NYFF Spotlight: Celebrating the Nikkatsu Centennial

Nikkatsu

Series: "Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses: Celebrating the Nikkatsu Centennial" (37 Films)
Section: Masterworks
Screening: Oct. 1 – 16
Tickets: Buy a four-film pass (online only) and save!

A History of Nikkatsu:
Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses is a centennial retrospective of the Nikkatsu Corporation, Japan's oldest motion picture studio. Nikkatsu was founded on September 10, 1912 by four companies intending to monopolize film production and distribution in Japan following the Hollywood model. The name Nikkatsu is an abbreviation of Nippon Katsudō Shashin, literally "Japan Cinematograph Company."

To survive over the last hundred years, Nikkatsu has had to reimagine itself several times and in doing so has followed a unique trajectory mixing the commercial and the avant-garde. During the silent era, it incorporated new filmmaking methods imported from the West while switching from oyama—men playing women's roles in accordance with Kabuki convention—to the use of actresses. One of its most progressive talents in this period was Kenji Mizoguchi, a pioneer in realistic, socially critical portrayals of women's dilemmas in modern society.

In 1941, Nikkatsu was forced to give up production but thrived as an exhibitor. When it resumed production in 1954, the studio attracted talented assistant directors such as Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki with the promise of career advancement. Soon these young filmmakers would make their distinct marks in the Japanese New Wave in the 1960s. The year 1956 saw the studio's first mega-hit: Takumi Furokawa's Season of the Sun. This film and the subsequent Crazed Fruit (dir. Ko Nakahira), both adaptations of controversial novels by Shintaro Ishihara, brought forth a series of "sun-tribe" (taiyozoku) movies depicting privileged but rebellious youth living a reckless and amoral lifestyle. They represented an attempt to establish the "angry youth" film as a genre, after the model of Nicholas Ray's Rebel without a Cause and Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monica. The youth pictures brought film attendance in Japan to an all-time peak in 1958. They also launched Nikkatsu's first real star Yujiro Ishihara, the novelist's younger brother.

Partly as a star vehicle for Ishihara and partly a response to the waning of youth pictures, from the late 1950s to 1971 Nikkatsu launched a series of hard-boiled action films. "Less gritty realism than macho romanticism," in the words of film scholar Mark Schilling, these "borderless action" pictures feature Hollywood-influenced heroes at odds with the traditional and group-oriented Japanese society. Action would become the genre for which Nikkatsu was best known. By 1971 the increased popularity of television had taken a heavy toll on the film industry. In order to remain profitable Nikkatsu turned to the production of "Roman Porno" (short for romantic pornography) and pink films, which focus on sex, violence, S&M, and romance but have real plots and characters. In 2010, a revived Nikkatsu studio announced new production of The Sushi Typhoon movie series in partnership with FUNimation Entertainment, a Texas-based U.S. distributor.

Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses was organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center with Nikkatsu Corporation, the Japan Foundation, and the National Film Center of Japan. This centenary celebration of Nikkatsu will be screened later this year at the Festival of 3 Continents in Nantes, France, as well as at the Cinémathèque Française.

Notable Nikkatsu Directors:
Shōhei IMAMURA:  A leading figure of the Japanese New Wave, known for his provocative but humorous vision of human lust. Declaring his interest in "the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure," Imamura sought to record Japan's forgotten regions, oppressed classes, and lustful impulses. In Nikkatsu he made three groundbreaking films: Pigs and Battleships (1961), The Insect Woman (1963), and Intentions of Murder (1964). He is also the first Japanese director to win two Palme d'Or awards, for The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and The Eel (1987).

Seijun SUZUKI: Japanese B-movie visionary, who made 40 films for Nikkatsu between 1956 and 1967, working most prolifically in the yakuza genre. His jarring visual style, irreverent humour, nihilistic cool and entertainment-over-logic sensibility was highly acclaimed all over the world. Jim Jarmusch, Takeshi Kitano, Wong Kar-wai and Quentin Tarantino have all made tributes to him. Suzuki's films in the series include: Take Aim at Police Van (1960), Gate of Flesh (1964) and Tokyo Drifter (1966).

Tatsumi KUMASHIRO: The most highly acclaimed director of the early Nikkatsu Roman Porno era. Allmovie calls him, "arguably the most important Japanese director to emerge during the 1970s." Kumashiro's work was noted for its humanistic themes and for its sympathetic treatment of its characters. Stylistically his films were experimental, using a variety of avant-garde cinematic devices and complex narrative structure. Film Quarterly’s New York editor William Johnson calls Kumashiro "an indisputable maker of screen porn whose films also deserve 'serious' interest." Kumashiro's films in the series include: The World of Geisha (1973) and The Woman With Red Hair (1979).

What the critics and film historians said about Nikkatsu:
David Desser on "sun tribe" films, in Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema  (Indiana U P, 1988): "Season of the Sun was made into a film in 1956 by Furakawa Takumi at Nikkatsu studios, then a relatively minor company seeking to establish itself in the commercial sphere. This is worth noting in that Nikkatsu would, just a few years later, completely commercialize the newly emergent youth film. The most important of the sun tribe films was undoubtedly Crazed Fruit, the debut film of Nakahira Ko, also produced at Nikkatsu... Crazed Fruit seems to have inspired a genuine mass reaction... Crazed Fruit proved inspirational to Oshima Nagisa, who said that it was this film that helped point the way toward a new Japanese cinema."

Mark Schilling on Nikkatsu action film, in No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema (FAB Press, 2007): "During their peak, from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Nikkatsu Action films evoked a cinematic world neither foreign nor Japanese, but a mix of the two,  where Japanese tough guys had the swagger, moves and even long legs of Hollywood movie heroes.  Where the Tokyo streets, Yokhama docks and Hokkaido plains took on an exciting, exotic aura, as though they were stand-ins for Manhattan, Marseilles or the American West."

J. Hoberman on Kumashiro and "roman porno," for The Village Voice: "Unmentioned in any major English-language history of Japanese cinema, Kumashiro was the key figure in roman poruno (romantic porn), a low-budget mode—predicated on frequent, softcore sex scenes and ample, if partial, female nudity—that was launched in 1971 by the foundering Nikkatsu studio. . . . [Kumashiro] is a minimalist whose movies are based around a few strongly articulated ideas. The mix of formal sophistication and crudely telegraphed emotions, as well as dark humor, political backbeat, and skilled deployment of limited resources, suggests the similarly prolific Sam Fuller and R.W. Fassbinder."

What the NYFF programmers say:
"The Festival's hommage to Japan's Nikkatsu Studios is the kick-off to a whole year of events marking the studio's centenary. The series will be traveling from here to the Nantes Film Festival in France, then the Cinematheque Francaise, then to the British Film Institute, and a number of other places.  I think it’s an incredibly rich series—there are so many wonderful films for us to discover or to see again. people have asked me for a guide through the series, and one I've suggested is to try to see at least one film from each decade: something from the 30’s, something from the 50’s, from the 60’s, 70’s, and a contemporary film. This will give you a pretty good sense of the overview of the studio and how it worked. The opening weekend we have a little bit of a smorgasbord where you get to see a number of types of films. And I should mention also that one of their great action stars of the 1960s, Joe Shishido, is coming, which is going to be a real trip. He’s been in retirement for a number of years and wouldn’t come out of it, even supposedly for Quentin Tarantino. It’ll be great to have him here and as I said it’ll be a good sampling of the makor Nikkatsu film styles. Of course, Nikkatsu made quite a lot of films, and even with 38, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. From a series like this, retrospectives on directors or actors or others we hope can  eventually be assembled." —Richard Peña, Program Director

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