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. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Opening (no subtitles)

The Body Confession (肉体의 告白 / 육체의 고백, Jo Keung-ha, 1964)

Body Confession posterThe Korea of 1964 was one beginning to look forwards towards a new global future rather than back towards the turbulent colonial past, but the rapid leap forward into a new society had perhaps left an entire generation behind as they prepared to watch their children reject everything they’d strived for in search of “modernity”. 1964’s The Body Confession (肉体의 告白 / 육체의 고백, Yukche-ui Gobak) is the story of one such woman. Widowed young, she turned to sex work in order to support her three daughters in the hope that sending them to university would win them wealthy husbands only for her daughters to encounter the very problems she worked so hard for them to avoid.

The heroine, a veteran sex worker known as The President (Hwang Jung-seun), has become a kind of community leader in the red light district largely catering to American servicemen in the post-war era. While she labours away in the brothels of Busan, her three daughters are living happily in Seoul believing that she runs a successful fashion store which is how she manages to send them their tuition money every month. The President goes to great lengths to protect them from the truth, even enlisting a fashion store owning friend when the girls visit unexpectedly. Nevertheless, she is becoming aware that her position is becoming ever more precarious – as an older woman with a prominent limp she can no longer command the same kind of custom as in her youth and is increasingly dependent on the support of her fellow sex workers who have immense respect for her and, ironically, view her as a maternal figure in the often dangerous underworld environment.

This central idea of female solidarity is the one which has underpinned The President’s life and allowed her to continue living despite the constant hardship she has faced. Yet she is terrified that her daughters may one day find out about her “shameful” occupation and blame her for it, or worse that it could frustrate her hopes for them that they marry well and avoid suffering a similar fate. Despite having, in a sense, achieved a successful career in the red light district, The President wants her daughters to become respectable wives and mothers rather than achieve success in their own rights or be independent. Thus her goal of sending them to university was not for their education but only to make them more attractive to professional grade husbands.

The daughters, however, are modern women and beginning to develop differing ideas to their mother’s vision of success. Oldest daughter Song-hui (Lee Kyoung-hee) has fallen in love with a lowly intellectual truck driver (Kim Jin-kyu) who has placed all his hopes on winning a literary competition. He is a war orphan and has no money or family connections. Meanwhile, second daughter Dong-hui (Kim Hye-jeong) has failed her exams twice and developed a reputation as a wild girl. Toying with a poor boy, she eventually drifts into a relationship with the wealthy son of a magnate (Lee Sang-sa) but fails to realise that he too is only toying with her and intends to honour his family’s wishes by going through with an arranged marriage. Only youngest daughter Yang-hui (Tae Hyun-sil) is living the dream by becoming a successful concert musician and planning to marry a diplomat’s son.

The three daughters have, in a sense, suffered because of their mother’s ideology which encourages them to place practical concerns above the emotional. Song-hui is conflicted in knowing that she will break her mother’s heart by marrying a man with no money or family but also knows that she will choose him all the same. Dong-hui, by contrast, enthusiastically chases Man-gyu for his money but naively fails to realise that he is selfish and duplicitous. In another evocation of the female solidarity that informs the film, Man-gyu’s fiancée Mi-ri eventually dumps him on witnessing the way he treats Dong-hui, roundly rejecting the idea of being shackled to a chauvinistic man who assumes it is his right to have his way with whomever he chooses and face no consequences. Like Song-hui, Mi-ri breaks with tradition in breaking off her engagement against her parents’ wishes and reserving her own right to determine her future.

Yang-hui, whose future eventually works out precisely because of the sacrifices made on her behalf by her mother, turns out to be her harshest critic, rejecting The President on learning the truth and attempting to sever their connection by repaying all the “ill-gotten” investment. Her wealthy husband, however, turns out to be unexpectedly sympathetic in pointing out that her mother has suffered all these long years only to buy her future happiness and that now is the time they both should be thanking her. Meanwhile, The President has become despondent in realising she is out of road. There is no longer much of a place for her in the red light district, and she has nowhere left to turn. Only the kindly Maggie, another sex worker who has been a daughter to her all this time, is prepared to stand by her and take care of her in her old age.

The gulf between the two generations is neatly symbolised by the surprising inclusion of stock footage from the April 19 rising against the corrupt regime of Rhee Syngman which led to a brief period of political freedom before the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee took power in 1961. The poor intellectual author whom The President dismissed, eventually becomes an internationally renowned literary figure after being published abroad while the wealthy magnate’s son turns out to be a louse. The President staked her life on the old feudal ways of ingratiating oneself with privilege by playing by its rules, but the world has moved on and it’s up to the young to forge their own destinies rather than blindly allowing those in power to do as they please. Sadly for The President, her sacrifices will be appreciated only when it’s too late and her desire for her daughters to escape the hardship she had faced misunderstood as greed and snobbishness. There is no longer any place for her old fashioned ideas in the modern era and her daughters will need to learn to get by on their own while accepting that their future was built on maternal sacrifice.


