Of Gods and Smog Monsters

In the opening scene of Akira Kurosawa‘s 1985 Ran (back in theaters for the moment, plumping for its forthcoming DVD debut), the film’s central figure, Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, kills a boar -- an old boar, too old to eat. In the sky over Hidetora, the clouds are conspiring to form a kind of freakish monumentality -- one formation looks exactly like Godzilla‘s craggy head. A once-fearsome but now-withered warrior, Hidetora, played by longtime Kurosawa collaborator Tatsuya Nakadai, wonders aloud whether, if he had been cut down in the course of battle, his conquerors could have consumed him. Never, his equally ancient adversaries insist, his hide is too tough. It would have stuck in their throats.

Freakish monumentality was a condition Kurosawa must have known well. A creation of Toho Studios, Kurosawa began making films in 1943. In 1949, he asked Inoshiro Honda, a rising young director, to work as his assistant on Stray Dog. Five years later, while Honda was busy directing Toho’s second most famous creation, the original Godzilla, Kurosawa was on location, banding together the seven samurai. From that film forward, Kurosawa‘s very name became synonymous with gargantuan achievement. His Rashomon, after all, brought Japanese cinema to the attention of the world, and when Seven Samurai proved to the box office, not to mention several generations of filmmakers yet to come, that humanist melodrama plays even better with a little action-adventure on the side, Kurosawa’s fate was set, for better and worse.

But imagine the burden of being Akira Kurosawa back in the day -- it must have been a little like trying to hustle off to work every morning wearing a green rubber suit (or a face-concealing black helmet, as Kurosawa acolyte George Lucas surely knows). For years, as far as most of the Western world could see, Kurosawa and Godzilla were identical, or at least identically opposed: highbrow art film at one end of the Toho umbilicus, Saturday-matinee eye-candy at the other. As time passed, the tether never seemed to slip: Honda himself even resurfaced at Kurosawa‘s side as Ran’s “chief assistant director.” If only the reunion had proved more auspicious. Less a director‘s return to form than an essay in solipsism and self-pity run amok, Ran -- save for one startlingly staged battle sequence -- might as well have been titled Also Ran. Nakadai’s makeup, a fright mask of cotton-white whiskers and gooey black greasepaint, is one of the film‘s more interesting details, but that’s not filmmaking, it‘s Christian Dior.

Honda made his last Godzilla film in 1978, but Takao Okawara, the director of Godzilla 2000, clearly knows something about the good old days. His film is most notable for its lovingly inept and intentionally retrograde dialogue (the model seems to be What’s Up, Tiger Lily?), its garage-sale special effects, and its return, after Roland Emmerich‘s high-tech Hollywood variation, to the rubber-suited Godzilla of yore. The 23rd installment in the apparently unkillable franchise that Honda inaugurated nearly 50 years ago, G2K is just the sort of “Godziller” Gomer Pyle would have adored: dumb, fun, out of this world. Its plot concerns a 170-foot-long interstellar stool sample that flies through air, invades Godzilla’s cell structure by psychic means, and ultimately mutates into a billowing superanus. Really. After five decades of avoiding the ungodly mess that must surely follow in Godzilla‘s wake, the repressed has finally returned and, well, it’s not worth getting into.

What is, is this Friday night at the American Cinematheque, where, if the hitherto-unheralded old masters and Young Turks of Japanese cinema are truly your style, a double bill of rarely screened curios stands ready to scorch your eyes. First up is Nobuo Nakagawa‘s Jigoku (Hell, 1960), a long-forgotten, thoroughly disturbing wide-screen vision of the pit by the director once critically anointed as the Japanese Alfred Hitchcock. And for dessert there’s buzz-heavy newcomer Takashi Miike, whose Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) is a made-for-video exploitation a sizzler about a teenage yakuza kingpin, a legion of toddler assassins and a pair of schoolgirl strippers who put the latest techniques in vaginal warfare on full display.

Astonishing largely on the basis of its brain-rattling disjunctions of sound and image, Nakagawa‘s Jigoku is the kind of sui generis minor masterpiece that’s so off-kilter and anarchic it would have been more influential if it hadn‘t fallen through a crack in time. Steeped in berserk butoh theatrics and fog-thick gothic atmosphere, the film is built around the same sort of Leopold-Loeb relationship that inspired Hitchcock’s Rope: two young men, one evil, one weak, become bound together in an escalating series of murders. Desperate to escape the terror of living, the duo eventually fling each other directly into the void, and the director jumps in after them. Jigoku‘s climactic 30 minutes leap headlong into flights of disorienting non-narrative, gory New Brutalist torments and choreographed whirlpools of the caterwauling undead.

Far from unknown in Japan, Nakagawa began making films in the late 1930s, and even a Japanese film scholar as kitsch-proof as Noel Burch, author of the historical-materialist survey To the Distant Observer, has given the director his due. But Jigoku remains a movie out of time, and its flirtations with damnation proved only temporarily liberating for this longtime director of well-worn ghost stories and popular Grand Guignol. Ultimately, Nakagawa’s influence was to be felt by the members of Japan‘s newest new wave who emerged in the early 1990s, including haywired upstarts such as Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) and Takashi Miike.

The hottest director of the post--Takeshi Kitano generation, Miike (pronounced mee-kay) learned from Nakagawa that when straight-ahead storytelling becomes too cumbersome, toss the pieces in the air and let narrative fall where it may. A former assistant to Shohei Imamura, Miike burst on the scene with 1995’s Shinjuku Triad Society, a scabrous essay in police procedures, pleasurable sodomy, and interracial politics in the Japanese underworld that won him a best-director nomination from the Japanese film industry. Fudoh, a rather straightforward study of oedipal power struggles, followed right away -- though straightforward doesn‘t really do justice to the hermaphrodite, the heat-sensitive tattoo and the serious complications that eventually come into play.

Captivating though it may be, Fudoh is essentially just a teaser for the Miike who has subsequently emerged: a master of manic pacing, murky race relations and love affairs where kinky sex is upstaged by kinkier politics. The electrified boogie of Blues Harp (1998), for example, is just one of a half-dozen social-science experiments that Miike (who cranks out two or three features a year) has made so far. In it, a mixed-race kid from Okinawa, half-Japanese, half--African-American, saves a yakuza rank-climber named Kenji from extinction. Kenji, in turn, falls in love with the sight of his savior’s bare ass. Everybody gets the happy ending they deserve, but (talk about your rubber monsters!) the whole thing climaxes with a jaw-dropping evocation of an Uncle Remus straight out of Song of the South.

For the members of Miike‘s generation, freakish monumentality may simply be the name of the game, and the superdeformed egos of gargantuan yakuza -- like those in the director’s soon-to-be released Dead or Alive -- the dai-kaiju (giant monsters) of our time. But don‘t just wait for the future, give the past a chance. After all, Hell -- like Godzilla and Kurosawa -- may be eternal, but the gates to Nobuo Nakagawa’s incendiary Jigoku are only open for a night.

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