Kill! (斬る, Kihachi Okamoto, 1968)

“Samurai aren’t as great as you might think” according to a jaded retainer in Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! (斬る, Kiru) but it’s a message that the ambitious farmer at the film’s centre struggles to take in. Having been a victim of samurai violence he resolves to become a samurai while a former samurai turned yakuza drifter attempts to show him the hypocritical realities of the samurai life as they find themselves swept into local intrigue when a band of young revolutionaries arrive to cut down a corrupt and oppressive lord. 

Corrupt and oppressive is perhaps the defining image of the samurai in post-war cinema, but like the film’s title that cuts both ways. Farmer Tabata (Etsushi Takahashi) sold his lands to buy a sword after witnessing peasants cut down during an uprising but he’s decided the best way out of oppression is to become an oppressor and is dead set on achieving samurai glory through the time-honoured method of distinguishing himself in battle. That may prove a little difficult given that his new boss, Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama), immediately mocks him for swinging his sword as if it were a scythe. Then again as former samurai Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) explains to him, if you don’t know what you’re doing you can always just stab people which at the end of the day does rather undermine the idea of samurai elegance in the art of killing. 

Genta keeps trying to tell Tabata that “samurai are no good” but Tabata still wants to be one anyway even after learning that Ayuzawa means to double cross them, hiring ronin to take out the young samurai whose sense of honour he manipulated to eliminate the admittedly corrupt (but aren’t they all?) lord for his own political gain while planning to send in his retainers to finish off the job to ensure there are no witnesses. Genta gave up his samurai status because he was “disgusted” by just this sort of duplicity along with the meaningless codes of loyalty that govern samurai society and caused him to betray a friend who was acting only in the interests of justice. Leader of the ronin Jurota (Shin Kishida) did something similar though in his case for love when his fiancée’s father was condemned on false charges and she and her mother exiled. He wants not land or status but only money in order to redeem the woman he loves from a geisha house and like Genta is under no illusions about the nature of samurai life having figured out most of what’s going on but hoping to emerge with the means to liberate both himself and his wife from samurai oppression. 

Even the elderly chamberlain later rescued by Genta tries to warn Tabata that the samurai life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, hinting at the ways they are also oppressed by their own code while clearly gleeful to have had the opportunity of stepping into a teahouse for the first time responding to Genta’s request to stay put that if he could he’d like to stay put for the rest of his days. Both former samurai, neither Genta nor Jurota are minded to draw their swords knowing that whatever the outcome it would be unhappy while the young who thought it was their duty to change the world by removing one who brought shame on their names are faced with the realisation that they have been used and their resistance will count for nothing. Even their bond as brothers banding together to achieve a common goal is eventually disrupted by alcohol and petty jealousy.

Genta acts as a kind of chorus, touched by the naivety of the seven samurai holed up in a mountain lodge because they believed in justice, while knowing that the society itself is innately unjust and already beyond redemption. Tabata eventually comes to a similar conclusion having gained samurai status but found it quite literally uncomfortable deciding to shake off his newfound nobility and rejoin Genta as a cynical yet pure hearted wanderer because the only way to escape samurai oppression is to actively live outside it. The final irony is that it’s the elderly chamberlain who eventually sets him, and all they women trapped in indentured servitude at the geisha house, free using samurai gold to enable them to escape a system he himself cannot escape but does not exactly support while Genta enlists the help of local peasants to hold a festival of rebellion to cover the final assault. Marked by Okamoto’s characteristically absurd humour and cartoonish composition along with the eerily gothic emptiness of the deserted ghost town where not even yakuza can survive the film takes on a quasi-spiritual dimension in which Genta and the gang eventually walk out of hell if only into a purgatorial freedom. 


