Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊, Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)

Toei’s stock in trade through the 1960s had been the ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters set before the war and implicitly in a less corrupt Japan in which jingi could still triumph over the giri/ninjo conflict if at great personal cost to the idealistic hero. By the end of the decade, however, audiences were growing tired of yakuza romanticism particularly in the wake of grittier youth dramas produced by Nikkatsu. Originally conceived as a kind of sequel to Japan Organised Crime Boss, Kinji Fukasaku’s Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊,  Bakuto Gaijin Butai) marks a shift towards the jitsuroku or “true account” trend of the 1970s which would come to dominate the genre following the success of his Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle two years later, employing many of the same techniques from onscreen text to shaky handheld photography but doing so within the confines of moody noir as the hero emerges from a 10-year prison sentence into a very different Japan. 

When Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) gets out, he steps into an empty, windswept street his incongruous zori sandals clashing with his smart suit and sunshades and marking him out as a relic of a bygone era. He’s met only two loyal underlings, his gang apparently now disbanded following the death of his boss who refused to take his advice as regards the big name gang from Tokyo attempting to muscle in to their Yokohama territory. Part of the missing post-war generation, Gunji has no illusions about going straight, wandering into their former HQ now a derelict building and calling the guys, who’ve since moved on to more legitimate occupations, back together. He knows he can’t take on Daitokai with his meagre forces and so settles for extracting from them some compensation money to get out of town, later teaming up with Kudo (Noboru Ando) a similarly orphaned former member of a rival Yokohama gang wiped out by Daitokai, and resolving to relocate to Okinawa where he is convinced the post-war gangster paradise is still very much in existence. 

Okinawa was only “returned” to Japanese sovereignty in 1971, having been governed by the Americans since the end of the war, and of course maintains a large American military presence up to the present day. As such to Gunji, and in a yakuza movie trope which persists right into Takeshi Kitano’s Boiling Point, it exists in a permanent post-war present in which the conditions of the occupation are still very much in play. Gunji knows that he and his guys are products of the post-war era, they cannot adapt to the “new” world of corporatising yakuza in which street brawls and petty thuggery have given way to more sophisticated kinds of organised crime, and so they retreat into an Okinawan time warp, determining to steal turf from under two rival gangs who control between them the ports and the red light district mediated by black market booze from the American military.  

Fukasaku was apparently inspired by Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, intending to make a comment on resistance to American imperialism on the mainland though it has to be said that this is extremely ironic given that Japan is itself a coloniser of the Okinawan islands where there has long been a demand for self-determination and recognition of a distinct identity which has often been subject to oppression in the face of conformist Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the film continues the persistent theme that the chaotic post-war era which has come to a close thanks to rising economic prosperity in the time Gunji was inside is inextricable from the American occupation, implying that Okinawa is in a sense the last frontier and the only viable territory for men like Gunji who, like the melancholy ronin of the Edo era, lack the skills to live in time of peace.  

Nevertheless, modernity is also on its way to Okinawa and where there’s money there are gangsters so as expected Daitokai eventually rear their heads on the island pushing Gunji towards the revenge he didn’t want to take. The Okinawa he inhabits is one of loss and nostalgia, taking up with a sex worker who reminds him of the Okinawan woman who left him when he went to prison and perhaps playing into the slightly complicated political dialogue which positions Gunji as an ironic “migrant worker” salmoning back to Okinawa as many Okinawan youngsters are forced to travel to the mainland for work while the islands themselves remain, it’s implied, mired in poverty and crime economically dependent on the American military. Indeed, the head of the dock gang brokers a deal with Daitokai predicated on the fact that there is plenty of cheap labour available at the harbour. “Good place for a long life” he ironically adds, shortly before all hell breaks loose. Shot with typical Fukasaku immediacy, Sympathy for the Underdog looks forward to jitsuroku nihilism but does so through the prism of film noir cool as its fatalistic hero submits himself to his inexorable destiny.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

“Like hell you’re free” the “hero” of Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Jingi no Hakaba) coolly snaps back in squaring off against a rival gang in a crowded marketplace. Perhaps a familiar scene in the jitsuroku eiga, a genre Fukasaku had helped usher into being and later solidified in the hugely influential Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. A reaction against the increasingly outdated ninkyo eiga and their tales of noble pre-war gangsterdom, the jitsuroku or “true account” movie claimed a higher level of authenticity, inspired by the real lives of notorious gangsters and depicting the chaotic post-war period as it really was, a Graveyard of Honor. 

Based on another true crime novel by Battles Without Honour and Humanity’s Goro Fujita, Graveyard of Honour charts the slow self-implosion of reckless gangster Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari). In keeping with the jitsuroku mould, Fukasaku opens in documentary mode, onscreen text giving us Rikio’s pregnant birthdate of 6th August, 1924 before giving way to the voices of, we assume, real people who actually knew him when he was child. They describe him alternately as shy, an oversensitive crybaby, and an evil genius in waiting who was always different from the others and had a lifelong ambition to become a yakuza. They wonder if it was the chaos of the post-war world which turned him into a “rabid dog” but note that he was in fact just as crazy before the war and after.

