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With a reader response from Kyu Hyun Kim, here.
After this movie, Savant is willing to admit that Yasuzo Masumura was some kind of film genius. Giants and Toys, a freewheeling but savagely critical look at the postwar economic boom, is the most illuminating film I've yet seen about Japanese culture. Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well was stylized social comment but Masumura and writer Ishio Shirasaka's knife-edged picture of a consumer landscape devoured by American values and business practices, is the kind of picture I didn't know was ever made in Japan. American satires on advertising tended toward the cartoonish silliness of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?; this black comedy plays for keeps, with fewer bizarre touches than, say, The Loved One and a much more accurate picture of its subject, the real Japan. Ruthlessly critical, it comes off as a powerful denunciation of the entire direction Japan was taking, catching up with 100 years of sharp Western business practices in a matter of a decade or two.
Giants and Toys immerses the viewer in business, Japan-style, at a time when the whole culture seems to be emulating an American model. "America is Japan" one executive says, just advanced a few years -- rocket and space station toys that are old hat in the U.S. are big news for Japanese kids (who have presumbably been indoctrinated by pictures like Chikyu Boeigun (The Mysterians).) The candy companies battle for market supremacy, going at each other like armies. Executives hand down edicts to their advertising directors as if they were generals telling their officers to succeed or die. Nothing's ever good enough, no sales level is acceptable. The misfortune of a rival company is the cue for the competition to close in for the kill; the advice of an elder exec to show mercy and offer help is dismissed out of hand. That the companies are selling a product that's not even particularly good for people is irrelevant. There's a consumer base, a mob that can be induced to buy. And with the right campaigns, buy more and more and more.
Giants and Toys tells the very American story of the recruiting of an eager slum girl to become World Candy's spokesperson-model, an opportunity that Kyoko Shima devours like the candy that has rotted her teeth. Naturally, the qualities that make her appealing, such as her impudent smile and raucous humor, disappear as she learns to sing and dance and gets her teeth straightened. She starts out ignorant of business ways, with young assisant Nishi pretending to be infatuated with her to secure her cooperation. The relationship continues through her star-making phase, with photographer Harukawa (Yunosuke Ito) putting her on every magazine in the country. Nishi and Kyoko soon learn that anything resembling a traditional Japanese virtue is extinct. Her family grabs up her money, eager for material goods behooving the blood relations of the "World Caramel Girl." Her adored tadpoles, symbols of the transformation Kyoko might achieve, are allowed to die from inattention. Kyoko's supposed boyfriend Nishi is really in love with an ad girl from one of the rivals (Michiko Ono), a sweet young thing that uses him as a corporate chump. Nishi's college pal also stabs him in the back, stealing Kyoko away from her World contract.
Instead of just talking their case, Masumura and Shirasaka show this world in a whirlwind of glitzy montages. Goda's attempts to get his cigarette lighter to function (an odd symbol) is used as a background for montages of candy production and Kyoko's rocketing trajectory to fame. The crazy advertising buses bombard us with the noise of their screaming loudspeaker ads and numbing ad jingles. Accustomed to serene scenes of tea ceremonies and stylized theater in Japanese culture? Here, ray-gun toting babes in Space suits share the stage with ballerinas in a clashing jumble of the worst of Western Kitsch Kulture. Kyoko's big star breakthrough dance number makes her a cannibal queen among a horde of spear-throwing natives, singing about killing enemies and spilling 'rivers of blood.' It's an apt metaphor for the savagery of the business-show biz combine. The more 'sophisticated' a media-run country, the more barbaric it becomes. The pounding title theme ends with a Punk - like strangled scream ... in 1958!
Japan is seen as a horde of unhappy workers in Western suits and ties, with the lucky ones wearing flag-like company pins to show their loyalty. 1 Selling is war, with everyone in a constant state of sweaty insecurity. Nishi's dignity is stripped away as his boss demands that he demean himself for the good of the ad campaign. Poor director Goda ends coughing up blood, learning How to Fail in Business while Trying Much Too Hard. Nishi doesn't fare any better. With his best friend and sweetheart hitting him with slogans like, 'doublecross the other guy before he can doublecross you', he's got nowhere to turn. The ending slides toward some crazy climax of death and failure, but the filmmakers surprise us with a much more memorable image of debasement at the fade-out. 2
All of this is played out at the frantic pace of something like Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, and is both convincing and entertaining. The story is easy to follow (for being so complicated) and the characters are accessible - they could have walked out of The Apartment, or Patterns.
The screen is constantly being bombarded with mass-produced images celebrated for their Pop-Art qualities -- years before Pop Art hit American culture. Even the titles look ten years ahead of their time, with a snapshot of Kyoko Sushi multiplying into rows of Warhol-like repeated images. Reams of colorful magazines (all opening backwards, of course) fill the racks and cheap tin toys are everywhere. Savant remembers getting some of those toys as gifts straight from Japan -- especially a spaceship that flashed lights and changed direction when you tooted on a whistle ...Giants and Toys connects all these ideas with Toho's toy-celebrating outer space movies.
