The storm is breaking
Or so it seems
We're too young to reason
Too grown up to dream
- Bryan Ferry, "Slave to Love"
It's the most elusive of age statures, that unknowable realm known as youth. It buffers the arenas between infancy and adulthood and holds within its years several lifetimes of experience and pain. Most do get through this time having learned all the necessary lessons and sewn their share of wild, wooly oats. They make mistakes and achieve minute amounts of greatness. Education begins the internal formative process while environment shapes the shell. Parents and friends, relatives and strangers set up the parameters of personality and interpersonal ease. Highs are met by lows and evil is spurned by good. In the end, if everything balances out and all trauma is tempered by the terrific, all hardship sealed with happiness, a whole human being is reborn. It is the actual individual as biology intended, fashioned out of the experiences and expectations that make up that always necessary right of passage.
But sometimes, the adolescent can be lead astray. Occasionally, the happenstance of life can throw the adolescent out of equilibrium. While stability is never assured, certain elements can conspire to cause friction in the final, fixative phase. Poverty can lead a youth to crime, calling like a siren as it slyly symbolizes its 'pact with the Devil' pecuniary resolve. Wealth is an equal opportunity corruptor as well, teaching even the most well weaned child that material possessions and popularity are to be taken for granted, not cherished and worked for. This disconnect from the realities of the world can lead the idle rich to realms as vile as the no hope hoodlum, forced into felony even when there is too much to survive on.
In post-WWII Japan, a new upper middle class of kid is rebelling against the traditions of this culturally strict and socially sedentary country. Influenced by America and the growing openness of their once isolated country, they are unwilling to wait for the good life to greet them upon maturation. They are out to grab as much as their parent's bank account will allow – and then beg, borrow and steal the rest. While some would look at their life of privilege and wonder why they've chosen such a delinquent, wanton path, the truth of their tendencies is really quite evident. Since they've been allowed to skip the survival aspect of existence, the world and all its wealth available to them on an endless silverplate platter, they merely want to bypass the rest of reality and simply get on with hedonistic abandon. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they've had bushels of otherwise unobtainable goodies delivered to them by the demonic hand of the dollar. And once they've tasted this Crazed Fruit, they are condemned to fall upon their own unformed facets.
Haruji and Natsuhisa are brothers. They live the life of the advantaged and the fortunate. From their expansive home it is just a short train ride to the ocean. There, they can boat on the beautiful, tranquil waters that surround Japan, as well as hang out with Natsuhisa's equally idle college friends. Frank has the run of his parents' home, and he holds court over his slovenly, slacker pals. Days are spent gambling or on the beach. Nights are meant for club – and girl – hopping. One day, Haruji meets Eri. She is a very nice, very friendly young lady who takes an instant shine to the lad.
Naturally, Natsuhisa is amused. He has never thought of his little brother as a ladies man, and Eri seems way out of Haruji's league. But as the youth begins to date this mysterious maiden, amusement turns to concern. Natsuhisa eventually discovers a secret about Eri, a clandestine aspect of her life that he instantly takes advantage of. Eventually, it is brother against brother in a lover's triangle filled with bitter resentment and suppressed emotion. Only tragedy can come from this sad story of love and loss among the welcoming waves of this seaside resort.
Without a doubt, Crazed Fruit is a lost masterpiece of early Japanese filmmaking. It is a reaction to the emerging changes in international cinema (French and Italian, to be exact) as well as a nod to the classic Hollywood version of cinematic soap operatics. For this tiny island nation, Crazed Fruit was the filmic equivalent of real rebellion. It's a sensationalized slice of celluloid sand kicked directly in the face of a mostly modest audience – an intellectual group not used to such audacious and scandalous subject matter as sexual lust and youthful insolence on the silver screen. It paints a portrait of recklessness and abandon that instantly recalls other famous Tinsel Town tawdriness (A Place in the Sun to be specific). Yet it is all filtered through a knowing, noir-like sensibility, the sinister and the sensual playing out inside director Ko Nakahira's amazingly visual motion picture language.
