Latitude Zero (緯度0大作戦, Ishiro Honda, 1969)

latitude zero1969. Man lands on the moon, the cold war is in full swing, and Star Trek is cancelled prompting a mass write-in campaign from devoted sci-fi enthusiasts across America. The tide was also turning politically as the aforementioned TV series’ utopianism came to gain ground among liberal thinking people who rose up to oppose war, racial discrimination and sexism. It was in this year that Godzilla creators Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya brought their talents to America with a very contemporary take on science fiction in Latitude Zero (緯度0大作戦, Ido Zero Daisakusen). Starring Hollywood legend Joseph Cotten, Latitude Zero gives Jules Verne a new look for the ‘60s filled with solid gold hotpants and bulletproof spray tan.

International scientists Dr. Ken Tashiro (Akira Takarada) and Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada) are in the middle of a bathysphere alongside American reporter Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckel) when a volcano suddenly erupts. Rescued by a passing sub, the team soon notice there’s something very strange about this serendipitous crew. To begin with, the doctor treating their injuries is a svelte young blonde woman in a skimpy outfit, and then there’s that plaque on the bridge which says the boat was launched in 1805, and why won’t Captain McKenzie (Joseph Cotten) tell them which country this very expensive looking rig belongs to?

All these questions will be answered in due course but the major revelation concerns the futuristic city of Latitude Zero – a secret underwater world where top scientists and other skilled people who have been “disappeared” from the surface conduct important research free of political constraints. Despite the peace and love atmosphere, Latitude Zero is not without its villains as proved by exile Malec (Cesar Romero), McKenzie’s arch nemesis who has set out to kidnap a prominent Japanese scientist before he can make his way to the city. Malec is hellbent on taking McKenzie down and has drifted over to the scientific dark side by conducting brain transplant experiments to create his own army of bizarre creatures to do his bidding.

There may be a cold war going on but Latitude Zero is more or less neutral when it comes to its position on science and scientists though when push comes to shove it leans towards negative. Malec, played by Batman’s Ceasar Romero, is a moustache twirling villain of the highest order who will even stoop to transplanting the brain of his own lieutenant into a lion as well as making other strange creatures like giant rats and weird bats to try and destroy McKenzie’s enterprises yet those enterprises are the entire reason for the existence of Latitude Zero. Towards the end of the adventure, Lawton points out to McKenzie that his world is essentially selfish, stealing all the best minds for his underwater paradise and secreting their discoveries away rather than sharing them with the the surface. McKenzie sympathises but deflects his criticism with the justification that mankind is currently too volatile and divided to take part in his project, though they do try to drip feed the essentials all in the name of making the world a better place.

Lawton further shows himself up by trying to loot Latitude Zero which has an abundant supply of diamonds it barely knows what to do with. What is does with them is experiment – jewels are worthless baubles here, the value of the diamonds is purely practical. Similarly, they have a taste for solid gold clothing which might explain the skimpiness of their outfits were it not for the fact the precious metal holds no other value than being stylish.

Unlike other subsequent US co-productions such as Fukasaku’s Virus, Latitude Zero was filmed in English with the Japanese cast providing their own English language dialogue (with various degrees of success). A second cut running fifteen minutes shorter was later prepared for the Japanese market with the entire cast dubbed back into Japanese and dropping McKenzie’s often unnecessary voice over. Given a relatively high budget, Honda and Tsuburaya once again bring their unique production design to life with intricate model shots and analogue effects complete with a selection of furry monsters even if they’re operating on a level that owes much more to Star Trek than Godzilla. It’s all very silly and extremely camp but good clean fun with a slight layer of political subversiveness which displays a noted ambivalence to the neutrality of utopia even whilst hoping for the day when the world will finally be mature enough to pursue its scientific destiny without polarised politics getting in the way.


