Ici, c’est Pepsi

An animated moment from Daiei Company’s 1970 children’s drama The Little Hero (Boku wa Go-saiI am Five), a feel-good yarn about a young boy who embarks on a four-hundred kilometer pilgrimage to find his widowed working-class father in Ōsaka. The Pepsi signage is one of the clues the boy has to help him along the way, its crayon-scribbled likeness one of the dozens he carries along with him, and the revelation of the real thing is a mesmerizing bit of cinema.

It’s worth noting, for historical context, that Pepsi sponsored the experimental Pepsi Pavilion during Expo ’70, which occurred in Ōsaka and serves as a backdrop to the film’s events.

The Little Hero was directed by Noriaki YUASA from a screenplay by Niisan TAKAHASHI, and photographed by Fujio MORITA.  The film was recently made available on DVD by Kadokawa.

「成熟」 The Awakening

Yūko KANŌ (Keiko SEKINE) is the daughter of a comfortably middle class farming family, an ace student, and a prominent member of her agricultural high school’s photo club to boot, but finds herself at odds with her small community’s rigid traditionalism after a minor transgression at a local festival. The rumor mill begins to churn when Yūko is photographed (by the photo club of a rival fishing high school, naturally!) fraternizing with strapping young Ryūji SASAO (Saburo SHINODA) after a seaside mikoshi-dunking celebration. Yūko is already betrothed, by way of a family arrangement during her childhood, to Masao (Naoyuki SUGANO), the son of a similarly well-off farming family and a classmate besides. When photos begin circulating of her brief, innocent encounter with Ryūji, Yūko is suddenly made suspect in the eyes of her fellow female students. One-time friend Miki (Eiko YANAMI) is particularly interested, and with good reason – Miki is secretly in love with Masao after all, and itching for an opportunity to separate him from Yūko and claim him for herself.

The uneasy atmosphere that arrives with murmurings of Yūko’s supposed involvement with Ryūji is bad enough, but things take a turn for the worse when a misunderstanding during costumed setsubun festivities leaves Masao bragging about having slept with her. Along with rumors of Yūko’s purported polyamory, insinuations of an illegitimate pregnancy arise, with Miki’s clique of friends the predictable source. Word of the would-be scandal spreads like wildfire, first at school and then among the surrounding townsfolk, and Yūko becomes increasingly alienated.

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But not all is so unwell. Through chance encounters and a touch of scheming from the brash and frequently sloshed grandpa Sasao (Junzaburō BAN) a genuine relationship begins to develop between Yūko and Ryūji, who soon decide that enough is enough insofar as their community’s attitudes are concerned. The couple confess love for one another and make plans to elope to Tokyo, but it is not to be. While on her way to meet Ryūji, Yūko makes a dreadful discovery – the local rice crop is teeming with destructive pests, and unless they are dealt with quickly the year’s harvest could be devastated. The elopement is called off, at least for a time, as still more trouble brews for the couple, this time courtesy of an ad firm’s student photo contest.

It seems a photo by Ryūji has been selected as a finalist for the competition, a fact with which neither he nor Yūko (the photo’s swim-suited subject) are thrilled. The couple move to have the entry withdrawn, which incenses the rival photo clubs to which they each belong. Soon the streets are full of angry teenagers on motorbikes, and with tempers running hot a bloody confrontation seems all but inevitable. Ryūji and Yūko find themselves caught in the middle, two lovers from opposing sides of an unreasonable conflict, but as punches fly the burden of the remorseful Miki’s guilt becomes too much to bear. The truth behind the rumors that left Yūko in ill repute is finally revealed, paving the way for reconciliation not just between the shunned teen and her community, but between the two schools as well.

