Susumu Hani, just like Nagisa Oshima, Hiroshi Teshigahara, and Shōhei Imamura, is known as being an important Japanese new wave director. His most well-known narrative is, without a doubt, Nanami: The Inferno of First Love (1968), a film he co-scripted with one of the most productive and provocative new wave artists Japan has known, Shūji Terayama.
One day, Nanami (Kuniko Ishii), a young adolescent nude model, takes Shun (Akio Takahashi), an adolescent who is still a virgin, to a love hotel. Yet, while Nanami has no problem undressing herself, Shun is not able to overcome his virginal shyness and make love to her. With both lying on the bed, Nanami invites Shun to talk a bit more about himself. He tells her about his familial past, his time in a reform school, and how he, after being unofficially adopted by a couple, became a goldsmith. Nanami tells him that she came from Shizuoka to Tokyo. At first, she worked at a shoe factory, but because that job did not pay enough, she started working as a nude dancer.
One night, a loyal customer of Nanami, Ankokuji (Minoru Yuasa), convinces her to participate in an erotic lesbian SM photo shoot with other models. Shun, who follows Nanami through Shinjuku and witnesses the shoot, is frightened by the exploitation Nanami subjects herself too. The next time he sees them walking together, he confronts the bearded middle-aged guy.
Nanami: The inferno of First Love is a film that explores nothing other than the power of romantic desire. With his narrative, Hani explores how a romantic inferno, passionately burning in one’s heart, can not only destroy social inhibitions, but also the inhibiting impact of sexual trauma. The character engulfed by this inferno of desire is Shun and his object of desire Nanami.
The main question Nanami: The inferno of First Love confronts the spectator with is why Shun is not able to engage in the sexual act with Nanami. While one feels inclined to explain his phallic inability as being function of his virginal shyness, one can easily sense that something of sexuality as such forms a problem of him. For Shun, Nanami is sexy and attractive, a fruit he wants to taste, but when he tries to engage in the sexual act, he hits a mental obstacle, an obstacle that short-circuits any attempt to do the deed with his object-of-desire.
What is Shun’s mental obstacle? If we follow the associative flow of the narrative, we are inclined to posit that his sexual inability is related to his childhood trauma of motherly separation. For Shun, the image of Nanami contains traces of his beloved mother that abandoned him – be it by their vague facial and bodily resemblance or by their resemblance at the level of their voice. But is it truly this contamination that hinders him in ‘incestually’ possessing Nanami? It is not the motherly ghost that haunts Nanami’s flesh and speech that explains why he feels so attracted to her?
The poetic but disconcerting hypnosis scene in the first half of Hani’s film reveals that it is not the motherly fixation that problematizes his impotence, but the sexual abuse he is subjected to by his ‘stepfather’ Otagaki (Kōji Mitsui). This revelation allows us to formulate Shun’s sexual logic in a clear manner: while the motherly fixation that makes Nanami highly attractive for him, it is the “incestuous” quality of intimacy, due to the traumatic sexual transgressions of his ‘stepfather’, that makes the act of making love impossible for him.
The horrifying sight of Nanami’s exploitation enflames Shun’s romantic desire for her. His desire is driven – and this should not surprise anyone – by an unconscious oedipal fantasy that finds its origin in his childhood trauma. His longing for Nanami is animated by a heroic fantasy of saving his beloved (mother) from the perverse hands of other male subjects and ensuring that she is and remains only his. All his acts and emotions are underpinned by this unconscious fantasy, be it his act of confronting Ankokuji, his annoyance with Nanami’s high school friend Daisuke (-), … etc. Yet, beyond this structuring fantasy, Shun is a subject, due to his infernal love, desperately searching to escape the inhibiting confines of his sexual trauma and blossom into a subject that can engage with his beloved female other in an intimate way.
One aspect that makes the narrative so beautiful is the fact that Nanami’s desire remains opaque for the spectator. Who does she desire? Why does she love, Ankokuji or Shun? Something of her subjectivity escapes interpretation because there is a contradiction between her speech (e.g. saying that Ankokuji means nothing special to her) and her acts (e.g. her desperate search for Ankokuji). Yet, near the end of the narrative, the spectator might feel he received a definite answer to this feminine riddle.
Nanami: The inferno of First Love does not only underline men’s thirst for female sexual beauty, their thirst to sexually enjoy enticing sexual objects with their eyes and hands, and the active role women can play in their own exploitation as sexual object, but also highlights the ‘perverse’ variety of sexuality, touching upon ravishing sexual acts, like sexual abuse, as well as the pleasure of producing sexual fantasies, e.g. the SM photo-shoot, the beach photoshoot, to satisfy and also financially exploit certain fetishes. Beyond this sexual exploration, the spectator is also given a pleasing insight in the reality of Shinjuku in the late sixties (e.g. a woman selling records for lonely people near the station area, areas where lower-class Japanese people live, the blossoming consumerism, … etc.).
The documentary-like composition of Nanami: The Inferno Of First Love stands out due to its rough but poetic quality. Hani’s composition consists out of fleeting dreamy-like poetic impressions, artful explorations of the moving female body, and moments that, by visualizing the subtle or rough physical interplay of bodies, emphasizes either the charming beauty of youthful romantic passion or the violent and often traumatic impact of flesh that erotically meets (Cine-note 1). The visual pleasure is not only function of the evocative sequences, but also of the subtle artful way geometry, bodily as well as architectural, and light and shadow are used in shot-compositions.
There are, furthermore, some moments in Hani’s composition where he refuses to utilize shots to provide any visual context to certain conversations, but, instead, uses these shots to emphasize the speech-interactions as such. This compositional choice forces the spectator, who is deprived of any true visual information, to follow the playful flow of the conversation and the poetic reverberation of the vocalized signifiers.
Another element that heightens the viewer’s enjoyment is the performance of Kuniko Ishii. She steals the show and plays a fundamental part in turning this narrative into such a moving experience. Not only does she charm the spectator with her youthful beauty and her dreamy voice, but she also captivates him by masterfully mixing, in her performance, a tinge of youthful romantic innocence with a subtle but enticing and playful sexual maturity.
Nanami: The Inferno of First Love also boasts a great use of musical accompaniment. Romantic music is sparsely but effectively applied to highlight the beauty of youthful passion – e.g. a loving kiss, the subtle rhythmic drums are effective in infusing a certain tension into the atmosphere, a tension related to a traumatic unsaid, and the haunting winds or chants beautifully signal the presence of a traumatic phantom. The use of a motherly singing voice, on the other hand, gives certain visual sequences not only a lyrical touch but also a flavour of intimacy.
Susumu Hani’s Nanami: The Inferno of First Love is an extra-ordinary psychological romance narrative. Hani does not only deliver a composition that blends documentary-like cinematography with a more poetic and lyrical moments, but he also succeeds in dazzling the spectator with a tragic and heart-piercing experience about love’s power to spur on subjective change and overcome the inhibiting effects of trauma. Nanami: The Inferno of First Love might not only be the best film of Susumu Hani, but also one of the best films of the sixties.
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Cine-note 1: The subtle interactions of bodies are primarily framed with fixed shots, while the rougher bodily interactions are generally framed with rough dynamic shots.