North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)

north sea dragon dvd cover.jpgAt the beginning of the 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity would put the ninkyo eiga firmly to bed, but in the mid-1960s, they were still his bread and butter. Fukasaku’s earlier career at Toei leant towards the studio’s preference for youthful rebellion but with a stronger trend towards standardised gangster tropes than the countercultural thrills to be found in similar offerings from Nikkatsu. For Fukasaku the rebellion is less cool affectation than it is a necessary revolt against increasing post-war inequality and a constraining society though, as the heroes of If You Were Young, Rage or Blackmail is My Life find out, escape can rarely be found by illicit means. Jiro, the prodigal son of North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Hokkai no Abare-Ryu), finds something similar even whilst conforming almost entirely to Toei’s standard “young upstart saves the village” narrative.

Jiro (Tatsuo Umemiya), dressed in white with jet black sunshades, nonchalantly walks into his childhood fishing village filled with a sense of nostalgia and the expectation of a warm welcome. The village, however, is much changed. There are fewer boats around now, and the fishermen are all ashore. Arriving at his family home he discovers they now live in the boat shed and his mother doesn’t even want to let him in. Jiro, as his outfit implies, has spent his time away as a yakuza, and his family want little to do with him, especially as his father has been murdered by the soulless gangsters who are currently strangling the local fishing industry.

The local fishermen are all proudly tattooed but they aren’t yakuza, unlike the tyrannical son of the local boss, Gen Ashida (Hideo Murota), who carries around a double barrelled shotgun and fearsome sense of authority. The Ashidas have placed a stranglehold around the local harbour, dictating who may fish when and extracting a good deal of the profits. An attempt to bypass them does not go well for Jiro’s mother who is the only one brave enough to speak out against their cruel treatment even if it does her no good.

When Jiro arrives home for unexplained reasons he does so happily, fully expecting to be reunited with his estranged family. Not knowing that his father had died during his absence, Jiro also carries the guilt of never having had the opportunity to explain himself and apologise for the argument that led to him running away. An early, hot headed attempt to take his complaint directly to the Ashidas ends in disaster when he is defeated, bound, and whipped with thick fisherman’s rope but it does perhaps teach him a lesson.

The other boys from the village – Jiro’s younger brother Shinkichi (Hayato Tani) and the brother of his childhood friend Reiko (Eiko Azusa), Toshi (Jiro Okazaki), are just as eager as he is both to avenge the death of Jiro’s father and rid the village of the evil Ashida tyranny. Jiro tries to put them off by the means of a good old fashioned fist fight which shows them how ill equipped they are in comparison with the older, stronger, and more experienced Jiro but their youth makes them bold and impatient. The plot of Toshi and Shinkichi will have disastrous consequences, but also acts as a galvanising force convincing the villagers that the Ashidas have to go.

Jiro takes his natural place as the hero of a Toei gangster film by formulating a plan to undermine the Ashidas’ authority. His major strategic decision is to bide his time but he also disrupts the local economy by attempting to evade the Ashida net through sending the fisherman to other local ports and undercutting the Ashida profit margin. As predicted the Ashidas don’t like it, but cost themselves a crucial ally by ignoring the intense bond between their best fighter and his adorable pet dog. Things do not quite go to plan but just as it looks as if Jiro is about to seal his victory, he stays his sword. The Ashidas’ power is broken and they have lost enough already.

Fukasaku’s approach tallies with the classic narrative as the oppressive forces are ousted by a patient people pushed too far finally deciding to fight back and doing so with strategic intelligence. It is, in one sense, a happy ending but not one without costs as Jiro looks at the restored village with the colourful flags of fishing boats enlivening the harbour and everyone going busily about their work. He knows a sacrifice must be made to solidify his mini revolution and he knows who must make it. Like many a Toei hero before him, he prepares to walk away, no longer welcome in the world his violence has saved but can no longer support.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Little Runaway (小さい逃亡者, Eduard Bocharov & Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1966)