Based on the explosive and controversial novel of the same name by author Ishihara Shintaro, Crazed Fruit was one of the first Sun Tribe films, a genre in Japanese moviemaking created specifically from Shintaro's work (the name derives from his first book, the equally incendiary Season in the Sun). Similar to the sentiments heaped upon A Catcher in the Rye, Shintaro was seen as using the dissolution of post-war youth as the basis for general criticism of many of Japan's establishment ideals. He used sex, lust and desire as a means of exposing the emotions that usually lay dormant in typical Asian society. Centuries celebrating honor and reputation were directly in Shintaro's sights – and by the time he was done, a whole new revolution in Japanese literature and film was born.
With such a controversial creation, it is very easy to equate this sensational adaptation as almost an Asian Summer Place, with melodramatic and potboiler elements intermingled within Shintaro's and Nakahira's obvious political and social stridence. It also plays a lot like a far more stylized version of those juvenile delinquency pictures that made the American movie circuit in the mid to late 50s. But unlike The Blackboard Jungle or Reform School Girls, Crazed Fruit is not just exploitation for the sake of shock. At its core, this is an expose on Japanese youth culture post-World War II as a direct reflection of the social turmoil and intellectual turbulence the country was facing. In its lead characters, we find an outright rejection of everything held near and dear to the island nation, ideals and principles that the society and its people valued for thousands of years.
From the opening sequence, where young boys crash and bash their way through a train station turnstile, avoiding the usual decorum and etiquette of the rest of the riders, to the moment we learn just how far Eri will go to satisfy her lustful desires, Crazed Fruit flaunts its anti-traditional tendencies. Indeed, it sets up its love triangle in a perfect mirror image of the brewing national maelstrom. One need look no further than the first few minutes of the movie to see the setup of the separate ideals. Natsuhisa and his friends are easily the true face of dissention. Director Nakahira uses a montage of close-ups toward the start of his story, giving Natsuhisa and his buddies a chance to berate and belittle the educational and political climate of the nation in stark, succinct soundbites. The malingering students aren't really rebelling for change. They're complaining because they can, seeing their homeland humbled in the eyes of the world and piling on for good, self-glorifying measure.
On the other end is Haruji. Though he's only in his teens, he stands for all the traditional elements of old Japanese society. When he meets Eri, he is shy, not standoffish. As they get to know each other, he controls his urges, keeping his passion in place so as not to embarrass himself or his intended. At a party thrown by Frank, Eri seems far too friendly with the older boys, and Haruji responds by simultaneously rebuffing and remanding her. He eventually takes her away, to the seclusion of a rocky inlet, to have his own seaside tryst.
The notion of privacy, or showing off your love luck while concurrently hiding it away is an oft-argued facet of the Japanese social order. Men are viewed as proposed pillars of virtue in public (adding to why Natsuhisa and his friends are so outrageous), always keeping their perversion a confidential protocol. Haruji is the same way, more than willing to flaunt his female, until she attracts the eye of another. And when it turns out to be his brother, it breaches several solid aspects of the cultural dynamic as well. It's bad enough that Haruji is made a fool, but it is by his own flesh and blood, something family is never supposed to do.
This leaves Eri, and her role in Crazed Fruit is very complex and incomplete. Japan is a nation, after all, that venerates its women, and yet also idolizes the notion of paid servitude as part of the still glamorized Geisha mythos. Young ladies have more opportunities for career and education there than in most other parts of the world, but the chauvinistic ideals of marriage and children can cost even the most honored executive her highly vaunted position. Women are not supposed to be sexual beings in public, and yet Japan loves its erotically explicit material, from comics to movies. As this is the late 50s, Eri is set to represent the upcoming upheaval in gender relations. She is not afraid of her lust, constantly letting it boil over and bolster her own anti-social behavior. She gladly lets men seduce and abuse her, but she also appears in control from the moment they make their move.
