Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenji Misumi, 1965)

An orphaned son’s attempts to overcome his cursed destiny are poisoned by the duplicities of the samurai society in third part of Kenji Misumi’s loose “Sword Trilogy”, Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenki). Perhaps unfairly dismissed by some as a mere genre craftsmen, Misumi was also an intense visual stylist, a quality very much on show in this vibrant drama which pits the beauty of the natural world against the samurai order but eventually finds its hero succumbing to cruelties of his age unable to outrun himself or his destiny. 

In the prologue which opens the film, shot in an arty theatrical style, a young peasant woman formerly a maid to the late Lady Makino gives birth to a “stranger’s” child after having been promoted and given a place in the women’s quarters as a reward for her loyalty in continuing to serve her mistress in the depths of her “madness”. Lady Makino claims that Kin’s kindness brought her back to reality and is keen to ensure she continues to be taken care of after her death, but also asks her to take charge of her precious pooch hoping that she will treat it “as herself”. This is perhaps why it is rumoured that the child, given the name “Hanpei” which ironically is in part inspired by the dog-like “Spot” coupled with a suffix which implies a lowly rank, is in fact the product of a taboo union between the maid and the dog (rather than admit he is almost certainly the illegitimate son of Lord Masanobu). For some reason this bizarre rumour persists throughout the boy’s life, cast out as he is from the palace and raised in an ordinary village as the son of a low-ranking samurai who appears to be kind and loving, worried enough about Hanpei’s (Raizo Ichikawa) future to advise him to find a special skill that will allow him to support himself and perhaps overcome some of the persistent prejudice against him after the old man’s death. 

The skill he perfects, however, continues to set him apart from his fellow men in that he chooses the cultivation of flowers. A particularly snotty neighbour describes Hanpei’s art as “annoying”, though others are impressed enough by his skill to marvel that they have such a man in their clan while also pointing out that in these times of peace becoming a samurai florist might be much more useful than perfecting the art of the sword. Ironically, however, it drags him back towards the court and intrigue when he’s invited to craft a flower garden to cheer up the present young lord who seems to be succumbing to the same “madness” as his mother. The trouble starts when the garden is completed to the lord’s satisfaction but marred by the sudden and apparently unexpected arrival of a bumblebee which damages the lord’s tranquility and provokes a violent outburst in which he begins to hack at the flowers hoping to punish the one which “rudely” invited the bee to the garden. Hiding behind a tree, Hanpei perfectly aims a rock at the lord’s head to prevent him destroying his precious work and is spotted by his chief retainer, Kanbei (Kei Sato), who earmarks him for future use in his nascent conspiracy. 

Hanpei finds himself at the centre of intrigue, increasingly seduced by promises of advancement that he might be “titleless” no more and perhaps in fact escape his lowly position as the son of a dog. He ingratiates himself by, like his mother, being one of the few servants willing to bear the lord’s violent rages in volunteering to accompany his horse even though he has none of his own and has to run along behind thereby demonstrating his slightly supernatural athletic ability that gives further credence to his canine origins. In similar fashion he learns by observation, captivated rather than appalled on witnessing an old ronin practicing his sword technique by cutting in half a butterfly in the forest. Preoccupied by his lowly status and consequent lack of sword skills, Hanpei is reassured by the man’s explanation that there’s nothing more to it than draw, strike, and sheath but takes yet another step towards the samurai dark side in accepting the gift of a sword. Later he breaks it, meaning to break with the cruel path on which fate has set him, only to pick up another, supposedly cursed sword to which he was attracted because of its “evil spirit”.

Osaki (Michiko Sugata), a kind and innocent woman seemingly attracted to Hanpei because of his difference in his gentle sensitivity in contrast to the rough men around her, refuses to believe the rumours he has become an assassin working for Kanbei because no one who loves flowers like he does could be a coldblooded killer. This is in fact what he has become, sent, like a dog, after Kanbei’s enemies killing without even knowing who it is who must die only to be remorseful on discovering he has killed someone known to him. There is division and sedition within the court caused by the lord’s madness, Kanbei and his associates keen to rule in his stead while keeping his mania secret from the shogun while others, a small group of lower samurai rebels, prefer to depose him in favour of his adopted heir. Hanpei is once again a pawn, taking no side in this debate but unthinkingly doing Kanbei’s dirty work in the service of his sword. He hopes that by taking the “evil” instrument in his hands he might double his bad luck to overcome his unhappy destiny, gazing at his distorted face in its reflection, but discovers himself merely outcast once again as the villagers begin to realise he is an obstacle to their rebellion and responsible for the assassinations of their loved ones. 

