Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.


 

Utae! Seishun Harikiri Musume (歌え!青春 はりきり娘, Toshio Sugie, 1955)

vlcsnap-2016-07-04-00h41m46s630Hibari Misora was one of the leading lights of the post-war entertainment world. Largely active as a chart topping ballad singer, she also made frequent forays into the movies notably starring with fellow musical stars Izumi Yukimura and Chiemi Eri in the Sannin Musume series. This solo effort from 1955 is directed by the Sannin Musume director Toshio Sugie and follows a similar approach with the 18 year old Hibari starring as a teenage girl who looks really like Hibari Misora (but unfortunately cannot sing).

Hibari is playing a teenager here but she’s left school and is working as a bus conductoress. Bright and cheerful in her work, she takes some ribbing from the other employees because of her resemblance to the singing star (she has a large beauty mark drawn on her right cheek to make sure we know she’s not the “real” Hibari) and is a little embarrassed when they ask her to sing something because unlike her doppelganger, she’s tone deaf. Hibari lives at home with her mother and younger brother who’s still in school but their father seems to have left the household and there’s a degree of discord between the couple. Hibari tries to get her parents back together so they can live as a family whilst also maintaining her bus job, beginning a tentative romance with a former passenger, and even getting a few singing lessons from the real Hibari Misora herself!

Unlike the Sannin Musume movies, Harikiri Musume is shot in regular black and white though has pretty good production values for the time with some location shooting and outdoor scenes. Hibari is only 18 here but she’s already working at the bus company which seems like a pretty good gig all things considered (though her money is going to pay for her brother’s school fees, such is life). Her biggest problems are her no good father and her singing star doppleganger which continues to cause her embarrassment.

Harikiri Musume is a pop star vehicle but oddly Hibari doesn’t get to perform that much. Early on she laments not being able to sing as she listens to one of her bus company colleagues singing the song Rendezvous (also featured in one of the Sannin Musume movies) which is then followed by a more operatic track from a male colleague (of course, these two end up becoming a couple, united in their musical talents). She watches “herself”  on TV and later mimes to a recording of the famous Hibari at home but the main subplot of the film takes hold once the two Hibaris meet in a neat cinematic doubling trick. Famous Hibari teaches ordinary Hibari how to sing properly using Misora’s famous song Ringo Oiwake. She then turns up in the finale at the wedding celebration of two employees with a new song just for the bus company as a special gift.

As well as Rendezvous, there are even a few callbacks to Jankenbon which also appears in So Young, So Bright which was released the same year. Hibari is mostly acting with herself here and it’s altogether a more modest affair than the Sannin Musume pictures with no real production numbers or complicated staging but somehow all the more charming for it. In keeping with other similarly themed movies, Hibari has the disrupted family subplot and a very slight romance which never really gets started until near the end but the film cleverly avoids any kind of heaviness in favour of a light and breezy youthful tone. First rate fluff, but nevertheless an interesting look at the “ordinary” people of movie land in the mid fifties and an entertaining musical comedy in its own right.


No trailer but here’s a clip of Hibari Misora singing Ringo no Oiwake almost 25 years later:

Danger Pays (危いことなら銭になる, Ko Nakahira, 1962)

Danger PaysWhere there’s danger, there’s money! Or, maybe just danger, who knows but whatever it is, it certainly doesn’t lack for excitement. Ko Nakahira is best known for his first feature, Crazed Fruit, the youthful romantic drama ending in speed boat murder which ushered in the Sun Tribe era. Though he later tried to make a return to more artistic efforts, it’s Nakahira’s freewheeling Nikkatsu crime movies that have continued to capture the hearts of audience members. Danger Pays (AKA Danger Paws, 危いことなら銭になる, Yabai Koto Nara Zeni ni Naru) is among the best of them with its cartoon-like, absurd crime caper world filled with bumbling crooks and ridiculous setups.

The central plot gets going when a truck carrying watermarked paper destined for the mint is hijacked with force by armed thugs. They need a master forger though so they set out to recruit one of the best counterfeiters currently working on his way back from a business trip to Hong Kong. However, three petty crooks have also gotten wind of the scam and are trying to head off their rivals by kidnapping the old grandpa first.

The three guys are “Glass Hearted Joe” – a purple suited dandy with an aversion to the sound of scraping glass, Slide Rule Tetsu who walks with a cane and is a whizz with the abacus, and Dump-Truck Ken who’s a geeky sort of guy who also owns a dumper truck. Sakamoto, the forger, eludes their grasp when the better equipped professionals turn up, but none of them is willing to give up on the prize. A little later, Joe teams up with a female ally – Tomoko, who is keen martial artist and smarter than the other three put together. Eventually the four end up becoming an accidental team though it remains to be seen if they can really turn this increasingly desperate situation to their advantage.

Danger Pays is in no way “serious” though this is far from a criticism. Armed with a killer script filled with amazing one liners which are performed with excellent comic timing by the A-list cast, Danger Pays is the kind of effortlessly cool, often hilarious crime caper which is near impossible to pull-off but absolutely sublime when it works – which Danger Pays most definitely does. Though there is a large amount of death and bloodiness in the final third, the atmosphere remains cartoonish as our intrepid team of four simply step over the bodies to go claim their prize with only one of them left feeling a little queasy.

Nakahira maintains the high octane, almost breathless pace right through to the end. The finale kicks in with our heroes trying to escape from a locked room which is about to be filled with gas only to be trapped like rats in an elevator shaft where they engage in an improbable shootout whilst bodies rain down on them from above bathed in the red emergency light of the escape vaults. This is a hardboiled world but one cycled through cigar munching wise guys and tommy guns, it’s all fun and games until you’re trapped in a lift knee deep in corpses while blood drips from a couple more dead guys on the ceiling.

Ridiculous slapstick humour and broad comedy are the cornerstones of Danger Pays though it also makes its central crime conceit work on its own only to overturn it with a final revelation even as the credits roll. Excellently played by its four leads, this comic tale of “victimless crime” in the improbably colourful underworld of ‘60s Tokyo is one which is filled with absurd humour, cartoon stunts, and ridiculous characters but proves absolutely irresistible! If only modern day crime capers were this much fun.


Danger Pays is the second of three films included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.