Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Susumu Hani | Hatsukoi: Jigoku-hen (Nanami: The Inferno of First Love)

cabbages and onions
by Douglas Messerli

Susumu Hani and Shūji Terayama (screenplay), Susumu Hani (director) Hatsukoi: Jigoku-hen (Nanami: The Inferno of First Love) / 1968, USA 1969

Susumu Hani’s film, seldom seen in the US, begins with a young couple, Nanami (Kuniko Ishii) and Shun (Akio Takahashi), meeting at a Tokyo hotel dedicated to sex. They have clearly rented the small room for their encounter, having apparently met elsewhere. It is also obvious that this is their first meeting, and that the young male, Shun, particularly, is inexperienced, as Nanami quickly undresses and helps him to feel comfortable. For a great part of this lovely encounter, the couple kiss and merely giggle, exploring, bit by bit, one another’s bodies. Yet the encounter ends somewhat uneasily as it becomes clear that Shun is unable to engage in sex; yet even then, both turn the event into something positive as they begin to tell each other their life stories, Shun revealing that he has been abandoned, as a little boy, by his mother who, after his father’s death, has taken up with a boxer. Adopted by a couple, dubbed by others as the “good Samaritans,” Shun learns, through his father, how to become a metalworker. Nanami has come to the city in order to work in a shoe factory, but unable to make a reasonable living, the good-looking girl gradually becomes a nude model, working in a kind of brothel-like setting, where men seek her out for photographs. Yet for all the possible exploitation of her job, she admits that she has gotten used to it and that her customers are, for the most part, good to her.

     The audience for this film, accordingly, might expect from the rest of the film, subtitled “The Inferno of First Love,” a story of a poignant love-affair, a blossoming of a relationship between the two that characterizes both the heart-break and delights of first loves. Although Nanami and Shun agree to meet again, however, that meeting never takes place, and what follows, in the context of the simple portrayal of youthful love we have just witnessed, is startling. It may help one to know that when this film first appeared in the US it was paired, at least in New York City, with the porn classic Deep Throat  at the World 49th Street Theater, a fact seemingly unimaginable given the scene I have just described.

     Indeed director Hani moves the story carefully forward in two directions, with an almost idyllic portrayal of the young hero’s encounter with a female toddler in a park, whom he has described as his only other girlfriend to Nanami. The child, who accidentally has encountered the boy, is obviously delighted with his gentle ways and his willingness to play games with her and read to her. At the game of riddles, the child stumps him with her question that entails the difference between cabbages and onions: if when you peal a cabbage you are left with the core, what are you left with after peeling an onion? The utterly clueless boy cannot answer.

     Although the boy’s and the child’s friendship obviously is completely innocent, we sense something amiss about his willingness to devote so much time to her company. There is quite clearly something a bit stunted about his behavior. But, at first, we dismiss this, particularly when Hani also serves up a long scene where the boy and his stepfather sit in the older man’s studio both rhythmically tapping against pieces of metal, a perfect example, so it seems, of a loving elder and his appreciative apprentice.

     Soon, however, as Hani begins to expand his tale, sending Shun out in the world in an attempt to reencounter the carefree Nanami, the viewer begins to sense another world lying underneath this pleasant presentation of innocence and adaptation. Witnessing Nanami and her companions as they position themselves on the street, very much like prostitutes, Shun follows them, as a peeping voyeur, through a series of sordid encounters. These begin fairly innocently, with a photo shoot of her and her friends in swimming suits that gradually are stripped away to reveal the girl’s nude nubile bodies. The man she describes to Shun, Ankokuji (Minoru Yusasa) pays her and brings her gifts. But later, when a Yakuza member bribes a shoeshop owner to use his basement, he and his “photo club” friends turn Nanami and her friends into would-be actresses who play out S&M fantasies between lesbian couples and simulated violent battles between Samurai-like women (played by Nanami) and a large Caucasian amazon, the plot becoming increasingly bizarre—and more and more violent—as the men, sweat pouring from their testosterone-charged bodies frantically snap photographs of the heated encounters between the women and whisper stories of previous performers of such chain, whip, and snuff films. The large, amazed eyes of Shun, secretly witnessing this perverse drama, expresses, perhaps, not only his amazement but serves as a kind of moral statement of what, we too, have just observed. In a matter of just a few moments, the director has taken us from simple nudity to enactments of sado-masochistic scenes, racial stereotypes, sacrilegious ceremonies, and ritualized murders.

     Another scene portrays Shun, again in the park with his young toddler-friend, but this time intimating a much more pedophiliac relationship as he holds her close as she urinates. Observed by park bystanders, who assume the gestures represent sexual acts, he is chased from the park, attacked and arrested, ending up in an equally perverse psychiatric session where he is hypnotized, injected with sodium pentothal, and forced to remember not only those recent dramatic events, but his own early sodomizing by his “saintly” adoptive father, his adoptive mother crying out for a stop to the procedures.

     Despite these clearly torrid aspects of both of their lives, the young couple still attempt to make a date, but as Nanami is more and more enveloped in the pornographic world in which she is involved, Shun—clearly in need of alternatives to his own haunted memories—becomes jealous as he is forced to follow her into greater and greater degrees of degradation. An innocent meeting with a fellow classmate, a nerdy boy from her schooldays she has nicknamed Algebra, is transformed into a kind of torture for Shun as he tags along with the two, attending a graduation ceremony at a school where both he and Nanami are made fun of for their obviously outré clothing and behavior.

    Yet, here again, Hani surprises the viewer by transforming Algebra’s sentimentalized and badly done film about his own “first love” into something that Shun suddenly perceives as a meaningful work of art, a movie which has found significant to his own life; as the two share their mutual admiration of Algebra’s clumsy expression, Nanami, presented by Shun with the child’s riddle, easily solves it: what you get by peeling an onion is tears.

     Both, indeed, must face further pain and humiliation before they can even possibly embrace the new world they promise one another. On a day-time shoot at the beach, Nanami observes, from afar, her polite businessman photographer who has showered her with gifts joyfully spending a day with his wife (whom he has described as someone he desires to beat) and his two young boys, barbecuing fish. Never before has she observed the man so enjoying himself.

    Shun, in a kind of surrealist-like series of dream images calls up what seem to be scenes from his childhood, where naked boys and girls are dressed in Kabuki masks, gathered and chased by the taunts of adults as in some vague ritualistic celebration. Shun awakens to again have to face the homosexual affections of his step-father; rejecting his advances for the first time, the boy is ordered out of the house, the man predicting Shun will become a delinquent!

      No matter, he is on his way to the hotel to meet his “first” and only love, Nanami. But along the way he encounters the Yakuza and his thugs, who attempt to pay him to reveal Nanami’s address. Running from them in absolute horror—and in terror perhaps of all his memories present and past—he is struck by a car and killed. Nanami, upon hearing the commotion, comes to the hotel window to observe her potential lover’s body below.

     Combining the radical opposing genres of a love story, an idyll, a surrealist nightmare, a 1960s documentary, and a naturalistic parable, Nanami: The Inferno of First Love, is just what its subtitle suggests, a recounting of a hellish-like furnace where lives are determined less by desire and will than they are by all the little hits and taps that mold any malleable being into something he or she would prefer not to have become.

Los Angeles, May 14, 2012

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