Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The idea that Japanese films imitate American trends will need some rethinking after one sees Criterion's unusual Crazed Fruit, a movie that explicitly codifies the 'youth rebellion' genre in terms far advanced of either American juvenile delinquency pictures or the French New Wave. Director Ko Nakahira presents a convincing, sexually candid story of wild Japanese kids of the mid-50s that were given the cultural label 'the Sun Tribe.' Reportedly a big success in Japan, this excellent drama is virtually unknown in the States.
Brothers Haruji and Natsuhisa (Masahiko Tsugawa and Yujiro Ishihara) settle
into a summer regimen of sleeping late, chasing girls and beach clubbing with their
equally affluent friends. Haru is attracted to Eri (Mie Kitahara), a local beauty
hiding a rather important secret. Natsuhisa at first tries to look out for younger
brother Haru's best interests, but soon finds himself equally enthralled by the enticing Eri.
Crazed Fruit is a surprising B&W film from 1956 that has the stylistic assurance and fresh quality we associate with the films of Jean-Luc Godard. A bizarre hipster music score backgrounds the story of Japan's first post-war teens capable of enjoying the benefit of a booming economy. While 99% of the country labors in conditions of near poverty tied to workaday lives, these rich kids can spend the entire summer driving their parents' cars, living in rented beach houses and partaking of rare pleasures - clubbing by night and and water skiing by day.
Just one year after Rebel Without a Cause writer Shintaro Ishihara wastes no time in defining the teen disenchantment only alluded to in the American film. Wild boy Natsuhisa breaks rules, sleeps with any girl he can catch and tries his best not to give a damn about anything. When pressed by his Eurasian friend Frank (Masumi Okada), Natsuhisa spells it out: The older generation has nothing to offer him but hypocrisy and square attitudes. As for taking life seriously, why bother when Japan has aggressive Chinese and Russians for neighbors? It's much more fun to keep conning the parents and live the wild life drinking, provoking fights and pretending that cultivating boredom is a constructive activity.
The boys are conspicuously rude and raucous in public. They ignore ticket takers on the trains the same way they shrug off police whistles on the boulevards - in a land where public politeness is the rule there are few provisions for dealing with petty scofflaws who run through crowds half-knocking people down. The working stiffs who serve the drinks and mind the sailboats know that these kids are of a different stripe - hence the word 'tribe' in their official name, 'the Sun Tribe.' A landlady is shocked by the kids' behavior but is too intimidated to complain in the open.
The selfish Sun Tribe concentrates on its pleasures, including a sexually active lifestyle that must have been the film's main attraction. Party girls are plentiful and even Frank, the most thoughtful of the gang, has no qualms about using a casual city acquaintance as a mistress until she gets fed up and goes home. The boys sleep with whoever is available and think no more of them than they do the liquor they consume.
(Spoiler) The virginal Haru is easily fooled by Eri, a looker who makes his older brother's friends stand to attention. She's secretly married to an American (Harold Conway, a fixture in Toho science fiction fantasies) and is a daring sexual adventuress in her own right. Barely twenty years old, Eri claims that by having affairs with younger boys she is reclaiming the thrill of dating denied her by an early marriage. Eri's beauty allows her the same rebellious liberty that the boys enjoy: A playboy/playgirl lifestyle with someone else to pay the bills.
The modest production is given excellent direction, mostly on real locations. The water skiing and sailing scenes flow naturally, sketched in short bursts of action and music. Nakahira employs visual details with economy and precision, imparting a powerful sexual charge to the intimate moments between the leads. We sense Eri inviting Haru's advances even as she deceives him. To signal his intentions, Natsuhisa rips Eri's skirt off.
Elsewhere Nakahira shows he's an avid watcher of other American movies. An image of a transistor radio on a dock with a speedboat in the background is borrowed from A Place in the Sun and foreshadows the watery violence to come. A girl dancing in a nightclub claps her hands in imitation of Kim Novak in the previous year's Picnic.
By the end of Crazed Fruit the supposedly carefree kids are emotionally unbalanced by desire and jealousy and spin quickly out of control. The violent ending mirrors the beginning, when Eri is first mistaken for a drowning victim. It isn't presented as moral retribution, but it does demonstrate how the outright denial of conventional morals can easily lead to disaster.
A movie as frank as Crazed Fruit would never have won a release in 1956 America. The studios reacted to Rebel Without a Cause by promoting a slate of teen pictures about 'nice' boys, taming Elvis Presley's sex appeal and creating unthreatening stars like Pat Boone. The juvenile delinquent genre became almost exclusively the domain of the exploitation double bills. When Hollywood got around to acknowledging the realities of teen sex and pregnancy, it was in slick hokum like Peyton Place and the glamorized A Summer Place.
Of special note is Toru Takemitsu's first movie score, a wildly original mélange of glossy saxophone melodies, rock beats and demented Hawaiian guitar riffs - this would be a big lounge seller if released on CD. Backed by this background audio, the Sun Tribe hipsters prowling the clubs in their Hawaiian shirts make Sinatra and Dean Martin in Some Came Running look like tired old men.
Criterion's DVD of Crazed Fruit is in perfect shape, with the exacting B&W image carefully encoded for maximum impact. Donald Richie's engaging commentary offers one revelation after another about the film's director and actors, such as the later star Yujiro Ishihara being the brother of the screenwriter and author. There is also a hard-sell original trailer that shows us immediately why the film was a big success. Crazed Fruit is an entertaining and surprising rediscovery that proves there are plenty of obscure treasures yet to be uncovered by DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Crazed Fruit rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Donald Richie
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 30, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson