The Cruel Beauty of Masumura Yasuzo

It’s almost impossible to have a true understanding of the development of contemporary Japanese cinema without having seen at least some of Masumura Yasuzo’s hugely influential and dazzling body of 58 films. Not only did he trigger the 1960s Japanese New Wave, directly inspiring Oshima and Imamura, but it’s hard to imagine the prominence of contemporary bad boys of Japanese cinema such as Miike Audition Takeshi or Tsukamoto Tetsuo Shinya without Masumura’s fearless lead.

Almost half a century later, Masumura’s potent films have lost none of their ability to shock and inspire intellectually and emotionally. Behind the visceral power, and jaw-dropping visual inventiveness of his work lies a rare gift for getting to the heart of humanity. In Masumura’s world the socially successful are often morally adrift, capable of great cruelty and selfishness. His sympathies lie with the outcast. His protagonists frequently display a passion for truth and a courageous capacity for tenderness. Devoid of sentimentality, these films present a furious indictment of social injustice while celebrating the role of the individual and what it means to be human.

After studying in Italy under Antonioni, Fellini and Visconti at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Masumura returned to Japan in 1953. His unique vision was apparent from his first feature Kisses (1957). Over three decades he refined his trademark radical fusion of European visual style and the social commentary of 1950s New American Cinema. Masumura’s deliriously breathtaking cannon ranges across eroticism, satire, war, crime, capitalism and gender politics. He never loses sight of the complex, flawed yet inspiring human beings at the heart of all his films. His striking, often ‘scope, modernist visual style with its emotionally expressive use of architecture and lighting create an intense immediacy adding further depth and meaning to his highly entertaining body of work. His unique mixture of Eastern and Western sensibilities created a truly universal cinema unlike anything before it.

US critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted how Masumura, working in parallel, unconsciously addressed similar social concerns as a number of key American directors including Douglas Sirk, Nic Ray and Sam Fuller. Yet informed by living through the horror of WWII and Japan’s resulting meltdown of pre-war social values Masumura made sure that Japanese cinema would never be the same again. His unique mixture of Eastern and Western sensibilities created a truly universal cinema unlike anything before it.

Never distributed in the UK, Masumura’s work encompasses some of the most formally playful, thematically wide-ranging and inventive cinema from anywhere in the world. It’s a vital body of work which no self-confessed lover of cinema can afford to miss.

A national touring programme curated by the Independent Cinema Office with the support of the Japan Foundation. With thanks to James Quandt at the Ontario Cinematheque and Kadokawa Pictures.

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