Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Caramel War: Yasuzo Masumura's GIANTS AND TOYS (1958)

"E verybody wants their fifteen minutes of fame," a businessman says, in English translation, when explaining how Japan's TV networks and other media outlets strive to fill time and space in order to keep in business -- they create celebrities constantly from a perpetually willing populace.  The year is 1958. Andy Warhol will not make his famous prophecy about everyone getting their fifteen minutes for another decade. I assume that the translator who composed the subtitles for the Fantoma DVD of Giants and Toys used a now-familiar American idiom to replace an unfamiliar Japanese idiom, without realizing that putting the phrase in anyone's mouth in 1958 was anachronistic. But if it's a literal translation of the actor's remarks, then screenwriters Ken Kaiko and Yoshio Sirasaka were also prophets. That would seem right somehow. It would be in keeping with the way Yasuzo Masumura's satire echoes contemporary American concerns with mass media, celebrity, and the omnipresence of advertising. It may seem strange that Japanese writers and filmmakers, only thirteen years removed from being bombed nearly to the Stone Age, are as advanced in their anxiety about mass culture as the American vanguard, but as one character says, "America is Japan." It's less a matter of America remaking Japan in its own image than of Japan making another of its characteristic adaptive leaps and becoming, on this film's evidence, even more of a media and ad-saturated society than its American model. Accordingly, Masumura's satire is more intense, emotionally and pictorially, than such American counterparts as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Sweet Smell of Success, and so on. Giants and Toys may be the ultimate global statement on the subject.

In the neon world of Giants and Toys, Nishi (approximately fifth from right, below)
starts out as just a face in the crowd.

One immediate difference between Japanese and American cases is the absence, in Masumura's film at least, of an equivalent of "Madison Avenue," the world of advertising agencies eventually called by name in a minor 1962 Hollywood picture. The competing caramel companies of Giants and Toys appear to do all their marketing in-house. World, Giant and Apollo are battling for dominance of the candy market, each seeking a new tie-in gimmick to pull it ahead of the rest. Apollo seems to take the subtle approach, while Giant relies on a spokesman in a strongman costume to sell its stuff. Our main focus is on World's struggle to distinguish itself. The company has problems. The lights have gone out on two letters of its English language neon sign, so that the company's name reads OLD. How to change their image. Key to the effort are hard-charging Goda, who suffers from the Movie Disease (occasional coughing fits, blood on the handkerchief) and his young, idealistic assistant Nishi. Among their strategies are a space-age gimmick with futuristic giveaways to tie in to an upcoming Space Expo, and the discovery of a new corporate spokesperson, a perky girl with bad teeth, supposedly from enjoying too many World Caramels. Everything converges as the girl plucked from the slums, whom Nishi thinks "looks like a monkey," dons a spacesuit and films elaborately choreographed commercials with earwig soundtracks, delivering World Caramels to the benighted people of distant worlds.

A star is born, but will success spoil Kyoko Shima?

The girl, Kyoko Shima, becomes Japan's Next Big Thing from her initial appearances in magazine layouts to a delerious live tour, quickly growing bigger than World. All the while, Nishi strives to get intelligence on the rival companies from his buddy and his girlfriend, who happen to be his counterparts at Giant and Apollo respectively. The moment I described Nishi as idealistic you should have guessed that he would prove a loser, dominated by Goda, played by his pals, increasingly intimidated by Kyoko. Idealistic loser that he is, he rebels in spirit against the shallow cutthroat competition that intensifies after a factory fire knocks Apollo out of the running. Everything seems to depend on his getting Kyoko to appear in her space costume at the Expo, but his Galataea, now aided by Nishi's pal from Giant, checkmates him and goes on to pursue her destiny, leaving our hero to a fate more closely resembling Requiem For a Heavyweight than any of the American ad-age satires mentioned earlier. It's also an extra satiric payoff for the entire space-age gimmick, as Nishi's shamefaced donning of the spacesuit symbolizes his alien-ation from the crass culture he's helped to cultivate.

Requiem for a lightweight.

Giants and Toys is a more definitive visual document of the 1950s than most of its Hollywood counterparts. It looks right, at least to someone who didn't actually live then. That is, the cinematography of Hiroshi Murai and the art direction of Tomoo Shimogawara looks torn from the pages of Life magazine, lurid and lush. The actual products of the ad culture look authentic, especially the zany spacewoman commercial we see mostly on a TV screen and briefly as it's apparently being shot live at that moment. The film's satire seems more pointed, or more focused, than the American pictures, more on-target in portraying the caramel competition as an amoral equivalent of war. The analogy is illustrated most dramatically as planes leaflet-bomb Tokyo with promos for one of the candy companies, and dramatized most starkly when a possibly-dying Goda accuses Nishi of being a traitor for refusing to go the extra miles for his corporation. Interestingly, Goda scoffs at actual invocations of bushido, as when an older, even more moribund executive suggests that it'd be dishonorable to snatch Apollo's market share while the rival company is helpless following that fire. It's Goda, not that older man, who seems to embody the warlike spirit that set Japan on a course of conquest and tyranny a generation earlier and now expresses itself in obsessive battles for sales. That sublimated bloodthirst finds its ultimate new expression in Kyoko's utterly mad musical performance, as racist a fantasy of primitive barbarism as anything the U.S. might have come up with. As dancing savages chuck their spears, Kyoko sings lyrics about stabbing people until they bleed out, chopping them up and selling them to the native women. The goofball girl-next-door achieves apotheosis a goddess of death, capping a giant performance by Hitomi Nozoe that stands somewhere between Judy Garland in the 1954 A Star is Born and Jayne Mansfield in Rock Hunter. Hiroshi Kawaguchi as Nishi and Hideo Takamatsu (who would later turn up U.S. TV on Shogun) as Goda are also outstanding, with personalities to match Masumura's wild widescreen imagery.

Not everything the director tries works; I'm not sure of the point of running three separate montages over images of Goda attempting to use his cigarette lighter, for instance. But for someone swinging for the seats in nearly every frame (including scenes set at an actual baseball stadium) Masumura has a very good batting average in this picture. He knocks the picture as a whole out of the park, creating as defining a film for the era and its self-satirizing anxiety as I can imagine. It has to go down as one of the best films of the 1950s and one of the very greatest about the 1950s.


Ivan said...

Thanks for this great write-up! I own a DVD of G&T and love the film, but haven't even thought about it in years--but you know how it is, the "2 watch" pile grows and grows, burying classics... Finding G&T is now on today's "2 do" list.

Samuel Wilson said...

Ivan: Boy do I know about to-watch piles. G&T first hit my radar years ago; I think a Video Watchdog review set it off. Only now -- or last week -- did I get around to watching. It was worth the wait, but for everyone else it's worth not waiting, too.