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Life Is Short: Nikkatsu Studios at 100

September 1, 2012 - October 27, 2012

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Founded in 1912, the venerated Nikkatsu Studios is the oldest film company in Japan, tied with Hollywood’s Universal Studios as the oldest film studio in the world. Through its one hundred years of existence, filmmaking legends such as Daisuke Ito, Sadao Yamanaka, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masahiro Makino, Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura, and Seijun Suzuki have passed through its doors, while its productions have included everything from Japan’s first sound film (Mizoguchi’s Hometown), to one of its biggest international art-house hits (Ichikawa’s Harp of Burma), down to—in the 1970s—Naked Rashomon.

Formed in 1912 as an amalgamation of several small companies, Nikkatsu became Japan’s most prestigious studio of the 1910s and 1920s, home to the historical epics of Ito and the socially committed leftist works of Yamanaka. After a short hiatus during the war years, Nikkatsu returned in 1954 with a new populist bent and a new slogan: “We make fun films.” “Life is short; I want mine to be exciting!” cried a character in 1958’s Rusty Knife; it’s a line that embodied the entire Nikkatsu attitude, one that stretched across a star factory that churned out new faces (which were even grouped together with nicknames such as “The Diamond Line” and “The Bad Boy Trio”) and over one hundred films a year. Indeed, in the 1960s Nikkatsu was “the coolest spot in the history of Japanese filmmaking, and just maybe the coolest film production house of all time” (Chuck Stephens, Criterion).

This series covers nearly every Nikkatsu decade: a 1921 samurai work; a 1939 musical; fifties melodramas and controversial, youth-focused “sun-tribe” films; and sixties action films. We conclude with three films from arguably Nikkatsu’s best-known auteur, Seijun Suzuki, two of which are pulled from our own archives.

Jason Sanders, Film Notes Writer

Saturday, September 1, 2012
6:30 p.m. Suzaki Paradise: Red Light District
Yuzo Kawashima (Japan, 1956). A down-on-their-luck young couple settle on the edge of the red-light district in this major rediscovery of the Nikkatsu series, a “radiant masterwork of Japanese cinematic melodramas” (Tokyo Filmex) compared to Naruse and Mizoguchi. (81 mins)

Saturday, September 1, 2012
8:15 p.m. A Colt Is My Passport
Takashi Nomura (Japan, 1967) New 35mm print! One man, one plan, and a thousand bullets: a swaggering Jo Shishido takes on the mob with effortless cool in this tough-as-nails noir, fueled by American crime thrillers, French existentialism, and Italian spaghetti westerns. “An existentially poetic actioner worthy of Howard Hawks or Sergio Leone” (Sydney Film Festival). (84 mins)

Friday, September 7, 2012
7:00 p.m. Capricious Young Man
Mansaku Itami (Japan, 1936). A not-so-heroic samurai, more everyman than Superman, is tasked with defeating a clueless lord’s scheming retainers in this jovial, warmly humanist work from Itami, a key figure in prewar Japanese cinema (and the father of Juzo Itami). (77 mins)

Friday, September 7, 2012
8:40 p.m. The Warped Ones
Koreyoshi Kurahara (Japan, 1960). A juvenile delinquent with a taste for bebop aims to destroy everything in his path—cops, foreigners, girls, even finger-snapping beatniks—in this “unrestrained banshee wail of libidinal frenzy and lunatic vengeance” (Chuck Stephens, Criterion). As berserk a film as any ever sponsored by a commercial studio. (76 mins)

Saturday, September 8, 2012
6:30 p.m. Season of the Sun
Takumi Furukawa (Japan, 1956) New 35mm Print! Two bored, aimless teens find “love” (or at least sex) amidst the night clubs and yacht-filled beaches of an emotionless Japan unlike any their parents had seen. The film that launched the infamous youth-focused “sun tribe” genre, and defined a new generation. (89 mins)