Original trailer (English version)

The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1969)

haunted castle 1969These days, cats may have almost become a cute character cliche in Japanese pop culture, but back in the olden days they weren’t always so well regarded. An often overlooked subset of the classic Japanese horror movie is the ghost cat film in which a demonic, shapeshifting cat spirit takes a beautiful female form to wreak havoc on the weak and venal human race. The most well known example is Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko though the genre runs through everything from ridiculous schlock to high grade art film.

Daiei’s 1969 genre effort The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Hiroku Kaibyoden) sits towards the high art end but remains firmly within the realm of entertainment. Displaying the high production values the studio was known for, the film paints its 18th century tale with a plush opulence and makes fantastic use of the nighttime gloom to evoke a gothic, supernatural atmosphere which is at least extremely unsettling even if it stops short of actual terror.

As for the story, it’s another take on the classic Japanese supernatural tale The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima. Events are set in motion when blind monk Mataichirou and his sister Sayo run into their lord whilst out walking one day. Lord Tangonokami Nabeshima takes a liking to Sayo and wants to add her to his collection of concubines. He despatches an underling to ask Mataichirou about it, but Mataichirou understandably refuses, offering the excuse that Sayo is “too awkward” and the the lord wouldn’t find her very good company anyway. Nabeshima is angry at this affront to his authority and summons Mataichirou for their regular round of Go where Mataichirou once more resolutely refuses to surrender his sister. When Mataichirou realises Nabeshima and his aid are cheating, the pair argue and Nabeshima loses his temper and kills him.

This is a big problem for several reasons so they pretend not to know anything about it and dump the body in a well. Fearing discovery, they also banish the sister, Sayo, but she opts to commit harakiri and begs the weird cat that had been attached to her brother to drink her blood and become a demon to enact their revenge! Soon enough, two maids are dead in the Nabeshima household and the lord’s favourite mistress is refusing to take baths and has developed a liking for fish which she previously could not stand….

Ghost cats mostly come at night (mostly) so the majority of the film takes place in the intense darkness of the pre-electric world. The cat begins to stalk its prey quietly with only the tinkling of its ghostly bell and then tiny, bloody paw prints left as evidence of a supernatural killing. Tanaka opts for a floating, dreamlike shooting style weaving a degree of hypnotic confusion into the proceedings which also manage to keep up a high level of tension as the demonic cat spirit goes about its bloody business.

Of course, the moral of the tale is to live your life in a more altruistic manner – stop trying to take things which aren’t yours, respect the views of others, and don’t lose your temper and rashly kill people for no reason at all. All good advice there. The “hero” of the story is the more sympathetic vassal, Komori, who is trying to broker a satisfactory outcome of this complex situation right from the start, but finds himself frustrated as the servant of an unreasonable lord whose will cannot be restrained. Komori can’t avoid the supernatural retribution but manages to ride the waves well enough to ensure a morally satisfying ending where corruption is exposed and the land returned to its rightful owners rather than remaining in the hands of a lascivious usurper. It’s an old story, but a good one, and is presented with such a degree of sophistication to make The Haunted Castle one of the better horror offerings of the late ‘60s.


 

Outlaw: Kill! (無頼 殺せ, Keiichi Ozawa, 1969)

outlaw killGoro, Goro, Goro – will you never learn? Maybe he will because this is the last film in the series! Appropriately titled Outlaw: Kill! (無頼 殺せ, Burai Barase), this sixth and final film in the Outlaw series sees Goro once again moving to a new town and trying to lead a more honest life but unfortunately he’s wandered in at just the wrong time because a local gang boss has just been sent to prison after defeating a group of assassins leaving a dangerous vacuum and leading, therefore, to the outbreak of a turf war.

Goro’s first fight is with a gang of thugs who were hassling an elevator girl in a department store – the girl being Yumiko, played by Chieko Matsubara, becoming Goro’s love interest once again. Luckily or unluckily, Goro runs into an old friend from his prison days who is also one of the gang bosses involved in the turf war. After his friend promises him that he will incur no debt from him and he won’t get in the way of Goro finding a proper job, Goro agrees to move in with him and his wife – who only turns out to be the sister of elevator girl Yumiko which is not even the most predictable coincidence in this whole saga.