The Body Confession was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Female Ninja Magic (くノ一忍法, Sadao Nakajima, 1964)

female ninja magic posterSadao Nakajima, a veteran director and respected film scholar, is most often associated with his gritty gangster epics but he made his debut with a noticeably theatrical fantasy tale of female ninjas and their idiosyncratic witchcraft. Adapted from a novel by Futaro Yamada, Female Ninja Magic (くノ一忍法, Kunoichi Ninpo) is an atypically romantic take on the ninja genre, infused with ironic humour and making the most of its embedded eroticism as a collection of wronged women attempt to change the course of history and mostly pay with their lives.

The night before the fall of Osaka castle in 1615, Sanada Yukimura (Eizo Kitamura) comes up with a cunning plan to ensure the survival of the Toyotomi clan. Following the death of Hideyoshi, his son Hideyori had inherited the title but he was sickly and had no children of his own. His wife, Princess Sen (Yumiko Nogawa), was not able to bear an heir and so Sanada has hit on an idea. He wants to send five women of Iga to Hideyori’s bed chamber in the hope that one of them will become pregnant and ensure the survival of the Toyotomi line. Princess Sen is very much in on the plan and hopes to raise the child herself. However, she is by birth a member of the Tokugawa which is where she is eventually sent following fall of Osaka. Refusing to return to her birth clan, Sen rejects her father and insists on remaining true to the memory of her (now departed) husband and his unborn child. Tokugawa Ieyasu (Meicho Soganoya), however, has learned of the Toyotomi heir and is determined to see it killed…

Nakajima opens in grand fashion with a ghostly sequence in which Sanada outlines his plan. The ninjas sit silently before magically fading from the frame and being replaced by Sasuke, Sanada’s messenger. Soon enough, both Sanada and Sasuke are cut down by a rogue assassin but rather than going straight to heaven they decide to hang around and see how well the plan works out, becoming our narrators of sorts, hovering around in the background and occasionally offering the odd ironic comment from beyond the frame.

The ghostly effects don’t stop with the two undead commentators but comprise a key part of Nakajima’s deliberately theatrical aesthetic. Like many ninja films, Female Ninja Magic is filmed almost entirely on studio sets but never pretends otherwise. Its world is unrealistic and deliberately over the top, filled with with visual motifs both from traditional Japanese and classical European art. The female ninjas dance, topless, beckoning and seducing but they do it against a stark black background moving firmly into the film’s magical space in which all things are possible.

Meanwhile, Tokugawa Ieyasu has sent five male ninjas to take care of our five female witches, making use of their own, devious, ninja magic to combat that of our heroines. The first nefarious male ninja technique involves the murder and identity theft of a trusted maid, while another tries a similar trick by “projecting” himself into the consciousness of a handmaiden he has figured out is pregnant by listening for additional heartbeats, and convincing her to commit harakiri. His villainy is eventually turned back on him as the female ninjas make use of the most important of their spells – the “Changing Rooms” technique which effectively shifts the foetus from one womb to another.

Deliciously named – Rainbow Monsoon, Dancing Snow, Robe of Wings etc, the spells run from the sublime to the ridiculous with the self explanatory Eternal Gas which sends noxious purple smoke billowing from under the skirts of an elegant princess. Each has its own erotic component, even if it doesn’t necessitate a shift into the film’s elegantly designed dreamscape, but by and large the female ninja fight with supernatural rather than earthly powers. Facing such extreme threat, the women form a tight group of mutual support in order to ensure the survival of the child which Princess Sen will raise but not birth. Though her quest originated as a fierce declaration of her loyalty to the Toyotomi, she later recants on her tribal zealotry. Shocked by her father’s cruelty and sick of a persistent suitor, she admits that she has come to loathe the world of men and prefers to think of the baby as belonging to her band of women alone. Nevertheless, male violence eventually saves her as her aggressor, ironically enough, is moved by her devotion to the new life in her arms – he is “defeated by her strength as a woman”, and turns on his own kind. Female Ninja Magic eventually achieves the revenge it sought, allowing a princess to survive in triumph while the male order quakes in its boots.


