The Kihachi Okamoto Touch

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.  Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

Eclipse LogoKihachi Okamoto was a pioneer of New Japanese Cinema and a master of genre film, producing outstanding samurai films, gangster movies, and modern war epics, however his best films may have been a collection of comedies produced in the 1960s.  Ever the iconoclast, Okamoto used established genres like salariman comedies, yakuza films, musicals, and spy flicks to satirically examine modern Japan and its wartime legacy.  The four films collected here each bear the mark of Okamoto’s idiosyncratic style, employing elegant camerawork, black humor, and up-tempo, rhythmic montage to embody his humane and compassionately rebellious spirit – simply called the Kihachi Touch.

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman  (Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu)

A lowly ad agency writer drunkenly promises two magazine editors he will create for them an impressive story and finds unexpected acclaim when he creates an autobiographical novella admitting his personal struggles and financial insecurities in post-war Japan.

Oh, My Bomb!  (Aa bakudan)

A slapstick, musical comedy, Oh, My Bomb! follows an elderly yakuza boss, recently released from prison, and his plan to assassinate a gangster-turned-political candidate using an explosive fountain pen.

Age of Assassins aka Epoch of Murder and Madness  (Satsujin kyo jidai)

Okamoto’s wildly hilarious spy spoof follows the efforts of a nebbish university professor, together with a confused car thief and a plucky female reporter, against an ex-Nazi mad scientist and his cadre of murderous patients.

The Human Bullet (Nikudan)

A conflicted kamikaze at the tail-end of World War II, floating in an oil drum and adrift in the Pacific Ocean to man a single torpedo, reflects on his efforts to enjoy his last days in this disorienting and savage anti-war satire.

With notes on the films by Japanese-cinema historian Chris D.

*          *          *

If I had to pick one Japanese filmmaker deserving of greater acclaim, it would have to be Kihachi Okamoto.  Even amongst the New Wave directors of the late-1950s and 1960s, Okamoto’s name doesn’t carry the same reverence or notoriety as those of Hiroshi Teshigahara, Seijun Suzuki, Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, or even Kinji Fukasaku or Kaneto Shindo.  Okamoto fails to even appear the index of Donald Richie’s The Japanese Film: Art and Industry.  Pressed to answer why the director fails to garner his due appreciation, I’d have to cite Okamoto’s use of humor as his distinguishing characteristic.  Comedy never gets the respect it deserves, especially when language barriers and cultural idiosyncrasies exist to potentially impede reception and translation.  Perhaps this also explains why Okamoto’s brilliant satires of the ’60s are so hard to come by in the West, while his war films and sword-fight movies circulate much more freely.  Yet, what a culture finds funny often strikes more strongly at its core than the lofty ideals of the most sophisticated dramas, exposing its embarrassments as much as its laudatory aspects.  Okamoto’s ’60s comedies certainly fit this bill, entertaining while explicitly struggling with the national trauma of Japan’s wartime sins and injuries.

Kihachi OkamotoOkamoto worked in the film industry (an assistant director at Toho, sometimes working under the great Mikio Naruse) until he was assigned to an airplane factory in WWII.  He was eventually drafted in 1945, 8 months before the end of the war, and always maintained that this late exposure probably saved his life.  He remarked to Peter B. High, “You could say it’s a miracle I survived the war at all, since statistics show that the largest number of people killed were those born, like me, in 1924.”  The impact of surviving WWII left its mark on Okamoto and it casts a shadow over his postwar filmography.  Remarkably, studios never really opposed his dealing with Japan’s traumatic past, although it took some time before critics accepted Okamoto’s use of humor within this dire subject matter.  The heaviness of these issues did not deter the filmmaker from developing the “Kihachi Touch,” an exuberant style typified by quick-tempo editing and visual flourishes that included animated sequences, musical numbers, freeze frames, extradiegetic and contrapuntal sound, broad comedy, and a general embrace of the unexpected.

Criterion has shown some love to Okamoto with the inclusion of his nihilistic The Sword of Doom (1966) and his chambara comedy Kill! (1968), albeit with some rather bare bones editions.  Kill! comes closer to representing the “Kihachi Touch,” but the depth of the director’s work demands further exploration by the Collection.  The Sword of Doom and Kill! only touch on Okamoto’s technical flair, his narrative inventiveness, his genre-bending, and sociopolitical awareness.  These four films represent Okamoto at his most daring and assured.  Bringing them to North American home media would fill a glaring gap in the availability of Okamoto’s filmography, expand the Collection’s body of foreign language comedies, and provide a new and incisive vision of Japan not expressed in Criterion’s other examples of that national cinema.  Most importantly, it would make me really, really happy.  And how do we feel about a bright, neon green with medium grey colour scheme for the Eclipse packaging?

Credits:  These films are being proposed as a potential Eclipse set, the Criterion Collection’s multi-film DVD collections released without special features.  While I would love to see these titles released in a full-blown Criterion set with a full complement of bonus material, it seems highly unlikely.  Given the lack of special features on Okamoto’s other films in the Collection, the lack of extra materials on other stand-alone Japanese releases like Three Outlaw Samurai (Hideo Gosha, 1964) and Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953), and the large emphasis on Japanese cinema in Criterion’s current Eclipse collections (12 of 38 sets), an Okamoto Eclipse series seems like the most probable format for the release of these films.  More on each title shortly.

Chris D. is a frequent contributor to the Collection.  His book, Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, devotes an entire chapter to Okamoto and includes his interview with the late director.  Little time is spent on these satirical masterpieces, so his liner notes would provide an opportunity for him to cover new ground.

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