Saturday, September 15, 2012
6:30 p.m. Hometown
Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan, 1930). Hometown is not only the great Kenji Mizoguchi’s first sound film, it’s also one of the first sound films ever made in Japan, produced by Nikkatsu as a test in 1929. The popular classical-music tenor Yoshie Fujiwara plays a singer who returns from a trip abroad. (86 mins)

Saturday, September 22, 2012
6:30 p.m. Singing Lovebirds
Masahiro Makino (Japan, 1939). One of the real discoveries of the Nikkatsu retrospective, this jazz-influenced, light-hearted romantic musical offers up many pleasures, including longtime Kurosawa veteran Takashi Shimura crooning out several numbers. Sweet and pretty Oharu helps her father make umbrellas, but her heart truly swoons for a kindly ronin. (69 mins)

Saturday, September 22, 2012
8:00 p.m. Rusty Knife
Toshio Masuda (Japan, 1958). New 35mm Print! Nikkatsu’s two biggest stars, Yujiro Ishihara and Akira Kobayashi, teamed up for the first time in this noir about two former hoods trying to go straight. Director Masuda strips the narrative—and the sets—down to bare necessities, and turns Rusty Knife into a lean, hardboiled vision of postwar Japan. (90 mins)

Sunday, September 23, 2012
5:00 p.m. Made to Order Cloth
Daisuke Ito (Japan, 1931). Judith Rosenberg on piano. A great chance to see the birth of Japanese cinema, and the samurai genre: infamous ninja Jirokichi the Rat robs from the rich and helps out the misfortunate in Ito’s groundbreaking early film, perhaps the finest silent Japanese period film to have survived in approximately original form. With Shozo Makino’s Jiraiya the Ninja. (100 mins)

Sunday, September 23, 2012
5:00 p.m. Made to Order Cloth


Sunday, September 30, 2012
5:00 p.m. Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate
Yuzo Kawashima (Japan, 1957). Named the fifth best Japanese film of all time in a 2009 Kinema Jumpo poll, Kawashima’s Edo-set comedy follows a fast-talking deadbeat (Frankie Sakai) as he works his way into—but not out of—an intrigue-filled brothel. Cowritten by Shohei Imamura, Kawashima’s longtime assistant director. (110 mins)

Sunday, October 14, 2012
4:00 p.m. Harp of Burma
Kon Ichikawa (Japan, 1956). A lyrical, haunting requiem for the victims of war, set amid the giant Buddhas of Burma. Winner of the top prize at the Venice film festival and one of Ichikawa’s most famous films. (116 mins)

Friday, October 19, 2012
8:40 p.m. Gate of Flesh
Seijun Suzuki (Japan, 1964) New 35mm Print! A gang of prostitutes and a perpetually shirtless thug (Jo Shishido) survive in the sewers of Occupied Japan in this color-filled, cheerfully nihilistic thumb-in-the-eye to both good taste and motion picture censors. “A classic of the Nikkatsu subgenre known as roman porno” (James Quandt, Cinematheque Ontario). (90 mins)

Thursday, October 25, 2012
7:00 p.m. The Young Rebel
Seijun Suzuki (Japan, 1963). A young tough with a florid heart and swinging fists enters adulthood—and encounters both love and fascism—in Suzuki’s wild film, a Taisho-set equivalent to Rebel Without a Cause. (95 mins)

Saturday, October 27, 2012
8:10 p.m. Elegy to Violence
Seijun Suzuki (Japan, 1966). A high-school student and militant ideologue is torn between violence and his love for a Catholic girl in Suzuki’s scathing portrait of militarism, filmed with typical high style and humor. (86 mins)

Series curated by Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby and PFA Collections Curator Mona Nagai. Thanks to the following individuals and institutions for their assistance with this retrospective: Yuri Kubota, who is responsible for coordinating the international touring series celebrating the Nikkatsu centenary; Kamogawa Sachio, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Hisashi Okajima and Akira Tochigi, National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Sarah Finklea and Brian Belovarac, Janus Films; Rachel Rosen and Suzanne McCloskey, San Francisco Film Society; Film Society of Lincoln Center; and the Japan Society of Northern California.