Puppets Under Starry Skies (星空のマリオネット, Hojin Hashiura, 1978)

Puppets under starry skies posterThe youth movie had been the populist rebellion against the stately Japanese cinema of the golden age, but many of its representative directors had quickly tired of the restrictive studio system. Some had decamped into the “independent” arena which offered relative artistic freedom if without the resources and financial rewards of the commercial sector. The Art Theatre Guild had provided a valuable outlet for experimental film since it began to shift from distribution of foreign films into production of Japanese language art movies, but paradoxically the early 1970s saw it shift again as the studio’s “arthouse” aims fell by the wayside and more conventional youth films made a gradual return. Puppets Under Starry Skies (星空のマリオネット, Hoshizora no Marionette), the first of three films directed by Hojin Hashiura for ATG (aside from an earlier 16mm independent effort, the only films Hashiura would ever make), is very much a youth movie in the new ATG mould which is to say its tone is one of sadness rather than anger as its protagonists find themselves adrift in the changing 1970s society, unable to find their place in the world their parents have been building for them.

Hideo (Yoichi Miura), leader of small biker gang, is best friends with Hiroshi (Kazuhito Takei) – an effeminate young man from a wealthy family who likes to wear makeup and dress in (slightly) flamboyant outfits. The trouble starts when Hideo picks a fight with a rival gang boss and then charges in for a rematch to avenge his honour only to be set on by thugs, stabbed, and beaten so badly he winds up in hospital for over a week. Humiliated, Hideo loses all his gang member friends with only Hiroshi sticking by him. Later he takes up with a local bar girl, Akemi (Ako), who has a promiscuous past and is already pregnant with another man’s child. Together the three attempt to find a way forward into a more conventional adulthood but struggle to find a place for themselves within a rigidly conformist society which has already rejected them.

Parental disconnection seems to be a recurrent theme in the lives of each of the troubled youngsters. Hideo lost his mother young, not long after they’d moved into the town from the mountains. Never having been able to come to terms with his mother’s death he has a difficult relationship with his father and takes out his frustrations through meaningless violence and male posturing. Akemi too has a difficult family background but this time with a single mother who is a former sex worker turned publican. Working in a local bar (not her mother’s) Akemi is harassed by the customers but is well known for being open to casual sex, suffering a degree of social stigma both because of her liberated attitude and because of her mother’s former profession.

Hiroshi’s problems are perhaps of a different order. From an “elite” family, he feels himself entirely disconnected from normal family life and has been raised in an atmosphere of cold austerity rather than parental love. Hiroshi believes this is partly because he has “bad blood” and is cursed beyond redemption. He is not his father’s biological son but the child of a sperm donor enlisted to ensure an heir for his father’s bloodline. Hiroshi, however, is gay and will not be able fulfil the purpose he was born for, at least not in the way that was expected of him. He is also effeminate, something of which his family do not approve, and feels himself excluded from mainstream society because of his sexual orientation. To combat his feelings of intense alienation, Hiroshi has become a drug user, sniffing glue in order to send himself on psychedelic trips to outer space in which he merges with the deep blue vacuum free of all worldly concerns.

Hideo too gets in on the glue sniffing act but feels himself becoming one with the river of life and death, feeling it flow through him as he flows with it. The river itself, and the idea of passive resignation that comes of simply allowing oneself to float, becomes a grim symbol of the futility that faces Hideo as he struggles to reassemble an identity in a world which consistently denies him one. The future looks bleak for each of our protagonists, the only one with any sense of hope once again investing it in the system which has already betrayed her – the family. Youth looks for new models, new standards by which to live, but does not find them. Puppets of fate, the trio dance under starry skies until the sun comes up and they realise that the day holds nothing for them except the nihilistic desire for its end.


Double Suicide at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中, Yasuzo Masumura, 1978)

Love Suicides at Sonezaki posterAfter spending the vast majority of his career at Daiei, Yasuzo Masumura found himself at something of a loose end when the studio went bankrupt in the early ‘70s. Working as a freelance director for hire he made the best of what was available to him, even contributing an instalment in former Daiei star Shinataro Katsu’s series of period exploitation films, Hanzo the Razor: The Snare. There is, however, a particular shift in the famously fearless director’s point of view in these later films as his erotically charged grotesquery begins to soften into something more like an aching sadness in the crushing sense of defeat and impossibility which seems to consume each of his heroes. Maintaining the contemporary groove of Lullaby of the Earth – an uncharacteristically new age inflected tale of a naive orphan from the mountains tricked into the sex trade through a desire to see the sea, Double Suicide at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中, Sonezaki Shinju, AKA Love Suicides at Sonezaki / Double Suicides of Sonezaki, Double Suicide in Sonezaki) is a melancholy exploration of the limitations of love as a path to freedom in which the demands of a conformist, hierarchical society erode the will of those who refuse to compromise their personal integrity on its behalf until they finally accept that there is no way in which they can possibility continue to live inside it.

