A Wicked Woman (毒婦高橋お伝, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1958)

The term “dokufu” or “poisonous woman” dates back to the Edo era, but rose to prominence once again in the turbulent society of late Meiji in which such women became fodder for the growing penny dreadful industry. Unlike the later “bad girl” or contemporary examples of “bad women” from elsewhere, the problem with “poisonous women” is that they pollute society as a whole, corrupting those around them through their unbridled transgressions. These notions are of course as much about contemporary notions of femininity and a desire to preserve the social order at all costs as they are about conventional morality and the rule of law, but there are reasons that tales of such independent women incited such a frenzy among both men and women who found themselves floundering in a confusing and rapidly changing society.

Nobuo Nakagawa’s A Wicked Woman (毒婦高橋お伝, Dokufu Takahashi Oden) is inspired by the real life tale one particular “dokufu”, Oden Takahashi, who was in fact the last woman to be beheaded in Japan after being convicted of murdering her lover while suspected of poisoning her husband. Nakagawa does not particularly pay attention to the “real” details of her life but to her pulp persona, somewhat reclaiming her image as an ultra cool revenger who refused to be bound by the restrictive mores of her times or suffer at the hands of the feckless men she nevertheless falls victim to. 

When we first meet Oden (Katsuko Wakasugi), she is being pursued by a large number of policemen whom she manages to outrun, eventually tricking them and escaping by getting a lift from a passing rickshaw driver. The ride is tense, and we worry that Oden will encounter an accident that will bring her to the attention of the police, but the crisis is something quite different. In a staggering coincidence, the rickshaw driver is none other than Oden’s estranged first husband, Jinjuro (Akira Nakamura), once a samurai but now reduced to pulling a cab after ruining himself through drink and debauchery (apparently why Oden eventually left him). Though it’s not exactly a happy reunion, the pair part on good terms while he laments that their small daughter Omitsu still misses her mother, managing to extract a few notes from Oden supposedly for her upkeep.  

Oden meanwhile goes home to husband no. 2, Ryosuke (Asao Matsumoto), who is bedridden with TB and increasingly paranoid about what Oden does outside the house to keep them fed. Operating out of a remote cottage, she puts on a ridiculously elaborate Western outfit and heads to a jewellers where she pretends to look at precious stones for a ring, dropping one on the floor while the salesman’s back is turned and spiking it with the point of her parasol knowing that no-one is going to think of looking there. The assistants aren’t stupid, they know a stone is missing and Oden must have pocketed it but all they can do is search her person, calling in the local bobby, Kazuma. (Juzaburo Akechi), who thinks they may be going too far in forcing this upperclass lady to strip off to prove she’s not a thief. The owner of the store, Osawa (Tetsuro Tanba), looks on knowingly but is intrigued more than anything else, eventually content to let Oden go despite knowing she has the jewel concealed somewhere about her person. 

Disaster strikes, however, when Oden runs into Kazuma in the street and he spots her parasol sparkling. He tries to arrest her, but she pleads with him to let her change out of her extremely silly outfit first, playing the poor widow card and eventually seducing the naive policeman. What Oden didn’t quite bank on was actually falling for him for real, drawn in a sense to order and goodness, longing to be caught and restored to the rightful condition of womanliness but fearing she has lost all right to conventional happiness. 

Oden’s relationship with Kazuma is an example of the effects of her “poison” on society at large. Kazuma as we first meet him is earnest and good, a naive young rookie with a strong sense of justice who leaps to defend Oden thinking she is a maligned noble woman unfairly accused of thievery. His superior Kakunosuke (Gen Funabashi), has set him up with his innocent little sister Kozue (Minako Yamada) and it seems the pair will soon marry, but Kazuma is apparently not so much interested in sweetness as he is in Oden’s complicated darkness. He falls obsessively in love with her, perhaps partly out of a desire to save her from her criminal life by bringing her to justice, but also in attraction to all of her transgressive qualities which contradict everything he stands for. 

Nakagawa reframes Oden’s poisonousness as a consequence of her frustrated maternity and a continual failure of masculinity. After re-encountering Jinjuro, Oden finds it increasingly difficult to justify the act of abandoning her child and leaving her with a man she knew to be a violent and feckless drunk. Though Jinjuro appears to have reformed himself through the time-honoured devices of humbleness and hard work, we later find him extorting money from Oden to pay for Omitsu’s medical care only to drink it all himself. Oden tries to visit her daughter, but is after all a stranger in her life. Her attempt to reclaim her maternity, escape the trap of criminality and leave the city with her little girl is the primary motivator for all of her subsequent actions which culminate in an intense desire for revenge against Jinjuro, the architect of all her misfortune. 

All of Oden’s earlier crimes were in some way permissible, taking from those who could afford to lose and doing it with a degree of style. The botched job at the jewellers, however, sees her fall into the hands of Osawa, who turns out to be a violent and sadistic gang boss. Osawa keeps women captive in his basement and whips them for his own enjoyment, forcing Oden to become a procurer tricking vulnerable women into becoming sex slaves. Oden thinks nothing of this, smirking that there must be good money in selling women, willingly complicit in the oppression of those just like her. To free herself from Osawa, she uses Jinjuro, attempting to kill two birds with one stone and finding partial success only for the plan to fall apart when confronted by the face of order in the reappearance of a ruined Kazuma. 