The ironic conclusion finds the hero’s planned flower garden, a shared endeavour with love interest Osaki, rendered a bloody graveyard, men cut down like weeds as Hanpei’s quick draw philosophy makes a mockery of their fancy samurai fencing. The poisonous samurai legacy, infected with madnesses literal and figural, destroys everything, all beauty and grace falling under Hanpei’s “evil” sword as he finds himself, quite literally, chased out of town like a stray dog condemned to wander exiled from human society. 


Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1965)

“Even the cops wouldn’t keep innocent people in prison” a prisoner ironically exclaims in Satsuo Yamamoto’s farcical crime drama Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Nippon Dorobo Monogatari), displaying a strange sense of faith in the system for one who’s already been caught out by it. It is in many ways the system at which Yamamoto takes aim, refusing to blame even the guilty for their crimes while condemning the society that forever tars not only them but their entire families with the criminal brush, similarly defaming the innocent while the mechanisms of the State actively abuse their power to ensure they continue to maintain it. 

Set in 1948, the action takes place as the opening voiceover explains in an exaggerated accent which at times lends itself to lowkey comedy, at a moment of societal collapse in which cash has become almost worthless and the only items of value are clothing and rice. Yet Gisuke (Rentaro Mikuni) it seems was living a life of crime even before the war, the youngest of five brothers left to look after his mother and sister after his father’s death. While operating as an amateur unlicensed dentist having picked up the basics from his dad, Gisuke makes his living peddling black market kimonos stolen from local warehouses. After bungling one particular job he finds himself spotting a strange site on the railway tracks, overwhelmed by shadowy figures of nine men he first fears have come to tackle him but in the end simply pass by even calmly returning his call of good evening as they discuss among themselves the best way to the local hot spring. Taking refuge in a haystack, it’s not until the next morning that Gisuke learns of a train derailment that took the lives of the engineer and two crew members. He realises that the men he saw must have been the ones who sabotaged the track but he’s not a snitch and it’s none of his business so he decides to keep quiet. 

That is until he gets arrested for the botched burglary and ends up incarcerated alongside a member of the accused, Kimura (Mizuho Suzuki), who quickly befriends him and in fact becomes something of a labour activist even inside the prison negotiating better conditions for prisoners. Indebted, Gisuke maintains his silence strangely certain that Kimura and the others will soon be released because they are innocent despite already knowing that the judicial system is infinitely corrupt. The case at hand takes inspiration from the Matsukawa Derailment, a real life incident which Yamamoto had already dramatised in 1961’s Matsukawa Incident, in which suspicion had fallen on the Railway Union who, in the film, are seen leading a protest agitating for better working conditions. Kimura, a prominent unioniser, is picked up along with other members of the rail workers union and left-wing activists on largely spurious grounds solely to discredit their movement at the behest of an overly authoritarian police force. 

The irony is that Gisuke ends up in prison for a crime that he technically is not quite guilty of in that he’s arrested after his wife, a geisha he redeemed with his ill-gotten gains, unwittingly sells some stolen kimonos which he was storing for a friend on the run. Kimura by contrast is in prison for something of which he is entirely innocent, in effect a political prisoner. Yet the force that imprisons both of them is not so much the law as social censure in the stigmatisation of crime. Gisuke feels acutely guilty knowing that his family members continue to suffer because of his criminality, his sister unable to marry as each of her engagements is eventually broken off when they find out her brother’s been in jail. After getting out and vowing to go straight, Gisuke marries again and has a child but is perpetually worried that someone will find out about his past and that his son will forever be stigmatised as a “burglar’s kid”. It’s for this reason that he finds himself torn, refusing to help Kimura by testifying as to what he saw that night even after hearing that he’s been sentenced to death, unwilling to risk his newfound happiness even at the expense of another man’s life. 

Strangely, it’s the injustice of the situation which later changes his mind though in an unexpected way when he realises that his own son has escaped being tainted with his father’s criminal legacy while Kimura’s is bullied at school because his dad’s in jail even though he’s innocent. Pursued by authoritarian police officer Ando (Yunosuke Ito) who attempts to blackmail him into changing his story to incriminate Kimura he eventually decides to free himself by telling the truth despite realising that another witness was most likely murdered for signalling an intention to do the same. “But how is it that the police who are charged to catch us are even bigger liars than the thieves?” Gisuke asks the judge during his improbably humorous testimony, earning rapturous applause from the court in a touch of the absurd with even his wife, hitherto stoney faced despite the laughter all around her, cracking a smile seemingly warming up to his decision to play the hero even if it has taken him rather a long time to decide to do the right thing. 