SPOILER AHEAD: Eri is also married – in this case, to a much older American man. If we are to believe her story, she is twenty and an obvious quasi-war bride for the conquering Caucasian hero. In one of the movie's most striking scenes, Eri's husband arrives home unexpectedly. Natsuhisa, whose been "visiting" escapes through an upper balcony. In the only English spoken in the movie, the unsuspecting spouse calls for his wife. And in perfect American dialect, Eri answers back. The reason this sequence is so startling is because it perfectly reflects Eri's chameleon-like status. She is anything her lovers want her to be – brazen hussy (Natsuhisa), innocent teenager (Haruji) or faithful domestic (husband). Such an unpredictable, stealthy nature seems to symbolize the growing distrust that Japanese men had for their women. After all, if they themselves are playing the field, what must their gals left behind be doing?
Eri's marital arrangements are also central to another theme in Crazed Fruit, one that seems obvious now, but quite shocking in its day. America was, for a time, an enemy of Japan, a foe to fight and conquer. Once the war ended, the influence of Western ideals began to work their way into the everyday life of the island nation. As trade increased and business bought into the post-war boom, the sway of the USA was everywhere. Director Nakahira layers his visuals with all manner of hints to red white and blue. At a carnival, all the rides have English names. In Haruji and Natsuhisa's house, the boys eat with western tableware, using knives and forks instead of chopsticks. Frank fashions himself after a certain Mr. Sinatra (with a little Martin and Davis Jr. thrown in for good measure), his hair and clothing a mimic of such seminal cool. Just like the growing discontent of the youth, Crazed Fruit wants to warn against (or perhaps, more defiantly, to celebrate) the destruction of Japanese tradition at the hands of America and its ideals.
As with many movies made in Asia, water also plays an important part in Crazed Fruit. It is seen as escape, as purifier and as cleanser. It stands as a barrier between reality and fantasy and offers its users a means of extending their sphere of influence into the competitive arena of nature. Using the serenity of the surface combined with the dark, deceptive depths down below, Nakahira gets a perfect parallel for our players, a notion that what we are seeing on the outside hides something far more sinister and unsettled underneath. And indeed, this is the case. The calm, cordial friendship of Natsuhisa turns quickly into animalistic urges. The tranquil and gentile Eri is really a simmering hotbed of pent up hormonal desire. And Haruji? This untroubled teen holds the biggest surprise of all. His actions in response to the eventual betrayal by his brother are outrageous, and out of character for what we always saw as a happy go lucky kind of kid. Just like the potential danger of the sea, the latent menace in an underdeveloped man rejected can be the most perilous of all.
Naturally, all of this would play out like a highly implausible juvenile jet set Peyton Place had director Nakahira been a typical talented guide. But with his miraculous visual flair, his careful control of the black and white pallet and attention to the smallest image-based detail, we get a cinematic canvas both rich and redolent, hinting at possible horrors while always shimmering with sun and fun. Nakahira's directorial dichotomy occasionally reminds one of Hitchcock, who loved to juxtapose the baneful with the beautiful to make a point about both. Nakahira also channels the procedural conundrums of the French, taking on the very tenets of moviemaking as he crafts his nuanced narrative. While the story plays it straight and steamy, the filmmaker aims for the outer edges of the drama, mining the area for all the atmosphere and irony he can remove. The results are a startling, visually exciting film, the kind of optical exercise we don't see very often in the typical point and shoot simplicity of the modern movie.
When taken in total, Crazed Fruit becomes a benchmark, a first volley in an eventual cultural war where youth would challenge the adults for control of the social agenda. It should have marked Ko Nakahira's ascent into the ranks of celebrated Japanese moviemakers. Sadly, he is more or less forgotten today, nothing more than a footnote in most critical analysis. Tossed in among the samurai epics, the devastating satires of class and the perceptions of Japan's place in the post-war world, something as concrete in its criticism as Crazed Fruit is apparently an unimportant afterthought.
