A troubled-youth movie that doesn’t waste too much time trying to shock, Crazed Fruit takes what could have been a simple exploitation flick about bad teens getting into trouble by the seashore and turns it into a doomed love story fraught with morality. Filmed over just 17 days in 1956, director Ko Nakahira’s second film helped launch the Japanese vogue for so-called “Sun Tribe” (taiyozoku) films, which chronicled the hedonistic and wayward ways of Japanese teens just as Z-budget American flicks were trying to capitalize on fears of and fascinations with their country’s own adolescents. The difference with Crazed Fruit is that it not only took its fresh, exciting look straight from the French New Wave, but also took a straightforward approach to sex previously almost unheard of in teen movies made in both Japan and America.
The story is a simple one, in which a pair of brothers, older and cynical Natsuhisa (Yujiro Ishihara, who become the Japanese equivalent of James Dean after the film’s release) and younger, somewhat prudish Haruji (Masahiko Tsugawa), arrive at the seaside for some summertime R&R. Their parents aren’t really around and they seem to have no jobs, but they have plenty of money, as well as a bunch of fun, similarly bored pals who hang out at the villa of their friend Frank (Masumi Okada, half-American and the definition of ennui). Haruji doesn’t care much for Natsuhisa’s buddies and their immoral behavior—one time he finds a girl at one of their hangouts whom Natsuhisa says had to sleep in late “because we all took turns last night wearing her out”—but nevertheless falls in love with Eri (Mie Kitahara), who’s as mysterious as she is beautiful. At first, things seem fine, just waterskiing and nightclubs, getting into fights and cursing the older generation with their affected, snarling anti-authoritarian attitude. Then Natsuhisa starts eyeing Eri, and Haruji wonders why she never lets him pick her up at her home.
From the start, Nakahira slyly uses the conventions of the postwar teen rebellion flick while simultaneously undercutting them with his own jagged rhythms. There’s the expected crazy-daddio jazz on the soundtrack and the numerous bad-projection waterskiing shots behind the smiling actors faces—you could just as easily see Frankie balancing on his surfboard there—but the standard plot conventions never quite come up. There’s little in the way of authority figures to rebel against, and the only parties the viewer is privy to are pretty sedate affairs. The camera’s sensuality, moreover, lingering on the youths’ tanning bodies and even showing a girl’s skirt being ripped off in the throes of passion (a scene that especially scandalized Japanese viewers), is quite more forthright than anything moviegoers were used to seeing outside of the art house. Short, dark, and just a bit cruel, Crazed Fruit uses film-school techniques to fashion a paean to adolescent longing that still manages to resonate almost a half-century later.