Comedy, Drama, Films, Japan, Recommended posts, Reviews

Giants and Toys

A classic critique of capitalism and materialism that has not lost any of its relevance…

It can be, at first glance, quite a challenge to review Yasuzo Masamura’s Giants and Toys (1958) from a contemporary perspective – in full knowledge of how Japanese society has since evolved. Yet, if one is mindful of the historical context, one can easily see that Masamura’s film, based on Ken Kaiko’s novel of the same name, offers one of the most transparent explorations of the post-war influence of America on the Japanese corporate world, the blossoming birth of the talent culture, and the precedents of the Japanese idol culture.

The sales records of World Confectionary have been steadily getting worse and worse, possibly due to lack of any truly eye-catching publicity campaigns. To beat Apollo drops and Giant Chocolate, the two rival companies, and the popular candies from abroad, World Confectionary needs something special. One day, advertising director Goda (Hideo Takamatsu) and newbie Yosuke Nishi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) ‘discover’ a girl, Kyoko Shima (Hitomi Nozoe). Goda decides to use her as a poster model for their new promotional campaign and the upcoming publicity war with their rivals.

Masamura’s Giants and Toys, a narrative that turns around the war for the consumer, explores three different relationships, the relation between the company and the consumer, the relation between the talent/image character and the business, and the relation between employees within the company and between rival companies. For each relation, Masamura reveals an uncomfortable truth. For each relation, he shows the problematic effect of the burgeoning control of the capitalistic ideology over the societal field.

The relation between the company and the consumer, as quickly becomes apparent in Giants and Toys, turns solely around consumption. Put in a simple way, the more the consumer consumes – he is but a mouth to put caramels and chocolate in, the more the boss and his directors financially prosper, the more money they can put into their pockets. The consumer is, in other words, only an object to be exploited for the financial gain of the companies’ executives. Yet, this capitalistic truth should remain hidden from the consumer. He can at no point whatsoever in his act of consuming and attaining some oral and scopic enjoyment realize that he is merely an object to be exploited financially.

Yet, to entice the consumer to consume (more) of the companies’ product and enrich the company boss and his directors, publicity and control over the public’s mind is needed. There is a need for an alluring image that mediates between the product and the object to be exploited. This image of publicity, if effective, sways the consumer into devouring the companies’ product (i.e. toys and caramels) and allows him to happily accept the position of being exploited – fill their empty heads with the order to buy and consume World’s caramels. The image of publicity is, as a matter of fact, only truly effective when it succeeds in stealing consumers from rivalling companies and binding them, via the power of the mediating advertising image, to the caramels and toys of World Confectionary.

The plan of World Confectionary for caramel domination has two steps. First, Goda orders Harukawa (Yūnosuke Itō), a photographer, to make a talent out of Kyoko, to fabricate her into a mediatized image. Yet rather than attempting to make a larger-than-life character out of her, World Confectionary wants her to be celebrated for her girl-next-door flavour, her (faked) filial piety, her charming but fabricated naivety, and her mundane proletarian cuteness. In short, she is a Japanese idol avant-la-lettre. After she is established as a national ‘idol’, they utilize/exploit Kyoko’s mediatized and desired image as an image-character to make the caramels and the sci-fi toys attractive for the youthful consumer. Yet, it is only by giving the consumer objects-to-desire and objects-to-collect that the consumption of the caramels can be driven up.

Kyoko’s image is not only exploited to heighten the need for the caramel as such – her big mouth with rotten teeth and long tongue subtly exploited to eroticize the act of eating caramels, but also to boost the need to consume these caramels as to attain the other desired object, the sci-fi toys. Yet – and this is important – World Confectionary only needs her for her appealing image until she has reached her ‘expiry date’. This ultimately means – and this is the truth of the second relationship – that she becomes for a short period of time an exploited prisoner in the war for the consumer. Kyoko’s daily life is strictly organized around promotional activities, her subjective voice is largely erased, and her true private time reduced to a bare minimum.

Masamura also reveals how the thirst for profit and the desperate cut-throat rivalry between companies impacts the employees. He uncovers the uncomfortable truth that within a capitalistic corporate machinery that is focused on heightening consumption and amassing profit – a sales-war with the employees as enlisted soldiers – the very workers of the company are but objects to be physically and mentally exploited, but mere objects in support of the insatiable financial hunger of the boss and his directors. Masamura’s Giants and Toys also highlights that the war-like rivalry between companies hollows out social bonds – social bonds are dehumanized, relations disintegrate, and relations are established to manipulate, that the corporate demand to organize one’s life in support of the success of the company urges one to destroys one’s personal life, and that the obsession with heightening profit, a preoccupation directing the acts and signifiers of the obsessed subjects, ultimately leads subjects to ruin their own bodily and mental health.

The main theme that underpins Giants and Toys is that of dehumanization. Every one of the above-mentioned relations is marked by dehumanization, a dehumanization brought on by subjects that either become preoccupied with gaining promotion or fall victim to the corporate thirst for profit and the obsession with making the consumer consume mindlessly. In many ways, Masamura delivers, via his rather sardonic exploration of the advertising business, a scathing critique of the problematic and a-human ways corporate Japan was/and eventually has developed. Yet, Masamura’s film also celebrates those who refuse to become a mere cog within this exploitive corporate machinery – a celebration of those who realize that they do not want to sacrifice their subjectivity in this violent dehumanizing game of profit and consumption and those who decide to actively manipulate the machinery for their own benefit.

That Masamura succeeds in revealing these relational truths and this main theme of dehumanization in such a clear and sharp fashion is a function of the subtle caricatural figures (e.g. the grumpy seductive photographer Harukawa, …) that populate the narrative and the special kind of eloquent humour, a kind of humour that underlines very reality of corporal functioning via its subtle absurdness, that marks the unfolding of Giants and Toys.

The composition of Giants and Toys stands out due to its cinematographic dynamism and its pleasing flow. As can be expected, Masamura also utilizes his composition to strengthen his thematical explorations. To underline the mental state of the war-like corporate rivalry and the subjective effects of the unquenchable thirst to make the consumer consume, Masamura applies more faced-paced composed sequences and smartly utilizes visual repetitions. Moreover, these techniques also enable the audience to understand that Goda, once full of desire to make the public consume, is reduced to merely a body animated and consumed by the corporate command he is subjected to.

The conflict between Goda’s own desire and the corporate demand is not only unveiled via the cinematographical composition as such but is also foreshadowed by the kind of speech that supports Masamura’s comedy. The unfolding of Giants and Toys is driven by a kind of restless speech, a fast-paced speaking that is determined by the pressure of the vicious rivalry between corporations and the oppressive demand to produce results and profit for the company’s boss.

The bursts of bombastic music also play an important role in Masamura’s composition. These musical bursts succeed, be it in a rather caricatural way, in heightening the dramatic dimension of this war for the consumer and the impact of this war on the subject’s functioning.

Masamura’s Giants and Toys is a classic that, as a critique of capitalism and materialism, has not lost any of its relevance. With a cynical clarity rarely seen, Masamura does not only dissect the very dehumanization that underpins capitalistic consumerism, a dehumanization marking the consumer, the employee, and the mediatized talent, but also pinpoint the very aesthetic mindset that would enable the golden age of idols in the eighties.

Giants and Toys is available now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

Home media details

Distributor: Arrow Video (UK / USA)

Edition: Blu-ray (2021)

The blu-ray is accompanied by an informative introduction by Tony Rays. Yet, while the information in Tony Rays’s short introduction can be easily attained by watching the film itself, Earl Jackson’s visual essay succeeds in heightening the cinematic experience of the film. The audio commentary by Irene González-López is also worth checking out.

About the author

Pieter-Jan Van Haecke
Psycho-analyst in training on his path to understand the impossible human condition through Japanese culture, language and film.
Read all posts by Pieter-Jan Van Haecke

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