Yamamoto doesn’t hang around to hear the verdict, perhaps because it’s Gisuke who’s really on trial and the judge appears to be his wife whose forgiveness is the only acquittal necessary. His crimes are in a sense not really his fault, Yamamoto seems to argue, but the fault of an indifferent society which left him with no other choice in order to support himself, the same society which then frustrates his attempts to live an “honest” life by forever tainting him as a “burglar” and tarring his entire extended family with the same brush. Only by owning his stigmatisation can he free himself of it, rejecting the illusionary power corrupt authority has over him while refusing to be complicit in their constant battle to hang on to it by levelling his marginalisation against him. Extremely ironic in terms of tone, often employing archaic screen wipes for comic effect, Yamamoto’s strangely hopeful tale implies that justice can in fact prevail but only when imperfect men commit to it even at the expense of their personal happiness. 


The Ghost of the Hunchback (怪談せむし男, Hajime Sato, 1965)

The old, dark house fetches up in Japan in Hajime Sato’s slice of weird, gothic horror The Ghost of the Hunchback (怪談せむし男, Kaidan Semushi Otoko, AKA House of Terrors). Long in circulation only in an Italian dub, Sato’s B-movie romp owes an obvious debt to Mario Bava but also to similarly themed gothic chillers such as Robert Wise’s The Haunting somewhat repurposing the central nexus of the cursed mansion as a black hole of morality sucking into its orbit the sinners of the post-war society each it seems both victims and embodiments of their times. 

Opening in true gothic fashion with lightning and a full moon, Sato zooms in to a strangely creepy yet ordinary Western-style villa where the soon-to-be widowed Yoshie (Yuko Kusunoki) is woken from a dream in which she had a premonition that her husband, who we learn has been in a vegetative state for some time, had something he desperately wanted to tell her. Shinichi has indeed passed away while apparently imprisoned under the care of his father, Munekata (Kazuo Kitamura), a psychiatrist who seems less than moved by his son’s death describing it as the least he could do to repay the debt he owed to his parents. It seems that Shinichi had been in the hospital following an “incident” some time previously and though Munekata insists that his brain had been “destroyed”, younger doctor Yamashita (Shinjiro Ebara) echoes Yoshie’s dream in informing her that immediately before he died it seemed that Shinichi, who had long been mute, was desperately trying to tell him something. Meanwhile, Yoshie begins hearing strange noises emanating from the coffin and opens it to find a chrysanthemum clenched between her husband’s teeth. 

After the funeral, she’s visited by a lawyer claiming that Shinichi entrusted a key to him to be given to his wife in the event of his death along with the deed for a mountain villa where “the incident” took place. Later, everyone comes to the conclusion that what Shinichi wanted to tell them was not to go to the mansion, but of course what else was Yoshie supposed to do other than investigate. A classic gothic estate swathed in fog and hidden behind ornate iron gates, the remote country house also turns out to have a hunchback custodian (Ko Nishimura) as well as a weird, demonic statue standing inconveniently in the hallway. Soon after arriving Yoshie is attacked by a crow, told of “the incident” by the hunchback, and begins to hear strange noises including disembodied laughter before she is eventually joined by Munekata, Yamashita, and her niece Kazuko (Yoko Hayama).

Yamashita tries to rationalise that the noises are just the normal kinds of creaking born of “deformation” as a building naturally ages, literally becoming warped with time, while the stress of living in such an environment, he claims, can eventually drive one mad. He’s come along to investigate believing that Shinichi’s illness is connected to the mansion. Yet the old, dark house in this case is somewhat divorced from its gothic roots in being transported to Japan where it is in a sense “new” and “foreign” rather than an ancient relic weighing heavily on the shoulders of declining aristocracy. Even so we do indeed have something of that in the later revelations of previous owner Baron Tominaga and his particular grudges which, in this case, are if only partially rooted in wartime trauma, the mansion apparently also once home to an anti-aircraft depot the remains of which can be seen in the grounds. 

The war may not be the corrupting force in play but it’s certainly a factor, especially the surprising accusation thrown at Dr. Munekata that he participated in wartime atrocity in being party to vivisection, a claim he does not dispute but defends in insisting his actions were justified in the name of science. The house has not so much called them, but each of the “guests” is in their own way morally compromised, Munekata not only a war criminal but a venal, lecherous old man hoping to get his hands on the house to open a sanatorium by fulfilling his quasi-incestuous desire for Yoshie. Yamashita, meanwhile, is not exactly pure hearted either, using what he knows about Munekata to blackmail him into standing down so he can become the director in his place and marry his wealthy girlfriend, Akiko (Keiko Yumi), who has also turned up to join in the haunted house fun. As far as sin goes, Yoshie is largely without it but perhaps pays for daring to own her sexuality, rejecting Munekata’s advances but apparently having made a habit of getting into bed with her comatose husband despite knowing of his many affairs which may be the reason for his punishment by the house. Only Kazuko remains pure and innocent save her one-sided attraction to Yamashita, the only one of the gang to show any kind of compassion towards the admittedly strange hunchback. 

