The Scent of Incense (香華, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1964)

Scent of Incense still 1Sometimes regarded as overly sentimental, Keisuke Kinoshita’s later career grew progressively harder around the edges, as if he began to lose faith in the efficacy of human goodness but never it seems in its capacity for endurance. Spanning more than 50 years in the turbulent history of mid-20th century Japan, The Scent of Incense (香華, Koge) reverses the path of the hahamono in dramatising the complicated relationship of two women – a “selfish” mother and her “self-sacrificing” daughter who finds herself unable to give up on maternal approval despite the many disappointments of her life.

We open in late Meiji with a funeral interrupted by news from the Russo-Japanese war. Shortly after, young widow Ikuyo (Nobuko Otowa) argues with her mother, Tsuna (Kinuyo Tanaka), over custody of her five-year-old daughter Tomoko. Ikuyo is planning to remarry and her new husband has three children of his own. Fearing Tomoko would be an inconvenience, Ikuyo proposes to make her heir to her mother’s family, leaving her behind in her grandmother’s care. Though Tsuna loves Tomoko dearly, she resents her daughter’s intention to abandon them just because she’s got a better offer, and perhaps privately wonders how long she’ll actually stick it out for seeing as, as we later see, she has a strong tendency to give up when the going gets tough.

The prediction proves accurate. Ikuyo persuades her new husband to abandon his existing children and family home for the bright lights of Tokyo, while Tomoko and her grandmother live on alone in the country. Ikuyo has another daughter, Yasuko, but the couple quickly become impoverished without access to her husband’s family money. When Tsuna dies, Ikuyo decides to fetch Tomoko from the family residence, but then sells her to a geisha house. A few years later, she too falls into the sex trade but as a less exulted “oiran”, embarrassingly re-encountering her daughter from the other side of a brothel. Despite her abandonment and shame over her mother’s profession, Tomoko (Mariko Okada) continues to try to help her, maintaining an awkward familial relationship with a woman who only pays attention to her when she needs something.

Perhaps ironically, in one sense, Tomoko ends up becoming a successful, independent woman in pre-war Japan but is forever denied the kind of familial life she craves as a conventionally respectable wife and mother of the kind her own was not. In the course of her work, she meets dashing military cadet Ezaki (Go Kato) and, despite the warnings of her madam (Haruko Sugimura) who cautions her that she’s the type to fall in love too deeply, embarks on a longterm affair with him. Though he is obviously aware that she is a geisha, he is confident that his family would accept a marriage, but Tomoko’s hopes are later dashed when his pre-marital investigations turn up the fact that Ikuyo has worked as a “common prostitute”. Heartbroken, she resents once again paying the price for her mother’s transgressions, but does not break with her completely.

Tomoko’s liminal status is further brought home to her when her elderly patron, who has set her up with a geisha house of her own, suddenly dies and not only is she informed some days later by the madam at another house, but she’s not even permitted to attend the funeral. Another man, Nozawa (Eiji Okada), who’d had his eye on her but honestly admits that men of his class do not engage in “serious” relationships with geisha, asks her to become his mistress but she has had enough of the shadow life, vowing both that she doesn’t want to be “owned” anymore, and that her next man (if there is one) will have to marry her.

Loneliness renders that particular vow void as she finds herself embarking on a casual affair with Nozawa while Ikuyo considers getting married for the third time – this time, rather transgressively, with the family’s recently widowed former servant, Hachiran (Norihei Miki), who married into a wealthy family and apparently made something of himself. Hachiran, however, finds it difficult to shake off the old class attitudes, treating Ikuyo like a goddess while she bosses him around and makes a pretence of leaving every time she gets fed up.

Later we might wonder if Ikuyo’s sudden exit from Hachiran’s distant home is more that she missed her daughter than it was boredom with her husband. “I don’t think of her as a mother” each woman says, Ikuyo on learning that Tsuna is dangerously ill, and Tomoko when Nozawa suggests making a detour to visit Ikuyo and Hachiran. Ikuyo, it is true, is a cold woman who abandoned her daughter only to reclaim her in order to sell, later giving up two more children one of whom apparently disappears without trace. The proof of her love is found only in its end, while Tomoko suffers on all the long years otherwise alone, until in an immense act of circularity she at last becomes a kind of mother to another woman’s son.

