Jason Julier takes inspiration from the upcoming Edinburgh International Film Festival for the latest instalment of Eastern Premise.
Somai sadly passed away in 2001 before his work was known internationally, although he did receive a great deal of acclaim in Japan and remains highly regarded, the West is only now catching up. Like so many of his Japanese directorial forefathers he started out as an assistant director, learning his trade. Hilariously, rather than being by the side of a notable director as was common in the golden age of Japanese cinema, Somai picked up these skills whilst working on Nikkatsu Roman Pornos. More commonly known as Pink films, these are entries in an easily overlooked genre. Breaking free from Nikkatsu, Somai worked with names such as Terayama Shuji and Kazuhiko Hasegawa, the latter who also graduated from the Roman porno environment, before making his with The Terrible Couple (Tonda Kappuru), in 1980.
The benefit of working in such a ‘liberated’ genre was that studio interference was diminished and a director had greater control and freedom. Screenplays were basic and budgets extremely tight but many directors displayed great skill in negotiating such dangers. The Pink genre deserves more focus than the single entry so far in Eastern Premise. Somai returned to the genre in 1985 with Love Hotel (Rabu Hoteru); a wonderful film that encapsulates what is possible with talent. Shot in a matter of days, we’ll save it for another time.
This week the focus is on Typhoon Club (Taifu Kurabu), released in the same year as Love Hotel and widely regarded as one of Somai’s masterpieces – yes, there are several. Set in a Tokyo suburb the main emphasis of the film centres on a small band of high school students who are reaching adulthood. Like any teenager, their minds and hormones are a confused and puzzling mixture of emotions and actions. Their physical bodies are in a state of flux but so are their relationships with one another and the outside world.
The school is the focal point for the group who still like to play and fool around. We’re first introduced to this vibrant bunch as they sign and dance to pop music whilst parading in their swimming costumes. There is an innocence and free spirit to this opening piece; a clear polar opposite to the overnight song and dance routine towards the end of the film. In many ways this is a coming of age tale, but Somai isn’t content to merely confront issues of sexuality in Typhoon Club. Violence, rape and friendships also come under scrutiny, as does the suggestion that children are growing up too quickly nowadays. A memorable scene comes when the male trio discuss what someone has seen and struggle to put it into context; all whilst puffing furiously on cigarettes, trying to pretend to be adults and failing. What few adults do populate the film, seem only exist to return home, drink alcohol and liberate themselves from the daily chores of adult life. As one teacher suggests to a pupil, ‘in 15 years you’ll be just like me!’ which isn’t meant as a compliment.
The backdrop to this whirlpool of emotions is the approaching typhoon. In many ways a perfect foil for this teenage angst, Somai hints at its arrival long before it debuts midway through the film. Vegetation on the fringes of the camera is wildly agitated and we get a sense of the brewing storm and its fury, not only within the school but also outside. For some reason this explosion of human emotions and nature brings back memories of Shôhei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods (Kamigami no fukaki yokubô). When the typhoon reaches the suburb and forces everyone to seek shelter, it unleashes more than just wind and rain.
Somai is noted for his work with actors and actresses to deliver convincing and captivating performances. In Typhoon Club, the cast is almost all juveniles with the exception being a schoolteacher and his small circle of friends. The performances are touching and utterly convincing, as is the pacing of the film.
Technically Somai has a very fluid style and likes to keep the viewer guessing. The placement and staging of scenes is quite brilliant with the director favouring at times a very low static camera which brings back memories of Ozu. Then there are moments where we are cast as outsiders, looking into a room as the drama unfolds. Again the interaction and orchestration of the cast is quite remarkable. Somai also favoured long takes and a slowly creeping camera; the highlight of this style is the school hall sequence as we crawl towards the group of teenagers; an impressive piece and one that maintains a haunting quality. The use of pivots during scenes comes as a surprise, clearly Somai utilised a variety of methods and his films remain enduring and captivating.
Sadly the only official release of Typhoon Club Eastern is the domestic Japanese DVD that does not feature any subtitles. The film will be screened at the EIFF on Saturday 23rd June and hopefully this retrospective and growing appreciation of Shinji Somai might prompt an independent DVD label to finally release some of his work outside of Japan.