A retrospect on the films of Shinoda Masahiro

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Born in 1931 in Gifu, Shinoda Masahiro was a student of theater history at the elite, private Waseda University in Tokyo. Shōchiku Studio hired him as a trainee in 1953 and Shinoda worked as an assistant to Ozu (Shinoda was credited as assistant director on “Tokyo Twilight” in 1957). The studio was attempting to profit from youth movies, especially after the commercial success of Ôshima’s first movies (Cruel Story of Youth, et al.) and greenlighted Shinoda directing his script for “One-Way Ticket to Love” a movie about young people trying to make a start in the music business (the title was a Neil Sedaka hit of the time).

Though “One-Way Ticket to Love” is a fairly interesting movie that initially pleased the Shōchiku executives, it did not make money, and he was briefly demoted to directing scenarios by studio contract writers (mostly Terayama Shûji).

Shinoda moved from making movies about disaffected youth to stylish gangster/noir movies with “Pale Flower” (1963) and made his first historical movie, “Samurai Spy,” in 1965, followed by his most revered masterpiece, “Double Suicide” (1969). “Double Suicide” was quite stylized, drawing on the puppet play tradition of Chikimatsu that Shinoda had studied in college. (Shinoda also focused directly on traditional Japanese performing traditions in “The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan” and “The Ballad of Orin” and in one of the characters on the ship to Kyushu in “Moonlight Serenade“)

During the 1970s Shinoda made some very visually gorgeous color movies with extreme (not always stylized!) violence and repellent characters (Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, and Ballad of Orin, followed a decade later by “Gonza, the Spearman”). While admiring many of the visual compositions in these movies, they try my patience (both in slow pace and in graphic violence).

Few of Shinoda’s later movies are available, including two of three set in the time of his childhood/youth (“MacArthur’s Children,” which I saw three decades ago in a film festival screening, and the 1990 “Childhood” Days” that I would very much like to see.

The only one of Shinoda’s last six films (or most recent ones, in that he is still alive, though he has not directed a film since the 2003 “Spy Sorge” about a WWII-era Soviet spy in Germany and Japan) is available, that one, “Moonlight Serenade,” strikes me as a late masterpiece (though the present-day of the Kobe earthquake frame seemed superfluous to me).

Though Kobayashi had commissioned a soundtrack from Takemitsu (The Thick-Walled Room, 1953), Shinoda regularly used percussive and anti-sentimental Takemitsu scores that enhanced the icy aestheticism of the images (shot in the black and white movies through “Samurai Spy” (1965) by  Kosugi Masao). Shinoda has always set up the shots, and authored the scripts of 15 of his 32 films, so seems to me clearly to count as a full-fledged auteur. I don’t always like the results, but consider Shinoda and Imamura Shôhei the most interesting over a course of time Japanese New Wave filmmakers (for a short burst, 1962-65, Tehshigahara/Abe get my nod).

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