The little runawayTeinosuke Kinugasa maybe best known for his avant-garde masterpiece The page of Madness even if his subsequent work leant towards a more commercial direction. His final film is just as unusual, though perhaps for different reason. In 1966, Kinugasa co-directed The Little Runaway (小さい逃亡者, Chiisai Tobosha) with Russian director Eduard Bocharov in the first of such collaborations ever created. Truth be told, aside from the geographical proximity, the Japan of 1966 could not be more different from its Soviet counterpart as the Eastern block remained mired in the “cold war” while Japan raced ahead towards its very own, capitalist, economic miracle. Perhaps looking at both sides with kind eyes, The Little Runaway has its heart in the right place with its messages of the universality of human goodness and endurance but broadly makes a success of them if failing to disguise the obvious propaganda gloss.

Little Ken (Chiharu Inayoshi) is ten years old and lives with his violinist uncle, Nobuyuki (Jukichi Uno). Ken has obvious talent at the violin and, like most kids in this rundown area, his drunken uncle has roped him into helping out for a few extra pennies. One fateful night, Nobuyuki has tied one on and lets slip that Ken’s dad might not be dead, but stuck in a hospital in Moscow. Soon enough a Russian circus comes to town and Ken strikes up a strange friendship with the kindly clown, eventually stowing away to the Soviet Union to look for his long lost father.

From one point of view, The Little Runaway conforms to a certain type of family drama which centres on the disconnect between a father and a son. Ken feels abandoned (no reference is ever made to his mother), though he loves and respects the uncle who takes care of him even if recognising his standard of care often leaves a lot to be desired. His desire to find his father is not so much motivated by unhappiness (his life is difficult but it’s the only one he’s ever known), but by the desire for answers as regards his own ancestry and the emotional need to reconnect with the biological father he no longer remembers clearly.

From another point of view, The Little Runaway conforms to the genre of children’s cinema in its close following of Ken’s quest. With no word of warning, Ken takes off for Russia as if he were simply going to check out a neighbouring town. Unaware of the political context and hoping to use his friendship with the circus troupe to his advantage Ken stows away on a boat headed for the USSR, but his clowning friends aren’t on it and he doesn’t speak any Russian.

The central tenet of the story is that there are kind people everywhere willing to help a determined little boy with melancholy eyes. Ken manages to get to Russia but then escapes his “escort”, hoping to travel to the capital faster. Wandering through the empty landscape, he chances into a house and makes friends with a peasant boy who introduces him to his wider family and a man with many daughters who could use a son just like Ken. Ken also tries to support himself by taking casual work as a labourer, having learnt the Russian word for such a job and repeatedly emphasising it, trying to assure them that he’s stronger than his appearance suggests.

Despite not speaking the language Ken manages to make himself understood through sand paintings, though the Russians he meets are all eager to share their food and shelter with him without much by way of explanation. As might be expected, the Russia depicted may not be particularly realistic, the officials are kind and jovial, the streets are clean, the people healthy and happy, and you can even buy Moscow cigarettes from woman running a stand in the square. The Japan Ken knows, by contrast, is one down at heels in which children are being pressed into shady forms of employment from Ken’s violin playing to little girls selling flowers on the street.

Depicting events from an innocent, child’s eye view, The Little Runaway finds only goodness rather than political anxiety but it is quick to emphasis the importance of helping those in need as the clown later avows. More or less straightforward in shooting style, Little Runaway is more intent on seeing the virtues of the cooperation between the Soviet block and the burgeoning Japanese economy than resolving its central mystery but nevertheless provides another welcome addition to the plucky child adventure genre while urging a kind of universal kindness probably not much in evidence in the real life Tokyo or Moscow of 1966.


Original Japanese trailer (no subtitles)

Fighting Elegy (けんかえれじい, Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

Fighting Elegy PosterAh, youth. It explains so many things though, sadly, only long after it’s passed. For the young men who had the misfortune to come of age in the 1930s, their glory days are filled with bittersweet memories as their personal development occurred against a backdrop of increasing political division. Seijun Suzuki was not exactly apolitical in his filmmaking despite his reputation for “nonsense”, but in Fighting Elegy (けんかえれじい, Kenka Elegy) he turns a wry eye back to his contemporaries for a rueful exploration of militarism’s appeal to the angry young man. When emotion must be sublimated and desire repressed, all that youthful energy has to go somewhere and so the unresolved tensions of the young men of Japan brought about an unwelcome revolution in a misguided attempt at mastery over the self.