Forever haunted by the spectre of soldiers, Tomoko loses everything in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but perseveres and rebuilds. She loses everything again in the firebombing of Tokyo, only later remembering her foresight in burying a large collection of crockery in the cellar which might allow her to open a restaurant. She resents her mother but keeps her close, while Ikuyo’s affections seem to ebb and flow as she disappears off to greener pastures only to resurface again when they’ve been thoroughly grazed. A flighty, perhaps selfish woman, Ikuyo too proves unable to sever connection from her daughter. Tomoko disapproves of her mother’s gaudiness, her unbridled lust for life and disregard of social conventions, but the two women are more alike than they first seem – each in their own way fiercely independent and unwilling to allow their desires to be defined or defeated by the world around them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Our Blood Will Not Forgive (俺たちの血が許さない, Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

Our blood will not forgive posterIn Japan, “kaeru no ko wa kaeru”, or “a frog’s son is also a frog”, is an often heard idiom, sometimes disparaging but often affectionate. Can a yakuza’s son become anything other than a yakuza, or does your blood define you in ways you cannot defy? Our Blood Will Not Forgive (俺たちの血が許さない, Oretachi no Chi ga Yurusanai), an early semi-absurdist gangster drama from Seijun Suzuki’s mid-period at Nikkatsu, asks just that question as two brothers battle the legacy of their slain father whose dying wish it was that the yakuza line die with him.

After their father was assassinated at home by sword, the Asari brothers were raised by their mother, Hatsu (Chikako Hosokawa), who did her best to keep them out of the underworld. After the war, however, times were tough. Older brother Ryota (Akira Kobayashi) had to work as a delivery boy to keep the family fed, studying hard at the same time and getting in to a good university. Now grown up, he’s a smart suited night club manager. His younger brother Shinji (Hideki Takahashi), meanwhile, is a clownish goof-off with a good job at an ad agency he’s always in danger of losing (like a fair few jobs before). Today, Shinji was meant to collect his bonus, but he’s bunked off to take part in a local festival which is unfortunate, because he’s got a visitor – Tobita (Akifumi Inoue), the man who killed their father without knowing why and now regrets it. He’s managed to track Shinji down thanks to the fact he looks just like his dad and has a habit of doing stupid things that get his picture in the papers like winning eating competitions and getting lucky on the horses only to get mugged outside.

Tobita’s desire to apologise to the boys exposes their father’s sordid yakuza past and forces them to deal with the legacy of their gangster blood. Though Ryota is more sanguine and simply declares that he “hates all yakuza” before asking Tobita to leave and never come back, Shinji immediately attacks him but then becomes enamoured of the romanticism of the gangster life and considers restarting the Asari clan after getting fired when a picture of him fighting with thugs on the company away trip makes the papers with the headline “yakuza’s son”.

The central irony is that Ryota, who was his mother’s favourite and ostensibly the steady, respectable son, has secretly been a yakuza for quite some time. The club he runs is a yakuza front, which is why he tries to talk Shinji out of trying to get a job there, leading him to feel rejected enough to have too much to drink and start a bar fight, causing problems for Ryota with his boss.

“All yakuza are the same,” Ryota confesses to Shinji as they argue in a car incongruously surrounded by roaring waves, “they’re violent because they’re afraid”. Despite graduating from Tokyo University, Ryota couldn’t get an honest job because they always found out his dad was a yakuza. Out of other options, he decided he had no other choice but to become one too, that he could not escape his blood but might be able to make sure his brother could. Shinji has romantic dreams of the yakuza lifestyle (his bedroom wall’s covered in pictures of Al Capone et al), but Ryota knows what it means, which is why he hates all yakuza, including himself. He’s planning to marry his secretary girlfriend, Yasuko (Chieko Matsubara), but his emotions are so corrupted that he isn’t quite sure if he really loves her or is only making a bid for respectability as a kind of atonement to his mother. In any case, he also feels guilty, knowing that just as his father eventually made his mother miserable, no woman can be happy with a yakuza.

