Immodest Proposals

My husband and I canceled our spring-break trip because of the pandemic. His parents own a vacation house on a salt pond in Rhode Island that they let us use some weekends. Bummed about the cancellation and bored at home, we headed up there for a long weekend on Wednesday, March 18, thinking we’d return that Sunday or Monday. Coincidentally, that was the week that New York became the worldwide epicenter of COVID-19. Now it’s August and we’re still here.

During the cold, frightening spring, we maxed out our data streaming everything we could think of (there’s no internet-hardware setup at the house), and I signed up for the Criterion Channel. I often think of Yasuzo Masumura (1924–1986) as one of my favorite film directors, but I have only seen about a quarter of his output, as the majority of his movies (he made almost sixty) have never made it out of Japan or received English subtitles. (The Criterion Channel has only Hanzo the Razor: The Snare.) If I can’t find Masumura movies, I hunt for more famous Japanese directors of the 1950s and ’60s—Kon Ichikawa (with whom Masumura apprenticed), Nagisa Oshima—or something tangentially related but easier to find. In this case, ass-backwardly, I decided to watch several Fellini movies I had never seen before.

The connection isn’t obvious. Masumura’s career is unique in that he was possibly the only Japanese filmmaker ever to have studied with Fellini and Antonioni at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. When I went to the Centro’s Wikipedia page, however, I noticed that his name was not on the list of graduates. So I added it, all the while suspecting the omission of being a racist erasure.

My interest in foreign cinema, it occurred to me, springs from my desire to take a vacation from American race politics. I always prefer to avoid movies that beg me to care about the mundane details of the lives of affluent white heterosexuals (i.e., Hollywood films), but sometimes I also prefer not to be reminded of my precarious position in society as a Black and/or queer person, representation be damned. This was especially true after the murders of Breonna Taylor in March, George Floyd in May, and Ahmaud Arbery, which happened in February but did not come to light until April. The welcome uprising that followed these injustices made me hyperaware of facts that I am always already hyperaware of. The Rhode Island hamlet we’re quarantining in has the character of a liberal college town—URI specifically—but I still avoided highly residential areas while taking walks and exercising outside. The lockstep barrage of Black-solidarity statements from traditionally white institutions, too, was enough to rub my cynicism the wrong way.

After watching all the Fellini I could find, then Pasolini’s Teorema, then a rather scandalously stylish 1969 movie by Centro graduate Umberto Lenzi called Orgasmo, I switched to a slightly less safe search engine than Google and discovered a mother lode of Masumura films—with English subtitles!—on a website originating in Russia. Imagine my delight! And slight nervousness!

In non-European cinema, it’s fantastic to see nonwhite characters deal with universal human problems, not just fight the garbage of the USA’s caste system. (Bollywood and some African cinema also provide this kind of relief.) Beyond the basic need they fulfill for me, Japanese New Wave films of the 1960s display a vitality and audaciousness that Hollywood has yet to comprehend, let alone approach. And within that subset, Masumura was a true anomaly: the consummate insider with the most outsider sensibility of them all. Because he operated within the studio system, he was never considered a New Wave director, yet his movies are more outrageous than most made by his art-house peers. Bloodier and crazier, yes, but also more elegant and daring in terms of personal politics. Three immodest examples:

An Osaka housewife begins a torrid lesbian affair with a wily vamp she meets in a drawing class. Her husband knows about the relationship, and eventually he too falls under the woman’s disturbing spell. Manji (also known, provocatively, as Swastika) (1964).

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, a young nurse, charged with amputating a horde of soldiers’ limbs, falls for the morphine-addicted surgeon she works with, though he cannot perform sexually. She has charity sex with one of the doctor’s amputee patients. Red Angel (1966).

A murderous blind sculptor kidnaps a young model and keeps her locked up in his studio, a basement full of tremendous replicas of female body parts. As he sculpts the model, she begins to share his obsession. Eventually, she eats him. Blind Beast (1969).

Masumura’s shocking mash-up of high culture and exploitation films prefigured groundbreaking, controversial fare on the order of In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Last Tango in Paris (1972), Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Caligula (1979), and, for that matter, Pink Flamingos (1972). You could say he spent the 1960s making 1970s movies.

Mako Midori in Yasuzo Masumura’s Blind Beast, 1969.
Mako Midori in Yasuzo Masumura’s Blind Beast, 1969.

