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)

Feisty Edo Girl Nakanori-san (ひばり民謡の旅シリーズ べらんめえ中乗りさん, Masamitsu Igayama, 1961)

Nakanori-san posterThe voice of the post-war era, Hibari Misora also had a long and phenomenally popular run as a tentpole movie star which began at the very beginning of her career and eventually totalled 166 films. Working mostly (though not exclusively) at Toei, she starred in a series of contemporary and period comedies all of which afforded her at least a small opportunity to showcase her musical talents. Directed by Masamitsu Igayama, Feisty Edo Girl Nakanori-san (ひばり民謡の旅シリーズ べらんめえ中乗りさん, Hibari Minyo no Tabi: Beranme Nakanori-san, AKA Travelsongs: Sharp-Tongued Acquaintance) once again stars Hibari Misora as a strong-willed, independent post-war woman who stands up to corruption and looks after the little guy while falling in love with regular co-star Ken Takakura. 

Nobuko (Hibari Misora) is the daughter of a formerly successful lumber merchant whose business is being threatened by an unscrupulous competitor. With her father ill in bed, Nobuko has taken over the family firm but is dismayed to find that a contract she assumed signed has been reneged on by a corrupt underling at a construction company who has been bribed by the thuggish Tajikyo (Takashi Kanda). Unlike Nobuko’s father Sado (Isao Yamagata), Tajikyo is unafraid to embrace the new, completely amoral business landscape of the post-war world and will do whatever it takes to become top dog in the small lumber-centric world of Kibo.

Tajikyo has teamed up with the similarly minded, though nowhere near as unscrupulous, Oka (Yoshi Kato) whose son Kenichi (Ken Takakura) has recently returned from America. Kenichi, having come back to Japan with with clear ideas about the importance of fair practice in business, is not happy with his father’s capitulation to Tajikyo’s bullying. Of course, it also helps that he had a charming meet cute with the spiky Nobuko and became instantly smitten so he is unlikely to be in favour of anything which damages her father’s business even if they are technically competitors.

As in the majority of her films, Misora plays the “feisty” girl of the title, a no nonsense sort of woman thoroughly fed up with the misogynistic micro aggressions she often encounters when trying to participate fully in the running of her family business. Though her father seems happy enough, even if casually reminding her that aspects of the job are more difficult for women – particularly the ones which involve literal heavy lifting and being alone with a large number of men in the middle of a forest, he too remarks on her seeming masculinity in joking that her mother made a mistake in giving birth to her as a girl. Likewise, Tajikyo’s ridiculous plan to have Nobuko marry his idiot son is laughed off not only because Tajikyo is their enemy, but because most people seem to think that Nobuko’s feistiness makes her unsuitable for marriage – something she later puts to Kenichi as their courtship begins to become more serious. Kenichi, of course, is attracted to her precisely because of these qualities even if she eventually stops to wonder if she might need to become more “feminine” in order to become his wife.

To this extent, Feisty Edo Girl is the story of its heroine’s gradual softening as she finally writes home to her father that she is happy to have been born a girl while fantasising about weddings and dreaming of Kenichi’s handsome face. Meanwhile, she also attracts the attentions of an improbable motorcycle champion who just happens to also be the son of a logging family and therefore also able to help in the grand finale even if he never becomes a credible love rival despite Nobuko’s frequent admiration for his fiery, rebellious character which more than matches her own.

Nevertheless, the central concern (aside from the romance) is a preoccupation with corruption in the wartime generation. Where Nobuko’s father Sado is “old fashioned” in that he wants to do business legitimately while keeping local traditions alive, the Tajikyos of the world are content to wield his scruples against him, destroying his business through underhanded methods running from staff poaching to bribery and violence. Kenichi’s father has gone along with Tajikoyo’s plans out of greed and weakness, irritated by his son’s moral purity on one level but also mildly horrified by what he might have gotten himself into by not standing up to Tajikyo in the beginning.

