Combustible Celluloid
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With: Hiroshi Kawaguchi, Hitomi Nozoe, Yukio Mishima, Ayako Wakao, Kyoko Kishida, Yusuke Kawazu, Eiji Funakoshi, Mako Midori, Noriko Sengoku, etc.
Written by: Yoshio Shirasaka, Hideo Ando, Ryuzo Kikushima, Kaneto Shindo, Yoshio Shirasaka, Rampo Edogawa, etc.
Directed by: Yasuzo Masumura
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 368
Date: 03/18/2013

The Films of Yasuzo Masumura (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gangsters, Beasts & Lovers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Yasuzo Masumura is known by a much smaller fraction of film buffs than Akira Kurosawa. At first I thought he might have been a "B" filmmaker, slapped aside to the fringes of film history. But even if he was, he counts among his fans filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni (L'Avventura, Blow-Up) and Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Taboo).

And like Kurosawa, he enjoyed working with the same collaborators again and again, over the course of his 50-odd films. He was interested in characters at the extreme of human behavior, which resonates universally, but especially in Japan.

He studied film and filmmaking in Italy, wrote about Italian master Luchino Visconti and the history of Japanese cinema. Returning to Japan, he assisted the great Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff) and Kon Ichikawa (The Burmese Harp) at Daiei Studios and received high praise from his colleague Oshima.

San Francisco's Fantoma Films has released four Masumura films on DVD for the first time. All four are presented in color and "Daieiscope" widescreen, and though the colors might not seem as bold as you'd expect, we have to remember that color from this period is notoriously difficult to restore (various shades fade and shrink faster than other shades). Fantoma has done a remarkable job refurbishing these great films to DVD.

The DVD box for Giants and Toys (1958, Fantoma, $29.99) rightly comparesthis film to the work of both Billy Wilder and Frank Tashlin. It's acolorful, high-strung look at Japanese commerce as three caramel candycompanies compete for the top spot in Japan's marketplace. One companyhires a flighty, hyperactive girl with bad teeth to be theirspokesmodel, but she falls in love with the ad executive who hired her.He, in turn, is in love with a female executive at a rival company.Masumura drives the intensity of his comedy right up to the edge, askinghis characters to give up their hearts, their dignity and their verylives for the Company.

In Afraid to Die (1960, Fantoma, $29.99), the famous Japanese author YukioMishima stars as a yakuza newly released from jail and awkwardly hittingthe streets again after a failed attempt on his life. He falls in lovewith a ticket girl at a movie theater he owns and uses as a hideout.With his leather jacket and cool attitude, he tries to be the tough guygoing to war with a crime boss, but continually blurs the line betweenpassive and active, between respectable and criminal.

Presented in that lovely, overwrought style of the great melodramas by Douglas Sirk, Manji (1964, Fantoma, $29.99) tells the storyof a twisted love quadrangle where the emotions run so high that any ofthe four would gladly lay down his or her life in the name of love. Butis it really love, or just sick obsession? A bored housewife beginstaking art classes and falls in love with a mysterious woman she meetsthere. Before long, they're having secret trysts. The woman's male loverenters the game and makes a blood pact with the housewife. Then thehusband gets in on the game. Soon, everyone is threatening to killeveryone including themselves, and the woman makes everyone takesleeping drugs. You have to check subtlety at the door, but once you do,you'll love this overripe drama.

The bizarre thriller Blind Beast (1969, Fantoma, $29.99) is myfavorite of the four, and by far the darkest. A blind sculptor kidnaps abeautiful model to assist him in making his greatest creation. Hisworkshop is full of giant body parts: ears, legs, breasts, etc. Thestory keeps growing smaller, darker, more depraved, until the two maincharacters cavort together in darkness, pain and misery. A truly luridclassic.

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