A cellmate during his time in juvenile detention recalls that Rikio would often liken himself to a balloon, intending to rise and rise until he burst but his trajectory will be quite the opposite. A mess of contradictions, he repeatedly tells his remarkably understanding boss Kawada (Hajime Hana) that whatever it is he’s done this time it was all for the gang but all he ever does is cause trouble, picking fights with the rival area gangs in an obsessive need for masculine dominance over his surroundings. His trip to juvie was apparently down to getting into a fight defending Kawada’s honour, implying that he was “the sort of kid who genuinely respected his godfather”, yet it’s in transgressing this most important of unwritten yakuza rules that he damns himself. Beaten up as punishment for setting fire to the car of a gang boss he felt slighted him, Rikio is asked for his finger but gets so drunk psyching himself up that he eventually turns on his own side and is exiled from the capital for a decade. 

That gang boss, meanwhile, Nozu (Noboru Ando), is currently running for political office in Japan’s new push towards democracy. He eventually loses but only by a small margin, bearing out that in this extremely difficult post-war environment, the yakuza is still a respected, if perhaps also feared, force providing services which ordinary people are sometimes grateful for in that they provide a buffer against other kinds of threat. Meanwhile, the first of Rikio’s gang raids is undertaken against so called “third country nationals” a dogwhistle euphemism for Zainichi Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, and other citizens from nations colonised by Japan during in its imperialist expansion who entered the country as Japanese citizens but have now been “liberated” only to face further oppression while those like Rikio accuse them of looking down on and taking revenge against the Japanese for the abuse they suffered as imperial subjects. When both sides are arrested a racist policeman allows the yakuza to escape, thanking them for helping him round up all the Chinese businessmen who will now go to jail for illegal gambling allowing the local gangs to seize their turf. 

The greatest irony is, however, that the American occupation forces may be the biggest gang of all, willingly collaborating with Kawada in peddling blackmarket whiskey (amongst other things) from the local base. The yakuza is also in collaboration with the local sex workers who use their connections with American servicemen to facilitate yakuza business. When Rikio starts a fight with a rival gang in a local bar that threatens to spark a war, it’s the Americans who are called in as neutral third party mediator, Nozu being unable to fulfil that role in having an affiliation with Kawada. The Americans, however, merely issue a loudspeaker announcement for the gang members to disperse or face possible arrest, keeping the peace if somewhat hypocritically. 

Rikio, meanwhile, continues to flounder. Exiled from his gang, he becomes addicted to hard drugs and gets a problematic minion of his own, Ozaki (Kunie Tanaka), not to mention contracting tuberculosis. In a particularly morbid moment, he has his own gravestone carved, perhaps detecting that the end is near or at least that an ending is coming for him. In another somewhat inexplicable turn of his life, though a common trope in jitsuroku, he eventually marries the sex worker who fell in love with him after he raped her, presumably touched by his concern after he burned a hole in her tatami mat floor. Wearied by grief and already out of his mind, a final act of nihilistic craziness sees him approach his former boss for the turf and capital to form his own gang, crunching his late wife’s bones as hardened gang members look on in utter disbelief. 

Rikio’s desire for freedom, to be his own boss, is elusive as the red balloon we often see floating away away from him, free in a way he’ll never be. “Don’t these young people respect the code anymore?” Kawada exasperatedly asks on hearing that Rikio has broken the terms of his exile and returned only a year into his sentence. But Rikio’s tragedy may in a sense be that he understood the code too well. On the side of his tombstone he writes the word “jingi”, honour and humanity, full in the knowledge that such concepts in which he seems to have believed no longer exist in the cruel and chaotic post-war world which forces even true believers to betray themselves in a desperate bid for survival. “We all live by a code” his friend echoes, “there’s just no way around the rules”. 

A case of printing the legend, Fukasaku’s take on the life of Rikio Ishikawa may not quite be the “true account” it claims but is in its own strange way a tale of frustrated gangster nobility, a cry baby’s failure to become the man he wanted to be in the complicated post-war landscape. Capturing the confusion of the era through frantic, handheld camera Fukasaku nevertheless takes a turn for the melancholy and mediative in his shifts to sepia, the listless vacant look of a drugged up Rikio somehow standing in for the nihilistic emptiness of a life lived in honour’s graveyard. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

A True Story of the Private Ginza Police (実録・私設銀座警察, Junya Sato, 1973)

By the early 1970s the ninkyo eiga (pre-war tales of noble yakuza) had begun to fall from favour. Modern audiences were perhaps unconvinced by the romanticism of the honourable gangster caught between personal loyalty and his inner humanity, real life thugs are rarely so high minded after all. The cinema industry may have been in decline, but the consumerist revolution was well underway, the economic miracle was nearing completion, and there was perhaps a readiness to reckon with the recent past from a position of relative safety. The jitsuroku eiga did just that, providing a more “realistic” depiction of the yakuza life based on the recollections of real life gangsters and incorporating the aesthetics of reportage with the use of stock footage, newspaper montage, narratorial voiceover, and high impact text recording the names of characters along with the times of their deaths. 

Released in the same year as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity which has perhaps become the jitsuroku archetype, Junya Sato’s A True Story of The Private Ginza Police (実録・私設銀座警察, Jitsuroku: Shisetsu Ginza Keisatsu) paints an even bleaker picture of the immediate post-war era as one in which chaos and inhumanity rule. The pre-credits sequence follows demobbed soldier Watarai (Tsunehiko Watase) who finds himself in a bombed out warehouse where a woman is drinking around an open fire with a US serviceman. Standing motionless he stares at an upper balcony where another woman is having sex with a black GI. It seems this woman is known to him, perhaps his wife or in any case a woman he thought he was coming back to. She is not overjoyed to see him, breaking down in tears while he spots a baby girl crying in the corner who also happens to be black. Unthinkably he takes the child and throws her into a flooded area of the floor below, chasing the mother when she goes after the baby, strangling and then bludgeoning her to death with a rock. 

All of this has happened in the first five minutes. There will be no heroism here, no noble act of resistance only shame and desperation. These are men brutalised by war who’ve come home to a land in ruins where the enemy is now in charge, ruling their streets and sleeping with their women. They are humiliated and resentful, many of them still in uniform likely because they simply have no other clothes. Sato introduces us to the later gang members in turn beginning with a scene which echoes those of the Battles Without Honour series as Iketani (Noboru Ando) is chased and beaten by an angry mob in the chaos of the marketplace after being accused of stealing. Masaru (Tatsuo Umemiya) meanwhile is beaten by GIs who come to the rescue of a sex worker he tries to rape, offended when she tells him she doesn’t go with Japanese customers dismissing him as “just another defeated soldier”. Iwashita (Hideo Murota) uses his service revolver to commit an armed robbery to get money to gamble. Only the gang’s later leader, Usami (Ryoji Hayama), is introduced without a wartime record, named only as a pre-war gangster. The gang is forged when they meet by chance in a gambling den and bond over a grenade, mounting a military operation against the Korean street gang who hassled Iketani by bombing their HQ. 

A few months later they’ve become the “Private Ginza Police Force” of the title, now all in smart suits, loud shirts, and sunshades. They have their eyes set on ruling the area, taking down rival gangsters the Nakane brothers through cunning and trickery, turning an underling by threatening his family. But there is no honour among thieves and the gang is only a temporary arrangement intended to last only as long it’s useful. Iketani goes his own way, starting a small business running black market goods from China, bribing the police to turn a blind eye while Usami runs a conventional protection scam targeting the Chinese owner of a cabaret bar, Fukuyama (Asao Uchida), run as a front for black market smuggling. The problems start when Iketani learns that Fukuyama has been colluding with a government accountant to misappropriate money intended to be used for subsidies. 

This world is infinitely corrupt, from the easily bribed policemen to the civil servants out for all they can get and those who merely make use of them like Fukuyama and Iketani. While the guys get rich opening gambling clubs in Ginza, a wide scale famine creates a shantytown of starving poor at Ueno station where six die per day from hunger. Iketani is in someways the “noble” thug, he looks after his guys and pays attention to their lives, perhaps even claiming that his black market activities are a public service but it’s still every man for himself and if he’s assuming post-war chaos is on its way out he is sadly mistaken. Having got him hopped up on heroine and used him as a ghostly assassin, the gang jokingly refer to Watarai as a zombie, somehow surviving every bizarre death experience that comes his way including being buried alive, but they are walking dead too, soulless men who left their humanity on the battlefield. Fearing the game may be up, Masaru suggests one last hurrah blowing their ill-gotten gains on sake and women. “I’ll show you how rape is done,” Usami deliriously exclaims”, “how we used to do it on the continental front.” Meanwhile, Masaru throws notes all around the room screaming “Rejoice! There will be no tomorrow” sending all into a Bacchanalian frenzy as they cram as much cash as they can grab inside what little clothing they still have on.

All moody, anarchic jazz score and canted angles, Sato’s post-war Tokyo is a world of constant anxiety, a maddening no man’s land of fire and rubble inhabited by ghosts of men who died long ago for whom the war never ended. In true jitsuroku fashion, the picture ends on a note of fatalistic nihilism, the screen filled with red as the narrator cooly informs us what became of our heroes as they find themselves consumed by the futility of their lives of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The House of Hanging (病院坂の首縊りの家, Kon Ichikawa, 1979)

Unlike many directors of his generation who either shifted into television or saw their careers stall, Kon Ichikawa was able to continue working throughout the difficult 70s and 80s precisely because he was less averse to taking on commercial projects such as 1976’s The Inugami Family, an ensemble mystery adapted from the bestselling book by Seishi Yokomizo and starring his famed detective Kosuke Kindaichi. The film proved an unexpected hit, an early success for Haruki Kadokawa’s new multimedia marketing model which would allow him to dominate cinema screens throughout the bubble era, and spawned a series of Kindaichi adaptations produced for Toho boasting a host of A-list stars. By 1979, however, the age of the prestige country house mystery was perhaps coming to a close and The House of Hanging (病院坂の首縊りの家, Byoinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie) would be the last in the cycle of movies starring Koji Ishizaka who would eventually return to the role in Ichikawa’s 2006 remake of the original Inugami Family. 

Set quite specifically in 1951 (Showa 26), House of Hanging is among the more complex of Kindaichi’s cases and rests not on war trauma, which is only a background presence in the present venality of the post-war society, but on the decline of a once noble house ruined, as we find out, through the legacy of sexual immorality and abuse. For the moment, however, Kindaichi gets roped into the mystery after visiting an author friend (played by Seishi Yokomizo himself in a cameo) who recommends a photo studio he could visit in order to get a picture taken for his passport as he plans to travel to America. The photographer, Naokichi (Koji Shimizu), takes on an odd job from a strange young woman who asks them to take wedding photos of her sister but abruptly leaves explaining she’ll send a car later to bring them to an undisclosed location. That turns out to be the bombed-out former home of the Hogen family who own the local hospital. Escorted by a creepy young man, Naokichi finds himself in front of a traditional gold screen backdrop but feels uncomfortable because the bride does not seem to be very present and he worries that perhaps she’s been drugged and something untoward may have been going on. He shows the photo to Kindaichi for advice and is later called back to the same location to discover the severed head of the groom hanging from a ceiling light.  

