Hungry Soul / Hungry Soul, Part II (飢える魂 / 続・飢える魂, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

When you think of the family drama, you think of a young woman getting married and that her marriage is an unambiguously good and righteous thing despite the pain it may bring to her parents who will obviously miss her yet must comfort themselves that they’ve done everything right. In melodrama, however, we get quite a different picture of the “modern” marriage in which it is not quite so unambiguously good or righteous but a patriarchal trap enabled by a kind of gaslighting which tells women that suffering is the natural condition of life and that they should wear their unhappiness as a badge of honour.  

Nowhere does this seem truer than in the films of Yuzo Kawashima who in general takes quite a dim view of romance as a path to freedom and finds his heroines struggling to escape outdated social codes to seize their own freedom. Hungry Soul (飢える魂, Ueru Tamashii) finds one still comparatively young woman and another middle-aged discovering that they want more out of life than their society thinks a woman is supposed to have but continuing to wrestle with themselves over whether or not they have the right to pursue their personal happiness in a rigidly conservative society. 

Reiko (Yoko Minamida), a woman in her early 30s, married Shiba (Isamu Kosugi), 23 years her senior, 10 years previously apparently out of a mix of youthful naivety and post-war desperation. Shiba has supported her financially and apparently enabled her brother’s career, but it’s clear that he thinks of her as little more than a glorified housemaid, treating her with utter contempt even in public. He makes her carry her own bags at the station rather than wait for a porter and forces her to accompany him on business trips where he shows her off to colleagues and then retires her to the hotel with nothing to do all day. Tyrannised, Reiko has been been raised to be obedient and does her best to be a good wife, but Shiba repeatedly reminds her that he bought her while openly talking about his relationships with other women even at one point bringing a geisha home with him while Reiko cringes in the front seat next to the driver. 

Perhaps what she’s learning is that obedience is not an unambiguously good quality, but still she struggles to let go of the necessity of measuring up to the standards of social propriety. When Shiba unwittingly introduces her to handsome politician Tachibana (Tatsuya Mihashi), her accidental attraction to him awakens her to all the ways her married life is a hell of disappointment. Shiba reminds her that he keeps her in comfort, little understanding that she may hunger for something more than the material, while Reiko realises that she may starve to death for lack of love but has been conditioned to think that a woman’s emotional needs are not only unimportant but entirely taboo. 

Mayumi (Yukiko Todoroki), meanwhile, has known love but feels obliged to live on the memory of her late husband and fulfil herself only though caring for her two teenage children. To do that, paradoxically, she has seized her independence as a working woman with a job in real estate, later hoping to manage a ryokan traditional style hotel, only for her children to resent her perceived rejection of motherhood in favour of individual fulfilment. “School is for people who have two parents” her son tells her, threatening to move out into a dorm, while her daughter at one point considers suicide simply because she suspects her mother may be sleeping with her late father’s best friend. 

In Reiko’s case, her desire for liberation is kickstarted by a hunger for love, though as we later realise Tachibana is also perhaps looking to break with the past and with conventional male behaviour in that he has been a womanising playboy involved in relationships with women from the red light district which to him were always casual while they, like Reiko and Mayumi, longed for more. Mayumi’s relationship with Shimozuma (Shiro Osaka), by contrast, is complicated by the fact he is married to a woman with a long-term illness, though what he craves (besides Mayumi herself for whom he seems to have been carrying a torch for many years) is a conventional family home, jokingly chiding Mayumi that her interest in business may be making her less “womanly”.  

Both women try, and fail, to break free of patriarchal control to claim their own agency, discovering that romance is not the best way to find freedom. Despite her love for and possibly misplaced faith in Tachibana, Reiko is both too brutalised by her abusive husband and constrained by the taboo of being a woman ending a marriage for another man to definitively escape Shiba’s control. Mayumi, meanwhile, is shamed by the reflection of herself in her children’s eyes and motivated to reassume her maternity but does so also as a way of rejecting easy romantic fulfilment in the hope of discovering more of herself as a middle-aged woman embracing all the freedom that might offer while her children, though grateful to have her return to them, are also chastened and guilty in having realised that their mother is a woman too and ultimately they just want her to be happy. As often in Kawashima, no one quite gets what they wanted, but they do at least find a kind of resolution. Their souls may still be hungry, but their appetites have returned and there is the promise of future fulfilment if still tempered by the restrictions of a cruelly repressive society.


Hungry Soul opening (no subtitles)

Hungry Soul, Part II opening (no subtitles)

The Perfect Game (完全な遊戯, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

In the mid-1950s, Nikkatsu had courted controversy with a series of films depicting the amoral excesses of the immediate post-war generation. The “Sun Tribe” movies embedded themselves in a world of new bright young things who were largely independently wealthy and thoroughly bored by the ease of their lives. Nikkatsu was forced to halt production on the Sun Tribe films after only three (Toho and Daiei added one each of their own), but they did precipitate a wholesale shift towards youth movies which became the studio’s signature theme. 

Best remembered for his contributions to Nikkatsu’s action noir, Toshio Masuda’s The Perfect Game (完全な遊戯, Kanzenna Yugi, AKA The Tragedy of Today) arrived two years after the Sun Tribe craze but neatly picked up the baton dropped by Kon Ichikawa’s Punishment Room in its tale of nihilistic college boy amorality. As the film opens, our four heroes are playing mahjong and lamenting their lack of funds. They are all, it goes without saying, middle class boys largely supported by their parents who, as far as we know, are high ranking salarymen. They are not hungry, or worrying about how to pay rent or tuition, they are just bored and want extra money to go out having fun before they they are forced into the corporate straightjacket with the regular salaryman jobs many of them already have in the bag thanks to the tremendous power of nepotism. 

As the the opening text implied, they viewed their money making exploits as a game, proving how clever they think they are in getting one over on the universe, but all too quickly it spirals out of control. Toda (Yasukiyo Umeno), the ring leader, has come up with an ingenious money making scheme. It turns out that there’s an illegal betting office some distance away from the bicycle racing stadium that keeps taking bets until someone rings from the track and tells them who won, which means there’s about a five minute delay between the winner being declared and bets being called. The boys figure that if they can somehow beat the lag they can win big. To make it work, they ask their “friend” Kazu (Masumi Okada), who they seem to regard as a bit dim, to join them as well as recruiting an old codger to call the race before the boards go up. Surprisingly it works out, but unfortunately the yakuza-backed bookmaker, Matsui (Ryoji Hayama), wasn’t banking on such a big win and doesn’t have the funds to pay out in one go. 

Toda in particular is pissed off. The wind taken out of his sails, he’s not sure what to do which is when So (Akira Kobayashi), the pretty boy of the group, suggests an ironic punishment. Matsui had joked that he’d put up his adorable kid sister Kyoko (Izumi Ashikawa) as collateral if he couldn’t pay out, so why don’t the boys take him at his word and kidnap her. Rewinding a little, these snotty college boys are about to become kidnappers, adding a little blackmail on the side. This isn’t a fun game anymore, someone is going to get hurt whatever happens even if they can’t know the extent to which their plan to earn a few bucks to blow on jazz bars and pool rooms is going to incur collateral damage. 

Unlike the boys, Kyoko is a working class girl. She wants to keep her head down and work hard, not quite approving of her brother’s involvement with the yakuza and wishing he’d find an honest job but also acknowledging that he had few options and it’s his job at the bookies that’s been keeping them all this time. Their father died in the war, and their mother (Yumi Takano) is very ill, bedridden with heart trouble. Kyoko is no innocent, she brushes off So’s attempts to court her by revealing that dozens of creepy guys try the same thing every day, and most of them don’t stop at passing notes. For whatever reason she ends up warming to him, making him take her to a theme park while her mother worries at home, while he also begins to feel conflicted about the plan in falling for her for real. 

So’s mistake is the childish belief that they’re still playing a game and everything will be alright in the end. He foolishly trusts that his friend’s are men of honour and that Matsui will come up with the money and redeem his sister in no time at all. But money’s not easy to come by even if you’re a yakuza, and the boys might not want it anyway if it comes with additional complications. Visiting with Kyoko’s sickly mother, he perhaps begins to see the gap between his comfortable existence and theirs of constant struggle. He’d been so proud to tell Kyoko that he had an interview lined up at a big company because of family connections, but when he arrives there he feels irrelevant. The interview board only ask him questions about his dad, as if he didn’t really exist. Finally they ask him to talk about what he did at uni, what his “passions” are, if he did anything of note in the past few years, perhaps even fall in love? They’ve unwittingly touched a nerve, but So is in any case forced to reflect on the meaninglessness not only of his adolescence, but of his future. This interview has been a farce, but they’re giving him the job anyway because he’s his father’s son. What more is there to say?

The other boys are also worried about their job prospects, concerned that someone might talk and they’ll be forever tarnished by “youthful exuberance”, refusing to take any personal responsibility for the consequences of their “perfect game”. Unlike So they still want to live in that inherently unfair world which exists for upperclass men to do as they please. Toda and So weren’t quite like their friends. They felt conflicted. Toda embarrassed to be borrowing money from his girlfriend but rejecting the others’ belief that you don’t have to pay women back, only to angrily bark at her that there’s “no way a woman can understand” the intensely masculine debate he’s just had with So about responsibility, which he accepted by deflecting in pushing So’s complicity back on him in an attempt to share his guilt. Unlike the Sun Tribe films, youth takes responsibility for itself and its friends, but can find no way to atone for its moral abnegation. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Our Blood Will Not Forgive (俺たちの血が許さない, Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

Our blood will not forgive posterIn Japan, “kaeru no ko wa kaeru”, or “a frog’s son is also a frog”, is an often heard idiom, sometimes disparaging but often affectionate. Can a yakuza’s son become anything other than a yakuza, or does your blood define you in ways you cannot defy? Our Blood Will Not Forgive (俺たちの血が許さない, Oretachi no Chi ga Yurusanai), an early semi-absurdist gangster drama from Seijun Suzuki’s mid-period at Nikkatsu, asks just that question as two brothers battle the legacy of their slain father whose dying wish it was that the yakuza line die with him.

After their father was assassinated at home by sword, the Asari brothers were raised by their mother, Hatsu (Chikako Hosokawa), who did her best to keep them out of the underworld. After the war, however, times were tough. Older brother Ryota (Akira Kobayashi) had to work as a delivery boy to keep the family fed, studying hard at the same time and getting in to a good university. Now grown up, he’s a smart suited night club manager. His younger brother Shinji (Hideki Takahashi), meanwhile, is a clownish goof-off with a good job at an ad agency he’s always in danger of losing (like a fair few jobs before). Today, Shinji was meant to collect his bonus, but he’s bunked off to take part in a local festival which is unfortunate, because he’s got a visitor – Tobita (Akifumi Inoue), the man who killed their father without knowing why and now regrets it. He’s managed to track Shinji down thanks to the fact he looks just like his dad and has a habit of doing stupid things that get his picture in the papers like winning eating competitions and getting lucky on the horses only to get mugged outside.

Tobita’s desire to apologise to the boys exposes their father’s sordid yakuza past and forces them to deal with the legacy of their gangster blood. Though Ryota is more sanguine and simply declares that he “hates all yakuza” before asking Tobita to leave and never come back, Shinji immediately attacks him but then becomes enamoured of the romanticism of the gangster life and considers restarting the Asari clan after getting fired when a picture of him fighting with thugs on the company away trip makes the papers with the headline “yakuza’s son”.

The central irony is that Ryota, who was his mother’s favourite and ostensibly the steady, respectable son, has secretly been a yakuza for quite some time. The club he runs is a yakuza front, which is why he tries to talk Shinji out of trying to get a job there, leading him to feel rejected enough to have too much to drink and start a bar fight, causing problems for Ryota with his boss.

“All yakuza are the same,” Ryota confesses to Shinji as they argue in a car incongruously surrounded by roaring waves, “they’re violent because they’re afraid”. Despite graduating from Tokyo University, Ryota couldn’t get an honest job because they always found out his dad was a yakuza. Out of other options, he decided he had no other choice but to become one too, that he could not escape his blood but might be able to make sure his brother could. Shinji has romantic dreams of the yakuza lifestyle (his bedroom wall’s covered in pictures of Al Capone et al), but Ryota knows what it means, which is why he hates all yakuza, including himself. He’s planning to marry his secretary girlfriend, Yasuko (Chieko Matsubara), but his emotions are so corrupted that he isn’t quite sure if he really loves her or is only making a bid for respectability as a kind of atonement to his mother. In any case, he also feels guilty, knowing that just as his father eventually made his mother miserable, no woman can be happy with a yakuza.

“Yakuza are so stupid, you’re all obsessed with dying – what’s the point?” Shinji eventually exclaims, finally thoroughly disillusioned as his brother goes out in search of an honourable ending rather than trying to escape from certain death at the hands of his vengeful boss. “It may not be easy to live, but there’s nothing honourable about dying!” he tells him, undercutting a series of cultural signifiers, but finally crawling out of the yakuza trap and vowing to live on muddling through with his mother and perky girlfriend, Mie (Yuri Hase) whose birthday party he’s currently missing. Blood does not forgive, but it does eventually release if only you can learn to see it for what it is and choose to be free of it.


Opening (no subtitles)

The Dragon of Macao (マカオの竜, Mio Ezaki, 1965)

Dragon of Macao DVD coverNikkatsu’s “borderless” action was famously internationalist, but as Japan’s place on the world stage began to change in the mid-60s, it also betrayed a slight anxiety in the nation’s new status as a burgeoning economic power in the Asian sphere. The Dragon of Macau (マカオの竜, Macao no Ryu), while indulging in the genre’s characteristically xenophobic vision of China as an exporter of criminality, is another attempt to cash in on James Bond cool as its suave, British passport-carrying hero tries to wrestle a precious gem away from fiercely amoral “pirates” while protecting a betrayed young woman trying to avenge the death of her parents at the hands of duplicitous gangsters.

Set in the bustling port town of Yokohama, the film opens with the harbour patrol forcibly boarding a ship to look for smuggled gold. However, it turns out that the two men they’re searching are members of the patrol themselves on an undercover mission trying to expose organised crime while the guys dressed as policemen are actually members of a gang trying to steal a precious diamond. Fearing the operation blown, the gangsters’ plant offs the lot of them and makes off with the loot.

Meanwhile, “Dragon of Macau” Ryu (Akira Kobayashi) lurks about on the harbour while rival gangster Tsukada (Asano Sano) tries to get the police onside and convince them that someone else is targeting his operation though the police are apt to wonder if he staged the whole thing himself to get rid of the undercover agents. The truth, however, is that ambitious harbour punk Aizu (Jo Shishido) is after a precious diamond known as the “Himalyan Star” which is rumoured to be cursed seeing as everybody who’s come into contact with it has ended up dead.

Unsurprisingly, Aizu gets his hands on the gem from a Chinese broker, Chen, who warns him that two gangsters, Gordon and Boomerang, will do “anything” to get their hands on it. Ryu later turns up a bar run by Tsukada and gets into a bar fight with a series “damn foreigners”, sailors who’d had too much to drink and started hassling the staff. The “damn foreigners” quip is especially ironic seeing as we later discover Ryu is a British citizen who seems to have grown up in Hong Kong after being rescued by a British vessel when the boat he and his parents were travelling on was torpedoed during in the war. Introducing himself to Tsukada, Ryu says that he works for the aforementioned “Gordon”, presumably an imperialist Brit engaged in shady colonial shenanigans out of Hong Kong. The truth about “Ryu” at least turns out to be slightly different, but for the moment he’s a Bond-inspired unflappable agent of cool complete with a fancy white three-piece suit and a collection of gadgets (a cigarette lighter blowtorch, pistol that dispenses matchstick flares, and a tiny nail gun) that would be the envy of any cold war spy.

Not to be outdone, however, Aizu has his own share of surprises including the tiny dagger hidden in the cigarette which permanently hangs from his lip. Temporarily entering this land of intense amorality, Ryu plays along but retains his nobility and remains permanently one step ahead as he attempts to get his hands on the Himalayan Star and return it to its “rightful” owners. Aizu’s main gambit is weaponising women – Aizu’s sister is a plant working at Tsukada’s bar and apparently also his mistress, while he also makes use of another young woman, Nami (Yukiyo Toake), whose late father was a patron of his. She believes Tsukada is responsible for the deaths of her parents and is participating in the plan as revenge, but eventually falls for Ryu’s suave nobility and refuses to betray him when faced with Aizu’s continuing duplicity.

A few narrative machinations later, we’re told that Ryu is “a person without a motherland” but also that he has always been a force for “good” or at least order in that he wants the gemstone not for himself but to get it away from the gangsters and back to its “official” owners (which sort of ignores the fact that the stone was “stolen” from the eye of a Buddhist statue which is presumably why people think it’s “cursed”, and that his primary motivation is avoiding a giant insurance payout). Having fallen for Nami, he leaves her a message that he’d have liked to take her back to Macau but is unsure she’d be happy with someone like him, asking her to look after another young woman who came all the way from Hong Kong to warn him that Gordon and Boomerang have finally taken each other out.

Perhaps in contrast to Nikkatsu’s other international crime dramas, the “threat” turns out to be wholly homegrown in Aizu’s rapidly individualist stance that “life is cruel”, “mercy is for fools”, and those who stand in one’s way must be eliminated. The solution comes, paradoxically, from destabilising internationalism at the hands of a man who is both Japanese and not, speaks several languages, and works as an agent for colonising imperial powers to whom he eventually exiles himself, job done. A rip-roaring spy drama complete with modern day pirates and an extremely ineffectual police presence, The Dragon of Macau is a surprisingly complex effort from Nikkatsu’s “borderless” action strand which makes the case for Japan as a part of wider world rather than a isolated island fearful of losing out in an increasingly globalised environment.


The Black Gambler (黒い賭博師, Ko Nakahira, 1965)

Black Gambler posterNikkatsu’s “Mighty Guy” Akira Kobayashi occupied a very particular space in the studio’s collection of leading men. Where Yujiro Ishihara was known for his roguish cheek, Tetsuya Watari for his bruiser nobility, and Joe Shishido for his detached efficiency, Kobayashi’s chief selling point was his gentlemanly charm and unflappable decency. The “Gambler” series which ran to eight films in all cast him as a James Bond-esque wandering cardsharp with a well tailored suit and keen intellect capable of defeating even the most devious of opponents. The sixth in the series, simply titled The Black Gambler (黒い賭博師, Kuroi Tobakushi), finds Koji Himuro (Akira Kobayashi) returning to Tokyo and straight into the middle of international intrigue as he gets mixed up with a global gambling syndicate hellbent on bringing its particular brand of funny business to the Japanese capital.

Himuro, renowned for his skills at the gaming table, is called to an exclusive gambling party where he entertains the French Ambassador and ruins a cheating rival in the process. Inumaru (Asao Koike), humiliated by his defeat, sends his mistress Reiko (Manami Fuji) to spy on Himuro and figure out all his secrets so they can get their revenge. However, Himuro gets himself mixed up in a bigger crisis when he comes to the rescue of a foreign woman in a park running away from a scary looking gangster. The woman, Nina, claims to be an air stewardess flown in from Hong Kong who has fallen foul of a Chinese gangster named Yang. Yang has apparently tricked her into amassing vast debts and thereafter attempted to recoup his investment in other ways. Himuro is a noble sort of guy and so decides to pay off Nina’s debt by defeating Yang in a game of cards, but Yang is a different kind of opponent than he’s hitherto faced and Himuro finds himself floundering unable to figure out Yang’s particular cheat.

Nikkatsu’s action line was famous for its “borderless” approach, making an international milieu one of its many selling points. This is not to say its vision of global Japan was altogether positive – in fact the reverse was often true. Once again, the Chinese have been designated the criminal element of choice with Yang painted as a villainous cheater complete with a horrible Fu Manchu beard and delirious cackle, sure that his unique method for ensuring victory cannot be beaten. Meanwhile, Himuro’s first engagement dropped him straight into a world of international diplomacy and it comes as no surprise to learn that Yang’s activities are merely a facet of a wider conspiracy which turns out to be run by a Jewish gambler who apparently used his ill gotten gambling gains to finance the Nazis during the second world war. Perhaps it’s wise not to even start trying to unpack that one.

Himuro’s upscale world of high stakes games played in well appointed rooms by men wearing tuxedos and drinking martinis may be a world away from the dirty backstreet shenanigans of Nikkatsu’s other gambling adventures, but there is bite in its defiant bid for frivolity. When Himuro first rocks up at the French Ambassador’s residence, his assistant doesn’t really want to let him in. He is infuriated that with a war going on in Vietnam his boss is taking time out to play silly games of chance rather than getting on the with real business of diplomacy. Vietnam is referenced again in the ironic closing freeze frame in which Himuro covers his face with a newspaper bearing the headline “America bets on bombing North Vietnam” – politics itself is now a game played by men in smart suits trying to stave off the boredom of being alive by using the lives of real men and women as gambling chips with little more feeling for them than for the tiny scraps of plastic which stand in for meaningless little bits of paper in the centre of a table covered in green felt.

Women, it seems, are a more immediate casualty of a gambler’s vice. Reiko, sent to spy on Himuro but drawn to his cardsharp’s acumen, was herself gambled away by her father who lost her to Inumaru in a bet. She holds no affection for the man who won her, but feels bound to him all the same and has vowed to become a top gambler as an odd kind of revenge. Nina too suffers at the hands of gangsters and criminals, drawn to Himuro because of his heroic nobility and unable to escape the underground world of grifters and chancers without the help of a seasoned player.

Sticking to a house style, Nakahira finds little scope to express himself in another B-movie adventure for the sophisticated gambling man. Nevertheless, there’s enough Bond-inspired silliness to keep the franchise fans happy from Himuro’s ball bearing loaded car to the gaming intrigue and intricate cheats that define it. The Black Gambler is a fairly typical example of Nikkatsu’s regular programme picture with little to distinguish it but it does what it sets out to well enough and with crowd pleasing style.


Opening scene (no subtitles)

The Boy Who Came Back (踏みはずした春, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

the boy who came back posterSeijun Suzuki may have been fired for making films that made no sense and no money, but he had to start somewhere before getting the opportunity to push the boat out. Suzuki’s early career was much like that of any low ranking director at Nikkatsu in that he was handed a number of program pictures often intended to push a pop song or starring one of the up and coming stars in the studio’s expanding youth output. The Boy Who Came Back (踏みはずした春, Fumihazushita Haru, AKA The Spring that Never Came) is among these early efforts and marks an early leading role for later pinup star Akira Kobayashi paired with his soon to be frequent leading lady, Ruriko Asaoka. A reform school tale, the film is a restrained affair for Suzuki who keeps the rage quelled for the most part while his hero struggles ever onward in a world which just won’t let him be.

Keiko (Sachiko Hidari) is a conductress on a tour bus, but she has aspirations towards doing good in the world and is also a member of the volunteer organisation, Big Brothers and Sisters. While the other girls are busy gossiping about one of their number who has just got engaged (but doesn’t look too happy about it), Keiko gets a message to call in to “BBS” and is excited to learn she’s earned her first assignment. Keiko will be mentoring Nobuo (Akira Kobayashi) – a young man getting out of reform school after his second offence (assault & battery + trying to throttle his father with a necktie, time added for plotting a mass escape). Nobuo, however, is an angry young man who’s done all this before, he’s not much interested in being reformed and just wants to be left alone to get back to being the cool as ice lone wolf that he’s convinced himself he really is.

Made to appeal to young men, The Boy Who Came Back has a strong social justice theme with Keiko’s well meaning desire to help held up as a public service even if her friends and family worry for her safety and think she’s wasting her time on a load of ne’er do wells. Apparently an extra-governmental organisation, BBS has no religious agenda but is committed to working with troubled young people to help them overcome their problems and reintegrate into society.

Reintegration is Nobuo’s biggest problem. He’s committed to going straight but he’s proud and unwilling to accept the help of others. He turns down Keiko’s offer to help him find work because he assumes it will be easy enough to find a job, but there are no jobs to be had in the economically straightened world of 1958 – one of the reasons Keiko’s mother thinks the BBS is pointless is because no matter how many you save there will always be more tempted by crime because of the “difficult times”. When he calms down and comes back, agreeing to an interview for work at his mother’s factory Nobuo leaves in a rage after an employee gives him a funny look. There are few jobs for young men, but there are none for “punks” who’ve been in juvie. Every time things are looking up for Nobuo, his delinquent past comes back to haunt him.

This is more literally true when an old enemy re-enters Nobuo’s life with the express intention of derailing it. His punk buddies don’t like it that he’s gone straight, and his arch rival is still after Nobuo’s girl, Kazue (Ruriko Asaoka). If Nobuo is going to get “reformed” he’ll have to solve the problem with Kajita (Jo Shishido) and his guys, but if he does it in the usual way, he’ll land up right in the slammer. Keiko’s dilemma is one of getting too involved or not involved enough – she needs to teach Nobuo to fix his self image issues (which are largely social issues too seeing as they relate to familial dysfunction – a violent father and emotionally distant mother creating an angry, fragile young man who thinks he’s worthless and no one will ever really love him) for himself, rather than try to fix them for him.

A typical program picture of the time, The Boy Who Came Back does not provide much scope for Suzuki’s rampant imagination, but it does feature his gift for unusual framing and editing techniques as well as his comparatively more liberal use of song and dance sequences in the (not quite so sleazy) bars and cabarets that Nobuo and his ilk frequent. Unlike many a Nikkatsu youth movie, The Boy Who Came Back has a happy ending as everyone, including the earnest Keiko, learns to sort out their various difficulties and walks cheerfully out into the suddenly brighter future with a much more certain footing.


The Boy Who Came Back is the first 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)

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

rusty knife posterPost-war Japan was in a precarious place but by the mid-1950s, things were beginning to pick up. Unfortunately, this involved picking up a few bad habits too – namely, crime. The yakuza, as far as the movies went, were largely a pre-war affair – noble gangsters who had inherited the codes of samurai honour and were (nominally) committed to protecting the little guy. The first of many collaborations between up and coming director Toshio Masuda and the poster boy for alienated youth, Yujiro Ishihara, Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Sabita Knife) shows us the other kind of movie mobster – the one that would stick for years to come. These petty thugs have no honour and are symptomatic parasites of Japan’s rapidly recovering economy, subverting the desperation of the immediate post-war era and turning it into a nihilistic struggle for total freedom from both laws and morals.

Public support is, largely, behind this new force of order as seen in the local uproar when top gangster Katsumata (Naoki Sugiura) is arrested in connection with an assault. Things being what they are, Katsumata is soon released to laugh at law enforcement from a safe distance but the past is coming for him. Some years ago Katsumata killed a local councillor, Nishida (Ikunosuke Koizumi), and made it look like suicide but three guys from a local gang saw him do it. He paid them to keep quiet, but now one of them feels like talking and thinks Katsumata might like to pay a little more to reseal the deal.

Chatty Tokyo thug Shima (Jo Shishido) gets pushed off a train for his pains but Katsumata is worried enough about the other two to send his guys out to make some enquires. He’s particularly worried about Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) – a “sleeping lion”, Tachibana is a hot head who’s now gone straight after coming out of jail for murdering a guy he thought was a direct cause of his girlfriend’s death. Luckily enough, Tachibana now runs a bar where he employs the other witness, Terada (Akira Kobayashi), to whom he acts as a stern big brother hoping to keep them both on the straight and narrow. Tachibana is unlikely to talk, he wants out of the gangster world for good, but Terada is young and ambitious with a girlfriend to impress. He takes more hush money from Katsumata, not realising what he’s getting himself into, and then lets it go to his head.

Tachibana is the rusty knife of the title. After letting his rage consume him in murdering a petty mobster in revenge for the rape of his girlfriend who later committed suicide, Tachibana has vowed to quell his anger and live a decent, peaceful life. Angry outbursts are, however, never far from the surface and following recent revelations, a rusty knife may find its cutting edge once again.

Keiko (Mie Kitahara), a customer at Tachibana’s bar, is making a documentary about violence in the city which coincidentally turns up a few clues as to Tachibana’s past, not to mention her own. The daughter of the murdered councilman, Nishida, and the niece of another powerful politician, Keiko is a figure of righteousness, charting her own course through the difficult post-war world and attempting to do so with dignity and elegance while refusing to abandon her sense of decency and compassion. Later a real life married couple, Kitahara and Ishihara were a frequent on screen romantic pairing though this time around the connection is more subtle as Keiko begins to sympathise with Tachibana’s plight and commits herself to saving him from destroying himself in becoming consumed by his barely suppressed rage.

Tachibana is indeed raging, though his rage is understandable. As someone later puts it “nothing in this city makes sense”. The systems are corrupt, the wartime generation continue to run the show and run it badly, or at least for their own ends, robbing youth of its rightful place at the forefront of economic recovery. Yet even if Ishihara is a symbol of youthful alienation, his rage is one which must be quelled. Even in this city where nothing makes sense, self control is one’s greatest weapon. If youth is to walk forward into the exciting post-war future, it will have to drop its rusty knives.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Motomu Ida, 1967)

three-minutes-before-explosionIf Nikkatsu Action movies had a ringtone it would probably just be “BANG!” but nevertheless you’ll have to wait more than three rings for the Kaboom! in the admittedly cartoonish slice of typically frivolous B-movie thrills that is 3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Bakuha 3-byo Mae). Once again based on a novel by Japan’s master of the hard boiled Haruhiko Oyabu, 3 Seconds Before Explosion is among his sillier works though lesser known director Motomu Ida never takes as much delight in making mischief as his studio mate Seijun Suzuki. What he does do is make use of Diamond Guy Akira Kobayashi’s boyish earnestness to keep things running along nicely even if he’s out of the picture for much of the action.

Like most of the more outlandish Nikkatsu action fests, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has a complicated relationship with narrative but we begin with former boxer Yabuki (Akira Kobayashi) in the middle of being brainwashed with flashing lights and high pitched noises until he agrees to become a shady government (?) assassin. Perhaps in an effort to save our sanities too, he relents and his first job is ensuring some jewels which were stolen during in the war don’t get into the hands of an evil nazi who will presumably be wanting them for evil nazi business. Anyway, Yabuki does his ninja stuff and thinks he’s tracked the jewels down but runs into a former colleague, Yamawaki (Hideki Takahashi), who is working for a businessman who already has the jewels and wants to keep them. Yamawaki quit being a super spy because he fell in love, which Yabuki thinks is a bit lame but still knows his friend has right stuff and would rather not have to kill him or anything.

Somewhere between the less serious yakuza/gang movies Nikkatsu were making in the late ’60s and a spy spoof, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has its fair share of oddness from strangled dogs to the mini Chinese theme in which one of the henchmen, Yang, wanders around in traditional Chinese garb while another girl at the club enjoys flirting in Mandarin for no apparent reason. It also goes without saying that the evil Nazi is played by an American spouting unconvincing German whilst chewing the scenery to a pulp. Realism is not where we are, but there’s something a little old fashioned about the way Ida chooses to stage his weirdness even if the film is filled with crazy contemporary youth touches such as in the achingly hip Club Casba.

The interpersonal drama comes as Yabuki and Yamawaki face off about their life choices much more than the case at hand. Yamawaki grew tired of the spy life and decided to leave it behind for his lady love, only to get mixed up in all of these petty gangster shenanigans. Still, if he can keep Yabuki away from the jewels until the time limit he’ll be free forever. Nothing is really said about Yabuki’s brainwashing at the beginning of the film, but Yamawaki’s choice does seem to prompt him into a consideration of his own lifestyle. That said, life as a government assassin doesn’t seem so bad – Yabuki doesn’t even really kill people much, just spends his life sneaking into places and leaping heroically between rooftops whilst making use of clever gadgets to evade his foes. The gangsters, however, are pretty evil and keep killing people after claiming to let them go which offends Yabuki’s sense of honour.

Yabuki may not kill, but the film does seem to make a point of killing off all the female characters in case they get in the way of the manly stuff like fighting and making bombs. An innocent kidnapped secretary who had nothing to do with anything is machine gunned down, another girl is murdered by the evil Nazi, and a final one gets marched into a mine field by her boyfriend before returning for revenge and getting unceremoniously taken down anyway. To lose one woman is careless but to kill off (all) three in a short time seems a step too far or perhaps too “realistic” for this otherwise cartoonish approach to violence.

Lacking the visual flair of other Nikkatsu efforts, 3 Seconds to Explosion is never as exciting as its title promises. Despite the athletic displays of the slightly bulkier Kobayashi, there’s a kind of clumsiness to the action and a straightforwardness in approach which does not gel with the ridiculousness of the premise. On lower end of Nikkatsu’s B-movie output, 3 Seconds to Explosion does not stint on the silliness but could do with enjoying itself a little more rather than trying to corral its non-sensical plot into something with serious intent.


 

Tokyo Mighty Guy (東京の暴れん坊, Buichi Saito, 1960)

Tokyo Mighty GuyThe bright and shining post-war world – it’s a grand place to be young and fancy free! Or so movies like Tokyo Mighty Guy (東京の暴れん坊, Tokyo no Abarembo) would have you believe. Casting one of Nikkatsu’s tentpole stars, Akira Kobayshi, in the lead, Buichi Saito’s Tokyo Mighty Guy is, like previous Kobayashi/Saito collaboration The Rambling Guitarist, the start of a franchise featuring the much loved neighbourhood big dog, Jiro-cho.

In this first instalment, Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) has just returned from some overseas study in Paris where, rather than the intellectual pursuits that he planned, Jiro mostly wound up with a love of French cuisine. His parents have just opened a small French restaurant in fashionable Ginza and Jiro is now working there too despite the more lucrative paths that might be open for someone with a college education, language skills and overseas experience.

Jiro is also a hit with the ladies, and the daughter of the family that run a nearby bathhouse, Hideko (Ruriko Asaoka), has quite a crush on him though Jiro seems fairly oblivious to this fact despite her revealing to him that her family have received an offer of arranged marriage. After a high ranking official crashes his car into the family restaurant, Jiro becomes embroiled in a series of complicated local political and shady business plots which conflict strongly with his righteous and individual nature.

Tokyo Mighty Guy begins with a cute musical title sequence that would be much more at home in a glossy musical of the time than in a smalltime gangster flick which is what lurks around the edges of this feel good, youthful tale. Indeed, Kobayashi gets ample opportunity to show off those pipes as he sings to himself alone in the male side of the bathhouse and later repeats snatches of the song throughout the film. There’s a single being peddled here, but it’s being done in a fun, if unsubtle, way.

Jiro is very much a man of his age. He’s the big man in the neighbourhood – middle class, educated, studied abroad, likes the finer things such as foreign food and sharp suits, but he’s got the words social justice engraved on his heart so you know you can go to him with your troubles and he’ll help you figure them out. He doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone; he sends the yakuza protection mob packing and even convinces one of them to go straight with a trainee chef job in his restaurant. No wonder the animal loving former politician has taken such a liking to him – he’s the kind of man it’s hard not to like.

That’s not to say Jiro’s a saint, he’s out for himself just like everyone else. We can see how much distress there is for others when we venture into a rundown tenement filled with the genuine poor who have too many children and not enough resources. Actually, the film isn’t terribly kind about these people and treats them more or less as an embarrassing joke but it does demonstrate how the bigwigs have exploited the needs of the lower orders in more ways than one. Jiro, at least, won’t stand for this kind of deception and misuse of traditional social bonds but he will still use it as leverage to bring things to a fittingly ironic solution that is to the benefit of everyone aside from those that were originally in the wrong.

Cute and quirky is definitely the theme and even where there are darker elements, the cheerful atmosphere is tailor made to eclipse them. Saito doesn’t roll out any particularly impressive directorial tricks but allows the absurd humour of the script to do his work for him, highlighting it with surreal touches such as the face of an absent lover appearing in the moon or the celebratory feeling of hundreds of advertising leaflets dropping from the sky like confetti. Light and fluffy as it is, Tokyo Mighty Guy is time capsule from the socially mobile youth of Tokyo in 1960 who don’t want arranged marriages or to take over the family business. The world has opened up for them with a new vista of foreign culture and multicultural cool. The message is clear, the future belongs to guys like Jiro, and by extension to the Jiro wannabes lining up to watch him prosper from their cinema seats.


Tokyo Mighty Guy is the first of three films included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.