In the middle of a fierce commercial competition between three caramel companies, an executive builds up a ditsy teenage girl as a mascot while simultaneously trying to uncover the rival companies' plans.
As much a film of its moment as Sweet Smell of Success and just as lasting in its pertinence, this cruel satire is Masumura's masterpiece - although an excellent script (from a Ken Kaiko novel) and terrific cast deserve their share of the credit. Three confectionery companies are locked in cut-throat rivalry for a share of a market increasingly dominated by imported US candy. Goda (Takamatsu), a thrusting young exec with World Caramel, spots a young woman out shopping and decides to turn her into a celebrity who can star in his plan for a space age ad campaign. Kyoko Shima (Nozoe), averagely pretty and with exceptionally bad teeth, takes to the Pygmalion treatment like a duck to water and soon leaves behind her job with a failing taxi firm and her dysfunctional family. Goda's assistant Nishi (Kawaguchi), who dates a woman exec from a rival firm and proves a useless industrial spy, watches as both the girl and his boss succumb to mega-greed; the film's ending turns on whether or not ... Written by
Social comment overwhelms satire in critique of Japanese corporate practices
Yasuzo Masumura's GIANTS AND TOYS (1958) focuses on the antics behind a publicity campaign for a Japanese brand of caramel candy put out by a company, World Caramels, that's trying to wrest market share from two rivals, Giant and Apollo. Goda (Hideo Takamatsu), the ambitious publicity executive assigned to run the campaign, spots a teenage girl, Kyoko Shima (Hitomi Nozoe), on the street and recruits her to be the public face of the company, planning to put her in a space suit while promoting the candy. He hires Harukawa (Yunosuke Ito), a cynical, alcoholic photographer known for his work with young models, to take the pictures that will put Kyoko's face in popular magazines, and encourages a junior publicist, Nishi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), to romance Kyoko since she seems to like him. Despite Kyoko's charms, Nishi wants no part of it and instead pursues the crafty Kurahashi (Michiko Ono), an attractive, slightly older counterpart working at the rival company, Apollo. Kyoko, an impetuous, gap-toothed wild child with a ready smile and a lack of inhibition, still has to be persuaded--even coerced--into posing for the initial set of photos, but she gradually comes to like the fame and, more importantly, the money, which enables her to leave her large family in a Tokyo slum district behind. Eventually, success goes to her head and she is soon mulling offers from the candy rivals, a testament to the power of Nishi's rejection of her. Goda, who is married to his department head's daughter, is under extraordinary pressure to increase sales, so he drives himself and everyone around him relentlessly. The satirical tone of the early scenes gives way to a very harsh critique of Japanese society in the postwar era on the verge of its highly-touted "economic miracle."
When the film focuses on Kyoko, it's very charming and often quite funny. She reminds me of a looney, working-class Audrey Hepburn. Her impulsive behavior around the male characters may not be the most ladylike but it's really cute and even a little sexy. The photographer, Harukawa, is also very funny. He's brutally frank, acerbic and full of thoughts on a wide range of subjects. When he's interviewed by a pack of reporters, he tells one of them, "Your magazine is full of crap," before launching into a rambling monologue on famous western poets and their writing and meditating habits ("Byron wrote poems while inflicting self-torture") before lamenting that "Japanese novelists meditate on the toilet." At one point, in a bar watching Japanese women dance with western men, he expounds on the reason for Japanese women's preference for western men, something to do with the difference in physiques between the two races. I could have listened to him for much longer. Unfortunately, the bulk of the film shifts from Kyoko and Harukawa to the two World publicity execs and they just aren't that interesting. Eventually, it comes down to a moral debate between Goda, who justifies every cutthroat tactic he can think of as part of some nationalist impulse, and Nishi, who questions the ethics of what they're doing, culminating in a bleak, unsatisfying ending.
There is lots of dialogue about the Japanese way in the postwar era and what's needed to survive and thrive, with Goda's position thought to be at odds with traditional Japanese values. Many on the staff side with Goda and when one character complains that what worked in America won't work in Japan, another executive declares, "America is Japan." Goda increasingly becomes a caricature as the film progresses. When Nishi objects to the way Kurahashi is trying to hire Kyoko away from World to work for Apollo, especially after he's revealed his company secrets to her during their affair, she dismisses it with this line: "Work is work and love is love. We love as we cheat. It's so thrilling. It's love that will last." Which struck me as a very odd thing to put in such a character's mouth, unless something was lost in the subtitled translation. The whole sales war between Giant and World becomes an unlikely media event, as if the public would even care about two caramel companies. The film hits us over the head with all these messages without really working them into the fabric of the story. They seem forced.
Other Japanese films from the postwar era managed to incorporate these kinds of criticisms in a much less heavy-handed way, making points through story and character. Akira Kurosawa's HIGH AND LOW (1963) examines the battle between a conscientious executive and the company directors' greed through the prism of a crime story involving a kidnapping. Keisuke Kinoshita's THUS ANOTHER DAY (1959) looks at the plight of a salaryman desperately trying to get ahead and the strain it puts on his family, but lays out its critique entirely through the way characters behave and the shifting of relationships. (I've also reviewed this film on IMDb.) Nagisa Oshima and Koreyoshi Kurahara, two directors who were even younger than Masumura, also managed to layer their films of the 1950s and '60s with incisive social critiques of Japan, but they did it without making Japan look foolish, which is what Masumura does here. GIANTS AND TOYS has been compared to such American counterparts as Frank Tashlin's WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER, Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT, Alexander Mackendrick's SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and Elia Kazan's A FACE IN THE CROWD, but those films managed to make their points without making America look foolish or hateful.
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