The Tale of Oiwa’s Ghost (怪談 お岩の亡霊, Tai Kato, 1961)

Yotsuya Kaidan is among the most well-known and enduringly popular of Japanese ghost stories. Originating as a kabuki play first staged in 1825, it has inspired countless film adaptations though Tai Kato’s The Tale of Oiwa’s Ghost (怪談 お岩の亡霊, Kaidan Oiwa no Borei) from 1961 is accounted among the most faithful despite the variation in its title. Usually regarded as a cautionary tale about a man whose ruthless ambition destroys his humanity earning him supernatural retribution, Yotsuya Kaidan is also a tale of female vengeance as Kato’s slight refocussing makes plain. In this version of the tale, all of Tamiya Iemon’s problems are, aside from the offscreen murder for which he has already been exiled from his family before the film begins, caused by female subjugation.

Having married into Oiwa’s (Yoshiko Fujishiro) family, Tamiya (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is in a rueful mood even as the film begins. After randomly killing a man in a fight some time previously, Oiwa has left him because, quite reasonably, she does not want to be in a relationship with a murderer nor do her family wish to be associated with someone stained with such a serious crime. Noticeably ragged, Tamiya swears he’s going to get Oiwa back because he’ll “never find another woman with such a beautiful body”. He wants her firstly because she has rejected him and his pride is wounded, secondly to regain his status, and thirdly because for the moment she is a glittering prize though he’ll later come to tire of her. 

Tamiya is hanging around because he wants to talk to his father-in-law about reinstatement but he is currently meeting with a “masseuse”, unbeknownst to Tamiya planning to sell his second daughter Osode (Hiroko Sakuramachi) to a brothel in order to pay a debt. He has been assured that his daughter will not be expected to participate in sex work but will be running a toothpick stall near the temple. Needless to say, both he and Osode are very much mistaken and once the money has changed hands Takuetsu (Atsushi Watanabe), doctor and owner of the brothel, can do whatever he likes. Tamiya doesn’t much care about Osode, encouraging his lusty friend elixir pedlar Naosuke (Jushiro Konoe) who declared her the more beautiful of the sisters to buy her body that very night. You wouldn’t think Naosuke could afford it but he decides to do just that, only to be gazumped by Osode’s conflicted fiancé Yomoshichi (Sawamura Sojuro) who is about to depart for Edo with the lord for a year the very next day. Rather than save her, Yomoshichi merely takes her virginity and asks her to wait for his return in a year’s time, leaving her in the brothel. 

Both Oiwa and Osode are essentially made to pay for their attempt to refuse male subjugation. Naosuke has “bought” Osode’s body and feels entitled to have it, attempting to rape her while she violently refuses him. His resentment leads him to plot Yomoshichi’s murder, but he mistakenly ends up killing his friend instead while Tamiya takes the opportunity to kill his father-in-law and reunite with his wife under the pretext of revenge for a crime he himself committed, essentially gifting Osode to Naosuke as a kind of reward. But Tamiya isn’t satisfied because he remains poor and lowly. His wife may be from a previously well respected samurai family, but he’s having to resort to making umbrellas to get by and now that Oiwa has given birth to their child he no longer finds her so “beautiful”. Bearing out the misogyny in their society, the men joke that Tamiya had been hoping his wife would die in childbirth so he’d be free of her at last. 

It’s at this point that he is offered an opportunity. Oume (Yumiko Mihara), the daughter of the wealthy Ito family of merchants fell in love with Tamiya when he returned her comb to her after a tussle in the square. Moving in nearby, the Itos are keen to persuade Tamiya to marry Oume but he has a wife and child already. The source of Tamiya’s heartlessness is it seems a kind of toxic masculinity, his intense sense of insecurity and a need to prove himself through promotion that fuels his obsession with advancing up the ranks to serve the shogun. As much as this is about inhumanity, it’s also about a society in flux. Unlike Naosuke, Tamiya is a samurai. The Itos are members of a new middle class whose increasing wealth is beginning to threaten the social order of the tightly regimented feudal society. Mr. Ito wants to make his daughter happy, or so he says, but marrying her to a samurai and therefore into the ruling class even if that ruling class is impoverished and possessed of only illusionary power is certainly advantageous. It is however somewhat irrational to encourage a man to murder his first wife so he can marry your lovestruck daughter, it does not bode well for her future safety. In any case, Tamiya is aware that “one’s reputation affects one’s promotion prospects” and so is unwilling to simply kill Oiwa without “a good reason”, later deciding to try and frame her for adultery which would make her death not only permissible but in fact socially mandated.  

In this age a woman’s life has no value, as Oiwa eventually sees. Tamiya gets the adultery idea after catching sight of the bodies of a samurai woman murdered for having an affair with a servant, marking her double transgression against the social order in both advancing her own agency over her body and her love for a man who was not of her own social class (assuming of course that there was any kind of relationship at all and they haven’t simply been killed on pretext by a man like Tamiya). Oiwa’s ruined face, caused by poison disguised as medicine, is symbolic of her social disfigurement, turning her into a “monstrous” woman who vows revenge on the man who has so maliciously wounded her. She asserts her own agency only in her death, choosing to pursue her vengeance from beyond the grave.

