December 11, 2014

The Sun's Burial (1960)

In the post-war slums of Osaka, a disparate community of youthful gang members and hoodlums try to scratch out a living. Takeshi (Isao Sasaki) has just joined a gang, but immediately wants out. Gang leader Shin (Masahiko Tsugawa) refuses to let him escape. Meanwhile the calculating Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) will stop at nothing to get on top: swapping sides, seducing fools, and enlisting gullible patsies in her money-making schemes.

The Sun's Burial isn't merely bleak: it's a work of full-blown nihilism, so wilfully dark that the film's climax literally burns buildings to the ground. It's a 1960 drama from writer/director Nagisa Oshima, the leading light of the Japanese New Wave. Lots of directors in the 1960s were making noir-infused crime movies; I think the difference with Oshima is that here he actually makes his film about something. Here he presents two distinctive categories of people: listless youths without dreams for their future, and broken middle-aged homeless men who remember when Japan was a proud and militaristic empire. The latter have nothing left; the former never had anything at all.

Kayoko Honoo is jaw-droppingly good as Hanako, dressed in stylish floral dresses and sharp eye make-up that really separate her from the dirty, open-necked shirts of her male co-stars. She runs an illegal blood bank by day and is a sex worker by night, and there's no opportunity for advancement that she doesn't take. She needs a strong personality to stand up to a successive range of gang leaders, and correspondingly Honoo needs a strong screen presence to make her character work. She succeeds admirably, and stands heads-and-shoulders above the rest of the cast. She's not really the star of the film - the closest thing it has to a protagonist is Takeshi - but she's definitely its most memorable character.

Isao Sasaki does make for a sympathetic lead as Takeshi, however it's a sympathy that only extends so far. It's not long before he's a participant in muggings, a rape and a murder, and while his discomfort with his life is clear it's also a life that he chose for himself. Oshima refuses to give us easy answers with this film's characters. No one is a hero, and ultimately no one wins. His film provides a provocative look at an aspect of Japan that viewers of the time probably didn't want to see: the poor and homeless, scraping by in poorly constructed shanty towns, giving their blood for use by the rich in Japan's burgeoning cosmetics industry. They all resort to one sort of crime or another, but what else are they expected to do?

Eitara Ozawa makes a distinctive impression as "the agitator", an unnamed middle-aged man who moves in on Hanako's territory and draws a strong following with his imperialistic dogma and warnings of an impending war with Russia. He's a slightly over-the-top character, rendering his cries of Japan's lost empire as vaguely ridiculous and farcical.

It's a low budget production, however Oshima makes brilliant use of colour and location shooting. Scenes of Osaka's real-life homeless seem to have been interspersed with those of his actors, giving the whole film a realistic edge. The film's score (by Riichiro Manabe) makes prominent use of acoustic guitar, making the whole thing sound like an Italian western rather than a contemporary Japanese drama. It's a contrast that works enormously to the film's benefit.

The Sun's Burial isn't a happy film - there aren't even really any moments of levity to pull the audience out of its all-encompassing oppressive tone. It's a finely made one, however, and well worth sinking into to see just how bad life in the slums can be.

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