Boxer (ボクサー, Shuji Terayama, 1977)

Boxer posterArtistic polymath Shuji Terayama was fond of claiming that more could be learned about life from boxing rings and race courses than from conventional study. Immersing himself in the countercultural epicentre of mid-century Shinjuku, he became known for iconoclastic street theatre before shifting to film, instantly recognisable for his striking use of colour filter and theatrical, avant-garde aesthetic. 1977’s Boxer (ボクサー) is, however, his most conventional experiment, a generic tale of a struggling boxer yearning to be a champion and battling himself, along with his society, in the claustrophobic arena of the ring, but for all the expected triumph it’s futility which marks his life and the ropes which restrain rather than liberate.

Former boxing champion Hayato (Bunta Sugawara) now lives a lonely existence alone with his beloved dog in a rundown boarding house. His brother is about to be married and wanted him to be in the engagement photos, but he told the young couple to go ahead without him. He may come to regret that because his brother quickly becomes the victim of an accident that may not have been quite that at the construction site where he and his fiancée worked. It seems that another employee, Tenma (Kentaro Shimizu) – an aspiring boxer with a limp, had taken a liking to the same girl and, either distracted by the news she intended to marry someone else, or not thinking clearly, he allowed his digger to hit Hayato’s brother and kill him. Of course, Hayato is not happy about that and determines to track Tenma down, looking for him at a neighbourhood bar where a small boy guides him to the gym, which he is eventually expelled from by the other boxers. Nevertheless, Tenma, having heard about Hayato’s past and been dismissed by his trainers because of his disability, is determined to overcome the debt that exists between them and become Hayato’s mentee hoping to go on to boxing glory.

Like many a Shinjuku tale, this is one of scrappy chancers longing to escape the vice-like grip of an underworld that refuses to release them. In the land of broken dreams, the hopeless man is king, and Hayato is nothing if not hopeless. Years ago, we’re told, he was a champion, yet he suddenly quit boxing mid-way through a bout that he was clearly winning. He had a wife and daughter, but now lives alone (except for the dog), making a living by pasting up flyers. In response to Tenma’s request, Hayato recounts to him the histories of boxing champions in Japan all of whom met a sticky end: dying of typhus in Manchuria, drowning after demobilisation, dying under a bridge, hit by a train, suicide after revenge on a yakuza who’d killed his brother, killed when a runaway truck hit his home, car accidents etc. The boxing match which opens the film is preceded by a minute of silence for a champion who died just a few days previously. So what, Hayato seems to say, we fight but we all die in the ring anyway. What’s the point?

Still, for all the meaningless of his success, he too finds a kind of purpose in Tenma’s quest even if he knows it’s futile and that it is perhaps perverse to commit to saving the man who killed his brother either by accident, as he claims, or out of romantic jealousy. Tenma tells him that he wants to be a champion to appear on TV and be famous. He has, it seems, something to prove. Hayato tells him that boxing’s not for everyone, cruelly echoing the words of the president of the boxing society in his letter explaining to Tenma that there is no place for him in the boxing world because of his disability. His reasoning is however different. He asks him if he is able to hate, to which which he replies that yes, he hates his mother, father, brother, and in fact “the whole damn world” which makes him a perfect mirror for his defeated mentor.

Terayama opens the film with a melancholy black and white sequence in which a boxer walks down a long corridor towards a door filled with light while other contenders pass him from the opposite direction, some badly beaten and others unable to walk. This is the price, he seems to say, a literal manifestation of life’s battery. Even the denizens of the strangely colourful, warm and cheerful little neighbourhood bar with its Taisho intellectual, former actress turned streetwalker, smoking child, and bookmakers who don’t pay their bills, are fighting a heavy battle, crushed under the weight of their broken dreams. Hayato tries to offer encouragement from the sidelines, “Get up if you refuse to be a loser”, he yells to a barely conscious Tenma struggling raise himself from the mat, but even if he does what will he gain? Suitcase in hand the women leave looking for better lives, while Tenma struggles to escape from the ring, chasing hollow victories of illusionary manhood but finding salvation only in the struggle.


Opening sequence (no subtitles)

The Scent of Incense (香華, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1964)

Scent of Incense still 1Sometimes regarded as overly sentimental, Keisuke Kinoshita’s later career grew progressively harder around the edges, as if he began to lose faith in the efficacy of human goodness but never it seems in its capacity for endurance. Spanning more than 50 years in the turbulent history of mid-20th century Japan, The Scent of Incense (香華, Koge) reverses the path of the hahamono in dramatising the complicated relationship of two women – a “selfish” mother and her “self-sacrificing” daughter who finds herself unable to give up on maternal approval despite the many disappointments of her life.

We open in late Meiji with a funeral interrupted by news from the Russo-Japanese war. Shortly after, young widow Ikuyo (Nobuko Otowa) argues with her mother, Tsuna (Kinuyo Tanaka), over custody of her five-year-old daughter Tomoko. Ikuyo is planning to remarry and her new husband has three children of his own. Fearing Tomoko would be an inconvenience, Ikuyo proposes to make her heir to her mother’s family, leaving her behind in her grandmother’s care. Though Tsuna loves Tomoko dearly, she resents her daughter’s intention to abandon them just because she’s got a better offer, and perhaps privately wonders how long she’ll actually stick it out for seeing as, as we later see, she has a strong tendency to give up when the going gets tough.

The prediction proves accurate. Ikuyo persuades her new husband to abandon his existing children and family home for the bright lights of Tokyo, while Tomoko and her grandmother live on alone in the country. Ikuyo has another daughter, Yasuko, but the couple quickly become impoverished without access to her husband’s family money. When Tsuna dies, Ikuyo decides to fetch Tomoko from the family residence, but then sells her to a geisha house. A few years later, she too falls into the sex trade but as a less exulted “oiran”, embarrassingly re-encountering her daughter from the other side of a brothel. Despite her abandonment and shame over her mother’s profession, Tomoko (Mariko Okada) continues to try to help her, maintaining an awkward familial relationship with a woman who only pays attention to her when she needs something.

Perhaps ironically, in one sense, Tomoko ends up becoming a successful, independent woman in pre-war Japan but is forever denied the kind of familial life she craves as a conventionally respectable wife and mother of the kind her own was not. In the course of her work, she meets dashing military cadet Ezaki (Go Kato) and, despite the warnings of her madam (Haruko Sugimura) who cautions her that she’s the type to fall in love too deeply, embarks on a longterm affair with him. Though he is obviously aware that she is a geisha, he is confident that his family would accept a marriage, but Tomoko’s hopes are later dashed when his pre-marital investigations turn up the fact that Ikuyo has worked as a “common prostitute”. Heartbroken, she resents once again paying the price for her mother’s transgressions, but does not break with her completely.

Tomoko’s liminal status is further brought home to her when her elderly patron, who has set her up with a geisha house of her own, suddenly dies and not only is she informed some days later by the madam at another house, but she’s not even permitted to attend the funeral. Another man, Nozawa (Eiji Okada), who’d had his eye on her but honestly admits that men of his class do not engage in “serious” relationships with geisha, asks her to become his mistress but she has had enough of the shadow life, vowing both that she doesn’t want to be “owned” anymore, and that her next man (if there is one) will have to marry her.

Loneliness renders that particular vow void as she finds herself embarking on a casual affair with Nozawa while Ikuyo considers getting married for the third time – this time, rather transgressively, with the family’s recently widowed former servant, Hachiran (Norihei Miki), who married into a wealthy family and apparently made something of himself. Hachiran, however, finds it difficult to shake off the old class attitudes, treating Ikuyo like a goddess while she bosses him around and makes a pretence of leaving every time she gets fed up.

Later we might wonder if Ikuyo’s sudden exit from Hachiran’s distant home is more that she missed her daughter than it was boredom with her husband. “I don’t think of her as a mother” each woman says, Ikuyo on learning that Tsuna is dangerously ill, and Tomoko when Nozawa suggests making a detour to visit Ikuyo and Hachiran. Ikuyo, it is true, is a cold woman who abandoned her daughter only to reclaim her in order to sell, later giving up two more children one of whom apparently disappears without trace. The proof of her love is found only in its end, while Tomoko suffers on all the long years otherwise alone, until in an immense act of circularity she at last becomes a kind of mother to another woman’s son.

