During the early part of this year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York screened films from the Art Theatre Guild of Japan, the independent film production and exhibition house that existed from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s (although they did continue to produce and distribute a few films until the early 90s). Nearly all of the masters of the Japanese New Wave either began their career at the ATG or found sanctuary there from the overbearing demands of the studio system. That system, which allowed very little room for auteurist expression, preferred cookie-cutter crafted genre films made by directors-for-hire. Like any assembly line, any deviation from the norm was frowned upon. Naturally, once the ATG had established itself as a powerful cinematic commodity, it proved that audiences could handle different modes of storytelling. Although it may sound innocuous by today’s standards, ATG films were the very antithesis of studio fare, releasing the unclassifiable, non-linear narratives, casting amateur actors, and focusing on taboo subject matters that the studios wouldn’t touch with a 10ft pole. With approximately 71 titles filling the bill, the event at MoMA was most significant since it is the most comprehensive retrospective of the ATG’s work that Western audiences have ever had the chance to see. Not only could we see the classics from such pioneers as Hiroshi Teshigahara, Kaneto Shindo, Nagisa Oshima, and Koji Wakamatsu, but it also marked the first time many of these films have ever been screened for a Western audience. Fans of Japanese films will have their fill of previously unseen gems, but fans of film itself will enjoy the chance to see a group of filmmakers whose work explodes with enthusiasm and inventiveness.
One of the directors included in the retrospective is Kazuo Kuroki, who has sadly remained unnoticed for far too long. In a time when social media allow us to be constantly inundated with discoveries of unsung heroes and their unappreciated films, please allow me to harangue you with praise for one such director who belongs among the pantheon of Japanese masters. Kuroki started his career as a documentary filmmaker, making oddly contemplative industrial films for Toshiba and Fuji film. It wasn't until he began making feature films that Kuroki found solace with the ATG, after Toho Studios had shelved his film Silence Has No Wings, which follows the life of a butterfly from one end of the country to the other. As the butterfly travels to each prefecture, the film takes on different genres with different characters (or in the case of its star Mariko Kaga, the same actor in different roles). The studio heads, who were most likely just looking for a vehicle for Mariko Kaga, were so confused by the film that they refused to release it. Once the ATG had saved the film from the reluctant studio, Kuroki was able to work independently with the ATG and make his most important work, The Assassination of Ryoma. Filmed on 16mm with a minuscule budget, the film takes place in the last three days of the life of Ryoma Sakamoto, who may just be the most important figure in Japanese history, if only because his life has been retold countless times on stage and screen. But Kuroki's film portrays Ryoma in a very different light, one with which many people at the time immediately took umbrage. The equivalent American version might be Ryoma Sakamoto: Badass Mutha or Ryoma: Whoring Bastard.
It would be impossible to describe the importance of Kazuo Kuroki's The Assassination of Ryoma without first providing the obligatory history lesson. Ryoma Sakamoto is still the most legendary figure in Japanese history, but much like his western counterparts, Ryoma's character has evolved to suit contemporary issues. Perhaps it would be more relevant to understand how the image of Ryoma Sakamoto has changed over the past century, and why Kazuo Kuroki's interpretation of Ryoma's final days are as refreshing now as it was when the film was made. Ryoma Sakamoto is the underdog of Japanese history. Like a modernized version of the legendary samurai Musashi Miyamoto, whose idealism remained steadfast in the face of rapidly deteriorating social change, Ryoma embodies the strength and contrast of both sides; the noble existence of the last generation of samurai dedicated to the Emperor, and the revolutionary spirit of national democracy. Ryoma’s life took place at a crucial point in Japanese history when their isolated traditions were finally forced to recognize the existence of the outside world. The influence of Western idealism was immediate and overwhelming, and Ryoma was the central figure to acknowledge the importance of social change and adherence to tradition. Ryoma started out as a lower ranking samurai and although he may have had some renown as a swordsman, he was certainly no one special. He led a group of young radical samurai in Tosa, who advocated expelling all foreign occupation and abolishing the Shogunate to restore Imperial rule. After breaking ties with the group and leaving Tosa, Ryoma quickly rose from the ranks of "nobody" to the single man responsible for bringing down the Shogunate by facilitating peace talks between warring domains. He learned from both sides about the art of war, realizing that in order to overthrow the shogunate and expel the foreign barbarians, Japan would first need to utilize Western technology and political ideology. Ryoma was able to bring opposing clans together to fight for a greater good, and in doing so was able to bring Japan to the 20th Century.
Put more simply, in a time when samurai desperately clung to their swords, Ryoma was the badass with a revolver. What makes Kuroki's film even more engaging is Yoshio Harada's titular performance, which is unique to say the least. His guttural delivery and (then) contemporary cadence turns what should be a historic drama into a modern yakuza action film. The collaboration plays beautifully onscreen, commanding our attention like any contemporary action star heavyweight, riveting any viewer from start to finish. Although Kazuo Kuroki may not be that well known, I'm thankful that the folks at MoMA were able to finally bring The Assassination of Ryoma to the US. Let's hope that the attention this film has recently received will encourage Criterion to release more ATG films. And while we wait for that to happen, perhaps Criterion can fill the void with Kazuo Kuroki, and allow Western audiences to find a new Japanese director to fall in love with.