Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Nikkatsu’s brand of youth cinema could often have a nasty edge, its damaged heroes caught up in complicated rebellion but necessarily outsiders in a changing world which they feared held no real place for them. For each of those, however, there are others filled with life and possibility, not to mention a cartoonish sense of fun and infinite safety which perhaps largely disappeared from the films of the 1960s only to be found again in Kadokawa’s similarly aspirational teen movies of the bubble era. 

Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Muteppo Daisho, AKA Reckless Boss / A Hell of a Guy) once again stars Koji Wada as an earnest young man kicking back against the corrupt wartime generation. Still in high school, Eiji has a part-time job at an ice rink which he doesn’t treat quite as seriously as he ought to but his boss lets him get away with it because his handsome face is a hit with the local ladies. Eiji and two of his friends are keen members of a karate club and have decided to use their skills to fight for justice in their lawless town by going on “patrol”, clearing up the kinds of crimes the police might not make it to in time. Their plan backfires, however, when they come across the body of a recently deceased union leader and are arrested by a local bobby after getting caught with a joke knife one of the boys made for fun at his job on the family scrap yard. 

It comes as no surprise that Eiji’s arch enemy, sleazy mob boss Shinkai (Nakajiro Tomita), is behind the murder, apparently hired by a corrupt corporate CEO trying to stop his workforce exercising their legal rights. Eiji hates Shinkai because he bankrolled his widowed mother’s (Kotoe Hatsui) bar business but did so perhaps in return for being able to control her and by extension him by wielding his economic power against them. His loathing intensifies once he realises that the slightly older young woman he’s carrying a torch for, Yukiyo (Izumi Ashikawa), has fallen for one of Shinkai’s men, Goro (Ryoji Hayama). 

Goro is the classically “good” gangster who feels indebted to Shinkai because he took him in after the war, but wants to leave the underworld behind, going straight in Kobe where he intends to live a settled married life with Yukiyo. The modern yakuza is in many ways a Showa era phenomenon, a mechanism for men without families to protect themselves in the desperate post-war environment. By 1961, however, its existence was perhaps becoming harder to justify. The war orphans had grown up and had families of their own, the economy had significantly improved, and there was no need anymore to live a life of crime and heartlessness – a conclusion Goro has come to on his own after meeting the earnest Yukiyo who has similar problems with her goodhearted yet permanently drunk doctor father. 

Knowing he might have messed things up for his mother in interfering with her relationship with Shinkai, Eiji confesses that doesn’t “know what to do with the grownup world”. For him, everything is still very black and white. He hates yakuza because they prey on the vulnerable and Shinkai in particular because he does it so insidiously, forcing desperate people to accept loans on bad terms so that he can in fact “own” them and use them as he wishes. Eiji and his peer group kick back against what they see as the selfish corruption of the wartime generation, agitating for a fairer, more just world. The wealthy daughter of a corrupt CEO (Mayumi Shimizu) who has a crush on Eiji though he only has eyes for Yukiyo comes up with the idea of selling her fancy car to get money to help Eiji’s mother escape Shinkai’s control, but her father snaps at her that other people aren’t her responsibility and that she doesn’t understand how the real world works. 

Somewhat chastened by the youngsters’ pure hearted love of justice, he eventually comes up with a compromise in buying the car off her himself, but before that Eiji and his friends have to think carefully about the form they want their revolution to take. Taking him to task, Yukiyo points out that if all you do is fight with yakuza then maybe you’re a yakuza yourself, which shifts Eiji’s perspective towards ensuring that his rebellion is fully legal and involves the justice systems already in place. He comes to recognise that Goro is much like himself, and if he’s going to take down a sleazy brute like Shinkai it will take more than some fancy karate. Their resistance starts at home, giving others courage to stand up to yakuza oppression while living right themselves in the hope of creating a better, fairer world free of heartless organised crime.


Everything Goes Wrong (すべてが狂ってる, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

Everything goes wrong posterThe Tokyo of 1960 was one defined by unrest as the biggest protests in history filled the streets urging the government to rethink the renewal of the security treaty Japan had signed with America after the war in order to provide military support in the absence of a standing army. Yet the protests themselves are perhaps an indication of the extent to which the nation was already recovering. With the Olympics just four years away, post-war privation had been replaced by a rapidly expanding economy, dynamic global outlook, and increased possibilities for the young who enjoyed both greater personal freedom than their parents’ generation and a kind of optimism unthinkable merely ten years previously. Nevertheless, this sense of the new, of unchecked potential was itself disorientating and had, as some saw it, led to a moral decline in which youth aimlessly idled its time away on self indulgent pleasures – namely drink, drugs, promiscuous sex and American jazz.

