The Best Secret Agent (天字第一號, Chang Ying, 1964)

“The Japanese have destroyed our family. You must avenge me” a dying father instructs his daughter, his words somewhat ironically echoing the ideology of the ruling regime in hinting at the national trauma of exile and separation. Arriving in the wake of Bond mania, Chang Ying’s The Best Secret Agent (天字第一號) is, incongruously enough, a Taiwanese-language remake of an earlier film from 1945 set in Shanghai amid the Anti-Japanese Resistance movement, but at heart is less a tale of espionage and intrigue than a romantic melodrama in which a capable woman sacrifices romantic love for the patriotic and filial while perhaps subversively finding true freedom and independence. 

As Tsui-ying’s (Pai Hung) father (Ko Yu-Min) later explains, not wishing to be enslaved they fled from the Japanese but are forced to degrade themselves with public performances in the market square, the old man stooping to beating his daughter when the show fails to please the audience. A kindhearted man from the crowd, Ling-yun (Ko Chun-Hsiung), comes to her defence but Tsui-ying forgives her father blaming the Japanese for the misfortune which has befallen them. Soon after, Tsui-ying’s father is killed during an airstrike using his dying breath to ask for vengeance. After becoming a nightclub singer in Shanghai, Tsui-ying ends up running into Ling-yun again and the pair fall in love but she is also working as a spy and is ordered to break up with him in order to capitalise on the attraction a prominent collaborator, Chao-chun (Tien Ching), feels for her. Reluctantly she obeys, Ling-yun going abroad to study while she eventually becomes Chao-chun’s wife only to discover some years later that Chao-chun is actually Ling-yun’s uncle. 

The central melodrama revolves around the impossible love of Tsui-ying for Ling-yun, a love that she must willingly sacrifice in order to fulfil her role as a daughter both to her literal father and to her country. There is also however a degree of awkward comedy in Ling-yun’s continual discomfort that he must now refer to Tsui-ying as his aunt, their love now a further taboo in taking on a quasi-incestuous quality. Continually pained, she must keep her cover identity intact unable to explain to Ling-yun why she left him, encouraging him to think of her as a cold and heartless woman while watching him romancing his cousin, Ai-li (Liu Ching), whom she has come to genuinely care for as a maternal figure despite there being very little difference between them in age. 

What she apparently doesn’t know despite being a cunning mastermind is that almost everyone in her house is also a spy. As the famed Heaven No. 1, Tsui-Ying plays the cooly elegant wife of a diplomat cosying up to the Japanese but her activities perhaps owe more to the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies than they do to the ever popular Bond, a late montage sequence showing her in a series of disguises from a wise old man to anonymous soldier and cheerful shoeshine boy while an early slapstick set piece sees the Resistance hide a pistol inside a roast duck in order to assassinate the Japanese advisor at dinner, the plan almost foiled by Chao-chun’s fiddling with the lazy Suzan. 

Everything is indeed the fault of the Japanese, but it’s Chao-chun, the collaborator who is the true villain even in his bumbling cluelessness, a quality also reflected in his idiot police chief Captain Wan who consistently fails to capture any Resistance members despite Chao-chun repeatedly ordering him to. In another bumbling piece of verbal humour, Captain Wan (Hu Tou) simply repeats the speech he’s just had criticising him for incompetence verbatim to his own subordinates while not doing much of anything himself. They are both, fairly obviously, outclassed by Tsui-ying playing the part of the clueless society bride lounging around in her furs and mediating in-house disputes while simultaneously plotting to bring them both down once they’ve outlived their usefulness. Though she is forced to give up what is most important to her, her love for Ling-yun, what she discovers is perhaps a transgressive sense of freedom and independence in her life as a master spy not otherwise available to an ordinary woman as she pursues her revenge for the death of her father.

Nevertheless, she is also orphaned both literally and metaphorically forced into a life of wandering. The separation of the lovers, blamed on the Japanese, is symbolic of that between the two Chinas as echoed in Tsui-ying’s melancholy love song and no doubt appealing to the prevailing ideology of the ruling regime save for the implication of fatalism as Tsui-ying and Ling-yun pursue exile in opposing directions. Even so with its fantastically compelling heroine, ironic humour, and atmosphere of intrigue tempered with melancholy romance, The Best Secret Agent more than lives up to its name as the master spy effortlessly completes her primary mission even if sacrificing her heart in the process. 


The Best Secret Agent streams in the UK 25th to 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Ken (剣, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

Most closely associated with jidaigeki, Kenji Misumi’s only film to be set in the contemporary era, Ken (剣), shifts his persistent concerns into the modern day in the clash of the warrior ideal and the emotional costs of living, but also takes a sideways look at conflicted post-war masculinity as two young men vicariously lock horns in a quest for mastery over their desires. Adapting a short story by Yukio Mishima, Misumi dials back on the tragic romance of militarism painting the hero’s ultimate acceptance of nihilistic futility less as a noble sacrifice than a humanist failure of the society that failed to save him from his absolutist fallacy. 