The Devil’s Stairway (마의 계단 / 魔의 階段, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

devils-staircase-poster.jpgBy 1964, Korea’s economic situation was beginning to improve and for many there seemed to be a bright light shining in the distance, a fixed point to which they could aspire and felt was in their grasp if they could only catch a lucky break. Throughout Lee Man-hee’s relatively short career (the director sadly passed away at the young age of only 45 – apparently a casualty of his fondness for drink and intensive work habit which accounts for his high output), his protagonists struggle with a conflict between the desire for the new kind of “success” their society promises them, and a feeling that they can never truly obtain it. Ambitious surgeon Dr. Hyeon (Kim Jin-kyu) attempts to climb The Devil’s Stairway (마의 계단 / 魔의 階段, Maui Gyedan, AKA The Evil Stairs) by abandoning the compassion that ought to define his profession for coldhearted pragmatism but discovers that the path has its price while his victims are not quite so passive as he’d assumed them to be.

When we first meet Dr. Hyeon he’s lounging around in bed while his female companion, Nurse Nam (Moon Jeong-suk), dresses and prepares to leave. Somewhat coldly, Hyeon tells her to exit via the back stairs and avoid being seen by the security guard on her way. Irritated, Nam leaves and the pair go back to work at the hospital the next morning pretending there’s nothing more between them than the relationship between a nurse and a chief surgeon. This situation might have continued indefinitely were it not for the fact that Jeong-ja (Bang Sung-ja), the daughter of the hospital’s head doctor, has taken a liking to Hyeon and seeing as her father has no sons to take over when he retires, an arranged marriage is in the offing. Dr. Hyeon, who is ambitious and emotionally cold, considers accepting the offer but Nurse Nam is unwilling to let him go, especially as she is pregnant with his child. When she threatens to spill the beans about their illicit relationship, he decides to kill her by dosing her up with sedatives and throwing her body in the pool behind the hospital to make it look like she drowned herself in heartbreak and shame, but Nurse Nam refuses to go quietly.

The titular “Devil’s Stairway” is a literal staircase from the hospital floor to the head doctor’s office. There has recently been accident in which the bannister was broken and a woman was killed. The banister is repeatedly mended throughout the film but represents a point of fracture in the spiritual path to success. Nurse Nam is another early casualty when she and Hyeon argue in the middle of the stairs and the recently mended bannister breaks as he struggles with her. Despite the minimal drop to the floor, Nam is left with serious injuries requiring surgery, loses her baby, and gains a conviction that Hyeon bears her ill will. Her position is extremely difficult – the accident has exposed the fact that she had conceived a child outside of wedlock and though she has not yet disclosed the name of the father, Hyeon fears that she will destroy his bright future either by speaking out or through forcing him to marry her to avoid social disgrace.

Hyeon gives in to darker instincts. He tells Nam that his heart is hers, perhaps intending to carry on an arrangement even after he’s decided to accept the marriage proposal, but excuses himself for stringing her along by reminding her of his lack of financial stability and comparatively low social status. We are reminded later that he is old be unmarried and, even stranger, is assumed to be a “virgin” – a solitary, perhaps dull, bachelor not known for mixing with women. This again signals his coldhearted ambition – he waits and he calculates. He wants a hospital of his own and knows his only way to get one is to marry into it, and so he does even if it means sacrificing “love” and emotional happiness for the cold comforts of conventional success and the false acclamation of social status.

Hyeon thinks he’s got away with it, but his crime haunts him. Going slowly out of his mind, Hyeon sees Nam everywhere, placing a strain on his relationship with his new wife who grows wary of his increasing violence and bad temper. His madness culminates in a tense surgery scene in which everyone around him has Nam’s face and he finds himself surrounded by his crime, forced to confess himself as a murderer in order to free himself of her ghost. Yet, things are not quite as they seem and it is not he alone who finds his grand plan floundering.

Hyeon posits his poverty as a reason for his crime, but it’s his greed which guides him towards the Devil’s Stairway. He could have married Nam, had his child, and led an ordinary middle-class life of relative comfort perhaps even opening his own clinic in good time, but he chose the quick fix in marrying for money and (literally) throwing over the woman he claimed to love to ease his feelings of insecurity and resentment at his position in the social order. His murder is cowardly but, as Nam points out, the law may protect him while there are precious few looking out for her, a betrayed woman, pregnant outside of marriage, and without a family to press her case.