Ohatsu (Meiko Kaji), the geisha, has fallen in love with a client – Tokubei (Ryudo Uzaki), who is a humble man taken in by an uncle with the intention that he take over his soy-sauce shop. No longer the relationship between a prostitute and a customer, Ohatsu refuses to take Tokubei’s money which begins to cause friction with her “master” at the brothel to whom she still owes a significant debt. Tokubei does not possess the resources to redeem her, nor is he ever likely to. Matters are forced to a crisis point when each of them is offered what would usually be thought the best possible option for their respected social paths. Tokubei is offered the hand in marriage of his aunt’s niece and the chance to set up his own shop in Edo but it isn’t what he wants because he wants Ohatsu. Similarly, Ohatsu is sought by a wealthy client who wants to buy her and take her home as a mistress – she tries to refuse but has to play along given her relative lack of agency, longing to be with Tokubei or no one at all. Tokubei is thrown out by his uncle for refusing the marriage and finds himself the difficult position of having to reclaim dowry money from his greedy step-mother only to be conned out of it by an unscrupulous “friend”, Kuheiji (Isao Hashimoto), who later frames him to make it look like Tokubei cheated him. Beaten and ostracised, Tokubei sees no escape from his shame other than through an “honourable” death and Ohatsu sees no life for herself without her love.

Inspired by Chikamatsu’s world of double suicides, Masumura adopts a deliberately theatrical method of expression in which the cast perform in a heightened and rhythmic style intended to evoke the classical stage of Japan. Yet he also makes a point of scoring the film with contemporary folk and jazz as if this wasn’t such an old story after all. Times may be more permissive, but perhaps there’s no more freedom in love than there ever was and the pure dream of happiness in romantic fulfilment no more possible.

The forces that keep Tokubei and Ohatsu apart are only partly those unique to the feudal world – debt bondages and filial obligations being much weakened if not altogether absent in the post-war society, but are almost entirely due to their lack of individual agency and impossibility of freeing themselves from the various systems which oppress them. Tokubei is a poor boy from the country whose father has died. He has been taken in by an uncle and trained up as an heir – something he is grateful for and has worked hard to repay, but will not sacrifice his individual desire in order to accept the path laid down for him.

Ohatsu, in a more difficult position, is oppressed not only by her poverty but by her gender. Sold to a brothel she is subject to debt bondage and viewed only as a commodity, never as a person. When she intervenes to stop Tokubei being beaten by Kuheiji’s thugs, her patron panics but only because he will lose his money if she is “damaged”. Similarly, the brothel owner complains for the same reason after some ruckus at the inn. Neither of them are very much bothered about Ohatsu in herself but solely in her functionality as tool for making money or making merry respectively.

“Money is better, money means everything” claims Tokubei’s angry step-mother and she certainly seems to have a point as both of our lovers struggle through their lack of it. In the end it’s not so much money but “shame” which condemns them to a sad and lonely death as they realise they can no longer live with themselves in this cruel and unforgiving world which refuses them all hope or possibility for the future. An honourable man, Tokubei cannot live with such slander – men die for honour, and women for love, as Ohatsu puts it. Ironically enough there was a chance for them but it came too late as Kuheiji’s machinations begin to blow back on him and Tokubei’s uncle begins to regret his overhasty disowning of his nephew, but the world is still too impure for such pure souls and so they cannot stay.

Unlike some of Masumura’s earlier work, there’s a sadness and an innocence implicit in Double Suicide at Sonezaki that leaves defiance to one side only to pick it up again as the lovers decry their love too pure to survive in an impure world. The world does not deserve their love, and so they decide to leave it, freeing themselves from the “shame” of living through the purifying ritual of death. Softer and sadder, the message is not so far from the director’s earlier assertions save for being bleaker, leaving no space for love in an oppressive and conformist society which demands a negation of the soul as the price for acceptance into its world of cold austerity. 


Opening (no subtitles)

Third Base (サード, Yoichi Higashi, 1978)

third posterJapanese cinema of the 1970s is a highly charged affair. Stories of alienated youth and nihilistic denials of future possibility predominate as the (usually) male protagonist assesses his place within a rigid and conformist society and often comes to the conclusion that there is none for him. While political turmoil continues to undermine these deeply held values of social conformity and passive acceptance, young men suffer individually and in private until, that is, they find themselves punished by society for the transgressions it causes them to commit. Scripted by Shuji Terayama and adapted from a novel by Haku Kenjo, Yoichi Higashi’s Third Base (サード, Third) is the story of one such young man who has found himself confined to a reformatory with no hope for the future and no direction in which to run.

Seno (Toshiyuki Nagashima), known as “Third”, is an inmate at Kanto – Asahi Reform School. Like most of the other boys, Third is in for violent crime – in his case, murder, and is not exactly a model pupil. In fact, he’s currently in solitary after fighting with another boy who spat in his soup. Though the atmosphere of the school is severe with an emphasis on slightly militarised discipline, it is also progressive and geared towards finding out why these young men came to exhibit such unwelcome behaviours and how they might be able to overcome them. Hence, the fight is not only punished with solitary confinement but a group discussion among all present during which both Seno and the other boy are encouraged to recognise the various ways in which they are both at fault.