Kill! screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 2 as part of the Monthly Classics series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Murder of the Inugami Clan (犬神家の一族, Kon Ichikawa, 2006)

the inugami family 2006 posterBeginning his career in the late 1940s, Kon Ichikawa was a contemporary of the leading lights of Japanese cinema during the golden age though has never quite achieved the level of international acclaim awarded to studio mate Akira Kurosawa. Unlike Kurosawa however, whose career floundered the wake of the studio system’s collapse, Ichikawa was able to go on making films through the difficult years of the 70s and 80s precisely because he was willing to take on projects that were purely commercial in nature. His biggest box office hit was an adaptation of the Seishi Yokomizo novel The Inugami Family which led to a further four films starring the author’s eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi. 30 years later, in what would turn out to be his final film, Ichikawa took the unusual step of remaking his biggest commercial success and even more unusually decided to recast several of the same actors in their original roles.

The script remains almost identical to the 1976 version though slightly slimmer. In 1947, pharmaceuticals magnate Sahei Inugami (Tatsuya Nakadai) dies leaving a confusing will which upsets absolutely everyone – not least his three daughters whom he fathered with three different women none of whom he was legally married to. Sahei has elected to leave the bulk of his estate to a young lady, Tamayo (Nanako Matsushima), who is not part of the family, on the condition that she marry one of his grandsons though he stresses that she is free to choose. If she chooses to marry someone else, the estate will be split between the three grandsons and another illegitimate son fathered with a maid whose whereabouts are apparently unknown. With such a vast fortune at stake, it is not long before the first murder occurs.

The most major difference between the 1976 and 2006 versions is, perhaps counterintuitively, the budget. Whereas the 1976 version had been one of the “taisaku” prestige pictures which dominated the mainstream cinema of the era and had the marketing genius of a young Haruki Kadokawa behind it, the 2006 version is a much more modest affair with minimal production values and a noticeably unfussy approach. The 1976 version, like the other instalments in the ‘70s series, also boasted a starry cast including golden age star Mieko Takamine, even employing Kyoko Kishida in a tiny two scene role as a blind koto teacher. Perhaps the strangest and most experimental choice made by Ichikawa in terms of his “remake”, is the one to cast original star Koji Ishizaka as the eccentric detective, reprising his role from the earlier film 30 years later. In fact, many of the other characters whose ages are not important are also played by the original actors including the bumbling policeman (Takeshi Kato) and his sidekick who appear throughout the series (comedy director Koki Mitani makes a noted cameo in the spot occupied by Seishi Yokomizo in the original adaptation).

The recasting adds to the level of uncanniness created by the dissonance between the opulence of the 76 version, and the austerity of that from 2006. This time around, Ichikawa shoots in 16:9 rather than (the then) TV friendly 4:3, but in the scaled back hyperrealist style common to lower budget dramas from the 2000s. The flat digital cinematography only serves to add to the general lifelessness of the drama which features only the main players, the sole crowd scene occurring during a flashback to the repatriation shot to match the accompanying stock footage just as in the 1976 version. Whereas Ishizaka and the other veterans are mainly acting within the broader yet largely naturalistic style of 70s cinema, the younger members have adopted the decidedly theatrical tones common in contemporary indie drama which somewhat undercuts the strange mix of camp fun and serious drama which had defined the Kindaichi series.

In contrast to the ‘70s movies, Ichikawa plays it uncharacteristically safe – opting for many of the same techniques but reining them in, using plain black and white instead of negative, easing back on the gore, and lowering the level of violence. The results are decidedly mixed and though the central mystery has not changed, the 2006 edition proves a much less satisfactory experience that does not so much attempt to recapture the strange magic of the original as throw it into contrast through its absence. The story of the Inugami murders is, like many a Kindaichi mystery, one less of greed and selfishness than the lasting effects of repression, frustrated desires, and difficult loves and as such it is timeless, yet lightning doesn’t strike twice and Ichikawa’s second attempt at bottling it only goes to show that there’s little to gain in slavishly aping the past.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Vampire Doll (幽霊屋敷の恐怖 血を吸う人形, Michio Yamamoto, 1970)

Vampire doll posterIn a roundabout way, Toho can almost be thought of as the most “international” of mainstream Japanese cinemas operating in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Though their view of “the foreign” was not always positive, their forays into science fiction often made a point of the need for international co-operation to combat extraterrestrial threats and “Interpol” became a (slightly humorous) fixture in the studio’s small number of sci-fi inflected spy films. If the spy movies were an attempt to echo the increasing ‘70s cold-war paranoia coupled by post-Bond camp, Toho was also looking overseas for inspiration in its wider genre output which is presumably how they wound up adding Hammer-esque vampire horror to their tokusatsu world.

