Beginning this weekend and continuing June 8-9, LACMA will offer a series of postwar Japanese films rarely screened in L.A. While the museum's revamped film schema enforces brevity (compare this series to MoMA's upcoming “Tokyo 1955-1970” exhibition, which includes 40 films), it's still a bracing dip into forceful cinematic currents in a time of intense cultural and economic change. Edgier styles (documentary and avant garde) and subjects (political and sexual) redirected classical Japanese cinema's emphasis on refined beauty and stasis.
The series coincides with the museum's exhibit on Daido Moriyama, a street photographer known for his raw, restless snapshots beginning in the mid-1960s. Moriyama's most famous photo, dated 1971, is a blurry image of a glowering mutt titled Stray Dog, coincidentally the title of the series' oldest film: a sweltering, 1949 neorealist crime movie by Akira Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifune plays a detective obsessed with recovering his stolen gun; he's steeped in feelings of guilt when the firearm sets off a crime spree. Its standout sequence is a lengthy montage with Mifune strolling among the weary inhabitants and back alleys of a ravaged, politically occupied Tokyo.
Stray Dog equates cop and criminal — both defeated ex-soldiers adrift — and suggests they represent a moral choice for Japan's future, a dualism made even more apparent in Kurosawa's masterful High and Low (1963). Mifune plays a successful businessman whose face-off with a poor kidnapper underscores the divide between the haves and have-nots in Japan's new economy. A superb sequence on a bullet train is a model of suspense and symbolically questions the country's dangerous fast track to success.
With its characters beautifully arranged in palatial living rooms or congested underworlds, High and Low showcases Kurosawa's facility with CinemaScope compositions — a talent shared by filmmaker Shohei Imamura, whose Pigs and Battleships (1962) frames the continued U.S. military presence as an extravagant black comedy. Expansive and sordid set-pieces detail small-time hoodlums thriving in the black market of a U.S. naval base, indicting American bluster and Japanese opportunism.
Imamura's The Pornographers (1966), frequently amusing and disturbing, chronicles even more desperate activities. A producer of custom 8mm porn eludes law enforcement and gangsters while living with a superstitious hairdresser (and sometimes lover), and her manipulative son and daughter. Imamura charts the obsessions of his irrational characters and creates a perverse portrait of contemporary life.
Equally psychological but more surreal and haunting, Hiroshi Teshigahara's mesmerizing The Face of Another (1966) explores the inner life of its protagonist, who wears a mask in the hopes of hiding his facial scars. The loss of face is a potent metaphor in a culture obsessed with public respect and honor.
Masks turn up again in Toshio Matsumoto's queer-cinema classic Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), in which a museum tape intones: “Every man has his own mask, which he has carved for a long time; some wear the same masks all their lives, but others use a variety of masks.” The film's striking images of drug-fueled cross-dressers wandering through a carnivalesque consumer culture (as well as its fast-motion sequences and electronic score) reportedly influenced Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
Nagisa Oshima's Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) stands as the series' intellectual and aesthetic summa. Combining documentary and fiction, color and B&W, it follows a book snatcher and his lovely apprehender through an essayistic compilation of stills, texts and self-reflexive drama, which culminates in street theater. Uniting themes of sexual dysfunction (also prominent in 1968's rare, compelling Nanami: Inferno of First Love), political protest and the relationship between social and private worlds, Oshima's energetic, invigorating film is a must-see encapsulation of its era.
HIGH AND LOW: POSTWAR JAPAN IN BLACK-AND-WHITE | May 11-12 and June 8-9 | Bing Theater at LACMA | lacma.org