The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Masaki Kobayashi, 1985)

The Empty TableJapanese cinema of the 1980s is marked by an increasing desire to interrogate the idea of “the family” in an atmosphere of individualist consumerism. Yoshimitsu’s Morita’s The Family Game had blown the traditional ideas of filial piety and the primacy of the patriarch wide open in exposing his ordinary middle-class family as little more than a simulacrum as its various members sleepwalked through life playing the roles expected of them free of the true feeling one would expect to define familial bonds. A year later, Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family took a different, perhaps more positive approach, in depicting a family descending into madness through the various social pressures of maintaining a conventional middle-class life in the cramped environment of frenetic Tokyo. Masaki Kobayashi, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not so much interested in families as in individuals whose struggles to assert themselves in a conformist society became his major focus. The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Shokutaku no nai Ie) is not perhaps “a family drama” but it is, if indirectly, a drama about family and the ways in which the wider familial context of society at large often seeks to misuse it.

Set in 1973, The Empty Table is also among the earliest films to tackle the aftermath of the 1972 Asama-Sanso Incident. For ten days in February, the nation watched live as the police found themselves in a stand off with five United Red Army former student radicals who had taken the wife of an innkeeper hostage and holed up in a mountain lodge, refusing to give themselves up to the police. The discoveries surrounding the conduct of the United Red Army which had descended into a cult-like madness involving several murders of its members (including one of a heavily pregnant woman) shocked the nation and finally ended the student movement in Japan.

Kidoji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the father of one of the student radicals, Otohiko (Kiichi Nakai), who took part in the siege. In Japanese culture, it’s usual for the parents of a person involved in a scandal to come forward and offer an official apology to the nation on behalf of the their children. During the siege itself the family had also been weaponised as mothers, particularly, were enlisted to shout from outside the inn, offering poignant messages intended to get their sons to give themselves up and come home. Kidoji, unlike the other fathers (one of whom hanged himself in shame), refuses his social obligation on the grounds that the actions of his grownup son are no longer his responsibility. 

As a scientist, Kidoji is used to thinking things through in rational terms and outside of Japan his logic may seem unassailable – after all, it is unreasonable to hold the conduct of a family member against an otherwise upright and obedient citizen. In Japan however his actions make him seem cold and unfeeling, as if he has disowned both his son and his position as the father of a family with whom rests ultimate responsibility for those listed on his family register. This way of thinking may be very feudal, but it is the way things work not just in the late 20th century, but even in the early 21st.

Kidoji’s refusal to do what is expected of him eventually leads to the crumbling of the family unit. Far from the cheerful scene we see of Kidoji, his wife, and their three children seated around a dinner table in celebration, the family now eat separately and Kidoji returns home to cold meals and an empty table. Kidoji’s wife, Yumiko (Mayumi Ogawa), has had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised, while his daughter Tamae (Kie Nakai) is forced to break off her engagement only to resort to underhanded methods to be allowed to marry the man she loves. While Otohiko languishes in prison, only his younger brother Osamu (Takayuki Takemoto) remains at home.

Kobayashi’s central concern is the conflict in Kidoji’s heart as he faces a choice between maintaining his principles and saving his family pain. It’s not that Kidoji feels nothing – on the contrary, he is profoundly wounded by all that has happened to him, but ironically enough, puts on the face society expects but does not want in maintaining his composure in a situation of extreme difficulty. Kidoji’s deepest anxieties rest in the need to “take responsibility”, something he must do in acknowledging that it’s not his son’s disgrace which has destroyed his family but his own rigidity in refusing to bend his principles and obey social convention. What Kidoji wants is for his son to take responsibility for his own choices as an individual rather than expecting his family to carry his load for him. He must, however, also take responsibility for the effect his choices have had on others, including on his family, and accept his role both as an individual and as a member of a society with rights and obligations.