The Vampire Doll (幽霊屋敷の恐怖 血を吸う人形, Yurei Yashiki no Kyofu: Chi wo Su Ningyo) draws influence both from classic European gothic and, perhaps less predictably, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to create a new hybrid horror model which effectively merges the Western “vampire” mythology with the “traditional” long haired, grudge bearing ghost. The tale begins with a young man who has recently been “abroad” for a number of months and has been looking forward to reuniting with his fiancée. When Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) reaches the gothic country mansion owned the family of Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi), his longed for love, he learns that she has, unfortunately, passed away in a car crash just two weeks previously. Heartbroken he decides to stay over but is unable to sleep, not because of the grief or shock, but because of strange noises and the conviction that he has seen Yuko wandering around the house. Visiting her grave the next day, he finally meets her but she seems “different” and tearfully asks him to end her life.

Cut to the city, Sagawa’s sister Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) wakes up from a nightmare in which Yuko killed her brother and tries to cancel a date with her boyfriend to go look for him. Keiko’s boyfriend Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) eventually agrees to drive her to Yuko’s country pile to help investigate. On arrival, Yuko’s mother Shidu (Yoko Minakaze) tells them Sagawa left in heartbreak the day before, but Keiko doesn’t believe her and the couple fake car trouble to stay the night and investigate further.

Yamamoto’s film does indeed raid classic vampire movie tropes and mine them for all they’re worth. The curiously gothic architecture is explained away by Shidu’s husband having been a diplomat who developed a fondness for the European while overseas, but the presence of the hunched over, barely verbal servant Genzo (Kaku Takashina) seems a much more obvious Hammer homage. Shidu laments that the house is now “very old” and crumbling, a remnant of a pre-war world of lingering feudalism, all faded grandeur and declining influence – a fitting seat for a vampiric meditation of changing class and value systems with its kimono’d mistress and seemingly incongruous temporality.

Yet Yuko, not quite a “vampire” as we would usually think of them, is an extension of the traditional ghost story villainess rather than the sex crazed bloodsucker of European literature. Once again, the war is raised as a partial explanation of the tragedies which have befallen the family, if in a more logical fashion than the otherwise outlandish narrative would imply. Shidu carries a prominent scar across her neck – the mark of having tried to take her own life after a frustrated demobbed soldier massacred the family on learning that the woman he loved had married someone else while he was away fighting. This is apparently the origin of Yuko’s grudge (as the film clumsily explains), leaving her with a profound sense of rage against the world that killed her mother’s husband as well as intense resentment that she would die mere days before true happiness was finally in her grasp after enduring so much suffering.

Yuko may put on the billowing white nightgown of the repressed vampiress, her hair a flowing a chestnut-brown, but her blood lust is born of vengeance – she craves destruction rather than satisfaction. Toho flexes its tokusatsu muscles as lightning forks over the gothic mansion, perfectly achieving the air of oppressive supernatural unease provoked by the claustrophobic Western estate which seems to have even the local residents resolved to take the long way home to avoid it. Fusing European gothic with Japanese ghost story, Yamamoto’s first “vampire” movie is an unusual take on the material, refusing the foreign origins of the demonic for a homegrown tale of violence and tragedy consuming the life of a young woman attempting to find happiness in the rapidly changing post-war society.


The Vampire Doll is the first of three films included in Arrow’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy box set which also includes extensive liner notes by Jasper Sharp detailing the history of vampires and horror cinema in Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック, Kankuro Kudo, 2009)

The Shonen Merikensack posterWhen you spent your youth screaming phrases like “no future” and “fumigate the human race”, how are you supposed to go about being 50-something? A&R girl Kanna is about to find out in Kankuro Kudo’s generation gap comedy The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック) as she accidentally finds herself needing to sign a gang of ageing never were rockers. A nostalgia trip in more ways than one, Kudo is on a journey to find the true spirit of punk in a still conservative world.

25 year old Kanna (Aoi Miyazaki) is an unsuccessful scout at a major Japanese label which mainly deals with commercial bands and folk guitar outfits. As she’s about to quit any way, Kanna makes a last minute pitch for a punk band she’s found on YouTube, fully expecting to be shown the door for the last time. However, what she didn’t know is that her boss, Tokita (Yusuke Santamaria), is a former punk rocker still dreaming of his glory days of youthful rebellion. With her leaving do mere hours away, Kanna’s contract is extended so that she can bring in these new internet stars whose retro punk style looks set to capture the charts.

Unfortunately, the reason Tokita was so impressed with the band’s authentically ‘80s style is because the video was shot in 1983. The Brass Knuckle Boys hit their heyday 25 years ago and are now middle aged men who’ve done different kinds of inconsequential things with their lives since their musical careers ended. Kanna needs to get the band back together, but she may end up wishing she’d never bothered.

Mixing documentary-style talking heads footage with the contemporary narrative, Kudo points towards an examination of tempestuous youth and rueful middle age as he slips back and fore between the early days of the Brass Knuckle Boys and their attempts to patch up old differences and make an improbable comeback. Kanna, only 25, can’t quite understand all of this shared history but becomes responsible for trying to help them all put it behind them. Her job is complicated by the fact that estranged brothers Akio (Koichi Sato) and Haruo (Yuichi Kimura) made their on stage fighting a part of the act until a stupid accident left the band’s vocalist, Jimmy (Tomorowo Taguchi), in wheelchair.

The spirit of punk burns within them, even if their contemporaries are apt to point and laugh. The Brass Knuckle Boys, when it comes down to it, were successful bandwagon jumpers on the punk gravy train. Craving fame, the guys started out marketing themselves as a very early kind of boy band complete with silly outfits and cute personal branding full of jumpsuits, rainbows, and coordinated dance routines. Yet if the punk movement attracted them merely as the next cool thing, it also caught on to some of their youthful anger and teenage resentment. In the end unrestrained passion destroyed what they had as the ongoing war between the brothers escalated from petty sibling bickering to something less kind.

Twenty-five years later the wounds have not yet healed. Akio is a lousy drunk with a bad attitude, Haruo is an angry cow farmer, drummer Young has a range of health problems, and Jimmy’s barely present. Tokita has become a corporate suit, a symbol of everything he once fought against and his former bandmate is his biggest selling artist – eccentric, glam, and very high concept.

The men are looking back (even those of them who aren’t even really that old), whereas Kanna can only look forwards. Before the Brass Knuckle Boys, she was about to be kicked out of her A&R job and planned to go home with her tail between her legs to help her confused father with his very unsuccessful conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Apparently in a solid relationship with a coffee shop guitarist who keeps urging her to put in a good word for him at the record label with his sappy demo tapes, Kanna’s life is the definition of middle of the road. Neither she not her boyfriend could be any less “punk” if they tried but if they truly want to follow their dreams they will have to find it somewhere within themselves.

At over two hours The Shonen Merikensack is pushing the limit for a comedy and does not quite manage to maintain momentum even as its ending is, appropriately enough, an unexpected anticlimax. Kudo’s generally absurd sense of humour occasionally takes a backseat to a more juvenile kind which is much less satisfying than the madcap action of his previous films but still provides enough off beat laughs to compensate for an otherwise inconsequential narrative.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Chokolietta (チョコリエッタ, Kazama Shiori, 2014)

ChokoliettaWhen examining the influences of classic European cinema on Japanese filmmaking, you rarely end up with Fellini. Nevertheless, Fellini looms large over the indie comedy Choklietta (チョコリエッタ) and the director, Shiori Kazama, even leaves a post-credits dedication to Italy’s master of the surreal as a thank you for inspiring the fifteen year old her to make movies. Full of knowing nods to the world of classic cinema, Chokolietta is a charming, if over long, coming of age drama which becomes a meditation on both personal and national notions of loss.

