REVIEW: Giants and Toys (1958)

Three Japanese candy manufacturers wage a pitched battle for market supremacy. While junior executives cosy up in bars attempting to tease out what their rivals’ promotional plans are, one enterprising director elects to bypass traditional endorsements by creating his own celebrity from scratch. Once he has made her, however, he may struggle to control her.

Giants and Toys is a 1958 satire by director Yasuzo Masumura. It tackles the Japanese business world in the immediate post-war years where the country not only got itself back on its feet, economically speaking, but it also struggled between a tradition of honour and loyalty in business and a cutthroat, back-stabbing, winner-takes-all mentality learned from the occupying Americans. It is, in effect, 90 minutes of very bad behaviour with disastrous consequences.

This caustic portrayal of a corporate world is showcased through three characters. The film focuses primarily on Nishi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), a young junior executive in the World Caramel Company. He is an honourable man: his best friend works for a rival manufacturer, but he never tries to take advantage of that relationship. He winds up in a casual relationship with a woman from the third company, but struggles to draw information out from her despite the urging from his boss. Throughout the film Nishi struggles to succeed in his job, but continues to fail simply because he is too ethical for his own industry. Kawaguchi plays the role very well, with a lot of depth played out in troubled pauses and awkward hesitations.

Nishi’s boss Goda (Hideo Takamatsu) seems purpose-built for the new hyper-competitive world. He is outspoken and ambitious. He has married his own boss’ daughter simply to get ahead in the company, and openly admits his disappointment that she cannot bear children is counter-balanced by the career advantage it has given him. When he sees the chance to back-stab his own father-in-law, a frail and burned-out man who has started coughing up blood, he takes it. As his plans for market supremacy falter his bravado quickly shifts to desperation. Takamatsu has a much broader and less complex character to play than Kawaguchi; he gives a bold and enjoyable performance. It partly feels like caricature, but its a caricature that works well in context.

Hitomi Nozoe plays Kyoko, an awkward teenager with bad teeth who gets swept up and transformed into a media superstar. She is a great character, seguing very smoothly from a naive and coarse young woman into a master manipulator. She is quick to work out what opportunities are available to her, and takes them all. When her aspirations outgrow selling caramels, she simply leapfrogs her position and sets herself up as an actor and singer. Goda attempts to threaten her, warning that her fame could evaporate just as soon as it arrived. Kyoko does not care: she is already well aware her fame will be fleeting, and has resolved to enjoy it while it lasts. Of the three leads she turns out to be the one best suited to Japan’s new world.

Giants and Toys is very boldly made with a quite heightened and exaggerated tone. Its satire regularly shifts from comedy to drama and back again, a tricky manoeuvre that Masumura pulls off very smoothly. The film has a real bite. Some years later Masumura would return to satirising the business world with Black Test Car (1962), which managed to be even more scathing and cynical regarding Japanese industry. Both films are well worth watching.

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