In keeping with the house, Tominaga and the hunchback are later revealed to be Christians, though in a gothic inversion they are also the source of the “evil” that infects the creepy old mansion once again positioning Christianity as a foreign corruption but also in this case punishing post-war moral failure. Sato conjures an atmosphere of pure gothic chill complete with oversize cobwebs, doors which open and close on their own, a crow infestation, and even a passing shinto priestess (Mitsue Suzuki) who just had to drop in because of the powerful emanations of evil echoing from the mansion but leaves his collection of extremely flawed humans very much at the mercy of their own demons as they desperately try to escape from the House of Terrors. 


Snake Princess (新蛇姫様 お島千太郎, Tadashi Sawashima, 1965)

Hibari Misora fights Edo-era corruption once again in another jidaigeki musical adventure from Tadashi Sawashima. Snake Princess (新蛇姫様 お島千太郎, Shin Hebihimesama Oshima Sentaro) sees her doing double duty as a sake-loving stage performer in love with a reluctant revenger, and an austere princess mourning the murder of her confidant and only friend but, as in some of her other films, the resemblance is never remarked upon nor is it any kind of plot point. There isn’t even really a “snake princess”, though snakes and the supernatural do play their part and there is perhaps less space for the derring-do and swashbuckling musical numbers which typically characterise a Hibari picture. 

The film opens with stage performer Oshima (Hibari Misora) waking up from a drunken snooze on a riverbank and realising she’s been left behind by her acting troupe. Running into the mysterious Ittosai (Minoru Oki) on her way, she hurries on to the next town to catch them up while he heads in the opposite direction towards Karasuyama and the Princess Koto (also played by Hibari Misora). Meanwhile, in the town, a rowdy samurai starts a drunken fight in an inn, demanding to drink with the innkeeper’s pretty daughter Suga (Tomoko Ogawa). The innkeeper refuses, offering the excuse that his daughter is at the palace with the princess, but the samurai doesn’t take no for an answer and starts thrashing about with his sword eventually killing the innkeeper for the offence he feels has been caused to him. The innkeeper’s son Sentaro (Yoichi Hayashi), a former pupil of Ittosai, then kills the samurai in revenge and is forced on the run, taken in by the leader of Oshima’s acting troupe, Juzo (Takashi Shimura), who apparently knew his father well. 

What ensues is of course a tale of intrigue and revenge mixed with mild romantic melodrama. Oshima begins to fall for Sentaro, but is warned that he is from a prominent non-samurai family and as such is unlikely to marry a travelling actress, itinerant players then belonging to a kind of underclass which is in part one reason why it is so easy for Sentaro to hide among them. Even so he is also subjugated by the samurai who frequently object to being ordered around by “commoners”, insistent on their privilege the refusal of which is the reason Sentaro’s father had to die. 

Meanwhile,  the Princess Koto is herself oppressed within the feudal system as a female ruling a clan in the absence of her father who has placed her in charge while he remains in the city. While Oshima falls for Sentaro, the relationship between Koto and Suga is perhaps transgressively equally close, Koto describing Suga as the only one she can trust within her own court and plaintively asking her to stay by her side forever. Unfortunately however Suga is murdered by the male court conspirators attempting to wrest power from the princess on her way back with evidence of their smuggling plot after meeting Ittosai on Koto’s behalf. Misled into thinking that Koto had his sister killed, Sentaro plots revenge but on learning the truth asks her why she hasn’t dealt with the wrongdoing among her own retainers, only later realising that even as the leader of the clan she lacks the power to do so and remains in a precarious position. 

Arguably, Oshima has more freedom, fearlessly walking the roads alone, drinking and gambling with the men refusing to abide by traditional social codes though perhaps in some ways permitted to do so precisely because of her position within the entertainer underclass. A further gender reversal sees the fallen Sentaro temporarily resorting to sex work as a host at an inn drinking with a melancholy noblewoman who fully expects to bed him for her five Ryo only for Sentaro to become indignant and throw the money back in her face, much to Oshima’s approval though she later becomes jealous and irritated questioning him if he’s ever done this sort of work before as if it would actually change her feelings for him. While Sentaro is forced into but then rejects the subjugated female role, Oshima chooses the male solution of trying her luck at the gaming tables, occasionally charging into a fight wielding a nearby object such as a handy water bucket. 