Kiroku (Hideki Takahashi) is an impulsive young man with a magnetic personality who, like many of his age, has found himself at a military training school designed to toughen up the boys of Japan for the glorious services they will later be expected to provide for the emperor. Very much into his training, Kiroku submits himself to the rigid codes of the school which prize virility and encourage competitive brawling between the boys. Despite the strict prohibition on soft stuff like getting it on with girls, Kiroku has developed a heavy crush on the daughter at his Catholic boarding house, Michiko (Junko Asano). Delighting in her piano playing, Kiroku cannot find a permissible way to express his desires and so records them in a very frank diary. Michiko, it seems, may return his feelings but times being what they are cannot say or do anything until he declares them and so things are left to simmer between the two with no useful place to go.

Despite belonging to a military school, Kiroku’s main outlet is in a kind of extracurricular club which is obsessed with being manly but also with rebelliousness and showing how individualist they can be through a series of challenges which often involve flagrantly breaking the rules of the school. Kiroku’s violent escapades eventually get him expelled and sent to a different institution a few towns over which explicitly prizes the “Aizu Spirit”. By now truly invidualist in his isolation, Kiroku is disappointed in the tenets of the “Aizu Spirit”. Calling all of his fellow students “wild monkeys”, Kiroku makes some odd comments on the nature of oppression and dominance by pointing out that the students all willingly submit to the teacher who demonstrates authentic authority, but refuse to respect the ones who simply don’t have it. This is, in a sense, the opposite of the philosophy which Kiroku has come to follow in which pleasure comes from rebelliousness and the natural tendency of the young to resist all forms of constraining power.

However, the most primal constraining force acting on Kiroku is sexual desire as a running joke finds him consistently bothered by unwanted erections which he then has to hide from his comrades to avoid embarrassment. Kiroku is quite passionately obsessed with Michiko to the point that he thinks of little else despite the total prohibition on female contact advanced by his military training. His diaries are full of notes about how he dreams of her delicate hands though he lies about refusing to masturbate in favour of pouring all of his virility into his violent pursuits. The situation is complicated by the presence of Christian religion which places a further taboo on the young people’s desires as they glance guiltily at the crosses on the walls each time impure thoughts arrive. Michiko is not much better off, though her own frustrations result in internalised rather externalised violence which looks set to rob her of her own happiness but lacks the all encompassing destructive element of Kiroku’s unresolved energy.

Suzuki’s message is clear, if somewhat blunt. If only these young men and women had been allowed to work out their frustrations in a more normalised way, the entire folly of warfare and imperialist expansion could have been avoided. The Christian context does add to the levels of guilt and repression, but it is one layer further than the average farm boy from rural Japan who suddenly found himself caught up in the fascist movement would have experienced. Events reach their natural conclusion at the end of the film as Kiroku reads a newspaper report of the declaration of martial law in Tokyo following the February 26th Incident in which a cabal of hotheaded young military officers launched a broadly leftwing yet authoritarian coup designed to delegitimise the government and restore power to the emperor in a return to paternalistic feudalism. His romantic dream shattered, Kiroku recognises a kindred spirit and finds a calling in the call to arms but his vocation is a false one in its negation of everything it is to be alive. The path of militarism leads only to death and destruction in its pointless and nihilistic quest to overcome rather than satisfy ordinary desires and the forces which divide Kiroku and Michiko are those same forces which bring such overriding misery to a society caught in its own difficult adolescence.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him (男の顔は履歴書, Tai Kato, 1966)

by a man's faceJapanese cinema has not been as shy as might be supposed in examining uncomfortable topics concerning the nation’s mid 20th century history but perhaps prefers to tackle them from a subtle, sideways viewpoint. By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him (男の顔は履歴書, Otokonokao wa Rirekisho) is, in essence, a fairly straightforward gangster pic – save that the rampaging gangsters are a mob of “zainichi” Koreans rather than post-war yakuza or petty hoodlums. Less about what it is to be an outsider or the quest for identity in second generation immigrants, Kato’s film is about what it says it is about – a man’s face.

