July 26, 2018
Crazed Fruit – Japan, 1956
Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit marks an end. Or perhaps it is a stark reminder of an important, but slightly ominous beginning. Either way you look at it, it seems clear that Japan and Japanese cinema were never the same after it. I don’t mean to imply that Nakahira’s contemporaries were doing films that were less powerful or less telling about the changes sweeping post-World War II Japan. After all, the same year, Ozu released Early Spring, Naruse made Flowing, and Mizaguchi put out Street of Shame. In other words, it was a pretty good year for cinema. Each of those films deal with themes touched on in Crazed Fruit, yet there’s something undeniably shocking about Nakahira’s vision that makes its depiction stand out. It makes clear that the old ways are dead and are never coming back; it also suggests that there’s nothing necessarily positive about this.
The central character in the film is Haruji (Masahiko Tsugawa), a young man just twenty years of age. If we assume that the film takes place in what was then present-day Japan, then Haruji was born in the same year as an attempted coup and one year before Japan’s invasion of China. When the war ended, he would have been about 9, meaning that in his teenage years, he would have grown up in a Japan far different from that of his predecessors, one very likely influenced by MacArthur, U.S. fads, an increasing focus on independence, and a striped-down, weakened military. “We live in boring times,” one of the characters remarks. Another opines that famous words and old traditions mean little now. Both remarks are extremely telling.
Yet Haruji isn’t ready to completely give up on traditional society. He seems to occupy a middle ground, one neither rooted in the past, nor particularly embracing of the present. I would say he clings to a time in which things were said to have been simpler – a time when the rules for dating were clear, chivalry was in fashion, having a good education meant having a job for life, and young women were said to be sweet and innocent. Contrasting Haruji in almost every way is his brother, Natsuhisa (Yujiro Ishihara). To him, life is a long series of pick ups and night clubs in between inappropriate parties and occasionally “revealing” card games. He lives for today – and has almost no regard for yesterday.
The lives of these two men change completely when they meet Eri (Mie Kitahara), whom Haruji takes an instant liking to. She is, of course, wrong for him in every way, yet he represents something opaque to her. Perhaps it is the respectful pace he takes on dates or the fact that his first instinct is to trust. To Haruji, Eri is the living embodiment of an angel, of the kind of women depicted in classic literature and spoken of with reverence by parents everywhere. It is a complete misreading, and it only takes one look at Natsuhisa as he strums on a ukulele and sings a Japanese love song for us to see it. Haruji, bless his heart, misses the significance of the glance; it is, however, not lost on Natsuhisa, setting the stages for a competition, the likes of which would have been unheard of in earlier times.
If there’s a persistent theme in Crazed Fruit, it is the emphasis on the moment. Few people talk of the future or seem too concerned that there is very little they are working toward. The brothers cruise around on a boat, Natsuhisa talking about the women they see as if they were his for the picking; young women walk next to men and look at them suggestively; a friend’s girlfriend hits on Haruji in plain sight of her boyfriend, who just laughs it off. Around them, we hear talk of divorce, step-mothers, and child abandonment, and I honestly can’t remember any of the characters having any good news to share. It’s all so utterly depressing and fascinating.
Sure, I lost track of just who was who among Natsuhisa’s friends, and I wish the second half of the film had included a bit more on Haruji’s emotional state, for while his later actions make sense, they could use some extra build. These are minor complaints in the big scheme of things, yet they would have made the film’s plot a bit tighter. Nakahira’s work behind the camera remains impressive throughout the film, and I especially liked the way he sets up shots in which Eri momentarily finds herself standing between the two brothers. The symbolism is more than clear. I also admired the way he films Eri at angles that make clear just how much Haruji misreads or is willfully misled by her. We see all the signs of her growing impatience, as well as Haruji’s continued ignorance of it.
At the end of the film, I scribbled the following, “And things were never the same again.” This may seem like an hyperbole, yet look at some of the things that followed – much more graphic depictions of sex onscreen, intentionally exaggerated portrayals of killing in samurai films, Mishima’s attempted coup, the lost of permanent employment, a decline in the popularity of Japanese cinema, and a period of economic stagnation that has come to be called “the lost decade.” It all starts here, with a film that powerfully depicts a society in ruins, one which grew out of the ashes unstructured and untethered. The rest, as they say, is history. (on DVD from the Criterion Collection)