Yet it’s not only Tamiya who must pay, but the Itos too for their attempt to cheat the class system. Unlike other retellings, there is little suggestion that Tamiya’s torment is psychological, he is quite literally haunted, taunted into ruining his bright future by exorcising the demon of crime. Unusual for a Toei programmer of the time, Kato’s camera has New Wave verve, replete with handheld photography and swooping zooms while making use of his characteristic low angle composition but the final confrontation precipitated by a literal storm and earthquake which implodes the transgressive world Tamiya and the Itos are forging, is realised with expressionist ferocity. Tamiya tries to atone by taking refuge in a temple, but is undone not perhaps by guilt but by regret in realising he has destroyed his much hoped for chance of advancement and thereby rendered his existence meaningless. 

Returning the play to its roots, he dreams his relationship with Oiwa as kabuki dance until woken by the sight of her ruined face, demanding to be freed from his torment. Yet vengeance comes in realer terms and it is Osode who strikes the blow, striking back on behalf of her sister and herself as a representative of all wronged women, while Naosuke can only lament that “this life had nothing good in it” as he too pays for his transgressions. Osode reclaims her mother’s comb and with it restores the social order while simultaneously rejecting her subjugation at the hands of duplicitous men, laying Oiwa’s unquiet ghost to rest as she leaves the venal past behind for a (presumably) less inhuman world. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

“Why are women in Japan so unhappy?” the carefree Casanova at the centre of Yasuzo Masumura’s 1961 sex romp A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Koshoku Ichidai Otoko) laments, never quite grasping the essential inequalities of the world in which he lives. Masumura is best known for extremity, a wilful iconoclast who flew in the face of golden age cinema’s genial classism, but shock was not his only weapon and he could also be surprisingly playful. Adapted from a well known novel by creator of the “floating world” Ihara Saikaku, A Lustful Man finds him indulging in ironic satire as his hero sets out to “make all the women in Japan happy” chiefly by satisfying their unfulfilled sexual desire while resolutely ignoring all of the entrenched patriarchal social codes which ensure that their lives will be miserable. 

Set in the Edo era, the film opens not with the hero Yonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa) but with his miserly father who berates a servant after discovering a single grain of rice on the hall floor. According to him, the central virtues necessary to become rich are endurance, diligence, and vitality. You must treasure each and every grain of rice in order to accumulate. A cruel and austere man who only thinks of money, Yonosuke’s father keeps his wife in earnest poverty despite their wealth, angrily grabbing an obviously worn kimono out of her hands and insisting that it’s still good for another year, apparently caring nothing for appearances in the otherwise class conscious Kyoto society. It’s this meanness that Yonosuke can’t seem to stand. He hates the way his father disrespects his mother, and her misery is a primary motivator in his lifelong quest to cheer up Japan’s melancholy women though the weapon he has chosen is sex, a convenient excuse to live as a genial libertine to whom money means essentially nothing. 

Yonosuke’s father has set him up with an arranged marriage into a much wealthier family, which is not something he’s very interested in despite the fact she seems to be quite pretty but on learning that she has transgressively found love with the family butler he determines to help her instead, ending the marriage meeting by chasing her round the garden like a dog in heat. Several similar stunts eventually get him sent away from his native Kyoto to Edo but he takes the opportunity to escape, travelling all over Japan making women “happy” as he goes. 

As the first example proves, Yonosuke genuinely hates to see women suffer. His own pleasure, though perhaps not far from his mind, is secondary and he never seeks to take advantage of a woman’s vulnerability only to ease her loneliness. Despite that, however, he remains essentially superficial opting for the transience of postcoital bliss while ignoring the very real societal factors which make an escape from misery all but impossible. During an early adventure, he spends all of the money he conned out of his new employer on redeeming a geisha (at more than three times the asking price) so that she can be with the man she loves, but he continues to visit sex workers without interrogating their existence as indentured servants, “merchandise” which is bought and sold, traded between men and entirely deprived of freedom. In fact, he proudly collects hair cuttings from the various geishas he has known as a kind of trophy only to later discover the grim truth, that the hair likely doesn’t belong to the geisha herself but is sold to them by middlemen who get it by digging up dead bodies. 

Yonosuke remains seemingly oblivious to the duplicitous hypocrisy of the yoshiwara, but is repeatedly confronted by the evils of Edo-era feudalism with its proto-capitalist cruelty where everything is status and transaction. He is often told that as he is not a samurai he would not understand, but seems to understand pretty well that “samurai are idiots” and that their heartless elitism is the leading cause of all the world’s misery. To some a feckless fool, Yonosuke refuses to give in to the false allure of worldly riches. As soon as he gets money he spends it, and does so in ways he believes enrich the lives of women (even if that only extends to paying them for sex), eventually getting himself into trouble once again reneging on his taxes after trying to prove a geisha is worth her weight in gold. 

Yogiri (Ayako Wakao) complains that women are but “merchandise”, valued only as toys for men. “Japan is not a good country for women” Yonosuke agrees, suggesting they run away together to find a place where women are respected, indifferent to Yogiri’s rebuttal “no, wherever you go, no one can change women’s sad fate”. Yonosuke’s naive attempts to rescue women from their misery often end in disaster, a runaway mistress is dragged back and hanged, the woman he was set to marry goes mad after her father and lover are beheaded for having the temerity to speak out about corrupt lords, Yogiri is killed by a samurai intent on arresting him for tax evasion, and his own mother dies seconds after his father only to be immediately praised as “the epitome of a Japanese wife”. Yet he remains undaunted, wandering around like an Edo-era Candide, setting off into exile to look for a supposed female paradise without ever really engaging with the systems which propagate misery or with his own accidental complicity with them. Nevertheless, he does perhaps enact his own resistance in refusing to conform to the rules of a society he knows to be cruel and unfair even if his resistance is essentially superficial, self-involved, and usually counterproductive which is, in its own way, perfectly in keeping with Masumura’s central philosophies on the impossibilities of individual freedom within an inherently oppressive social order.