Oden ends her journey in Yokohama, a bustling international port, where she’s the tattooed madame of the Osawa’s Chinese bar and a familiar face at the gaming tables. The suggestion is that this corruption is foreign in origin, Osawa’s top hat and smart suit not to mention plush Western-style bed, suggesting that his savagery is a facet of his seduction by Chinese hedonism and Western individualism. Individualism is again painted as Oden’s sin when she leaves the women locked in a jail cell to escape a fire while cradling her ill-gotten gains, only to tell Kazuma to man up and that money is what she truly loves. But Oden is also victim of her times, betrayed by a failure of masculinity in a patriarchal system. Jinjuro the drunken samurai, Ryonosuke the impotent consumptive, and Kazuma the conflicted young man. The last of these she refuses to “ruin”, setting him free because she truly loves him and does not want to see him dragged into her life of crime, intent on reclaiming her goodness by reassuming the role of a conventional mother living an honest life with her daughter somewhere far away. Her “wickedness” is only really her desire to survive but an independent woman, good or bad, is always a threat to the social order and so she must be stopped lest her inconvenient desire to live a life free of male control become a “poisonous” example to those around her. 


Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

o0500070913581105946Nikkatsu’s main stock in trade during its 50s/60s heyday was the youth movie – films which captured the frustrations of being young (and usually male) in the scrappy post-war years. It’s a surprise then that the hero of Seijun Suzuki’s “action” movie Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Jusango Taihisen Yori: Sono Gososha wo Nerae) is a genial middle-aged man who’s more Cary Grant in North by Northwest than Japanese James Dean. A programme picture, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the movie on paper but it’s among the first in which Suzuki indulges his talent for the surreal including a number of fantastically choreographed action sequences.

The film opens with a warning as a sniper trains his sights on a set of road signs which state that many accidents have occurred in this area. The one which is about to befall unlucky prison warden Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) is however entirely man made. Momentarily confused by the figure of a woman watching the bus from the roadside, Tamon is blindsided when the sniper opens fire and kills several of the passengers while another, Goro (Shoichi Ozawa), cowers in the back. Tamon is suspended for six months but isn’t particularly upset about it. He’s not a detective and he knows he should leave it to the professionals, but he’s desperate to know why someone would bother attack such a lowly crew of petty criminals. Wondering who the woman was and how she fits into the case, who the snipers were aiming for and if they got them, and perhaps wanting to assuage his own feelings of powerlessness during the attack Tamon gets on the case.

Tamon is not your typical Nikkatsu action hero. He’s a little on the old side for starters – hardly the marquee face the studio was beginning to favour with its collection of “Diamond Guys”. He’s also not a policeman or a detective, he has no idea what he’s doing or what he’s getting himself into. What Tamon is is a righteous man. Almost immediately he’s sucked into the seedy underbelly of late ‘50s Tokyo with its strip clubs, trafficked women, and petty gangsters. This world is alien to him and he’s disgusted by it. Meeting the female manager of the “talent agency” which supplies in-room strippers to sleazy hotels where businessmen go when they’ve told their wives they’re at a conference, Tamon is horrified to hear her admit she thinks of the girls as “merchandise”. He pauses to explain to her that he always thought of the felons he looked after as “humans” rather than “criminals”, no matter what it was they’d done. Such naive humanitarianism is too much for Yuko (Misako Watanabe) – she’s instantly smitten, which is a problem because it means she needs to play both sides of her own game.

The pair end up in an uneasy alliance as Tamon’s goodness begins to work its magic. An unlikely white knight, Tamon finds himself wanting to save all the ladies threatened by “Akiba’s” dastardly plan from the icy charms of Yuko to Goro’s cabaret girl Tsunako (Mari Shiraki), and another young one, Shoko (Kyoko Natsu), about to get sucked into the Akiba web. What he discovers is a nasty trail of exploitation running from the bars and clubs of the city centre to the genial holiday spa towns where the moderately wealthy travel to pursue their discrete pleasures.

Tamon may be a little older than your average Nikkatsu action star, but he’s also a perfect fit for a film noir hero in wrong man mould. Tamon is not on the run, but he is out of place in this world, perhaps harking back to a presumably more innocent age where honesty and compassion still counted for something. He views his job as a prison warden as a public service, believing that there is goodness in everyone and it’s the job of people like him to find it and bring it to the surface. This he does at least seem to accomplish with Yuko who (despite her role in events so far) seems to have “reformed” and intends to follow Tamon’s lead in taking her “talent agency” in a more legitimate direction. 

Suzuki often claimed that Youth of the Beast was the first of his films where he was able to fully embrace his madcap desires, but Take Aim at the Police Van contains a fair few Suzuki touches of its own from the bold opening sequence shot through the sights of a sniper rifle, to the show girl killed by an arrow to her bare breast, bizarre murder by petrol tanker set piece, and exciting train station finale. Keeping the camera fluid, Suzuki captures a world in motion, seemingly running away from our noble hero until justice, in the form of an unstoppable steam train, finally arrives.


Attack on the police van clip (English subtitles)