Brilliant filmmaking from Japan: Yasuzô Masumura’s film all but screams in protest, that unfettered consumer capitalism is cannibalism, plain and simple. In the radical director’s scathing, savage satire, Tokyo’s desperate advertising ‘Mad Men’ create a fresh new star celebrity to promote their product, only for the warfare of cutthroat competition to shatter careers, fortunes and basic human values. Masumura’s cinematic onslaught is at least ten years ahead of its time, in design, direction, writing and music — the movie outpaces American comedies about Succeeding in Business, recognizing that the tyranny of commercial media trashes the quality of life itself. Arrow’s informed and insightful Blu-ray extras ask the important question: how can one movie get this complex subject so completely right?
Giants and Toys
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 95 min. / Kyojin to gangu, The Build-Up / Street Date May 11, 2021 / 39.95
Starring: Hiroshi Kawaguchi, Hitomi Nozoe, Yunosuke Ito, Kinzo Shin,
Hideo Takamatsu, Michiko Ono, Kyu Sazanka.
Cinematography: Hiroshi Murai
Art Director: Tomoo Shimogawara
Original Music: Tetsuo Tsukahara
Written by Ishio Shirasaka from a story by Ken Kaiko
Produced by Hidemasa Nagata
Directed by Yasuzô Masumura
Let’s agree not to belittle DVDs and Blu-rays: the arrival of those formats brought us access to foreign movies that we could never have seen when new. Hollywood’s pictures played in Japan but the flow of cinema culture was mostly one-way. Due to the economic-cultural mismatch the only knowledge we had of what Japanese people were like or how they lived were images and ideas filtered through our own movies.
The Japanese director Yasuzô Masumura made savage critique-satires disguised as murder thrillers, war movies and melodramas. He had studied in Italy, and apparently returned with a heightened political awareness. It wasn’t long before his films turned to subject matter that even the Japanese were hardly ready for.
In 1958 Japan’s economy was just getting traction for a recovery that would stagger the world. They’d soon be making almost as many movies a year as Hollywood. Adopting American methods wholesale, the country’s reorganized business sector pursued free market success with a ruthlessness that even outpaced America.
An early scream in the wilderness came from a filmmaker who would make a name for himself with radical statements highly critical of Japanese society. This show begins with an audiovisual barrage of flashing, advertising-influenced images and intentionally grating music, with a vocal line literally screamed. I’ve heard conflicting opinions about the film, even though nobody claims that it is exaggerated or false. The wisest remark came from an editor friend who worked in Japan for a year: “The advertising onslaught is no different than what we have here, just louder and coarser.”
Yasuzô Masumura’s Giants and Toys is a freewheeling, cynical look at Japanese advertising competition in the postwar economic boom, with a highly debatable argument about decadence and the loss of values in the Japanese culture. It cuts deep with us Gaijin in the United States because it’s our own market-driven free-for-all business and advertising culture writ large. The first shots are of an army of white-collar ‘salarymen’ marching to work under the savage-sounding music cue; it’s a different take on the regimented workforces being ‘fed’ to pitiless factory systems in Metropolis, Modern Times and Joe versus the Volcano. The song lyrics are about cannibalism and the vocal ends with a Punk- like strangled scream … in 1958!
Masumura’s film is even more shocking because it arrived relatively early in the Japanese economic recovery, the peak of which was at least five years away. Kurosawa’s high tragedy The Bad Sleep Well is grim social comment, but Masumura and writer Ishio Shirasaka’s film shows a consumer landscape devoured by American values and business practices. Again, the shocker is that Masumura put this knife-edged shocker together way back in 1958, before acid-laced black comedies gained traction in the U.S.. American satires on advertising tended toward the cartoonish silliness of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?; this show plays for keeps, and without the fantastic or surreal content of, say, The Loved One. Ruthlessly critical, it comes off as a powerful denunciation of the entire direction Japan was taking, catching up with a hundred years of sharp Western business practices in a matter of a decade or two. The original title Kyojin to gangu translates roughly as ‘Do Your Best’; it might more accurately read ‘Do Your Best or Die.’
How to Fail in Business while Trying Much Too Hard.
