A singularly contradictory figure in Japanese cinema, Yasuzo Masumura directed 58 features between 1957 and 1982. He was trained by and worked for a handful of recognized cinematic masters, but chose to work for the most part in the less reputable world of B-movies. Virtually all of his films were made within the commercial film industry but they display a fierce personal vision imbued with a fascination with madness and a passion for the extremes of human behavior.
Born in 1924, Masumura earned an undergraduate degree in Law from Tokyo University near the end of World War II. He returned to college after the war for another degree in Literature and Philosophy while working as an assistant director at Daiei Studios. (Novelist Yukio Mishima was one of his classmates, and later had a starring role in his gangster thriller Afraid to Die). After graduating in 1949 with a thesis on Kierkegaard, he became the first Japanese student ever accepted to the prestigious Centro Sperimentale Cinematografia in Rome, where he was taught by such luminaries of the Italian cinema as Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and Luchino Visconti. He returned to Japan in 1953 and once again began working at Daiei Studios assisting, among others, Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa.
In 1957, however, he repudiated the classical tradition his mentors represented with his wild, gritty directorial debut, Kisses, about a down-on-their-luck young couple. The film laid the groundwork for the then-nascent Japanese New Wave and prompted Nagisa Oshima, who would go on to become one of the movement's most prominent directors, to praise Masumura for rescuing Japanese cinema from "its foggy beauty and its stupid gardens." Ironically, Oshima would later condemn Masumura for continuing to work within the studio system while he and the other New Wave directors worked independently. But even though they are products of the commercial film industry, Masumura's films are no less extreme than those of his independent cohorts. His subjects run the gamut from historical dramas to gangster films to softcore porn to oddball comedies, and all of them bear the hallmarks of his transgressive sensibility. His gangster movies and period films often have a generic quality despite the artistic flair he gives them, but his more sex-obsessed outings are truly original.
He made psychosexual oddities like Blind Beast, about a blind sculptor pathologically obsessed with a nude model; Red Angel, in which an angel comforts amputees with sexual favors during the Sino-Japanese War; and The Sex Check, in which a batty coach uses very unorthodox methods to train his star female athlete. He also explored less bizarre forms of sexuality in Manji, about an affair between two women, and Garden of Eden, an Italian-produced knockoff of The Blue Lagoon. His talent for applying his distinctive personal artistry to genre fare relates him in many ways to fellow Japanese maverick Seijun Suzuki, but he also has much in common with Hollywood directors like Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, and Frank Tashlin, who were able to express their intensely personal idiosyncrasies from within the Hollywood entertainment machine.
Even though Masumura initially denounced his mentors Mizoguchi and Ichikawa as stale and old-fashioned, the influence of the latter on his work is undeniable. The roots of his superheated forays into extreme sexuality can be found in Ichikawa's wonderfully perverse, if more staid, Odd Obsession and Bonchi. At some point he must have reconciled himself to his old boss, because he made a sexy screwball remake of Ichikawa's comedy The Woman Who Touched Legs. Ichikawa's influence can also be felt in two of Masumura's most acclaimed films, The Black Test Car and Giants and Toys, both of which are savage satires on postwar Japan's ruthless business culture that share a scathingly bitter sensibility with Ichikawa's A Full-Up Train (on which Masumura served as assistant director). Despite his massive artistic output and a hardcore cult of admirers, Masumura's films failed to gain worldwide recognition during his lifetime. (He died in 1986 of a cerebral hemorrhage.) A retrospective and the release of a handful of his films on DVD in the late '90s began to change that. Michelangelo Antonioni, his old teacher, even left his sickbed to see his films when they traveled to Italy in 1996.