A strange thought experiment in Seno’s diary causes mild alarm to one of the staff at the school. “The connection between a car and a spring – which goes around more?” – the doctor is confused by this unusual sentence but on being asked to elaborate Seno makes clear he’s talking about a wind up car. When you wind it up the wheels go round but if you hold the spring the car will turn, and if you hold the car the spring will turn. This is the relationship Seno was puzzled by – which one is turning the other. The doctor draws the conclusion that the “spring” is juvenile delinquency and the car is society, but Seno insists he’s just talking about a toy car.

Yet there is something in it. Some of the boys are inside because of economic oppression, entering lives of crime through lack of other options but there are also upperclass boys in here too who have never been hungry and have no reason to steal. Another of the staff tells a disinterested Third about a relative of his who ended up in a reform school despite coming from an “elite” home. The boy claims he rebelled because “there is no such thing as equality – it is simply a word to make people feel better”. His crimes were intended to expose a societal lie. Likewise, the boy turned the same logic on murder claiming that wars and genocide were abhorrent, but individualist murders were “beautiful”. A short while later the young man took his own life – presumably something the reform school staff are eager Third does not do.

Suicide is a choice which is presented to Third – when one of the other boys runs off during outdoor labour, he hangs himself in the woods rather than try to escape. Third’s nickname is inspired by his position on the baseball field – third base, which he says he played neither well or badly. It is also an ironic comment on his existence in which he is neither one thing nor another, at odds in the free world and among those other outsiders imprisoned in the reformatory. Yet suicide is an idea Third rejects. Considering the other boy’s fate, Third feels himself to be running in “another direction”, wanting to live but not knowing how. A recurrent dream finds him on the baseball field, running the bases only to find there is no home plate. What Third wants is to locate his home base, to finally find his place in the world where he can belong and be accepted, but until he knows where it is he’ll just be running without aim or purpose.

Running in his mind, Third is imprisoned but only through his confinement does he learn to find the world “beautiful”. His cellmate has a similar thought but confesses he’s begun to find his hope “boring”, that freedom only inspires hopelessness. It’s this sense of ennui and apathy which pushes these young men towards violence and frustration, unable to find a more productive way to propel themselves forward and getting stuck at the bottom of the pile in a society which tries to straightjacket them into lives which are both undesirable and unattainable. Running still, Third does seem to have found a potential solution in instructing his breathless running mate to move at his own pace – embracing individualism over social conformity. Nevertheless, home base seems an elusive destination and Third will be a longtime running if ever he really does find his place in an essentially uncaring society.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Take Me Away! (ふりむけば愛, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1978)

Take Me Away PosterDuring his long and extremely varied career, Nobuhiko Obayashi was a not infrequent visitor to the world of the idol movie though his most notable entries into the genre would come in the 1980s Kadokawa heyday with the much loved The Little Girl who Conquered Time (starring Tomoyo Harada) and School in the Crosshairs (starring Hiroko Yakushimaru) among many others made for that studio alone. Obayashi’s ‘80s idol movies play very much into his key themes in their preoccupation with youthful melancholy and teenage ennui but 1978’s Take Me Away (ふりむけば愛, Furimukeba Ai) takes a slight step away from the genre norms in its slightly more grownup tale of complicated love and early life disappointments.

Beginning in typically strange Obayashi style, the film opens with some footage of abandoned machinery before the caption “Kyoko is on a journey” flashes up on the screen and we meet the woman herself (Momoe Yamaguchi) as she stares at San Fransisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.  Soon enough her view is obscured by a runaway kite bearing the name of Tetsu (Tomokazu Miura) – a young Japanese man currently living in the city. The pair hit it off while Tetsu tries to fix his both kite and Kyoko’s shoe which she broke trying to catch it. Tetsu promises to show her around San Fransisco and asks her to meet him at Union Square the next day at noon. Kyoko waits but Tetsu does not arrive – eventually a friend of his turns up in his place and Kyoko reluctantly spends a few hours with him during which she reveals that she’s on a suicide holiday and is about to go back to her hotel room to write the note. Finally Tetsu arrives, takes her to a hippy beatnik club where he sings her the title song of the movie, and the pair fall deeply in love.

Tetsu promises to meet Kyoko back in Tokyo to start a life together, but once again he does not turn up. Heartbroken and worried, Kyoko searches for him but the name of a bar he gave her as a point of rendezvous seems to be fake and her letters all come back undeliverable. When she gets hit by a car driven by a wealthy businessman, another, more stable, romantic possibility presents itself but will Kyoko let her true love dream go?

Take Me Away was the eighth in a series of films which starred popular Horipro idol Momoe Yamaguchi and her regular leading man Tomokazu Miura but the couple already had a long history of working with Obayashi in his career as a director of TV commercials. In fact the pairing which would eventually become a real life marriage was born thanks to Obayashi who was casting around for some stars while he made commercials with Miss Lonely apparently already on his mind. Obayashi was offered the chance to direct Yamaguchi’s cinematic debut but the dates didn’t line up and she made her first film, an adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Dancing Girl of Izu, with Katsumi Nishikawa instead.

