It’s rarely more than coincidence when a piece of art intersects with moments in history neatly. Black Panther (2018) released about a year into the Trump presidency, a film in sharp contrast against an administration dealing with accusations of white nationalism and xenophobia. All In: The Fight for Democracy (2020) released in theaters and on Amazon Prime the September before the Presidential Election, sharing a message of a long-standing battle for control of the ballot box going back to the Civil War. Both of these films were in production well before circumstances made them feel as timely as they did, yet, their release was received more by those who noticed the timing. Fast-forward to May 2021 and there’s another battle amid several classes in the U.S., this time over capitalism, specifically wages. At a time when a pandemic made plain all the ways in which unfettered capitalism weakens a populace, Arrow Video releases director Yasuzô Masumura’s (Irezumi) Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu), an adaptation of Takeshi Kaikô’s 1957 novel, on Blu-ray for a global audience. The tale is cynical and satirical as it examines the workplace of Japan as it transitions from the traditional bushido (Japanese code of honor and morals) into something more American. Timing may be coincidental, but that doesn’t make the message within Masumura’s film any less potent.
Three candy companies — Giant, Apollo, and World — each vie for as much market share as possible for their confections and each plan to develop an ultimate prize to entice consumers. This is a fairly standard practice for the companies, but there’s something different about this year that pushes each one to do something truly fantastic and eye-catching. Ambitious with his eye on his father-in-law’s job as Director of Publicity for World Caramel, Ryûji Goda (Hideo Takamatsu) comes up with a plan to make homely Kyôko Shima (Hitomi Nozoe) the face of World’s Space Age Campaign. With his vision guiding the way, Goda makes Kyôko a national sensation, requiring more and more help from marketing department underling Yôsuke Nishi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). Kyôko’s easily pliable at first, charmed by Nishi who can’t stand her, but as the campaign wears on and her stock rises higher, the toll to win the lion’s share exceeds everyone’s expectations.
In the included essay for first pressing copies of Giants and Toys, film scholar Michael Raine shares a few ideas, perspectives, and responses to the film. The one that sticks out most is a quote from one Masumura’s own essays, “Freedom, love, and other precious emotions, even life itself, were calmly — no, eagerly — thrown away under the Emperor System.” According to Raine, this quote is in response to the Japanese people’s own failures to prevent the events leading up to World War II. When you take this quote into consideration against the ideas within Giants and Toys, it’s easier to see why the film resonates now but didn’t upon release. In totality, the film is a look at how Japan, even 13 years after the end of the war, is still just trying to survive; that the excellence that existed before is overshadowed by American ideals and products as personified by Goda and his father-in-law Kôhei Yashiro (Kinzô Shin) as they battle over the direction of marketing for World. It doesn’t take much of a leap to link Goda and Yashiro’s verbal sparring as representation of a battle for the world, especially as the film goes along. We, the audience, don’t know why Yashiro possesses the physical ailments that he does, but it’s perceived by Goda (in his Americanized way) as weakness. By the film’s end, Goda is coughing up blood due to stress and self-medication, literally killing himself to complete the goals of the marketing campaign for a company that will, whether he succeeds or fails, continue on long after he’s gone. If Yashiro’s way had been honored, Goda wouldn’t need to kill himself for his job; however, by subscribing to the perceived “better” way of doing business, the American way, Goda may end up in an early grave while trying to increase market share a few percentage points.
It’s in this way that Giants and Toys is not the laugh riot one might expect, especially when the production materials included with the home release review copy refer to the film as “Willy Wonka meets My Fair Lady: a zany Japanese satirical classic!” when there’s literally nothing optimistic about it. Each relationship in the film is almost entirely one-way, there is no trust, no passion, no art; only action in the name of commerce. Kyôko is pulled up from obscurity and turned into a beloved public figure by Goda. She’s even allowed to use her fame to get jobs however she likes, but is required to work solely for World. She becomes a tool for their success and, upon gaining a measure of self-awareness, earns her freedom from the trench-work of costumes, appearances, and the like due to a poorly interpreted contract. Even then, she doesn’t come out on top because her celebrity was created via the fickle nature of the vacuous public and, because she has no real skill or personality, she has to milk every opportunity she can knowing that it’s only a matter of time before the public kicks her to the curb in favor of someone new. For a film released in 1958, the notions within it about pursuing empty popularity in the pursuit of financial gain (social media influencers) or working one’s self to death (American capitalism) are ahead of their time.
