"A Japanese novelist once wrote that we should be very thankful that our eyes are not in our hands, because if they were we would always have to see our own faces. I think this is fascinating concept. Sometimes we can achieve this in the cinema. Of course when you are acting, your ‘eye’ should see your face, but when you view rushes, your eyes are constantly in your hands. I find it extremely interesting to observe the relationship between cinema and the perception of one's own image." – Susumu Hani
Susumu Hani (b. 1928) is one of the central and most unusual filmmakers of the astonishing New Wave that reinvented Japanese cinema in the late 1950s and 1960s. The director of such indelible, now classic, works as Bad Boys, Nanami: The Inferno of First Love, A Full Life and The Song of Bwana Toshi, Hani forged a unique path through the tumultuous postwar years, pioneering and combining forms of poetic documentary and engaged art cinema to define a singular mode of avant-garde humanism. While Hani's best-known film, Nanami imbibes the same heady cocktail of psychosexual obsession and surrealism as his contemporaries Shohei Imamura and the late Nagisa Oshima, Hani's larger oeuvre reveals the rich diversity of his interests. The son of prominent intellectuals and social reformers, Hani upheld a belief in the cinema as a means of exacting social change while resisting any kind of dogmatism. Beginning in cinema first as a documentarian, Hani directed two stunning short films for the educational film company Iwanami, each about the primary school experience – Children in the Classroom and Children Who Draw – that together offered a remarkably intimate and revealing vision of Japanese children's everyday life and education. Engaging the children themselves in the filmmaking process, Hani's two films count among the very first to explore the documentary as a tool of inquiry into human subjectivity and the imagination.
In his extraordinary feature debut, Bad Boys – and its rarely seen follow-up Children Clasping Hands – Hani brilliantly extended his documentary intervention into the realm of narrative cinema, offering boldly frank and unvarnished portraits of Japanese youth that captured their awkward beauty and simmering violence while revealing how familial, social and governmental institutions all ultimately fail to understand the arduous, character-shaping passage into adulthood. Subsequent widely celebrated films such as She and He and A Full Life focused on the status-quo entrapment of middle-class Japanese women, revealing Hani's feminist concerns and the subtle political charge of his cinema. Less expected were his extraordinary, adventurous series of international productions that carried him to South America, Italy and eventually Africa where he filmed The Song of Bwana Toshi, a simultaneously heartfelt and irreverent study of "Japanese-ness" embodied in the figure of a high-strung Japanese engineer transformed by his encounter with tribal culture. Equally unanticipated was Hani's abrupt departure from filmmaking in the mid-1970s, after a brief cycle of nature films inscribed a full-circle return to his documentarian beginnings. Falling outside any easy canon or classification, the unusual arc of Hani's storied career has been largely overlooked, with Hani unjustly remembered only for his most popular, scandalous and award-winning films.
The documentary roots and aspirations of Hani's visionary filmmaking are clear. His films are inspired, above all, by a restless search for ways to vividly render the inner lives and everyday of his characters, whether real-life or fictional, in their fullest complexity. Crucial to this larger project is Hani's striking engagement with non-professional actors and his belief in acting and directing as deeply collaborative arts. In this way Hani crafts his films more in direct response to his actors' personalities and lived experiences than to any preconceived ideas of character or story. While early films such as Bad Boys were shaped around the lives and personae of its non-professional cast, integrating the argot and ritualized sadism of the actual ex-reform school youth appearing within it, Hani would go even further in his strikingly experimental 8mm feature Morning Schedule which used footage shot by the high school student cast themselves. Carefully intertwining the different voices and ever-shifting perspectives of their characters, Hani's films offer choral, kaleidoscopic and politically charged portraits of disenfranchised communities and subcultures torn directly from the postwar experience, from the draconian reform school in Bad Boys to the seedy Tokyo underworld of Nanami. The rare energy of Hani's cinema draws from the rich texture and nuance of the diverse worlds it so boldly explores and the ways in which his camera engages and empowers both subject and spectator.
The Harvard Film Archive is thrilled to welcome Susumu Hani for a rare visit to the US, together with his wife, actress and producer Kimiko Nukamura. — Haden Guest
Select film notes by Takuya Tsunoda, East Asian Languages and Literatures – Yale University.
Special thanks: Theodore C. Bestor, Ted Gilman, Stacie Matsumoto – Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University; Go Hirasawa – Meiji-Gakuin University; the Japan Foundation; Takuya Tsunoda – Yale University; Alex Zahlten – East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department, Harvard University; Documentary Film Preservation Center, Japan; National Film Center at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Consul General Akira Muto – the Consulate General of Japan in Boston.
This series is presented in conjunction with a major symposium on the films and career of Susumu Hani, presented by the Reischauer Institute on Monday January 28.