This dark side of youth had become a talking point thanks to a series of notorious “Sun Tribe” movies produced by the youth-orientated Nikkatsu studios. The films were so controversial the studio was eventually forced to stop making them, but all they really did was tone down the shock factor to one of mild outrage. Seijun Suzuki, picking up the Sun Tribe mantle, goes further than most in Everything Goes Wrong (すべてが狂ってる, Subete ga Kurutteru), painting post-war malaise as a tragedy of generational disconnection as the chastened wartime generation, accepting their role in history, watch their children hurtle headlong down another alleyway of self destruction but are ultimately unable to save them.

Our “hero”, Jiro (Tamio Kawaji), is as someone later poignantly puts it, “a nice boy”. A student, he spends his spare time on the fringes of gang of petty delinquents who get their kicks freaking squares, engaging in acts of casual prostitution, and enacting non-violent muggings. Jiro’s main problem in life is his fierce attachment to his single-mother, Masayo (Tomoko Naraoka). After Jiro’s father was killed in the war (apparently run over by a Japanese tank), Masayo became involved with a married man who has been supporting herself and Jiro for the last ten years. Young enough to have an almost completely black and white approach to moral justice, Jiro cannot stomach this fact and accuses his mother of being a virtual prostitute, accepting money for sex without love.

Jiro repeatedly accuses the older generation of hypocrisy, that they lie about their true feelings and motivations whilst denying their responsibility for the war which took his father’s life. Yet, Nambara (Shinsuke Ashida), his mother’s lover, is a kind and honest man who answers every question put to him honestly and with fierce moral integrity. He admits his responsibility for the folly of war – something he feels keenly seeing as he is a weapons engineer by trade, but rejects Jiro’s characterisation of his relationship with Masayo as something essentially immoral. His justifications are perhaps, as Jiro puts it, “philanderer’s clichés”, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true. Nambara, as a young man, entered into an arranged marriage with the daughter of a now deceased general. The marriage is loveless and emotionally dead, but Nambara is an earnest person and will honour the commitment he made to his first wife even if it brings him personal pain. Masayo has always known this and even if he cannot legally marry her, Nambara has given her his heart and will also honour that commitment in continuing to try and make her son see that he is not the enemy, just another man who loves his mother.

There is something quite ironic in Jiro’s strangely conservative moral universe which rejects the “impure” nature of his mother’s romance, while the older generation are better positioned to understand that things are never as simple as they seem. Jiro is rigid and unforgiving where his parents are flexible and empathetic. He rejects his mother for being a “whore” but throws money at a girl who is in love with him because he thinks that’s what women “want”. Unable to accept her emotional needs, he thinks of her as a prostitute and thereby abnegates his responsibility – the exact opposite of the “goodness” Nambara displays in offering financial support for a woman he loves which (in his eyes) has no particular strings and is given only with the intention of making her life easier.

Jiro, infected both by mother and madonna/whore complexes, is profoundly disturbed when another young woman tries to point out that aside from being his mother Masayo is also a woman with normal human needs both emotional and physical. Following his botched attempt to blacken Nambara in her eyes, he drags his mother to a breezy youth fuelled beach party where he throws her into a tent full of lithe young male bodies and tells her to have her fill. Nambara, still determined to talk Jiro around, laments to Masayo that they never had the opportunity to experience the kind of freedom that these youngsters feel themselves entitled to. If only they were not so trapped by the social codes of their era, they might have been happy. Yet these youngsters, with everything in front of them, are anything but – determined to destroy themselves in nihilistic confusion, caught in a moment of flux when nothing is certain and everything is possible.

At the film’s conclusion, a cynical journalist remarks to a sympathetic mama-san that “today, goodwill between people can’t exist anywhere, everything has gone wrong”. Jiro’s tragic fate is that he, like many “nice” kids like him, cannot reconcile himself to the moral greyness of the post-war world in which the “heroic sacrifice” of their parents’ is hypocritically held up as wholesome entertainment. Unable to accept the love and kindness of Nambara who only wants to act as a father to him and continues to believe that “one day he will understand” even after Jiro has hurt him deeply both emotionally and physically, Jiro has only one direction in which to turn.

Suzuki weaves Jiro’s tale around that of his friends – the unhappy delinquents and the struggling workers, women used by men who promise them love but reject their responsibilities, women who think they have to trade something to win love which ought to be freely given, and the older generation who can do nothing more than look on with sadness as youth destroys itself. Suzuki’s sympathies lie with everyone, but more than most with the Nambaras of the world who are desperately trying to fix what was broken but find that in a world that’s already gone crazy kindness is met with suspicion while money, corrupting true emotional connection, has become the only arbiter of bitter truths.


