From the late ’50s and into the 1970s the Japanese New Wave exhibited an incredible creative outburst that defined and shaped what we consider contemporary Japanese cinema. But most studious critics have labeled what came after, the 1980s, as the “lost decade” of Japanese filmmaking, where no major directors or movements came to the forefront in either the home country or worldwide. Nevertheless, there’s been a recent surge of reconsideration of that period, mainly through retrospectives and restorations, like the one put together by Japan Society on Shinji Somai, one of the most important, eclectic directors who got his start in that epoch.
“Rites of Passage: The Films of Shinji Somai” features seven of the director’s early features, made between 1981 and 1990, which cemented his style. As the name of the retrospective and its accompanying description by its programmers hint, Somai cut his teeth into the seishun eiga (youth film) genre, which involves the “passage” between youth and adulthood as its main narrative point. His big splash into the industry with a film of that ilk was Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981), which will play in both its theatrical and extended cut.
As its title might suggest, the film revolves around a high school girl (who usually wear sailor suits as uniforms) who becomes the new boss of a small yakuza gang after the death of her father. Izumi (Hiroko Yakushimaru, a teen idol of the time) was oblivious to her dad’s involvement in a turf war that involved drug-trafficking, murder, and guns.
Sailor Suit and Machine Gun progresses through the constant trials Izumi must endure to demonstrate that she’s able to become a competent crime boss, mainly through the help of her subordinates that try their best to put her up as a menacing figure, producing the most iconic image of the film: a schoolgirl firing a machine gun in slow motion.
While obviously closer to the crime genre, the tribulations and problems of Izumi are still the same as the ones of any other teenage girl, regarding her self-image and learning self-respect, and how to react to her own sexual awakening. Sailor Suit is filled with touching scenes, and maybe one of the most heartbreaking is when she decides to have a funeral for one of her yakuza brethren by lighting a bunch of fireworks on a long sequence that lets us sit with that noise.
Fireworks also make an appearance in a memorable scene from P.P. Rider (1983), another coming-of-age film about a group of children who get entangled with criminals. On their journey to rescue their school bully from kidnappers, Jojo (Masatoshi Nagase), Jisho (Shinobu Sakagami), and Bruce (Michiko Kawai) find themselves breaking into an apartment at night, gathering clues on the whereabouts of “Fatty” (which is how they call their bully with which they want to “settle things” before he gets killed by the kidnappers).
As they sneak in, fireworks start outside and a passed-out man wakes up and confronts them. What follows is an intense fight between three kids and an adult with a katana, as fireworks can be seen through the window (a clear use of blue screen––at one point the footage of fireworks pans between two explosions, as if the building were moving to catch the spectacle) while they start to blend into the image, forming an almost experimental demonstration of Somai’s dexterity with the image.
P.P. Rider is Somai’s first full exploration of the power of the long take: it’s mostly driven by the technique, from the opening scene that starts on an alleyway, moves into a school pool, then to the school’s backyard, the exit, and finally the street––six minutes after it started––showing us both how “Fatty” bullies Jojo, Jisho and Bruce, and then how he gets kidnapped. From chase sequences to fights with the police and the yakuza, it’s exhilarating and entertaining all the way through, while also fulfilling its “seishun” ethos of providing pathos and growth to its youthful characters.
A masterpiece of the genre that has been most commonly associated with Somai is Typhoon Club (1985), showcasing a week in the life of a class of students as they approach their first year of high school. Considered to be one of the best Japanese films of all-time, it radiates from a typhoon that traps them inside their school. Yuji Kato’s script encompasses most of the tribulations of the kids at that age, from their frustrations, depression, sexual explorations, and overall joie de vivre.
It’s in this film more than any other that one can see the influence Somai had on both his contemporaries as well as in filmmakers that came after, both aesthetically and thematically, like Nobuhiro Yamashita (Linda Linda Linda) and Sion Sono (Love Exposure).
It’s marvelous how Somai manages to shift what is inclement weather, like a typhoon, into a symbol of unity and camaraderie, as the film’s most heartwarming scene features a group of kids in their underwear dancing and singing under a ravaging storm. In a way, Somai has always managed to associate thunderstorms, rains, and water as a symbol for transition, but also for unity and to get people closer: P. P. Rider starts off at a pool where all the kids swim together, while in Sailor Suit and Machine Gun it is under the rain that the protagonist bonds with one of her subordinates, or in Love Hotel (1985) where the climatic love scene happens as we hear thunderstorm outside.
The symbolism of both fire(works) and water cohere perfectly in what could be Somai’s more “serious” work, The Catch (1983), a film about tuna fishing and how it ruins the lives of its workers. A young man tries convincing her girlfriend’s father (a wonderful performance by the great Ken Ogata) that he’s a good fit for her by abandoning everything and becoming a tuna fisherman like him. It, of course, does not end well.
The Catch is a true Japanese tearjerker as only they can make it, filled with tragedy, grief, and sadness all the way through. The sea becomes a scenario in which Somai manages to capture some incredible long takes of tuna fishing while also developing the relation between the father and his son-in-law-to-be. Fireworks also make a wonderful appearance both as a symbol of passion and as a weapon, which is better seen than described in detail.
Somai’s Tokyo Heaven (1990), Love Hotel (1985), and Luminous Woman (1987) demonstrate the breath of Somai’s prowess in different genres (fantasy romantic comedy, roman porno, and weird drama, respectively), but also form a corpus that continues the work with the symbols and the impressive long takes he was known for since the start (even if his protagonists aren’t as young). Throughout his films, the youth discuss serious philosophical questions and live through intense hardships while the adults berate and behave like children without being able to solve anything in their lives.
Rites of Passage: The Films of Shinji Somai takes place April 28-May 13 at NYC’s Japan Society. Typhoon Club and P.P. Rider have also been acquired by Cinema Guild for a theatrical release later this year.