The snake theme of the title links back to the supernatural appearances of Suga’s silent ghost, protecting the princess with a wall of serpents when Sentaro plans to attack under the false assumption that she was responsible for his sister’s death. Musical numbers are largely restricted to a lengthy stage performance featuring Oshima and Sentaro’s evolving act utilising several sets and elaborate design while Sawashima ups the game a little from the lower tier Toei norm with varying locations shifting from a set-bound snowscape as Oshima is carted off by local goons, to a shot-on-location set piece as the conspirators take down a spy in the rocky desert. Revenge is eventually taken not only for the murders of Sentaro’s father and sister, but for the samurai transgressions of the Edo era, restoring order by wiping out the bad apples but also allowing Sentaro to free himself from his class-bound destiny and pursue a life, and love, of his choosing regardless of contemporary social codes.


Musical sequences (no subtitles)

The Bride Who Has Returned From Hell (地獄新娘, Hsin Chi, 1965)

“That place is filled with horror and mystery” a creepily persistent man on a train claiming to be a clairvoyant warns the new governess to a home that does indeed turn out to be tinged with tragedy, though in true gothic melodrama fashion that was something of which she was already well aware. Inspired by the Victoria Holt novel Mistress of Mellyn, Taiyupian The Bride Who Has Returned From Hell (地獄新娘) is less supernatural mystery than eerie romance which sees frustrated desire collide with outdated social mores to destabilise the social order in the otherwise tranquil world of the new elite. 

Echoing the novel’s Cornish atmospherics, the opening title sequence pans over the rugged coastal landscape with its rocky outcrops and crashing waves before homing in on a policeman picking up a handbag while his colleagues investigate the body of a man drowned at sea. Meanwhile, wealthy entrepreneur Yi-Ming (Ko Chun-Hsiung) is worried because his wife Sui-Han is not at home despite the fact they’re supposed to be going to a friend’s birthday party. The man’s body is identified as Guo Jing-Min, Yi-Ming’s cousin and the older brother of the woman living next-door, Feng-Jiao (Liu Ching). Jing-Min and Sui-Han were once lovers, and given that the handbag appears to have been hers, it’s assumed that the pair attempted to elope but got into trouble and drowned with Sui-Han’s body possibly lost at sea. 

Perhaps tellingly, Yi-Ming’s reaction to his wife’s disappearance is irritation and suspicion. He asks the housekeeper if Sui-Han has ever stayed out all night while he’s away from home and on learning that she may have come to harm focuses solely on the embarrassment of being a man whose wife has betrayed him. “How am I supposed to face people?” he angrily asks Feng-Jiao who apologises on her brother’s behalf (but seems equally unperturbed at his demise). He more or less gives up on finding out what’s happened to Sui-Han and begins to reject his daughter, Su-Luan, solely because she reminds him of his wife while taking up with another woman, Mrs Lian (Kuo Yeh-Jen), who married a much older man presumably for his money. 

Meanwhile, Sui-Mi (Chin Mei), Sui-Han’s sister who has recently returned to Taiwan after many years living abroad in Singapore, has secretly taken a job as a governess in the Wang household under an assumed name in order to investigate her sister’s disappearance. The man on the train who warned her about the house’s dark mystery, the lonely little girl, and the man with a bad reputation turns out to be none other than the other brother of Feng-Jiao who lives with her in a neighbouring mansion. Apparently employed partly because of her physical similarity to the (presumed) late Sui-Han in an effort to provide comfort to the highly strung Su-Luan, Sui-Mi is only one of several doubles in play which include the decidedly creepy little girl Lan (Dai Pei-shan), the housekeeper’s granddaughter, who insists that Sui-Han is still alive while more or less spying on everyone making full use of her invisibility as a member of the servant class. 

Like any heroine of a gothic romance, Sui-Mi’s role is not just to solve the mystery but to restore order by unifying the various forces of destabilisation currently threatening the Wang family which is one reason we see her actively include Lan, treating her the same as she does Su-Luan, teaching the two girls to be friends and equals as she educates them both together. The other threat to social harmony is in Yi-Ming’s moodiness and womanising, most particularly his possibly immoral relationship with Mrs. Lian and inability to embrace his role as a father by showing love to his daughter who is already becoming strange and neurotic in the wake of her mother’s death, believing that she has been abandoned by both parents. Thus, partly thanks to her physical similarity to Sui-Han as her sister, Sui-Mi assumes the maternal role assuring Su-Luan that she will love her forever in her mother’s place while Yi-Ming’s growing attraction to her precisely because of these maternal qualities, in its own way also problematic, draws him back towards the proper path of home and family. 