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The Awakening is a modest dramatic production from a declining Daiei Co., which was just months from declaring bankruptcy at the time of the film’s release. Dwindling attendance figures, poor management, and the untimely death of kabuki talent and box office icon Raizō ICHIKAWA left the once prolific studio in very poor shape to enter the cinematic slump of the 1970s, and by 1971 the writing was on the wall. The failure of cooperative distribution corporation Dainichi (a joint venture between Daiei and the similarly troubled Nikkastsu) had all but assured  the studio’s demise by the time The Awakening made it to cinemas in mid-October 1971 – by the end of November all operations at the studio had ceased. On December 28th the corporation was delisted from the Tokyo Stock Exchange, an unceremonious end for the historic production house.

It’s no small wonder that The Awakening manages to be as capable a film as it is given the bleak circumstances surrounding it. Though obviously produced on the cheap, with travelogue of the real-life charms of Yamagata Prefecture standing in for an utter lack of traditional production value, on the whole the film suffers precious little for the trouble. Working from a screenplay by longtime collaborator Niisan TAKAHASHI and with familiar color-‘Scope photographer Akira KITAZAKI, director Noriaki YUASA makes a perfectly charming entertainment of this bittersweet and heavily localized riff on Shakespeare’s famously star-crossed lovers. The drama is a bit silly, admittedly, focused as it is on dueling motorcycle-bound high school photo clubs, but Yuasa plays it with a melodramatic flair that’s well suited to it. While the synopsis above can sound quite bleak (and in certain respects the film can be) the tone of it all is only rarely so serious, and despite their challenges there’s never any real concern that Yūko and Ryūji might follow their ill-fated inspirations to similar ends. Yuasa’s usual optimism is in evidence throughout, and it’s not surprising that his film favors problem-solving and reconciliation over the Bard’s more depressing eventualities.

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The Awakening was the last of a series of films from Daiei that had been built around the various appeals of the young Keiko SEKINE, whose risqué debut in 1970’s High School Affair propelled her to stardom at the age of fifteen. Sekine’s topless scenes in that film had caused something of a sensation, and Daiei’s promotional department promised more of the same with regards to Yuasa’s film. Key art for The Awakening shows the actress nude in a field of rice, while the trailer begins with a sea-side disrobing that seems to have been filmed exclusively for it – never mind that exploitative elements within the film itself are minimal, and wholly nudity-free. With regards to performance the now 16 year old Sekine more than holds her own against a cast dominated by other promising and similarly inexperienced young talent (most already years removed from their high school days), and the film’s melodramatic tendencies offer ample opportunity for showing her range. Sekine would weather the doldrums of the 1970s far better than the studio at which she began her career, finding increasingly high profile work both in cinema and on television, and remains a popular and prodigious talent, albeit under her married name, Keiko TAKAHASHI 高橋惠子.

Co-star Saburō SHINODA was a rising star in his own right by the time of The Awakening’s production, and appears opposite Sekine for the fourth time here. With two prior Daiei romances already under their collective belt (including an earlier turn under director Yuasa) it’s no big surprise that The Awakening reveals them to be a convincing screen couple. Shinoda’s good-natured good looks are a perfect match for Yuasa’s similarly good-natured storytelling sensibilities, and the professional chemistry between the two stars is enough to keep the obvious age gap from straining too much of the relationship’s on-screen credibility (Shinoda was 22 at the time, 6 years Sekine’s senior). Like Sekine, Shinoda also found considerable success during the volatile ’70s, primarily in the field of television, and is perhaps best remembered for his starring turn in the 1973 Ultra-sequel Ultraman Taro.

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Daiei was practically hemorrhaging actors and staff in the final year leading up to its bankruptcy, and the talent available for non-lead roles was a far cry from the high standard that had been enjoyed in the decades prior. Still, The Awakening scratches together some notable supporting players, chief among them the great Junzaburō BAN, a prolific actor and comedian who had begun his film career with Nikkatsu in the late 1920s. Junzaburō provides the best performance of the picture as Ryūji’s occasionally sneaky, often drunk, charming-despite-being-rough-around-the-edges grandfather Gosuke, who’s just doing his best to raise the boy right in the absence of his parents. Gosuke is of a generation that puts great stock in community traditions, but sees opportunity for his son as opposed to intrigue when Yūko haphazardly interjects herself into his grandson’s life, and works in endearing fashion to bring the two together for both tradition’s sake and their own. Junzaburō balances Gosuke’s coarser aspects with surprising emotional nuance, assuring viewers that despite his frequent chastising of the youth, there’s little he won’t do to ensure Ryūji’s lasting happiness.