This being the eighth Yamaguchi/Miura romantic drama the stakes needed to be raised – hence the decision to shoot for real on location in San Fransisco. Like many idol movies, the temporary shift away from the regular world the leading lady inhabits provides her an occasion to reinvent herself and the jet-setting, glamorous American holiday is certainly in keeping with the new, globally minded youth of Japan interested in transgressing borders of all kinds. When Tetsu meets Kyoko, she spins him a tale about diplomat parents that sounds like it could come out of any idol movie but in a departure from the norm it’s a part of her new holiday persona. In truth, beatnik dropout Tetsu is the posh one, a runaway son of a wealthy doctor, while Kyoko’s origins are humbler – she’s saved the money for this extremely extravagant holiday while working not as a concert pianist as she claimed, but as a piano tuner (making her choice of a Holiday Inn less strange in retrospect).

Though many idol movies centre around their teenage target audience, Kyoko and Tetsu are very noticeably grown up, already leading “adult” lives, no longer students but young people living semi-independently. This is brought home by the incongruous inclusion of a sex scene – the first in the series of films starring Yamaguchi and Miura, something which would not usually feature (at least explicitly) in the generally innocent idol movie world. Obayashi chooses to shoot this in an artistic, surreal, and impressionistic rather than naturalistic manner which shows the pair lying together naked (Yamaguchi covers herself with an arm) with a superimposition of the couple about to kiss over the top while the entire scene is bathed in golden white light. The sequence is one of the few typically Obayashi flourishes seen in the film (others include the title sequence, obvious Pan Am model shots, illustrated starry skies, and a slapstick brawl conducted to ‘20s jazz), but it perfectly captures the glory of young love so central to the early part of the film.

Of course, it doesn’t last. Holiday romances are one thing, but Tetsu proves to be a flaky sort of guy on every conceivable occasion until he’s finally dragged back into Kyoko’s orbit and vows to give up on his half-hearted ways once and for all to finally be true to his one true love. Kyoko’s second chance – a marriage proposal from the CEO who ran her over looks like the better option, that is until he shows his true colours at the film’s climax. Just as Tetsu leant meaning to Kyoko’s life in San Fransisco, so she too reawakens his fighting spirit. Tetsu describes himself as like the kite which bears his name – a free floating thing whose strings have long been severed. He needs the steady hand of Kyoko to right himself again. Unlike many of Obayashi’s wistful dramas, Take Me Away has a classically happy ending though its oddly silly, slapstick quality is very much in keeping with his sensibilities. A strange brew to be sure, but one which retains the essential innocence of the idol movie even whilst moving it beyond its traditionally adolescent remit.


Tomokazu Miura’s Furimukeba Ai

The Killing Game (殺人遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1978)

the killing gameFollowing the success of The Most Dangerous Game, the second in what was to become a trilogy arrived within the year and once again stars Matsuda as the ice cold hitman Narumi. Sunnier in outlook, The Killing Game (殺人遊戯, Satsujin Jiken) unfolds along the same pattern as the first instalment as Narumi is dragged out of the shadows to intercede in a gang war only to find himself surplus to requirements.

Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) has been retired from the killing game for the last five years and now lives a life of poverty and dissipation. Gone are his swanky apartment and stylish suits, now he lives in a bare hovel which is covered in dust and cobwebs, and he dresses like a farm boy in a white vest and jeans with a straw hat hanging on his back. He’s trying to lie low, but gets pulled into the kind of hostess bar he can’t really afford where he meets the first of two familiar faces which threaten to send him back into the middle of chaos. Akiko (Kaori Takeda), now a hostess at Bar Tako, is the daughter of the chairman Narumi bumped off in his last job before retiring but far from bearing a grudge against him, Akiko is grateful to have been set free. The second familiar face belongs to the same chairman’s former secretary/mistress, Misako (Yutaka Nakajima), who is now a mama-san at a bar popular with the local goons. All those years ago Narumi let Misako go in a moment of weakness and now regrets it but attempting to “reconnect” is going to land him right back in the thick of things.

Murakawa begins with a prologue which takes place in the noirish urban darkness of The Most Dangerous Game, but shoots in dreamy soft focus to emphasise that this is all memory before jumping forward five years. Exactly why Narumi has decided to give up a career in assassination is not revealed, nor is what he’s been doing the last five years, but he has apparently got himself an annoying sidekick who, in contrast to Narumi’s intense reserve, does not shut up. The first half of the movie is Narumi and his buddy trying to get by as outlaws including one humorous skit where they get themselves a van with a nudie pinup on the front plus a loudspeaker to humiliate debtors into paying up.

Things take a darker turn when Narumi runs into Misako – a chance meeting that seems almost like fate. Gradually the old Narumi begins to reappear. Deciding to pay Misako a visit he runs into her new man, gang boss Katsuda (Kei Sato), who figures out who he is and wants him to bump off another old gang boss. Narumi needs to get back in shape which he does via the tried and tested method of a training montage, lifting weights and running through the town with his trademark perm returning to its stylish buoyancy. This time around Narumi has buddy to help out, even if he only ends up being a liability, but the same strange dichotomy occurs – he may be an ace hitman, but Narumi is a mess without a gun in his hand.