The film begins in the contemporary era when morose doctor Amamiya is contemplating a transfer to an island posting which proves unappealing to him. Shortly after, a badly injured man is brought in following a car accident and, though Amamiya originally suggests the man be taken to a hospital as his chances of survival are slim, he changes his mind after lifting the sheet and recognising the man on the stretcher. The two men go back a long way – firstly to the battlefield where “Shibata” was a private in the army serving alongside Amamiya and secondly to an incident which dictated the rest of Amamiya’s life when he ran the local GP’s office and also happened to own the deeds to some land a bunch of Korean gangsters wanted to get their hands on. Thanks to their earlier association, “Shibata” now returning to his Korean name “Choi” was able to assist Amamiya in mitigating the gangster onslaught as he himself was a member of the gang.

Perhaps more to do with the production styles of the time, all of the “Korean” gangsters are played by Japanese actors and only ever speak Japanese even to each other. Nevertheless, they all want “revenge” for Japan’s treatment of Korea and Koreans during the years of occupation and warfare. In 1949 Japan is still in ruins and the gangsters see this as a prime opportunity to finally take Japan apart and presumably also profit in the process. The leader of this particular gang has set his sights on taking over the “New Life Marketplace” (a pregnant title if ever there was one) with the intention of turning it into an “entertainment district”. His guys, including one totally crazy foot soldier played by a particularly manic Bunta Sugawara, run roughshod over the town until finally raping and murdering Japanese women which they dismiss as par for the course given Japan’s treatment of Korean women over the past thirty years.

This is not a subtle examination of Korean Japanese relations in the post-war environment, these are gangsters and movie gangsters are generally all the same. They say they want to destroy Japan but ultimately they want what all gangs want – to control the area and extort maximum profit. Choi, and the young female Korean Gye, were born in Japan, have never even been to Korea and can’t really claim to have a great deal of Korean cultural knowledge. All they have are their names, now reclaimed after Japan’s wartime defeat. Throughout the war years, Choi used the Japanese version of his name “Shibata” and tried to pass himself off as Japanese (apparently successfully) but is now committed to embracing his Korean heritage even if it once again sees him placed in a subjugated position.

Amamiya returned from the war and took over his father’s medical clinic in his home town. He’s cynical and apathetic. He treats the people who come in to his clinic without discrimination but he doesn’t care very much about the area either. The only thing he really cares about is his nurse, Maki, with whom he’s been having a passionate affair and seems to be deeply in love. Amamiya makes an enemy of the Koreans early on when he fights off some guys who are hassling his nurse proving that he’s no pushover. The title deeds for the land the market is built on also belong to Amamiya who is unlikely to surrender them. The townspeople first turn to the regular Japanese yakuza who are unable to help with their currently depleted manpower leaving Amamiya as their only form of salvation.

When Amamiya’s hotheaded brother turns up and starts causing all sorts of trouble with the Koreans as a way of avenging Japan’s wartime defeat, Amamiya is dragged into a battle he had no desire to fight. Shunji was too young to fight in the war but is a representative of the younger generation who can’t accept the new post-war society and what they see as their older siblings failure to support the nation. Though a strong attraction develops between Shunji and Gye, their love story becomes another casualty of the harsh post-war world. Reluctantly, Amamiya becomes the last defender of these put upon people leading to a High Noon style solo stand against the Koreans whilst the terrified populace look on in fear and hope.

Kato creates a colourful world rich in symbolism such as the early scene in which Choi’s red blood drips down the white sheet accidentally recreating the Japanese flag. Amamiya’s prominent scar becomes both a plot point and a symbolic motif as it echoes the film’s title in bearing out his “history”. A man’s life is indeed written on his face, and Choi’s wife’s urging to her daughter that they watch Choi’s face as he fights for his life is another indication that one’s true nature is seen most clearly in times of duress. The film closes on an ambiguous note, in one sense, but closes its thematic line neatly. Amamiya faces a choice and no choice at the same time but through his face we know him and so we understand.