Obsessed with strength and honour, Kokubun (Raizo Ichikawa) has convinced himself that he can capture “this spark of pure life” he saw in the sun through perfecting the art of kendo. An aloof and austere figure, he has foregone all else and dedicated himself to his skill alone. For this reason he is appointed captain of his university kendo club over his jealous rival, Kagawa (Yusuke Kawazu), who loses out because his sword is “sentimental” and there is a concern that he draws his power from “arrogance”. There is indeed something in that, and it’s Kagawa’s sense of male pride that partly sets him on a quest for vengeance and vindication in a obsessive desire to dominate Kokubun but there’s also an unspoken attraction as he later admits to a female acquaintance in remarking that he finds Kokubun’s way of life “infuriating” but despite himself also “refreshing”. 

Literal sword play, Kagawa’s obsession with Kokubun results in a vicarious seduction in which he attempts to corrupt him by enlisting the help of a female student to expose him as a fraud by rupturing his asceticism and thereby destroying his source of strength if not his sense of self. The quasi-sadomasochistic relationship between the two men is further borne out by the implication that Kokubun is in fact finding his sexual release in the intense act of repression, satisfying himself through physical exhaustion in the company of other men, Misumi’s roving camera fully capturing the homoeroticism of this intensely homosocial society. Humiliated by Kokubun who forces him into a public act of contrition through physical endurance after disappointing the club by breaking the rules smoking on the job at their part-time gig at a supermarket, Kagawa goes to the chairman to complain that Kokubun’s leadership style is far too intense, “feudalistic” as another member puts it shortly before quitting, claiming that all he wants is for his rival to wake up from his militarist dream and live in the real world though his final act of mutiny will engender consequences unforeseen in his conviction that Kokubun’s ideology is largely performative self-delusion. 

The team manager perhaps thinks something similar, reminding Kagawa that he is merely “more grown up” as if Kokubun is in a sense maintaining his childlike innocence in refusing to enter an adult world he regards as “ugly” and “corrupt”. His ideal is simplicity and he finds it in the primacy of the sword. There is in this something of an uncomfortable militarist throwback that finds a disciple in the ever loyal Mibu (Akio Hasegawa) who dutifully parrots back the quasi-facist philosophy to his quietly horrified mother and sisters who probably don’t help the situation by mocking his lack of masculinity in his inability to grow a proper beard while insisting on shaving every day anyway. Attracted by Kokubun’s dynamism and energy, he longs for strength through self denial. “We must move away from those empty desires” Kokubun instructs him while discussing the suicide of a young man who was discovered next to a selection of half eaten fruit. Rather than sympathy the man is largely mocked by his male peers, Kokubun dismissing him as “weak in mind and body” for having taken his own life apparently in fear of failure, but also stressing that suicide is a choice taken by the very strong as well as the very weak. 

In this brief exchange he opens the door to a notion of nobility in the choice to take one’s own life which leads straight back into the death cult of militarism, perhaps something that only Mibu as a fellow devotee is able to see. Yet Misumi perhaps undercuts this sense of nobility with a return to collective shame, eulogising Kokubun’s determination to preserve his “uprightness and strength” as Kagawa admits defeat in the face of Kokubun’s unbreakable purity, while placing the burden of failed responsibility on the kendo troupe not for their inability to live up to his ideal but for their lack of understanding in failing to free him of his moral absolutism. The way of the sword once again leads only to death and while there may be an uncomfortable beauty in such moral purity, in the end all there is is futility. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Red Handkerchief (赤いハンカチ, Toshio Masuda, 1964)

The moral compromises of the post-war era are brought home to a trio of frustrated lovers in Toshio Masuda’s Nikkatsu “mood action”, Red Handkerchief (赤いハンカチ, Akai Handkerchief). Starring an ageing Yujiro Ishihara perhaps cast slightly against type as an ultra noble policeman choosing self-exile after accidentally shooting dead a key witness, who also happens to be the father of the woman he loved, in order to save his partner, Masuda’s noirish melodrama takes aim squarely at the radiating effects of social inequality and the moral bankruptcy of an increasingly prosperous society. 

Masuda opens, however, with an old-fashioned foot chase as cops Mikami (Yujiro Ishihara) and Ishizuka (Hideaki Nitani) attempt to run down a drug mule carrying a briefcase full of illicit substances. The suspect later gets hit by a truck and killed while the briefcase is nowhere to be found. Concluding the mule must have abandoned it at a ramen stand he ran past on the way, the cops haul in the old man running it, Hiraoka (Shin Morikawa), who seems to know more than he’s letting on but is too terrified of the gangsters to consider giving anything up. In an effort to get him to talk, Mikami pays a visit to his relentlessly cheerful factory worker daughter Reiko (Ruriko Asaoka), becoming instantly smitten with her as she quickly packs a bag of warm clothing and miso soup assuming her dad’s in for a bit of drunk and disorderly. Their romance is however not to be. Apparently feeling himself out of options, Hiraoka opts for suicide by proxy, grabbing Ishizuka’s gun and firing at police. An Olympic sharpshooter, Mikami draws his pistol to save his friend and the old man is killed. Guilty, the pair attempt to apologise to Reiko, but unsurprisingly she is not in the mood to accept it. 

Four years later, Mikami has left the force for a life of wandering doing odd jobs all over Japan while entertaining his co-workers with sad songs about lost love. Yokohama detective Tsuchiya (Nobuo Kaneko) eventually tracks him down in frosty Hokkaido, encouraging him to return with tales of Ishizuka’s wildly improbable success as a supermarket entrepreneur now apparently married to Mikami’s lost love Reiko. Tsuchiya thinks Mikami was set up and that Ishizuka is a dirty cop who’s been living the high life while Mikami has been slumming it in an unnecessary act of atonement for something that wasn’t really his fault. 

Though they were apparently good friends and loyal partners, Ishizuka flags up a potential source of tension early on in his solo interrogation of Hiraoka explaining that unlike Mikami he’s not an educated man and understands how difficult it is to be poor. Tsuchiya later posits this same sense of class conflict as one reason that Ishizuka may have betrayed him, that he felt inferior and that he would not be able to compete with his elite partner. Ishizuka later implies something similar in his dog eat dog view of the world, explaining to a newly conflicted Reiko that life is a matter of winning and losing and that Mikami is the very image of defeat. He views himself as a winner thanks to his burgeoning supermarket empire, taking full advantage of the rising consumerism of the post-war era and willing to do whatever it takes in order to achieve success even if that means crossing a line that Mikami would never cross. Yet he is also like Mikami hobbled by his love for the “beautiful”, “pure” Reiko, allowing his insecure acquisitiveness to turn violent in his determination to keep her or at least keep her from any other man. 

“Money rules everything!” Ishizuka insists, attempting to justify himself for his turn towards selfish individualism willing to sacrifice not only a “worthless” old man but even friendship in the conviction that he is “a man of great value, a winner!” and therefore entitled to move beyond conventional morality while using his ill-gotten gains to support needy orphans. Even he, however, is later undone by love, perhaps the one true form of “justice”, in realising that Reiko has chosen nobility in the form of Mikami and could never accept the man he is or the things he’s done. A romantic melodrama masquerading as a crime thriller, Red Handkerchief finds Masuda in expressionist mode, the pounding machinery at the foundry where Reiko works pulverising Mikami’s noble heart as his romantic dreams are crushed, the highway streetlights dancing across Reiko’s windscreen as she returns in confusion, and in the constant use of weather to indicate the mood, the sky suddenly brightening behind Ishizuka as his confidence returns. Echoing in The Third Man in its melancholy ending, however, even if slightly inverted, Masuda sets his battered hero adrift in the confusions of the post-war era striding into the mist guitar in hand a perpetual wanderer. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

On the Road Forever (無宿者, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

“I take to the road whether or not I am alive” confesses the spiritually defeated hero of Kenji Misumi’s filiality drama, On the Road Forever (無宿者, Mushukumono). Two sons each seeking vengeance for a wronged father become first accidental friends, then almost enemies, and finally something more like brothers bound and ruined by the failures of the samurai code. The villain may not unfairly claim that the system of the world is one “dirty great monster”, but the implications of his revelations lead directly back into the infinite corruptions of the samurai order as mediated through the failures of fatherhood. 

“Drifting crow” Ipponmatsu (Raizo Ichikawa) temporarily teams up with fallen samurai Kuroki Yaichiro (Jun Fujimaki) who has become desperate enough to unwisely attempt robbing a gambling den. Nevertheless, we are clued in to the idea that these are the good guys when they’re helped by a young village woman, Haru (Mikiko Tsubouchi), who lends them her father’s horse instructing them to return it to him at a nearby village which the guys later do even attempting to hand the old man some of their ill-gotten gains as a thank you though he refuses and warns them not to hang around too long because “it’s a rough neighbourhood”. All too soon we discover what he means. A big wig former yakuza who suspiciously came into massive amounts of money two years previously has pressed the villagers into debt and is currently inducting them into indentured servitude on Sado island in order to recoup costs. Perhaps Ipponmatsu doesn’t approve, but he’s on a journey for a reason and would have carried on by had he not heard word that that shady yakuza Shima-ya Jubei (Toru Abe) may be connected to the death of his father during a high stakes robbery on a mountain pass. 

Ipponmatsu, whose name literally means “a single pine”, is the archetypal wandering son who ran away from his clan without permission in rebellion against his authoritarian father who raised him alone after his mother’s death and tried to instil in him the values typical of his class through the medium of violence. Having come across a decomposed body with his father’s distinctive sword at the scene of the robbery, Ipponmatsu has had a change of heart and dedicated his wandering to avenging his memory. Sticking around in the town, he comes to suspect that Yaichiro’s father Hanbei may have been behind the theft of the missing imperial gold only later realising that he too is on a quest to learn the truth in the hope of clearing his father’s name. The two men end up raising swords against each other but discovering they are indeed different, Yaichiro a gentle soul who apparently excelled in the dojo but has no “courage” in the field and Ipponmatsu a fiery hothead who thinks killing is less a matter of skill than “courage and explosiveness”. 

There is, it has to be said, a fairly obvious twist that neither man perhaps too bound up in their own sense of responsibility fully considers. Nevertheless, they are both faced with the decision of what to do should they discover the truth considering that raising a sword against one’s father is an unforgivable sin while knowing that such a heinous betrayal of their code cannot go unpunished. The villains boast of their well connected networks and supposed untouchability laying bare the essential corruption of the samurai order as they wilfully manipulate and exploit impoverished peasantry for their own ends while cruelly joking that all classes are alike in their greed when tempted with riches, entirely unrepentant even as they lament the hypocrisy of the samurai who have no money yet continue in their arrogance. 

Despite having been raised in a homosocial environment told that falling in love with women is a pointless waste of time, Ipponmatsu picks up the affections of two firstly earnest farm girl Haru and secondly misused mistress and sister of Shima-ya, Osei (Eiko Taki). This is however a manly drama concerned with the ways in which men interact with other men, firstly in the awkward fraternity of Ipponmatsu and Yaichiro and then in their mutual and continually changing relationships with their absent fathers living in the shadow of patricide and justice. Elegantly composed as always, Misumi frequently shoots through obstacles imprisoning the men within the broken beams of ruined buildings or spying in a POV shot from an upstairs balcony while making full use of his trademark love for the natural world in closing with a painful confrontation in which the nature of filiality is turned inside out as a corrupt father falls on his sword for his noble son amid the rocks surrounded by rolling waves. As the title suggests, the melancholy ending severs the hero from his ancestral “home” leaving him forever a wanderer untethered yet in a sense never free of his paternal legacy. 


The Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1964)

Little known outside of Japan, Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with post-war noir and particularly with adaptations of Seicho Matsumoto’s detective novels, yet he had a wide and varied filmography directing in several genres including musicals and period dramas. The son of silent movie director Hotei Nomura, he spent the bulk of his career at Shochiku which had and to some degree still has a strong studio brand which leans towards the wholesome even if his own work was often in someway controversial such as in the shocking child abuse drama The Demon or foregrounding of leprosy in Castle of Sand. Part of the studio’s series of double-length epics, 1964’s Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Goben no Tsubaki) is nevertheless an unusual entry in Nomura’s filmography, adapting a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto essentially setting a policier in feudal Japan and perhaps consequently shot largely on stage sets rather than on location. 

Nomura opens with artifice as Shino (Shima Iwashita) stares daggers at an actor on the stage but later returns to his rooms every inch the giggling fan before finally offing him with her ornate silver hairpin leaving behind only the blood red camellia of the title. The first in a series of killings later branded the Camellia Murders, we later realise that the actor had to die because of his illicit relationship with Shino’s mother whom he brands a “nympho” and as we later discover had several extra-marital lovers. Extremely close to her father who, as we’re told, perished in a fire while resting in the country due to his terminal tuberculosis, Shino is apparently on a quest for revenge against the faithless men who humiliated him though her feelings towards her mother seem far more complex. 

Indeed, Shino regards her mother’s carrying on as “dirty” and seems particularly prudish even as she wields her sex appeal as a weapon in her quest for vengeance. Yet it’s not so much the free expression of sexuality which seems to be at fault but excess and irresponsibility. Shino resents her mother primarily for the ways in which she made her father suffer, off having fun with random men while he shouldered the burden of her family business which, Shino might assume, has contributed to his illness. Aoki (Go Kato), the Edo-era policeman to whose narrative perspective the second half turns, advances a similar philosophy in that there’s nothing wrong with having fun, he has fun at times too, but people have or at least should have responsibilities towards each other which the caddish targets of the Camellia Killer have resolutely ignored. He can’t say that he condones the killer’s actions, but neither can he condemn them because her motivations are in a sense morally justifiable. 

Realising the end is near, Shino indulges in a very modern serial killer trope in leaving a note for Aoki alongside one of her camellias in which she claims that she is exacting vengeance for “crimes not punishable by law”. There was nothing legally wrong in the way these men treated her mother or any other woman, but it is in a sense a moral crime. “You’re a woman and I’m a woman too” she later tells another scorned lover, a mistress thrown over by her patron with two small children after he tired of her, as she hands over a large sum of money and encourages her to return to her family in the country. Shino’s quest is essentially feminist, directed against a cruel and patriarchal society in which the use and abuse of women is entirely normalised, yet it is also slightly problematic in her characterisation of her mother as monstrous in her corrupted femininity for daring to embrace her sexuality in exactly the same way as her male counterparts though they, ironically, mainly seem to have been after her money rather than her body. 

Shino’s mother’s death is indeed regarded as “punishment from heaven” presumably for her sexual transgressions and neglect of her family, rejecting both the roles of wife and mother in a ceaseless quest for pleasure. Yet even in her resentment, Shino’s ire is directed firmly at the men taking the last of her targets to task when he justifies himself that women enjoy sex too and are therefore equally complicit by reminding him that he gets his moment of pleasure for free but the woman may pay for it for the rest of her life. Just as Shino’s mother neglected her family, the men harm not only their wives in their illicit affairs but cause concurrent damage to the mistresses they may later disown and the illegitimate children they leave behind. Abandoning the naturalism of his contemporary crime dramas for something much more akin to a ghost film with his eerie lighting transitions and grim tableaux of the skewered victims, Nomura crafts a melancholy morality tale in which the wronged heroine turns the symbol of constrained femininity back on the forces of oppression but is eventually undone by the unintended consequences of her quest for vengeance even as she condemns the architect of her misfortune to madness and ruin. 


