Sound of the Mountain (山の音, Mikio Naruse, 1954)

“All I can do for you now is set you free”, a failed father laments. Mikio Naruse is renowned as a pessimist according to whom we are always betrayed by the world in which we live, yet bleak as it sometimes is 1954’s Sound of the Mountain (山の音, Yama no Oto) offers us what in Narusean terms at least might be considered a happy ending. Adapting a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, Naruse and his screenwriter Yoko Mizuki stop their story a little before the original’s conclusion offering an “open prospect” in which the chastened patriarch is forced into retreat, setting the young ones free while reflecting on paternal failures both national and personal. 

Now in late middle age, CEO Shingo (So Yamamura) is beginning to notice things he perhaps hadn’t before or had merely brushed aside such as the various ways the women around him continue to suffer because of inherently unfair patriarchal social codes. He dotes on his cheerful daughter-in-law Kikuko (Setsuko Hara) but is also aware his son/employee Shuichi (Ken Uehara) is having an affair. Confronted, Shuichi pledges to end the relationship but asks his father if he has honestly remained faithful all his life. Shingo doesn’t exactly deny anything, but remarks that it justifies nothing and his son ought to know better. 

According to Shingo, a man’s success is affirmed if he lives out his life unharmed but one’s success as a parent depends solely on that of the marriages of one’s children and on that front at least Shingo appears to be a failure. Shuichi offers barbed comments about his wife that sound like jokes but clearly aren’t, responding to query as to why they have no children with an excuse that his wife is a child herself, Kikuko’s face contorting momentarily in pain and shame at her husband’s cutting remark yet the only sign of childishness that we see in her is oft remarked cheerfulness. The Ogata household is currently down a maid and it’s Kikuko who’s been picking up the slack as perhaps a daughter-in-law is expected to do, taking care of the household and ensuring her in-laws are well cared for. Ironically enough, the Ogatas love her like a daughter, in part because of her ability to conform to what is expected of a wife despite their son’s indifference, though Shingo is perhaps learning to see past Kikuko’s placid expression, so like the impassive noh mask passed to him by a deceased friend, in the brief flickers of her discomfort. The old couple discuss a double suicide of a couple their age who have decided to leave quietly of their own volition with bleak humour, a look of such total and abject despair passing over Kikuko’s face as she replies to Shingo’s question if she too would write a note if she planned to die with her husband that she might leave one for him. 

The ill-defined relationship between Kikuko and her father-in-law is in essence paternal but profoundly felt, founded on a shared sense of connection and a deep respect. It stands in contrast, however, to that with his own daughter, Fusako (Chieko Nakakita), who returns home to her parents having discovered that her husband is also having an affair. In a sense, this reaction is a facet of post-war freedom, Shingo’s wife Yasuko (Teruko Nagaoka) may suspect her husband had other women but would have pretended not to and in any case would never leave an otherwise successful marriage over such a “trivial” matter. Fusako, meanwhile, has the freedom to demand better and to leave if she doesn’t get it but continues to hesitate blaming her father’s indifference towards her for her husband’s lack of respect something which she believes also fed into his poor choice of match. 

Cheerful, stoical Kikuko meanwhile finds herself caught between tradition and modernity unhappy in her marriage but uncertain if she has the right to escape it. Despite his parents’ niceness, Shuichi has grown into a cruel and selfish man, running down his wife and neglecting his work to romance his father’s secretary, who is not the mistress (not that she wouldn’t like to be), and apparently a violent drunk who routinely beats his girlfriend, a war widow and independent woman who sees nothing wrong in dating a married man because his wife is only waiting for one certain to return. Mirroring Kikuko, Kinuko (Rieko Sumi) is also pregnant but transgressively plans to have the child and raise it alone (supported by her friend and roommate). Telling no one, Kikuko learns that she is expecting but unilaterally opts for an abortion telling her husband that she cannot in good conscience give birth to his child knowing the kind of man he is. Confronting Shuichi, Shingo describes it as a kind of suicide and he is at least right in that she kills the image of herself as the good wife but does so by choosing her own integrity, seizing her agency in rejecting a dissatisfying present to seek a happier future. 

By contrast, we get the impression that Fusako, who has two children already, will likely return to her husband. Shuichi has the talk with his brother-in-law his mother hoped he would, but bonds with him in male solidarity, excusing his affair while advancing that Fusako doesn’t understand that he is merely working hard for their family laying bare a fundamental disconnect in the thinking of men and women further borne out by Yasuko’s assertion that men and women deal with sorrow differently. It’s this series of disconnects, between men and women, parents and children, that Shingo is beginning to bridge only to be confronted with his own patriarchal failures. While he and his wife are seemingly happy enough, he brushing off her self-deprecating remark that he was “unlucky” in marrying her only because her prettier sister died, his children’s marriages have each failed. His failure stands in for that of his generation, realising that he all he can do for them now is set them free. Meeting Kikuko in a park with wide open vistas, oddly like the final meeting of doomed lovers aware they must now part, Shingo vows retreat, planning to retire and move to the country with his wife as if liberating the youth of Japan from the oppressive social codes of the past in ceding the “open prospects” of the post-war society to his surrogate daughter in order that she might at least seize her freedom to chase her own happiness. 