 

Irezumi (刺青, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

91HAEic7eNL._SL1500_Irezumi (刺青) is one of three films completed by the always prolific Yasuzo Masumura in 1966 alone and, though it stars frequent collaborator Ayako Wakao, couldn’t be more different than the actresses’ other performance for the director that year, the wartime drama Red Angel. Based on a novel by Tanizaki and scripted by Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Kuroneko), Irezumi is a supernaturally tinged tale of vengeance and betrayal.

The film begins in the middle as Otsuya, having been abducted and sold to a geisha house, is tied, bound and chloroformed so that a tattooist can mark her skin with the eery portrait of a spider with a human face. Skipping back awhile, it seems this came about as a consequence of Otsuya convincing the mild mannered assistant of her father, Shinsuke, to run away with her. The pair take refuge at the home of a family friend, Gonji, but after his advances towards Otsuya are rebuffed he arranges to have Shinsuke killed and Otsuya sold as a geisha. Shinsuke manages to get away after a bloody fight but he’s a gentle man and the violence of the encounter marks him. Otsuya, by contrast, finds she quite enjoys her new life and gets along OK with her pimp, Tokubei, who urges her to “feed on men”. Otsuya’s lusts become ever more violent with the spectre of the tattoo artist hovering in the background. Is the tattoo itself enacting these scenes of terrifying vitality or merely an excuse for releasing Otsuya’s true nature?

Shot in vibrant colour in contrast to Red Angel and many of Masumura’s other efforts from around the same time, Irezumi makes fantastic use of its lurid atmosphere. Sex and death and violence – hardly unusual themes for Japanese cinema though Irezumi feels like an early precursor to the exploitative pinky violence cycle of the following decade. In keeping with those films, Otsuya is another conflicted avenger, wreaking havoc on venial men who think they can buy and sell a woman’s soul as well as her body. As the violence mounts, Otsuya falls into a kind of mania and at one point exclaims that this isn’t really her at all, it’s all the fault of the spider on her back – trapping men in its silky web only to suck them dry and throw away the husk.

Whether Otsuya is herself an avenging warrior for the female sex or merely a demonic vision of the ultimate male fear is somewhat up for debate. Her transgressions are intentionally destabilising – she breaks with convention by “betraying” her father when she runs of with Shinsuke and not only that, she does so at her own insistence. Shinsuke himself is far too meek and mild mannered to have ever done such a thing entirely of his own will and is largely swept along by Otsuya for the entire course of the film. Only when he fears she may betray him does he decide to take action. Otsuya’s sexuality in itself is also transgressive, actively pursuing Shinsuke before a formal marriage and then even expressing her enjoyment of her new life in the pleasure quarters – neither attitude is one that is expected of the demure daughter of a noble house. Is she an emancipated woman, or fallen one? The film offers no clear judgement here but presents her both in terms of vengeful heroine and of terrifying villainess.

Along with its rather complicated structure beginning in a media res opening followed by a lengthy flashback sequence, Irezumi is never quite as successful as Masumura’s other mid ‘60s offerings. Though boasting a script by maestro Kaneto Shindo, a noted director in his own right and frequent visitor to the realms of horror, something about Irezumi fails to coalesce. That said, it does offer a visually arresting, generally interesting supernaturally tinged tale and yet another fantastic performance from its talented leading lady.


Irezumi is available with English subtitles on UK R2 DVD from Yume Pictures

Tattoo sequence from the film:

 

Red Angel (赤い天使, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

_1_image_size_900_xRed Angel (赤い天使, Akai Tenshi) sees Masumura returning directly to the theme of the war, and particularly to the early days of the Manchurian campaign. Himself a war veteran (though of a slightly later period), Masumura knew first hand the sheer horror of warfare and with this particular film wanted to convey not just the mangled bodies, blood and destruction that warfare brings about but the secondary effects it has on the psyche of all those connected with it.