The Glamorous Ghost (散歩する霊柩車, Hajime Sato, 1964)

Best known for Shochiku horror Goke the Body Snatcher from Hell, Hajime Sato spent the majority of his career at Toei which he joined in 1952 after graduating with an economics degree from Keio University. After directing his first film in 1960 he mainly worked on monster movies, sci-fi, and action while transitioning into television from the late ‘60s. 1964’s The Glamorous Ghost (散歩する霊柩車, Sanpo Suru Reikyusha), however, features no special effects at all and in fact no actual “ghost”, instead painting a dark satire of the increasingly greedy and consumerist post-war society in a nihilistic tale of crime and futility. 

As the film opens, taxi driver Asami (Ko Nishimura) is ostentatiously shadowing his wife, Sugie (Masumi Harukawa), whom he suspects of having numerous affairs, through a busy department store. He later confronts her, suggesting that she’s the mysterious adulterous woman pictured in the paper but she denies everything before suggesting that if he’s so suspicious perhaps they should split up. He doesn’t appear to like that suggestion and becomes violent. A fight breaks out during which we see Asami strangle Sugie before an abrupt cut places him in the cab of a hearse sitting next to the driver, Mouri (Kiyoshi Atsumi), dressed in his best suit. Strangely, however, they don’t go to a funeral, but to a wedding where Asami confronts the father of the bride, Kitamura (Meicho Soganoya), showing him Sugie’s body with a prominent scar around her neck he says from her suicide producing a note that says she took her own life out of shame in having betrayed the husband who loved her so very much. The letter is dedicated to a KY, and Asami wants to know who it was his wife was sleeping with though Kitamura is careful not to admit anything while subtly promising him money if he goes away. Asami and the driver then make a second stop at a hospital where he tries the same thing with dodgy surgeon Yamagoshi (Nobuo Kaneko) who admits that he slept with Sugie but says it was only one time a while ago and he’s not sure why he’d be in her suicide note. 

As expected, not everything is quite as it seems. Sugie is not really dead, they’re just running a scam to blackmail her former lovers in order to get money to make a fresh start, possibly with a pig farm in the country which is why they didn’t bother with gigalo Tamio (Jiro Okazaki), the apparently penniless yet sportscar-driving young man Sugie was canoodling with in the park. “5 million yen would turn anyone into a murderer” one of their marks later admits after the scam goes south in several different ways, laying bare their sense of desperation in their otherwise perfectly fine if unsatisfying lives.

Yamagoshi, a doctor so compromised his admin staff assume the unexpected arrival of a hearse means he’s made another mistake, is desperate for money because he wants to open his own clinic. Sugie, meanwhile, gives a series of contradictory explanations for having come up with the scam, telling her marks she wants the money in order to get away from Asami and telling him that it’s for their future so they can live a happily married life. Asami’s male pride had indeed been wounded by Tamio in several different ways, firstly by his youth and vitality, but later by his assertion that a “shorty like him” couldn’t satisfy his wife which is why she puts it about at the club where she has to work because Asami’s cabbing job evidently doesn’t make enough to support them both. 

Sugie’s “death”, leaving aside fact that he “killed” her which is never brought up again, apparently helps him remember what she means to him, that if she really had died he’d be “lifeless” like the empty shell of a cicada. Scamming Sugie’s lovers probably does help rehabilitate his masculine pride and even though she is the one running the show it also suggests that she’s in a sense chosen him and wants to escape their disappointing urban life for something more wholesome as a happily married couple unburdened by financial anxiety. Meanwhile, we see her embarrassingly continue to chase the vacuous Tamio, an overgrown man child with expensive tastes and a room full of toy cars who lusts after a Porsche and appears to have a more age appropriate girlfriend he’d rather hang out in it with. Money corrupts human relationships whichever way you see it, and in the peculiarly toxic marriage of Sugie and Asami we can never quite be sure who’s playing whom. 

Then again in a fairly ironic touch, it may be the blissfully ignorant Tamio who is the only real “winner” seemingly continuing to live his life of empty consumerist pleasures without ever noticing the corruption of the world all around him. Gleefully cynical and accompanied by a playfully ironic, horror-inflected score, The Glamorous Ghost is a pitch black farce shot in the half light with crazy film noir framing and extreme depth of field in which it’s less money everyone wants than a less disappointing future and it seems they’re literally prepared to “die” to get it.


Title sequence (no subtitles)

Escape from Japan (日本脱出, Kiju Yoshida, 1964)

Like many directors of his generation, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida began his career at Shochiku working on the studio’s characteristically inoffensive fare before being promoted as one of their youth voices through which they hoped to capture a similar audience to that attracted by Nikkatsu’s Sun Tribe movies. Yoshida’s films may have spoken to youth but they were perhaps not quite what the studio was looking for nor the kinds of projects that he really wanted to work on, which is one reason why 1964’s Escape from Japan (日本脱出, Nihon Dasshutsu), an anarchic B-movie crime thriller of intense paranoia all maddening angles and claustrophobic composition, was his last for Shochiku, the final straw being their decision to change the ending without telling him and release the film while he was away on honeymoon. 

Set very much in the present, the film opens with a young man miming to American jazz which turns out to be part of the floor show being performed by the band on the stage below for whom he is a reluctant roadie. Tatsuo (Yasushi Suzuki) dreams of going to America to rediscover “real jazz” and subsequently bring it back to Japan. He has the strange idea that America is a true meritocracy where his talent will be recognised, unlike Japan where it is impossible for him to succeed because he is not particularly good looking or possessed of “star quality”. Feeling himself indebted to the band’s drug-addled drummer Takashi (Kyosuke Machida) for helping him get the roadie gig with the false promise of becoming a singer, Tatsuo agrees to help him commit an elaborate robbery of the “turkish bath” (low level sex services and precursor to the modern “soaplands”) where his girlfriend Yasue (Miyuki Kuwano) works. Only it all goes wrong. The guys kill a policeman during the escape, and the other hotheaded member of the gang becomes convinced that Yasue may talk now that they’ve got involved with murder so they should finish her off too by forcing her to take an overdose of sleeping pills. 

Absolutely everyone is desperate to escape Japan for various different reasons. Tatsuo because of his obsession with American jazz and the freedom it represents to him coupled with the sense of impotence he feels in an oppressive society which refuses to recognise his talent because he doesn’t look the part. He jokes with his next-door neighbour, a sex worker who has redecorated her apartment in anticipation of impressing the tourists arriving for the Olympics, that he envies women and wishes he could find a “sponsor” to take him to the States, but later can offer only the explanation that Japan doesn’t interest him when probed over why he was so desperate to leave. 

“Korea or anywhere else, it’s better than Japan” Yasue later adds, consoling Tatsuo as she informs him that their escape plan won’t work because all of the US military planes are being diverted to Korea to bring in extra help for the Olympics. Bundled into a van filled with chicken carcases as a potential stowaway, he discovers another escapee – a Korean trying to go “home”, or rather to the North (presumably having missed out on the post-war “repatriation” programs) where he claims there are lots of opportunities for young people only to lose his temper when Tatsuo explains that he wants to become a jazz singer. He doesn’t want decadent wastrels in his communist paradise and would rather Tatsuo not mess up his country. Yet they are each already dependent on the Americans even for their escape, making use of military corruption networks and getting Yasue’s friend’s GI squeeze into trouble through exposing his black-marketeering. 

Tatsuo and Yasue find they have more in common than they first thought, both “deceived” by those like Takashi who turned out to be a feckless married man and father-to-be risking not only his own future but that of his unborn child solely to fuel his escapist drug habit (which was perhaps the reason for the lengthy hospital stay from which he had just returned). Yasue was just trying to save up enough money to open a hairdresser’s in her hometown, but Takashi told her he was a “famous jazz drummer” and presumably sold her the same kind of empty dreams as he did Tatsuo. Giving up on her own future, realising that even in America the sex trade is all that’s waiting for her, Yasue tries to engineer Tatsuo’s escape but he, traumatised by his crimes, descends further into crazed paranoia, eventually finding himself right in the middle of the Olympics opening ceremony. This is event is supposed to put Japan back on the map as a rehabilitated modern nation, but perhaps all it’s doing is creating an elaborate smokescreen to disguise all the reasons a man like Tatsuo and a woman like Yasue might want to be just about anywhere else. Yoshida seems unimpressed with the modern nation and its awkward relationship with the Americans, perhaps a controversial point in the immediate run up to the games. Shochiku neutered his attempt to depict a man driven to madness by the impossibilities of his times, but a sense of that madness remains as Tatsuo finds himself on the run and eventually suspended neither here nor there, trapped in a perpetual limbo of frustration and futility.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Onibaba (鬼婆, Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

How do you go on living in a world turned upside-down? It may be the central theme of post-war cinema, but few have tackled it in such a direct if allegorical way as Kaneto Shindo, repurposing a Buddhist parable about the perils of duplicity as lesson in the dangers of the age, defined by a cruel hunger which could not be satisfied by bread alone even if there were bread to satisfy it. Onibaba (鬼婆), as the title implies, makes a villainess of an old woman driven to extremes by her chaotic times, but perhaps suggests that the times make villains of us all.

Deep in the war-torn country of 14th century Japan the imperial capital of Kyoto has been razed, a horse is said to have given birth to a cow, and the sun rose black in the sky leaving day as black as night. With farmers dragged away from their fields to fight in a war they barely understand on behalf of distant lords, the grain basket of the nation is close to empty. An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have learned to make ends meet by hunting battle-weary samurai, stripping them of their armour, and throwing their bodies into a gigantic pit sitting right in the middle of the tall grass like a gravitational black hole of human compassion. The old woman has been patiently waiting for the return of her son, Kichi, who was taken away by the samurai, certain that everything is going back to normal when the war is over. Kichi, however, will not be returning. Hachi (Kei Sato), another young man from the village taken along with him, brings the sad news that the old woman’s son was beaten to death by a mob of farmers much like herself resentful of the war’s intrusion onto their land. 

Everything becomes food, Hachi explains, a sentiment extremely familiar to those who lived through the chaos of the immediate post-war era. Pointing at a baseline problem in the feudal economy, the war starves the poor and makes the wealthy hungry. The fields run wild with no men to tend them, as if symbolising the madness of the times. Lost in the tall grass, samurai and peasant alike search for an exit but are drawn only towards that black pit of human cruelty, more beasts than men driven by the need to survive alone. 

Without her son, the old woman is unable to farm, and without her daughter-in-law she is unable to survive through killing. She knows that these are times without feeling and that if Kichi will not return there is no reason for her daughter-in-law to stay. Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), the broker for the looted samurai armour, makes an indecent proposal of extra millet for sexual favours but the old woman defiantly turns him down, perhaps not quite realising the offer was likely not intended for her. Which is to say that Hachi is not the only man in town, but is perhaps the only “desirable” one. Such desires that there are apparently cannot be satisfied by a crusty old man like Ushi, but are there all the same. Hachi presents a triple threat. The old woman knows her survival depends on the younger one, but also that she has no means to keep her now that her son is dead. She offers Hachi her body instead but he, as she did Ushi, baulks at the idea of slaking his lust on such an old woman. 

When a strange samurai wanders into her hut and orders her at the point of his sword to lead him out of the tall grass a solution presents itself. The old woman lures him to the black pit and prises away the ornate oni mask which he claimed he wore to protect his beautiful face from the ravages of war. Despite the fact that the samurai appears to have suffered from some kind of aggressive skin disease, the old woman unwisely decides to put the mask on her own face, convincing her daughter-in-law that her relationship with Hachi is sinful and appearing out of nowhere dressed as a demon to remind her that she’s going to hell. The mask’s crazed expression becomes fused with her own face, cementing her transformation into a “demoness” which it seems had already begun with stretch of white disrupting the uniformity of her hair and the kabuki-esque exaggeration of her eyebrows. Running desperately through the tall grass she cries out that she’s human, but this world has made demons of them all. The black pit of hunger knows no fill, and there can be no satisfaction in a world so devoid of human feeling.


Onibaba is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

The Sound of Waves (潮騒, Kenjiro Morinaga, 1964)

Still a major marquee name well into her 70s, Sayuri Yoshinaga began her career as one of Nikkatsu’s young starlets in the early 1960s. Based on the well known novel by Yukio Mishima, The Sound of Waves (潮騒, Shiosai) finds her starring alongside regular co-star Mitsuo Hamada in another tale of love across the class divide. Usually, such forbidden love would be fodder for romantic tragedy, but Sound of the Waves is a cheerful exploration of tranquil island life where the people are simple and honest and the good will always triumph. 

Shinji (Mitsuo Hamada) is indeed good. Though still only a teenager, he’s become the man of the house following his father’s death, working hard as a fisherman to support his family and saving most of his salary to pay for his little brother’s education. The trouble starts when the beautiful Hatsue (Sayuri Yoshinaga) who had been living as a pearl diver on another island is called back to live with her father, island big man Terukichi (Kenjiro Ishiyama), after her brother dies. There have long been rumours that, as what Terukichi wants is a son to take over his business, he will soon be marrying Hatsue off and probably to the slick and handsome Yasuo (Daizaburo Hirata) who seems to be his favoured choice of son-in-law. 

When Shinji lays eyes on Hatsue helping out with the boats it’s love at first sight, and even more so when he foolishly drops his pay packet while delivering a fish to an elderly couple and Hatsue takes the trouble of finding out where he lives and delivering it to his mother safely. Though everyone in Shinji’s household is quite taken with the beautiful, kind, and responsible newcomer, they are also aware that she is far out of Shinji’s reach. Terukichi is mean and arrogant, there’s no way he’d let his daughter marry a regular fisherman, and Shinji knows he can’t compete with an eligible young man like Yasuo. Hatsue, however, seems to like him too, especially after she gets bitten by a snake and his quick thinking, immediately sucking out the poison, probably saves her life. 

This being an innocent story of pure love, the couple have the opportunity to consummate their relationship after stripping off during a rainstorm but collectively decide to wait for marriage. That doesn’t stop the rumours starting, however, when they are spotted in the forest by Chiyoko (Kayo Matsuo), a young woman sweet on Shinji who’d gone away to study at university in Tokyo. She tells Yasuo who is immediately threatened, not only feeling unjustly betrayed, but acutely aware that the bright future he’d been so proudly boosting of as Terukichi’s future son-in-law might be in jeopardy. 

Where Shinji is kind and responsible, working hard to look after his family and always supporting the other villagers, Yasuo is, like Terukichi, arrogant and self-centred. He’s perfectly aware that he’s the island’s most eligible bachelor and makes a point of swaggering around like a little prince in waiting. Perhaps for that reason he’s also a snivelling coward and intensely insecure, angrily confronting Hatsue and even attempting to rape her while she collects water at the local spring. She manages to fend him off when he’s stung by hornets coming to her defence, and all he can do is plead with her not to tell her father so he won’t mess up his bright future any further. 