Pursued by Feng-Jiao’s creepy brother and conflicted in her attraction to her brother-in-law while still harbouring the suspicion he may be involved in her sister’s disappearance, Sui-Mi finds herself drifting away from the idea of solving the mystery even while inhabiting the creepy mansion which is in its own way both literally and figuratively haunted. A dream apparition of her sister in an ethereal use of double exposure effectively gives her permission to pursue her romantic destiny by instructing her to stay in Taiwan and look after Su-Luan because, she fears, no one else will which doesn’t speak highly of Yi-Ming, while reminding Sui-Mi that she came to the Wangs’ for a reason.  

“You can’t get true love by manipulation” the villain is later told, revealing to us that the motive in this case really was romantic jealousy, a typically gothic sense of repression born of oppressive patriarchal social codes which prevent the proper expression of desire and eventually lead to violence. Sui-Mi restores order by solving the mystery and then healing the rifts by, ironically, submitting herself to those same oppressive social codes in assuming her “natural” role as wife and mother. Using a series of unexpected music cues from ominous Japanese folksong Moon over Ruined Castle as Sui-Mi surveys the rugged mansion to the more upbeat Hana as she plays with the children, moody jazz, Danny Boy, and even the James Bond theme playing over the climax (not to mention the many instances of child star and producer’s daughter Dai Pei-shan singing her gloomy lullaby), Hsin goes all in on the gothic imagery even having Sui-Mi almost fall victim to a suspicious rock fall just as she becomes a credible romantic heroine, before ending on a cheerful note with another song celebrating the simple joys of the traditional family.


The Bride Who Has Returned From Hell streams in the UK until 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Six Suspects (六個嫌疑犯, Lin Tuan-Chiu, 1965)

“Crime doesn’t pay” is the moral of many a film, but few of them care to state as much upfront. Not perhaps since The Public Enemy has a moral message been declared so baldly on screen as it is in the title card overlying the opening of Lin Tuan-Chiu’s Six Suspects (六個嫌疑犯) which tells us in no uncertain terms not only that you reap what you sow, but also that we law abiding citizens have nothing to fear because we are “well protected” by the police. In the end, Six Suspects was never released (apparently because Lin was unhappy with it rather than any censorship issues), but is perhaps a curious example of a pro-police drama masquerading as a noirish crime thriller with a surprisingly leftist message that dares to suggest the new middle class is inherently corrupt. 

Our anti-hero is a roguish blackmailer, Tenn Kong-Hui (Wu Dongru), who has a habit of following people around and taking photos he can use as leverage against them later. His ex-girlfriend Tai-Giok (Zhang Qingqing) has moved on and attempted to go straight with a job as the secretary to the CEO of a steel firm, but is also having a “serious” affair with the man who hopes to become his son-in-law, Lap. Meanwhile, the chairman’s brother, Khe-bing, has troubles of his own. He’s already being blackmailed by a bar hostess who may have lied about conceiving a child with him before he was married to his elegant wife, who is also a target for Kong-hui after he spots her meeting with a beatnik artist. The real problem, however is that through all his various investigations, Kong-hui has stumbled on a deeply entrenched system of corruption running between the steel company and local contractors. 

It will come as no surprise that Kong-hui is eventually bumped off. Someone knocked him on the back of the head and then turned the gas on to make it look like he killed himself. His roommate, actually in love with the chairman’s daughter even though she’s still planning on marrying Lap to please her dad, freely admits Kong-hui was “scum” but thinks it’s unlikely he did himself in. The police eventually agree, but have the luxury of too many suspects. Who did it? Two yakuza-esque petty gangsters going by the names “Snake” and “Turtle” because of their tattoos, Lap, his old flame Tai-Giok, the roommate who apparently argued with him on the night in question and then passed out drunk in a park, Khe-bing and/or his wife, or someone else entirely? 

In some senses, it doesn’t really matter. The society here is so inherently corrupt that no one is really “innocent” except perhaps the pure-hearted roommate who remains shocked and disgusted by the results of his police detective friend’s investigations and innocently in love with the chairman’s unobtainable daughter. The ambition that comes from the widening wealth gap is instantly on display as the film opens with Lap in bed with Tai-Giok but brushing off her suggestions that they marry by reminding her she’ll be the most comfortable of mistresses when he marries the chairman’s daughter. In another kind of film, they would be our central couple – their pure love corrupted by post-war greed, but we later realise neither of them is very much in love at all and their “relationship” must be based on some other factor. Lap isn’t betraying Tai-Giok to marry the boss’ daughter, though there may be other casualties of his all too willing complicity in an increasingly amoral economy which sees him gleefully accepting kickbacks and wining and dining clients in restaurants where you can hire scantily clad dancers to entertain you while you eat. 