Untamed (あらくれ, Mikio Naruse, 1957)

“Don’t let guys control you. You have to make them men” the heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Taisho-era drama Untamed (あらくれ, Arakure, AKA Untamed Woman) advises a former rival, yet largely fails to do so herself in the fiercely patriarchal post-Meiji society. Based on a serialised novel by Shusei Tokuda published in 1915 but set in late Meiji rather than early Taisho, Naruse’s adaptation essentially drops a contemporary post-war woman into a by then almost unrecognisable Japan but finds her hamstrung firstly by feckless and entitled men and then by complicit women who themselves cannot accept her transgressive femininity. 

As the film opens, a teenage Shima (Hideko Takamine) has just married wealthy grocery store owner Tsuru (Ken Uehara) but the marriage is already a failure. Though Shima is compared favourably with Tsuru’s previous wife who was apparently in poor health, presumably suffering with TB which required a sojourn by the sea, it soon becomes clear that Tsuru is as trapped by the archaic patriarchal social system as she is. He was apparently in love with a woman from a higher social class he was too afraid to pursue and despite still seeing her also has a mistress near their factory in Hokkaido whom he often visits under the guise of a business trip. Yet when Shima tells him she thinks she may be pregnant, he is unimpressed immediately questioning the paternity of the child while harping on about her having been married before which it seems is not quite true. Perhaps the reason that she has ended up a second wife despite her youth and beauty, Shima ran out on a marriage to a childhood friend arranged for her by her adoptive parents the night before the wedding not realising they had already registered the union without her knowledge or consent. 

This transgressive act at once signals Shima’s total disregard for conventionality and insistence on her own autonomy, yet it is also indicative of the fact she married Tsuru in search of a better life, knowing that to marry her adoptive parents’ choice meant only a life of servitude on the family farm. She is not always a terribly likeable figure, coldly explaining that she didn’t mind being fostered out because the adoptive family were wealthier and could give her a better life than she had with her birth parents yet it’s this sense of familial dislocation and the liminal status it gives her that allow her to take agency over her life in the way other women might not unwilling to lose the familial security Shima may not feel she ever had. Tsuru is also an adopted son, but the price for disobedience for him may be even higher and indeed as we later hear his inability to sort out his love life eventually sees him out on his ear. His pettiness in refusing to accept the child is his leads to an argument which causes Shima to slip on the stairs and miscarry the implication being that she may not be able to bear more children leaving her unlikely to remarry and thereby spurring her desire for a tempered independence. 

The fall is the last straw, Tsuru divorces her citing her inability to play the role of the proper wife while her birth family, from whom she is emotionally estranged, refuse to take her back as do the adoptive parents because of the embarrassment she caused them with the marriage stunt. She is often described as “like a man”, unable to win as Tsuru at once insists she wear the frumpy kimonos left behind by his previous wife who was a decade older, complains she wears too much makeup, and tells her to loosen her kimono belt to de-emphasises her figure, while criticising her for being unfeminine in her refusal to simply put up with his bad behaviour as is expected for a wife in this era. Shima fulfils all her wifely duties and as we see is in fact running his business as the women of the family are often seen to do while their husbands spend the money they earn for them on other women whether drinking with geishas or supporting mistresses in second homes. When her husband hits her, she fights back rather than shrinking away chastened as intended. 

Yet she cannot overcome the sense that a man is necessary for her success which cannot be accomplished alone. Cast out from her family, her brother installs her in the mountains to work in a geisha house if only as kitchen staff but soon does a flit to reunite with his married lover who has left her husband for him. While there she falls for the quiet and sensitive inn owner Hamaya (Masayuki Mori), also an adopted heir, whose wife is again ill with TB. Hamaya may be treating his wife a little better than Tsuru did his, but quite clearly assumes she’ll die in starting an affair with Shima who is then sent away to an even more remote inn to avoid a potential scandal. As Tsuru did with the woman he apparently loved, Shima continues to see Hamaya until he too succumbs to TB as an ideal of an impossible love while simultaneously accepting that he failed her in being too weak and cowardly to fight for their romance outright refusing to become his mistress. 

This may be one reason she is determined never again to be an employee but to own her own store which is why she ends up marrying tailor Onoda (Daisuke Kato) who introduces her to textiles and seamstressing at which she quickly proves adept having mastered the modern sewing machine. She marries Onoda in believing him “reliable”, but soon comes to regard him as lazy and feckless. The first shop fails because he can’t keep up with her. The male employees are always taking breaks to drink tea and play shogi, Onoda complaining that he’s tired while she does all his work for him and the housework too. Yet he also criticises her for a lack of femininity, snapping back that it must be her time of the month when she berates him in front of their employees while later after they’ve become successful complaining it’s “embarrassing” that his workhorse wife doesn’t know the things a sophisticated society woman would such as ikebana while flirting with the teacher he’s hired ostensibility to teach her. He even forces her to wear a frumpy and already somewhat dated classically Edwardian dress with a fancy bonnet which more resembles something a country girl might wear to church than the latest in Western fashions in an attempt to advertise their tailoring which seems primed to backfire. 