As expected, Nobuko and Kenichi eventually triumph through nothing more than a fierce determination to treat others with respect. Working together cheerfully achieves results, while the corrupt forces of Tajikyo eventually find themselves blocked by those who either cannot be bought or find the strength to refuse to be. Nobuko’s big job is finding prime lumber to be used to build a traditional pagoda in America as part of a cultural celebration. She wants to do her best not only because she takes pride in her work but because she knows this project will represent Japan overseas. Tajikyo, however, would cut corners, believing that the Americans wouldn’t notice even if he sent them rotten logs riddled with woodworm as long as the paperwork tallies. Filled with music and song, Nakanori-san is an action packed outing for Misora in which she once again succeeds in setting the world to rights while falling in love with a likeminded soul as they prepare to sail off into kinder post-war future.


Some of Hibari’s songs from the film (no subtitles):

Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1961)

vlcsnap-2019-03-15-00h18m28s351Working from a Keisuke Kinoshita script, Kinuyo Tanaka’s first film as a director, Love Letter, made a point of exploring the often hypocritical and contradictory attitudes towards women who had engaged in sex work or become the mistresses of American servicemen in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. For her fifth film, Tanaka returns to the same subject but this time adapting a novel by Masako Yana scripted by Sumie Tanaka (no relation) with whom she’d previously collaborated on The Eternal Breasts. Somewhat suggestively retitled Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Onna Bakari no Yoru), Tanaka’s adaptation tones down the novel’s sensuality but dares to ask a series of subversive questions regarding female agency and sexuality in the rapidly changing post-war society.

Set in the contemporary era, the film opens with reportage-style voiceover and newspaper clippings highlighting the enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws of 1958. According to the voiceover, the red light districts of Japan may have all but disappeared but streetwalking and other forms of casual sex work are still very much a part of the post-war economy. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the old ways and new, those arrested by the police are divided into two camps – those deemed beyond “redemption” sent to prison, and the rest to reform centres such as the Shiragiku Protective Facility for Women which is where we find our heroines.

The reform centre itself is a fairly progressive place and much more forward looking that seen in the earlier Women of the Night though perhaps sometimes patronising even as it makes a strenuous attempt not look down on the women who enter its care. Our first entry into the facility is in the company of a similarly well meaning women’s association whose misplaced pity only reinforces their innately privileged position. They are as far from many of these women as it is possible to be and struggle to understand how it is possible that they found themselves engaging in a practice they find both shameful and degrading. Having got to know many of the women through trying to help them, the school’s headmistress Nogami (Chikage Awashima) and her assistant are better placed to understand even if they also apologise that many of the women in their care are of “low IQ” and fail to convey the kinds of pressures that many have been subject to from desperate poverty to bad family situations and abusive relationships.

Abuse and the trauma of abuse remains one of the barriers to the women moving on, as in the reason many of them found themselves in sex work was because of their relationship with an exploitative partner who either forced them to sell their bodies or left them with no other choice in order to support themselves through being unable or unwilling to work. Nogami, a compassionate and understanding woman, is at pains to insist that the reason many of these women see nothing wrong in sex work is that they have an insufficient level of self respect and value their bodily autonomy too cheaply in allowing others to buy and sell access to it without full consideration of everything that implies.

Then again, asked by one of her most promising cases, Kuniko (Hisako Hara), what is actually so “bad” about sex work, Nogami is forced to admit that she doesn’t know – only that it is now illegal and her job is to help these women live “honest” lives within law. It is difficult to evade the hypocrisy that Nogami is telling these women that they should exercise full agency over their bodies while simultaneously telling them what they shouldn’t be doing with them, but then for all the centre’s talk about “purity” Nogami herself is refreshingly frank and practical in her approach to helping these women towards reintegration into mainstream society in the assumption that that is something they would want rather than out of any quasi-religious ideas of moral goodness.

Shame and social stigma, however, become another barrier as Kuniko finds to her cost in her attempts to move on from the centre. At her first placement as a live-in assistant at a grocer’s, she is quickly outed by a nosy deliveryman already acquainted with the true nature of the Shiragiku centre. The exposure of Kuniko’s past provokes not only mild disgust and suspicion among “respectable” people but also unwanted male attention from those who assume her former life as a sex worker means that they are already entitled to her sexuality with or without her consent.

Thinking the direct approach might be better, Kuniko decides to share her past with the ladies in the dorm at her next job in a factory but they are not quite as supportive as she might have hoped. Despite the fact that many of these young women are sexually active and in fact involved in what might be thought of as acts of casual sex work, they collectively look down on Kuniko while also seeking to exploit her both for the practical knowledge they assume she must have and by attempting to pimp her out to other men they know. When the attempt fails (Kuniko humiliates the three men who try to pressure her into sex by frightening them off with nothing more than confidence and self-possession), the women turn on her and enact an extremely violent and sadistic revenge.

Despite what she observed at the centre, Kuniko learns to her cost that she cannot necessarily rely on female solidarity as a bulwark against male exploitation. Nevertheless, it is to female communities and friendships that she ultimately returns. The leader of the women’s group from the beginning turns out to be less of a dilettante than she first seems and eventually takes Kuniko in with a promising job in a rose a garden which seems to suit her perfectly. Roses, however, have thorns – this one’s being her tentative relationship with gardener Hayakawa (Yosuke Natsuki) who is aware of her past but falls in love with her anyway only for her romance to hit the barrier of entrenched social mores when she discovers that Hayakawa is in fact a member of a noble family. In another instance of women not helping women, Hayakawa’s mother puts the kibosh on her daughter-in-law being a former sex worker which both reinforces Kuniko’s sense of being irreparably damaged and makes her feel as if she has become a problem for a man with whom she has fallen in love. Vowing to live up to Hayakawa’s vision of her as a “pure” woman, Kuniko retreats once again to a supportive community of women – this time of pearl divers in what seems to be an act of spiritual cleansing.

In Kuniko’s final identification of the “disgracefulness” of her past and declaration that she does not hate the world but only herself, Girls of the Night shifts into a more conventional register than the broadly empathetic, subversively positive attitude it had hitherto adopted towards the idea of sex work and the women who engage in it, opting to blame the woman rather than engage with the various forces of social oppression which attempt to micromanage female sexuality. Nevertheless, Tanaka’s deft touch remains as sympathetic as it’s possible to be in affirming that there is a path forward for those who might feel trapped by past transgression even if it simultaneously insists that its heroine save herself only by rejecting her happy ending in atonement for her past “sins”.


A Fishwife’s Tale (魚河岸の女石松, Eiichi Kudo, 1961)

A Fishwife's Tale VHS coverWho better to take on post-war corruption and personal injustice than Hibari Misora? In another of her typically feisty roles, Hibari stands up for her friends, her community, and her family when they are threatened by the exploitative forces of the tabloid press, rubbish boyfriends, and evil corporations all while accidentally falling in love with Ken Takakura in an early role as cynical reporter with a heart of gold. Eiichi Kudo may be best remembered for a string of samurai movies in the ‘60s including 13 Assassins and The Great Killing, but like many of his generation he made a fair few programme pictures including several starring Hibari Misora of which A Fishwife’s Tale (魚河岸の女石松, Kashi no Onna Ishimatsu) is one.

Kudo opens with stock footage of a small fishing harbour which is all aflutter with the arrival of some unusual outsiders. A photographer from a “magazine” has arrived claiming that he wants to document the lives of ordinary working class people from the fishing industry. While some of the young women doll themselves up and plead with the photographer, “Lady Ishimatsu”, Keiko Kano (Hibari Misora), steals all the attention by defiantly rolling through in her truck ready for a day’s work. As predicted Keiko doesn’t want anything to do with this photography nonsense, and as it turns out she was right not to. The guys aren’t from the Sundays or National Geographic, they’re a scandal rag and they’ve bulked out their story with a lot of made up rubbish about the “sexy lives of fishwives” which paints them all as predatory nymphomaniacs. Matters come to a head when Keiko’s friend Yoko (Yukiko Nikaido) tries to kill herself in shame because of the paper’s implication that she’s a loose woman which causes her wealthy boyfriend to dump her (luckily, she’d mixed up tummy tablets with sleeping pills so thankfully survived even if feeling a little sick and silly).