Despite his rather obvious villainy, Kong-hui wasn’t really all that bad, just a product of the world in which he lived. In fact, the film almost sides with him in his one man crusade against “immorality”. In any case, the real villain as we later see is equal parts prudery and an elitist entitlement that enables this level of corruption to prosper. Our “heroes” are of course the police, turning their collars to the cold as they work tirelessly to fight “crime” but also, it has to be said, acting on behalf of an oppressive regime which may be the biggest villain of them all. 


Six Suspects screened as part of touring retrospective Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema. It will also be available to stream in the UK as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh from 18th to 27th September.

Restoration trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Tarzan and the Treasure (泰山寶藏, Liang Zhefu, 1965)

Nothing is guaranteed to turn people against each other faster than hidden loot. So it is for the children of two wartime conscripts inheriting a dubious legacy from their departed fathers in the enticingly named Tarzan and the Treasure (泰山寶藏). The world was beginning to open up in 1965, but in cinema at least there was still space for the “mysterious East” even when seen from the relative proximity of Taiwan. 

A Taiwanese businessman travels to Macao in search of the missing half of a map said to lead to treasure hidden in the Malayan mountains by the Japanese at the end of the war. The man’s brother, Zheng, and the father of the man he’s supposed to meet, Fan, served together as conscripts to the Japanese army and agreed to tear the map in two because they were afraid that their descendants may try to do each other out of their shared inheritance. That proves truer than they could ever know seeing as they both died young. The businessman is shot dead by crooks including Fan’s son (Chin Tu) who planned to steal Zheng’s half of the map and get the treasure for himself, but thankfully he didn’t have it on him, leaving it with his niece Shufen (Liu Qing) for safekeeping. Fan’s son is also killed by his gangster boss who takes his leads about Shufen and her young cousin Hong-luk (Ba Ke) heading to Malaya and runs with them. 

Shufen meanwhile has been warned by a policeman from Macao that her uncle is dead and gangsters may be on her tail. Inspector Khoo tells her to go and wander around in the jungle as bait while he is supposedly going to protect her and her cousin. Hong-luk privately dreams of finding the treasure, but Shufen reminds him they’re here for “revenge” and to smoke out the gangsters, not to get rich. While in the jungle, however, they encounter many more dangers than the alien element of invading criminality. Despite being firmly set in the modern era, Shufen and her cousin repeatedly run into members of a primitive tribe, some of whom turn out to be predatory. A hero is, however, forever on the horizon and whenever Shufen finds herself shouting for help “Tarzan” (Gao Ming) swings out of the jungle to rescue her. 

Somewhat surprisingly, “Tarzan” speaks perfect Taiwanese but wears only a leopard print loincloth and a few bangles. He is apparently, and for obvious reasons, a popular guy but only has eyes for So-bi, his increasingly jealous girlfriend with an equally jealous sister constantly outraged on So-bi’s behalf. Tarzan never falls for the the “Jane” figure of Shufen standing in for urban sophistication but remains her protector, not only from the predatory members of his own tribe but from the gangsters too even as they bring unwelcome modernity in the form of guns into this idyllic paradise. 

As they said, Shufen and her cousin haven’t come to find the treasure, only to get justice and in the hope of figuring out what happened to Shufen’s father and brother who came to Malaya some years ago after Fan’s death made getting the second half of the map impossible. The treasure itself, unearned wealth with a less than ideal genesis, is the corrupting influence which has caused so much pain and suffering. Zheng may have given his life for it, his brother and Fan’s son were shot for it, and now amoral gangsters from Macao may make sure that Shufen pays for it too even though she seems to have no interest in striking it rich. The lesson seems to be that going off to foreign countries to pull dollars out of the hillsides is a meaningless and risky business. Shufen has the right idea in that she’s gone to Malaya to restore her family and if possible bring it home while paying her respects to her late uncle. 

Greed, romantic jealousy, and the dangers of the jungle, however, threaten her mission. Wise for his years, little Hong-luk is increasingly convinced they’ve been double-crossed and that “Inspector Khoo”, if that’s his real name, must be in league with the gangsters, having tricked them into coming into the mountains all alone without the promised police “protection” even while they’re supposedly acting as bait for vicious Macao gangsters. Rest assured, however, that the authorities are eventually vindicated while Shufen remains just as innocent as the guileless Tarzan but standing up to the forces of corruption as long as she is able. The “treasure” that she discovers is family unity, preparing to leave the exoticised “Eastern paradise” for the urban sophistication of “civilisation” in Taiwan, but taking something of Malaya with her as she goes.