Immortal Love (永遠の人, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1961)

Patriarchal feudalism destroys not only the life of an innocent young woman but all of those around her in Keisuke Kinoshita’s embittered romantic melodrama Immortal Love (永遠の人, Eien no Hito). Scored to the impassioned beat of an incongruous flamenco and spanning almost thirty years of turbulent history from the tightening years of militarism to Anpo protests, Immortal Love finds its heroine imprisoned by the system within which she was raised but determining to free her children from the legacy of feudalism even while knowing that she traps herself in her intense resentment towards her husband and everything he represents. 

Heibei (Tatsuya Nakadai), the wealthy son of the village chief, returns home from military service in Manchuria after sustaining an injury that will leave him walking with crutches for the rest of his life. Though his father tells him that his is an honourable discharge and has organised a small parade complete with flag waving and a band to greet him, it’s obvious that Heibei feels ashamed to have returned home wounded and is unhappy that his father has made such a fuss. He’s doubly unhappy at his welcome home party on hearing the gossip that local beauty Sadako (Hideko Takamine) is in love with farmer’s son Takashi (Keiji Sada) to whom Heibei has always felt inferior, something which is only exacerbated by the fact Takashi is also at the front and apparently acquitting himself well. Cruelly calling her over, he tells Sadako that he met Takashi at a field hospital but that he was about to go off to a big battle so could very well be dead. 

Heibei’s true feelings, if you could call them that, remain unclear. Later, justifying himself, he claims that he really did care for Sadako and that all of his subsequent “immoral” acts were committed out of a love he was ill equipped to express, but that first night at the party it seems obvious that he only wants her because he knows she is Takashi’s. He tries to assault her when she is massaging his wounded leg, attempts to court her, and then finally resorts to rape with the help of his father who keeps Sadako’s dad occupied by forcing him to drink sake as his guest while making veiled threats about the status of his tenancy. Heibei had made a formal proposal which Sadako was about to turn down, further humiliating him, despite the pressure he’d piled on by threatening to throw Takashi’s brother off his land and potentially kicking her family off theirs too. By raping her and tricking her father into agreeing to the marriage he forces her to accept, wielding his feudal privilege like a weapon. 

Shortly before the marriage, Takashi returns on leave, a heroic soldier painted in glory. He too is resentful and heartbroken to learn that Sadako is to marry to Heibei, eventually hearing the truth of it from his brother. Sadako tries to kill herself rather than be forced into marriage with her rapist, and avoids seeing Takashi in thinking she is now “impure” and can no longer be his wife. Takashi assures her she is wrong, and that even if Heibei thinks he has “stolen” her in taking her by force, he can simply take her back. He proposes they elope, but fails to turn up, leaving Sadako standing sadly at the roadside until her father arrives with a letter explaining that Takashi has reconsidered and advises her to accept a life of material comfort as Heibei’s wife rather than one of hardship with him. 

Forced to marry the man who raped her, Sadako lives in quiet resentment, bearing three children the first of which she struggles to love because he is the result of the rape which condemned her to her present life of misery. Years later, Sadako learns that Takashi married too when his wife Tomoko (Nobuko Otowa) is evacuated to the village to stay with his brother. Heibei, ever cruel, offers Tomoko a job as a household servant, revelling in the idea that Takashi’s first love and current wife are both under his roof, telling her all about their strange romantic history and setting her at odds with Sadako whom she too resents knowing that her husband has never loved her because he can’t give up on his first love. A twisted bond arises between Heibei and Tomoko, united in resentment of Takashi and Sadako, but Heibei eventually tries to rape her too, once again trying to take what Takashi has, or possibly destroy it.  

Despite her despair and loathing for her husband, Sadako tries to rise above it and always makes a point of treating Tomoko with respect and kindness even when she is cruel. Later on the road, she tells her not to worry, that what she grieves isn’t Takashi but the life she lived before. Heibei is perhaps also a victim of the system, his masculinity undermined by his brash father while his sense of inferiority is exacerbated by his disability, but he is also innately cruel and selfish. There’s strange perversion in the act of healing which closes the film in that it forces Sadako to ask for an apology from Heibei, the man who raped her and ruined her life, for using his abuse as an “excuse” to go on hating him all these long years. Heibei characteristically paints himself as the victim, branding Sadako a cold and unfeeling woman, wondering who will look after him now that he has been abandoned by all his children. He tells her that his feelings were sincere even if his acts were immoral, implicitly blaming her for the abuse that he inflicted, but Sadako merely accuses him of romanticising the past in trying to justify this internecine bid for vengeance that ruined the lives of at least four people as a frustrated love story. 

“You and I may never be reconciled until one of us dies” Heibei admits, while Sadako tearfully tells a dying Takashi that it’s not too late for her to try to be happy. Tomoko was able to reconcile with her son and apparently lived out the last of her days in contentment. Naoko (Yukiko Fuji), Sadako’s daughter, eventually married Takashi’s son Yutaka (Akira Ishihama), breaking with the past both in rejecting the feudal class structure within which she was raised in marrying a working class man, and the patriarchal in ignoring her cruel father’s authority. A kind of healing has been achieved, freeing the younger generation from the cursed family legacy which claims that their ancestral wealth was gained by a literal betrayal of thousands of peasant farmers at the time of the siege of Osaka in 1615. The corruption of the war and a culture of hypermasculinty is visited on Sadako in the violent trauma of the rape, an event which echoes through not only her life but perhaps her children’s too. It is not she who should be asking for forgiveness, but she does perhaps begin to find it in herself, in making a kind of peace with the past which at least cuts the cord, allowing the younger generation to escape the net of feudal oppression for a brighter, freer, post-war future.