Forever haunted by the spectre of soldiers, Tomoko loses everything in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but perseveres and rebuilds. She loses everything again in the firebombing of Tokyo, only later remembering her foresight in burying a large collection of crockery in the cellar which might allow her to open a restaurant. She resents her mother but keeps her close, while Ikuyo’s affections seem to ebb and flow as she disappears off to greener pastures only to resurface again when they’ve been thoroughly grazed. A flighty, perhaps selfish woman, Ikuyo too proves unable to sever connection from her daughter. Tomoko disapproves of her mother’s gaudiness, her unbridled lust for life and disregard of social conventions, but the two women are more alike than they first seem – each in their own way fiercely independent and unwilling to allow their desires to be defined or defeated by the world around them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

yakuza law posterOne of the things that (supposedly) separates the “yakuza” from regular thugs is that they have a “code”. That code means many and various things, but in their grand mission to justify their existence it often means that they stand up for the little guy, all too often oppressed by the powers that be. Of course, a lot of people might feel themselves to be oppressed by yakuza thugs who like to throw their weight around and generally cause trouble for small business holders, but that’s beside the point. Teruo Ishii’s Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Yakuza Keibatsushi: Lynch!) goes one step further and asks if the yakuza are themselves “oppressed” by their own code, or at least the various ways it is used and subverted by all who subscribe to it.

Set in three distinct time periods, Yakuza Law is also fairly unique in that the vast majority of those on the receiving end of its violence are male. The yakuza is an extremely homosocial world after all. Each of the three tales presented is preceded by a title card featuring the particular “laws” the unhappy gangsters are about to break and what kind of punishment they might expect for doing so.

The first and earliest, set in the Edo era, is a typical giri/ninjo tale that places the ideal of the yakuza code against the need to preserve a personal vision of justice. The “rules” here are that a yakuza does not steal and he does not fool around with married women. Our hero, Tsune (Bunta Sugawara), takes the heat for a nervous underling, Shinkichi (Hiroshi Miyauchi), who crumbled in the heat of battle, but incurs the wrath of his boss while a devious footsoldier, Viper (Renji Ishibashi), hides in the bushes and then stabs a corpse numerous times to make it look as if he’s done good service. Viper, not content with his ill-gotten gains, sets up Tsune and his superior Tomozo (Ryutaro Otomo) by implicating them in a gambling scam while Tsune falls for the boss’ girl Oren (Yoshiko Fujita) who is also desperately trying to protect the feckless Shinkichi.

The problem with all of this, it would seem, is not so much that the yakuza “law” has been broken but that’s it’s being misused in all quarters and is clearly in conflict with basic humanity. The boss uses the code to manipulate his underlings and keep a firm grip on his power, while Viper bends it to his own nefarious ways and a third underling, Shohei (Shhinichiro Hayashi), rests on the sidelines playing a little each way but remaining loyal to his brothers even as the axe falls on his head. The punishments meted out are suitably gruesome, escalating from finger cutting to eye gauging and ear removal in a senseless and counterproductive lust for violence which does eventually blow back on the boss who pushes his authority too far over too small a cause.

In tale two, however, which takes place in 20th century pre-war Japan, the “crime” is causing trouble and the punishment exile, but again the problem is not the code but the men who subvert it. Thus, hotheaded foot soldier Ogata (Minoru Oki) sets the cat amongst the pigeons by starting a gang war on his own and is sent to prison for three years during which time his gang prospers because of the movement he started. Even so, they aren’t keen to have him back when he gets out and immediately exile him from their territory. He sticks around waiting for his girl, Sayo (Masumi Tachibana), but she gets picked up by the evil boss who wants her for himself and delays her departure so that Ogata can be captured. Believing he’s dead, she hooks up with another goodhearted yakuza, Amamiya (Toyozo Yamamoto), who saves her from the bad guys only to have a romantic crisis when Ogata suddenly resurfaces. Amamiya and Ogata are, however, both “good” yakuza which means they both really love Sayo and want the best for her, each respecting the other for the old love and the new as they team up to kick the corrupt yakuza out of town and make sure she’s permanently safe whoever it is she eventually ends up with.

By the third tale we’ve reached the contemporary era, but we’re no longer in a traditional “yakuza” world so much as one seemingly ripped from a spy spoof in which the cardinal rule is that if you undermine the organisation you will be eliminated. More thugs than yakuza, this kind have no code and will stoop to the lowest kind of cruelty solely for money. Debonair, 007-esque international hitman Hirose (Teruo Yoshida) accepts a job from shady gangster Shimazu (Takashi Fujiki) to assassinate his boss, only Shimazu offs him first and then frames Hirose (which he finds very irritating). Hirose spends the rest of the picture teaching him a lesson while Shimazu tries to eliminate his competition in increasingly inhuman ways (including having someone crushed into a cube while trapped inside a luxury car).

Bar the third episode which isn’t really even about “yakuza”, what Ishii seems to be saying is that the yakuza are also oppressed because they are forced to live with fragmented integrity, torn between giri and ninjo in their adherence to an arcane set of values which are often overly enforced at the cost of true “justice”. To be fair, that is the idea behind every other yakuza film, but Ishii does is add a more cynical edge in suggesting the issue isn’t the code and conflicting value systems but individualised corruption (which is itself perhaps a kind of “ninjo”) in those who deliberately misuse the “noble” idea of the code for their own ends – something which has intensified since the Edo era though is apparently not a result of post-Meiji internationalism. All of that aside, despite the brutality of the title, Yakuza Law is fairly tame outing for Ishii which tempers its lust for blood with cartoonish irony as its deluded heroes battle themselves in service of a code which has never and will never truly serve them.


Available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes a new audio commentary by Jasper Sharp and a vintage interview with Teruo Ishii, as well as a booklet featuring new writing by Tom Mes.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

A Legend or Was it posterIn 1951’s Boyhood, Kinoshita had painted a less than idealised portrait of village life during wartime. With pressure mounting ranks were closing, “outsiders” were not welcome. The family at the centre of Boyhood had more reasons to worry in that they had, by necessity, removed themselves from a commonality in their ideological opposition to imperialism but newcomers are always vulnerable when they find themselves undefended and without friends. 1963’s A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Shito no Densetsu, AKA Legend of a Duel to the Death) tells a similar story, but darker as a family of evacuees fall foul not only of lingering feudal mores but a growing resentment in which they find themselves held responsible for all the evils of war.

Beginning with a brief colour framing sequence, Kinoshita shows us a contemporary Hokkaido village filled with cheerful rural folk who mourn each other’s losses and share each other’s joys while shouldering communal burdens. A voice over, however, reminds us that something ugly happened in this beautiful place twenty years previously. Something of which all are too ashamed to speak. Switching back to black and white and the same village in the summer of 1945, he introduces us to Hideyuki Sonobe (Go Kato) who has just come home from the war to convalesce from a battlefield injury. Hideyuki’s engineer father went off to serve his country and hasn’t been heard from since, and neither has his brother who joined the air corp. His mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), sister Kieko (Shima Iwashita), and younger brother Norio (Tsutomu Matsukawa) have evacuated from Tokyo to this small Hokkaido village where they live in a disused cottage some distance from the main settlement.

The family had been getting by in the village thanks to the support of its mayor, Takamori, but relations have soured of late following an unexpected marriage proposal. Takamori’s son Goichi (Bunta Sugawara), a war veteran with a ruined hand and young master complex, wants to marry Kieko. She doesn’t want to marry him, but the family worry about possible repercussions if they turn him down. It just so happens that Hideyuki recognises Goichi and doesn’t like what he sees – he once witnessed him committing an atrocity in China and knows he is not the sort of man he would want his sister to marry, let alone marry out of fear and practicality. Hideyuki, as the head of the family, turns the proposal down and it turns out they were right to worry. The family’s field is soon vandalised and the police won’t help. When other fields meet the same fate, a rumour spreads that the Sonobes are behind it – taking revenge on the village on as a whole. The villagers swing behind Goichi, using the feud as a cover to ease their own petty grievances.

City dwellers by nature, the Sonobes have wandered into a land little understood in which feudal bonds still matter and mob mentality is only few misplaced words away. The village serves a microcosm of Japanese society at war in which Takamori becomes the unassailable authority and his cruel son the embodiment of militarism. Goichi embraces his role as a young master with relish, riding around the town on horse back and occasionally barking orders at his obedient peasants, stopping only to issue a beating to anyone he feels has slighted him – even taking offence at an innocuous folksong about a man who was rejected in love and subsequently incurred a disability. Despite all of that, however, few can find the strength to resist the pull of the old masters and the majority resolutely fall behind Goichi, willing to die for him if necessary.

As the desperation intensifies and it appears the war, far off as it is, is all but lost, a kind of creeping madness takes hold in which the Sonobes become somehow responsible for the greater madness that has stolen so many sons and husbands from this tiny village otherwise untouched by violence or famine. An embodiment of city civilisation the Sonobes come to represent everything the village feels threatened by, branded as “bandits” and blamed for everything from murder to vegetable theft. The central issue, one of a weak and violent man who felt himself entitled to any woman he wanted and refused to accept the legitimacy of her right to refuse, falls by the wayside as just another facet of the spiralling madness born of corrupted male pride and misplaced loyalties.