“Yakuza are so stupid, you’re all obsessed with dying – what’s the point?” Shinji eventually exclaims, finally thoroughly disillusioned as his brother goes out in search of an honourable ending rather than trying to escape from certain death at the hands of his vengeful boss. “It may not be easy to live, but there’s nothing honourable about dying!” he tells him, undercutting a series of cultural signifiers, but finally crawling out of the yakuza trap and vowing to live on muddling through with his mother and perky girlfriend, Mie (Yuri Hase) whose birthday party he’s currently missing. Blood does not forgive, but it does eventually release if only you can learn to see it for what it is and choose to be free of it.


Opening (no subtitles)

The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Ishiro Honda, 1960)

The Human Vapour poster“The world is full of hysteria towards things they don’t understand” admits the strangely chatty “villain” at the centre of Ishiro Honda’s The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Gas Ningen dai Ichi-go). Third in a loose trilogy of “mutant” films put out by Toho beginning with The H-Man and followed by The Secret of the Telegian, The Human Vapor is at once the most futuristic and the most traditional in that it’s no longer wartime guilt or nuclear anxiety which has corrupted our increasingly amoral hero but unwise ambition in which desperation to win the space race has produced a new and dangerous threat we may not be able to contain.

Honda opens with an exciting bank heist which on later consideration might not make much sense, filled as it is with shots of a faceless man pointing a gun at terrified staff while the vault doors open seemingly on their own. Earnest policeman Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) is on the case, chasing a suspect car down a narrow country road only for it to crash and be discovered empty with no trace of the driver to be found. Okamoto’s feisty reporter girlfriend Kyoko (Keiko Sata) is dismayed to find out he has no leads, but later picks up on his mention of a buyo dancer, Fujichiyo (Kaoru Yachigusa), who lives near the scene and might have something to do with the case. 

Chasing Fujichiyo takes Okamoto to a library, where he becomes further convinced she is in contact with the mysterious bank robber. A strange and isolated woman, Fujichiyo is apparently from a noble, wealthy family but lives alone in a small cottage with only a single male servant where she devotes herself entirely to perfecting the art of traditional Japanese dance. We discover that Fujichiyo has been in poor health, which is why she hasn’t given a public performance in some time. Okamoto posits that the bank robber is bankrolling her comeback, though he never seems to have much of an explanation why she would need him when she has access to her own resources.

He is however correct, though it seems Fujichiyo was not aware that the money was stolen otherwise she might have been more careful in using it. In a contrast with genre norms, honest cop Okamoto never falls for Fujichiyo but does become oddly invested in her sad love story while sparking with his cheerful reporter girlfriend who ends up doing much the same. In fact, Kyoko is the only one doing much investigating but largely finds herself having to do it in spite of the (generally useless) men around her, including an unpleasant younger colleague who mocks all her ideas but does nothing much of anything on his own.

In any case, smirking villain Mizuno (Yoshio Tsuchiya) later makes himself known to the police in a selfless gesture of love in order to clear Fujichiyo’s name and get her released from police custody. He does this by taking the police to a bank and demonstrating how he was able to get in the vault without a key which involves his curious ability to turn himself into a gas. When Fujichiyo is not released, he takes matters into his own hands and frees all the prisoners in the cells, but Fujichiyo refuses to leave, insisting that she has no intention of running away and prefers to stay until the police affirm her innocence by releasing her.

Mizuno’s intention to bypass the law is one of the many signifiers of his increasing danger, that now believes himself “above” the rest of humanity and therefore no longer subject to their laws. He later tells the police exactly that, sitting them down for a mini audience to explain himself during which he recounts his history as an SDF pilot discharged on a diagnosis of lung cancer after which he took the boring job in the library and fell in love with Fujichiyo. A shady doctor, Sano (Fuyuki Murakami), later approached him claiming to be working for Japan’s space programme and suggested that his fighter pilot background made him a perfect fit for becoming an astronaut. Mizuno agreed to participate in his research to “change the existence of the human body” in preparation for life in space, but when Sano’s weird experiments turned him into a “gas man”, the doctor committed suicide in horror leaving Mizuno just another lonely victim of a mad scientist.