Immortal Love is available to stream in the US via the Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blueprint of Murder (暗黒街の弾痕, Kihachi Okamoto, 1961)

Alongside its trademark tokusatsu Toho also had a sideline in genre-hopping B-movie comedy of which Kichachi Okamoto’s Blueprint of Murder (暗黒街の弾痕, Ankokugai no Dankon) is a prime example. Playing into a zeitgeisty anxiety about corporate corruption which led to several series of films revolving around industrial espionage such as Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants & Toys and the later Black Test Car, Okamoto’s ironic take on noir and globalisation anticipates the spy spoofs Toho would produce in the wake of Bond fever while quietly also perhaps poking fun at Nikkatsu’s crime melodramas.

The film opens with a young man, Kusaka (Ko Mishima), and his boss Komatsu (Ichiro Nakatani) testing an experimental car engine that would be ultra efficient and cheap to produce. The test goes well, but Kusaka is run off the road on the journey home, caught between a truck and a mysterious man on a motorcycle. Meanwhile, Kusaka’s brother Jiro (Yuzo Kayama), a whale hunter, is busy working on a new kind of harpoon when he gets a telegram from an old friend telling him to come home right away because his brother is dead. On meeting with Komatsu, Jiro starts to think perhaps his brother’s death wasn’t an accident. It seems there are a lot of people interested in this technology, some of whom would rather it not see the light because cheap, efficient engines are not good news for the oil industry. 

Hearing that Kusaka was recieving threatening letters, Jiro wonders why he wouldn’t go to the police, but Komatsu points out that it would have made no difference. Firstly, the police rarely get involved with cases of corporate espionage, and secondly if they did the blackmailers would win anyway because if there were a court case they would have to make full disclosure of their plans. Jiro tries going to the police himself and showing them that he has evidence, as well as the “instinct of a whale hunter”, which suggests that his brother was murdered, but nonchalant policeman Azuma (Tatsuya Mihashi) doesn’t seem very interested. Teaming up with an old uni friend, Sudo (Makoto Sato), who now runs some kind of scandal rag newspaper and is well connected around town, Jiro tries to investigate but soon becomes entangled in a complicated web of corporate intrigue.

Sudo, whose paper seems to be on the verge of bankruptcy, has some sort of game going with corrupt businessman Otori (Seizaburo Kawazu) who runs Goei Economic Reporting Agency which was one of three companies bidding for Komatsu’s engine. Later, Sudo’s main squeeze Tomiko (Kumi Mizuno) also tries to blackmail Otori by posing as the daughter of a man he drove to suicide after poaching technology from his company. Played at his own game, Otori is extremely disturbed to have this traumatic incident thrust in his face, and it quickly becomes clear that although he was onboard with various kinds of corporate duplicity, he had his lines and is worried to think someone might have crossed them on his behalf. 

Otori is right to worry, they are coming for him too. Eventually unmasked, it will come as no surprise to know that the big boss is from Hong Kong making this another quiet instance of Sinophobia betraying an essential anxiety about a newly global Japan. Meanwhile, Jiro’s problems are closer to home. He starts to doubt Sudo, warned off him as man only interested in money, and witnessing him play every angle to his own advantage. Sudo may be playing his own game but has his friend’s interest at heart and is simply trying to protect him from endangering himself in a world he does not understand. 

Rather than the fulfilment of a dangled romance, what we’re left with is the restoration of the friendship between the two men in which they ultimately re-inhabit their innocent student selves complete with a surreal game of air baseball while Tomiko and Komatsu’s sister Kyoko (Mie Hama) cheer excitedly from the sidelines. Okamoto throws in a killer punchline to an early whale hunting gag while piling on the absurdist humour in characteristic style with one unexpected pay off after another even as the guys find themselves in an increasingly murky world of corporate double cross, femme fatale nightclub singers with their own identical minions/backing bands, and rowdy gangsters while trying to ensure the little guy is still free to innovate outside of consumerist concerns.  


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Last War (世界大戦争, Shue Matsubayashi, 1961)

As The Last War (世界大戦争, Sekai Daisenso) points out, by 1961 16 years had passed since the end of World War Two during which Japan had begun to rebuild itself, heading into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity with the Olympics already on the horizon. But the early 1960s were also a time of increased international tension as the Cold War mounted and many in Japan feared being pulled into another conflict especially with the Korean War not quite so much in the distant past. Toho had become the home of special effects cinema and such films were often coloured with strong messages of peace and social responsibility as humanity banded together to combat an existential threat be it a giant monster or mad scientist. The Last War is no different in that regard, but sadder in showing us that the end of the world may come suddenly and without warning and that if we for a second become complacent it could already be too late to stop it. 

Patriarch Mokichi (Frankie Sakai) has made a decent life for himself after the war working as a driver. His wife, Oyoshi (Nobuko Otowa), is in poor health and he dreams of buying a house by the sea where she can live in comfort. Meanwhile, they have a grownup daughter, Saeko (Yuriko Hoshi), born before the war, and two much younger children, a girl, Haru, and boy, Ichiro. They are a very happy, very ordinary family who are beginning to think that their days of hardship are finally behind them and they have escaped the war’s shadow. The only note of potential conflict lies in the fact that Saeko wants to marry a family friend, Takano (Akira Takarada), a sailor, and is afraid of Mokichi’s reaction, especially as he keeps trying to set up matches for her. 