Kinoshita returns to the idyllic countryside to close his framing sequence, reminding us that these events may have been unthought to the level of myth but such things did happen even if those who remember are too ashamed to recall them. Tense and inevitable, A Legend or Was It? reframes an age of fear and madness as a timeless village story in which the corrupted bonds of feudalism fuel the fires of resentment and impotence until all that remains is the irrationality of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

(C) Toho 1979

man who stole the sun posterIn the post-Asama-Sanso world, Japanese society had shifted into period of intense calm in which improving economic prosperity was in the process of delivering comfort rather than the creeping acquisitive anxiousness that began to overshadow the bubble era. Nevertheless, in cinematic terms at least anxiety was everywhere and not least among the young who, swept along by this irresistible economic current, were quietly doubtful about their place in a changing society. Co-scripted by an American screenwriter, Leonard Schrader (brother of Taxi Driver’s Paul), The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Taiyo wo Nusunda Otoko) provides a satirical snapshot of this confusing moment as an oppressed, belittled high school science teacher builds an atomic bomb in his apartment just to show he can but then realises he has absolutely no idea what to do with it.

Technically speaking, the science teacher’s name is Makoto Kido (Kenji Sawada) but no one really calls him that. The kids at school refer to him as “Bubble-gum” because he always seems to be chewing on the rather childish confectionary. Not the most conscientious of teachers, he tailors the curriculum to his own interests, teaching the kids all about atomic energy and the bomb, but the kids aren’t interested. They only want to know what’s going to be on the test. To them Kido’s information is irrelevant and so they ignore him, talking amongst themselves while he carries on, preaching to a seemingly empty room.

Meanwhile, Kido is building the bomb at home, for real. As he tells the kids, anyone can build an atomic bomb – you only need the plutonium which is, admittedly, tightly controlled for just this reason. He acquires his through a daring heist on a nuclear plant. Kido never elaborates on what prompted him to begin his bizarre masterplan, but there is certainly a degree of pent up rage inside him born of resentment with his reduced circumstances. “Just” a high school science teacher, who would really think he’d have the capability to build an atomic bomb, alone, using only household equipment (plus the plutonium and a custom furnace purchased after nearly exploding his oven)?

Kido’s problems are the same as many middle-aged men in ‘70s Japan in that he feels intensely oppressed from above and below. What he’s trying to tell the kids is that they have access to this power already – anyone can build a bomb, if you bother to learn how. The only thing that’s being kept from him is the plutonium (and for good reason), which he manages to acquire anyway. A chance encounter with the madness of the age seems to kickstart his plan into gear when he meets his opposing number in police inspector Yamashita (Bunta Sugawara).

Kido, having halfheartedly escorted a group of students on a school trip, finds himself rendered powerless once again when the bus is hijacked by a distressed older gentleman (Yunosuke Ito) armed with a rifle and grenade and wearing a World War II soldier’s uniform. He demands to be driven to see the emperor from whom he intends to demand the return of his son, presumably killed in the war 30 years earlier. Yamashita, clean cut and authoritative, is the gung-ho cop who masterfully brings the hostage crisis to a close by lying to the man that the emperor has consented to see him. During the evacuation the old man is killed by police snipers (despite Yamashita’s too late cries of “don’t shoot” after having dispatched the grenade and disarmed the suspect).

Like Kido, the old man likely didn’t really know what he intended to do, only that he was lonely and desperate. The emperor couldn’t give him back his son (whose uniform he seems to be wearing) and his gesture is one of futile defiance coupled with a suicide bid that has no real goal save making an elaborate protest against the world in which he lives. Kido makes the bomb, lets the authorities know he has it, but then realises he has no demands. He asks them to fix something minor that annoys him, to stop the TV networks pulling the plug on late running baseball games to make way for the news, and finds himself rewarded. He has taken back the power, they believe he has the bomb and they fear him, but he has no further goals or notion of how his society should change. There is no idealised future he is fighting for, all there is is futility and indifference.

