiasm to being out in the sun. One of Kurahara repeated visual motifs is shots of the sky, oven too brightly lit and overexposed. Akira ferociously dives into food and drink like an animal, and emotionally dives into jazz to the exclusion of his surroundings. Akira doesn't just taste life, but gobbles it up whole and spits out what doesn't satisfy him. The opening of the film are dizzying shots of the ceiling of Akira's favorite bar, with its photos of various American jazz musicians, with Kurahara duplicating the effect of looking closely at a record spinning on a turntable.

There is no explanation for Akira's amorality, and even when he seems to be taking responsibility for his actions, it still comes across as making a bad situation worse. Akira's love of jazz, specifically jazz by black American musicians, seems emotionally rooted, as is his friendship with Gill, seemingly based on his personification of the only art form for which Akira feels any affinity. Part of the film deals with Akira's conflicting relationship with Fumiko, an accomplished abstract painter. Akira goes to an exhibition where he is bemused by what he sees, going as far as turning one painting upside down to the approval of one of the other gallery patrons. Later, crashing in on a party at Fumiko's house, Akira is introduced as a model, but is indifferent to the intellectual and hipster approval of his anti-social behavior. Akira's life seems to be as improvised as the music he loves. At the same time, Akira is oblivious to how is life is connected to others, or the formal underpinnings of jazz, only seeing it as a musical form that as he explains was created in America by black musicians, stolen by white musicians, and copied by Japanese.

Kurahara's camera is just as restless as Akira, almost constantly in motion. Many of the street shots have a documentary quality. A glanced sign would indicate that the bar where much of the film takes place was in Shibuya. Fumiko's house seems to be in an outer section of Tokyo, where has a small chicken coop in the back. This is a Tokyo that existed fifteen year following the end of World War II, but not yet the overly developed urban Tokyo of today. Seen within the context of traditional Japanese behavior, Akira must have been extremely shocking to audiences when the film was first released. The Japanese title has been translated as "Season of Heat". The English language title ultimately refers to all of the characters, as Fumiko and Kashiwagi turn out to be as warped as Akira, Masaru and Yuki.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 20, 2011 06:57 AM