Like many other “mutant” heroes, the change in Mizuno’s body has also changed his soul though his love for Fujichiyo remains unchanged. It seems he’s only committing these crimes to fund her ambition of performing traditional buyo dance on the contemporary stage, while she though obviously devoted to her art finds it difficult to accept the man that he’s become. He promises to give her the world, sacrificing anyone that gets in his way. She remains conflicted, not wanting to accept his offer if it involves that kind of cost, and defending him to her colleagues only with the rationale that he is “different from what they are accustomed to”. While some advise caution, that perhaps Mizuno is not as dangerous as they think despite already having killed and should be given the chance to reform, others take a harder line eventually opting to use a different kind of gas to counter him.

Kyoko pleads with Fujichiyo as one woman in love to another, trying to protect Okamoto while advising her to pull Mizuno back from the brink by cancelling her performance, but precisely because of the understanding that exists between them she cannot. Sadly, as many point out, no one is really interested in buyo dance – the only audience members in attendance are there for the drama and the possibility of seeing the gas man in action. “You and I have finally won” Mizuno tells Fujichiyo on completion of her dance, as if this performance was all that ever mattered to either of them. But their victory leaves them with nowhere else to go, and the world unready to accept the latent threat a gas man represents. Fujichiyo makes her choice, one perhaps informed by her art and her love, while the authorities can only wait outside for the vapours to disperse.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

The Dragon of Macao (マカオの竜, Mio Ezaki, 1965)

Dragon of Macao DVD coverNikkatsu’s “borderless” action was famously internationalist, but as Japan’s place on the world stage began to change in the mid-60s, it also betrayed a slight anxiety in the nation’s new status as a burgeoning economic power in the Asian sphere. The Dragon of Macau (マカオの竜, Macao no Ryu), while indulging in the genre’s characteristically xenophobic vision of China as an exporter of criminality, is another attempt to cash in on James Bond cool as its suave, British passport-carrying hero tries to wrestle a precious gem away from fiercely amoral “pirates” while protecting a betrayed young woman trying to avenge the death of her parents at the hands of duplicitous gangsters.

Set in the bustling port town of Yokohama, the film opens with the harbour patrol forcibly boarding a ship to look for smuggled gold. However, it turns out that the two men they’re searching are members of the patrol themselves on an undercover mission trying to expose organised crime while the guys dressed as policemen are actually members of a gang trying to steal a precious diamond. Fearing the operation blown, the gangsters’ plant offs the lot of them and makes off with the loot.

Meanwhile, “Dragon of Macau” Ryu (Akira Kobayashi) lurks about on the harbour while rival gangster Tsukada (Asano Sano) tries to get the police onside and convince them that someone else is targeting his operation though the police are apt to wonder if he staged the whole thing himself to get rid of the undercover agents. The truth, however, is that ambitious harbour punk Aizu (Jo Shishido) is after a precious diamond known as the “Himalyan Star” which is rumoured to be cursed seeing as everybody who’s come into contact with it has ended up dead.

Unsurprisingly, Aizu gets his hands on the gem from a Chinese broker, Chen, who warns him that two gangsters, Gordon and Boomerang, will do “anything” to get their hands on it. Ryu later turns up a bar run by Tsukada and gets into a bar fight with a series “damn foreigners”, sailors who’d had too much to drink and started hassling the staff. The “damn foreigners” quip is especially ironic seeing as we later discover Ryu is a British citizen who seems to have grown up in Hong Kong after being rescued by a British vessel when the boat he and his parents were travelling on was torpedoed during in the war. Introducing himself to Tsukada, Ryu says that he works for the aforementioned “Gordon”, presumably an imperialist Brit engaged in shady colonial shenanigans out of Hong Kong. The truth about “Ryu” at least turns out to be slightly different, but for the moment he’s a Bond-inspired unflappable agent of cool complete with a fancy white three-piece suit and a collection of gadgets (a cigarette lighter blowtorch, pistol that dispenses matchstick flares, and a tiny nail gun) that would be the envy of any cold war spy.