That she learns to ride a bicycle in this rather ridiculous outfit is again a symbol of her desire to seize and manipulate modernity even giving rise to a piece of innuendo from her much younger assistant Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai) as to the pounding she’s been getting from the saddle. Kimura seems to think the problem with the business is that Onoda’s patterns are outdated, offering her a new modernity while she prepares to cut Onoda out on catching him with his mistress taking their best employee with her to ruin his business and start another of her own. Though once again she cannot leave alone only with a man the ending is perhaps more hopeful than might be expected from a Naruse film allowing Shima to commit herself fully to the sense of industry she embodies always ready to start again, work harder, and achieve her desires unwilling to be bound by conventional ideas of femininity or to simply put up with useless men who refuse to accept her for all she is. Yet she largely fails to make men of them, each of her various suitors failing to live up to her, ruined by an oppressive social system that encourages them to exploit female labour while taking it for granted in their intense sense of patriarchal entitlement. 


The Ghosts of Kagami Pond (怪談鏡ケ淵, Masaki Mori, 1959)

“How could you do this to me?” asks a wandering ghost in Masaki Mori’s 1959 Shintoho kaidan Ghosts of Kagami Pond (怪談鏡ケ淵, Kaidan Kagami-ga-fuchi). Based on a story by Kozo Hayama, Mori’s supernatural morality tale is in many ways fairly typical for the genre save that the vengeance wreaked by the wronged spirit is extremely targeted rather than the sometimes indiscriminate curses aimed more at a corrupt society than the figures directly responsible for the death and mistreatment inflicted on the now wrathful ghost. 

The good-hearted hero, Yasujiro (Shozaburo Date), was forced to move to Edo after his father fell into disgrace with the Shogunate authorities and is grateful to have been taken in by the owner of kimono shop Ejimaya. However, his presence is intensely resented by veteran employee Kinbei (Joji Ohara) who had been expecting to inherit the business. Overhearing the boss, Jiemon (Hiroshi Hayashi), and his wife (Fumiko Miyata) discussing a possible marriage between Yasujiro and his childhood friend Kiku (Noriko Kitazawa) reunited by chance in the city, Kinbei realises that he intends to make Yasujiro his heir and hatches a plan to ensure that doesn’t happen beginning with selling Kiku’s sister Sato (Reiko Seto) a knock off wedding kimono that tears during the ceremony leading her intended’s family to cancel the marriage entirely leaving Sato a shamed woman in an impossible situation. Wandering the streets in despair intending to throw herself into Kagami Pond and thereafter become a vengeful ghost cursing the house of Ejimaya, Sato encounters Kinbei again and is killed in the ensuing struggle only to tumble into Kagami Pond sinking without trace. 

“No one ever floats up out of there” Kinbei later insists suggesting the pond as a possible dumping ground for additional bodies of which there are a fair few. As kaidan villains go, Kinbei is of the one note variety in simply being evil for no particular reason the only justifications offered for his ill conduct being his previous devotion to the kimono store and the fear that all his hard work will go to waste if Yasujiro is allowed to inherit. Even so, this seems disingenuous given an early scene in which an angry customer brings a kimono back complaining of shoddy work and suggesting she’s been fobbed off with a substandard product. Kinbei blames the whole thing on new employee Yasujiro though it later seems clear that he probably sold her a cheap kimono and pocketed the difference in price. 

He even goes so far as to mug Yasujiro in disguise, stealing 15 Ryo which he’d been transporting on behalf of the store attempting to sink his rival in debt. When Yasujiro’s disgraced father offers to sell a precious family sword to pay back Jiemon, Kinbei kills him too while 15 Ryo is also the amount for which he indentures Kiku to a brothel after framing her for adultery (illegal at the time) with the help of his sex worker co-conspirator Naka (Keiko Hamano) who bumps off Jiemon’s wife and quickly takes her place. Jiemon, who had previously been kind and fatherly insisting that Yasujiro and Kiku are like his own children to him, undergoes an unexplained and abrupt change of character becoming cruel and greedy, loaning money to another store holder in the assumption he won’t be able to pay it back in order to get his hands on his business and eventually party to all of Kinbei’s scheming little realising he most likely intends to bump him off too after he’s married Naka so that they will have full control of the business. 

Kinbei is occasionally haunted by the rising ghost of Sato who chillingly repeats the phrase “How could you do this to me?” but carries on with his dastardly deeds anyway. As in most kaidan tales, she cannot hurt him directly but leads him to hurt himself by causing him to hallucinate, as do the ghosts of Yasujiro’s dad and the storeowner eventually calling him towards Kagami Pond and his watery fate. Some disjointed storytelling aside, the introduction of a potential ghost cat for example is never followed up, Ghosts of Kagami Pond is a fairly typical B-movie kaidan running a tight 60 minutes even if the effects and supernatural imagery are perhaps muted in comparison with Shintoho’s similarly themed ghostly morality tales. 


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Flesh Pier (女体桟橋, Teruo Ishii, 1958)

Teruo Ishii may be most closely associated with his exploitation work for Toei in the late ‘60s and ‘70s but in actuality he began his career at Toho, later joining Shintoho where he served as an AD to among others Mikio Naruse whom he regarded as a lifelong mentor. After making his debut with boxing movie King of the Ring: The World of Glory in 1957, he worked mainly in children’s sci-fi tokusatsu serials before sliding into B-movie noir of which 1958’s Flesh Pier (女体桟橋, Nyotai sanbashi) is an early example. 

Set firmly in the contemporary era, Ishii opens with a documentary-style voiceover exoticising the seedy underbelly of the city’s entertainment district hidden away in otherwise sparkling Ginza. Shooting in a bold reportage style, he captures a sense of natural spontaneity reminiscent of early American independent cinema transitioning directly into nightclub Arizona where a woman is furiously dancing. Arizona is as we’ll see the nexus of the recent proliferation of “call girl” businesses which have arisen since sex work was criminalised and in this case at least dependent on an international sex trafficking network backed by an American gangster, Thompson (Harold Conway). Salaryman Keizo (Ken Utsui) is a new customer, double checking that the business is “safe” before being reassured that they don’t deal with anyone they don’t know and have already vetted his identity, but when he reaches the hotel room he’s been handed the key for, he discovers the body of a woman lying in the bathtub and is forced on the run. The twist is that Keizo isn’t a bored executive after all but an undercover policeman working on breaking the trafficking ring. 

Co-scripted by Akira Sagawa, Flesh Pier seems to draw frequent inspiration from Casablanca only with the roles slightly reversed as replacement hostess Rumi (Yoko Mihara) finds herself wondering why of all the gin joints in Ginza Keizo had to walk into hers while the bar’s musician, Teruo (Teruo Hata), quite clearly in love with her himself, completes the triangular relationship. The couple even enter a Moroccan-style room while echoing Rick and Ilsa’s painful rehash of their Paris break up as Rumi tries and fails to explain why she left him on some previous occasion, Keizo remembering that she wore a white sweater and a blue coat to mimic Rick’s “the Germans wore grey, you wore blue” while the film’s ending is also hugely reminiscent of Casablanca’s “beginning of a wonderful friendship” only with additional romance. 

Nevertheless, the crime here is bigger and darker than most contemporary noir with awkward echoes of Japan’s prewar sex trafficking industry embodied by the karayuki as it becomes clear the gang’s business model relies on finding young women and luring them abroad with promises of good jobs only to force them into them sex work. Meanwhile one of the regular policemen, Hayami (Hiroshi Asami), gets a shock when he sets up a meeting with one of the call girls and is met by his own fiancée who, unbeknownst to him, has resorted to sex work in order to fund her brother’s tuition. “What else could I do?” she tearfully asks him making plain that in the difficult if improving economic environment of late 50s Japan sex work is still the only viable option for many women needing to support their families in the absence of men given persistent societal sexism which often locks them out of other kinds of well-paying jobs. Hayami perhaps understands this, drowning his sorrows with his veteran partner insisting that he’s sick of being a policeman and plans to quit only for the older man to sympathetically tell him not to give up so easily. 

Then again, Keizo’s secondary love interest Haruko (Akemi Tsukushi) is an intrepid undercover reporter posing as a model in order to bait the trafficking ring. Even so the primary drama revolves around Keizo and Rumi’s unfinished business along with her musician’s jealousy, the implication being more that her feelings for Keizo have clouded her judgement rather than reawakened a sense of moral goodness. Like many femme-fatales in post-war B-movie noir she is made to pay the ultimate price for her transgressive femininity in having firstly climbed the in-gang ladder and then damned herself in her conflicted love for the earnest Keizo even while suspecting he may be an undercover cop despite his acting like an underworld thug. These are indeed a new breed gangster much more like those seen in European and American noir rather than traditional yakuza while the environment of the Arizona is also something of a liminal space as the opening voiceover puts it in but not of Japan. 

While nowhere near as lurid as some of Ishii’s later work, Flesh Pier is certainly daring for the time period in the griminess with which it depicts the successor to the red light districts along with its air of forbidden allure even while its club scenes are in keeping with those found in other contemporary gangster tales if lent a little more realism in the immediacy with which Ishii shoots them making full use of documentary-style handheld. Expressing a degree of anxiety as regards Japan’s increasingly global outlook along with that of increasing social change, Flesh Pier is formally daring from the young Ishii artfully playing with classic noir while fully embracing the transgressive thrills of B-movie crime. 


The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1956)

Crime does not pay for a series of conspirators at the centre of Nobuo Nakagawa’s supernaturally-inflected historical tale, The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Kaii Utsunomiya Tsuritenjo). As the title implies, Nakagawa’s ominous jidaigeki is inspired by a historical legend in which a retainer supposedly attempted to assassinate the shogun through the rather elaborate device of a mechanical ceiling designed to crush him as he slept. In actuality no such thing took place, the shogun changed his route and subsequent investigations of Utsunomiya Castle found no sign of a false ceiling, yet the story took on a life of its own as local folklore. 

In this version of the tale, conspirators Councillor Kawamura (Ureo Egawa) and local yakuza Kagiya (Masao Mishima) are conspiring to depose Tokugawa Iemitsu (Yoichi Numata) in favour of his brother, manipulating Lord Honda (Shuntaro Emi) of Utsunomiya Castle by convincing him that his clan will prosper when the other retainers fall in behind the new shogun. The pair have arranged for nine talented craftsmen to be shut up in the castle to install “the mechanism” in time for the arrival of the shogun who is due to stay at the castle on his way to Nikko. Meanwhile, Kawamura is also intent on sleeping with the daughter of head carpenter Toemon (Yoji Misaki), Ofuji (Konomi Fuji), whom chief minion Tenzen (Tetsuro Tamba) is supposed to kidnap once the workmen have gone into isolation in the castle. Righteous samurai Ryutaro (Hiroshi Ogasawara) however, an undercover shogunate bodyguard, begins to disrupt their plan saving Ofuji while bonding with a friendly bar hostess, Onobu (Sachiko Toyama), and secret princess forest woman Oshino (Akemi Tsukushi). 

The plot represents in itself a malfunctioning of the feudal order in the essential weakness of Lord Honda, the ambition of his underling Kawamura, and the cruel greed of Kagiya. As the two men conspire, Kagiya jokingly laments that he isn’t a samurai while Kawamura reminds him that if the plan comes off he’ll be fantastically rich. Kagiya, a yakuza who sends his thugs to extort protection money from the local market, is representation of the threat of the rising merchant class whose financial power presents a challenge to the authority of the samurai. Toemon, meanwhile, a master craftsman, is manipulated into participating in the plan because he is in debt to Kagiya, later promised that he too will be “promoted” in being given permission to carry a sword little knowing that Kawamura and Kagiya not only plan to kidnap and rape his daughter but never intend to allow any of the craftsmen to live because they simply know too much. 

The Ceiling at Utsunomiya is not a ghost story in the manner for which Nakagawa is best known but it certainly plays like one, Kagiya eventually haunted by the figure of a betrayed Toemon which in turn leads him to a self-destructive attack on Tenzen and his eventual demise collapsed over his ill-gotten gains, a koban falling from his hand. Greed and violence will only repay in the same, the weak-willed Lord getting his comeuppance from the ever confident shogun even if he himself coolly stands back while others risk their lives to protect him. Even so, the eventual operation of “the mechanism” is intensely startling, the ceiling abruptly collapsing with alarming ferocity though one wonders what the advantage is in such an expensive, elaborate contraption aside from its ironic symbolism when the point of a sword will do. 

Then again, the heroic Ryutaro is almost assassinated while crossing a river via zip wire later fished out of the river by sullen forest woman Oshino, first encountered hunting birds with darts but later revealed to be the illegitimate child of samurai parents who fell foul of political intrigue. In a sense this revelation emphasises the restoration of the political order, Ryutaro permitted to fall in love with Oshino because they are of the same social class, while the romance between Ofuji and craftsman Yoshichi (Kotaro Sugiyama) also comes to fruition eliding the minor class difference between them in allowing the boss’ protege to marry the now orphaned daughter. Onobu meanwhile pays heavy price for her misplaced love for Ryutaro, denied romantic fulfilment in her liminal existence as a bar hostess. In any case, the corruption is exorcised and the normal order resumes reinforcing the hierarchical shogunate society with each of the players back in their rightful positions and possessing new hope for the future as Ryutaro and the shogun continue their tour while their former comrades kneel at the roadside. 


The Swordsman and the Actress (大江戸千両囃子, Yasushi Sasaki, 1955)

Working mainly with Toei, singer Hibari Misora was able to carve out for herself a distinctive career as a tentpole movie star in the early post-war period. In contrast to other female stars of the day, Misora’s leading women are generally feisty and rebellious standing up against injustice in period films and contemporary dramas alike while she also made a point of subverting societal gender norms often crossdressing or playing with gender ambiguity. 1955’s The Swordsman and the Actress (大江戸千両囃子, Oedo Senryo Bayashi) meanwhile sees her taking a backseat to the main action but sowing the seeds for her later career as she stops a cruel samurai plot in its tracks and even gets to participate in the final showdown. 

The drama starts when young actress Koharu (Hibari Misora) misplaces her fan and is lent one by another performer which attracts the attention of bad samurai Shuzen Ogaki (Kyu Sazanaka) who recognises it as having once belonged to the Shogun. As it turns out, Koharu’s friend Hanji (Rentaro Kita) was gifted the fan by a childhood friend, a noble woman, Okyo (Keiko Yashioji), for whom he may have had feelings which would could never be returned seeing as he was the son of a maid. Having seen him in a play but feeling it would be inappropriate to meet, Okyo sent the fan in fondness but had not realised it to be valuable and is now in a difficult position as the Shogun will soon be visiting and if he does not see the fan will be offended. Shuzen wants the fan for himself to embarrass Okyo and her husband and advance his own position. Just as Okyo dispatches trusted retainer Gennojo (Chiyonosuke Azuma) to ask Hanji to return the fan, Shuzen sends in his goons killing Hanji but only after he manages to substitute a fake fan for the real one. 

What follows is a complicated game of find the lady as the fake fan and the real are swapped between Gennojo and Shuzen often via a pair of pickpockets, Oryu (Ayuko Saijo) and sidekick, who alternately help and hinder largely because Oryu develops a crush on the extremely disinterested Gennojo. As usual, Koharu is on the side of right trying to fulfil Hanji’s dying wish by returning the fan to Okyo before the Shogun’s New Year visit but is also on a side quest of her own in looking for her long lost sister. It would be tempting in a sense to view the fan as cursed as it indeed provokes nothing but trouble, not only getting Hanji killed and endangering the lives of Okyo and her son, but also provoking discord wherever it’s mentioned sending a pair of married shopkeepers into a blazing row when they realise their young son may have walked off with the priceless object (and later sold it so his mum can buy sake). 

In the quest for the fan, Koharu takes a backseat while Gennojo does most of the leg work played as he is by jidaigeki star Chiyonosuke Azuma with whom Misora would frequently co-star. Though there are hints of a romance it is not the main thrust of the drama considering Misora’s relative youth, though she does get to wistfully sing the title song several times over. Meanwhile the pair are finally joined by a late in the game appearance from veteran Ryutaro Otomo as a typically raucous ronin, Jubei, who steals the screen to such an extent it almost seems as if the film is part of a series revolving around his character who turns out to be another victim of Shuzen’s plot having been exiled from his clan supposedly for having turned down the advances of his now mistress Oren. “I, Fujisaki Jubei, may be unemployed but mine is still the sword of righteousness and it doesn’t like evil doers!” he snarls apparently quite fed up with samurai corruption. 

Sasaki certainly has a lot of fun with his fan swapping shenanigans, even going slightly experimental in an excuse to give Chiyonosuke Azuma a fan dance while throwing in additional comic relief from the bumbling pickpockets and some strangely comic death scenes but does not disappoint as the major heroes and villains reunite in the final showdown taking place as it does on stage and allowing Koharu’s troupe mistress to show off her sword skills while Oryu redeems herself and the evil samurai plot is finally defeated by the forces of righteousness. An anarchic affair, Swordsman and the Actress never takes itself too seriously but nevertheless sows the seeds for many of Misora’s subsequent adventures as she sets the world to rights again with the aid of her two complementary samurai sidekicks. 


Musical clip (no subtitles)

The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Kihachi Okamoto, 1959)

By 1959, Japan was well on the way towards economic recovery but this transitionary period brought with it its own dilemmas and particularly for those whose main line of business had in a sense depended on instability and desperation. The first of Kihachi Okamoto’s early crime capers, The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Ankokugai no kaoyaku) finds the yakuza at just this moment of crisis, prescient in a sense in perhaps prematurely implying that post-war gangsterdom was already on its way out. 

The film opens, however, with a piece of yakuza thuggery as a mysterious man guns down an industrialist before barreling down the stairs and into a waiting car occupied by getaway driver Mineo (Akira Takarada) who is inconveniently spotted by a passerby, 16-year-old ramen restaurant waitress Kana (Rumiko Sasa). As we discover, Mineo is the younger brother of veteran gangster Ryuta (Koji Tsuruta), a middle-ranking member of the newly rebranded, rapidly corporatising yakuza outfit Yokomitsu Trading who seem to specialise in legal debt collection and running the entertainment district. Torn between their desire for a degree of legitimacy and their thuggish instincts, Yokomitsu have evidently knocked off a rival using an external hitman but now have a problem on their hands especially as Mineo has apparently embarked on a career as a singer in a teen jazz bar located in the same area as Kana’s restaurant which is at the very least unwise. 

Mineo is in many ways the “innocent” seen in many other similarly themed yakuza dramas, still too young to have been corrupted by the underworld and only an accomplice in the crime for which he is being asked to pay. He wants to get out of the yakuza life and sees singing as his escape route, adopting the persona of “Eddie Mineo” and styling himself as a teen idol in the vein of the rock ’n roll American pop culture which seems to be dominiating the late ‘50s youth scene. Yet Okamoto is also clearly evoking the world of Hollywood crime cinema, the environment open and dusty while everyone seems to drive massive Cadillacs and his gangsters behave much more like those in American movies than traditional yakuza even as the traditional yakuza is also changing. 

“I can’t stand it anymore” Ryuta finally exclaims, “There’s neither righteousness nor rules among mobsters”, tipped over the edge by the gang’s plan to kill the teenage witness. He wants out too, but considers himself already too far gone while pulled in two directions in his desire to save both his brother and his young son who has a lame leg and is being cared for in a hospital. Ryuta wears his wedding ring throughout though there’s no mention of what happened to his wife, while he’s also pulled between two potential love interests in the sympathetic doctor who cares for his son, Sumiko (Yumi Shirakawa), and the brassy cabaret girl, Rie (Mitsuko Kusabue), who does her best to save him, but in the end is never very much interested in either of them. He’s constantly haunted by his crimes, knowing what happens to yakuza who fall from grace in his murder of a man who limped and walked with a crutch just like his son. 

The clan are also planning to off a former foot soldier, Ishiyama, who in fact commits suicide immediately after his release from prison realising the futility of his position. Ishiyama’s suicide note directly references that of notorious post-war gangster Rikio Ishikawa whose life inspired Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor 15 years later “I took too big a gamble. lt’s a big laugh. It’s been a thirty year long spree.“ Ryuta realises there’s no way out of his life of crime, but finds himself conflicted even in his desire to ensure his brother and son remain free of it. His sense of futility is however wider, witnessing the death and decline of the traditional yakuza in itself the film climaxing in a moment of yakuza apocalypse as those apparently sick and tired of violence and intimidation finally fight back making it clear that organised crime is no longer welcome in the increasingly prosperous society. 

Skewing darker in tone than Okamoto’s subsequent entries into the “ankokugai” or “underworld” series, The Big Boss is lighter on his characteristically absurdist sense of humour but does feature a little of the exaggerated, cartoonish violence otherwise his hallmark while adding a note of irony as in his use of a sign outlining the numbers for police and ambulance or the sight of a bunch of children playing with guns while a hitman has a go on the swings. There is perhaps a sense of resistance to the conventionality of the material or that his relative inexperience, this being only his third film (the first two both romantic comedy vehicles for Izumi Yukimura) prevented him from fully embracing his anarchic spirit but The Big Boss nevertheless sows the seeds of his later career in its insistence on the absurdity of violence. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mother (おかあさん, Mikio Naruse, 1952)

The hahamono or mother movie is a mainstay of post-war cinema, obsessed as it is with self-sacrificing maternity. Mikio Naruse, however, is not a name you’d expect to see associating itself with the genre and his 1952 film Mother (おかあさん, Okaasan), adapted from a child’s essay, is indeed subtly subversive, transgressively questioning the institution of motherhood itself while ostensibly remaining faithful to genre norms even as it makes an accidental villain of its teenage heroine who closes the film plaintively praying for her mother’s happiness having not so long ago shut down perhaps her only real hope of achieving it. 

The Fukuhara family ran a successful laundry before the war, but these days father Ryosuke (Masao Mishima) works at a factory and is nicknamed Papa Popeye by his kids because of his finely tuned muscles born of a lifetime training the iron. Matriarch Masako (Kinuyo Tanaka) and 18-year-old daughter Toshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), our narrator, help the family finances by running street food stalls, while oldest son Susumu (Akihiko Katayama) has become ill with a lung complaint caused by poor conditions at the wool factory where he was working. In addition to youngest daughter Chako who is still in school, the family has also taken in little Tetsu (Takashi Ito) the son of Masako’s sister Noriko (Chieko Nakakita) who is now a widow recently repatriated from Manchuria. 

Like many films of the occupation period, the family at the centre of Mother is determined to rebuild, pinning all their hopes on being able to renovate their home in order to be able to reopen the laundry. The war is very much a background presence but its influence is still deeply felt not least in the ruins and devastation glimpsed around the house and the constant references to loss and widowhood which seem to plague Masako, so many women having lost sons and husbands in the conflict. The tragedy is that Masako will eventually in one sense or another lose all her children by the end of the picture, Susumu succumbing to his illness after having discharged himself from hospital out of guilt and loneliness missing his mother, Chako eventually taken in by wealthier relatives who lost their son in the war, Tetsu soon to be retrieved by his mother, and Toshiko herself clearly heading towards marriage with the cheerful and surprisingly progressive baker Shinjiro (Eiji Okada) with whom she has become close. 

Perhaps surprisingly Toshiko seems remarkably immature for her age, her voiceover taken as it is from a child’s essay has a slightly stilted quality that nevertheless makes plain her poor grasp of the adult world and most particularly the reality of her mother’s life. Masako later tells us that she started working at 14 and continued until she married at not so much older than Toshiko is now despite later stating that Toshiko is too young to marry only to find her self shocked when confronted by the sight of her in a wedding dress stifling a brief wave of despair that her daughter may soon be a wife. Originally complaining about not being able to take dressmaking classes like some of the other girls, Toshiko belatedly swears to help support the family firstly to prevent Chako going to stay with relatives and secondly because her boyfriend inadvertently gives her the impression there’s truth in a local rumour that her mother plans to remarry following her husband’s death from overwork and poverty with a friend of their father’s who’s been helping them out in the shop, “Uncle POW” Mr. Kimura (Daisuke Kato). 

Shinjiro is quick to tell her that she’s being unreasonable. In the modern world parents shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice their personal desires for their children, her mother is also a woman and has the right to pursue happiness in marrying again if she chooses. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly concrete between Masako and Mr. Kimura besides a genial domesticity, the rumour is partly local wishful thinking in knowing that remarriage is sensible economic choice and the pair seem well suited. Toshiko objects strongly to the idea out of fear, jealousy, and outdated moralising resenting her mother for betraying her father’s memory but also fearing further changes in her familial relationships in an already uncertain world. 

In this her otherwise saccharine closing monologue in which she looks on as her mother plays with Tetsu and wonders if she’s really “happy” achieves its final irony, transgressively undercutting the primacy of the self-sacrificing mother to question the ideology of motherhood itself when it requires women to sacrifice their lives and desires in service of an ideal of “family”. Nevertheless, Mother is among the most ostensibly cheerful of Narusean dramas in the gentle comedy and naturalistic depiction of a warm and loving family committed to compassion, kindness, and mutual support as pathways towards a better post-war future.  


Mother is currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel

The Rose on His Arm (太陽とバラ, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1956)

In the mid-1950s, a minor moral panic took hold over the so-called “Sun Tribe” movies which, inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara, depicted a world of crazed abandon in which a collection of bored rich kids lost themselves in the hedonistic pursuits of sex and drugs rejecting the stability the wartime generation had striven so hard to create for their children. Shochiku, at that time the home of polite melodrama, nevertheless attempted to get in on the youth movie boom mostly through commissioning a series of young directors such as Kiju Yoshida and Nagisa Oshima in the hope that they could speak directly to their generation. Meanwhile, the by that point well-established Keisuke Kinoshita also made his own, perhaps surprising, take on the genre with The Rose on His Arm (太陽とバラ, Taiyo to Bara), a youth movie melodrama which nevertheless anticipated the questions others were beginning to ask about the Sun Tribe movies in their very particular view of contemporary class dynamics. 

Our hero, Kiyoshi (Katsuo Nakamura), is like the (anti-)heroes of the post-Sun Tribe youth movies, a poor boy turned delinquent out of a sense of frustrated hopelessness. Quitting one job after another solely because the work is boring, he spends most of his days hanging out at the beach with other no good kids robbing unsuspecting bathers. Kiyoshi’s sense of inferiority is compounded by the fact that his mother (Sadako Sawamura) works as a maid for a wealthy family while making ends meet by crafting paper flowers by night. The young master of the house where his mother works, Masahiro (Akira Ishihama), never misses a chance to lord his wealth over him but later co-opts Kiyoshi into his group of wealthy friends as a source of entertainment (and because his delinquent friend, Yamanaka (Tamotsu Tamura), begins supplying them with drugs).

“I screwed up my life because I was poor, what’s your excuse?” Kiyoshi eventually asks an indifferent Masahiro after beginning to see him for what he is. Like the hero of Punishment Room, Kiyoshi’s internalised resentment is partly down to a paternal failure in that he is deeply ashamed of his late father who died, his mother claimed, saving him but also in the course of his activities as a black marketeer in which he’d forced his son to be complicit. The family had apparently tried to make a life for themselves in the new colonies, in this case Palau, but of course had to return to Japan and were then penniless. People did what they had to do, but no one trusts a black marketeer and it seems to be a stain Kiyoshi (whose name means “pure”) cannot wash off. As a poor boy with no education or prospects, he knows all that awaits him is drudgery, so why not make a fast buck stealing purses at the beach rather than slave away at the factory for a week making less than Masahiro gets in pocket money from his factory owner father? 

Convincing himself he’s no good, Kiyoshi consistently sabotages opportunities but resents himself for doing so. He begins to buckle down at the factory but quickly becomes “bored” and starts taking advantage of his supportive floor manager while sucked into Masahiro’s hedonistic lifestyle even after it becomes obvious that he’s keeping him around to be some kind of hired goon, good for punching other pasty rich boys and hooking him up with underworld thrills. Masahiro is a delinquent because his life is too easy, he has no economic imperative to be responsible and will most likely go to college and then either take over the factory or walk into a lucrative salaryman job. Kiyoshi is a delinquent because he’s desperate and has no other means of living. 

Meanwhile he resents his mother’s love, shamed, in more than one sense, by her continuing industry. She often tells him the story of how he fell ill on Palau only to make a miraculous recovery after which she collapsed into a rose a garden. To spite her, Kiyoshi gets the titular rose tattooed on his arm, something which forever marks him out as a ne’er do well in conservative Japanese society, all but guaranteeing he’ll never get an honest job (he even has to cover the tattoo with bandages in public places to avoid causing offence). Eventually he takes drastic action to end his sense of hopelessness, pursuing what is strangely a darker yet more romantic destiny than that of his post-Sun Tribe compatriots in taking a poetic stand, paper rose in hand, defying his despair only through embracing it. 


The Rose on His Arm is currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)