Despite his protestations about not getting involved in local gang politics, Goro’s attachment to his friend and his growing family means he can’t altogether avoid getting pulled back into the messy gangster world of violence and betrayal. Things end up going just about as well as they ever do and Goro is only able to clean up some of the chaos in this disputed area by creating even more counter chaos.

The format is becoming tired by the time we reach Outlaw: Kill! and it’s true that the film revisits exactly the same narrative beats as all of the other films, though it does so in a fairly exciting fashion. That said, there’s much less nuance here – we get that Goro sees himself as a lonely drifter who doesn’t deserve happiness, a self hating yakuza who is engaged on a long and hopeless walk to the grave. Perhaps it’s just because everyone’s getting older, but now it’s less about never having had a home or a proper place to belong than it is about the (im)possibility of building your own family. Goro’s friend, Moriyama, is married and going to be a father which Goro thinks is a nice thing, broadly, but also worries about what is means for a yakuza who may be killed at any second to have a wife and a child dependent upon him. Goro, being the noble sort of fellow he is, has decided that romance is irresponsible if you’ve already pledged your heart to the outlaw’s creed.

Once again directed by Keiichi Ozawa, Kill! sticks to the formula of his other offerings in the Outlaw series but opens with stylish series of colour filter stills rather than the action filled title sequences of the previous films. The fight scenes are exciting and actually quite bloody but perhaps not as innovative as some of those seen earlier in the series. In an interesting mix of old and new, Ozawa stages his final fight in a club but this time it’s a very contemporary night spot filled with guys and girls dressed in stylish, colourful outfits whilst a hippyish rock band play a cover of a famous pre-war ballad. Swooping around, notably shooting one sequence through a transparent floor/ceiling, Ozawa seems to be pushing forward more, breaking with the traditional ‘50s aesthetic for a new and crazy, youth counter-culture inspired moment which looks forward to the Stray Cat Rock series much more than back to the now ancient ninkyo eiga or sun tribe films.

Maybe Goro’s had his day too as Kill! ends in pretty much the same way as all but one of the previous films with Goro staggering away from the destruction he has wrought into a barren and snow filled landscape. Doomed to be a wanderer forevermore, Goro is a relic of the cruel post-war world which never gave him a break but his story’s now old hat. A man without a home is left forever alone, marching onward to the next confrontation or the final relief of a lonely grave.


Outlaw: Kill! is the six and final ( 😦 ) film included in Arrow Films’ Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection box set (which is region free on DVD and blu-ray and available from both US and UK).

English subtitled original theatrical trailer:

Black Rose Mansion (黒薔薇の館, Kinji Fukasaku, 1969)

3187_largeThose who only know Kinji Fukasaku for his gangster epics are in for quite a shock when they sit down to watch Black Rose Mansion (黒薔薇の館, Kuro Bara no Yakata). A European inflected, camp noir gothic melodrama, Black Rose Mansion couldn’t be further from the director’s later worlds of lowlife crime and post-war inequality. This time the basis for the story is provided by Yukio Mishima, a conflicted Japanese novelist, artist and activist who may now be remembered more for the way he died than the work he created, which goes someway to explaining the film’s Art Nouveau decadence. Strange, camp and oddly fascinating Black Rose Mansion proves an enjoyably unpredictable effort from its versatile director.

