We tried to reach Judge Joel Pearce for comment on this DVD, but he's being held at knifepoint in his kitchen by a belligerent pineapple, sinister banana, and a gang of bleary-eyed, trembling kiwis.
"Fancy words and old ways don't cut it now. We need something with a fresh nip to it." -Natsuhisa
Crazed Fruit is the most famous of the Sun Tribe films, which focused on the lurid lives of rich teens living on the coast of '50s Japan. When it was first released, it caused an outrage in Japan because of its depiction of the depraved lifestyles of the post-war aristocratic youth. Although it seems a lot tamer now, the film marks a major turning point in Japanese film history, even though it has become all but forgotten.
Facts of the Case
When we first meet them, teenage brothers Natsuhisa (Yujiro Ishihara, Season of the Sun) and Haruji (Masahiko Tsugawa, The Sun's Burial) don't have much to worry about. They spend their time boating, and neither has any real responsibilities. While Natsuhisa and his friends love to get involved with local girls, Haruji would just prefer to boat and water ski—at least until he runs into a beautiful girl named Eri (Mie Kitahara). Haruji and Eri begin a relationship, but Natsuhisa soon learns that Eri is not who she seems. The two brothers then fight for her affections, finally having found something that they feel strongly about.
In several ways, Crazed Fruit is a film at a crossroads, just as the Japanese film industry and society was about to change dramatically. The Sun Tribe films, for all the controversy upon their release, quickly slipped into obscurity afterwards. Unlike with most Criterion releases, there is a good chance that you are reading this because you've never heard of Ko Nakahira or Crazed Fruit, and the reference to the Sun Tribe might be a completely new one as well. Before it was forgotten, however, this film and others like it marked a new direction in Japanese filmmaking. For a film shot in the '50s, it looks surprisingly fresh. The camera cuts quickly, and scene transitions are sudden and jarring. Instead of a clear narrative, this story is told through a number of scenes that explore the lives of the two brothers. The performances are surprisingly naturalistic as well, with few of the stagy noh-inspired actions that dominate classic Japanese film. While these elements don't seem so strange now, they created a style that surprised and captured the imagination of young filmmakers in Japan at the time.
It isn't just the technical design that places Crazed Fruit at the edge of something new. In the current state of the world, it's hard to imagine a society without a strong youth culture. We forget that the phenomenon only started to spring up after the first world war, and spun out of control after World War II. During 1950s Japan, this youth culture hadn't spread as widely as it did here in North America. The lives we witness in Crazed Fruit are from a small cross-section of teenagers who have grown up under unusual conditions. We know the two boys have money (enough that they don't need to work), do well in school, and can afford to idly waste their summers boating and getting into trouble. This is well before the now steady stream of "young hooligan" films from Japan, but they were unquestionably spawned from this group of bored, unaffected, promiscuous teens.
The Sun Tribe was deeply impacted by American culture. They wear loud Hawaiian shirts, use some English phrases, have English words written on their motorboats, and listen to jazz music. In essence, they are attempting to replicate American popular culture in Japan, which can't have been popular in the post-war era. There is irony, though, in this group's short-lived season in the sun. Perhaps people can only be idle and bored for so long, before they find something different to do or become self destructive. Although I understand why conservative groups found this film so frightening on its release, it now plays as a moral tale of caution against this kind of behavior. Natsuhisa and Haruji have grown up without any responsibility and discipline, with nothing important enough to them that they understand how to deal with the strong feelings they have for Eri.
As expected, Criterion has done a fine job with the disc. There is a lot of grain in the image, but it looks natural, and this is probably as good as Crazed Fruit has ever looked. There is much dirt on the print still, but it's never distracting. Even with numerous scenes on the open water, there are never any visible compression artifacts. The soundtrack features clear dialogue and music. Even for a mono track, there isn't much bass response, but the sound is consistent and I didn't notice any hissing. Aside from the original trailer, the only extra on the disc is a commentary track with film historian Donald Richie. It is a fantastic track for film students or budding historians, as he goes into great depth about the filming process and Crazed Fruit's impact on the directors of the time. Casual viewers may find it slightly dry. There is also a booklet with two essays which explore the film's historical and artistic context, which is very practical in this case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The contextual nature of the commentary track and essays brings me to some of the problems with Crazed Fruit. While I'm in no position to argue with Donald Richie about the importance of the film at the time (and I have no doubt that he is right), I do question whether it is still as entertaining fifty years later. Some classic films are classics because they are the best examples that remain from the industry that produced them. This is not one of those films. At best, Crazed Fruit is a classic because of the impact it had on other filmmakers, and how well it captured what was going on in a small corner of Japan and the Japanese film industry. Viewers that don't care about historical context are sure to wonder what the fuss is all about. It is a small window into a forgotten world, but also a world that has little bearing on us. The context in the commentary track and essays is critical to understanding why the film is important, something that shouldn't be necessary for the enjoyment of a true classic.
This DVD release of Crazed Fruit isn't likely to bring the Sun Tribe era back into the spotlight. With enough context, it's hard to deny the importance of this film, but in truth it hasn't aged as well as some of its contemporaries. While aspiring film historians will want to check this one out, the rest of you may want to pass it up in favor of something fresher. Crazed Fruit deserved to be respected for taking the first tentative step into a new world, but the exploration of that world would be the responsibility of other directors making superior films.
I won't try to take away Crazed Fruit's short season in the sun. Not guilty.
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• Donald Richie Commentary Track
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