The newspaper business has a second unforeseen consequence. When Keiko stands up to the achingly cool reporter, he realises she’s connected to another case he’s working on. Across town, a canned food magnate is facing ruin thanks to a standards scandal and is also earnestly searching for his long lost daughter, born to a geisha 20 years earlier and then adopted by another family. Dogged reporter Kitagawa (Ken Takakura), recognising the necklace around Keiko’s neck, wonders if she might be the girl Tachibana’s looking for. When it turns out that he’s right, Keiko’s world turns upside-down. Tachibana (Eijiro Yanagi), overjoyed to have found his daughter, goes about everything the wrong way and tries to take her back from her loving home with the promise of wealth and comfort, but Keiko loves her parents even if they aren’t hers by blood and resents the attempt to drag her away. 

Nevertheless, when the two cases turn out to be even more connected thanks to Yoko’s terrible boyfriend being the no good son of one of the conspirators, and Mr. Tachibana falling ill though the stress of his situation, the entire family reconsiders if they haven’t perhaps been selfish in resolutely rejecting a lonely old man trying to make up for a past mistake. Keiko becomes committed to standing up to the bullies. “We’re still young, as long we’re alive we’ll resist you” she tells her biological father’s arch enemy in what might as well be a rallying cry for post-war youth fed up with the corrupted older generation.

Then again perhaps things don’t change all that much. Rather than a salt scam or rice profiteering, this time it’s fiddling with the labels on tin cans but ordinary people are still having their food supply tampered with by those with enough money not to need to worry so much about food security – the amoral petty samurai of the Edo era have merely become amoral businessmen in the dog eat dog post-war world.

Comparatively light on song and dance – Hibari sings the title track as she drives in on her truck, hums a few tunes, and gets one dramatic musical number when she goes undercover as a nightclub singer to spy on the bad guys, Kudo ups the action quotient as Hibari makes herself the chief of the fishwives and takes on the photographers, sneaks around investigating, and then starts a full on brawl with goons in the final showdown. This time around the romance between frequent co-stars Hibari Misora and Ken Takakura is spiky and sparky, fuelled by Keiko’s strange positioning as a “tomboyish” bossy boots more at home in her truck and wellies than prancing around for the camera like the other girls. Oddly warm and filled with rebellious energy, A Fishwife’s Tale is, in its own quiet way, perhaps subversive in allowing a little political spirit of the age to creep in around the edges as Keiko steps forward to stay true to her roots, opposing injustice wherever she sees it and always acting on her own initiative.


Selection of scenes from the movie including Hibari’s big club number (no subtitles)

Maintitles song – Hibari no Dodonpa

Bad Boys (不良少年, Susumu Hani, 1961)

Bad Boys posterIn the mid-1950s, the “Sun Tribe” movies had evoked a series of conflicting reactions in their depictions of the new bright young things of the post-war era who, caught in a period of intense confusion, rejected the future their parents’ had been trying to build while revelling in nihilistic hedonism enabled by the new freedoms. Though the films proved popular with their target audience, they also produced a moral panic in the older generation which saw youth as dangerously out of control and desperately in need of correction. Meanwhile, reform school drama also became something of a recurring motif in the more progressive youth movies put out by Nikkatsu (including one starring Hani’s soon-to-be wife, Sachiko Hidari) which sought to humanise the figure of the “bad boy” by pointing out all the various circumstances which led to his fall from grace.

Susumu Hani’s Bad Boys (不良少年, Furyo Shonen) is often regarded as an important precursor to what might later be termed the “new wave” in its radical departure from the cinematic norm of the times. Loosely inspired by a book titled “Wings that Cannot Fly” which collected the stories of boys who’d been through the same reform school, Hani repurposes the tools of neorealism in his use of non-actors, improvised dialogue, natural light and location shooting, for a hybridised avant-garde “documentary style” which is, in a sense, realer than “real”.

We follow a disaffected young man, Asai (Yukio Yamada), who has been arrested for the aggravated robbery of an upscale Ginza jewellers. Asai, who sadly laments that he has only seen the famously posh neighbourhood from the back of a police van, did indeed commit the crime and could be thought of as the “ringleader” of the group of boys arrested which also includes young men from “good” families who’ve fallen in with a “bad” crowd. Some of the other boys are released when their parents plead for them, but Asai, as we discover, has no parents – his father died in the war when Asai was three and for reasons unexplained he is estranged from his mother. Undergoing a series of psychological tests which prove inconclusive, it’s decided that Asai might benefit from some time in reform school to reflect on his life and hopefully emerge with a better sense of civic responsibility.

Hani’s depiction of the reform school system paints it as an obvious remnant of the militarist or perhaps even feudal past in which discipline and physical strength are the primary virtues. The boys salute, march in file, and are taught to respect authority. Inside the school, natural factions arise with a strictly observed series of hierarchies enforced by violence and intimidation. Asai, a determinedly independent sort, refuses to obey and stands up to the bullies only to suffer defeat. Eventually he becomes the leader of his own faction of similarly oppressed youngsters, but when the time comes he discovers he is all alone once again and unable to break the chain which constrains them in a cycle of fear and violence.

Nevertheless, the failed battle against oppression has an unexpected positive outcome when Asai is moved to another cell. Up to this point, there’s been relatively little sign of positive “reform” on offer – no education, no counselling, no practical advice which might help these young men escape the circumstances which brought them here, but on being moved to the carpentry workshop Asai does at least begin to learn a useful skill as well as mixing with more “serious” boys who can have a laugh together while getting on with work. His attitude seems to relax, he “grows up”, and begins to see a different future only to be abruptly released back onto the same streets no better off than before with only the kind hearted platitudes of the softly spoken social worker to guide him into a “better” tomorrow.

The question remains what sort of men the reform school system was designed to engineer and to what end – a collection of deindividualised authoritarians who stand to attention and salute on demand may not be much of an asset to post-war humanism. Meanwhile, the emphasis on strength and discipline unwittingly reinforces the law of the street where violence rules all and morality is an unaffordable luxury, encouraging the perpetuation of a system of mutual oppressions while ignoring the many and various social issues which make it impossible to escape. Hani wanted to capture the lingering spirit of “totalitarianism” in which even those superficially rebelling against the system obey ancient social codes which restrict their own freedom and exist solely to keep them in their place. In doing so he lays bare the wider hypocrisies of the post-war democratic era which promises freedom but delivers only the same old compromises.


Bad Boys was screened as part of the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival 2018.

DVD release trailer (no subtitles)

The Sea Knows (玄海灘은 알고 있다 / 현해탄은 알고 있다, Kim Ki-young, 1961)

The Sea Knows posterThe Korea of 1961 was a land in flux. The corrupt regime of Rhee Syngman had been brought to its knees following mass protests regarding the rigged 1960 elections but hopes for a new democracy were cut short when military General Park Chung-hee staged a coup, later declaring himself president for life and continuing his authoritarian rule until he was assassinated by one of his own subordinates. Kim Ki-young’s The Sea Knows (玄海灘은 알고 있다 / 현해탄은 알고 있다, Hyeonhaetaneun Algoitta) arrived perhaps at just the right time, ducking under the radar before the Motion Picture Law of 1962 would forever change the industry and if not prevent at least frustrate any attempt to discuss the controversial themes at the heart of Kim’s drama. The Sea Knows is, like much of Kim’s work, a tale of power and desire only this time on a wider scale as he examines the complicated relationship between Korea and Japan as mediated through romantic melodrama.