Perhaps weathered by his experiences, Narumi is also much less cocky and much more unwilling to take a chance on trust. Once again he is betrayed by clients who’d rather not pay up and forced to play a “dangerous game” to bring the whole saga to a close in such a way as to keep both his life and the money. Rather than the surprising and largely inexplicable devotion of Dangerous’ Kyoko, Narumi finds himself torn between two women – the youthful Akiko who is grateful to Narumi for releasing her from an overbearing father, and the jaded Misako whose feelings for Narumi are complex, mingling fear, gratitude, attraction, and resentment into an irresistible storm of ambivalence. Again Narumi’s cool, animalistic aggression seems to be the key to his mysterious sex appeal but this time around there are no flickers of response as there were for the devoted Kyoko, these “relationships” are opportunistic and transactional.

Ironically titled, The Killing Game makes plain that Narumi will never be able to escape his chosen profession even if he wanted to. Without a gun in his hand Narumi is a pathetic wastrel, playing around at tuppenny schemes with his rather dim but talkative friend, and trying to play the big shot by buying out a hostess bar he is entirely unable to afford despite his recent windfall. The setting may be brighter, but Narumi’s word is still a nihilistic one in which he’s conditioned to expect betrayal and the only remaining vestiges of his humanity are his strange friendship with his bumbling sidekick and his ongoing fecklessness at coping with everyday life. Matsuda is as cool as ever in his effortless ability to cope with any given situation and kill with ruthless efficiency, but as Narumi edges ever closer to machine it is clear there is only one way to beat The Killing Game.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Most Dangerous Game (最も危険な遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1978)

the most dangerousThe late Yusaku Matsuda remains an ultra cool pop culture icon thirty years after his death and forty after his reign as the action king of Japanese cinema. Though there were several other contenders for the crown – Sonny Chiba, or the tough guy yakuza stars Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, to name but a few, it’s Matsuda’s intense screen presence which continues to endure as an example of mid-1970s extreme masculinity. This image was in large part created through his work with director Toru Murakawa in roles inspired by hardboiled novelist Haruhiko Oyabu in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf and The Beast Must Die, but before that it was the “Game” trilogy which helped to make his name.

The first of these, The Most Dangerous Game (最も危険な遊戯, Mottomo Kikenna Yuugi), introduces us to Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) – a sleazy hitman with a gambling problem who is capable of pulling off the most daring and precise of hits but remains a disaster outside of his working life. After losing a mahjong game and getting roughed up by gangsters, Narumi gets a job offer from an arms company currently vying for a large government contract to develop a Star Wars-style air defence system. As reported in the news, a number of top CEOs are being kidnapped for ransom thanks to a plot by the Godai Conglomerate. The Tonichi Corporation want Narumi to rescue their kidnapped employee, Nanjo (Masanori Irie), who also happens to be the son-in-law of CEO Kohinata (Asao Uchida).

Unlike the later Resurrection of the Golden Wolf or The Beast Must Die, the corporate conspiracy and shady government military project are merely background and never really dealt with in any further detail. Nevertheless, it appears Narumi has got himself involved in a much darker world than even he is used to. Kohinata claimed to want to save Nanjo because of their familial connection, but as it turns out he doesn’t really care so much about his daughter’s husband as he does about wiping out the Godai and getting the lucrative government contract all to himself. He’s even willing to pay Narumi twice for doing the same job, but then perhaps he’s not really looking to pay at all. Conspiracy may extend further than just the corporate realm.

Narumi makes for a strange “hero”. His very 1970s bachelor pad is a monument to sleaze with its prominent topless pinups displayed like precious artwork in his living room and his well stocked personal bar – a strange thing to have when it’s clear he does not entertain many visitors. Dancing around with his gun and posing topless in front of the mirror Taxi Driver-style implies perhaps he’s not so confident with his chosen profession yet he’s clearly well known enough to get a phone call out of the blue from the Tonichi Corp. Despite his rather pathetic attitude at the mahjong game and equally pathetic exit after falling asleep during a lap dance at a sex parlour, Narumi’s professional exterior is one of infinite capability and powerful masculinity.

Yet, like many films of the era Narumi’s masculinity is also intensely misogynistic. Gangster’s moll Kyoko (Keiko Tasaka) becomes an unlikely (and inconvenient) love interest after Narumi tries to use her to bait her boyfriend. Lying in wait in Kyoko’s apartment, he surprises her coming out of the shower while she is half naked and vulnerable. She tries to escape, he stops her, phone’s the boyfriend, and begins raping her so that the gangsters can hear her distress over the phone. Kyoko stops struggling and apparently gets into the groove, falling instantly in love with Narumi’s awesome love making skills and following him back to his apartment where she stays for the rest of the film.

