While the 1960s saw a rise in Japanese noir, many of these films—like the popular Nikkatsu noir and Yakuza films—centered on the criminal underworld as it adapted to modern times. Masumura, however, used the genre to expose the criminality embedded in what was considered just regular business tactics and found ways to bring these noir sentiments to other genres.
Although it doesn’t end nearly as bleakly, the Frank Tashlin-eque comedy “Giants and Toys” is a candy-colored critique of this same loyalty to corporations. In a clever nod to the absurdity of the space race, the film traces two caramel corporations attempting to corner the market through any means necessary. Caught in the middle is the working class Kyōko (an irrepressible Hitomi Nozoe), who becomes an instant celebrity after becoming a poster girl. As brightly colored as pop art and with sparkling dialogue as fizzy as Coca-Cola, Masumura’s film is chock full of laughs and eye candy while deftly critiquing capitalism’s craven desire to sell us things we do not need and the intense planning that goes into the manufacturing a celebrity.
Like his one-time mentor Kenji Mizoguchi, Masumura’s films often centered on women, exploring how the patriarchy of Japanese society put undue pressure on them to act as moral compasses and to put the needs of men, family, and the nation above their own. Masumura’s women, whether in his period or contemporary set films, rankle against this oppression, always pushing towards a sense of autonomy, although they don’t always achieve this end.
This is seen even in his first feature, “Kisses,” also starring Hitomi Nozoe. A twist on the popular Sun Tribe genre of youth films, Nozoe plays Akiko, a girl torn between paying her father’s bail and her mother’s medical bills while also finding herself swept up in youthful dalliances like going to the beach and dancing to pop songs with Kinichi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), whose father is also in jail. Through the plight of these two characters, Masumura explores the tension between their youthful desire to embrace newfound freedom and the family loyalty that ties them to the mistakes of a previous generation. Though largely an optimistic film, there are kernels of Masumura’s trademark criticism of the imbalanced pressure placed on women in society.
This theme is picked up in the Sirkian melodrama “A Cheerful Girl/Blue Sky Maiden,” in which Wakao is a ray of sunshine as Yûko, a girl raised in the country “for her health,” only to discover upon her high school graduation that she was the result of an affair between her office president father and one of his employees. As she makes her way from the bucolic paradise of her seaside schooling, Masumura signifies the drastic differences in the city by having her first encounter with a queer-coded character and a ranting doomsday conspiracy at the train station. But rather than find safety and security once at her father’s home, she finds herself in the middle of the tension between modernity and tradition. While her father’s family loves things like Western fashions, orange soda, jazz, and ping pong, they cannot accept her as a sister because she is the product of an affair. Although she takes everything in stride, her sunny disposition only serves to aid Masumura’s deft critique of the crumbling facade of the nuclear family, which has been beyond repair long before her arrival.