It is not only in recent decades that artists have found it necessary to take down the chaotic media landscape in their work. While it is easy to focus on the American-made features that recontextualized how we view corporate culture, filmmakers from countries around the world have fought their own battles to shine a light on what they consider the failings of society. One particularly brutal satire is the 1958 Japanese comedy Giants and Toys from director Yasuzo Masumura (Black Test Car, The Black Report). This fast-paced, visually assaultive picture was soundly rejected by audiences at the time who were not ready for a film filled with unlikable characters which skewered the unyielding nature of Japanese culture. To put it bluntly, the audiences were too busy being consumed by an avalanche of culture to watch a film that criticizes a world that allows that to occur. While general audiences did not appreciate the film, some cultural critics appreciated what this film was doing and championed its innovation over the years. Now more than ever, Giants and Toys seems ripe for a rediscovery thanks to its timelessness.
It is in “present day” Japan where we follow Yousuke Nishi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), a new, young employee in the advertising department of the World Caramel Company. Along with his superior, Ryuji Goda (Hideo Takamatsu), Nishi and the team must come up with the perfect way to increase sales of their candy. Nishi has a school friend who works in advertising at the rival Giant Caramel Company, who he likes to swap stories with and maintain a healthy competitive streak. His friend introduces him to Kurahashi (Michiko Ono), who works for yet a third rival company, Apollo Caramel, who eventually becomes Nishi’s girlfriend. All three companies are fighting to find the right angle to appeal to the celebrity-obsessed culture of the day. If you thought you would go your entire life without watching a depiction of a bitter rivalry between candy companies, you really misjudged your trajectory. Nishi and Goda take a different approach and pluck the oddball Kyoko (Hitomi Nozoe), a commoner with rotten teeth, to be their spokesperson.
Giants and Toys has a really absurdly funny sense of humor that the right audience will appreciate. The mere fact that Kyoko becomes a huge hit with the masses is an amusing commentary on how society latches on to the grotesque. The image that World Caramel Company is projecting with their sweets is a woman who has scarfed down so many caramels that it has rotted her teeth. There are also layers of criticism covering the United States’ relationship with Japan post-World War II. Not only did America leave Japan with wounds from the past, but even the corruption of Japanese culture can be largely linked back to America. The core element of the film is caramel candy, which the US introduced to Japan and led to issues such as declining dental health. Japan has likewise learned to take American advertising techniques and all of the toxicity that comes along with it.
While there are definitely distinctly American elements to latch onto in this narrative, the primary focus is a targeted attack on the Japanese way of life. At the time of the film’s development, Masumura was keenly aware of the rise of corporate ruthlessness and the belief of working until you drop dead. In one particularly blistering attack, one of our main protagonists Goda has a growing ulcer that keeps worsening the more he ties his life to his work. As he finally gets his promotion for a job well done, he coughs up blood over the paperwork. The way in which this narrative handles the manufactured nature of Kyoko is really well done, rising from a nobody to a less-than-loyal pop icon worshipped by legions. Giants and Toys may have not taken Japan by storm at the time of its release, but as the years have ticked by the relevancy has only gotten that much stronger. If it were not for some aged visuals, this would be a feature that could easily fit into the modern day without much needing to be changed.
This new Blu-Ray from Arrow Video gives Giants and Toys an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1 derived from an HD master supplied by Kadokawa with additional grading and restoration by Arrow Films. The film has a pretty nice, thick grain structure that preserves the filmic look of the picture, showcasing solid details in the offices and in the bustling markets. The color timing seems natural to the intention of the filmmaker. Colors show up on the screen nicely, especially in the bright hues of the costumes and production design. Black levels hold up pretty well with some admirable depth to the image. Some shots contain noticeable softness, but are contained to only a small portion of the shots. There is no overwhelming damage to be found in this presentation with only minor instances of dirt and specks in the image. Overall, Arrow has done quite a nice job with this title.
This Blu-Ray comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track in the original Japanese (with optional English subtitles). Dialogue sounds perfectly clear without sound effects or the score trouncing on important information. The hustle and bustle of crowds are delineated well within the mix. Environmental sounds are clearly represented without being clipped. The soundtrack comes through nicely in relation to the competing sounds. This is not a particularly dynamic presentation, but it presents everything accurately without damage or other unwanted issues.
The first-pressing of the Arrow Video Blu-Ray of Giants and Toys includes a booklet featuring the essay “Giants and Toys: Cinema As Kaleidoscope” by film scholar Michael Raine. This piece provides a great analysis of the film through an exploration of its historical context, its themes, its critical reception and more. The booklet also contains the filmography of director Yasuzo Masumura. The on-disc special features are as follows:
- Audio Commentary: Japanese cinema scholar Irene González-López provides a very informative and lively track in which she breaks down the symbolism of the opening credits, themes of the film, the speedy structure of the narrative, the history of the performers, the legacy of the picture and more. There is rarely a moment of dead air in this absolutely fascinating track.
- Introduction by Tony Rayns: A nearly 11-minute featurette in which Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns gives some very worthwhile background context to this film including its place in world cinema. Some of this information is covered in the commentary and essay, but there are some new tidbits.
- In the Realm of the Publicists: A 21-minute video essay by Asian cinema scholar Earl Jackson in which he explores the film in depth including changes from the source material, the theme of corporate drive and celebrity culture that make up the film and more. This is a well-constructed piece that is well worth a look.
- Theatrical Trailer: A two-and-a-half minute film that tries to appeal to the youth.
- Image Gallery: A collection of promotional and behind-the-scenes images are included here.
Giants and Toys is a fast-paced, ruthless look at the toxic side of media proliferation and work culture. Yasuzo Masumura crafted a brilliant film that was misunderstood at the time of its release, but from a modern perspective you can see how ahead of the curve this talented filmmaker was with this project. This is a feature that is absurdly funny, but will also leave you with a lot to ponder about all the issues it so gamely tackles. Arrow Video has provided it with a Blu-Ray that sports a strong A/V presentation and an assortment of great special features. If you are looking to explore Japanese cinema beyond the standard genre flicks, this is an interesting title to give a chance. Recommended
Giants and Toys is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Arrow Video has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.