We open in 1944. Korean student Aro-un (Kim Wun-ha) has been conscripted into the Japanese army following an incident in which he embarrassed a high-ranking official (something which has made him a local hero at home). Despite the fact that Korea has been inducted into the Japanese empire and Koreans are now sons of the emperor too, the regular Japanese troops are not exactly grateful for service of their brethren from across the sea. Koreans are a pain, they decry. They’re always going on about justice and fairness. They won’t just shut up and take their lumps like regular Japanese soldiers. The “50 year tradition” of the Japanese army is to break the will of new recruits through violence, strip them of their individuality, and reduce them to a finely tuned hive mind.

Needless to say, Aro-un is not eager to comply. There’s a strong strain of homoeroticism in the strangely camp banter between the higher-ups. At the first inspection the commanding officer takes a good look at Aro-un, decides he resembles a “cute puppy” and recommends he come to his room to get some “biscuits”. Meanwhile a particularly sadistic NCO, Mori (Lee Ye-chun), pinches the chest of Aro-run’s judo champion friend Inoue (Lee Sang-sa) and decides he’ll not be an easy target – unlike the short and wiry Aro-un who is too righteous to know what’s good for him. Mori, an insecure and under qualified NCO, makes use of men like Aro-un to entrench his own position through the “50 year tradition” of military discipline. The humiliations mount until Aro-un is forced to lick Mori’s excrement encrusted boots in punishment for having failed to polish them to his satisfaction.

Yet, unlike in the majority of Korean films dealing with war and occupation, the Japanese are not universally bad – there are many just like Aro-un who are uncomfortable with the militarist line and are doing what they can to resist, albeit often passively. Aro-un’s university friend, Nakamura (Kim Jin-kyu), is just such a man, turning down the possibilities of promotion to avoid endorsing the regime while acknowledging that there is little more he can do to free himself from it. It’s through Nakamura that Aro-un meets his own source of salvation in the unlikely figure of a young Japanese woman – Nakamura’s sister Hideko (Gong Midori). Hideko originally betrays the common prejudice against Koreans in claiming that the perpetrators of a nearby robbery were most likely Korean seeing as Koreans can’t get jobs and therefore have no other options than to steal, though in retrospect perhaps her assertions were a more logical comment on poverty and entrenched oppression than they were on racial stereotyping.

Hideko is, as Aro-un later points out, a very unusual Japanese woman. A free spirit, she finds herself drawn to Aro-un and is committed to pursuing a course of true feeling over that laid down by the codes of her society, choosing his sensitivity over the brutalisation of her militarist nation. War, Aro-un muses philosophically, is about the manipulation of the present. Love is about the foundation of a future. Yet there is also something dark and imbalanced even in their otherwise pure romance as each finds themselves becoming a symbol of suffering and violence. Aro-un is drawn to Hideko’s unexpected warmth as she sheds tears for his suffering on hearing of his various degradations, seeing no difference in the tears of a Japanese woman and those of his Korean mother who each felt his pain as their own, but Hideko’s insistence on hearing of his latest humiliations almost takes on a sadistic quality as the pair become bound by suffering as much as by innocent connection.

Kim’s central tenet is a bold one for the increasingly volatile world of 1961, making a case for borderless connection over nationalistic chest thumping and championing the resilience of the human spirit as well as the enduring power of love as a counter to the horrors of war. War is, in another of Aro-un’s philosophical musings, just something that happens to you and makes enemies of those who might have been friends. Making extensive use of stock footage and model shots, Kim plunges Aro-un into a fiery hell from which only love and will can save him. An unexpectedly nuanced but no less harrowing tale of wartime brutalisation and spiritual resistance, The Sea Knows is an impassioned plea for humanity in an inhumane age in which there are no heroes and no villains, only victims and resistors caught in a vast web of power and madness.


The Sea Knows was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels with a Cause series. You can also watch it online for free courtesy of the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel. The existing print is, however, incomplete and badly damaged – four sequences in which there is picture but no sound or sound but no picture are missing / unsubtitled in the online version but are present in the restoration.