In slightly comedic fashion, the circumstances of the case are so confusing that they have even Kindaichi admitting that he doesn’t quite follow while his temporary sidekick, photographer’s apprentice Mokutaro (Masao Kusakari), proudly holds up a chart he’s made to help keep track. Though the why is in this case more important than it might usually be, it boils down to the same old problem of buried secrets and past shame. We learn that the Hogen family is descended from a line of prominent doctors, though the family tree is complicated because it appears many of the sons of previous generations had illegitimate children, some of whom were later adopted or married to other adopted children in a quasi-incestuous union. With no one quite sure whose children are whose, incest appears to be the original sin which condemns the family, though as we later realise it’s another kind of abuse which sets the present events in motion.

The murdered man, Toshio (Teruhiko Aoi), was apparently part of travelling jazz band earning their living playing on American bases (the photographer also has a sideline in blackmarket army surplus). Aside from the original sin that connects the murders with melancholy fatalism, the additional victims damn themselves through their amoral greed, foolishly engaging in blackmail in the hope of improving their circumstances. Nevertheless, the sin remains the same, the theory being that Toshio was murdered by missing sister Koyuki who killed him in order to escape his inappropriate romantic obsession with her. The additional complication is that Koyuki looks near identical to Yukari (Junko Sakurada), daughter of the Hogen family, connecting the crime with the traumatic events of some years’ previously which led to the cottage becoming known as the “house of hanging” when the body of a young woman was found there having taken her own life. 

As in many of the other Kindaichi mysteries, the detective has only sympathy for those caught up in this complicated murder plot, many of whom are also victims acting simply to protect themselves ironically enough from the past trauma that has in a sense led to this sorry turn of events. Justice, in the end, takes care of itself though Kindaichi will also do his bit to protect those in need acting from a place of moral compassion rather than judicial censure. This final instalment in the Kindaichi cycle has slightly lower production values and a much less starry ensemble but sees Ichikawa adding a few idiosyncratic touches such as his fast, multi-angle cuts to a single person’s speech and a brief theatrical reconstruction sequence, while making time for the return of bumbling inspector Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and the ironic comedy the series is known for. “Old things pass, that’s when new things are born” Yokomizo sagely advises in his cameo, Kindaichi apparently taking his leave from a corrupted post-war Japan for the bright lights of San Francisco, perhaps never to return. 


Original trailers (no subtitles)

The End of the Track (跑道終點, Mou Tun-Fei, 1970)

“It’s too dark in there, I can’t see the end” the hero of Mou Tun-fei’s The End of the Track (跑道終點, Pǎodào Zhōngdiǎn) complains though in the end he’ll find himself venturing into the darkness all alone. Like many of his contemporaries, Mou had come to Taiwan from the Mainland as a child during the Chinese Civil War but eventually made only two features on the island spending the bulk of his career working in exploitation cinema for Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. The second of his two Taiwanese movies neither of which were ever given a mainstream release, The End of the Track continues in the broadly Neo-realist vein of I Didn’t Dare to Tell You while venturing towards the expressionistic in its innovative use of rhythmic editing and sound design to mimic the hero’s sense of confusion and anxiety in an oppressively authoritarian society. 

A middle-class boy, Hsiao-Tung (Chen Da-Wei) is best friends with Yung-Sheng (Tsai Tu-Chuen) whose parents operate a small noodle cart. Despite the class disparity between them, the boys are inseparable spending their time skinny-dipping at local beaches, play fighting, or exploring a disused mine they regard as their place joking about the possibilities of hidden gold. Tragedy strikes however when Hsiao-Tung gets bad vibes about venturing into the mine and suggests they head back to school to engage in a mutual “race”, he with his abacus and Yung-Sheng on the track. Shortly after Hsiao-Tung brings up the fact another boy has called them “queer” which they both laugh off with an intention to beat him up they later think better of because of his pimples, Yung-Sheng begins to tire but thanks to Hsiao-Tung’s encouragement continues to run until finally collapsing in his arms and thereafter passing away. 

The homoerotic undertones of the intense friendship between the two boys have been posited as a possible reason the film was not passed for release, and there is certainly something in the fact that Yung-Sheng dies seconds after the word “queer” is uttered though the underlying subtext seems to be bound up more with their class disparity than with the repression of their latent sexual desire. Academically gifted and from a middle-class family, Hsiao-Tung seems primed for conventional success in a rapidly developing economy while Yung-Sheng whose potential lies in his physicality will most likely be left behind. Hsiao-Tung’s attempt to push him beyond his limit eventually leads to his death in his inability to outrun the restrictions placed on him by his society. The two boys have been on different tracks all along, their paths set to diverge even as they fight desperately to maintain their friendship.

In the depths of his guilt feeling that he hastened Yung-Sheng towards his death in failing to recognise his distress, Hsiao-Tung attempts to atone by helping out at his parents’ noodle stand hoping to make his dream of opening a physical store a reality. Yet while his efforts eventually earn him acceptance from the Lees, the conclusion he comes to is that he cannot take his friend’s place or exchange his life for Yung-Sheng’s. He cannot change “track” to become a noodle stall owner’s son, but neither can he reconcile himself to the petty conservatism that defines the lives of his respectable middle-class parents, angrily throwing back at them the instructions given to children in order to become “model citizens” that they should work hard and mind their own business as his father berates him for his bad grades encouraging him to prioritise himself before others so that he might be of more use to society in the future. Hsiao-Tung finds himself bitterly remarking that Yung-Sheng’s death was then his own fault, reacting to the selfish individualism of an authoritarian society which tells him that his intense grief for his friend is wrong and that care and compassion for others is an inappropriate waste of potential. 

Continuing to visit his friend’s grave, Hsiao-Tung remains lost recalling the many conversations they had in which they were torn in their relationships with their parents feeling as if they ought to obey but also that there were times they desired their own freedom. “Everything is so changeable” he complains, “what’s right and wrong in this world all depends on the time, place and people.” He tells us that he doesn’t want to figure it out anyway, but claims to know now what’s going on coming to an understanding of himself as he re-contemplates the cave less afraid to face the darkness of adulthood as he ventures forth all alone in search of an ending.  


The End of the Track streamed as part of Electric Shadows.

Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Wang Shuchen & Yan Dingxian & Xu Jingda, 1979)

Chinese animation had entered a golden age in the mid-1950s. That however came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Cultural Revolution which saw most studios shut down and many cartoons banned for insufficiently reflecting socialist values or like Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven having subversively seditious themes. Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Nézha Nào Hǎi), released in 1979, was the first feature completed by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio when production resumed following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like Havoc in Heaven, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is also inspired by classic Chinese mythology and features a rebellious hero standing up to oppression in defence of ordinary people at the mercy of corrupt authority. 

As in the classic legend, General Li’s wife has been pregnant for three years only to give birth to a weird fleshy egg that he splits with his sword revealing a lotus flower from which emerges a strange child already capable of walking and talking though little more than an inch high. Luckily, a wise sage soon arrives describing himself as “only an old man who likes to fight for justice and joke around”, and gives Nezha a pill that allows him to grow to a more normal height for a child of around seven. Master Taiyi also gifts him a scarf and golden ring before telling him to visit the Golden Light Cave if he ever runs into trouble. 

Meanwhile, the kingdom is currently experiencing a period of instability because of an ongoing drought caused by the dragon lord of the sea Ao Guang, one of four dragon lords (dare we say a “gang of four”) who just love causing trouble in the mortal realm because they’re awful. To appease Ao Guang, the people have sacrificed a banquet of luxury food, dumping it into the ocean to be conveyed to the Crystal Palace by turtle and stingray minions but all Ao Guang does is complain about the noise of the people protesting before asking an underling to remind General Li that he only wants sacrifices of small children. The sea warrior, however, jumps the gun by snatching one of Nezha’s friends whom he’d allowed to ride his magical deer on the seashore. As expected, Nezha doesn’t like that and gives the sea warrior a telling off though he fails to rescue his friend. Matters quickly escalate as Ao Guang sends his son Ao Bing to sort out Nezha but Nezha kills him in dragon form and strips out his spine to use as a whip so as you can imagine there is a sharp decline in diplomatic relations. 

Though children’s animation in this era was perhaps darker and bloodier the world over, it has to be said that the world of Nezha is especially extreme. Not only does Nezha use his enemy’s spine as a weapon, but his own father later tries to kill him to appease Ao Guang while he himself makes a brutal and unexpected act of self sacrifice in an attempt to protect his realm and his family from his apparently failed attempt to resist Dragon oppression. The problem, however, remains with the corrupt authority of the Dragon Lords who continue to expect child sacrifice as part of a celestial protection scheme. Thinking they’ve won, the Dragon Lords organise a huge feast at the Crystal Palace all while there is discord in the kingdom. Only the unexpected reappearance of Nezha, now complete with his fiery wheels, can challenge their corrupt rule and free the people from their oppression. 

Though less sophisticated in terms of animation style and more highly stylised, influenced both by social realist art and classical ink painting, Nezha like Havoc in Heaven also makes fantastic use of Peking Opera from the score to the choreography of the battle scenes as Nezha leverages his spear against the swirling Dragon threat. It is also, however, likely to prove disturbing to younger viewers especially in its unexpectedly visceral scene of child suicide not to mention dragon dismemberment and talk of child sacrifice. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that such themes could return so immediately after the end of the Cultural Revolution even if it’s true that Nezha, less mischievous than holding an extreme love of justice, challenges corruption rather than the system as he protects the people from overreaching elites. 


Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

The Long Darkness (忍ぶ川, Kei Kumai, 1972)

Golden age Japanese cinema is generally resistant to the idea of romance as salvation. There may be a romantic happy ending, lovers uniting despite the mounting odds, but their happiness is often overshadowed by the anxieties of the world in which they live. Adapted from the novel by Tetsuo Miura, Kei Kumai’s post-war romance The Long Darkness (忍ぶ川, Shinobugawa) meanwhile insists that it’s love that will save you in the end as its dejected, insecure heroes find the courage to go on living precisely because of the strength and validation they discover in loving and being loved.

The hero, Tetsuro (Go Kato), feels himself to be cursed, overcome with a sense of shame and anxiety because of the dark shadow that hangs over his once prosperous family. His oldest sister committed suicide for love on his sixth birthday, while another sister then took her own life some time later out of guilt for having contributed to her death. His oldest brother whom he describes as sensitive and eccentric disappeared in grief, while the next oldest took a job at a Tokyo lumber yard and supported him as a student but later disgraced the family by running off with money he’d fraudulently accumulated in the name of opening his own company. Tetsuro is convinced that there is something genetically wrong with the family line and is intensely anxious that it will one day consume him too. 