Not to be outdone, however, Aizu has his own share of surprises including the tiny dagger hidden in the cigarette which permanently hangs from his lip. Temporarily entering this land of intense amorality, Ryu plays along but retains his nobility and remains permanently one step ahead as he attempts to get his hands on the Himalayan Star and return it to its “rightful” owners. Aizu’s main gambit is weaponising women – Aizu’s sister is a plant working at Tsukada’s bar and apparently also his mistress, while he also makes use of another young woman, Nami (Yukiyo Toake), whose late father was a patron of his. She believes Tsukada is responsible for the deaths of her parents and is participating in the plan as revenge, but eventually falls for Ryu’s suave nobility and refuses to betray him when faced with Aizu’s continuing duplicity.

A few narrative machinations later, we’re told that Ryu is “a person without a motherland” but also that he has always been a force for “good” or at least order in that he wants the gemstone not for himself but to get it away from the gangsters and back to its “official” owners (which sort of ignores the fact that the stone was “stolen” from the eye of a Buddhist statue which is presumably why people think it’s “cursed”, and that his primary motivation is avoiding a giant insurance payout). Having fallen for Nami, he leaves her a message that he’d have liked to take her back to Macau but is unsure she’d be happy with someone like him, asking her to look after another young woman who came all the way from Hong Kong to warn him that Gordon and Boomerang have finally taken each other out.

Perhaps in contrast to Nikkatsu’s other international crime dramas, the “threat” turns out to be wholly homegrown in Aizu’s rapidly individualist stance that “life is cruel”, “mercy is for fools”, and those who stand in one’s way must be eliminated. The solution comes, paradoxically, from destabilising internationalism at the hands of a man who is both Japanese and not, speaks several languages, and works as an agent for colonising imperial powers to whom he eventually exiles himself, job done. A rip-roaring spy drama complete with modern day pirates and an extremely ineffectual police presence, The Dragon of Macau is a surprisingly complex effort from Nikkatsu’s “borderless” action strand which makes the case for Japan as a part of wider world rather than a isolated island fearful of losing out in an increasingly globalised environment.


The Catch (飼育, Nagisa Oshima, 1961)

The Catch poster1960 was a turbulent year for many, not least among them Nagisa Oshima who dramatically broke his contract with Shochiku after the studio withdrew Night and Fog in Japan on grounds of sensitivity after the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party was murdered by a right-wing assassin live on TV. 1961’s The Catch (飼育, Shiiku), an adaptation of a novel by Kenzaburo Oe, was Oshima’s first post-studio picture and as uncompromising as anything else he’d worked on up to that point. Unlike many other filmmakers of the post-war generation who had been keen to use the corruption of the war as an excuse for a failure of humanity they now thought could be repaired, Oshima suggests that the rot was there long before and all the war did was give it justification.

In the summer of 1945, a small village captures a black American airman (Hugh Hurd) shot down over a nearby forest. They are originally quite jubilant about their act of heroism, believing that they will eventually be rewarded by the authorities, but are then irritated by their new responsibility. They are already low on food, and now they’ll have to feed this full grown man or risk being branded as amoral war criminals. Predictably, nobody wants to be saddled with looking after him until the authorities arrive with further instructions or knows what to do now, so in time-honoured fashion they tie him up in a shed and hope for the best. Only latterly when one of the children points it out do they realise that they should probably remove the bear trap attached to the airman’s foot which may already be infected seeing as he seems to be in a considerable amount of pain and is running a high fever.

It goes without saying that villagers are extremely racist, using quite pointed racial slurs and dehumanising language to describe their captive, even when others stop to remind them that he is after all human too even if he’s an enemy. Just as their sons and husbands are overseas fighting, and dying, bravely for the emperor so was this man valiantly risking his life for his country. Shouldn’t he be accorded some respect just for that? Wouldn’t they want that for their sons too?

Sadly thoughts are thin on the ground, as is food. Jiro (Toshiro Ishido), a young man shortly to enlist, wants a bag of rice off his dad to take into town to buy a woman, but his dad doesn’t have any because he’s already in debt to the immensely corrupt village chief (Rentaro Mikuni). Jiro eventually satisfies himself with a sexually liberated high school girl evacuated from the city and thereafter disappears – the first of many negative events to be randomly blamed on the captive airman. Meanwhile the village chief is responsible for a series of problems because of his out of control need for sexual dominance which sees him apparently abusing his daughter-in-law (Masako Nakamura) and attempting to assault a young widow (Akiko Koyama) with two children evacuated from the city and otherwise undefended in the village.