We’ve heard about the Japanese business model, in which employees dedicate their entire lives to companies that might as well be feudal fiefdoms. Loyal workers wear company pins like military insignia. World Candy Company is engaged in a media advertising war for the Japanese candy market, against their main competitors Giant and Apollo. World’s marketing execs are under pressure to make dramatic sales increases, which prompts desperate efforts to find out what’s going on at the other companies. Nishi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) is the eager assistant to Goda (Hideo Takamatsu), who to save his job must produce positive sales results. Together they decide to place World’s hopes on a ‘space’ themed campaign. Goda finds a spunky and photogenic model in Kyoko Shima (Hitomi Nozoe), a gamin with terrible teeth but the desirable (?) ability to touch her nose with her long tongue. The pressure gets higher as Giant’s caveman spokesman and World’s space girl compete for attention in dueling loudspeaker buses. Magazines and television shows are saturated with captivating images of Kyoko, who becomes a celebrity despite having no particular talent. But World’s market share doesn’t improve, not even when Apollo Candy suffers a catastrophic fire. Kyoko’s celebrity goes to her head, and Nishi’s attempts to reconcile his love life with his World duties come to ruin.
Giants and Toys immerses the viewer in business, Japan-style, at a time when the whole culture seems to be emulating everything bad in the American model. “America is Japan” one executive says, just advanced a few years.” The candy companies battle for market supremacy, going at each other like armies. No sales level is ever good enough. Executives hand down edicts to their advertising directors as if they were generals telling their officers to succeed or die. The crippling fire at the rival Apollo company prompts an executive (Goda’s father-in-law) to propose that World show mercy and offer help, a thought that is dismissed out of hand: “All that Bushido honor stuff is dead.” Higher sales are everything, and winners take no prisoners.
The office pressure all focuses on Goda, the executive who must take responsibility for everything. Goda gambles that rocket and space station toys that are old hat in the U.S. will be a hit with Japanese kids [Note: Japanese kids that just saw their first home-grown space war epic, The Mysterians]. Just as in Madison Avenue’s ‘think tanks,’ ad creatives get into the spirit by playing with prototype space toys.
Outside the office window is World Candy Company’s logo, a large rotating globe that seems to haunt the tortured Goda as his career fortunes go sour, affecting his health. It might be modeled after the ‘Cooks Tours’ globe seen in the American gangster classic Scarface, that symbolized the promise of unending success with the motto ‘The World Is Yours.’
All hail the ‘World Candy Girl.’
Giants and Toys tells the very American story of the recruiting of an eager slum girl to become World Candy’s spokesperson-model, an opportunity that Kyoko Shima devours like the candy that has rotted her teeth. Her transformation is symbolized by the pet tadpoles she keeps in a coffee can. She starts out ignorant of business ways, but with the belief that the young assisant Nishi is in love with her. Goda makes Nishi Kyoko’s minder throughout her star-making phase, with photographer Harukawa (Yunosuke Ito) hired to put the mischievous girl’s face on every magazine in the country. Harukawa is a terrific character, a vulgarian who comes up with original advertising looks and designs, and can be counted on to speak the cruel truths nobody else will.
Traditional Japanese virtues are nowhere to be seen in the world of mass marketing. Kyoko’s family grabs up her money, eager for material goods behooving the blood relations of the ‘World Candy Girl.’ Kyoko brushes past crippled ex- soldiers begging on the street, rushing to sign a contract that will pay her big money just to use her ‘image.’ Her adored tadpoles die from inattention.
Nishi is also no saint. He cruelly pushes Kyoko away because he’s foolishly in love with Masami Kurahashi (Michiko Ono), an ad girl from one of the rivals. Nishi learns the hard way that love and friendship mean less than nothing. Masami feeds Nishi useless information about Apollo, and uses Nishi to learn all of World’s plans. Nishi’s ‘faithful’ college pal also works for a rival and also stabs him in the back. He wastes no time stealing Kyoko away from her World contract, and rationalizes his treachery by saying, ‘the only thing to do is double-cross the other guy before he can double-cross you.’ The casual, accepted way that business associates exploit each other predates the sly corruption seen in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.
In the long run none of this matters. The Kyoko Shima phenomenon was created over a weekend and can crumble just as quickly. The rough qualities that made Kyoko so appealing — her mischievous pixie smile and raucous humor — disappear when she takes her ‘career’ seriously, taking singing and dancing lessons and getting her teeth straightened. In a TV studio, Nishi doesn’t recognize a beautiful, crying woman. She happens to be the previous World Candy Girl, and is already a forgotten non-entity.
Masumura’s direction is so stylistically advanced, it’s hard to believe this movie was made in 1958. Everyone we see is in a constant state of sweaty insecurity. Masumura and Shirasaka flood us with rapid talk from the agitated ad-folk; the soul-less heart of the advertising rat race is expressed in a whirlwind of glitzy graphic montages. Goda’s cigarette lighter malfunctions repeatedly, a reminder of his insecure career. Masumura superimposes the faulty lighter clicking over nervous montages of candy production and Kyoko’s rocketing trajectory to pseudo-fame. Crazy advertising buses bombard us with the noise of their screaming loudspeaker spiels and numbing ad jingles. One bus attempts to sell candy to a manic crowd of student demonstrators.
The film’s musical numbers are just insane. Already a magazine celebrity, Kyoko films an extended musical ad for World Candy in her space suit, toting a ray gun. Her fellow dancing space girls mix with ballerinas, in a clashing jumble of the worst of Western Kitsch. For the Space Girl musical number, Masumura uses a time-warp non-linear editing scheme that predates the French New Wave and Alain Resnais-style time-jumbling: the shooting of the piece is intercut with various people watching it on TV at various points in the future. Color Daieiscope visuals cut with shots of a B&W TV image with added cheesy special effects. In one pass, we get the idea that World’s space campaign has saturated Japan wherever there are TV sets.
Kyoko’s second gala number comes after the glamor makeover that takes away her impish spark, her individuality. Costumed as a cannibal queen among a horde of spear-throwing natives, she sings about killing enemies and spilling rivers of blood. The song is the same ‘cannibal’ tune heard behind the titles, an apt metaphor for the savagery of the media onslaught. The message is that Japan’s economic recovery is dehumanizing, barbaric.
Everything about the movie is ahead of its time, content and style-wise. Masumura bombards the Daieiscope screen with mass-produced graphics years before Pop Art hit American culture. Even the titles are ten years advanced: a snapshot of Kyoko Sushi multiplies into rows of Warhol-like repeated images. Reams of colorful magazines (all opening backwards, of course) fill the racks; Kyoko is ‘discovered’ gleefully licking her lips over a glass shelf of fancy pastries: she’s literally chosen like one would a piece of pie. (last image below ↓ ) World Candy’s advertising think tank is cluttered with cheap tin toys of robots and jet aircraft. Savant remembers getting some of those toys as gifts straight from Japan — especially a spaceship that flashed lights and changed direction when you tooted on a whistle …Giants and Toys has an odd connection with Toho’s toy-celebrating outer space movies.
Masumura’s in-your-face, nothing’s sacred social criticism is radical thinking from a one-of-a-kind agitating social critic. Disc commentator Irene González-López tells us that Masumura was strongly influenced by American satire. One is reminded of the anything-goes cartoonish satires of Frank Tashlin, and even of the caustic Billy Wilder of Ace in the Hole. Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd and Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success have nothing on the exhilarating, exhausting Giants and Toys. It’s the very definition of the Refusal to Compromise.
The American critique of big business The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit discreetly asks if our white-collar workers are disillusioned by the rat race, or are losing their moral bearings. Masumura’s executives haven’t the luxury of time off to reflect, as they’re too busy with the desperate struggle to stave off failure and demotion, fates worse than death. To press his advantage director Goda ends up denouncing and browbeating his own father-in-law, just because the man speaks of traditional business ethics. When things go bad Goda’s own health breaks down. He receives his treasured announcement of a promotion to head of advertising, but collapses and coughs up blood on it.
Nishi doesn’t fare any better. Goda demands that he demean himself for the good of the ad campaign by seducing Kyoko back into a cooperative posture. Just when we think that Goda and Nishi’s trauma might spiral into some kind of bloodbath, the filmmakers surprise us with a much more memorable image of debasement, one as effective as more violent, doom-laden last scenes in downbeat American films noir. The final dialogue line to Nishi is “Smile cheerfully!” as he surrenders his last ounce of self-esteem.