Hatsue seems not to have very much say in her future, romantic or otherwise. Having heard the rumours, Terukichi keeps her prisoner in her own home, insisting that she will marry his choice of son-in-law. The islanders, however, who seem to have grown used to ignoring Terukichi as much as it is possible to do so, are fully behind the youngsters’ romance. After all, what could be more natural than two young people falling in love? Eventually the island women launch a small petition to Terukichi to convince him to end his pettiness, but the contest, it seems, comes down to a test of manliness, Terukichi embarking on a young people today speech in complaining that his boat’s come loose in a storm but no one is man enough to retrieve it. Yasuo is found wanting once again, shrinking back from real risk while Shinji puts himself in harm’s way not only to prove himself a man and win Terukichi’s approval, but simply to serve the community. Manliness is redefined not only as strength and bravery, but kindness and patience too. Shinji’s goodness is indeed rewarded allowing him to dream of a brighter future, building a life for himself alongside a woman who loves him on their idyllic island home. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Super Express (黒の超特急, Yasuzo Masumura, 1964)

By 1964, Japan had returned to the world stage and was beginning to enter a new age of modernity as symbolised by the completion of the Shinkansen “bullet train” high speed rail network opened in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Behind the scenes, however, many were still trying to pull themselves free of post-war privation while others feared that the promised age of plenty had provoked a moral decline giving rise to widespread exploitation and rampant criminality. Yasuzo Masumura’s “Black” Super Express (黒の超特急, Kuro no Chotokkyu) was the last in a series of “Black” films (which also included the earlier Black Test Car) produced by Daiei in the mid-‘60s which exposed the seedy underbelly of the modern economy through tales of shady corporate shenanigans. Though in this case the hero finds himself in difficultly largely because of bad luck and his own poor judgement, he eventually exposes the cronyism and corruption which seem set to engulf the modern society. 

As the film opens, shady businessman Nakae (Daisuke Kato) approaches local real estate agent Kikyo (Jiro Tamiya) with an unusual business proposition. It seems that someone wants to build a factory on a large stretch of land currently owned by a number of farmers and other small concerns. Nakae wants to buy it up, but he’s afraid he won’t get a good price as an outsider and wants Kikyo to handle things on the ground. Kikyo is a little confused by Nakae’s intention to offer a significant sum of money to the farmers while proposing a sizeable commission to him, but eventually decides to go along with it. Everything goes to plan – it’s a not a scam, the farmers get their money, and everyone’s happy. Everyone except Kikyo, that is, who loses everything playing the stock market. It’s then he’s contacted by a disgruntled farmer who realises he might have been able to get more because it turns out the land wasn’t purchased for a factory, but for a second line on the Shinkansen. Nakae took their land and sold it on to the government at huge profit. 

Kikyo is extremely pissed off even though he was originally happy with the money he received and the reasons he lost it are nothing at all to do with Nakae. He gets straight on a train (not a Shinkansen) to Tokyo to confront him, but only gets the brush off and an offer of token hush money when Nakae realises Kikyo could cause a problem, something he is apparently keen to do because he starts connecting the dots between the elegant young woman he saw delivering envelopes to Nakae and a senior executive at the rail office. 

Needless to say, Nakae is a totally immoral, not quite conman chancer with the gift of the gab. He approached Kikyo with the job because he’d done his research and knew he’d take the bait. Kikyo already had a failed business behind him and desperately wanted to succeed. In the end he’d find it too difficult to resist the temptation of such a big contract even if he had his doubts, and his greed might prevent him asking too many questions. What Nakae didn’t bank on, however, was the depth of his resentment when he realised he’d been used and then cheated. 

“Large corporations are the new Daimyo” Kikyo tells his later accomplice, Yoko (Yukiko Fuji), Nakae’s former squeeze. He quit his salaryman job because he wanted to be his own boss, but feels like the world has pulled away from people like him, forever denying them a ticket on the Shinkansen, allowing them only to ride the now ironically named “super express”. Yoko feels something similar. She’s refused marriage after coming to the conclusion that men can’t be relied on – her father died in an accident when she was 11 after which her now bedridden mother raised her alone by working as a maid, and an ill-advised “affair” with a married university professor who took advantage of her naivety only further convinced her that she’s better off a free agent. Yoko wants total independence and the opportunity to start a business of her own, which is why she agreed to team up with Nakae to become the mistress of her boss at the rail company, Zaitsu (Eiji Funakoshi), who’d taken a liking to her and is the classic sad middle-aged salaryman with a wife suffering from TB he’d long since grown apart from. 

“There’s nothing more important than life” Nakae later grimly admits, trying to save his own skin, but it’s too little too late. Previously, he’d claimed he was “ready to commit any crime for money”, but mainly thrived on sadistic machinations setting up complex blackmail plots lined with little bombs he could set off if and when the occasion called. Kikyo takes him on at his own game, blackmailing the blackmailer, never really intending to expose the corruption only to parasitically profit from it. What he discovers is there was a much higher price to be paid than he realised because Nakae was only ever a middle man. The people at the top of the tree won’t want to pay at all and they think they don’t have to because “peasants” are expendable. Eventually turning to the police, he finds himself thanked for his service but is forced to admit that he only really wanted the money until he realised how far others were willing to go to get it. Spotting the shiny new Shinkansen rocketing past his widow seat on the super express, all he can do is lower the blind and try to get some sleep.