Kidoji’s refusal to apologise on behalf of his son looks to the rest of society like an abnegation of his paternal authority, and without paternal authority the family unit crumbles like a feudal household whose lord has been murdered. Yet Kidoji, like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, refuses to compromise his principals no matter how much personal pain they eventually cause him. Where the rules of society make no sense to him, he will ignore (if not quite oppose) them, remaining true to his own notions of moral righteousness.

In many ways, Kidoji is the archetypal Kobayashi hero – standing up to social oppression and refusing to simply give in even when he knows how beneficial that may be to all concerned. He is also, however, just as problematic in allowing his family to continue suffering in preservation of his personal beliefs. Kobayashi’s final feature film, The Empty Table is extremely dated in terms of shooting style with its overly theatrical dialogue and frequent use of voice over and monologue which were long out of fashion by the mid-1980s. Kobayashi does, however, return to the more expressionist style of his earlier career, moving towards an etherial sense of poetry as his hero contemplates his place in a society which often asks him to behave in ways which compromise his essential value system. The family, broken as it is, is also (partly) mended once again as Kidoji begins to reconcile his various “responsibilities” into a more comprehensive whole as he prepares to welcome a new generation seemingly as determined to live in as principled and unorthodox a way as he himself has.


The Devil’s Island (獄門島, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Island posterKon Ichikawa revisits the world of Kosuke Kindaichi for the third time in Devil’s Island (獄門島, Gokumon-to). Confusingly enough, Devil’s Island is adapted from the second novel in the Kidaichi series and set a few years before Ichikawa’s previous adaptation The Devil’s Ballad (the twin devils are just a coincidence). As with his other Kindaichi adaptations, Ichikawa retains the immediate post-war setting of the novel though this time the war is both fore and background as our tale is set on profane soil, a pirate island once home to Japan’s most heinous exiled criminals, which is to say it is the literal fount of every social failing which has informed the last 20 years of turbulent militarist history.

In 1946, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) travels to Kasaoka to catch the ferry to the island. On the way he runs into a demobbed soldier hobbling along on crutches only to catch sight of the man quickly picking his up crutches and running across the railway tracks when he thought no one was looking. Kindaichi is in luck – before he even reaches the boat he runs into the very man he’s come to see, Reverend Ryonen (Shin Saburi), for whom he has a message. Posing as a fellow soldier, Kindaichi reveals he has a “last letter” from a man named Chimata who sadly passed away right after the cessation of hostilities having contracted malaria. Chimata, as we later find out, was the legitimate heir of the island’s most prominent family. Kindaichi chooses not to reveal his true purpose, but the truth is that Chimata suspected his death would put his three younger sisters in danger from various unscrupulous family members attempting to subvert the succession.

Your average Japanese mystery is not, as it turns out, so far from Agatha Christie as one might assume and this is very much a tale of petty class concerns, island mores, and changing social conventions. The extremely confusing island hierarchy starts with the head of household who doubles as the head of the local fishing union and then shuffles out to the branch line and brassy sister-in-law Tomoe (Kiwako Taichi) who is keen claim all the authority she is entitled to. The old patriarch, Yosamatsu (Taketoshi Naito), went quite mad at the beginning of the war and is kept in a bamboo cage in the family compound where he screams and rails, only calmed by the gentle voice of Sanae (Reiko Ohara), a poor relation raised in the main house alongside her brother Hitoshi who hasn’t yet returned from the war. Aside from Yosamatsu, the absence of the two young men means the main house is now entirely inhabited by women, looked after by veteran maid Katsuno (Yoko Tsukasa).

Then again, Japanese mysteries hinge on riddles more than they depend on motives and there are certainly plenty of those on this weird little island where they don’t like “outsiders”. Ichikawa hints at the central conceit by flashing up haiku directly on the screen along with a few original chapter headings for Kindaichi whose eccentricities might seem less noticeable in such an obviously crazy place but strangely seem all the more overt, his trademark dandruff falling like rain from his tousled hair. It has to be said that Kindaichi fails in his otherwise pure hearted aims – he doesn’t make a great deal of effort to “save” the sisters and only attempts to solve the crimes as they occur, each one informing the next. This time around he gets trouble from both irritatingly bumbling detective Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and his assistant Bando (Kazunaga Tsuji) , and the local bobby who immediately locks Kindaichi up and declares the crimes solved on the grounds that they only started happening after Kindaichi arrived.