Thirst for Love (愛の渇き, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967)

(C) Nikkatsu 1967

Thrill for love posterIf The Warped Ones showed us a hellish, uncivilised world in which people acted on their base desires with little thought for others, Thirst for Love (愛の渇き, Ai no Kawaki) shows us the opposite as desire repressed eats away at those unable to find fulfilment in their assigned social roles. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s swirling artistry may have proved too much for studio bosses at Nikkatsu (Thirst for Love would be the last film he’d make as a regular director for the studio), but it finds a perfect match in the florid world of Yukio Mishima.  A tale of inequalities and misunderstandings, the rarefied atmosphere of Thirst for Love is just as “warped” as that of Nikkatsu’s gritty youth dramas in which desire and gratification become tools of currency in a grand game of wounds given and received.

Our heroine, Etsuko (Ruriko Asaoka), is a young widow living with her late husband’s family. Following the death of her husband, Etsuko has become the mistress of the family’s tyrannical patriarch, Yakichi (Nobuo Nakamura) – a successful businessman apparently forced out of the company he founded and into an early retirement. Yakichi resents the rest of his family whom he regards as feckless freeloaders. Oldest son Kensuke (Akira Yamanouchi) is a part-time classics professor and full-time neurotic intellectual. He and his wife Chieko (Yuko Kusunokiare unable to have children of their own (something else that annoys Yakichi), while daughter Asako (Yoko Ozono) has come back to her family home following a divorce with two children in tow. The family are all “aware” of the strange dynamic between Yakichi and his daughter-in-law but are too polite to bring it up. Nevertheless, Kensuke also has a thing for Etsuko which Chieko is aware of but not particularly worried about because she really does respect and trust her husband.

Etsuko is not particularly interested in Kensuke. There’s nothing he could really offer her. Though she keeps up a pretence of happiness with her current living standards, even going so far as to write a fake diary expressly intended for Yakichi to read, Etsuko feels nothing but contempt for and boredom with the emotionally cold and controlling family patriarch. Her faith in human emotions is low, but still she feels desire. When the teenage gardener Saburo (Tetsuo Ishidate) catches her admiring a beautiful statue and remarks on Etsuko’s own beauty, he puts untoward ideas in her head.

Even in the post-war world, women like Estuko have little agency. After her husband died, she could have stuck it out alone – found a job, supported herself. She could have remarried or perhaps have received financial support from the family while living alone, but she’s chosen to remain with them even given her somewhat degrading role as her father-in-law’s mistress-cum-plaything. When Saburo tells her she is beautiful he oversteps the established laws of class separation and Etsuko is too clever not to know how clichéd her new found lust for a peasant boy really is but she can’t unsee his broad shoulders and muscular frame or the sweat that crowds his brow as he labours on her behalf.

She begins making coy overtures which Saburo, unwittingly or otherwise, deflects. The situation is complicated by another woman, Miyo (Chitose Kurenai), who may or may not be something like Saburo’s girlfriend though as we will later find out, Saburo is a typically immature young man who regards his relationships with women as essentially inconsequential. Deferent towards his mistress, he demands to be released from her cruel games. Yet Etsuko had hardly realised that’s what they were. She cannot simply voice her desire or make her interest plain. Hers is not the first move to make. Several times Etsuko comes close to crossing a line but she always pulls back – inflicting necessary suffering on herself through her inability realise her desires.

Suffering, in a sense, becomes the point and almost a bizarre source of pleasure. In a climactic moment of drunken dinner party truthfulness, Kensuke attempts to apologise for a potentially destructive speech by revealing that he meant to smash everything to bits but has only succeeded in destroying himself. Etsuko too means to hurt others, partly as a kind of revenge, but in truth only to increase her own suffering. Her plan stumbles when she realises that Saburo is and always has been entirely indifferent towards her. He saw her as the mistress of the manor, an elegant and attractive woman, but felt no more desire for her than for any other. As he puts it, they live in different worlds – she is nothing to him, and nothing she does can change that. Etsuko has only destroyed herself, a self-immolation of repressed desire which threatens to burn the world with its ferocious intensity.

If Etsuko is to free herself from the burden of her need, she will pay a heavy price to do so. Kurahara shifts into an avant-garde register more in keeping with the more or less contemporary work of Kiju Yoshida in his anti-melodrama phase, but Kurahara’s approach is, in keeping with the source material, altogether less serious, fully embracing the melodramatic but taking pains to underpin it with deeply felt emotion. Asaoka excels as the neurotic housewife driven slowly mad in a stultifying, moribund household where she is forced to submit to the sexual whims of her bossy father-in-law and has little more to occupy her time than walking the dog and dreaming of a roll in the hay with the not yet 20 gardener.