Screened as part of touring retrospective Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Seisaku’s Wife (清作の妻, Yasuzo Masumura, 1965)

Seisaku's wife posterFor Yasuzo Masumura, sexuality is both freedom and constraint but also the ultimate act of social rebellion. Seisaku’s Wife (清作の妻, Seisaku no Tsuma), set in late Meiji as Japan prepares for the possibility of war with Russia, finds its melancholy heroine a defiant outcast as she first abandons her cruel, conformist society for empty independence and then reclaims her sense of self only through a love deemed inappropriate by those around her. The seeds of militarism are already being sown and breaking the programming is hard but transgressive acts of love can, it seems, overcome persistent societal oppression.

Okane (Ayako Wakao), our heroine, was sold as a bride to a much older man (Taiji Tonoyama) at 17 to provide for her parents. Three years later she views her husband, a wealthy kimono merchant, with contempt – as does much of the local area where he is derided as a sex crazed pervert. Luckily for her, Okane’s husband eventually dies leaving her a small sum of money while his extended family would rather she absent herself as quickly as possible to minimise embarrassment. Her father now too passed away, she and her mother (Tamae Kiyokawa) return to their home village which they were chased out of some years previously for their massive debts, but are now resented by their former neighbours for their seeming wealth and aloofness. Okane, traumatised by her experiences and having lost the will to live, barely interacts with the villagers who regard her as arrogant and haughty, and has been ostracised as a result.

The situation begins to change with the return of Seisaku (Takahiro Tamura) – the village’s bright hope. Seisaku had been away doing his military service and has come back with order and discipline on his mind. Now believing that the villagers are lazy and frivolous he has brought back with him a bell he had forged himself which he hooks to a nearby tree and bangs early in the morning to “awaken” them lest they sleep in rather than hasten to their fields. As might be anticipated, the villagers find this quite irritating but respect Seisaku too much to stop him and so find themselves going along with his new brand of militarist austerity. Meanwhile Okane is the only one to refuse the call, wasting no time in telling Seisaku that she has no intention of following his “orders” and his assumption that she should is in itself offensive.

Seisaku is intrigued rather than offended and finds himself attracted to Okane despite the villagers’ obvious animosity towards her. Convincing her that his feelings are real, the pair drift into an intense sexual relationship which eventually sees the model soldier Seisaku make a transgressive choice of his own in rejecting his longstanding betrothal to a village girl in favour of marrying Okane without the approval of his conservative mother and sister. Holed up together in Okane’s remote farmland shack, they remove themselves as much as possible from village life in an insular, obsessive world of their own.

Okane, rejected because of her past as the kept woman of a wealthy man (something over which she herself was powerless and means never to be powerless again), in turn rejects the village after having lost all faith in human relationships except perhaps that with her mother whose cruel treatment at the hands of her father she both identified with and resented. Intensely lonely, she subsumes herself entirely into her love for Seisaku, eventually trying to rebuild bridges in the village in order to strengthen their relationship but finding herself rejected once again by Seisaku’s austere mother even if his sister begins to come around. Meanwhile, the spectre of the war hovers on the horizon. Seisaku, as hopelessly in love with Okane as he is, is still the model soldier in his heart and unwilling to abandon his proto-militarist ideology which tells him that dying in service of the nation is man’s highest calling.

Having abandoned such obvious brainwashing to claim her independence, Okane struggles to convince Seisaku he should do the same. She clings to him and pleads, begging him not to leave her behind alone while he resolves to go off to battle and a glorious death. The village men too regard failure to die on the battlefield as a disgrace but send their sons away with cheers and celebration. Facing the possibility her dream of love may die, Okane takes drastic action to ensure its survival but does so at an ironic cost which sees her separated from her love possibly forever. Seisaku, meanwhile, angry and resentful, begins to understand something of Okane’s life when branded a coward and traitor by his former friends, no longer the model soldier but an outcast himself. Having suffered her fate, he begins to let go of his rage in favour compassionate understanding, allowing his love to triumph over his hate as he strives to forgive the woman who has both trapped and helped him to free himself from the oppressive ideology which turned him into an unthinking “model soldier” who wilfully abandoned his freedom in favour of internalised conventionality.

Freed from didactic social brainwashing, the pair are then in a sense imprisoned by their individualistic freedom, forced to isolate themselves within a bubble of love and mutual dependence but with a new hope for the future for which they now plan even while acknowledging that they cannot know what will come of it save that they will face it together. They can no longer live within the conservative society, but must form their own new world within it in which they can be fully free and express their freedom through their love. Melancholy but tranquil, Masumura ends on an uncharacteristically hopeful note which implies that love, though violent and transgressive, can be an effective weapon against destructive militarist ideology and the folly of war through a warmer path towards compassionate freedom.


Original trailer (no subtitles)