Credit: Kadokawa Corp
by Brad Hanford Featured Film Retrospective

Boundaries Are Permeable: Thoughts On Japan Society’s Shinji Sōmai Retrospective

May 19, 2023

A high-angle shot of a yakuza and his girlfriend continues following the woman overhead as she crosses a street to a school swimming pool. The camera then passes over the pool’s fence and lands on portly bully Deguchi, who calls out from atop a diving board, “I have an important announcement! You all suck!” The camera descends and tracks around the pool as Deguchi and his cohorts continue to taunt their classmates, until the off-screen sound of motorcycle engines pulls attention to the neighboring school courtyard, where a group of rebellious students circle an overmatched teacher on motor scooters. The bullies join in the fun, until finally three of their victims confront Deguchi with the promise of revenge. Suddenly, the yakuza seen in the earlier shot enters through the school gate and accosts Deguchi, just before a car pulls up [from behind him], and chief bully is yanked through the window with a fishing net. The rest of the kids, and the camera, chase after the car as it speeds away, at which point one kid turns to the others and asks, “Was… that a kidnapping?”

This is the opening scene of Shinji Sômai’s 1983 P.P. Rider, and it’s staged almost  entirely in one take (save for a brief insert when Deguchi is pulled into the car). It’s about the most concise introduction to Sômai’s cinema that one could ask for: the two elements with which he’s most commonly associated — a focus on children and dazzling long takes — are both there, as are mixtures of deadpan humor and an ever-present specter of violence, an alternately cruel and hapless adult presence, and even the motif of water that runs through much of his work. More than anything, this rich, single-shot encapsulation of a distinctive milieu proves that the filmmaker’s staggering formal dexterity works in perfect concert with a wide-open, minutely detailed film-world.

Massively influential in Japan, but still relatively unknown here, Sômai’s work has called out for broader appreciation for decades now, ever since his untimely death in 2001, at the age of 53. Luckily, New York’s Japan Society has taken the first step with their triumphant new series, Rites of Passage (which just ran from April 28 to May 13), the director’s first-ever North American retrospective. Focusing primarily on Sômai’s prolific 1980s run, the series reveals the filmmaker to be one of the most original and accomplished filmmakers working anywhere in the world during that time.

Sômai’s career began as an assistant director for Nikkatsu Corporation in 1972, working at first as an assistant director on the studio’s series of softcore Roman Pornos, and later under director Kazuhiko Hasegawa on his films The Youth Killer (1976) and The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979). Sômai made his debut as a director in his own right with The Terrible Couple (1980), and broke through commercially with the iconic (in Japan) yakuza satire Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981). He would go on to create a body of work that readers of Japan’s highly influential Kinema Junpo magazine named the best of the 1980s in a poll. That may seem like faint praise, given the “lost decade” tag that’s long been attached to the country’s films of the ‘80s, after the traditional studio system had largely collapsed and international interest in Japanese cinema waned. But aside from the general unfairness of that whole term — which ignores essential contributions from emerging directors like Gakuryu Ishii, Toshiharu Ikeda, Juzo Itami, and Nobuhiko Obayashi, among others — Sômai’s neglect at the hands of the international cinema establishment is also symptomatic of that establishment’s tendency not to take seriously any work which doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. And Sômai’s certainly don’t; his films are often deeply funny and highly entertaining, with hardly a ponderous note among them. But that’s never stifled the brazen, utterly singular personal expression of Sômai’s filmmaking, even despite ostensibly working  under the auspices of a commercial studio system.