The rot here is feudalism, the idea that gives free rein to the village chief to misuse his position for his own satisfaction – extracting sexual favours from the women and controlling the men economically. Because he’s the village chief no one really questions his authority or his orders, so when he says all the problems are new and caused by the “black monster” they’ve brought into the village then everyone believes it to be true. The airman, who cannot be responsible for any of these crimes because he is still recovering and locked up in the shed, becomes a scapegoat for every bad thing that has ever happened in the village. More than an embodiment of the war, he is a symbol of all the external pressures that the village would like to pretend are the reasons it has turned in on itself.

Yet the airman is only one kind, the deepest kind, of other. The village hasn’t quite even integrated its evacuees who also constitute a secondary community. The young woman’s two starving children are repeatedly caught with their fingers in other people’s rice jars and receive little sympathy from the villagers, but their crimes only expose the fact that the man who has sheltered them, and also owns the shed where the airman is kept, has been keeping quiet about people thieving his potatoes. He knows it’s not the widow because there are simply too many taken to feed a small family of three, which means that there are probably several “thieves” among the villagers, content to betray their neighbours in thinking that the wealthy farmer won’t miss a measly few root vegetables.

Predictably, rather than deal with the problem, everyone obsesses over the idea that the corruption is born only of the airman and if they could just eliminate him everything would go back to “normal” – i.e. the feudal past in which everyone does what the village chief says and lives in superficial harmony without complaining about their reduced status as lowly peasants forced to live in penury by an unfair and essentially corrupt system. To cure the discord between them, they decide that the airman must be killed, no longer caring about the censure they may face from the authorities. Only two young boys stick up for him, remaining sane amid the madness all around them in insisting that the airman is a person too, is unrelated to the village drama, and deserves his dignity and respect. Sadly, however, the madness has already taken hold.

On learning that the war is over, the villagers refuse to reflect on their behaviour and seek only to bury the past, superficially smoothing over their barbarity with convenient justification. They receive the news that the American authorities do not trust the Japanese with surprise and hurt, despite the fact they are living proof of the reasons why they would be foolish to do so. We gave him white rice while we ate potatoes, he had goats milk, they say, what more could he have wanted? The answer is self evident, but it’s already been forgotten. The villagers start blaming each other, and eventually settle on another scapegoat – a deserter, as if another death could tie all of this into a neat bundle to be burned away on a funeral pyre as if it never existed at all. The evacuees are invited to leave, and the villagers start thinking about the harvest festival, as if the evil has been excised and everything is returning to the way it’s supposed to be, but this “peace” is brokered on the back of secrecy and an abnegation of responsibility. A grim exposé of man’s essential cruelty and selfishness, The Catch rejects the tenets of post-war humanism to suggest that the corruption of feudalism has not and may never be eliminated at least as long as a nation remains content to bury its past along with its shame.


Short clip (English subtitles)

Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

yakuza law posterOne of the things that (supposedly) separates the “yakuza” from regular thugs is that they have a “code”. That code means many and various things, but in their grand mission to justify their existence it often means that they stand up for the little guy, all too often oppressed by the powers that be. Of course, a lot of people might feel themselves to be oppressed by yakuza thugs who like to throw their weight around and generally cause trouble for small business holders, but that’s beside the point. Teruo Ishii’s Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Yakuza Keibatsushi: Lynch!) goes one step further and asks if the yakuza are themselves “oppressed” by their own code, or at least the various ways it is used and subverted by all who subscribe to it.

Set in three distinct time periods, Yakuza Law is also fairly unique in that the vast majority of those on the receiving end of its violence are male. The yakuza is an extremely homosocial world after all. Each of the three tales presented is preceded by a title card featuring the particular “laws” the unhappy gangsters are about to break and what kind of punishment they might expect for doing so.

