Genre: Grim Clash Between Youthful Freedom and Societal Machinations
review in one breath
Two adolescent youth come together in their first attempt at intimacy, only to find that their complex individual histories and situations have created an obstacle to their goal. This is a seminal and exemplar film in the New Wave genre of 1960s Japanese cinema, directed by Hani Susumu who is generally credited with revitalizing Japanese modern film.
This film is directed by Hani Sususmu (???), a relatively unknown name in the West, but an influence of critical importance in the formation of Japan's early-contemporary cinema in the 1960's. Working outside and independently of Japanese film studios (such as Nikkatsu and Toei), Hani's early films, blending a documentary-style realism with spontaneous dramatizations, became the prototype for a new movement in the direction of Japanese film. Seeing that Hani's films appealed widely to younger movie-going audiences, Shochiku Studio decided to allow a few of its assistant directors more freedom to explore similar avenues. The three principal directors chosen were Oshima Nagisa, Yoshida Kiju, and Shinoda Masahiro. These three, eventually joined by others, became the core of what the media would later deem Nuberu Bagu (????? after the French nouvelle vague) or "New Wave".
The films of this New Wave were explicitly post-war in their perception and critique of traditional societal norms, and were often seen through the eyes and experiences of adolescents or young adults. They strove for starkly realistic depictions of (generally leftist) political ideology, sexuality, detrimental social tradition, and self-discovery. The fact these were precisely the issues permeating the lives and minds of their targeted younger audiences resulted in a growing popularity for the genre itself.
Director Hani's first feature film was the 1960 Bad Boys (Furyo Shonen / ????), a film about boys in a reform school. The cast was comprised of young men who had actually lived in reformed schools, and under Hani's laissez-faire style of direction, the actors' true selves quickly emerged within the narrative. Hani allowed them to ad-lib and interact amongst themselves freely in front of the camera, in a style which is simultaneously documentary and dramatization. The result in a very realistic and gripping exploration of the difficulties and struggles of youth at the fringe of society. It was the popularity of this film which caught Shochiuku's eye, causing the studio to rethink its marketing strategies.
The film under review here is the 1968 Inferno of First Love (Hatsukoi Jigokuhen / ??????). Although this film received widespread critical and public acclaim, it would be Hani's last major feature film, as his visceral independence and search for naturalism had by now grown tired of the commercialization of the "New Wave". Hereafter he would work solely in the documentary genre, and to this day, he is one of Japanese's foremost directors of wildlife documentaries wherein, he claims, he finds a naturalism and innocence he can no longer find in contemporary Japanese society.
Inferno of First Love embodies all of the elements which distinguish a "New Wave" film. The narrative revolves around the awkward first attempts at intimacy between an adolescent couple consisting of Shun, a shy boy with issues of inferiority, and Nanami, a bubbly and experienced girl with ties to seedier sides of society. Their internal desire, anticipation, and exploration is palpable, but both come to the rendezvous with complex histories and personal issues. Looming over both is a seemingly impenetrable social/cultural cycle from which their relationship, albeit unwittingly, constitutes a first step toward freedom and true self-discovery.
This film ultimately explores whether the forces imposed by society or the individual desire for freedom and self-identity will prevail in the lives and relationship of Shun and Nanami.
Like many in the New Wave genre, this film is amazingly frank and exploratory in terms of sexuality and nudity. In Inferno, sexuality is not only the dynamic between the young couple, wherein it is viewed as innocent and budding, it also constitutes the primary oppressive elements in both their lives. For Shun, who was abandoned at a young age, placed in a reform school and later moved into a foster home, vivid memories of prolonged sexual molestation at the hands of his foster father have nearly obliterated his bearing and self-confidence in terms of relationships, so much so that his intense (and only) friendship with a very young girl is quickly (and perhaps rightly) deemed by onlookers as perverse. Nanami's situation is similar, though is of her own doing. After leaving home and moving to the city, she was lured by the lucrative pay of "modeling" nude for clients with varying intentions and interest. But the sincere attention and lavish treatment she receives from one client in particular soon begets her fist heartfelt yearnings for more, despite the man's being married and holding a high social position. Thus at face value, both Shun and Nanami are traversing sexually laden, dead-end paths. And yet it is their mutual turn toward a sexuality between themselves which provides a refreshing yet brief vision of their own freedom and self-direction.
In addition to the predominant thematic role of sexuality, this film is literally permeated with nudity. In terms of the scenes depicting the relationship of Shun and Nanami, vast spans of dialogue are shot with Nanami topless or naked, reminiscent of Wakamatsu Koji's later Go Go Second Time Virgin. Here director Hani utilizes her nudity to enhance the notion of "innocence" and indeed in these scenes it is neither gratuitious nor distracting, but rather effectively represents the precipice of youthful anticipations of love they both find themselves at the brink of. In terms of Namani's "professional" life, nudity abounds as well, but here it is highly sexualized, erotic and commercialized. When not posing before the cameras of libidinous men, the naked models go about their daily lives, chatting, watching television, eating noodles, etc. With these forms of nudity, Hani effectively depicts the very lucrative though ultimately seedy, pathetic and dangerous pornography industry. And in scenes which would certainly be scandalous in contemporary Western film, Hani even uses the nudity of young children here in an attempt to depict that period in life which is free from sexualization, free from molestation, free from self-consciousness. Though indeed controversial (in light of today's serious problem with child pornography), Hani's documentary-like scenes of naked children playing together, uninhibited and devoid of awareness or concern for adult societal machinations, ultimately communicate a very powerful and stark juxtaposition (even within the viewer watching such scenes) between what humans are in and of themselves and what society and culture finally makes of them.
This comes across as a very powerful and effective struggle between the innocence of youth and the darker machinations of society. Though similar in some respects to Oshima Nagisa's earlier Cruel Story of Youth, viewing these side by side clearly demonstrates the unique mastery Hani has over this genre. His documentary-style cinematography unflinchingly captures a realism comprised of truly human characters in all their complexity and perplexity. There is no embellishment here nor grandiose implausibility merely to make an ideological point. This film realizes that natural and real life clearly demonstrates even the most poignant points of Hani's moral/philosophical message.
As mentioned earlier, Hani Susumu is a name you have likely not run across. Nor is Inferno of First Love currently a well known film in the West. But viewing this in light of its historical role and aftermath, the implicit value and importance of the project becomes crystal clear. Here you will find that Hani deserves his reputation as an early formative influence in the New Wave movement, and that this film indeed lives up to its reputation as being a "seminal" film in the genre.
The original unedited version of the film has a running time of 107 minutes. (There was once a Western VHS release under the title Nanami First Love, now out of print, which apparently edited the film and thereby gained much derision and scorn.)
Version reviewed: Region 0 DVD-R with English (and German -- both optional) subtitles.
|Historically important and critically acclaimed film by proto-New Wave director Hani Susumu.||Minimal depiction of physical violence or blood. Some clearly mimicked breast-baring violence in front of photographers' cameras.||Overtly sexual themes and naked (sometimes wrestling!!) females abound.||This really comes across as a powerful exemplar of the New Wave genre. Steeped in realism and convincingly portrayed, Hani clearly demonstrates himself a master of the genre.|