Nevertheless Matsuda is presented as the epitome of cool, unshaken by danger and always coming out on top with enough time to strike a pose as he takes down a target with automatic precision. Murakawa’s approach is of its time but leaning towards arthouse rather than Toei’s unusual brand of action cinema. Its vistas are noirish but filled with 70s paranoid claustrophobia while the hopeless, melancholy jazz score by Yuji Ohno adds to the moody hardboiled aesthetic. An exercise in style, The Most Dangerous Game is as cynical as they come but its wry commentary and occasional fits of gleeful comedy lift it above both the B-movie silliness of other contemporary action movies and the dour seriousness of later Matsuda/Murakawa collaborations.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blue Christmas (ブルークリスマス , Kihachi Okamoto, 1978)

blue-christmasThe Christmas movie has fallen out of fashion of late as genial seasonally themed romantic comedies have given way to sci-fi or fantasy blockbusters. Perhaps surprisingly seeing as Christmas in Japan is more akin to Valentine’s Day, the phenomenon has never really taken hold meaning there are a shortage of date worthy movies designed for the festive season. If you were hoping Blue Christmas (ブルークリスマス) might plug this gap with some romantic melodrama, be prepared to find your heart breaking in an entirely different way because this Kichachi Okamoto adaptation of a So Kuramoto novel is a bleak ‘70s conspiracy thriller guaranteed to kill that festive spirit stone dead.

A Japanese scientist disgraces himself and his country at an international conference by affirming his belief in aliens only to mysteriously “disappear” on the way back to his hotel. Intrepid reporter Minami (Tatsuya Nakadai) gets onto the case after meeting with a friend to cover the upcoming release of the next big hit – Blue Christmas by The Humanoids. His friend has been having an affair with the network’s big star but something strange happened recently – she cut her finger and her blood was blue. Apparently, hers is not an isolated case and some are linking the appearance of these “Blue Bloods” to the recent spate of UFO sightings. Though there is nothing to suggest there is anything particularly dangerous about the blue blood phenomenon, international tensions are rising and “solutions” are being sought.

A second strand emerges in the person of government agent, Oki (Hiroshi Katsuno), who has fallen in love with the assistant at his local barbers, Saeko (Keiko Takeshita). Responsible for carrying out assassinations and other nefarious deeds for the bad guys, Oki’s loyalty is shaken when a fellow officer and later the woman he loves are also discovered to be carriers of the dreaded blue blood.

Okamoto lays the parallels on a little thick at times with stock footage of the rise of Nazism and its desire to rid the world of “bad blood”. Sadly, times have not changed all that much and the Blue Bloods incite nothing but fear within political circles, some believing they’re sleeper agents for an alien invasion or somehow intended to overthrow the global world order. Before long special measures have been enforced requiring all citizens to submit to mandatory blood testing. The general population is kept in the dark regarding the extent of the “threat” as well as what “procedures” are in place to counter it, but anti Blue Blood sentiment is on the rise even if the students are on hand to launch the counter protest in protection of their blue blooded brethren, unfairly demonised by the state.

The “procedures” involve mass deportations to concentration camps in Siberia in which those with blue blood are interrogated, tortured, experimented on and finally lobotomised. This is an international operation with people from all over the world delivered by their own governments in full cognisance of the treatment they will be receiving and all with no concrete evidence of any kind of threat posed by the simple colouring of their blood (not that “genuine threat” would ever be enough to excuse such vile and inhuman treatment). In the end, the facts do not matter. The government has a big plan in motion for the holiday season in which they will stage and defeat a coup laid at the feet of the Blue Blood “resistance”, ending public opposition to their anti-Blue Blood agenda once and for all.

Aside from the peaceful protest against the mandatory blood testing and subsequent discrimination, the main opposition to the anti-Blue Blood rhetoric comes from the ironically titled The Humanoids with the ever present Blue Christmas theme song, and the best efforts of Minami as he attempts to track down the missing scientist and uncover the conspiracy. This takes him around the world – firstly to America where he employs the somewhat inefficient technique of simply asking random people in the street if they’ve seen him. Laughed out of government buildings after trying to make serious enquires, Minami’s last hope lies in a dodgy part of town where no one would even try to look, but he does at least get some answers. Unfortunately, the information he receives is inconvenient to everyone, gets him fired from the investigation, and eventually earns him a transfer to Paris.

In keeping with many a ‘70s political thriller, Blue Christmas is bleaker than bleak, displaying little of Okamoto’s trademark wit in its sorry tale of irrational fear manipulated by the unscrupulous. In the end, blue blood mingles with red in the Christmas snow as the bad guys win and the world looks set to continue on a course of hate and violence with a large fleet of UFOs apparently also on the way bearing uncertain intentions. Legend has it Okamoto was reluctant to take on Blue Christmas with its excessive dialogue and multiple locations. He had a point, the heavy exposition and less successful foreign excursions overshadow the major themes but even so Blue Christmas has, unfortunately, become topical once again. Imperfect and cynical if gleefully ironic in its frequent juxtapositions of Jingle Bells and genocide, Blue Christmas’ time has come as its central message is no less needed than it was in 1978 – those bleak political conspiracy thrillers you like are about to come back in style.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Queen Bee (女王蜂, Kon Ichikawa, 1978)

queen beeKon Ichikawa may be best remembered for his mid career work, particularly his war films The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain as well as his melodramas Ototo and Bonchi, but he was one of the few directors who was prepared to keep one foot in the commercial arena as well as making more personal, “artistic” efforts. For this reason he was able to go on working through the creatively dry ‘80s when other big name directors, in particular Akira Kurosawa, found themselves locked out of the cinematic arena in their native country. Ichikawa’s biggest box office success was in fact the literary adaptation of a popular mystery novel The Inugamis (which he actually remade in 1999 as his final feature film). 1978’s Queen Bee (女王蜂, Jooubachi) is one of five films that Ichikawa made based on the work of popular mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo which feature the eccentric detective Kousuke Kindaichi.

In many ways, Queen Bee is the perfect synthesis of European and Japanese mystery styles as it technically plays host to its strange detective but places him off centre, more as an onlooker to events than the protagonist. Though it follows something like a classical Agatha Christie approach, it also brings in the Japanese love of puzzles and the importance of long buried secrets bubbling to the surface and coming back to haunt everyone involved in the original incident. It’s also important to note that Ichikawa is deliberately playing up the camp comedy of the situation too as he makes his bumbling policeman a definite figure of fun as well as sending Kindaichi tumbling into a pond among other oddly comic elements for this multiple murder mystery.

The story itself begins in 1932 as two students, Hitoshi and Ginzo, leave a small town where they’ve been learning all about the local folklore. Hitoshi later returns under less than pleasant circumstances as he’s come to get his grandmother’s ring back after giving it to a local girl, Kotoe, whom he’d agreed to marry, only his mother objects so now he wants to hold off a bit. Unfortunately this is not a good idea as Kotoe is already pregnant with his child. Sometime later Hitoshi dies in mysterious circumstances and we flash forward to 1936 when the daughter, Tomoko, is three years old and Ginzo comes back to propose to Kotoe.

Now we fast forward to 1952 when Tomoko is about to turn 19. Kotoe has died, Tomoko has been adopted by Ginzo, and three folklore loving students have set their eyes on her as a bride. Unfortunately, one of these suitors also winds up getting killed with Tomoko the prime suspect and it looks like history may be about to repeat itself.

Queen Bee may be a more mainstream effort, but Ichikawa films in a noticeably anarchic fashion with extremely strange cuts and juxtapositions, not to mention the almost parodic tone of the film. He adopts a fairly perverse approach to the entire enterprise even allowing his veteran star Tatsuya Nakadai to play the 20 year old version of himself in the brief 1930s scenes which is, it has to be said, something of a mistake. As fine an actor as Nakadai is, playing a 20 year old at 50 is a stretch and one which serves as a point of alienation during the deepest historical layer of the film.

As is usual with Japanese mysteries, the plot relies on the solution of various puzzles, riddles and the mechanics of crime much more so than the human psychology and importance placed on motive that dominate Western detective tales. As well as the long buried secrets, Queen Bee brings in some commentary on the place of social class in the post-war world, the folly of misplaced love, and how the failure to act honestly and in the best interests of others by putting your own feelings aside can cause extreme repercussions not only in your own future but those of generations to come. Once again, only by exposing previously unexpressed emotions and lies both accidental and deliberate can the trauma be resolved and crises come to an end.

Queen Bee is a strange film which plays up its European detective novel atmosphere complete with the drawing room lecture that has become a hallmark of the genre but also adds in a layer of irony and an almost winking jokiness that make for an oddly amusing tone. The mystery element itself is satisfying enough to keep even the most seasoned crime fan guessing with plenty of red herrings and misinformation along the way. That said, Queen Bee is also very much of its time and perhaps fails to offer much more than an enjoyably old fashioned detective story, albeit one which is anchored by strong performances from its veteran cast.


Unsubtitled trailer:

At Noon (正午なり, Koichi Goto, 1978)

at noonKoichi Goto’s Art Theatre Guild adaptation of Kenji Maruyama’s 1968 novel At Noon (正午なり, Mahiru Nari) begins with a young man on a train. Forlornly looking out of the window, he remains aboard until reaching his rural hometown where he makes a late entry to his parents’ house and is greeted a little less than warmly by his mother. The boy, Tadao, refuses to say why he’s left the big city so abruptly to return to the beautiful, if dull, rural backwater where he grew up.

There’s little work here for a young man, which is why Tadao left in the first place. After using some family connections to try and find a job, he finally decides to make use of his abilities by fixing radios and TV sets for a local electronics store. To begin with he doesn’t want to see his old friend, Tetsuji, perhaps out of a sense of shame at having returned home but the pair later strike up their old friendship – that is, until Tetsuji suddenly announces his plans to run away with a local bar hostess.

It’s never quite revealed what happened to Tadao in Tokyo but it seems to have been something serious enough to change the course of his entire life and send him reeling back home depressed and angry. In many ways he’s a typical young man, if slightly sullen, but he’s developed a serious number of sexual hangups which have turned him into some kind of repressed, misogynistic, pervert. He appears to have made a deliberate decision to dislike the idea of women, or at least the idea of women with sexual appeal. He thinks women are trouble, that no good comes of love, but can’t stop himself from spying on the female tourists staying in an upper room. He’s always looking, staring invasively, but resolved not to touch.

Tadao has already been to the city and evidently found it not quite to his liking but his friend, Tetsuji, feels bored in the village and trapped by his parents who need his help in their orchards. When Tadao realises Tetsuji is taking the hostess with him when he skips town, he asks for the money he just agreed to lend him back and tells him to forget about running away and just to go home. Unfortunately for Tetsuji, Tadao’s advice proves sound as his city dreams don’t work out the way he planned either. To end his frequent attempts to escape, Tetsuji’s family float the idea of an arranged marriage which originally horrifies both boys but after meeting his prospective bride, Tetsuji changes his mind. Tadao doesn’t approve, but after meeting the girl in question and seeing that she is quite lovely changes his mind too and is happy for his friend – that is, until he realises Tetsuji has only introduced him to her as a pretext of getting her on her own to enact his marital rights a little ahead of schedule. This breach of morality proves the final straw for Tadao who does not like the idea of his wayward friend deceiving and then ruining this innocent young flower who’s far too good for him anyway.

Tadao’s fascination with another damaged bar girl, Akemi, continues as the two find themselves both looking at the sad figure of a tethered eagle imprisoned at the local zoo. Akemi says she likes to look at the bird as she feels perhaps somehow that helps him escape. She feels like a caged bird too – trapped in a bad relationship with a useless boyfriend who has a vague plan of turning manure into an energy source while she supports them both by working at a hostess bar and hating every second of it. Tadao feels trapped in a hundred different ways, by his town, by his parents, by whatever happened in Tokyo, and by his own pent-up frustrations. By this point, he’s a one man powder keg ready to explode and after blowing his final safety caps, tragedy is the only possible outcome.

At Noon begins with its epilogue, but uncomfortably frames its protagonist’s despicable final actions with an odd kind of heroism as his head eclipses the sun leaving him with a radiant halo. He may have satisfied himself in some way, put to rest some of that inner turmoil, but what he’s done is something truly dreadful and driven by an intensely animalistic instinct. At Noon may have something to say about the dangers of frustrated young men with no work to go to, no ambition to follow, and no luck with the ladies but displays an oddly ambivalent attitude to its deranged protagonist that makes for often uncomfortable viewing.


By the way, After Noon has music by Ray Davis of The Kinks!

Unsubbed Trailer:

Attack! Hakata Street Gang (突撃!博多愚連隊, Sogo Ishii, 1978)

hakataSogo Ishii (now Gakuryu Ishii) was one of the foremost filmmakers in Japan’s punk movement of the late ‘70s and ‘80s though his later work drifted further away from his youthful subculture roots. Perhaps best known for his absurdist look at modern middle class society in The Crazy Family or his noisy musical epics Crazy Thunder Road and Burst City, Ishii’s first feature length film is a quieter, if no less energetic, effort.

Like his other films from the period, Attack! Hakata Street Gang (突撃!博多愚連隊, Totsugeki! Hakata Gurentai) is fairly light on actual plot but broadly follows a group of low level street punks who get themselves into trouble after accidentally shooting the son of a yakuza boss in the leg and leaving him to bleed to death. In trouble with both the law and the gangs the guys find themselves in the midst of a turf war they are ill equipped to handle.

Very clearly an early effort, Attack! Hakata Street Gang is an ultra low budget production filmed on the real streets starring Ishii’s friends rather than professional actors. It can’t claim to any level of aesthetic beauty and, in truth, is not particularly interesting in terms of look or style but is filled with Ishii’s characteristic energy and runs fast even given its brief 67 minute run time.

Generally, Ishii sticks to a naturalistic representation of the street punk world. Taking his cue from the realistic action genre pioneered by Fukasaku et al not long before the film’s release, Ishii employs a similar approach to the fight scenes shooting from the middle of the action and often from low angles. Full of handheld camera and shakey, unfocused shots Attack! Hakata Street Gang is filled with the kind of youthful freshness that was very in vogue at the time.

Ishii does not appear to want to offer any kind of critique of this extremely masculine, violent world but solely to capture it on film. The street punks themselves are not particularly well drawn but there is a notably strange set of characters including an ultranationalist and his younger brother with learning difficulties who wears an SS helmet and rides around on a pushbike with a large nazi flag flying on the back. Nicknamed “manji” (the word for the Japanese “swastika”) the boy is obsessed with warfare and dangerously gets hold of one of the guns his older brother has adapted from a toy to be able to fire real bullets. He’s more of a plot point than anything else but still offers a convincingly weird sample of modern street life.

Also in keeping with the recent brand of cool action dramas, the film has an energetic score which is perhaps more jazz fusion or blues rock than outright punk which gives it more of a nihilistic, sophisticated tone than the full on noise explosion of some of Ishii’s later efforts. By the time the guys have taken their final stand by capturing hostages and occupying the local kindergarten (literally kids with guns) it’s pretty clear that there is no way back for this collection of down and out street rats.

Perhaps more interesting as an early work of a master than in its own right, Attack! Hakata Street Gang is an energetic and youthful exploration of a little seen late 1970s subculture. Literally playing fast and loose, Ishii’s debut is in many ways a statement of intent and none the worse for it.


Trailer for the Sogo Ishii The Punk Years 1976 – 1983 box which includes this film (though unfortunatly does not include any subtitles).