In fact, having lived through the war Oyoshi and Mokichi are certain that nothing like that is going to happen again, even if the younger generation is filled with anxiety. “Who could ever profit from the destruction of the Earth?” Mokichi not unreasonably asks, signalling his newly consumerist world view. Mind you, he adds, everyone knows the alternative to calamity is hard work, “you have to work hard for peace”. 

Mokichi has indeed been working hard, but has perhaps begun to neglect other areas of his life in his desire to become rich even if that desire is only to make his family more comfortable and give his children better opportunities than he had. Brought over to see a new TV set now on sale, he scoffs that he already has one, “Who needs a second TV?” he asks, but on hearing the news that tensions are rising because a military plane has gone down off the coast of Africa, his first thought is to get on the phone to his broker and junk his real estate stocks for shares in aeronautics. Mokichi is unconvinced by an old man selling potatoes on their street who apparently lost everything in Hiroshima and has since become a devoted Christian donating most of his profits to anti-nuclear charities, describing him as just “showing off”, firmly believing that nothing like that is ever going to happen again. “I cannot accept it” he says, “what would be the point of the aspirations of humble folk like us if we’re all destined to go poof into extinction?”.  

As the only nation to have directly experienced nuclear war, the intense fear of its recurrence is indeed understandable. If a nuclear war escalates, it will be the end of everything. All human endeavours over thousands of years will be mere dust. There will be no weddings, no births, no graduations, no grand discoveries, just nothing. When the bomb does indeed hit, the scenes of devastation must have proved extremely traumatic for many in the audience as buildings crumble ominously, the sky turns a fiery red, the streets run with lava, and we can see the outlines of charred bodies lying among the wreckage. The tip of the Diet building sits neatly atop the rubble as if in rebuke of the political failures which, despite the best efforts of the Japanese politicians who make an effort to govern responsibly and are honest with the electorate while advocating strongly for peace through diplomatic channels, have led to the literal end of the world. “You have to work hard for peace” the closing title card reminds us. “We can stop this before it happens, but we have to work together”. “I won’t let you destroy our happiness” Mokichi had screamed at the void, but in the end he was powerless. All it takes is a minor slip, and the world as we know it will cease to be.


A Bonanza (노다지, Chung Chang-wha, 1961)

Chung Chang-wha is best remembered as a pioneer of Korean action cinema, eventually travelling to Hong Kong to direct martial arts movies with Shaw Brothers. 1961’s A Bonanza (노다지, Nodaji) arrives at a moment in which melodrama was the predominant genre and does in a certain way conform to contemporary tastes in its strong message of familial responsibility and reconciliation, but is also influenced by European and American crime cinema adding a touch of noir to its clearly delineated worlds of rich and poor which the hero has, perhaps incorrectly, attempted to cross through abandoning his social responsibilities to chase fortune in the wilderness. 

First on the scene, however, is lonely sailor Dong-il (Hwang Hae) who has returned to Busan after a six month voyage. He tries to visit his mother who is working in a restaurant, but finds her cold and unreceptive. We learn that prior to becoming a sailor, he’d been unemployed and embarrassed not to be able to support his ageing mother as a son should. Dong-il’s father apparently went off to the mountains to look for gold 20 years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. His mother has remarried and his step-father appears not to like him very much, so Dong-il’s longed for familial reconciliation seems unlikely to take place. Angrily leaving the restaurant, he punches an old hobo in the street in frustration. 

Unbeknownst to him, the man, Wun-chil (Kim Seung-ho), is like his father a prospector only apparently a lucky one. After 20 years living “like an animal” in the mountains, he’s struck gold and a lot of it. Wun-chil sells some of the gold to an unscrupulous dealer who immediately cheats him and turns out to be partly responsible for the marriage of the woman he loved to a much wealthier man, and thereafter sets about living as a member of the elite, taking a room at a plush hotel the staff didn’t even want to let him into after taking one look at his mountain man attire. A lengthy flashback informs us that after getting his heart broken, Wun-chil married a woman who was fond of him on the rebound but he never loved her and so the marriage floundered while he became a drunk dependent on his wife’s labour picking coal at the railway. Eventually he decided to leave for the mountains with Dong-il’s dad Dal-su (Heo Jang-gang), leaving his wife and baby daughter Yeong-ok (Yun In-ja) behind. Dal-su passed away shortly after they found the gold together and so Wun-chil is keen to track down Dong-il to ensure he gets his dad’s share of the money while also hoping to reunite with Yeong-ok. 

The gold becomes a corrupting influence in Wun-chil’s life. He has been away 20 years and no longer has any friends while those he makes after becoming rich cannot exactly be trusted. The unscrupulous jeweller has him splashed all over the papers where he talks about his desire to find Dong-il and Yeong-ok, causing a series of imposters to appear claiming to be the long lost children as well as one fake detective offering to find them. When Dong-il eventually finds Wun-chil himself, Wun-chil has all but given up and chosen to self isolate to protect himself from the virus of greed and so doesn’t believe Dong-il is who he says he is. 