Yuasa may always be best remembered for his longtime association with special effects programming, but The Awakening proves him a more than capable hand at less fantastical material as well. Unfortunately it was to be one of the last feature films the director would supervise, in addition to his last for Daiei (prior to its reformation under Tokuma Shoten at least). In the wake of the studio’s bankruptcy Yuasa would follow in the footsteps of many of his industry compatriots, and find considerable work in television. As for his film, it remains a colorful and capable teen romance, and makes for a quaint counterpoint to industry survivors Nikkatsu and Toei’s more exploitative brand of youth cinema.

「成熟」 THE AWAKENING · 1971/10/16 · Daiei 大映 · Color · ‘Scope
directed by
 YUASA Noriaki 湯浅憲明 · starring SEKINE Keiko 関根恵子 · SHINODA Saburō 篠田三郎 · SUGANO Naoyuki 菅野直行 · YANAMI Eiko 八並映子 · BAN Junzaburō 伴淳三郎 · written by TAKAHASHI Niisan 高橋二三 · music by KIKUCHI Shunsuke 菊池俊輔 · photography by  KITAZAKI Akira 喜多崎晃 · available on Region 2 DVD from Kadokawa Shoten 角川書店

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「暴風圏」 A Storm Zone

After the unexpected death of her father in an automobile accident care-free Misako (Junko KANŌ) is appointed the unlikely president of the family’s prominent shipping company. Despite her inexperience Misako puts forth great effort to learn the business and gradually gains the trust of both her direct subordinate Takeshi (Kenji SUGAWARA) and the many blue-collar workers the company employs (she eats ramen with the drivers and entertains the dispatchers at her home), but trouble is brewing. Misako has been appointed to fail by a hostile board of directors, who scheme to use the new president’s lack of business savvy against her and take over the company.

Independent of the board, suave outsider and nightclub-operating entrepreneur Fujikawa (Hideo TAKAMATSU) is also plotting to take the company by buying up shares and finding ways to increasingly put the firm in his debt. With Misako’s back to the proverbial wall Fujikawa makes an ultimatum – pay up what you owe in five days or lose the company for good. Worse yet, he wants Misako for himself as well!

Just as a desperate act is needed to rescue the company, and Misako’s family legacy, from an almost certain demise an unusual opportunity arises. A construction firm is in need of hazardous help – a dynamite shipment to their current site, a dam project nestled within a treacherous mountain pass. A powerful typhoon is threatening to wreck the project with landslides, and only a shipment through the worst storm in modern Japanese history can save it! Misako’s firm takes the contract and puts its best drivers to work, but Fujikawa won’t let the company slip through his fingers so easily. He heads out along the storm-swept mountain roads, intent on sabotaging the shipper’s efforts by any means necessary.

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One of several typhoon-centric features to be produced and released by Daiei at the turn of the decade, 1959’s A Storm Zone is a handsomely mounted suspense drama whose only failing is a lack of distinguishing characteristics – in practice it reminds of any number of studio productions of the time that, through no real fault of their own, have since fallen by the wayside. The convoluted screenplay, the combined work of the prolific Takeo MATSŪRA and director Kunio WATANABE, features as many dramatic ups and downs as one could hope for from such a tale. It also packs some unexpected prescience – just two months after the film’s release Japan would be struck by the Ise-wan Typhoon, a major peace-time disaster that left thousands dead and prompted a complete overhaul of the country’s disaster response apparatus.