That might be why he’s unexpectedly bashful for a man of 27 in courting the pretty waitress of a local bar, Shino (Komaki Kurihara), whom he first met while celebrating the graduation of some other students after making a belated return to university. Shino too is carrying her own burdens which lead her to feel unworthy of happiness in that she was raised in the red light district and her family, evacuated to rural Tochigi during the war, is now impoverished and living in a shrine. The proprietress at her restaurant has pressured her into an engagement with a prosperous car salesman whom she doesn’t like but feels unable to refuse on the grounds that he will take care of her sick father. The car salesman tries to rape her so she’ll have to marry him which, as her father points out, does not speak well for his character or the prospect of a happy marriage. Her father is clear, he wants his daughter to be happy and in this age a woman’s happiness does largely depend on the man she marries. He tells her to find a man she loves more than life itself and marry him without a moment’s thought. 

The forces which divide them aren’t so much to do with class, politics, money, or custom but with internalised shame and the deeply held belief that they are “bad” people who do not deserve to be happy. “Can I go on living?” Tetsuro’s only remaining sister tearfully asks him, burdened both by her traumatic family history and by a visual impairment that further convinces her she cannot expect to be a part of regular society and has no prospect of a happy future. He almost turns away after noticing her crying but realises that’s what his absent siblings might have done and resolves to behave differently, reforging his his familial bonds with love and compassion in place of the gloominess and futility that had long overshadowed his family home. Just as Shino’s father had anointed Tetsuro a “good person” he could entrust his daughter to, Tetsuro’s sister and mother affirm that Shino too is “good” and her presence brings light and laughter back into their lives after years of lonely suffering. 

“We’ve spent our whole lives worrying about appearances” Tetsuro declares, “it’s time we stop”. Affirming that her new in-laws are also “all good people”, Shino too admits that she realises the “uselessness” of her old life “never saying what I want or don’t want, going along with everything”, liberated by the transcendent power of love that allows her to overcome her fear and insecurity to claim her own agency, the jingling bells of a farmer’s horse cart echoing from below as if in celebration. Shooting in a classic 4:3 monochrome with occasional intertitles and voiceover, Kumai emphasises the literary quality of the tale spanning the rundown lumberyards of post-war Tokyo to the frozen north of Tetsuro’s frosty home but finally argues for the freedom and possibility to be found in the contemporary era by making an active choice for happiness rather than submitting oneself to a fated misery out of misguided obedience to austere and oppressive social codes. “Everyone’s jealous of you” an old woman cackles catching sight of the newly-wed couple on the train to their new life, and you can well understand why. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1979)

The ensemble crime drama was at its zenith in the 1970s which saw a series of starry mysteries dominate the box office for most of the decade. Director Yoshitaro Nomura had long associated himself with the noirish thriller, frequently adapting the work of Seicho Matsumoto and perhaps skewing a little darker than your average drawing room mystery would usually dare. Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, 1979’s Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Haitatsu Sarenai Santsu no Tegami), meanwhile, is adapted not from Matsumoto but from a novel by American crime powerhouse Ellery Queen, Calamity Town, and as such avoids the central topic of wartime corruption which is at the centre of many similarly themed crime dramas. Nevertheless, it paints a complex picture of Japan in the increasingly prosperous late ‘70s in which class distinctions, it seems, prove hard to kill. 

Nomura begins, as he so often does, with a lengthy train journey this time undertaken by the quasi-protagonist, Japanese-American student Bob (Ryo Hikime) who has come to Japan on a research trip for his East Asian studies degree and is travelling from Tokyo where he stayed with a friend to provincial Hagi where he’s to stay with distant relatives, the Karasawas. As we begin to realise, the Karasawas are fabulously wealthy, members of an entrenched upperclass living out in the country. Grumpy patriarch Mitsumasa (Shin Saburi) is the CEO of a bank, and actually not all that welcoming of his visitor though they agree to put him up in an entirely separate house they had built for the impending marriage of daughter Noriko (Komaki Kurihara). Unfortunately, three years previously once the house had been built and the marriage agreed, Noriko’s fiancé Toshiyuki (Takao Kataoka) simply vanished without trace. Heartbroken, Noriko suffered a breakdown and has been living in a depressive state ever since. 

The trouble begins when already disowned oldest daughter Reiko (Mayumi Ogawa) rings her sister to let her know that Toshiyuki has resurfaced, apparently having been living quietly as a fisherman in Hokkaido. Perhaps surprisingly, their reconciliation is speedy. Noriko brings Toshiyuki home, explains the reason for the breakup was that Toshiyuki was uncomfortable with the constraints of her upperclass life, and states that the wedding is back on. Mitsumasa is understandably irate, but agrees to the marriage on the same terms as before. Toshiyuki must join his bank and they have to live in the house he built for them. Despite his earlier aversion, Toshiyuki agrees and the pair are married but on moving his belongings into the house Noriko discovers three disturbing letters hidden in a book each bearing a future date and addressed to Toshiyuki’s younger sister, the first explaining that his wife has been taken ill, the second that her condition continues to deteriorate, and the third that she has passed away. 

All things considered, it is odd that the marriage was agreed so quickly, the family perhaps feeling that Toshiyuki has had a humbling and is willing to submit himself to the feudalistic, patriarchal world of the upper classes in order to escape hardship while knowing that refusing may be the most dangerous thing for Noriko’s precarious mental health. Entirely absent are the usual background checks such families usually run on a prospective son-in-law, and no one seems keen to ask for much detail as to Toshiyuki’s life over the past three years. The class conflicts are however brought to the fore when a brassy young woman turns up and claims to be Toshiyuki’s previously unseen younger sister who for mysterious reasons did not attend the wedding ceremony and has never been introduced to the family. The contrast between the two women could not be more plain, Noriko often appearing in kimono or elegantly attired in the latest fashions, while Tomoko (Keiko Matsuzaka) is a full on modern girl who finds the house stuffy and the company dull but shows no signs of leaving. 

