BERKELEY — The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is showing the “Life Is Short: Nikkatsu Studios at 100” series from its archive.
All screenings are hosted at the Pacific Film Archive Theater, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley.
Founded in 1912, the venerated Nikkatsu Studios is the oldest film company in Japan, tied with Hollywood’s Universal Studios as the oldest film studio in the world. Through its 100 years of existence, filmmaking legends such as Daisuke Ito, Sadao Yamanaka, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masahiro Makino, Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura, and Seijun Suzuki have passed through its doors, while its productions have included everything from Japan’s first sound film (Mizoguchi’s “Hometown”), to one of its biggest international art-house hits (Ichikawa’s “Harp of Burma”), down to — in the 1970s — “Naked Rashomon.”
Originally an amalgamation of several small companies, Nikkatsu became Japan’s most prestigious studio of the 1910s and 1920s, home to the historical epics of Ito and the socially committed leftist works of Yamanaka. After a short hiatus during the war years, Nikkatsu returned in 1954 with a new populist bent and a new slogan: “We make fun films.”
“Life is short; I want mine to be exciting!” cried a character in 1958’s “Rusty Knife”; it’s a line that embodied the entire Nikkatsu attitude, one that stretched across a star factory that churned out new faces (which were even grouped together with nicknames such as “The Diamond Line” and “The Bad Boy Trio”) and over 100 films a year. Indeed, in the 1960s Nikkatsu was “the coolest spot in the history of Japanese filmmaking, and just maybe the coolest film production house of all time” (Chuck Stephens, Criterion).
This series covers nearly every Nikkatsu decade: a 1931 samurai work; a 1939 musical; ’50s melodramas and controversial, youth-focused “sun-tribe” films; and ’60s action films. It concludes with three films from arguably Nikkatsu’s best-known auteur, Seijun Suzuki.
Upcoming screenings are as follows:
Friday, Sept. 7
7 p.m. “Capricious Young Man,” Mansaku Itami (1936). A not-so-heroic samurai, more everyman than Superman, is tasked with defeating a clueless lord’s scheming retainers in this jovial, warmly humanist work from Itami, a key figure in prewar Japanese cinema (and the father of Juzo Itami). (77 mins)
8:40 p.m. — “The Warped Ones,” Koreyoshi Kurahara (1960). A juvenile delinquent with a taste for bebop aims to destroy everything in his path — cops, foreigners, girls, even finger-snapping beatniks — in this “unrestrained banshee wail of libidinal frenzy and lunatic vengeance” (Chuck Stephens, Criterion). As berserk a film as any ever sponsored by a commercial studio. (76 mins)
Saturday, Sept. 8
6:30 p.m. —“Season of the Sun,” Takumi Furukawa (1956). New 35mm print. Two bored, aimless teens find “love” (or at least sex) amidst the nightclubs and yacht-filled beaches of an emotionless Japan unlike any their parents had seen. The film that launched the infamous youth-focused “sun tribe” genre, and defined a new generation. (89 mins)
Saturday, Sept. 15
6:30 p.m. — “Hometown,” Kenji Mizoguchi (1930). Not only the great Mizoguchi’s first sound film, it’s also one of the first sound films ever made in Japan, produced by Nikkatsu as a test in 1929. The popular classical-music tenor Yoshie Fujiwara plays a singer who returns from a trip abroad. (86 mins)
Saturday, Sept. 22
6:30 p.m. — “Singing Lovebirds,” Masahiro Makino (1939). One of the real discoveries of the Nikkatsu retrospective, this jazz-influenced, light-hearted romantic musical offers up many pleasures, including longtime Kurosawa veteran Takashi Shimura crooning out several numbers. Sweet and pretty Oharu helps her father make umbrellas, but her heart truly swoons for a kindly ronin. (69 mins)
8 p.m. — “Rusty Knife,” Toshio Masuda (1958). New 35mm print. Nikkatsu’s two biggest stars, Yujiro Ishihara and Akira Kobayashi, teamed up for the first time in this noir about two former hoods trying to go straight. Masuda strips the narrative — and the sets — down to bare necessities, and turns “Rusty Knife” into a lean, hardboiled vision of postwar Japan. (90 mins)
Sunday, Sept. 23
5 p.m. — “Made to Order Cloth,” Daisuke Ito (1931). Judith Rosenberg on piano. A great chance to see the birth of Japanese cinema, and the samurai genre: infamous ninja Jirokichi the Rat robs from the rich and helps out the misfortunate in Ito’s groundbreaking early film, perhaps the finest silent Japanese period film to have survived in approximately original form. With Shozo Makino’s “Jiraiya the Ninja.” (100 mins)
Sunday, Sept. 30
5 p.m. — “Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate,” Yuzo Kawashima (1957). Named the fifth-best Japanese film of all time in a 2009 Kinema Jumpo poll, Kawashima’s Edo-set comedy follows a fast-talking deadbeat (Frankie Sakai) as he works his way into — but not out of — an intrigue-filled brothel. Co-written by Shohei Imamura, Kawashima’s longtime assistant director. (110 mins)
Sunday, Oct. 14
4 p.m. — “Harp of Burma,” Kon Ichikawa (1956). A lyrical, haunting requiem for the victims of war, set amid the giant Buddhas of Burma. Winner of the top prize at the Venice film festival and one of Ichikawa’s most famous films. (116 mins)
Friday, Oct. 19
8:40 p.m. — “Gate of Flesh,” Seijun Suzuki (1964) New 35mm print. A gang of prostitutes and a perpetually shirtless thug (Jo Shishido) survive in the sewers of occupied Japan in this color-filled, cheerfully nihilistic thumb-in-the-eye to both good taste and motion picture censors. “A classic of the Nikkatsu subgenre known as roman porno” (James Quandt, Cinematheque Ontario). (90 mins)
Thursday, Oct. 25
7 p.m. — “The Young Rebel,” Seijun Suzuki (1963). A young tough with a florid heart and swinging fists enters adulthood — and encounters both love and fascism — in Suzuki’s wild film, a Taisho-set equivalent to “Rebel Without a Cause.” (95 mins)
Saturday, Oct. 27
8:10 p.m. — “Elegy to Violence,” Seijun Suzuki (1966). A high-school student and militant ideologue is torn between violence and his love for a Catholic girl in Suzuki’s scathing portrait of militarism, filmed with typical high style and humor. (86 mins)
For ticket information, visit www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.
Series curated by Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby and PFA Collections Curator Mona Nagai. Thanks to the following individuals and institutions for their assistance with this retrospective: Yuri Kubota, who is responsible for coordinating the international touring series celebrating the Nikkatsu centenary; Kamogawa Sachio, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Hisashi Okajima and Akira Tochigi, National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Sarah Finklea and Brian Belovarac, Janus Films; Rachel Rosen and Suzanne McCloskey, San Francisco Film Society; Film Society of Lincoln Center; and the Japan Society of Northern California.