Do we think Giants and Toys is a crazy exaggeration of a culture gone off the rails, that nothing as appallingly insane could happen here? Just take a look at this Harper’s magazine article by Barrett Swanson, The Anxiety of Influencers: Educating the TikTok generation.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Giants and Toys is a bright and clear encoding of this one-of-a-kind show, a sociological wonderment guaranteed to ignite heated conversation. As much as we were grateful for Fantoma’s pioneering 2002 DVD, the image and audio are greatly improved for this Blu-ray. Older video masters of Japanese films tended toward greenish hues, and this looks much more balanced. Colors are slightly muted in the business scenes but become blaring hues whenever toys, neon or the glitzy TV shows take over.
The so-so images I found do not represent the superior quality on the Blu-ray. The audio track is also better, which is good for a film with this much dialogue. Setsuo Tsukahara’s music ranges from Latin Mambo rhythms to a pounding Gorath– like march that enforces the relentless, breakneck pace of the advertising machine.
Arrow’s extras are a bounty of good information and new thought on Giants and Toys. A Japanese trailer stresses the fact that the movie is a serious adult offering, and ‘a new chapter in the history of cinema.’ Tony Stella’s disc jacket artwork finds an excellent image for this difficult-to-describe movie.
Tony Rayns’ introductory video is good to see right after one’s first viewing; he communicates the film’s uniqueness with enthusiasm, and is impressed by its precocious, ahead-of-its-time quality. One idea imparted is that business competition in Japan channeled the country’s previous do-or-die total commitment energy from the war years. Earl Jackson’s follow-up visual essay compares this show to Masumura’s later Black Test Car, which carries the notion of company loyalty even farther. Jackson’s analysis points out Giants and Toys’ full expression of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art ideas, years before Warhol: mass-produced art (accomplished in the first images of the title sequence) and instant fame, the famous fifteen minutes quote. He also reacts to the editorial space-time dislocation in the Space TV show musical number.
A very strong new voice on Japanese cinema is Irene González-López, a UK academic with excellent vocal communication skills. She has a lot to say about every aspect of the show, especially the qualities that made it far different than any previous Japanese film. Her analysis of Masumura’s skillful camera moves and his highly refined sense of ‘scope composition is particularly adept.
The insert booklet carries an exceptionally good essay by Michael Raine, who underscores Masumura’s cynical jabs at business culture. Nepotism and ‘who you know’ are the strongest factors for advancement at World Candy. Goda married his wife because she’s the big boss’s daughter, and ignores her entirely. He favors Nishi because they came from the same school and played the same sport. Both Rain and commentator González-López refer to a critical debate between the different concepts modernity and modernism — not necessarily in art, but to express the idea that Japan was developing in some ways but not in others, and not choosing its future wisely.
Final note: Twenty years ago, the academic correspondent Kyu Hyun Kim wrote in to discuss Giants and Toys, reminding me that Yasuzô Masumura is also the director of the transgressive film about sexual obsession The Blind Beast (Moju) and a 1961 movie called The Wife Confesses (Tsuma wa kokuhaku suru), a scathing assault on the hypocrisies of marriage. Kyu said that Masumura “indeed anticipated the rise of ‘Japan Incorporated’ long before its GNP growth rate hit two digits in the 1960s. Giants and Toys foresaw the dehumanizing conditions resulting from the drive for prosperity that would eventually make Japan the second richest nation in the world. Until its cinema industry ignobly collapsed into a heap of rubble in the late 1970s, Japan had been one of the leading centers of cinematic art in the world. There were more film theatres in Japan of 1930s than in the United States. Many great works of Japanese cinema are yet to be discovered and properly appreciated by American viewers.”
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Giants and Toys
Supplements: All new: audio commentary by Irene González-López; introduction by Tony Rayns; visual essay In the Realm of the Publicists by Earl Jackson. Original Trailer, Image Gallery. Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella. Illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing by Michael Raine.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 22, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson