Ken (剣, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

Most closely associated with jidaigeki, Kenji Misumi’s only film to be set in the contemporary era, Ken (剣), shifts his persistent concerns into the modern day in the clash of the warrior ideal and the emotional costs of living, but also takes a sideways look at conflicted post-war masculinity as two young men vicariously lock horns in a quest for mastery over their desires. Adapting a short story by Yukio Mishima, Misumi dials back on the tragic romance of militarism painting the hero’s ultimate acceptance of nihilistic futility less as a noble sacrifice than a humanist failure of the society that failed to save him from his absolutist fallacy. 

Obsessed with strength and honour, Kokubun (Raizo Ichikawa) has convinced himself that he can capture “this spark of pure life” he saw in the sun through perfecting the art of kendo. An aloof and austere figure, he has foregone all else and dedicated himself to his skill alone. For this reason he is appointed captain of his university kendo club over his jealous rival, Kagawa (Yusuke Kawazu), who loses out because his sword is “sentimental” and there is a concern that he draws his power from “arrogance”. There is indeed something in that, and it’s Kagawa’s sense of male pride that partly sets him on a quest for vengeance and vindication in a obsessive desire to dominate Kokubun but there’s also an unspoken attraction as he later admits to a female acquaintance in remarking that he finds Kokubun’s way of life “infuriating” but despite himself also “refreshing”. 

Literal sword play, Kagawa’s obsession with Kokubun results in a vicarious seduction in which he attempts to corrupt him by enlisting the help of a female student to expose him as a fraud by rupturing his asceticism and thereby destroying his source of strength if not his sense of self. The quasi-sadomasochistic relationship between the two men is further borne out by the implication that Kokubun is in fact finding his sexual release in the intense act of repression, satisfying himself through physical exhaustion in the company of other men, Misumi’s roving camera fully capturing the homoeroticism of this intensely homosocial society. Humiliated by Kokubun who forces him into a public act of contrition through physical endurance after disappointing the club by breaking the rules smoking on the job at their part-time gig at a supermarket, Kagawa goes to the chairman to complain that Kokubun’s leadership style is far too intense, “feudalistic” as another member puts it shortly before quitting, claiming that all he wants is for his rival to wake up from his militarist dream and live in the real world though his final act of mutiny will engender consequences unforeseen in his conviction that Kokubun’s ideology is largely performative self-delusion. 

The team manager perhaps thinks something similar, reminding Kagawa that he is merely “more grown up” as if Kokubun is in a sense maintaining his childlike innocence in refusing to enter an adult world he regards as “ugly” and “corrupt”. His ideal is simplicity and he finds it in the primacy of the sword. There is in this something of an uncomfortable militarist throwback that finds a disciple in the ever loyal Mibu (Akio Hasegawa) who dutifully parrots back the quasi-facist philosophy to his quietly horrified mother and sisters who probably don’t help the situation by mocking his lack of masculinity in his inability to grow a proper beard while insisting on shaving every day anyway. Attracted by Kokubun’s dynamism and energy, he longs for strength through self denial. “We must move away from those empty desires” Kokubun instructs him while discussing the suicide of a young man who was discovered next to a selection of half eaten fruit. Rather than sympathy the man is largely mocked by his male peers, Kokubun dismissing him as “weak in mind and body” for having taken his own life apparently in fear of failure, but also stressing that suicide is a choice taken by the very strong as well as the very weak. 

In this brief exchange he opens the door to a notion of nobility in the choice to take one’s own life which leads straight back into the death cult of militarism, perhaps something that only Mibu as a fellow devotee is able to see. Yet Misumi perhaps undercuts this sense of nobility with a return to collective shame, eulogising Kokubun’s determination to preserve his “uprightness and strength” as Kagawa admits defeat in the face of Kokubun’s unbreakable purity, while placing the burden of failed responsibility on the kendo troupe not for their inability to live up to his ideal but for their lack of understanding in failing to free him of his moral absolutism. The way of the sword once again leads only to death and while there may be an uncomfortable beauty in such moral purity, in the end all there is is futility. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Irezumi (刺青, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

91HAEic7eNL._SL1500_Irezumi (刺青) is one of three films completed by the always prolific Yasuzo Masumura in 1966 alone and, though it stars frequent collaborator Ayako Wakao, couldn’t be more different than the actresses’ other performance for the director that year, the wartime drama Red Angel. Based on a novel by Tanizaki and scripted by Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Kuroneko), Irezumi is a supernaturally tinged tale of vengeance and betrayal.

The film begins in the middle as Otsuya, having been abducted and sold to a geisha house, is tied, bound and chloroformed so that a tattooist can mark her skin with the eery portrait of a spider with a human face. Skipping back awhile, it seems this came about as a consequence of Otsuya convincing the mild mannered assistant of her father, Shinsuke, to run away with her. The pair take refuge at the home of a family friend, Gonji, but after his advances towards Otsuya are rebuffed he arranges to have Shinsuke killed and Otsuya sold as a geisha. Shinsuke manages to get away after a bloody fight but he’s a gentle man and the violence of the encounter marks him. Otsuya, by contrast, finds she quite enjoys her new life and gets along OK with her pimp, Tokubei, who urges her to “feed on men”. Otsuya’s lusts become ever more violent with the spectre of the tattoo artist hovering in the background. Is the tattoo itself enacting these scenes of terrifying vitality or merely an excuse for releasing Otsuya’s true nature?

Shot in vibrant colour in contrast to Red Angel and many of Masumura’s other efforts from around the same time, Irezumi makes fantastic use of its lurid atmosphere. Sex and death and violence – hardly unusual themes for Japanese cinema though Irezumi feels like an early precursor to the exploitative pinky violence cycle of the following decade. In keeping with those films, Otsuya is another conflicted avenger, wreaking havoc on venial men who think they can buy and sell a woman’s soul as well as her body. As the violence mounts, Otsuya falls into a kind of mania and at one point exclaims that this isn’t really her at all, it’s all the fault of the spider on her back – trapping men in its silky web only to suck them dry and throw away the husk.

Whether Otsuya is herself an avenging warrior for the female sex or merely a demonic vision of the ultimate male fear is somewhat up for debate. Her transgressions are intentionally destabilising – she breaks with convention by “betraying” her father when she runs of with Shinsuke and not only that, she does so at her own insistence. Shinsuke himself is far too meek and mild mannered to have ever done such a thing entirely of his own will and is largely swept along by Otsuya for the entire course of the film. Only when he fears she may betray him does he decide to take action. Otsuya’s sexuality in itself is also transgressive, actively pursuing Shinsuke before a formal marriage and then even expressing her enjoyment of her new life in the pleasure quarters – neither attitude is one that is expected of the demure daughter of a noble house. Is she an emancipated woman, or fallen one? The film offers no clear judgement here but presents her both in terms of vengeful heroine and of terrifying villainess.

Along with its rather complicated structure beginning in a media res opening followed by a lengthy flashback sequence, Irezumi is never quite as successful as Masumura’s other mid ‘60s offerings. Though boasting a script by maestro Kaneto Shindo, a noted director in his own right and frequent visitor to the realms of horror, something about Irezumi fails to coalesce. That said, it does offer a visually arresting, generally interesting supernaturally tinged tale and yet another fantastic performance from its talented leading lady.


Irezumi is available with English subtitles on UK R2 DVD from Yume Pictures

Tattoo sequence from the film:

 

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 4: Police Tactics (仁義なき戦い: 頂上作戦, Kinji Fukasaku, 1974)

b0176154_10205690It’s 1963 now and the chaos in the yakuza world is only increasing. However, with the Tokyo olympics only a year away and the economic conditions considerably improved the outlaw life is much less justifiable. The public are becoming increasingly intolerant of yakuza violence and the government is keen to clean up their image before the tourists arrive and so the police finally decide to do something about the organised crime problem. This is bad news for Hirono and his guys who are already still in the middle of their own yakuza style cold war.

Police Tactics (仁義なき戦い: 頂上作戦, Jingi Naki Tatakai: Chojo Sakusen), the fourth in the Yakuza Papers (or Battles Without Honour and Humanity) series, once again places Hirono at the centre of events for much of the film. The cold war from the end of the last film, Proxy War, is still going on with ambitious boss Takeda hosting additional foot soldiers from other areas of the country. However, all these extra guys are quite a drain on his resources and, simply put, it’s going to ruin him if this situation goes on much longer. Yamamori is currently holed up in a safe place and only steps outside to go to the bath house when he’s surrounded by a huge entourage of bodyguards. Added to the gang rivalry which is only growing now as factions split and new families are formed, not to mention all the guys from outside, is the now constant police pressure. Up to now, the police have been either a minor irritation or a soft ally but this time the guys might have finally met their match.

It’s almost twenty years since Hirono settled into the yakuza life. He’s not an old man, but he’s not a young one either. You can no longer explain or excuse any of his actions with the fire of youth – he’s one of the veterans now. However, young men are always young men and even while the older guys try to scheme and come up with a plan the youngsters are all for action. Hirono has always been the one noble gangster. Committed to yakuza ideals, he’s loyal to his bosses and dedicated to taking care of his guys. Hence, there’s no way he’s going to let one of his men take out Yamamori – firstly, after nursing a grudge for 18 years he wants to handle it himself but even if he didn’t he still wouldn’t be able go after Yamamori in anything other than an honourable way. However, now even Hirono says at one point “I don’t give a fucking shit about honour anymore”. At this point you know it’s all over, the one loyal retainer has finally given up.

With the police pressure mounting, the violence on the streets intensifies with even more feats of desperate backstreets warfare. Hirono himself is absent for a lot of the film while he gets picked up by the police on a flimsy pretext. More gangs are introduced, more guys die before you even begin to remember their names. There’s death everywhere yet still more yakuza keep turning up, offering to die for their bosses who will sell them out without a second thought if it buys them ten seconds more in power. The younger generation may not have the trauma of the war to burn through, but they’ve grown up in this world of street gangs and constant violence so it stands to reason that they come to idolise the tough guys and think joining a gang is their one way ticket out of the slums. As they will discover, there is always a heavy price to be paid for ambition and naivety.

The shooting style is pretty much the same as the first few films in the series. Documentary style voice over, hand held camera and freeze frame death shots are the order of the day. Once again we begin and end with the ruined dome reminding us of the price of violence. Police Tactics could almost be the end of the cycle. With the police finally deciding to act, by the end of the film all of the major players are off the streets in one way or another. In the end, all that death and violence amounted to to nothing. As the film reminds us, public order may have been restored (temporarily) but the systems and conditions which lead to violence are still very much in place.


Police Tactics is available on blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity: The Complete Collection box set.