Meanwhile, he’s consumed by a sense of guilt and regret in his abandonment of his family and failure as a man to behave honourably towards the woman that he married. We discover that the motivation for Dal-su and Wun-chil to go into the mountains was less economic than romantic. Dal-su’s wife had apparently left him and he hoped to win her back after getting rich, while Wun-chil was still smarting from the loss of the woman he loved to a wealthier man and thought he could gazump him by happening on a gold mine. On his deathbed, Dal-su is sure his fate is payback for the abandonment of his family, while Wun-chil’s guilt runs still deeper. His wife was eventually killed in a rail accident while he was away, leaving Yeong-ok all alone, eventually taken in as a servant and exploited by a wealthy family. Wun-chil came and got her back, but was unable to care for her, eventually tying her to a tree and walking off which is why he has no idea if she is alive or dead. 

Yeong-ok (Um Aing-ran) appears to have survived but has been further corrupted as a member of a vicious street gang, seducing men in the street and then mugging them at knife point but beholden to her boss, Hwang Hog (Park No-sik), who more or less owns her in return for the investment he has made in feeding her. In the course of her activities she encounters Dong-il who heroically fends off her attempt to rob him and prompts her into a reconsideration of her way of life. The youngsters hit it off and begin to fall in love, especially once they discover their shared trauma as children essentially abandoned by irresponsible fathers who ran off to look for gold and never came back. 

Of course, their tripartite destinies eventually converge as the gang sets its sites on Wun-chil’s millions while he starts to reflect on the meaninglessness of wealth when you actually have it. He finds himself wandering down to the railway tracks and observing the other women working there in memory of his late wife, slipping a bundle of notes inside the blanket of a baby on its mother’s back and handing more cash to those he passes on his way. That does not mean, however, that he’s willing to surrender his gold which is why he kicks off when he discovers the map to the mine and all his money has been stolen from the hotel. Culminating in a tense shootout between the righteous forces of Dong-il picking up his father’s gun, a regretful Wun-chil hoping to reunite with Yeong-ok, and the gang he hopes to free her from, the battle is not so much over the money but for Wun-chil’s frustrated paternity. Vanquishing the greedy, the family is in a sense restored as Wun-chil vows to become a “good father” to Yeong-ok, embracing Dong-il as a potential son-in-law as the kids support the wounded patriarch back towards civilisation and a presumably happier future. 


A Bonanza is available on DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring writing by Park Sun-young (Research professor, Center for Korean History at Korea University). It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Nikkatsu’s brand of youth cinema could often have a nasty edge, its damaged heroes caught up in complicated rebellion but necessarily outsiders in a changing world which they feared held no real place for them. For each of those, however, there are others filled with life and possibility, not to mention a cartoonish sense of fun and infinite safety which perhaps largely disappeared from the films of the 1960s only to be found again in Kadokawa’s similarly aspirational teen movies of the bubble era. 

Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Muteppo Daisho, AKA Reckless Boss / A Hell of a Guy) once again stars Koji Wada as an earnest young man kicking back against the corrupt wartime generation. Still in high school, Eiji has a part-time job at an ice rink which he doesn’t treat quite as seriously as he ought to but his boss lets him get away with it because his handsome face is a hit with the local ladies. Eiji and two of his friends are keen members of a karate club and have decided to use their skills to fight for justice in their lawless town by going on “patrol”, clearing up the kinds of crimes the police might not make it to in time. Their plan backfires, however, when they come across the body of a recently deceased union leader and are arrested by a local bobby after getting caught with a joke knife one of the boys made for fun at his job on the family scrap yard. 

It comes as no surprise that Eiji’s arch enemy, sleazy mob boss Shinkai (Nakajiro Tomita), is behind the murder, apparently hired by a corrupt corporate CEO trying to stop his workforce exercising their legal rights. Eiji hates Shinkai because he bankrolled his widowed mother’s (Kotoe Hatsui) bar business but did so perhaps in return for being able to control her and by extension him by wielding his economic power against them. His loathing intensifies once he realises that the slightly older young woman he’s carrying a torch for, Yukiyo (Izumi Ashikawa), has fallen for one of Shinkai’s men, Goro (Ryoji Hayama). 

Goro is the classically “good” gangster who feels indebted to Shinkai because he took him in after the war, but wants to leave the underworld behind, going straight in Kobe where he intends to live a settled married life with Yukiyo. The modern yakuza is in many ways a Showa era phenomenon, a mechanism for men without families to protect themselves in the desperate post-war environment. By 1961, however, its existence was perhaps becoming harder to justify. The war orphans had grown up and had families of their own, the economy had significantly improved, and there was no need anymore to live a life of crime and heartlessness – a conclusion Goro has come to on his own after meeting the earnest Yukiyo who has similar problems with her goodhearted yet permanently drunk doctor father. 

Knowing he might have messed things up for his mother in interfering with her relationship with Shinkai, Eiji confesses that doesn’t “know what to do with the grownup world”. For him, everything is still very black and white. He hates yakuza because they prey on the vulnerable and Shinkai in particular because he does it so insidiously, forcing desperate people to accept loans on bad terms so that he can in fact “own” them and use them as he wishes. Eiji and his peer group kick back against what they see as the selfish corruption of the wartime generation, agitating for a fairer, more just world. The wealthy daughter of a corrupt CEO (Mayumi Shimizu) who has a crush on Eiji though he only has eyes for Yukiyo comes up with the idea of selling her fancy car to get money to help Eiji’s mother escape Shinkai’s control, but her father snaps at her that other people aren’t her responsibility and that she doesn’t understand how the real world works. 

