Crazed Fruit: The Criterion Collection
In the 1960s, the influence of the French New Wave was felt by filmmakers around the globe, but perhaps nowhere as strongly as Japan. The films of Seijun Suzuki, Hiroshi Teshigahara, and others incorporated the freedom in both content and style that were popularized by François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and their ilk. What makes Ko Nakahira's Crazed Fruit (1956) so remarkable, then, isn't so much the film itself, but when it was made: 1956, years before the Nouvelle Vague even existed as such. The story is a simple and venerable one: Two brothers vie for the affections of a desirable young woman, with the triangle's resolution leading to tragedy. The brothers belong to the nascent Japanese upper-middle-class, just coming into existence a few short years after the American occupation had ended. Just like American teens who emerged as hormonal, confused, spoiled hedonists in the postwar years, these two have nothing but time and not much to fill it with. Spending a summer at the beach, Natsuhisa (Yujiro Ishihara) and his younger sibling Haruji (Masahiko Tsugawa) engage in boating, water-skiing, and, of course, sexual pursuit. Haruji sets his sights on the enigmatic, but clearly available, Eri (Mie Kitahara). She eventually reciprocates, but when Natsuhisa learns that she's actually married to an American sugar daddy, things begin a downward spiral toward fraternal conflict and lustful madness.
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Nakahira's sensual camerawork and forward-looking editing style made Crazed Fruit a sensation upon its release and an influence for decades to come. Using quick cuts, tilted angles, and lots of facial close-ups may not seem terribly avant garde today, but for the time they were quite advanced
remember, this is the same year Hollywood churned out The Ten Commandments. Crazed Fruit also was the first Japanese picture to cater to the youth market, filling the role that Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause had in America (in fact, the film was re-titled Juvenile Jungle at one point, with an eye toward the Western market). The languid, almost sultry mood, and the relatively unabashed sexuality of the characters made it a frequent target of censorious forces. Crazed Fruit inaugurated an entire genre of Japanese cinema known as the "sun tribe" films, which focused on the newly Westernized postwar generation, often garbed in Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses. Its existence made possible the careers of, among others, Nagisa Oshima, whose 1960 breakthrough Cruel Story of Youth takes the themes of Crazed Fruit and explodes them into lurid Technicolor. The performances of the two male leads are magnetic, especially that of Ishihara, who rode to instant stardom as a result of this film. The screenplay was based on a novel by, coincidentally, Yojiro's older brother Shintaro. Amazingly enough, Shintaro went on to become a nationalist politician and was elected the mayor of Tokyo in 1999. This might seem at odds with the iconoclastic feel of the film, but the story's moralistic finale places the whole enterprise squarely in a conservative vein. The Criterion Collection generally provides noteworthy editions of films that are already classics, from The Royal Tenenbaums to Jean Renoir. It's refreshing, and fascinating, to see them present a virtually unknown title that nonetheless meets the label's exacting standards. An commentary track by Donald Richie, venerable supreme authority on Japanese film (at least among Westerners), provides the historical and cultural context that are indispensable for appreciating Crazed Fruit. He recalls first seeing the film at a press screening prior to its original release, and one gets the feeling that this disc is a direct result of his championing of it. The newly-subtitled, high-definition transfer is virtually free of defects, although there are a few specks and lines in the image at times. Keep-case.