Nephew of Sadao Yamanaka, Tai Kato joined Toho as an apprentice in 1937, returning after the war training under Daisuke Ito and Akira Kurosawa, but later moved to Toei where he became closely associated with ninkyo eiga yakuza movies and jidaigeki. From the mid-1960s, however, he made several movies at Shochiku which had, it has to be said, a house style that was almost the polar opposite with a clear focus on polite, family-friendly melodrama. 1968’s I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Minagoroshi no Reika) meanwhile is a surprisingly dark affair even among the grittier examples of Shochiku’s similarly themed B-movie thrillers, an avant-garde noir and proto-giallo in which the fugitive, serial killer antihero sees himself as an agent of divine justice in a hellish and immoral post-war landscape.
Kato opens with a shocking scene of sexualised violence in which a woman is knocked unconscious, stripped, bound with telephone cord, and finally revived, forced to write down the names of four other women before being brutally raped and murdered by a killer whose voice we have not yet heard nor face seen. The police are mystified, attributing the woman’s death to the fact that she had worked as a bar hostess and maybe things like this are an occupational hazard for women who are surrounded by too many men. Her landlord, however, laments that hers is the second death to occur recently after a laundry boy threw himself off the roof. All things considered, he wishes the boy had picked somewhere else.
The police have no reason to connect the two unfortunate events and so remain largely clueless, but we gradually become aware that the killer, Kawashima (Makoto Sato), is targeting the women because he holds them directly responsible for the boy’s death. He is the inspector that calls, avenging the death of this young man who, he has learned, like him hailed from Hokkaido and had come to the city at only 16 years old to earn money to support his family, saving almost all of his wages in the hope of opening a shop. Kato shows us scenes of a city under construction, a land of girders casting shadows on the ground like prison bars trapping men like these who are building the new Japan but will be discarded as soon the job is done and their labour no longer so much in demand. Kawashima has another reason for living like this, but he perhaps admires something pure and innocent in the desire of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune so that he might take care of those he loves and that this world betrayed that desire is something he finds impossible to forgive.
The five women have apparently done quite well for themselves, despite the fact that more than one of them has worked on the fringes of the sex trade. Their treatment of the boy is attributed to their boredom in the relative ease of their lives as monied women with little to occupy their time other than getting their kicks abusing the less powerful. It’s an uncomfortable role reversal that places women in a position of power and then sees them abuse it in the exact same way that men do, slinging back the same pithy justifications that men offer for sexual violence while the police meditate on the relative connotations of rape when the word is applied to a man at the hands of women rather than the other way around. If it were their sister, they could understand the desire to kill the men who had done it but a part of them struggles to see that a teenage boy may still find unwanted sexual contact a traumatic enough experience to push him towards suicide.
Yet Kawshima appears to have no real connection to the boy, and his “revenge” is also a product of his misogyny in that as we later learn he also has reason to feel betrayed by womanhood and is already on the run from previous crime. Nevertheless, he is drawn to the innocent Haruko (Chieko Baisho), a girl-next-door type who works in his favourite ramen restaurant, only to discover that she too has a dark and violent past which may be why she seems to be drawn to him. He struggles with himself, but believes that he is taking revenge on a brutalising society defined by violence and abuse while sublimating his sense of emasculation in the face of women’s growing social and sexual freedoms in the post-war era. It is perhaps the post-war era which is cast as the major villain, one of the women later escaping her protective custody to dance furiously a hip nightclub only to return to the scene of her crime while refusing to see that she has done anything so “wrong” as to merit this kind of persecution.
“The cycle of divine punishment must be fulfilled” Kawashima finally laments, acknowledging his grim place within this series of post-war tragedies. Surprisingly avant-garde, Kato experiments with blown out negatives, extreme close up, and deep focus mixed with his characteristic low angle composition to add to the sense of noirish dread which paints the modern city as an inescapable hellscape while even the romantic place of refuge shared by Kawashima and Haruko is a gothic moorland lit by moonlight and filled with eerie mist. Lurid and sweaty, the film has a grim sense of humour even in its oppressive atmosphere with a running gag devoted to the lead investigator’s painful case of piles, but its overriding fatalism nevertheless offers the hero a sense of redemption if only in acceptance of his narrative destiny.