Somewhat chastened by the youngsters’ pure hearted love of justice, he eventually comes up with a compromise in buying the car off her himself, but before that Eiji and his friends have to think carefully about the form they want their revolution to take. Taking him to task, Yukiyo points out that if all you do is fight with yakuza then maybe you’re a yakuza yourself, which shifts Eiji’s perspective towards ensuring that his rebellion is fully legal and involves the justice systems already in place. He comes to recognise that Goro is much like himself, and if he’s going to take down a sleazy brute like Shinkai it will take more than some fancy karate. Their resistance starts at home, giving others courage to stand up to yakuza oppression while living right themselves in the hope of creating a better, fairer world free of heartless organised crime.


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)

A Coachman (馬夫 / 마부, Kang Dae-jin, 1961)

A coachman poster 1The Korea of 1961 was one of societal flux, mired in post-war poverty but striving towards a brighter economic future. The rising tides of affluence had given birth to a new middle-class with the old feudal attitudes while others were largely left behind on the shores of prosperity. Kang Dae-jin’s A Coachman (馬夫 /마부, Mabu), the first Korean film to win a major international award with the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival, finds itself at just this juncture as an old man pulling a horse and cart is forced to face up the automobile age while worrying what is to become of his family in the perilous modern society.

Ageing patriarch Chun-sam (Kim Seung-ho) has been guiding a horse and cart since his father died in Manchuria when he was 14. Technically speaking, he is not the owner of his horse, Dragon, but operates it on behalf of the owner, the mistress of an upper middle-class salaryman. As business is slow, she is always threatening to sell the horses which would leave Chun-sam and the other coachmen without a means to support themselves. Meanwhile, Chun-sam’s four children whom he raised alone after his wife passed away at a young age are each looking for different ways out of their impoverished existence. Chun-sam married off his eldest daughter Ok-nyeo (Jo Mi-ryeong) who is deaf and mute to a man he saved during the Korean War but he is abusive and treats her like a servant while openly inviting his mistress into their home. Oldest son Su-eop (Shin Young-kyun) is currently studying to retake the bar exam for the third time, middle daughter Ok-hee (Um Aing-ran) has begun dating a shady salaryman, and youngest boy Soo-up has become a high school delinquent.

Kang opens with an exciting sequence following Soo-up who has attempted to steal a bicycle as he tries to escape from its owner chasing him. Returning home covered in mud, slowing to a walk and putting his student’s cap back on to avoid suspicion, he makes his way from the modern houses of the new city back through traditional Korean homes towards his rather makeshift family abode which they share with the horse stabled in a side room. Chun-sam is obviously not a wealthy man, but the family bear their struggles with fortitude, perhaps to some extent avoiding each other but rarely arguing directly. Even the news that Ok-hee has once again quit her latest job, working in a cafe, in record time is greeted with exasperated acceptance rather than anger or resentment.

Ok-hee quit the cafe to fall in with her ultramodern friend Mi-ja (Choi Ji Hee) who has arranged a double date with a pair of sleazy executives, telling them that Ok-hee is a university graduate and daughter of a wealthy CEO. Intensely ashamed of her working class background as a mere coachman’s daughter, Ok-hee tries to catapult herself into the middle classes by weaponising her sex appeal, too proud to take the long way round through honest work. She rejects the attentions of family friend Chung-soo (Hwang Hae) who is good and kind because he is only a driver, taking little notice of his earnest warning that nothing good ever comes of hanging around with shady types like her boyfriend. He keeps trying to persuade her to take a job in a nearby factory, but she still thinks she’s above that kind of life and is convinced she can get the executive to marry her.

Chang-soo’s interest is of course romantic, but the advice he gives her is honest and altruistic. Unlike his unsavoury money lender father, Chang-soo is a salt of the earth type, but good men are hard to find and trying to escape poverty through marriage is a road fraught with danger as Ok-nyeo discovers. Chun-sam thought he’d done the right thing in marrying her off, believing a match would be hard to come by because of her disability and worrying she’d be left alone with no-one to look after her, but she is forced to endure mistreatment and humiliation at the hands of her husband. Ok-nyeo repeatedly returns to her family home, only able to show them the bruises to explain what’s happening, but Chun-sam always sends her back unable to break with the old patriarchal rules which insist that once married she must forever remain this man’s wife.

Chun-sam faces a similar dilemma of his own when he strikes up a tentative relationship with the kindly maid at his boss’ mansion who often heats up rice wine for him and goes out of her way to give him little treats. The odious moneylender is also after Suwon (Hwang Jung-seun) who is considered “old” to be unmarried at 37, but she favours Chun-sam because, as she says, she has always known him to be a “good man”. The “courtship”, if you could call it that, is innocent in the extreme with Suwon largely taking the lead while Chun-sam lags bashfully behind, childishly excited but also embarrassed because he cannot afford a wife and would be ashamed to ask her to share his life of poverty.

Looked down on by everyone, Chun-sam is forced to go cap in hand to his employer where he is made to “know his place” and reminded he is “just a coachman” with no right to talk back. When Hwang, the boss’ lover, injures Chun-sam through reckless driving, Su-eop becomes fed up with persistent feudalism and intends to have a polite word but is quickly shut down, reminded that he is nothing more than coachman’s son and told that his dreams of becoming a lawyer are not only unrealistic but an offence to the social order.

Su-eop alone takes the conventional route out of poverty in pursuing education and a steady government job, but is repeatedly told that he’s getting above himself and should be content with becoming a coachman like his dad, despite the fact that being a coachman is already close to an obsolete profession given the increasing affordability of the motorcar. He alternates between guilt and despair, wondering if he’s being irresponsible in pinning all his hopes on the bar exam and worrying that he’s not doing enough to support the family.