It's too bad, really, as this is one of the freshest, most fascinating films of the late 50s, a movie that perfectly mirrors its subject matter as it concomitantly deconstructs and dissects it. While American juvenile delinquency cinema can't claim to hold many masterpieces, especially when held up to today's piercing post-modern scrutiny, Crazed Fruit has no such problems. This IS a great movie, made even greater by what it says about that volatile, vitalizing time known as youth. It definitely deserves to be discussed alongside other members of Japan's motion picture folklore.
Criterion calls upon all its monochrome magic for the release of this forgotten title, and the results are just breathtaking. While there is a single sequence, near the start of the carnival scene, where the print shows obvious wear and age, the rest of Crazed Fruit is a near-flawless, amazingly clear 1.33:1 work of art. The darks and lights play off each other perfectly, and the depth of the shadows is matched only by the shimmer of the sun-drenched seashore. Anyone wanting to understand why black and white cinema heightens drama and intensifies the ambience of a narrative need only look to Crazed Fruit for such answers. Criterion has done a stellar job with this true piece of cinematic art.
Equally as impressive, but for decidedly different reasons, is the crystal clear Japanese Dolby Digital Mono mix. Nakahira employs a slightly askew cool jazz meets Hawaiian music montage style for his score, and when inserted into the easily decipherable dialogue (with fine, discernible English subtitles) we get an absolute aural treat, a film in full control of all its sensory capacities – both aurally and visually.
While many will be sad that something as sensational as Crazed Fruit doesn't get a bigger, more bold DVD treatment, the sole extra Criterion provides here is definitely worth celebrating. Famed critic and Japanese film scholar Donald Richie (he has appeared on other Criterion releases, most recently discussing Au Hasard Balthazar) provides a detailed and exhaustive commentary track, covering not only the origins of Crazed Fruit, but the rather sad saga of director Nakahira as well. Richie loves this film and can't wait to champion its unique charms. He has a great deal of insight into the place and time of this film's making, and the reaction it had once it hit theaters. He is stalwart in his defense of Nakahira, and often wonders why he is not a more celebrated international icon. From the smallest detail to the contextual big picture, Richie really compliments and supplements this film doing exactly what the best alternate narrative tracks do. He expands and enlightens our understanding of both the movie and its maker. Along with a trailer and some nice essays by critic Chuck Stevens and scholar Michael Raine, we are treated to a pragmatic primer for appreciating this lost gem of a movie.
Why is it, then, that we view our youth in such salient, 'salad days' terms? If it is such a horrible, hampering time, filled with disappointment, disparities and disillusion, why do we romanticize it so? Is it because it is the time of so many firsts – first love, first hate, first longing, first rejection? Is it because we need distance and wisdom to accurately reflect on what happened, an opportunity to reevaluate what occurred at the spur of the moment, or in the heat of passion? It is a matter of process, our enfeebled brains needing time to grow and mature before we can fathom such illogical lessons? Or are we all just fools, filtering out the fights and the flaws to keep the joy and the discovery vital and alive? Whatever the reasons, once we bite into that Crazed Fruit of approaching maturity, we begin the process toward our own emotional and social banishment. Eventually, we are exiled to another, more responsible realm of life.
And inside this remarkable movie, we witness the change. To hide in arrested adolescence, like Natsuhisa and his friends, is to cheat the challenge. And individuals who defraud and swindle are destined to pay the price eventually. Equally irrational is the desire to secrete yourself away behind tradition and heritage. The mistakes of the past do not provide pathways for the future. Instead, like Haruji, one learns that the old ways are rejected for a reason - their own harms far outweighing the benefits that come with conformity. And then there's Eri, the enigma, the literal unknown. With shady motives and even shakier ethics, she perhaps represents the truth inside adulthood. Instead of a select, separate state, maturity is an insane combination of the past and the future, the rebellious and the realistic flexing and fighting for psychological supremacy. Sometimes, we find a solid, symbiotic peace. Other times, the battle rages over into the real world...and the results are always tragic. Forbidden fruit is illicit for a reason. And the same can be said for its Crazed cousin. The sooner we see that, the sooner we grow up. And frankly, the sooner we cast aside youth, the better.
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