Chuck Stephens' printed text essay on the DVD insert stresses the fact that Masumura had the unique benefit of a classy Italian film education before embarking on his very sophisticated, very un-Japanese movies. Masumura's in-your-face, nothing's sacred social criticism is certainly not mainstream activity. He's a one-of-a-kind agitating social critic. As I said above, he's progressive even by American standards. One thinks of Billy Wilder, Frank Tashlin and MAD magazine. But MAD was forced to become more conservative by the Comic Book Code. Tashlin's so-called anarchic messages have to be decoded by film critics. And Wilder, after receiving a bloody nose for his uncompromising Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival), learned to layer his messages within zany comedy or romantic melodrama. Giants and Toys is up there with the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success. It's the very definition of the Refusal to Compromise.
This is the most interesting political movie Savant's seen in a long time.
Fantoma presents Giants and Toys in a spiffy presentation. The good-looking 16:9 picture has muted colors in the 'business' scenes and blaring hues whenever toys, neon or the glitzy TV shows take over. The music varies from latin Mambo rhythms to a savage Gorath- like march that enforces the relentless, breakneck pace of the advertising machine. A Japanese trailer stresses the fact that the movie is a serious adult offering; excellent liner notes and biographical information help clue a gaijin like Savant into the picture. The clarity of the removable subtitles is also a big help, considering the pace of this audiovisual juggernaut.
Under normal conditions, one takes one's chances getting excited by a positive review of a marginal DVD, because the enthusiasm of a reviewer such as Savant might not correspond to individual tastes. In this instance, I feel confident that if you respond to what I've said above, Giants and Toys will be a DVD you won't regret tracking down.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. In 1958 Japan there was at least some security in swearing one's fealty to a company flag, with job security and pride of place. Americans have certainly lost that kind of security, and by now, surely the corporate 'downsizing' ethic has reaced Japan too ...?
2. I won't give it away, but it's a subdued yet crushing moment reminiscent of the end of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang mixed with the '56 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only chillingly subtle.
3. Reader Response from Kyu Hyun Kim, 2.6.02: Dear Mr. Erickson, I was quite happy to read your review of Masumura Yasuzo's Giants and Toys. Given the current negligence of great Japanese cinema in the Region 1 DVD format, with even Criterion releases of Kurosawa films not up to their usual high standards, (arguably with the exception of Hidden Fortress) most of Ozu's and Mizoguchi's classics unavailable, and masters such as Ichikawa Kon, Shindo Kaneto and Kumai Kei completely, I mean nada, zilch, zip, totally unrepresented, Image/Fantoma's release of the Masumura classic is a stunning event well worth publicity. As you indicate in the review, Masumura's black comedy was quite ahead of its time. He indeed anticipated the rise of "Japan Incorporated" long before the GNP growth rate hit two digits in 1960s, and foresaw the dehumanizing conditions resulting from the drive for prosperity that would eventually make Japan the second richest nation in the world. Your reading of the film's political subtext, in particular, would have pleased Masumura.
Now, I think it would have been nice if you mentioned in the review that Giants and Toys was actually helmed by the same man who made Blind Beast. I assume you knew about this and simply did not mention it, but really, can you think of any filmmaker, American, Japanese or otherwise, who could count in their filmography both Giants and Toys and Blind Beast? This fact alone would have alerted the readers of your column just how seriously out-of-the-whack Masumura's talent is. But trust me, there are more. Personally the most astonishing Masumura film I have seen is neither GT nor Blind Beast, but The Wife Confesses (Tsuma wa kokuhaku suru, 1961), a mystery thriller which is also a face-slapping indictment of the hypocrisies of marriage, (not just Japanese marriage, you understand) featuring an astonishing female protagonist played by Wakao Ayako, simultaneously a truly sympathetic victim and one of the most incredible femme fatales ever portrayed in movies.
Kudos to Image/Fantoma for allowing the American viewers to discover Masumura Yasuzo, (I hope they release all of his movies!) and a tip of hat to you for bringing this masterwork to the attention of many. If the space permits, I would like to go a bit more into other undiscovered geniuses of Japanese cinema, but, for now, let me end with this final observation: Japan, until its cinema industry ignobly collapsed into a heap of rubble in late 1970s, had always been one of the leading centers of cinematic art in the world. There were more film theatres in Japan of 1930s than in the United States, for one. And many, many great works of Japanese cinema are yet to be discovered and properly appreciated
by American viewers. Pokemon they ain't, folks. - Kyu Hyun Kim