Yet Chun-sam, forced to consider his own obsolescence, is keen for him to succeed, not only because the family needs him to make a success of himself but because he wants his son to have a better kind of life than he had taking full advantage of the possibilities of the new society. Though their lives are hard, Chun-sam and his family remain kind and honest (even Ok-hee and Suo-up eventually conclude that hard work is the way after all), bonding with others of the same mindset like the maid Suwon who eventually quits her job in protest, and Chang-soo who rejects his father’s underhanded venality for simple human decency. United by friendly solidarity, the family is repaired and resolves to live on as a tiny unit of cheerful resistance against the feudalistic greed and selfishness of the modern society.


A Coachman was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yasushi Sasaki, 1961)

The post-war world was one of increasing globalisation which brought with it anxiety as well as hope as Japan readied itself to step back onto the world stage. The populist cinema of the early ‘60s is marked by ambivalent attitudes to international influences, not just towards creeping Americanisation and its perceived costs but perhaps somewhat uncomfortably towards the wider world and Asia in particular with the same old prejudices which had marked the previous 20 years rearing their heads once again. Voice of the post-war era, the films of Hibari Misora are, by contrast, about as forward looking and progressive as it was possible to be but Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yurei-jima no Okite) in which she plays a noticeably smaller part, is a bizarre exception in which a “lawless” melting pot outpost must be “civilised” by Japanese influences else the creeping rule of thuggish Asian gangs finally reach Japan “proper”.

We’re deep in the Bakumatsu. The Black Ships have already arrived and there is considerable political trouble brewing back in Japan. That’s not our immediate concern however because we’re on a creepy boat with slovenly ronin Yagi Hanzo (Hashizo Okawa) and a mysterious woman wearing a cheongsam (Hibari Misora). Fellow petty gangster and slave trafficker Bunji (Chiyonosuke Azuma) is suspicious of Hanzo, but decides he’s probably just an unlucky retainer on the run from something or other and might prove useful. Therefore, on arrival at Dragon Island, Bunji starts on trying to recruit Hanzo for his boss Chou Yang Po (Isao Yamagata), but Hanzo’s his own man and he hasn’t come here looking for a job. Fearing Hanzo is a government official here to bring the law down on all their heads, Chou tries to force him to harm a man they have in custody and believe to be working for the state. Hanzo gets round this by breaking a chair over the man’s back but leaving him otherwise unharmed, keeping his cover (if that’s what it is) firmly intact.

During his stay on Dragon Island, Hanzo will meet several other shady characters, many of them dressed in outfits more usually associated with the Chinese, Indians, nondescript “islanders”, and strange movie pirates, but what must be assumed is that though Japan “owns” this distant island it is unable to police it and as such it has become a den of scum and villainy in which various tribal gangs vie for hegemony and control over the lucrative smuggling hub which has unwittingly formed in direct response to Japan’s unwise policy of internal isolation which is itself at breaking point thanks to Perry’s Black Ships which we later hear are also on their way to Dragon Island.

Our key into this conflict is the crazed child of the leading gangster, Isakichi (Hiroki Matsukata), who dresses like a cowboy and likes to showoff his hard-won saloon credentials as sharpshooting libertine and all round party animal. Hanzo is not as impressed by this as Isakichi was hoping though an awkward sort of camaraderie eventually arises between them. Meanwhile, Isakichi has fallen in innocent love with the sister of his childhood best friend who is deep into a putative resistance movement hoping to end the stranglehold the smugglers have placed over the previously peaceful island.

Misora’s Madame Song, for some reason posing as a Chinese sex worker, hints at the various ways nothing is quite as it seems in her astute observations of the world around her, sensing that Hanzo is hiding something but also assuming that he is on the “right” side. There is conspiracy everywhere – the putative revolution at home is sending its shockwaves all the way out here as our unscrupulous gangsters try to procure guns to send to various sides on the mainland, while Madame Song ironically laments that what Dragon Island needs is to be more like Japan which is to say ruled less by law itself than an internalised acceptance of the proper order of things. Uncomfortably, it also probably means sending the people who aren’t wearing kimono somewhere else and trying to stop them tricking nice women from Kyushu into coming to tropical islands where they discover they’ve been trafficked into sex work and are unable to leave.

Among Toei’s lower budgeted efforts, Law in Ghost Island bills itself as a supernatural tale and does indeed open with a creepy scene of a misty boat but Hanzo doesn’t end up anywhere like the isle of the dead only a fantasy tropical “paradise” filled with zany movie pirates. Somewhere between pirate fantasy and western, Law in Ghost Island is closer to the kind of spy spoofs Toho would start producing in a few years’ time and even ends with a strangely comic scene in which just about everyone reveals themselves as spy for the same side during the climactic final shootout having been too busy playing spy games to figure any of it out before.

The final messages too are uncomfortable and ambivalent as Hanzo affirms that if there were more “good samurai” Japan would not become lawless like it is here while also claiming Dragon Island for the mainland in fear external forces may use it as a base to attack Japan. The smugglers pay heavily for their “treachery” in contributing to internal mainland chaos while the revolutionary islanders declare their intentions to make the island a better place, which mainly seems to mean making it more “Japanese” which is a fairly ambivalent message whichever way you look at it. Misora only sings two songs and is relegated to a minor mystery in the strange goings on of Ghost Island which features absolutely no ghosts or supernatural intrigue. It does however perhaps shine a light on a strange moment of cultural flux however how unflattering that mirror may turn out to be.


Brief clip of some of Hibari’s songs (no subtitles)