The sense of foreboding sets in right from the beginning as Kyohei, club owner and family patriarch, narrates a scene draped in a harsh red filter in which the lynchpin of the entire film, Ryuko, disembarks from a boat onto a jetty to meet him. He warns us that the sight of her was the “calm before the storm”, already anticipating the tumultuous events which are to follow. Having spotted her in a club in Yokohama, Kyohei poached Ryuko to work at his private members bar as a cabaret artist where she duly fascinates the customers seemingly knowing how to appeal to each of their own particular tastes in turn. A short time later, other suitors from the other bars begin to turn up but Ryuko refuses to recognise any of them. She is waiting for true love and believes the black rose she carries will turn red once she meets her prince charming. After a while she decides to move on but Kyohei convinces her to stay and maintain her “illusion” of perfect love rather than continually bursting its bubble, and so the two become a couple. However, when Kyohei’s wayward son Wataru returns and also becomes infatuated with Ryuko, a new chain of tragic events ensues…

Just to add fuel to the fire, the role of Ryuko is played by female impersonator Akihiro Miwa (formerly Akihiro Maruyama) who had also worked with Fukasaku on the notorious Black Lizard. Ryuko is mysterious, exotic maybe, etherial – certainly. She seems to shed identities only to pick up new ones perfectly tailored to whichever man she’s courting hoping each is the one who will turn her black rose red. Each of the previous suitors has failed to make her flower bloom and has so been discounted – erased from her memory whether willingly or unconsciously. When one of them is killed in front of her and her rose splashed with blood turning temporarily red, only then does she look on him lovingly. She loves them as they die but not before or after. Has each of these lonely, “different” men fallen for a siren call from the angel of death, or is Ryuko just another unlucky femme fatale who always ends up with the crazies?

Camp to the max and full of that rich gothic melodrama that you usually only find in a late Victorian novel, Black Rose Mansion is undoubtedly too much of a stretch for viewers who prefer their thrills on the more conventional side. However, there is something genuine underlying all the artifice in the story of obsessive, all encompassing love which develops into a dangerous sickness akin to madness. Ryuko is an unsolvable mystery which drives men out of their minds though they never seem to probe very far into her soul preferring to conquer her body. Only Kyohei who, at the end, is cured of his obsession with her, recognises that Ryuko is a woman who only exists in men’s minds and what you think of as love is really only lust like an unquenchable thirst.

Fukasaku attempts to invert classic gothic tropes by shooting the whole thing in lurid, brightly coloured decadence. Every time Kyohei thinks back on Ryuko he sees her bathed in red, like a beautiful sunset before a morning storm. Like Kyohei and pretty much everyone else in the picture, we too become enthralled by Ryuko and her uncanny mystery, seduced by her strangeness and etherial quality. Yes, it’s camp to the max and drenched in gothic melodrama but Black Rose Mansion also succeeds in being both fascinatingly intriguing and a whole lot of strange fun at the same time.


Black Rose Mansion is available with English subtitles on R1 US DVD from Chimera and was previously released as part of the Fukasaku Trilogy (alongside Blackmail is My Life and If You Were Young: Rage) by Tartan in the UK.

 

Eros + Massacre (エロス+虐殺, Kiju Yoshida, 1969)

Snapshot-2015-11-17 at 11_12_15 PM-1889818228One of the foremost avant-garde filmmakers of the New Wave era (though he detested this term which, in fairness, is a retrospective and often arbitrary label), Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida has remained largely unseen in the West. Some of this is his own fault – fiercely independent, Yoshida nevertheless found himself working with ATG after leaving Shochiku but the relationship was an unusual one and often far from easy. All but the latest film in Arrow’s Kiju Yoshida boxset, Coup d’Etat, were completed more or less independently and only distributed though ATG and as such not truly “ATG” films. Though it bears many of the hallmarks of a late ‘60s ATG movie, Eros + Massacre (エロス+虐殺, Erosu Purasu Gyakusatsu) is one such effort and the one which helped to make Yoshida’s name even if it was only seen in an abridged version.

Structurally complex, Eros + Massacre mixes the world of the Taisho anarchists, Osugi Sakae and Ito Noe, with the contemporary Tokyo of the sixties through the prism of two modern students who are running a research project into the events surrounding their ultimate assassination during the panic after the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Eiko is a sexually liberated modern woman who engages in casual prostitution and her boyfriend, Wada, is a sexually impotent young man with a traumatic past and habit of playing with fire. The vision we see of the Taisho era is filtered through the perceptions of Eiko and Wada and, in fact, we start to see them as living with us in a real sense as Ito wanders around modern Tokyo, observing the fruits of her struggle and in one notable episode being interviewed by Eiko.

