‘In July 1957, Yasuzo Masumura’s Kisses used a free revolving camera to film the young lovers riding around on a motorcycle. I felt now that the tide of a new age could no longer be ignored by anyone, and that a powerful irresistible force had arrived in Japanese cinema.’ These lines were written by Nagisa Oshima in a landmark 1958 essay in which he described the revolution that was taking place in Japanese cinema, initiated two years earlier by the rich wild youth or ‘sun tribe’ (taiyozoku) movie Crazed Fruit, and confirmed by Masumura’s assured first feature. With its cool monochrome, nonchalant protagonist, freshness of tone and naturalistic feel, Kisses has as much to do with European neo-realism as it does with Japanese cinema, and was no doubt influenced by Masumura’s stint as a student at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome in the 1950s.
Just as in Oshima’s own Naked Youth (1960), Kisses centres on a young couple in post-war Japan, struggling with their first experiences of love and desire against a background of strict social conventions and difficult economic conditions. This oppressive environment appears literally: Kinichi and Akiko meet in prison where they’re both visiting their fathers, the former’s held for election fraud, the latter’s for embezzling funds in a desperate attempt to find the money to pay for his sick wife’s care. Kinichi and Akiko each need 100,000 yen to pay for bail, and it looks like Akiko may be forced to resort to prostitution. Despite her desperate situation, Akiko bursts with joie de vivre and she and Kinichi spend a blissful, carefree day at the beach, after an unexpected win at a bicycle race.
Kisses is an unaffected, crisp, fresh film, entirely devoid of the perverse pleasures of Masumura’s later films, and yet some of the director’s recurrent themes already surface here. Though social rules weigh the two young characters down, they face the morose repressiveness of the adult world with tremendous reserves of spirited energy. Both Kinichi and Akiko resist expectations and are rebels of a sort, but their revolt is fuelled by youthful exuberance and an irrepressible sense of freedom, rather than by a desire to destroy conventions or transgress boundaries. Akiko prefigures the long line of fascinating female characters to come in Masumura’s work, but without the (self-)destructive edge that marks so many of them. Kinichi describes Akiko as ‘full of life’, saying she ‘loves everything’. And indeed while later Masumura characters give in to more complicated and dangerous desires, Akiko is driven simply by an immense and infectious lust for life.
At the core of the film lies the initiation of Kinichi and Akiko to both love and money, and more specifically to the uneasy relationship between the two in the adult world. This is made particularly clear by Kinichi’s mother, a tough divorcee who will only pay her son attention if he makes himself ‘valuable’ to her. The later-period Masumura surfaces in the initial hardness of the mother, and in the suggestion that love is just another kind of transaction in a world where everything is valued in financial terms. But even she softens up in the end, as Akiko’s lovely spirit wins over. As in Naked Youth, it is the female character who teaches her boyfriend how to love.
An unusually sweet and sober film in Masumura’s oeuvre, Kisses is full of youthful energy and hope, with at its heart characters who believe that they can win against the odds. While Oshima’s films of the period are filled with disillusionment and despair, Kisses celebrates the pleasure of being young, poignantly framed within a difficult social and economic situation.