The first and earliest, set in the Edo era, is a typical giri/ninjo tale that places the ideal of the yakuza code against the need to preserve a personal vision of justice. The “rules” here are that a yakuza does not steal and he does not fool around with married women. Our hero, Tsune (Bunta Sugawara), takes the heat for a nervous underling, Shinkichi (Hiroshi Miyauchi), who crumbled in the heat of battle, but incurs the wrath of his boss while a devious footsoldier, Viper (Renji Ishibashi), hides in the bushes and then stabs a corpse numerous times to make it look as if he’s done good service. Viper, not content with his ill-gotten gains, sets up Tsune and his superior Tomozo (Ryutaro Otomo) by implicating them in a gambling scam while Tsune falls for the boss’ girl Oren (Yoshiko Fujita) who is also desperately trying to protect the feckless Shinkichi.

The problem with all of this, it would seem, is not so much that the yakuza “law” has been broken but that’s it’s being misused in all quarters and is clearly in conflict with basic humanity. The boss uses the code to manipulate his underlings and keep a firm grip on his power, while Viper bends it to his own nefarious ways and a third underling, Shohei (Shhinichiro Hayashi), rests on the sidelines playing a little each way but remaining loyal to his brothers even as the axe falls on his head. The punishments meted out are suitably gruesome, escalating from finger cutting to eye gauging and ear removal in a senseless and counterproductive lust for violence which does eventually blow back on the boss who pushes his authority too far over too small a cause.

In tale two, however, which takes place in 20th century pre-war Japan, the “crime” is causing trouble and the punishment exile, but again the problem is not the code but the men who subvert it. Thus, hotheaded foot soldier Ogata (Minoru Oki) sets the cat amongst the pigeons by starting a gang war on his own and is sent to prison for three years during which time his gang prospers because of the movement he started. Even so, they aren’t keen to have him back when he gets out and immediately exile him from their territory. He sticks around waiting for his girl, Sayo (Masumi Tachibana), but she gets picked up by the evil boss who wants her for himself and delays her departure so that Ogata can be captured. Believing he’s dead, she hooks up with another goodhearted yakuza, Amamiya (Toyozo Yamamoto), who saves her from the bad guys only to have a romantic crisis when Ogata suddenly resurfaces. Amamiya and Ogata are, however, both “good” yakuza which means they both really love Sayo and want the best for her, each respecting the other for the old love and the new as they team up to kick the corrupt yakuza out of town and make sure she’s permanently safe whoever it is she eventually ends up with.

By the third tale we’ve reached the contemporary era, but we’re no longer in a traditional “yakuza” world so much as one seemingly ripped from a spy spoof in which the cardinal rule is that if you undermine the organisation you will be eliminated. More thugs than yakuza, this kind have no code and will stoop to the lowest kind of cruelty solely for money. Debonair, 007-esque international hitman Hirose (Teruo Yoshida) accepts a job from shady gangster Shimazu (Takashi Fujiki) to assassinate his boss, only Shimazu offs him first and then frames Hirose (which he finds very irritating). Hirose spends the rest of the picture teaching him a lesson while Shimazu tries to eliminate his competition in increasingly inhuman ways (including having someone crushed into a cube while trapped inside a luxury car).

Bar the third episode which isn’t really even about “yakuza”, what Ishii seems to be saying is that the yakuza are also oppressed because they are forced to live with fragmented integrity, torn between giri and ninjo in their adherence to an arcane set of values which are often overly enforced at the cost of true “justice”. To be fair, that is the idea behind every other yakuza film, but Ishii does is add a more cynical edge in suggesting the issue isn’t the code and conflicting value systems but individualised corruption (which is itself perhaps a kind of “ninjo”) in those who deliberately misuse the “noble” idea of the code for their own ends – something which has intensified since the Edo era though is apparently not a result of post-Meiji internationalism. All of that aside, despite the brutality of the title, Yakuza Law is fairly tame outing for Ishii which tempers its lust for blood with cartoonish irony as its deluded heroes battle themselves in service of a code which has never and will never truly serve them.


Available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes a new audio commentary by Jasper Sharp and a vintage interview with Teruo Ishii, as well as a booklet featuring new writing by Tom Mes.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)