Remember what I said before about the intersection of art and history? Masumura’s POV via the film is one of a Japan still coming out of the chaos of World War II that shifted into an American method as a means of salvaging itself. What is America like now? It’s dealing with an employee shortage amid high unemployment. Many point to the increased unemployment benefits as the reason, but it’s really that COVID-19 showed Americans what is valuable via the “essential worker” title that allowed businesses to stay open (capitalist ideals) during a global health crisis. The world may have a stronger understanding of COVID-19 in May 2021 than we did March 2020, but there’re enough people in the country who don’t follow recommended CDC protocols that going to work could lead to personal infection or bringing it home to someone who may be vulnerable. Most of the jobs considered “essential” are in food service — wait staff, cashiers, stockers, cooks, etc. — who are typically paid at or below minimum wage. This puts them on the front line of a pandemic making $7.25/hr and may not have health insurance or paid time off. Put through a capitalist lens, the cost/benefit of not working may bring in less money, but increases the chances of not dying or killing others via transmission. Even with vaccine-access ramping up and ages as low as 12 eligible at the time of this writing, $7.25/hr is too small an amount to risk your life. Frankly, the optics aren’t much better when other jobs shifted to work-from-home, offered other accommodations, or increased flexibility while food service workers were treated as chum for COVID-19. When we place the value of commerce over people (trade bushido for profit), we may increase our bottom line, but we lose ourselves in the process. Is it great to become a success? Sure. Would it be ideal if we could do it without hurting others? Absolutely. Is it possible to take care of our employees and make a profit? There’s at least one instance in the U.S. where it is working. We already know what the world looks like when we do it the old way, so why not try something new? And before you cry “socialism!” maybe consider that the majority of businesses who could voluntarily raise their minimum wage can afford to do so.
If you’re still with me, let’s get into the release itself.
Giants and Toys is restored in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and monaural sound. There are no 2.1 or 5.1 options, but you can watch the film with brand new audio commentary from Japanese cinema scholar Irene González-López. If you don’t snag a first pressing, which includes the aforementioned Michael Raine essay, this is a great way to learn more about the making of and context of the film. If you do get the booklet, it includes a few photos, a timeline of Masumura’s entire filmography, and the usual transfer details and credits. In terms of special features, this release only includes two, a significant paring down from other Arrow Video releases: a video introduction from Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns and a video essay from Asian cinema scholar Earl Jackson. I take some comfort as a film critic that several of Rayns’s observations line up with my own. Jackson’s essay, about twice the length of Rayns’s, covers similar information, but is able to dig in further thanks to the extended runtime. If you thought my observations were interesting, these essays should be your next stop after watching (or rewatching) Giants and Toys.
There’s a great deal to examine and explore in Masumura’s film. There is so much that fitting it all into a home release review would make this the longest essay in EoM’s history. Despite my initial sense that the film would be a passive confection, Giants and Toys revealed itself as a rich work whose copious layers require time and patience to unravel. In light of the ails of our current society, the film is damn prescient. Scarily so. Thanks to Arrow Video, perhaps the audience, who wasn’t ready for it in 1958, can be found now.
Giants and Toys Special Features
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing by Michael Raine
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
- Original uncompressed Japanese mono audio
- Optional English subtitles
- Brand new audio commentary by Japanese cinema scholar Irene González-López
- Newly filmed introduction by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns (10:27)
- In the Realm of the Publicists, a brand new visual essay by Asian cinema scholar Earl Jackson (20:35)
- Original Trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
Available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video beginning May 11th, 2021.
Purchase a copy from MVD Entertainment here.
Categories: Home Release, Recommendation
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