Not what one would expect of a well-educated lawyer. Masumura made his remarkable chain of stylish yet trashy films for the government studio Daiei Film, known for producing both the Kurosawa masterpiece Rashomon (1950) and the Kaiju classic Gamera: The Giant Monster (1965). Unselfconsciously, he split the difference, fusing all manner of genre films—erotic films, war movies, business comedies—subverting their conventions at every turn. “My goal is to create an exaggerated depiction featuring only the ideas and passions of living human beings,” he once wrote. Accordingly, female characters in early Masumura films tend to be brazen, outspoken, and rebellious—notably self-possessed for the time, and rarely dependent on men, even financially. The brilliant Ayako Wakao—who stars in and elevates the best of these movies, including Red Angel and Manji—has that Laura Dern superpower, the ability to play a role while winking at it. Masumura’s coming-of-age films don’t indulge nostalgia; they’re often harsh, graphic tales of abused kids and absent parents. The romantic leads of his debut feature, Kisses (1957), meet because their parents are both in jail; the hero of Games (1971) is a victim of sexual bullying, which Masumura depicts without mercy for the character, or the viewer. Masumura’s war films are decidedly antiwar; the chummy infantrymen of Hoodlum Soldier (1965), an intellectual and a yakuza bruiser, cleverly outwit the military’s unjust hierarchies together, and their willingness to defy authority feels deliberately un-Japanese. Yet this proved one of Masumura’s most popular movies, spawning eight sequels (only the last of which he directed). The website Japanonfilm calls it “possibly Japan’s first ‘buddy picture,’” partially noteworthy, they say, because the buddies go AWOL without facing judgment.

The violence in Hoodlum Soldier goes way off the charts—it mostly consists of guys slapping each other in the face and/or beating the crap out of each other—but one sequence stands out: forty-odd naked men in a communal bath having a gigantic brawl. It’s choreographed in a trademark fashion for Masumura—very awkward, free of fight-scene clichés and therefore extra uncomfortable; yet the cinematography showcases these naked bodies as if they were Italian statues, the way the director did with nude artist’s models in Manji, and later with the sculptures in Blind Beast. The scene is almost humorous now for its studious avoidance of full-frontal nudity despite the many naked men, but also incredibly disturbing because of its seeming reference to mass graves and war atrocities.

The relationship between the two soldiers comes very close to being romantic, but the movie never makes them seem queer or coy about queerness at all, even when another soldier goes AWOL by dressing in drag. And while I would have loved to see it go there, Masumura does something that has proven even rarer in the long run. In the midst of all the macho posturing and violence, the mutual tenderness and sacrifices the guys make for each other become extremely touching. It’s still unusual to see platonic, tender feelings between ostensibly hetero men portrayed in any movie without a hint of self-conscious mockery or homophobia.

I want to call Masumura’s sensibility queer without having anything to base that on, aside from the lushness of his cinematography, his desire to subvert genre and defy conformity, and his obsession with strong women. His countercultural heart seems not just unique to Japan at the time, but outside the limits of Western cinema, even now. He was called the most European of Japanese directors, but it’s fair to say he out-Europed Europe and influenced a host of renegades that followed. Certainly Oshima, who, as a young critic, said in a review of Kisses, “I felt now that the tide of a new age could no longer be ignored by anyone, and that a powerful, irresistible force had arrived in Japanese cinema.” Yet Masumura, under the radar, seems to have touched the rest of world cinema, too: John Waters, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Paul Morrissey, Pedro Almodóvar, Quentin Tarantino, and Bong Joon-ho don’t seem quite possible without him.

The studio system was a mixed blessing for Masumura. After Daiei Film folded in 1971, he struggled to regain his footing, frequently going to the pasture of TV, and, according to Steve Rose in The Guardian, “reportedly spent his final years a sad and unfulfilled man, turning out decreasingly distinguished movies.” One of his final features was The Garden of Eden (1980), an Italian soft-core-porn reimagining of The Blue Lagoon, which Rose calls “a poetically humiliating decline that could have come out of one of his films.” Yet despite Daiei’s golden cage, Masumura managed to sing a very odd tune for quite a while. As he once put it himself, “There is a secret song that lies unvoiced in the heart of every Japanese that I want to express in my films with a boisterous, even lunatic, cry.” And so he did.

James Hannaham is the author of the novel Delicious Foods (Little, Brown, 2015).