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August 22, 2013

Nudes! Guns! Ghosts! The Sensational Films of Shintoho

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Yellow Line (Teruo Ishii - 1960)

Mark Schilling - 2010
Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche

Like Mark Schilling's book on the Japanese studio Nikkatsu in the mid-Fifties to early Sixties, this book on Shintoho covers most of the same time period. Both books were originally issued to accompany retrospectives curated by Schilling for the Udine Far East Film Festival. There may not be a direct connection, but a few years after the Nikkatsu book was made available to the general public in 2007, Criterion began issuing sets of Nikkatsu films from that era on DVD. Will someone do the same for Shintoho? One can only hope. In the meantime, we have the first English language book providing an overview for this short lived company, and the scattershot availability of a few subtitled DVDs mostly available through, shall we say, specialized sources.

While Shintoho, an offspring of the well established Toho, began producing films in 1947, Schilling covers the years from 1955 through 1961, when Mitsugu Okura took over as production head. Instead of pricier films by filmmakers, major names like Mizoguchi, Ozu, Naruse, Ichikawa and Kurosawa, Okura chose to make cheaper films by younger directors. These new directors were often the former Assistant Directors to these "Golden Era" filmmakers. There was also an emphasis on attracting a younger audience, interested in a more visceral kind of entertainment. While Schilling compares Okura to Roger Corman, I think Okura has more in common with the founders of American International Pictures, Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson, especially in the way that studio specific genres were created to appeal to the growing youth market.

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Sexy Line (Teruo Ishii - 1961)

The book is divided by chapters, with a studio history, and a look at several of the top directors, actors and actresses. Best are the interviews with several Shintoho veterans, all in their seventies or eighties. There is a poignancy to Michiko Maeda's story. The first of Shintoho's stars to be sold on her sex appeal, Maeda's stardom was based in part on wearing skimpy outfits. After being persuaded to take a different kind of role, in a period costume drama, Maeda's career was cut short based on her alleged refusal to hike up her skirt inappropriately for that kind of film. Maeda may well have set the example for other Shintoho stars to not challenge Okura or those who acted on his behalf. Others interviewed include actor Jerry Fujio, director Yoshiki Onoda, and assistant directors Eizo Yamagiwa and Akira Aono.

Schilling also puts to rest the myth that Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku was both Shintoho's last film or that it was directly a cause of the studio's bankruptcy. The studio was said to almost always be on financially shaky ground. Being smaller than the other studios, the closure of Shintoho was also due to the combination of television becoming more available nationwide, along with a declining audience, the same factors that ended production at the classier Daiei Film Company ten years later. As for Jigoku, the production cost was in keeping with other Shintoho films, with Nakagawa knowing how to make the most with a limited budget.

Being originally intended for the Udine Far East Film Festival, the book is in English in the front half, with Italian text in the second half. It is the front half that also has film stills, posters and photos of several of the Shintoho veterans. At this time, Nudes! Gun! Ghosts is newly available online from the Italian company Libro Co. Thanks to festival director, Sabrina Baracetti, I've been able to get a couple of previously issued books on Ann Hui and Asian musicals. I hope that especially for those who can not make the voyage to Italy, that more festival books will be issued. Those whose taste in Japanese cinema leans towards the more classical films might still be dismissive of the the films covered here. For myself, I can't get enough Ghost Cats!

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Black Cat Mansion (Nobuo Nakagawa - 1958)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 22, 2013 07:01 AM