The story begins as idealistic young nurse Sakura Nishi is sent to a military hospital in mainland China as the Japanese army continues its expansion into Manchuria. At this point the situation isn’t desperate, however, Nishi has barely settled into her new work when she’s grabbed by a patient who attempts to assault her. Far from coming to her rescue or raising the alarm, some of the other patients hold her down or guard the door while Nishi is raped. Reporting the incident to her superior the next morning, Nishi finds out she’s the third nurse this has happened to and only now the matron decides to have the patient (whom she brands a malingerer with mental problems) shipped back to the front lines. The soldier even has the audacity to say goodbye before he leaves whilst leering unpleasantly and if that wasn’t enough the friend also remarks that he enjoyed “the show” and is looking forward to “his turn”.

Things only get worse as Nishi is sent to the front line field hospital which is overrun with the dead and dying. The new patients are delivered by the truckload and the resident surgeon, Dr. Okabe, has to make split second decisions about who is most likely to survive and will receive treatment. Operations here generally result in amputations (whether strictly necessary or not) as this is the best way to prevent the onset of gangrene and other life threatening infections. Okabe was a top surgeon before the war but now he wonders if he’s even a doctor at all – let them die or mame them for life, these are his only options. Eventually, Nishi and Okabe develop a bond but in this desperate and dangerous environment, can you really trust anything or anyone or is every action simply part of the final death throws of those facing the ultimate horror of war?

The frontline field hospital is barely distinguishable from a charnel house as limbs are severed with terrifying efficiency by the conflicted Okabe. There’s little anaesthetic or even medication available and the men scream in agony, asking for their mothers until they finally pass out. Nishi retains some of her youthful compassion wanting to do the best for her patients but Okabe is already lost to a kind of fatalistic blankness.He knows the war itself is hopeless and repeatedly exclaims that China is just too big with too many people in it and they’ll make no impact at all here. At home at least he felt as if he could do something positive, save people’s lives, but here even if he manages to help someone they’ll be sent straight back to fight. They won’t even let the amputees go home for fear that the sight of so many limbless men will damage the nation’s morale.

Okabe, like most of the other men in the film, also has a preoccupation with sex and specifically how these men’s injuries may impact their later quality of life. As for himself, he’s been addicted to morphine for some time which has made him impotent and also places a barrier between himself and his developing relationship with Nishi. Perhaps for this reason he suddenly changes his mind about operating on a patient because it would mean interfering with an area of nerves directly related to sexual arousal and with so little time he’s worried it may be botched and ruin the man’s life so, as it’s likely he may survive without the surgery, he opts to leave it to the more capable hands of a homeland surgeon at a later date. Similarly, a sympathetic patient of Nishi’s who’s lost both of his arms later asks her to provide the “relief” that he is no longer able to supply for himself. Nishi comes to regard this as another of her duties of care and gives the man a few last minutes of comfort. However, this abundance of kindness proves to much for the man and only leaves Nishi feeling even more conflicted than before.

Despite the harshness of the environment, Nishi maintains her youthful and idealistic vision of the world. Okabe cautions her not to get attached to the patients and that the only way through is to view everybody as a stranger, she however refuses. Gradually, Nishi’s love and perseverance reawaken Okabe’s desire for life but in a world as chaotic and fragile as this one all human connections are fleeting and born of the proximity to death.

Red Angel plays out like a horror film full of blood and mangled bodies. Having opened with a series of broken skeletons, the film does not skimp on the macabre imagery and the scenes of buckets full of limbs and corpses being flung from sheets into mass graves are some of the most hauntingly authentic captured on screen. It’s raw and it’s grim, the frankness of its desire to address the murky sexual life of the wartime forces is also surprising from a film made in 1966. Yet there is passion and real connection here too. Throughout it all, Nishi never loses her desire to help or her commitment to love even in the darkest hours. She doesn’t, and cannot, win but her spirit remains unbroken. A harsh look at the animalistic nature of war and its destructive effect on basic human civility, Red Angel is one of the few films to deal with wartime sexuality in a frank way and is still, unfortunately, well ahead of its time.


Red Angel is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from Fantoma and in the UK from Yume Pictures.