With time comes clarity, and now we have the privilege of enjoying Sômai’s work on its own terms. The two earliest films in Japan Society’s series, Sailor Suit and P.P. Rider, are also among his greatest, both bravura formal achievements that highlight his daring sensibilities of genre and tone. They start from irresistible premises: in Sailor Suit, a teenage girl inherits her father’s yakuza clan, while P.P. Rider follows the classmates of the kidnapped bully, who resolve to save the bad seed… so that they can kill him themselves. The collision of children with the world of the yakuza is the perfect Sômai dichotomy: while his films proceed with all the guilelessness and possibility of youth, they do so in the shadow of a violent, unstable world, one that acts as a catalyst for the young characters’ awakening to adulthood. But where these movies become truly special is how this conflict is borne out in their formal strategies: long, roving takes simultaneously give the feeling of unconstrained, almost childlike discovery (one never knows what may lie in Sômai’s offscreen space), while grounding things in a real environment and geography, a sense of concrete physical presence underlining the director’s wildly imaginative fictions. It’s magical realism in its purest form — shots so often feel like magic tricks, precisely because they refuse to leave reality behind.

Also key to the upside-down feeling of Sômai-world is the constant flipping of power dynamics between children and adults. An early image in Sailor Suit shows an army of black-clad yakuza bowing in deference to teenage protagonist Izumi (Hiroko Yakushimaru) outside her school’s playground; as if that’s not enough, after she reluctantly goes with them, we find out that the clan she now leads is actually comprised of only four buffoonish members — the rest were hired actors. Immediately after the kidnapping in P.P. Rider, the gangsters realize they have the wrong kid, and the lone adult helping our heroes find him (Mr. Gombei, aka “Nobody”) is hardly any more competent.

None of this is to say that Sômai romanticizes his young protagonists — children are just as capable of violence and cruelty as anyone else in his films — but it’s not hard to see where the sympathies of his curious, skewed perspective lie. Sailor Suit’s Izumi variously plays the role of boss, friend, mother, and even potential romantic partner to her four lackeys, and while she emerges as the most moral and dignified character in the film, Sômai refuses to make her some sort of idealized heroine. That the film’s suggestive title and poster image is a bit misleading and taken from only a few brief seconds of time on screen — during a sequence that suggests Izumi’s total corruption by the larger forces of the world — serves as an effective summary of Sômai’s relationship to his films’ commercial demands. Fortunately, in this case, the director was able to have it both ways — Sailor Suit and Machine Gun was still a major box office success in Japan, and even spawned two TV series and a legacy sequel.

A similar dynamic resurfaces in 1985’s Typhoon Club, a classic in the Japanese youth genre that nearly shuts out the adults entirely, focusing on a group of children waiting out a typhoon overnight in their abandoned school. With parents out of the picture, the children all gang up on their cynical, put-upon teacher, onto whom they pour all their dissatisfaction with the adult world. Over and over again, Sômai’s incredibly charged images build out his world into mythic proportions, only to bring his characters back down to earth with as little as a single hard cut. At the film’s climax, one young character’s existential crisis culminates in him giving up on humanity and throwing himself out of a school window — smash cut to the exterior of the school, where his legs poke straight up through the jetsam that broke his fall. It’s the most Keatonesque image in a filmography that frequently evokes the silent comedian’s athletic yet underplayed slapstick, and a split-second crystallization of the director’s fearless mashing of tones.

Typhoon Club, while slightly more aesthetically reserved than its predecessors, similarly gives the impression of a heavily stylized world that was set in motion long before the film began — Sômai’s camera acting almost as an objective observer. Like the other 1985 Sômai film that features in Japan Society’s series — Love Hotel, a return to his Roman Porno roots — Typhoon Club shows how Sômai used his signature long takes to astonishingly varied ends. Both films feature scenes in which the director simply locks the camera down and forces us to watch protracted moments of attempted sexual assault, shots as intense and sobering as some of his others are riotously entertaining. (On the other end of the spectrum, a third [!] 1985 film from Sômai, Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion [not screening in the retrospective], opens with a highly mobile, soundstage-bound 14-minute [!!] tracking shot that traverses space and time in charting the tragic childhood of its orphan-girl protagonist.)

These scenes play into another of Sômai’s key themes: the impossible position of women in Japanese society. The confluence of subject and style evokes none less than Japan’s greatest filmmaker, Kenji Mizoguchi, whose long takes also afforded his female characters a certain grace denied to them by the surrounding world. Many of Sômai’s more adult-centric films revolve around this idea, from the study of masculine patriarchy on the high seas in The Catch (1983) to Love Hotel’s fraught, harshly transactional take on the pinku genre. Likewise, the two latest films in this series, Luminous Woman (1987) and Tokyo Heaven (1990), feature storylines centering on women — in this case, women attempting to escape predatory showbiz managers, which makes for an especially interesting subject in light of Sômai’s penchant for casting idol singers in leading roles.

Luminous Woman leans into the more Felliniesque elements of Sômai’s mise-en-scene, specifically recalling La Strada in its tale of a hulking wrestler and a mistreated young singer navigating a surreal underworld. Tokyo Heaven, by contrast, has perhaps the most confectionary pop sensibility of any of Sômai’s films (despite being, along with Typhoon Club, one of his two entirely independently-financed works). It remains one of his most undervalued gems. The plot — an aspiring “campaign idol” is hit by a car and killed while running from her lecherous manager, only to return to Earth and take up residence with said manager’s underling, who had been tasked with covering up her death — would feel at home in a supernatural studio romance of the ‘40s (Portrait of Jennie, A Matter of Life and Death, etc). And while the narrative progresses more or less along the expected lines, the movie is so packed with inventive staging, oddball details, and unforgettable images that any trace of roteness falls away, genre framework serving as a foundation for, rather than a restriction on, the filmmaker’s imagination.

Recommending Sômai’s films in part due to their long takes is an interesting proposition, as the idea of the long take itself has become something of a point of controversy in cinephilic discourse over the past decade. Countless recent acclaimed films and filmmakers have adopted the method as little more than proof of their own capability in marshaling talent and resources, monuments to technical ambition that fulfill only the most superficial understanding of what constitutes Great Directing. While Sômai’s camera movements can often match any of these for pure balleticism — it’s not hard to imagine why, as his mentor Kazuhiko Hasegawa claimed, his films frequently went well over budget — what stands out most is how fundamentally generous they are toward his performers. The intensely physical performances that Sômai gets from his actors work in perfect concert with how the director goes about capturing them; they’re constantly running, crawling, climbing, fighting, barreling their way through his turbulent worlds, and the camera makes space for them at every turn. When Luminous Woman’s wrestler wants to take in Tokyo for the first time, at the start of the film, he simply climbs out the window and onto the roof of the car he’s in, as it’s driving. In Tokyo Heaven, a man lives above his girlfriend (who he summons upstairs by blowing his trumpet), and the camera intricately tracks the movements up, down, and around the building. To Sômai, the physical limitations of the world always seem conquerable for his characters, and that starts with how his camera approaches those same obstacles.

Although sadly absent from Japan Society’s series, Sômai’s greatest film may be 1993’s Moving; it was the director’s only film to play at Cannes (Out of Competition), and thus probably the closest he came to an international breakthrough. A relatively simple tale of a preteen girl dealing with the implications of her parents’ divorce, it concentrates Sômai’s instinctive empathy into its most emotionally precise and devastating form, while retaining an effortless formal fluidity. Like many of Sômai’s movies, watching it is partially an experience of wondering how such an obviously great film with such wide appeal could still fly so far under the radar — and, wouldn’t you know it, the restorations of Typhoon Club and P.P. Rider from this series have already been picked up for wider repertory releases in the near future. 

Moving ends with another mobile long take of unbridled joy, after Renko has emerged on the other side of the movie’s painful coming-of-age process. And here we are given another single-shot Sômai microcosm — one which articulates that though the world may be a difficult and unforgiving place, its boundaries are permeable, set by those without the capacity to imagine anything different. Transcendence can just be a matter of breaking those boundaries, and Sômai’s cinema did so with a regularity and purpose that few other filmmakers can have matched.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 20.