The story begins in the summer of 2010 when five year old Chiyoko (Aoi Morikawa) is involved in a car accident that results in the death of her mother. Flash forward ten years and Chiyoko is a slightly strange high school girl and a member of the film club. Her parents, as far as she knows, were both big fans of Federico Fellini – in fact the family dog is named “Giulietta” after Fellini’s muse and later wife Giuletta Masina. As a child, Chiyoko also received the strange nickname of “Chokolietta” from her mother which also seems to be inspired by the star. Sadly, their Giulietta has also recently passed away removing Chiyoko’s final link to her late mother and once again forcing her to address the lingering feelings of grief and confusion which have continued to plague her all these years.

At this point Chiyoko goes looking for the DVD of La Strada they watched in film club last year which leads her to the now graduated Masamura Masaoka (Masaki Suda). Masaoka is an equally strange boy with possible sociopathic tendencies though he does own a large collection of classic DVDs and the pair settle down to return to the world of Fellini. Eventually Masaoka convinces “Chokolietta” to star in a movie for him and the two take off on a crazy road trip recreating La Strada where Masaoka stands in for the strong man Zampanò and Chiyoko plays the fragile Gelsomina.

Thankfully, the partnership between Chiyoko and Masaoka is not quite as doom laden and filled with cruelty as that between Gelsomina and Zampanò. Though Masaoka often talks of the desire to kill and Chiyoko the desire to die, both appear superficial and are never presented as actual choices either will seriously act on. Masaoka is cast in the role of the strong man but he more closely resembles The Fool as he gently guides Chiyoko onto a path of self realisation that will help her finally learn to reach a tentative acceptance with the past and begin to move forward rather than futilely trying to remain static. Of course, he’s also forcing himself into a realisation that he doesn’t have to play the role he’s been cast in either and so it doesn’t follow that one has to behave in the way people have come to expect simply because they expect it.

Technically speaking the bulk of the story takes place in a putative future – around 2020, or ten years or so after the death of Chiyoko’s mother in 2010. 2010 is also a significant date as it’s the summer before the earthquake and tsunami struck the Japan the following March causing much devastation and loss of life as well as the resultant nuclear meltdown which has continued to become a cultural as well as physical scar. The journey the pair make takes them on a fairly desolate route past no entry signs into ghostly abandoned shopping arcades still strewn with the remnants of a former, bustling city life but now peopled only by a trio of silent, stick bearing men. This is a land of ghosts, both literal and figural but like most things, the only way out is through.

Taking a cue from Fellini, Chiyoko has frequent visions of her her deceased mother and fantastical sequences such as boarding a whale bus like the whale in Casanova or suddenly seeing Gelsomina and an entourage of dwarfs trailing past her. Her world is a fantastical one in which her daydreams have equal, or perhaps greater, weight to the reality. Her now empty indoor dog house comes to take on a symbolic dimension that represents an entirety of her past her life as if she herself, or the dog she claimed to want to become, had been hiding inside it all along. The film returns to La Strada in its final sequence only to subvert that film’s famous ending as where Zampanò’s animalistic, foetal howling spoke of an ultimate desolation and the discovery of a truth it may be better not to acknowledge, here there is a least hope for a brighter future with the past remaining where it belongs.

However, Chokolietta runs to a mammoth 159 minutes and proves far too meandering to justify its lengthy running time. Truth be told, the pace is refreshingly brisk yet the central road trip doesn’t start until 90 minutes in and there are another 30 minutes after it ends. It’s cutesy and fun but runs out of steam long before the credits roll and ultimately lacks the necessary focus to make the desired impact. That said there are some pretty nice moments and a cineliterate tone that remains endearing rather than irritating all of which add up to make Chokolietta an uneven, if broadly enjoyable, experience though one which never quite reaches its potential.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Bonus – here’s an unsubtitled trailer for La Strada (which is possibly the most heartbreaking film ever made).

Also the other two Fellini movies mentioned in the film:

Casanova

and Amacord (original US release trailer)