Waking the Dread

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. An experienced assistant director, Kumashiro brought a mixture of emotional intensity and aesthetic detachment to this material. His 1972 Following Desire (showing January 26), a convincingly tawdry tale of backstage rivalry, establishes its self-reflexive strategy by using a rotating bed in a mirrored hotel room for its first love scene. The real-life stripper Sayuri Ichijo plays herself and won the Kinema Jumpo award for best actress.

Kumashiro has a fondness for long takes, contrapuntal sound, and iconic freeze-frames—most spectacularly in the joke that ends Following Desire. He's 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. Kumashiro was most active in the early '70s, when he adapted all manner of literary works (including Sade's Justine and the source for Kon Ichikawa's Odd Obsession) to roman poruno. The 1973 World of Geisha, showing March 23, evidently impressed François Truffaut with its humanism. Based on an anonymous story about a geisha's first night with a new client, the movie is boldly structural in its use of punctuating intertitles and references to political events outside the hermetic world of the geisha's room.

Bitterness of Youth (1974), which opens the retro Friday, was Kumashiro's first non-roman poruno, based on a novel with a family resemblance to Dreiser's An American Tragedy and set in a milieu of imploded student radicalism: A callow law student impregnates the classmate he is tutoring, then dumps her for his wealthy cousin. The most extraordinary scene has the antihero and his ex revisit the ski resort where they began their affair—carrying on in the snow in a long, behavioral sequence that recapitulates their relationship as they roll struggling and screaming downhill toward a raging river.

Panic attack: Macy, caught in a generational pincer.
photo: Roxie Releasing
Panic attack: Macy, caught in a generational pincer.

Details

Panic
Written and directed by Henry Bromell
A Roxie release
Angelika
Opens January 19

The Gift
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson
A Paramount Classics release
Opens January 19

A Tatsumi Kumashiro Retrospective
Japan Society
January 19 through March 28

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In Kumashiro, less is more. The Woman With Red Hair (1979), showing March 21, is an investigation of the human sexual response that begins with two construction workers raping their boss's daughter. One continues that involvement, the other shacks up with the eponymous drifter for an obsessive, bordering on hysterical, erotic relationship. Three-quarters of the movie takes place in bed—the claustrophobia heightened by constant rain and the chorus of moaning junkies downstairs. You know you're in Kumashiro-land when the besotted hero sings a song to his penis and the spectacle of explicit sex is less prurient than agonized.

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