The disaster element may prove A Storm Zone‘s greatest draw for modern viewers, but anyone jonesing for obscure special effects thrills is encouraged to look elsewhere. Daiei’s accomplished (and uncredited in this case) effects artisans constructed a large scale mountainside and a handful of scale shipping trucks for the storm-whipped finale, but setups are few, and serve entirely as incidental support for the human action. The last-ditch demolition – an event that will make or break Misako’s company – is indicative in that it plays out entirely off-screen. A Storm Zone instead opts to show a series of close-ups of the battered cast with the sound of explosions ringing in the distance, a final (and effective) suspense-ratcheting device to keep audiences guessing.

Typical of Daiei productions of the time, the cast is a hefty mix of star power and contract supporting talent who perform precisely as well as would have been expected of them. Second-billed star Junko Kanō carries the picture as Misako, the care-free socialite who finds herself thrust into a situation well beyond her experience. Kanō was a prodigious talent at Daiei for her brief career, appearing in more than fifty productions (!) between 1957 and 1963, and it’s easy to see why. She stands up well against the considerable demands of her role here, which puts her through the usual dramatic ringer (romance! intrigue! suspense!) and a little song and dance as well – they certainly don’t make them like this anymore. Kanō retired young, with her star power at its peak, out of concerns for her own health. Studio lighting had begun to take a toll on her eyesight, and the increased wattage required for color photography (which was becoming increasingly common at Daiei) was only exacerbating the situation. The actress made her exit after 1963’s 「風速七十五米」 Wind Velocity 75 Meters (another Daiei storm drama, appropriately enough), but remains popular more than half a century on. Her films still enjoy theatrical revivals from time to time, and are the recipients of frequent home video reissues as well.

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Other notable appearances include rising talent Jirō TAMIYA, who secured a lofty billing (third) for his charismatic supporting turn as one of the company truckers. Tamiya is also the recipient of what minimal special effects flash A Storm Zone has to offer – his truck rolls into a gully during the climactic final act, and summarily explodes. Career heavy Hideo TAKAMATSU lends a tasty mix of suave and sinister to the scheming Fujikawa and provides a nice counterpoint to top-billed good-guy Kenji SUGAWARA, who emerges as the film’s requisite hero during the typhoon finale – the rainy roadside fistfight between the two may well be the highlight of the picture. Standout among the supporting players is Jun TAZAKI, a frequent heavy best known to Western audiences for his many appearances in Tōhō special effects films, and who takes a substantial turn here as the brusque, boisterous and often inebriated driver Kawakami. Tazaki takes to the blue-collar role with a delightful enthusiasm, gleefully needling his boss and sticking up for his younger colleagues when things get tough. His Kawakami is the most colorful and viscerally engaging character A Storm Zone has to offer.

Veteran director Kunio Watanabe was in the third decade of his long career by the time of A Storm Zone‘s production, having entered the industry as an assistant director in the latter 1920s, and he takes to the material with confidence, if little flourish. The style is relatively dry throughout, but punctuated with tasty dollops of melodrama along the way (an obvious, ostentatious score from popular composer and pianist Eiichi YAMADA accents the latter perfectly). A Storm Zone‘s corporate intrigue thrills will never make for the most compelling viewing, but in Watanabe’s hands they make for a more than capable entertainment.

「暴風圏」 A STORM ZONE · 1959/07/26 · Daiei 大映 · B&W · ‘Scope
directed by 
WATANABE Kunio 渡辺邦男 · starring SUGAWARA Kenji 菅原謙二 · KANŌ Junko 叶順子 · TAMIYA Jirō 田宮二郎 · KINDAICHI Atsuko 金田一敦子 · TAKAMATSU Hideo 高松英郎 · written by WATANABE Kunio 渡辺邦男 and MATSŪRA Takeo 松浦健郎 · music by YAMADA Eiichi 山田栄一 · photography by WATANABE Takashi 渡辺孝 · available on Region 2 DVD from Kadokawa Shoten 角川書店

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