Directed by Susumu Hani. With Ineko Arima, Koshiro Harada, I. George
Japan 1962, 16mm, color, 102 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Hani's stylish and understated second feature has been frequently compared to Antonioni for its subtle telling of a young woman's growing awareness of her environment, and herself. Dissatisfied with her failing marriage, the woman abruptly joins a political theater trope and is pulled into the feverish activist scene ignited by the massive and unprecedented anti-US Security Pact protests. While Hani's dazzling use of Tokyo locations and documentary style camerawork clearly link A Full Life to his earlier work, Hani’s compelling and feminist fable of political awakening introduced a new sophistication into his cinema.
Directed by Susumu Hani. With Yukio Yamada, Hirokazu Yoshitake, Koichiro Yamazaki
Japan 1961, 35mm, b/w, 89 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Inspired by Children Who Draw Hani turned once again to the subject of the Japanese school for his break-through feature, a radical fusion of documentary and narrative cinema that created nothing less than a sensation when it was released in Japan. Working closely with a group of ex-reform school students, Hani directly channeled their own life experiences and voices into Bad Boys, only loosely adhering to his screenplay (adapted from an anthology of writings by "reformed" youth), with much of the dialogue and action improvised by the boys on set. More than simply an indictment of the Japanese reform school system, the cruelty and harsh violence of the boys revealed, in Hani's words, a "totalitarian spirit" still lingering in the postwar era. Although Bad Boys was originally produced by Daei, the studio dropped the film during post-production, fearing that it was too "revolutionary" in style and subject.
While Toru Takemitsu composed the film's haunting and melancholy score, the almost entirely hand-held cinema verité camerawork was by Noriaki Tsuchimoto, who would later become a celebrated documentarian, best known for his series of films about the tragic mass mercury poisoning in Japan's Minamata Bay region.
Directed by Susumu Hani
Japan 1954, 16mm, b/w, 30 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Initially conceived as an instructional film on the discipline of troubled children, the Ministry of Education sponsored Children in the Classroom became an important showcase for Hani’s remarkable observational filmmaking and a catalyst for decisive changes in Japanese documentary cinema. Boldly anticipating its Anglo-European counterparts of American direct cinema and French cinema vérité, Hani’s objective camera exhaustively and masterfully interrogated his subjects’ inner worlds. This sensational debut by the then only twenty-six year old Hani stunned documentary and educational film circuits in Japan, who heralded the young director as the emblem of a new breed of film artist. Print courtesy the Japan Foundation
Directed by Susumu Hani
Japan 1955, 16mm, b/w and color, 38 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Children Who Draw explores the delicate chemistry of school children interacting in an art class through a constant juxtaposition of observational black-and-white portraits of the young children with lyrical passages shot in vivid color exploring their imaginative and expressive paintings. Experimenting with color as an intimate expression of the children’s inner worlds, a tool for deeper psychological investigation, Hani allows his camera to roam freely across the drawings, “de-framing’” and enagaging the artwork in a manner reminiscent of Alain Resnais’s Guernica (1950). Although originally intended as an educational study of children’s psychology, Children Who Draw became a surprise hit thanks to wide distribution in Japan by Toho and Nikkatsu studios. Print courtesy the Japan Foundation
Directed by Susumu Hani. With Sachiko Hidari, Kikuji Yamashita, Eiji Okada
Japan 1963, 35mm, b/w, 110 min. Japanese with English subtitles
A young nouveau riche housewife and former refugee from Manchuria finds herself increasingly drawn, with fascination and concern, to the spectral figures of poverty and loneliness that pass by her window, from the neighborhood ragpicker to the stray dog limping by – an awareness that reaches desperately for action when a fire destroys the shantytown near her recently constructed suburb. Offering his heroine, played by the comely Sachiko Hidari, as an emblem of slumbering class consciousness, Hani delivers an outspoken critique of the rigid social hierarchy underpinning postwar Japan's economic rebirth.
Directed by Susumu Hani. With Kiyoshi Atsumi, Hamisi Salehe,
Japan 1965, 35mm, color, 99 min. Japanese with English subtitles
After achieving meteoric critical (and in a few cases commercial) success in Japan, Hani set out on an international odyssey, directing in distant locations around the world – Peru (The Bride of the Andes), Italy and Africa, each time making films about the Japanese (mis)perception of the world, and vice-versa. Arriving in Kenya very shortly after the country had been liberated from British colonial rule, Hani directed one of his more personal films, the tale of a high-strung Japanese geological engineer pursuing work in East Africa to escape from family troubles back home. Hani's rapturous fascination with the African landscape, culture and animals is apparent in the many ways The Song of Bwana Toshi emphasizes Nature's dramatic, larger presence. Indeed, the film anticipated Hani's return to Africa shortly after to direct a incredibly popular series of nature documentaries for Japanese television. Hani would return again for his last feature, Africa Story (1981) starring Hollywood great Jimmy Stewart.