As so often in Japanese mysteries the focus is very much on the how, or in this case the “if”, rather than the who or the why which are in themselves fairly predictable at least to those familiar with the genre. Bob and middle sister Keiko (Ai Kanzaki) who is being pressured into an arranged marriage with a public prosecutor she doesn’t seem to even like but also has not rejected, are perturbed enough by the letters to start investigating but their biggest obstacle it seems is Noriko herself who is at great pains to exonerate her husband from suspicion believing the letters are some kind of dark joke rather than genuine evidence of an imminent attempt on her life even as Toshiyuki’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic and suspicious. 

“Everyone should live the way they like” Bob avows in laughing off a request for life advice, apparently wisdom handed down from his Japanese grandma. That sense of restricted freedoms does indeed seem to be at the heart of the issue, hinting at the changing nature of Japanese society even as it struggles to free itself from the feudal past. Keiko resents being pushed towards the prosector but only ever comes up with excuses, never actively resisting her parents’ attempt to marry her off. Oldest daughter Reiko, meanwhile, was kicked out of the family after eloping with an actor who eventually left her flat and now runs a bar. Keiko may feel she has only these two choices, a marriage such as Noriko’s on her father’s terms only, or a dubious independence which might not suit her in the same way as her infinitely competent sister. Toshiyuki resented placing himself under the patriarchal authority of his father-in-law, a job in his bank, living in a house he built on the property he owns, with no real control over his life. Reiko may well have a point when she eventually tells Mitsumasa that this is all his own fault, a consequence his rigid authoritarianism that insisted on maintaining an outdated ideal of patriarchal control. 

For his part, Mitsumasa is forever keen to emphasise that there are no crimes in his house, resolutely refusing to admit that there are problems within the Karasawa family even while perhaps knowing where the fault may lie. The one mystery which is never solved is why exactly so many women are so in love with Toshiyuki who all things considered is no great catch, a coward who makes a point of disappearing on people rather than deal with unpleasantness only to resent it when his moral cowardice returns to haunt him. He resents the emasculation of being a wealthy man’s son-in-law with its concurrent loss of personal autonomy, but simultaneously refuses to take responsibility for his actions or reject a life of comfort as someone assured both of continued financial security and of a certain place in society. Love destabilises the social order, but seemingly cannot change it leaving only the lovers bruised by their attempts to free themselves from the latent feudalism of the post-war world which continues to promise more than it has to offer. 


Divine Bow (神弓 / 신궁, Im Kwon-taek, 1979)

“From now on we need think only of our children. We can’t pass on shamanism to them. Our children at least should have a bright future” insists a man whose horizons have in one sense been broadened but perhaps in another narrowed following forced immersion in the modern world. A classic “island” film, Im Kwon-taek’s Divine Bow (神弓 / 신궁, Singung) finds a conflicted modern day shamaness reassessing her place in a community which has systemically betrayed her while trying to find a path through the intensity of her grief and sorrow. 

Set almost entirely on the small fishing island of Naro, the film opens with a series of short, static shots of the rainy harbour where an old man sits and strokes his beard wearing traditional Korean dress while a group of seemingly unemployed young men look on listlessly from the boats. It seems the community is in crisis for a number of reasons, the most pressing being a non-existent harvest of fish which they are choosing to attribute to the local shamaness’ refusal to perform the customary rituals. Unmoved by their petitioning, Wangnyeon (Yoon Jeong-hee) advises them to hire her daughter-in-law instead, but for unexplained reasons they only want her, threatening to hire a shaman from a neighbouring island if she continues her policy of non-cooperation. As we will discover, Wangnyeon has her reasons beyond a simple desire for retirement from what is a fairly strenuous job for an ageing woman, but the return of her long absent son Yongban prompts her into a reconsideration of her past and future as well as her place in this community. 

Though the tale is set in the present day, the fishermen are convinced that Wangnyeon’s refusal to conduct the ritual is the reason their harvest has failed, apparently for the first time in 30 years ever since she “retired”. But then they also tell us themselves of more rational reasons they may no longer be able to fish including an oil leak in the surrounding seas and the corrupting influence of larger corporations for which many of them are now reluctantly working. It is precisely this incursion of modernity that has led to all the trouble. Taken off the island, presumably to fulfil his military service, Wangnyeon’s husband Oksu (Kim Hee-ra) observes the modern world during his time in the army and comes to the conclusion that his home culture is backward and superstitious. Hired to perform an important ritual on a neighbouring island for the first time, Wangneyon repeatedly delays the contract to align with her husband’s discharge so he can play drums for her as he always had before. His newfound sophisistication, however, has robbed him of the ability to play. He no longer believes in shamanism and eventually leaves once again to work on a ship in order to one day own a fishing boat of his own. 

“What does a shaman do if not rituals?” Wangnyeon irritatedly asks her husband, in her case the answer apparently being a defiant nothing. Her refusal is part of her resistance to a world that has repeatedly betrayed her. Yet suffering economically temporarily loses her her son who, perhaps unlike his father, returns after a year of travelling more convinced than ever by shamanism if resentful that his mother has not yet relented and resumed her ritual duties. What we realise is that Wangnyeon has grown weary of her complicated place in the island hierarchy, existing to one side of the rest of the community who view her both with mild disdain and fearful awe. A victim of petty island politics, she takes literal aim at the corruption in her society and purifies it with her “divine bow”, mindful of Yongban’s pleas that her rituals are not just for her but for the many people who need to see them performed. 

