Fast, Cheap, and Under Control

Nick Pinkerton on “Girls, Guns & Ghosts” at Japan Society

Nobuo Nakagawa, Ghost Story of Yotsuya, 1959, 35  mm, color, sound, 76 minutes. Iemon Tamiya, Takuetsu, and Iwa (Shigeru Amachi, Jun Ôtomo, and Katsuko Wakasugi).

THE MIDCENTURY JAPANESE avant-garde is an undeniable presence in New York City right now. The Museum of Modern Art’s “Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde” show, in conjunction with a film program on “Art Theater Guild and Japanese Underground Cinema, 1960–1986,” wraps up this week, just as Anthology Film Archives prepares to screen “Rituals in the Avant-Garde: Film Experiments in 1960s–70s Japan.”

With a program highlighting gems amid the trashy cinematic gewgaws of Shintoho Company, Japan Society’s “Into the Shintoho Mind Warp: Girls, Guns & Ghosts from the Second Golden Age of Japanese Film,” might seem the odd man out here; but these Shintoho films, united in their pulpy surrealism, tapped the same vein of restless, off-the-cuff creativity and transgressive daring that fueled the underground. The comparison offers proof once again that there’s not such a gulf between the avant-garde and the outer limits of lurid pop, both early warning systems of social upheaval.

Shintoho—the name means “New Toho”—had an essentially reactionary origin. The company was formed in 1947 during a labor dispute at Toho, Japan’s leading studio in the postwar period. Originally Toho’s nonunionized, fast-and-cheap subdivision, Shintoho later went independent; it never found sound financial footing, and finally went bankrupt in 1961. During its fourteen-year history, Shintoho released such acknowledged classics as Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952) and Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), and also produced Kon Ichikawa’s first films. These prestige works are distinctly not the subjects of Japan Society’s eight-film selection, culled by Mark Schilling—an intrepid explorer of Japanese pop cinema—from a 2010 program for the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy. (After New York, the program travels to Philadelphia’s International House, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Vancouver’s Pacific Cinematheque.)

Schilling’s program is made exclusively of Shintoho works produced under the reign of Mitsugu Okura, a former silent film benshi storyteller and carnival worker who took over the cash-strapped studio in the mid-’50s and remade it in his own sensationalist, “Step right up!” image. The series kicks off with Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1959) by Nobuo Nakagawa, who, in a nine-film cycle of kaidan-geki (ghost story) films for Shintoho, established himself as the genre’s ace. The Edo period–set tale, adapted from a Kabuki classic, follows a totally amoral ronin samurai and his conspiring servant as they murder their way into an aristocratic home, only to have their social climbing undone by the harassing spirits of the restless dead. The revenge-from-beyond-the-grave formula of Nakagawa’s Ghost Story is closely adhered to by Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (1960), the directorial debut of Nakagawa’s apprentice, Yoshihiro Ishikawa. Nakagawa and Ishikawa both enjoy playing with their prey before putting them out of their misery, running them through a gauntlet of hallucinatory shocks in their films’ last acts. These are augmented by expressionistic use of color, like otherworldly lighting gel gags, or the blossom of blood that appears on the surface of fetid bog water in Ghost Cat.

Teruo Ishii, Yellow Line, 1960, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 79 minutes. Katsuko Wakasugi, Shigeru Amachi, and Reiko Seto.

Nakagawa’s most famous movie for Shintoho, Jigoku: Hell (1960), is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection—as is Nobuhiko Obayashi’s wig-out House (1977), a cult hit on its recent revival that shows the stamp of Nakagawa and Shintoho. Both Ghost Story and Nakagawa’s Death Row Woman (1960), also playing, are domestically unavailable, like all of the films in the Japan Society series. (The lineup is to be screened entirely on Blu-ray, a first for Japan Society.)

Because of Shintoho’s envelope-pushing subject matter and its appeal to youth culture under his leadership, Okura has sometimes been compared to Roger Corman (with Shintoho becoming an equivalent to Corman’s American International Pictures). Like AIP, Shintoho was also an incubator for young talent. Among the studio’s distinguished graduates was Teruo Ishii, who started out at Shintoho as an assistant cameraman and went on to direct eighty-odd features. Ishii is represented in the series by two films that dive headfirst into contemporary lowlife, the Ginza-set Flesh Pier (1958) and Yellow Line (1960), third in the five-film Line series, all of which dealt with sex trafficking rings. Yellow Line concerns an investigative reporter on the hunt for his missing girlfriend and the hit man who’s hijacked her, and takes place amid the narrow, warrenlike alleys of seaport Kobe’s red-light district. Teeming with vivid sketches of lower-depth existence, Yellow Line’s depiction of a contemporary Japan marked by endemic corruption and opportunism is not farm from that in contemporary Japanese New Wave films by the likes of Nagisa Oshima and Shôhei Imamura. Yellow Line’s style is less Neorealism than delirious hyperrealism of a tabloid fable: Kobe’s “Casbah” neighborhood is a remarkable piece of stagecraft, while the clue that initiates the pursuit is a lost red high-heeled shoe, rife with fairy-tale associations.

“Shintoho had a philosophy—everything was speed,” Ishii once said. “The first important thing was speed, the second important thing was speed, everything was speed.” Necessity, as ever, is the mother of invention—the need for speed may explain the frequent recourse to stunning sequence shots in these films, for such long takes limited the number of time-absorbing setups. It also lent Shintoho films a quality of urgency that has not diminished. What they lack in polish, they make up for in pungency.

“Into the Shintoho Mind Warp: Girls, Guns & Ghosts from the Second Golden Age of Japanese Film” opens February 27 at Japan Society in New York.