As he did in the same year’s Black Hair, Lee co-opts the murkiness of the film noir, sending its sense of betrayed morality into the realms of the gothic with an ever increasing atmosphere of supernatural dread. The pond seems to emanate evil while the stairs beckon ominously, the wind rattles the doors open without warning and the rain pours down outside adding to the claustrophobic gloom of the creepy old hospital as if attempting to embody the evil that lies at its centre. Drawing heavily from Les Diaboliques, Lee declares no winners in his tale of fractured morality and emotional betrayal, painting it as a symptom of a confused era in which all emerge tarnished from a struggle to gain some kind of personal agency in an otherwise oppressive environment. Taut to the last, The Devil’s Stairway is a forgotten masterpiece of psychological horror and a mild condemnation of a society’s slide into national paranoia and greedy consumerism at the cost of true human feeling.


Available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Black Sun (黒い太陽, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964)

black sun still 2The Warped Ones showed us a nihilistic world of aimless youth living not so much on their wits as by their pleasures, indulging their every animalistic whim while respectable society looked on in horror. By 1964 things have only got worse. Tokyo might have got the Olympics, Japan might be back on the international map, and economic prosperity might be on the rise but all around the city there’s an arid wasteland – a literal dumping ground in which the unburied past has been left to fester as a grim reminder of historical follies and the present’s reluctance to deal with them.

Akira (Tamio Kawaji), now calling himself “Mei” (perhaps a play on the reading of the character for his name 明), seems to have mellowed since the heady days of his youth. Living alone save for a dog named Thelonious Monk, Mei has co-opted a disused church and turned it into a shrine for jazz. The walls and ceilings are covered in photographs of famous jazz musicians and posters for club nights and solo shows. He has his own turntable and a well stocked selection of LPs, though he still seems to frequent the same kind of jazz clubs that so defined his earlier life.

Change arrives when Mei boosts a fancy car and is almost caught in a police net caused by the body of an American serviceman found floating in the harbour. Apparently the crime is the product of an internal GI squabble, but the offending soldier is on the run with a machine gun. As coincidence would have it, the wounded killer, Gil (Chico Lourant), fetches up at Mei’s church and, as Gil is a black man, Mei assumes that they will definitely be friends. It is, however, not quite that simple.

As in the earlier film, jazz is the force which keeps Mei’s mind from fracturing. His life still moves to improvisational rhythms even if apparently not quite so frenetically as it once did. Rather than the rampant animal of The Warped Ones, this Mei has embraced his outsider status through literally removing himself from the city in favour of self-exile and isolation as a squatter in the house of God – a place about to be torn down.

While Mei has been literally pushed out with only his beloved dog as evidence of his latent human feelings, his formerly delinquent friend, Yuki (Yuko Chishiro), has gone on to bigger and better things. No longer (it seems) a casual prostitute catering to foreigners, Yuki has repurposed the skills her former life gave her to shift into an aspirational middle-class world as a translator for those same American troops she once performed another service for. The American occupation is long over, but the US Army is everywhere.

Mei thinks of himself as one of Japan’s oppressed outsiders – an outcast in a land subjugated by a foreign power. He squats in a ruined church while the Americans “squat” in his ruined country. He likes jazz because it fits the rhythms of his mind but also because he believes it to be the music of the oppressed. In Gil he thinks he sees another like him, a man oppressed in his own homeland and ironically enough by the same forces that are (in part) oppressing him. Mei has a lot of strange, stereotypical ideas about black men – he’s excited to meet Gil because he thinks all black men must love jazz and that Gil must be some kind of jazz god, but Gil is a frightened rabbit on the run, terrified and bleeding. Thinking he’s in the middle of a visitation, Mei tries to make plain his enthusiasm despite the obvious language barrier, pointing wildly at his shrine to jazz, but all Gil wants is quiet and help with the bullet wound currently suppurating on his thigh.

The “relationship” deteriorates, but a strange kind of camaraderie is eventually born between the two men. Things take a turn for the surreal when Mei dons black face and paints Gil’s white, only to get stopped by GIs who want to see an ID from a “foreigner” driving a fancy car, and for Mei to introduce Gil at his favourite jazz bar as his new “slave”. In hindsight it’s all a little awkward as Kurahara throws in stock footage of the civil rights movement and tries to equate it both to the recent protest movements in Japan and to Mei’s self-identified status as one of Japan’s oppressed masses. Still, you can’t argue with the fact that the two men have found a bond in their shared alienation and desire to escape from the impotence of their current situations.

Ironically enough Kurahara does seem to believe in an escape, though it’s perhaps not so positive as it sounds. The tragic friendship of the two men in which one must save the other by releasing him towards the sea and the sun pushes Mei out of his self-exile and back into the “real” world even if he still considers himself to be an outsider within it. The sun is bright but it’s also dull, shining not with hope but with consolation for a hopeless world in which the only victory lies in the final act of surrender.


Short scene from the beginning of the film (English subtitles)