Meanwhile, there are rumours of an escaped “pirate” running loose, demobbed soldiers, and a host of dark local customs contrasting strongly with the idyllic scenery and the strange “pureness” of this remote island otherwise untouched by the war’s folly save for the immediate events entirely precipitated by the absence of two young men taken away to die on foreign shores. Though the various motives for the crimes are older – shame, greed, classism, a bizarre dispute between Buddhists and Shamans, none of this would have been happening if the war hadn’t stuck its nose into island business and unbalanced the complex local hierarchy. Tragically, the crimes themselves all come to nought as a late arriving piece of news renders them null and void. Just when you think you’ve won, the rug is pulled from under you and the war wins again. Ichikawa opts for a for a defiantly straightforward style but adopts a few interesting editing techniques including fast cutting to insert tiny flashbacks as our various suspects suddenly remember a few “relevant” details. This strange island, imbued with ancient evils carried from the mainland, finds itself not quite as immune from national struggles as it once thought though perhaps manages to right itself through finally admitting the truth and acknowledging the sheer lunacy that led to the sorry events in which it has recently become embroiled.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Ballad posterA year after his box office smash The Inugami Family, Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi with The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Akuma no Temari Uta). Like many a Kindaichi mystery, Devil’s Ballad finds him called upon to delve back into the past to satisfy an ageing detective’s anxiety about an old case, only to be faced with a series of new ones as a consequence. This time, however, the mystery leans less on buried secrets than deeply held grudges, betrayals, and lingering feudal feuds as the post-war society tries and fails to free itself from ancient oppressions.

The film opens with a tryst between two adolescent lovers in the ominously named “Devil’s Skull Village” in 1950. Yasu (Yoko Takahashi), the girl, is at pains to let her boyfriend, Kanao (Koji Kita), know that she is keen to take the relationship to the next level but he is old fashioned and wants to wait until their union is formalised. The pair are interrupted by some of their friends who are in the middle of planning a celebration for a visit from a girl who moved to the city, Chie (Akiko Nishina). Meanwhile, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) has arrived at the inn owned by Kanao’s mother Rika (Keiko Kishi) on invitation from a retired policeman, Isokawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who wants Kindaichi to look into the murder of Rika’s husband twenty years ago. Isokawa, then a young rookie, is convinced that Rika’s husband was not the victim but the murderer and the corpse actually belonged to another man entirely – Onda, a drifter who defrauded half the village with a wreath making scam.

Rika and her children – 20-year-old Kanao and his younger sister Satoko (Eiko Nagashima) who has prominent facial birthmarks and rarely leaves the house, came to the village with her husband and are therefore slightly divorced from the longstanding social rivalries. The village has two noble families – the Yuras and the Nires. Feeling the need to modernise, the Nires bet everything on vineyards and it paid off. The Yuras, by contrast, were defrauded by Onda’s wreath scam and lost their fortune and social standing. Yasu, Kanao’s girlfriend, is a daughter of the Yuras, but the Nire’s have been petitioning Rika for quite some time to have her son marry their daughter, Fumiko (Yukiko Nagano), who also has a crush on him (though this is largely irrelevant to her father’s dynastic ambitions). When the younger generation start getting bumped off in ways eerily similar to a local folk song, Kindaichi and Isokawa are on the case, wondering if these new murders have anything to do with their old one.

Despite its 1950 setting, Devil’s Ballad is unusual in resolutely making an irrelevance of the war which only receives a brief mention as an explanation for why some of the case files have been destroyed and for why marriage is such a hot button issue given the lack of men and abundance of women. Nevertheless, the crimes span a turbulent 20 years of Japanese history with the original murder taking place in the early ‘30s during a period of economic instability following the Manchurian Incident. In the socially conservative pre-war era, it seems Onda also got around and may have fathered several illegitimate children with women in the village, some of them noble, some not. These buried secrets seem primed to bubble to the surface now that the children are coming of age and marriage again becomes an issue as worried parents try to think of acceptable ways to block potentially “inappropriate” matches without sending their children off into ruinous elopements or tipping off the wrong people that their kids may not be their kids.

The crimes themselves, old fashioned as they are, are partly reactions to a changing society. We discover that the reason Rika and her husband were forced to come back to the village was that their showbiz careers were stalling – she was a vaudeville performer specialising in shamisen, and he a “benshi” (narrator of silent films) who became convinced his job was obsolete after witnessing a subtitled print of Morocco. Likewise, the two rival families cannot let go of their petty provincial privileges, and as Kanao angrily snaps back at his mother, Japan is now a democratic country and he is free to choose his own wife at a time of his own choosing with or without parental blessing. This remote village is perhaps isolated from the privations of the post-war world but it’s also stuck in the past, hung up on past transgressions and unable to move forward into the new era. However, the primary motivations for murder are as old as time – guilt, humiliation, and self preservation.

Ichikawa keeps things simple but splices in a few strange, avant-garde sequences of kokeshi dolls menacingly bouncing balls coupled with shifts to black and white, fast-paced reaction shots, and stuttering still frame sequences all while Kindaichi showers innocent passersby with his famous dandruff, the idiot police officer continues to offer ridiculous theories while his sergeant dutifully follows him around, and the local bobby perfects a line in hilarious pratfalls. Overlong at two and a half hours and falling prey to the curse of the prestige crime drama in spoiling its mystery through casting, the Devil’s Ballad may not be the best of the Kindaichi mysteries but offers enough of a satisfying twist to prove worthy of the Kindaichi name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow (キューポラのある街, Kirio Urayama, 1962)

(C) Nikkatsu 1962

cupola-poster-e1539038053246.jpgThe “shomin-geki” is generally associated with naturalistic depictions of the lives of “ordinary people”, but in reality most often focuses on the polite lower middle classes – white collar workers, shop keepers, small business holders etc, in short the sort of people who aren’t wealthy but aren’t starving either and generally live in moderate family homes rather than tenements or cramped apartment blocks. Blue collar lives are a less frequent sight on screen – something director Kirio Urayama seems to highlight in his mildly exoticised opening which introduces us to Kawaguchi, Saitama, a small town across long bridge not so far from Tokyo.

Unlike the bustling city still fighting its way back from post-war privation, Kawaguchi is a “town of fire and sweat” where the landscape is dominated by the “cupolas” of the title (Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow , キューポラのある街, Cupola no aru Machi, AKA Foundry Town). Rather than the beautiful architectural domes the name might imply, these cupolas are the industrial kind – chimneys from the 500 foundries which are the area’s dominant economic force. There is, however, trouble in that the steel industry has been decline since the immediate post-war heyday and increasing automation is changing the face of working life.

Our heroine, Jun (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is a young woman with post-war ambitions trapped in the depressing blue collar world of Kawaguchi. She’s currently in her last year of middle school and is determined to carry on to high school and perhaps even beyond, but the family is poor and her father, Tatsugoro (Eijiro Tono), has just lost his job at the local steel works. The family’s neighbour, Katsumi (Mitsuo Hamada), is big into the labour movement and has been protesting the changes at the works which has been bought by a bigger concern who are intent on compulsory layoffs. Tatsugoro, however, likes to think of himself as a “craftsman” rather than a “worker” and refuses to join the union partly out of snobbery and partly out of an entrenched fear of “communism”. He refuses to fight his compulsory redundancy because he is still wedded to the old ideas about loyalty to one’s superiors whilst simultaneously viewing himself as “better” than the other workers because of his long experience and skilled craftsmanship.

Nevertheless, Tatsugoro continues to selfishly abnegate his responsibilities to his family, refusing to insist on his severance pay and drinking the little money he still has left. Tatsugoro has four children ranging from teenager Jun to an infant born just as he lost his job. Some way into the film, Jun and and her younger brother Takayuki (Yoshio Ichikawa) take their father to task for his continued selfishness but the confrontation ends only in defeat. Tatsugoro simply doesn’t care. Loudly exclaiming that he has no daughter and will send Takayuki to the boys’ home, Tatsugoro destroys their hopes by reminding them that their fate is the same his – leave school early, work in a factory, marriage, children, drink yourself into an early grave. The argument proves so disheartening that Jun gives up on a school trip she’d been given a special subsidy to attend to roam around the streets, sadly visiting the prefectural high school that she has now given up on attending and accidentally witnessing another reason to give up on life that she, naively, misunderstands.

Meanwhile, Jun and Takayuki have also made friends with a family from North Korea who will be returning (without their mother) under a preferential “repatriation” programme organised by North Korean officials in Japan with the backing of the US and the Japanese government which, uncomfortably enough, saw only advantage in reducing the ethnic minority population. Though the film adopts a mildly positive view of repatriation – after all, no one really knew what North Korea was like in 1961 and many saying goodbye to their friends fully expect to stay in touch and perhaps meet again one day, it does highlight the persistent layer of xenophobic prejudice that the children face. Sankichi (Hideki Morisaka), one of Takayuki’s best friends, is taunted from the audience whilst on stage in a children’s play by cries of “Korean Carrot” (he is wearing a funny wig at the time) while Jun’s mother makes no secret of her dislike of the children’s friendships, believing that the Koreans are “dangerous”. Others associate the North Korean (in particular) population with communism and possible insurrection, fearing that Japan might be pulled into another nuclear war in Asia by political troubles across the sea.

The repatriation program is attractive not only as a means of escaping a world of constant oppression, but because of the entrenched poverty of the Kawaguchi area and the relative impossibility of escaping it. In a poignant, resentful school essay Jun wonders why her future is dictated by a lack of money, why she alone will be prevented from going on to high school and pulling herself out of the lower orders solely because of her responsibility to her family and father’s fecklessness. Tatsugoro is eventually offered another job thanks to the kindness of the father of one of Jun’s wealthier school friends, but continues to view himself as a “craftsman” and resents being ordered around by youngsters. What’s more, the factory is much more advanced – doubtless, the father of Jun’s friend (so different from her own) thought it might be better for Tatsugoro whose health is poor because the work would be less physically strenuous, but Tatsugoro finds it impossible to adapt to automated working methods and soon quits, leaving the family cash strapped once again.

An inability to adapt is Tatsugoro’s tragedy though he later makes amends when he consents to join Katsumi’s union and takes a job in a new factory, confident that he can’t be summarily dismissed ever again. Jun, meanwhile, has discovered a third way. Longing to escape the burden of her family she resolves to step forward alone but also instep with her society. Having discovered the existence of a progressive factory which is run with friendliness and consideration and even provides education for employees, Jun realises she can have the best of both worlds. Though Jun’s decision is perhaps one of individualism and a bold assertion of her own agency, it’s also in keeping with the broadly socialist message of the film which insists that a problem shared is a problem halved and places its faith in ordinary people to look after each other. Optimistic, perhaps, but a perfect encapsulation of post-war humanism and growing hopes for the future for those who are prepared to work hard on behalf not only of themselves but also for the social good.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow was scripted by Shohei Imamura whose work often focusses on the working classes and rural poor. As such it shares some similarity with his early film My Second Brother which also touches on the lives of ethnic Koreans living in Japan though this time in a mining village where the labour movement is engaged in actively opposing the exploitative practices of the corporate mine owners.

Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Nagisa Oshima, 1965)

Pleasures of the Flesh posterHaving joined Shochiku apparently on a whim, Nagisa Oshima dramatically walked out on his home studio when they abruptly shelved his incendiary film Night and Fog in Japan citing political concerns following the assassination of the Socialist Party president by a right wing agitator. Oshima’s decision to abandon the studio system and form his own independent production company would eventually develop into a small movement, leading into that which would retrospectively be termed the “Japanese New Wave”. The first film produced by Sozo-sha, Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Etsuraku), was perhaps a shift towards “pink film” aesthetics though, as in much of Oshima’s work, eroticism is more tool and trap than it is a mechanism for liberation. Ironically titled, Pleasures of the Flesh is a tale of desire frustrated by an oppressive society provoking nothing more than nihilistic need for psychological abandon.

Wakizaka (Katsuo Nakamura), an unsuccessful young man, pines for his first love – a young girl he tutored when he was a college student and she a precocious high schooler. Shoko (Mariko Kaga) has, however, married – her new husband someone more in keeping with her class and social standing. Wakizaka sees himself attend Shoko’s wedding, dreaming of her running away from the altar in her wedding dress to return to him but, no, he remains little more than a pleasant memory for the woman who has come to define his life. So devoted to Shoko was Wakizaka that when he learned from her family that a man who had molested her when she was just a child had returned to cause yet more harm by attempting to blackmail them, Wakizaka wanted to help. Seeing the man and paying him off convinced Wakizaka that the man would never give up and there would be no final payment or assurance of silence. Following him onto his train home Wakizaka took drastic action for justice, or perhaps it was revenge, or even out of a strange kind of jealousy, but nevertheless he transgressed by pushing the man from a moving train and thereby ending the threat posed to his beloved.

Wakizaka’s problems, however, are far from over. As ever in Japanese cinema, someone is always watching – in this case, a corrupt government official looking for a likely stooge with whom to stash a large amount of embezzled cash. Irony, a minor theme of the picture, rears its head as Wakizaka finds himself blackmailed over the murder of a blackmailer. The official makes a deal with him – Wakizaka must keep living in his same old horrible apartment and hang on to the suitcase full of money without opening it until he gets out of jail which is where he assumes he will shortly be headed now that his scam is reaching the tipping point. Wakizaka has little choice but to agree but when Shoko marries someone else he comes to believe his original transgression has been in vain, his life is now meaningless, and all that remains for him is a lonely death. Hence, he might as well go in style by spending all of that stolen doe, committing a bizarre act of revenge against Shoko and an unkind society by enjoying a year of debauchery followed by suicide before the official gets out of jail and turns him in as another act of retaliation.

Rejected in love, Wakizaka’s quest becomes one of continual search for conquest as he attempts to force himself on various women he wants to pretend are Shoko though of course knows are not. His approaches are many and various but begin with the obvious – he rents a fancy apartment and convinces a bar girl who looks a little like Shoko to live with him as his wife in return for a generous salary and the promise that the arrangement will only last a year. Hitomi (Yumiko Nogawa) is willing enough to submit herself to Wakizaka’s demands but he is dissatisfied by the inescapable hollowness of the relationship, uncertain who is using whom in this complicated series of transactions. His second choice is a married woman whose ongoing misery arouses in him a taste for sadism, convinced that the only way to make her “happy” is to plunge her into pain and suffering. The third woman, Keiko (Hiroko Shimizu), proves his biggest challenge – a feminist doctor afraid of men, she keeps him at arms length until he finally attempts to rape her, though this too she manages to frustrate insisting that he marry her even if they divorce a month later when Wakizaka’s time limit rolls around. Sick of Keiko’s resistance, Wakizaka opts for a mute prostitute who literally cannot talk back to him but finally makes her own defiant act of self actualisation despite Wakizaka’s attempt to assert total dominance over her existence.

Wakizaka uses the money for a life of “pleasure” but finds only despair and emptiness in each of his manufactured relationships. Having failed to “earn” it, he tries to buy love, but what he really chases is death and oblivion along with a way out of his ruined life and the humiliation he feels in his perceived failure to win Shoko’s heart. An idealised figure of elegance and purity, Shoko is an unattainable prize – the parents gentle pressing of an envelope into his hands following his “handling” of the blackmail case a subtle reminder that he is a servant, and now one perhaps cast out as tainted with a scandal they all wish to forget. Money, another recurrent motif, brings with it only sorrow and resentment. The embezzled cash didn’t do anyone any good, and neither of the blackmailers manages to make their scheme work out for them. Wakizaka is a haunted man, not so much by his crime which he sees as morally justified and feels no particular guilt over, but by his unresolvable desires as surfacing in his frequent hallucinations of Shoko who echoes in and round each and every woman in a form created entirely by her adoring suitor. In the end, reality betrays where the simulacrum remains true, but it is Wakizaka who betrays himself in allowing his pure love to become perverse revenge in the ultimate individualist act of self harm.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Kon Ichikawa, 1991)

noh mask murders posterFor one reason or another, Japanese mystery novels have yet to achieve the impact recently afforded to their Scandinavian brethren. Japan does however have a long and distinguished history of detective fiction and a number of distinctive, eccentric sleuths echoing the European classics. Mitsuhiko Asami is just one among many of Japan’s not quite normal investigators, and though Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Tenkawa Densetsu Satsujin Jiken) is technically the 23rd in the Asami series, Kon Ichikawa’s adaptation sets itself up as the very first Asami case file and as something close to an origin story.

Ichikawa, though he may be best remembered for his ‘60s arthouse masterpieces, was able to go on filmmaking where others perhaps were not precisely because of his forays into the populist with a series of mystery thrillers including several featuring top Japanese detective Kindaichi (who receives brief name check in Noh Mask Murders). Published by Kadokawa, Noh Mask Murders is produced by Haruki Kadokawa towards the end of his populist heyday and features many of the hallmarks of a “Kadokawa” film but Ichikawa also takes the opportunity for a little formal experimentation to supplement what is perhaps a weaker locked room mystery.

Asami (Takaaki Enoki) begins with a voice over as four plot strands occur at the same temporal moment at different spaces across the city. In Shinjuku, a salaryman drops dead on the street, while a young couple enjoy a secret tryst in a secluded forest, a troupe of actors rehearse a noh play, and Asami himself is arrested by an officious policeman who notices him walking around with a dead bird in his hand and accuses him of poaching. As he will later prove, all of these moments are connected either by fate or coincidence but setting in motion a series of events which will eventually claim a few more lives before its sorry conclusion.

To begin with Asami, he is a slightly strange and ethereal man from an elite background who has been content to drift aimlessly through life to the consternation of his conservative family which includes a police chief brother. He harbours no particular desire to become a detective and is originally irritated by a family friend’s attempts to foist a job on him but gives in when he learns he will have the opportunity to visit Tenkawa which is where, he’s been told, the mysterious woman who helped him out with the policeman in the opening sequence keeps an inn. Hoping to learn more about her, he agrees to write a book about the history of Noh and then becomes embroiled in a second murder which links back to the Mizugami Noh Family which is currently facing a succession crisis as the grandfather finds himself torn over choosing his heir – he wants to choose his granddaughter Hidemi (Naomi Zaizen) who is the better performer but the troupe has never had a female leader and there are other reasons which push him towards picking his grandson, Kazutaka (Shota Yamaguchi).

As with almost all Japanese mysteries, the solution depends on a secret and the possibilities of blackmail and/or potential scandal. The mechanics of murders themselves (save perhaps the first one) are not particularly difficult to figure out and the identity of the killer almost certainly obvious to those who count themselves mystery fans though there are a few red herrings thrown in including a very “obvious” suspect presented early on who turns out to be entirely incidental.

Ichikawa attempts to reinforce the everything is connected moral of the story through an innovative and deliberately disorientating cross cutting technique which begins in the prologue as Ichikawa allows the conversations between the grandchildren to bleed into those of Asami and his friend as if they were in direct dialogue with each other. He foregrounds a sad story of persistent female subjugation and undue reliance on superstition and tradition which is indirectly to blame for the events which come to pass. Everyone regrets the past, and after a little murder begins to see things more clearly in acknowledging the wickedness of their own actions as well as their own sense of guilt and complicity. Noh is, apparently, like a marriage, a matter of mutual responsibility, fostering understanding between people and so, apparently is murder, and one way or another Asami seems to have found his calling.


Youth of the Beast (野獣の青春, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

youth of the beast posterSeijun Suzuki had been directing for seven years and had made almost 20 films by the time he got to 1963’s Youth of the Beast (野獣の青春, Yaju no Seishun). Despite his fairly well established career as a director, Youth of the Beast is often though to be Suzuki’s breakthrough – the first of many films displaying a recognisable style that would continue at least until the end of his days at Nikkatsu when that same style got him fired. Building on the frenetic, cartoonish noir of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Suzuki once again casts Jo Shishido in the the lead only this time as an even more ambiguous figure playing double agent to engineer a gang war between two rival hoodlums.

Suzuki opens in black and white as the bodies of a man and a woman are discovered by a small team of policemen. Finding a note from the deceased female which states that she settled on taking her own life because she loved her man and thought death was the only way to keep him, the police assume it’s an ordinary double suicide or perhaps murder/suicide but either way not worthy of much more attention, though discovering a policeman’s warrant card on the nightstand does give them pause for thought.

Meanwhile, across town, cool as ice petty thug Jo Mizuno (Jo Shishido) is making trouble at a hostess bar but when he’s taken to see the boss, it transpires he was really just making an audition. The Nomoto gang take him in, but Mizuno uses his new found gang member status to make another deal with a rival organisation, the Sanko gang, to inform on all the goings on at Nomoto. So, what is Mizuno really up to?

As might be expected, that all goes back to the first scene of crime and some suicides that weren’t really suicides. Mizuno had a connection with the deceased cop, Takeshita (Ichiro Kijima), and feels he owes him something. For that reason he’s poking around in the local gang scene which is, ordinarily, not the sort of world straight laced policeman Takeshita operated in which makes his death next to a supposed office worker also thought to be a high class call girl all the stranger.

Like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Youth of the Beast takes place in a thoroughly noirish world as Mizuno sinks ever deeper into the underbelly trying to find out what exactly happened to Takeshita. Also like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Youth of the Beast is based on a novel by Haruhiko Oyabu – a pioneer of Japanese hardboiled whose work provided fertile ground for many ‘70s action classics such as The Beast Must Die and Resurrection of the Golden Wolf, but Suzuki’s ideas of noir owe a considerable debt to the gangster movies of the ‘30s rather than the moody crime dramas of twenty years later.

Jo Shishido’s Mizuno is a fairly typical ‘40s conflicted investigator, well aware of his own flaws and those of the world he lives in but determined to find the truth and set things right. The bad guys are a collection of eccentrics who have more in common with tommy gun toting prohibition defiers than real life yakuza and behave like cartoon villains, throwing sticks of dynamite into moving cars and driving off in hilarious laughter. Top guy Nomoto (Akiji Kobayashi) wears nerdy horn-rimmed glasses that make him look like an irritated accountant and carries round a fluffy cat he likes to wipe his knives on while his brother Hideo (Tamio Kawaji), the fixer, is a gay guy with a razor fetish who likes to carve up anyone who says mean stuff about his mum. The Sanko gang, by contrast, operate out of a Nikkatsu cinema with a series of Japanese and American films playing on the large screen behind their office.

The narrative in play may be generic (at least in retrospect) but Suzuki does his best to disrupt it as Mizuno plays the two sides against each other and is often left hiding in corners to see which side he’s going to have to pretend to be on get out of this one alive. Experimenting with colour as well as with form, Suzuki progresses from the madcap world of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! to something weightier but maintains his essentially ironic world view for an absurd journey into the mild gloom of the nicer end of the Tokyo gangland scene.


Original trailer (no subtitles)