The film exists in two distinct versions – this is less to do with any kind of censorship, either commercial or political, than a legal or possibly moral issue. The fact is, the other of Osugi’s mistresses, Kamichika Ichiko, was still alive at the time the film was completed and had also become a serving politician. Unhappy with her portrayal in the film and unwilling to have a potentially embarrassing event from her previous life dragged back into the spotlight, she threatened to sue and Yoshida voluntarily decided to recut the film to remove many of her scenes as well as renaming the character to distance her from her real life counterpart. The shorter version of the film is the one which helped make Yoshida’s reputation and though nothing in the shorter version is not in the longer one, this version feels a little less “avant-garde” in tone than the intended full cut of the film.

Yoshida often gives way to surreal incidents such as the clash between the Taisho era followers of Osugi and a group of young rugby players tussling over the white wrapped remains of Osugi, the expressionist scene in which the mistress, Itsuko, clutches at a knife hovering in mid air causing the screen to fill with blood raining down from above or the repeated stabbings of Osugi each re-imagined in differing scenarios. His framing is always beautifully idiosyncratic as he makes use of the edges of the frames, disembodying his actors or dividing them with walls and windows. There is no sense of conventional narrative as timelines blur into each other becoming evermore indistinct and the dialogue is often elliptical or poetic rather than offering naturalistic content. Nevertheless, the shorter version retains fewer of these flourishes than are present in the original cut of the film.

Eiko is interested in Osugi because of his free love philosophy rather than any other political aim. Other than their interest in sexual politics, Eiko and Wada do not appear to be particularly politically active in any other way. Osugi’s ideas of total freedom do not even go down very well with his comrades who don’t approve of the way he treats his various women and his disingenuous denial that there is any discord between his band of concubines seems wilfully naive. Osugi’s treatment of the three women in his life – his wife, Yasuko, mistress Itsuko (who is financially supporting both Osugi and his wife despite Osugi’s advocacy of free love insisting on financial independence of all parties), and now his latest lover Noe, is extremely self-centred and unfair. As the first to live in this unorthodox fashion, it’s unsurprising that the arrangement comes in for criticism from all quarters. Yoshida posits that it was Osugi’s free love lifestyle that eventually lead to his shock execution during the chaos following the Great Kanto earthquake as his modern ideals threatened the very idea of the traditional family and ultimately the state itself.

By contrast, Eiko’s modern sexuality appears merely an attempt to ward of her sense of ennui. Where for Osugi sex was a political action (or so he would have it), for Eiko it’s a means of trying and failing to add some kind of meaning to her life. Eiko and Wada are not committed to any kind of rebellious action – they’re simply bored. They literally play with fire without understanding its consequences. Yoshida’s other central tenet is that youth is not beautiful – it is destructive. By implication, Eiko and Wada’s selfish pursuit of personal freedom and the modern commodification of desire is nothing more than willful self destruction.

Yoshida has stated that his primary idea for the film is how to bring about a revolution and to ask the question of what it is that needs to change. Osugi is shown up as a hypocrite whose ideals are imperfect and self centred, though his eventual murder is dictated by his refusal to conform. The fact that he envisioned a different future, wished to live in a different way, was sufficient enough to necessitate his death. The modern couple misuse their own freedom and are willing to watch the world burn just to feel the heat. They are incapable of effecting real social change because their focus is always inwards rather than a dedication to the betterment of all mankind. Confounding, intriguing and beautifully shot Eros + Massacre is far from easy to digest but is an essential entry in the history of Japanese avant-garde cinema.


Available now in the UK as part of Arrow Films’ Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set.

Reviews of the other movies in the set: