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).