Giant Steps



Giant Steps

By Howard Hampton

On Giants and Toys, Masumura’s gaudy satire of a profit-mad, postwar Japan.

Giants and Toys screens at Metrograph until December 9 and At Home until December 16.

Giants and Toys

From its opening credits, Yasuzô Masumura’s 1958 satire Giants and Toys establishes a narrative flow that’s pugnacious, cunningly stylized, and self-aware. Anticipating the Japanese New Wave, despite being a major studio release and an ostensibly commercial comedy at that, it was one of the most pointed studies in postwar Americanization (Masumura definitely broke new ground). Giants and Toys doesn’t present itself as portentously avant-garde: though the 33-year old Masumura had written vehement polemics against the reigning decorum of domestic cinema, his film never comes off as a piece of intellectual showboating. It cuts through the what the director saw as the cant and conformism of Japanese society and movies, brazenly transplanting a mordant collection of Hollywood formulas and vernacular breakthroughs. Double-edged blade in hand, Masumura performs “All that is solid melts into air” surgery on his country’s repressive-compulsive tendencies, operating on its internalized authoritarianism, crushed imperial dreams, and the male egotism barely masking infantilism while, at the same time, biopsying the new advertising-driven, consumption-mad push for growth. A series of lightning incisions:

  1. Flashing the “Daiei Production” logo on screen like a stern red flag to the “savage” beat of ceremonial drums.
  2. Plaster real-life model Hitomi Nozoe across the widescreen frame, her back to the camera, before she turns, striking a vivacious pose. Her beaming (or is it grimacing?) “funny face” burns into the brain: a gamin whose front teeth are a gamy checkerboard of decay, landing on a “kook” spectrum somewhere between Audrey Hepburn/Debbie Reynolds charmer and Jerry Lewis monstrosity.
  3. Freeze the awkward image in black and white, and subdivide it into dozens of proto-Warhol panels. (Warhol won’t start doing repeated image silkscreens until 1962.)
  4. Have a male vocalist scream as the main title appears, accompanied by crashing cymbals and a blast of brassy horns.
  5. Cantilever the titles over Nozoe’s 8x10" glossies, which blow away when the credits end.

The film then opens on a phalanx of salarymen marching to work, a face-in-the-crowd sequence so archetypal it could be on permanent display in the Museum of 20th-Century Alienation. But the drums have switched over into nightclub mode, and the uncredited vocalist is now scatting a crazed Stan Kenton-ish theme, shuffling through mannerisms (Crooner; Rockabilly Clown; Falsetto Hipster on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), as composer Tetsuo Tsukahara’s semi-tuneless tune and Weill-y orchestration that refreshes the stock image. Giants and Toys plays multiple sorts of alienation effects off each other in a pleasurably insinuating fashion: substituting a winking double-consciousness for Hollywood double entendres, ironic sentience for uptight titillation.

Giants and Toys plays multiple sorts of alienation effects off each other in a pleasurably insinuating fashion

As the singer offers a closing scream and a work siren blares at air raid volume, the movie enters the offices of the World Confectionary company, getting right down to express delivery exposition. The CEO barks fiscal dicta like an army commander dressing down a junior officer, in this case a wizened, dyspeptic publicity director who grows older and sicker in each successive shot. In this Big Candy war for market domination, World has fallen behind rivals Apollo and Giant, though all three are competing to come up with the strongest ad campaign. (“Apollo’s new line has several flavors in one. The taste changes as you eat them,” the CEO gripes.) And it’s not friendly competition; it’s trench mouth warfare, caramel-to-caramel combat. Giants and Toys portrays confections, marketing, and the fickle desires of pop culture as weaponry in a life or death arms race.

Suave advertising deputy Goda (Hideo Takamatsu) sidles into cinematographer Hiroshi Murai’s deep focus compositions, and something extraordinary happens: as Goda repeatedly strikes his faulty cigarette lighter, the clicking lighter is superimposed over a noisy product montage in which caramels move from assembly line to store delivery to voracious consumer. It’s a diagrammatic tour-de-force, blueprint and autopsy rolled into one. All that’s missing is the defecation stage, which is implicit in the ouroboros nature of the production cycle.

In the next two-minute drill, Masumura kicks the plot into gear. He lays out World’s quest for a fresh campaign angle: “Something new, a totally new concept,” the boss demands; tours World’s chaotic publicity department (where everyone yells at the staccato speed-typist rate of Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday); mocks the tangle of nepotism and frat-like allegiances rampant in Japan’s corporate pecking order; and introduces the blue-jeaned teen Kyoko (Nozoe), whom Goda thinks he can make-over into the poster girl for World Confectionary, garbed in a Space Age astronaut suit and wielding a toy ray gun. Few movies capture the relentless fast-forward evolution of modern society, at whatever stage of development or regression, with such a fine balance of the quotidian and the abstract—and make it feel like it is all happening in real, comic time. (Naturally postwar audiences found the pace, unpredictable tonality, and general information overload in the film both brilliantly pertinent and hard to digest.)

Giants and Toys

Having swiftly delineated a panoramic terrain encompassing class, consumerism, advertising, celebrity, and multiple forms of social manipulation, Giants and Toys transitions seamlessly into an unsparing, take-no-prisoners Japanese analogue to Frank Tashlin’s broad, crafty mid-’50s media-professional farces (Susan Slept Here; Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?). There’s a strong flavor of Billy Wilder, too, though mostly in how Masumura manages to anticipate widely disparate elements of The Apartment (1960) and One, Two, Three (1961). Jonathan Rosenbaum described this knack of Masumura’s as a “global synchronicity: the simultaneous appearance of the same apparent tastes, styles and/or themes in separate parts of world.” There is no denying something was in the cultural air then, a collective transmutation that could have taken the Situationist slogan, “Our ideas are in everyone’s mind,” for a tag line. Not ideas so much as an amorphous itch, a nervous tick... tick... tick…

Giants and Toys proceeds on two tracks: a kibbutzing commentary on the systemic nature of market capitalism/capitalistic marketing, and a reflection on the internal mythologies that people act out. The patsies here are the overconfident wise guys—Goda and his protege Nishi (notorious playboy Hiroshi Kawaguchi)—who think they’re gaming the system and pulling the strings, but whose blinkered foolishness assures they’ll be blindsided by events. More specifically, by the women they imagine they can recreate, control, manipulate. The tongue-wiggling Kyoko turns out to be a very fast learner in the celebrity racket (“While you slave away, she’s transforming herself”), and the helmeted waif outmaneuvers her “creator,” Goda, leaving his “genius” campaign in shambles. Meanwhile, Masami (Michiko Ono), the rival ad exec from Apollo, is seemingly inserted into the movie as Nishi’s espionage-target-cum-love interest, yet quickly establishes herself as the smartest, most clear-eyed player in the game. When Nishi winds up bitterly walking the nighttime boulevard in Kyoko’s promotional spacesuit, Masami devastatingly but not unkindly tells her ridiculous paramour, “Smile.”

Masumura’s provisional embrace of impersonality—throwing off the shackles of sentimental interiority, throwing in melodramatic spasms of coughed-up blood, and speeches to match—turns the farce toward absurdism. The riveting mosaic quality of the film is assembled from every kind of source, including agitprop dialogue that resembles adspeak (“You need to be working in your sleep to put food on the table in Japan”) and newspaper headlines that treat the competing prizes offered by the three companies as a clash of civilizations: “SPACE SUITS VS. ANIMALS VS. SUBSIDIZED LIVING.” Nothing is exactly what it seems, no didactic passage is without a subtext or ambidexterity: the drunken photographer, far from being an Avedon-type master of the media universe, stumbles through the movie like a failed Dionysian satyr struck with erectile dysfunction. The knockabout scenes of the failing taxi company where Kyoko skips work, and those of her unruly hand-to-mouth family, are Polaroids of warped working-class resilience. Their semi-slapstick tone is pitched right on the porous border between black market and black hole. (Meanwhile, in the office suites and TV studios, underground economies are being rehabilitated as free markets.)

Watching today, it is as though Masumura invented a directorial persona expressly for this movie, acting as one-shot synthesis of zeitgeist conduit and aesthetic technician, leaving behind a bejewelled machine that could have come from a parallel universe, or an alternate history. I’m thinking of the Antikythera mechanism: the oldest analogue computer, discovered in a shipwreck in 1901 and dated around 100 BC, about fifteen centuries before you’d expect something of its complexity. Giants and Toys prescience isn’t that extreme, but if I had to pick a favorite Easter egg of the uncanny from its deep recesses, I’d go with the picture of Elizabeth Taylor hanging on a back wall in World Confectionary’s publicity department. Surrounded with a clutter of toys, cartoonish adverts, and garish posters, it’s a subliminal message to a future Warhol: “Hurry up and paint me already.”

Howard Hampton is the author of Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses. He’s written for Film Comment, Artforum, ad infinitum.

Giants and Toys