Directed by Susumu Hani. With Akio Takahashi, Kuniko Ishii, Koji Mitsui
Japan 1968, 35mm, b/w, 108 min. Japanese with English subtitles
One of the signature masterworks of the Japanese New Wave, Hani's intense and brilliantly unpredictable portrait of youth engulfed in amorous flames is a showcase for Hani's innovative documentary approach to cinema and his rare sensitivity to the fluttering dream of adolescence. The story of a shy young man drawn into the spell of an attractive, outgoing model with a secret life, Nanami: The Inferno of First Love grows increasingly darker and stranger as the girl leads him deeper in the Tokyo underworld and into the troubled recesses of his repressed traumas and fears. While the film's crypto-sexual dreamscape must be partially credited to it's co-writer, the legendary enfant terrible of the Japanese avant-garde, Shuji Terayama, Nanami's intimacy with its young actors and postwar youth culture clearly draws from Hani's earlier work. Shot in grainy 16mm black-and-white Nanami is also a fascinating document of Sixties Tokyo, pulling back the steamy, seedy folds of the same urban underbelly being discovered by photographers like Daido Moriyama and by Hani's contemporary, the avant-garde documentarian Toshio Matsumoto.
Directed by Susumu Hani
Japan 1956, 16mm, b/w, 41 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Completing the so-called “Classroom Trilogy” described by Children in the Classroom and Children Who Draw, Twins in the Class explores the scientific study of heredity and environment in child development through a behavioral analysis of identical twin sisters at the University of Tokyo Junior High School. Hani’s playfully breaks from his “signature” observational style by using a split screen to strikingly visualize the idea of the binary embodied by the twins. Print courtesy the Documentary Film Preservation Center
Directed by Susumu Hani
Japan 1958, 35mm, b/w, 22 min. In English
Hani's deeply cinematic tribute to Japan's famous Horyuji Temple remains among the most visually striking documentaries in the history of Japanese cinema. Although Hani would later confess that filming the Buddhist statues in close-ups was far more challenging than filming human subjects, the montage of expressive faces that is the lyrical heart of the film offers a bristling poetry that immediately recalls Chris Marker and Alain Resnais' controversial short Les Statues meurent aussi (1953). Hani would later adapt the film's powerful soundtrack for his very different and best known work, Nanami: The Inferno of First Love. Print courtesy the Japan Foundation
Directed by Susumu Hani
Japan 1997, digital video, color, 20 min. In Japanese (English synopsis of translation provided)
After making a major name for himself as one of Japan's premiere directors of experimental art films, Hani returned to documentary in the mid-1970s and moved his operations whole-scale to Africa in order to film animals and nature. Part of a series of eight documentaries, Bravery offers moving portraits of wild animals struggling for survival that reveal Hani's consummate skill at capturing the spontaneity of wildlife. Hani's series of documentaries about animals became a great commercial success, broadcast widely and repeatedly on Japanese television.
Directed by Susumu Hani
Japan 1972, 35mm, b/w & color, 101 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Continuing his favorite theme of lost childhood, Hani created faux home movies – some shot by his own actors – for this affecting, jarring meditation on nostalgia and friendship inspired by the suicide of a young teenager and the reunion of two friends to remember the dead. Hani's sympathy for the troubles of adolescence is matched by his ability to capture the fascinating world of postwar Japanese youth culture. Print courtesy Toho Distribution
Directed by by Keiji Yoshino and Haruo Mura
Japan 1950, 16mm, b/w, 12 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Co-scripted by Hani and Yoshino Keiji, the founder of Iwanami Productions and one of the leading cinematographers of the postwar Japanese cinema, A Town Without Flies became the first smash hit of the Iwanami educational film company where Hani began his filmmaking career. While essentially a “public relations” short to promote hygiene, Hani and Yoshino’s script structured the film rather uniquely, contrasting the objective representation of school children and people in the community with surreal photo-microscopic images of flies. Called “science-fiction in the disguise of PR film” by reviewers, Hani holds a deep regard for this film as his first collaborative work with Keiji, his mentor. Print courtesy the Documentary Film Preservation Center
Directed by Susumu Hani
Japan 1964, 35mm, b/w, 99 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Hani’s touching remake of a 1948 film by renowned director Hiroshi Inagaki, follows a group of young boys and classmates through a series of increasingly fraught tests of friendship, trust and honesty. Centered around the deeply sympathetic figure of a young boy with an unnamed learning disability who alternately inspires tenderness and aggression from his classmates, Children Hand in Hand offers the children as expressions of the rich contradictions of Japanese masculinity. The subdued, observational style refined in Hani’s documentaries vividly captures the struggles of the boys as they learn to recognize the true nature of their friendship in a world defined by rigid social conventions. As it fluidly captures the rhythm of the young boys’ pendulum swing between innocence and experience, Hani’s little seen film defines a fascinating region beyond the conventional boundary between fiction and documentary. Print courtesy Kadokawa Distribution