“Everything, everything, everything is a dream” Wangyeon sings, living perhaps in her own ethereal purgatory, her jagged life story revealed to us in a series of fragmentary flashbacks as she reflects on her present predicament while finally understanding what it is she must do, determining to pick up the divine bow once again and reassume her rightful role as the shamanness. Marking Im’s first collaboration with cinematographer Jung Il-sung, Divine Bow is rich with ethnographic detail exploring this small rock pool of traditional culture on an otherwise moribund island subject to the same petty authoritarian corruptions and ravages of an increasingly capitalistic society as anywhere else. 


Divine Bow streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Eul-hwa (乙火 / 을화, Byun Jang-ho, 1979)

Changing times and karmic retribution conspire against a venal shamaness in Byun Jang-ho’s expressionist take on the often adapted story by conservative writer Kim Dong-ni, Eul-hwa (乙火 / 을화). Finding Korea at a moment of transition, Byun’s adaptation is a tale of tradition vs modernity, indigenous religion vs Western Christianity, nature vs civilisation, and the young vs the old, but it’s also an old-fashioned morality tale in which the sins of greed and arrogance can never be forgiven because there can be no peace or happiness for those who seek to prosper through betrayal. 

During an intense storm, Ok-sun (Kim Ji-mee) is woken by an order from a dream instructing her to dig up the cairn outside her home to free a trapped spirit. Fearful as her young son Young-sul is ill, Ok-sun dutifully does what she’s told and discovers a chest containing what appear to be the instruments of a shaman. Leaving Young-sul alone for the moment, she seeks advice from the local shamaness, Mother Pak-ji (Jeong Ae-ran), who reveals that a well known shaman once lived in her home and that she has been selected by the Holy Mother of Sun-do Mountain to serve her as a shamaness. Though some might find this an imposition at best, Ok-sun is not unwilling but is unable to afford the money involved to mount an initiation ceremony. Luckily, Mother Pak-ji agrees to help, taking her on as a pupil and renaming her “Eul-hwa” after the house in which she lives. Young-sul recovers, and Eul-hwa is fully converted to the life of a “mudang”. 

Eul-hwa is less reluctant than some might be to become a shamaness because she is in a sense already an outcast as the unmarried mother to an illegitimate son, forced out of her home village and living in a small, rundown home on the outskirts of a neighbouring settlement where she struggles to support herself and her child. As someone with supernatural powers she earns herself a degree of freedom otherwise rare as a lone woman from an ordinary family, able to earn good money and in fact be fairly wealthy while maintaining her independence even if that independence might come at a price as it may have done for Mother Pak-ji who remains single and is now in a vulnerable position as she enters old age alone with only her fellow shamans for support.  

As Eul-hwa explains to Bang-dol (Baek Il-seob), a male shaman musician who will later become her husband, she once chose to become the second wife of a wealthy man, perhaps the only means available to her feed her young son and though not unhappy with the arrangement chose independence rather than to stay with his family once he died. In one sense she retains the upper hand in her marriage as the star draw and higher earner, but is also manipulated by her husband towards the taboo transgression of betraying her mentor Mother Pak-ji through the very modern crime of stealing all her business and destroying her ability to support herself. Having become a talented shamaness drunk on her own sense of power and success she becomes cold to those who have been good to her when she was otherwise rejected, cruelly refusing Mother Pak-ji’s pleas to consider her position and thereafter earning her enmity. 

The female solidarity which had enabled the two women to prosper together has been corrupted by male greed, Bang-dol’s ambition mediated through his wife as he convinces her to betray her own “mother” without ever considering that she too may one day be betrayed. In this way it is Mother Pak-ji’s “curse” that overshadows her life and success, but Eul-hwa also finds herself a victim of changing times as modernity begins to encroach on the village. A passing Buddhist monk issues a prophecy to the effect that Young-sul will become a great man, but only if he is not raised by his mother in whose care he will otherwise die. Eul-hwa makes a maternal sacrifice and sends her son away to be educated at the temple, intending to train her daughter Wol-hee to become a “great shaman” though she is mute, only to see him return a decade later having converted to Christianity in the city. “The Jesus demon” is an existential threat to the mudang, one she’s so far managed to mediate by performing exorcisms outside the newly erected church that have convinced most of the villagers to stay away. 

The tragedy is that mother and son are intent on “saving” each other from their respective “demons”, Young-sul now convinced his mother is at the mercy of false idols while she believes him possessed by an evil spirit of the West. As representatives of past and future they cannot co-exist and are incapable of accepting that they each hold differing beliefs. Yet even aside from the church we can see modernity already encroaching on the village, uniformed police officers arriving to make an arrest, representatives of an urban authority dressed much like Young-sul in his Westernised student uniform complete with cap and cape. The mudang’s days are numbered, even if she were not about to face the same fate as Mother Pak-ji in being betrayed by her child. 

Cutting to the rhythms of ritual, Byun conjures an atmosphere of fatalistic dread from the expressionist opening with its crashing waves and flashes of lightning to the repeated fire motifs which foreshadow the famous ending and the ominous sound of gloomy church bells clashing with the angry cries of birds. In the clash of cultures, however, modernity will always triumph in the end leaving the present alone to wander in the wreckage of a world consumed by violent conflagration. 


Eul-hwa streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.