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Crazed Fruit
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Crazed Fruit

Two bodies in the sun--as close to naked as beachside propriety will allow. Legs twitch. Fists clench rhythmically. They are side by side, yearning to be closer still.

Filmmaker Ko Nakahira found a bold new way to cinematize desire-creating an impressionist's sketch of desire out of fragments of film.

The boy in our boy-meets-girl drama is teenage virgin Haruji. The object of his affection is Eri, a sexpot on full boil. Never-been-kissed Haruji is so blinded by his love-at-first-sight infatuation that it never occurs to him that she might be experienced. Far from the virtuous maiden Haruji believes her to be, Eri is sleeping with his older brother Nakahisa-not to mention she is already married to a middle-aged American businessman. The day will come when Eri must choose between the boy who loves her, the boy who beds her, and the man who married her. That will be a day of reckoning indeed.

For a Japanese film from 1956, the scandalously blunt sexuality of Crazed Fruit is strong meat. Other countries were making their own teen-rebel dramas around the same time--Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The 400 Blows (1959) for example. Ko Nakahira's film is of the same species but is its own animal. Raw, crude, and sweaty, Crazed Fruit is a one-night stand of a movie-thrilling and liberating and dirty all at once. Like the films of Douglas Sirk or Joseph Losey, or the early works of Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, Nakahira's Crazed Fruit is that wonderful paradox of a film whose modest means and rough assemblage result in something that lives up to the most bombastic hype and effusive praise.

It started with novelist Shintaro Ishihara, whose books chronicled the bored, debauched lives of a generation of Japanese youths. Children of the Economic Miracle, these "Sun Tribers" had a surplus of money and time but a shortage of adult supervision. They disrespected authority, got into trouble, and bathed in the sun (hence the "Sun Tribe" name). Never mind that such a teenage culture existed mostly in the fervid imagination of Ishihara-if anything that was the point. Disaffected kids could fantasize about the glamorous rebellious lifestyle while the elder generation could cluck its collective tongue about the "Teen Problem."

Ishihara became an overnight celebrity, his books best sellers.

Meanwhile, Nikkatsu struggled to keep the lights on. The oldest movie studio in Japan had been shuttered during the war, and reopened only to almost immediately run out of money. Facing bankruptcy, the company licensed some of Ishihara's books, hoping to cash in on the Sun Tribe craze with sexy, low-budget, teen-oriented pictures whose surefire notoriety would help generate publicity.

Ko Nakahira was a contract director whose only previous film was 1956's Beef Shop Frankie (now thoroughly forgotten). He was assigned to the Crazed Fruit adaptation, the third Ishihara-based film to hit theaters in 1956. Nakahira assembled a team of unknowns and first-timers, and hashed out the production in a mere seventeen days. The result was a bona fide career-making international sensation that lit the fuse for the Japanese New Wave.

Much of the film's punch comes from Nakahira's canny selection of collaborators. Legendary composer Toru Takemitsu provided the iconic score, a jazzy blend of guitars and horns augmented by fellow musician Masaru Sato (Akira Kurosawa's favorite composer). Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine was similarly on the early end of what was to be an illustrious career-he soon partnered with Seijun Suzuki, to lens his most entrancing pop-art gangster masterpieces like Tokyo Drifter (1966).

Nakahira's choice of actors was equally inspired. Yujiro Ishihara, the younger brother of novelist Shintaro, plays the older brother of protagonist Haruji. It was a wry piece of meta-casting that wrapped the well-known real-life Sun Tribe lifestyle of the Ishihara brothers into the fabric of the film itself. Yujiro's unrefined good looks and urgent manner were as far from conventional Japanese leading men as possible, and made the boy an overnight star. Unknown actor Masahiko Tsugawa took the Haruji role-and leveraged his performance into an equally landmark role in Nagisa Oshima's anti-Sun Tribe masterwork The Sun's Burial (1960).

French-born, half-Japanese, half-Danish actor Masumi Okada would have a long-running multimedia career of eclectic accomplishments: He played in some of Japan's weirder science-fiction pictures, such as The Living Skeleton (1968), Latitude Zero (1969), and Sayonara Jupiter (1984). He played the heroic father on TV's The Space Giants (1967). He produced Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale films of 2000 and 2003, and served as a recurring judge on Iron Chef. As the Fonzie-cool Frank, Okada appropriates Americanized mannerisms and fashion, but then bristles with umbrage when mistaken for the gaijin he pretends to be. A nightclub waiter asks his drink order in English, and Frank sneers, "Soju!," the ultimate blue-collar Japanese liquor. Although he does not show it off in Crazed Fruit, Okada spoke English like an Iowa-born farmboy, with a rich Darth Vader baritone.

The same could not be said, ironically, of Harold Conway, the actor cast as Eri's allegedly American husband. As his few lines reveal, the man was not a native English speaker. He wasn't even really an actor. Conway was one of several Westerners living in Japan who took occasional work in the film business playing Americans-cast more on the basis of their looks than their skills. After Crazed Fruit, Conway showed up at Toho in a variety of science fiction spectacles, screaming "Godzilla!" in films like King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962).

Of all the casting decisions, the selection of Eri was the one that could make or break the film. The entire tragedy would be draped across her curvaceous frame. Whoever played that role would need to be an ambiguous blank slate yet also an alluring beauty, at once impetuous teen and worldly woman, whose actions would be convincingly human yet bafflingly opaque. In Mie Kitahara, Nakahira found that rare creature. Kitahara was a former dancer who made her screen debut as a single mother in Keisuke Kinoshita's Carmen Falls in Love (1952). Within two years she was one of Nikkatsu's biggest female stars, with a grueling schedule spanning all genres. When her elegant screen presence was placed alongside the swaggering sensuality of Yujiro Ishihara, it was as if two volatile chemicals had been mixed. The explosive reaction fused the two together-before the decade was over, Ishihara and Kitahara would costar in no fewer than 24 more pictures, all of them box office smashes. Then, in a life-imitates-art feint, the two jetted off to Hawaii for a sort of pre-marital honeymoon. The couple married in December of 1960. Kitahara retired from the screen, and an era was over.

The Sun Tribe boom lasted no longer. Crazed Fruit managed to pop the very bubble it formed.

Japanese censors were outraged at the film's unrepentant sexual content. Angry housewives and PTA groups rallied against the film and the genre as a whole. Capitulating to public pressure, the studio chiefs announced they would make no more Sun Tribe films. This was announced in August 1956-barely a month after Crazed Fruit opened.

Despite the official pledges, the studios did continue to make teensploitation fare, with such filmmakers as Seijun Suzuki and Kon Ichikawa joining the game. But the cycle was fast being replaced by less rebellious, more conventionally commercial teen flicks, like Toho's Young Guy cycle. By the 1960s, the Sun Tribe was but a memory.

The alumni of Crazed Fruit went on to happy futures: Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitamura became the Bogart and Bacall of postwar Japan; Toru Takemitsu became one of the most revered screen composers in the world; Shintaro Ishihara became a right-wing politician and was elected mayor of Tokyo. Nikkatsu had been rescued from the brink, and flourished for another decade or so before succumbing to the next crisis. But Nakahira-he seemed to fade back into the margins. For a while he was one of Nikkatsu's most popular directors, bringing bold visuals and modern technique to his films, but it was not long before his career seemed to abruptly end. Some commentators see this as evidence that Nakahira was not the artist this film suggested-that he was merely a convenient vessel through which the pop cultural moment had been expressed.

There is another answer. Nakahira was a commercial filmmaker in postwar Japan, in an industry that famously undervalued creativity. Japanese studios were run under the strictest institutional control, with directors expected to sublimate their ideas to the will of the company. He also struggled with alcoholism. Eventually, Nakahira tired of fighting the petty bureaucracy (and his own personal demons), and quit Nikkatsu. More than that, he left Japan, seeking greater creative satisfaction in the untamed wilderness of Hong Kong.

Changing his name to Yang Su Hsi for the Hong Kong market, he directed a remake of Crazed Fruit for the Shaw Brothers in 1968. Summer Heat is in most respects a shot-for-shot remake, in which even the set design has been faithfully duplicated. Nakahira, under whatever name, takes full advantage of the wide "Shawscope" screen and lush Technicolor hues to bring out the most from the beachside setting, while advances in production technique liberate him from Crazed Fruit's back projection. Aside from the deliciously enigmatic Jenny Hu in the Mie Kitamura role, the cast are merely competent without being iconic. Fu-Ling Wang's soundtrack is alternately jaunty and haunting, but who could hope to top Takemitsu? All of the directorial tricks and touches that distinguished the original are present in Summer Heat, and if the result feels tamer and more conventional the fault is not with Nakahira but with his collaborators. They went on to their own successes without him, while he proved as well how critical he had been to the special magic that was Crazed Fruit.

Producer: Takiko Mizunoe
Director: Ko Nakahira
Screenplay: Shintaro Ishihara
Cinematography: Shigeyoshi Mine
Art Direction: Takashi Matsuyama
Music: Masaru Sato, Toru Takemitsu
Cast: Ayuko Fujishiro (Mother), Taizo Fukami (Father), Mie Kitahara (Eri), Harold Conway (Eri's husband), Masumi Okada (Hirosawa Frank), Youko Benisawa (Kamakura Housekeeper), Eiko Higashitani (Michiko), Yujiro Ishihara (Takishima Natsuhisa), Noriko Watari (Eri's Friend).
BW-86m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Michael Raine, "Crazed Fruit: Imagining a New Japan-The Taiyozoku Films," from the Crazed Fruit DVD by the Criterion Collection.
Donald Richie, audio commentary to the Crazed Fruit DVD by the Criterion Collection.
Mark Schilling, No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema 2007.
Chuck Stephens, "Heat Stroke: Crazed Fruit and Japanese Cinema's Season in the Sun," from the Crazed Fruit DVD by the Criterion Collection.
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