Kurahara paints her world as one of sensations – the blood that becomes both symbol of life and death, the symbolic pleasures of a pomelo, and the fearsome flapping of chickens even as their throats are slit. Shifting to still frames for moments of high emotion – much as Shinoda had done in the finale of With Beauty and Sorrow two years before, Kurahara mixes ironic voiceover with intertitles and unexpected editing choices to capture the flightiness of Etsuko’s mind but he allows himself one luxury in letting her leave to a bright red sky, a woman on fire thirsting for love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Incorrigible (悪太郎, AKA The Bastard, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

(C) Nikkatsu 1963

(C) Nikkatsu 1963Seijun Suzuki often credits 1963’s Youth of the Beast as the real turning point in his directorial career, believing that it marked the first time he was ever really able to indulge his taste for the surreal to the extent that he truly wanted. The Incorrigible (悪太郎, Akutato, AKA Bastard), completed directly after Youth of the Beast, is another turning point of a kind in that it marks Suzuki’s first collaboration with set designer Takeo Kimura who would accompany him through his ‘60s masterpieces contributing to the uniquely theatrical aesthetic which came to be the director’s trademark.

Inspired by an autobiographical novel by Toko Kon, The Incorrigible of the title, Togo Konno (Ken Yamauchi), is a young man coming of age in the early Taisho era. He’s of noble birth and enjoys both wealth and privilege – something of which he is well aware, but is also of a rebellious, individualist character believing himself above the normal rules of civil society. Expelled from his posh Kyoto school after getting into a dalliance with a teacher’s daughter (she’s been sent off to a convent), Konno is then abruptly abandoned by his mother who has tricked him into travelling to a remote rural town where a friend of a family friend has promised to reform him at his military middle school. Konno thinks he’s too clever for this, he makes a point of deliberately failing his entrance exam in the mistaken belief that failing to get in would make him free to travel to Tokyo and start life on his own. He’s wrong, and failure to pass the exam would only entail being held back a year. Konno capitulates and agrees to start his new life as one among many in a backward little village in Southern Japan.

Though set in the Taisho era, Konno’s youth seems to suffer from the same problems that would plague the young men of 30 years later. His school is proto-militarist and hot on discipline. The boys are trained to be strong rather than smart and have inherited all the petty prejudices of their parents which they hone to the point of weaponry. The “Public Morals” department operates almost like a mini military police for students – making routine inspections of students’ home lives and keeping an eye out for “illicit” activities round and about town. Konno sees himself as grown man with a rebellious heart – he smokes openly, keeps a picture of the girl who got him into this mess in his room, and tells bawdy, probably made up stories about how he lost his virginity to a geisha (for free). He will not bow to the morality police, or any authority but his own.

Authority is something Konno seems to be good at. Picked on for his continuing preference for Japanese dress, Konno neatly deflects the attentions of the Public Morals division and comes out on top. When they raid his room and complain about his novel reading habit, he shouts them all down and gets them to sit on the floor while he “educates” them about foreign literature. Militarism has not yet arrived, but anti-intellectualism is already on the up and up. Konno’s love of literature is one of his many “deficient” qualities as teachers and students alike bemoan his “frivolous” hobbies, seeing his sensitivity and disregard for the commonly accepted ideals as signs of his unwelcome “unmanliness”.

Konno’s other big problem is, as might be expected, girls. Having been in town only moments Konno takes a fancy to doctor’s daughter Emiko (Masako Izumi) – his desire is only further inflamed after catching sight of her in the book shop and realising she too has bought a copy of Strindberg’s Red Room. She doesn’t care for Strindberg’s misanthropy, but a bond is quickly forged between the two sensitive souls trapped in this “traditional” small town where feelings are forbidden and youth constrained by social stricture.

It is, however, a love doomed to fail. The majority of Suzuki’s early work for Nikkatsu had been contemporary youth dramas, yet the artfully composed black and white photography of the Taisho setting is a melancholic affair which rejects both the rage of the modern action dramas and Suzuki’s trademark detached irony. Using frequent dissolves, The Incorrigible conjures a strong air of nostalgia and regret, a sad love story without end. Yet at its conclusion it makes sure to inject a note of uplifting inspiration as our hero wanders off into a fog of confusion, filled with a passion for pursuing truth and vowing to live without losing hope.


The Incorrigible is the fourth of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)