”[I am] not interested in the future or in utopian ideals. I would like to be able to take hold of the past and examine it from different angles.” —Masahiro Shinoda
“Modernization. Get with it.”—line from Shinoda’s film Killers on Parade
Masahiro Shinoda was born in 1931, the year Japan invaded China. His strongest childhood memory was of Emperor Tojo’s surrender to the Allied forces, and with it the announcement that the Emperor was not a god, but a man. “I felt that all the gods who had lived in Japan had become mortal,” he told a UC Berkeley interviewer, and the feeling of helpless disillusionment stayed with him. This early loss, he claimed, helped him feel for myriad groups. The Americans couldn’t grasp WWII’s impact on the Japanese, he told another interviewer, just as the Japanese couldn’t understand the pain of Chinese women who had been raped at Nanking.
I have only seen eight of Shinoda’s 30-plus features, 12 of which are showing in the New York Film Festival’s Masterworks retrospective, but the common theme running throughout them is sympathy for the oppressed. It doesn’t matter the group, nor the cultural setting, though indeed Shinoda was prone to making period films. He conveyed this open humanism with a precise formal control, masterful use of black-and-white CinemaScope and edits as clean as a paper-cutter’s chops, all of which still prove stunning.
He studied other mediums before film. Unlike past masters such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujirô Ozu, whose pre-filmmaking backgrounds had been in visual art, Shinoda concentrated on literature and theatre (he was one of only three theater history students at his university). Like peer filmmakers Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima, Shinoda gained a great awareness of European culture, claiming to have learned as much from Shakespeare as he did from kabuki.
In his book Eros Plus Massacre, a study of the Japanese New Wave, David Desser argues that the Japanese filmmakers who emerged in the 1960s saw themselves as fundamentally different from their predecessors. Unlike previous Japanese filmmakers, who perceived themselves as craftsmen, these new filmmakers saw themselves as artists—a shift in thinking taking place among filmmakers worldwide. Consequently, they suffered through their early studio work, where they trained as assistant directors on forgettable comedies and family dramas. Shinoda felt particularly stifled at Shochiku, the studio that housed Ozu, whose motto, so he said, was “Bright and cheerful films.”
Their situation changed with the 1956 release of Kô Nakahira’s anthem for doomed youth Crazed Fruit. Its success encouraged the studios to produce movies about young people, and to enlist young filmmakers to make them. Shinoda got his chance with 1960’s One-Way Ticket for Love (not showing in the series), which Shochiku mandated he adapt from a Neil Sedaka song. The film bombed, but he got another chance later that year with Dry Lake (showing September 29), the story of a frustrated teenage punk, and a great film.
It came out the same year as Nagisa Oshima’s masterpieces Cruel Story of Youth and Night and Fog in Japan, and is worth comparison. Like Cruel Story of Youth, the film focuses on a couple; like Night and Fog, it unfolds in front of the backdrop of student protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, a Cold War arrangement that basically substituted American occupiers for Japanese military forces. Both directors use intense single colors that provoke strong reactions; for example, in one Dry Lake scene the lovers make out in the shower in front of bright red tiles, leading us straight to sex. Yet while Oshima uses quick shock cuts in Cruel Story of Youth, jolting you all the way to the grave, Shinoda’s much smoother editing scheme sutures you into the drama; a girl reveals that her father’s killed himself, followed by a zoom-in to the man’s photo at the funeral. This difference in editing styles relates to the very different ways the filmmakers approach their characters.
Japan’s ’60s were characterized by radically antisocial filmmaking, as Oshima, Imamura, Yasuzo Masamura, Masaki Kobayashi, and others made movies arguing that society needed to be changed or else burned to the ground (Akira Kurosawa even got into the act, with the Molotov cocktails The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, and High and Low). Oshima in the ’60s can be classed as a nihilist, his films angrily obliterating nearly everything in sight; Shinoda’s politics, by contrast, feel closer to someone like Kobayashi’s, who makes a case for societal reform by focusing on good people suffering under the current structures. While Oshima paints the youth movement as folly (anticipating Bob Dylan’s comment, “The only way for the counterculture to succeed would be for every person on Earth to disappear”), Shinoda sympathizes with it; a brief early conversation defending Algerian resistance against the French prepares us for the young protest leader’s line, which the film takes seriously, that “Our only enemies are the U.S.- Japan Security Treaty and the bourgeoisie.” The hero then insults him.
Our man thinks that the protests can do no good, but Shinoda goes to great lengths to show that he’s wrong. The movie’s last scene sums it up about perfectly: The solidarity-minded youths swarm a cop car to try to release the hero from the law, and he chooses entrapment over being with them. In time the politics of Oshima’s films would come closer to Shinoda’s; Dry Lake’s sequence of the hero gluttonously munching a cake, intercut with newsreel-style footage of the protests, prefigures the way the leads pleasure themselves to death rather than join the protests outside in Oshima’s 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses.
Histories often pair Oshima and Shinoda, with Shinoda trailing; this current series even follows the festival’s complete Oshima retrospective two years ago. Certainly Oshima was one of the greatest masters of form the movies have had (Violence at Noon alone contains over 2,000 shots). But Shinoda, too, had extraordinary range, as evidenced by Killers on Parade (September 30), made the year after Dry Lake.
Killers on Parade (a.k.a. The Burning Sunset) is a cracked-out comic book-style satire about the Japanese obsession with violence, in which a man can say with a straight face that “Without jazz, I’d be killing more.” The jazz fiend is one hit man on the run from several others, a rogues’ gallery including a guy in a priest costume, a bulky footballer (pigskin included), and a black-and-white-suit-wearing gangster type who looks like a reject from Guys and Dolls. Alain Silver has claimed that “Shinoda is often less interested in a striking visualization for its figurative meaning than for its sharp sensory impact,” and while that statement’s extremely true of this movie, the film also often showcases meaning through form. Just look at the way that everybody wants in on the violence: One of the film’s craziest scenes shows a group of kids in black hoods encircling the hero in long shot, pointing toy guns, and shouting at him as joyfully as they might cry, “Trick-or-treat!” Yet an even greater, near-incidental moment comes when one of the goons reads a newspaper headline, “Englishman Dead of A-Bomb Disease.” The bit shoots an amazing number of targets: the media’s tendency to focus on violence, the way news functions as entertainment, and both the Japanese lust for Western culture and urge to escape its own past.
Shinoda argued for history repeating itself, though, in 1963’s Pale Flower (September 27), his ninth film (Japanese studios commonly had their directors make two to four films a year). The film is a yakuza, or gangster, drama, and Shinoda claims in an interview on the Pale Flower DVD that “the gang world is the only place where the Japanese ceremonial structure can be fully sustained.” The ceremonial hall the hero, a hood returning to Tokyo after three years away, visits each night is the gambling room, a space we watch for several minutes at film’s outset before a word of dialogue is spoken. That’s where he meets the title character, a woman escaping into gambling from the trauma of her stepfather raping her; like his peer Imamura in several films, Shinoda uses incest as a metaphor for society’s innate flaws.