Meanwhile, ironically enough, Kido’s desperation provokes a mini revolution in others. A talkshow radio host (Kimiko Ikegami) named “Zero” (in contrast to Kido’s adoption of the codename “No. 9” as the 9th owner of a nuclear device and the only individual), broadcasts his on-air request for ideas, believing it to be a kind of thought experiment. The ideas she gets from the public are of the usual kind – lonely men who want to bathe with naked women, nationalists who want to start a war with America, dreamers who think it might be better not to want anything and just embrace the dream, while she muses that she wants the Rolling Stones concert that was cancelled a few years ago after a band member’s narcotics conviction to be reinstated. That being as good as anything is what Kido goes for in an overture that passes as an odd kind of romance and a suitably ironic kick back against strait-laced authority.

Kido’s war is, in a sense, a war with the fathers of the world as symbolised by men like Yamashita with their suits and neatly trimmed haircuts. Their button-down existence has never offered anything to men like Kido who feel trapped and angry within it. Yet Yamashita is also reacting against his own generation of fathers as symbolised by the old man on the bus, the last remnant of wartime resistance offering a defeated cry against a world which got away from them. Yamashita let the old man die when he prioritised his own sense of heroism, and that annoyed Kido. He can’t help sympathising with his plight which is in a way also his own in being relentlessly silenced and ignored by austere authority figures.

Turning down Yamashita’s clumsy attempt at a pickup, Zero affirms that Kido has given her a dream, which no small thing and she feels bound to him because of it. It’s an ironic statement because Kido has no dreams and not only that, he has no future either – he is slowly dying of radiation poisoning despite his precautions during the building of the bomb. In their final confrontation, Yamashita, adopting a paternal authority, neatly summarises Kido’s dilemma. The only life he has the right to take is his own, and his own death is the only thing he really wants, but he’s embarked on this elaborate plan to make his presence felt all the while aware that he will remain totally anonymous. No one will ever see him. He will die, like thousands of others, faceless. A lowly high school science teacher, no terrorist mastermind or bomb building genius. His revenge is as absurd as it is futile. Male inferiority complexes threaten to drown us all in a sea of violent resentment, and as the Earth dies screaming all we will have to reflect on is that we ourselves brought this world into being through our own incurable apathy.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Yoichi Sai, 1987)

Lady in a Black Dress posterHaruki Kadokawa had become almost synonymous with commercial filmmaking throughout the 1980s and his steady stream of idol-led teen movies was indeed in full swing by 1987, but his idols, as well as his audiences, were perhaps beginning to grow up. Yoichi Sai’s first outing for Kadokawa had been with the typically cheery Someday, Someone Will Be Killed which was inspired by the most genre’s representative author, Jiro Akagawa, and followed the adventures of an upperclass girl who is suddenly plunged into a world of intrigue when her reporter father disappears after dropping a floppy disk into her handbag. A year later he’d skewed darker with a hardboiled yakuza tale starring Tatsuya Fuji as part of Kadokawa’s gritty action line, but he neatly brings to two together in The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Kuroi Dress no Onna) which features the then 20-year-old star of The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Tomoyo Harada, in another noir-inflected crime thriller again adapted from a novel by Kenzo Kitakata.

We first meet the titular “lady in a black dress” walking alone alone along a busy motorway until she is kerb crawled by a yakuza in a fancy car. Declaring she intends to walk to Tokyo (a very long way), Reiko (Tomoyo Harada) nevertheless ends up getting into the mysterious man’s vehicle despite avowing that she “hates yakuza”. The yakuza goon does however drive her safely into the city and drop her off at her chosen destination – a race course, where she begins her quest to look for “someone”. By coincidence, the yakuza was also heading to the race course where he intended to stab a rival gangster – Shoji (Bunta Sugawara), who makes no attempt to get away and seemingly allows himself to be stabbed by the younger man. Shoji, as it happens, is the temporary responsibility of the man Reiko has been looking for – Tamura (Toshiyuki Nagashima), a former salaryman turned bar owner with fringe ties to the yakuza. Putting on her little black dress, Reiko finally finds herself at his upscale jazz bar where she petitions him for a job and a place to stay, dropping the name of Tamura’s sister-in-law who apparently advised her to try hiding out with him.

Reiko is, after a fashion, the dame who walked into Tamura’s gin joint with the (mild) intention to cause trouble, but, in keeping with the nature of the material, what she arouses in Tamura and later Shoji is a latent white knight paternalism. Curious enough to rifle through her luggage while she’s out, Tamura is concerned to find a pistol hidden among her belongings but when caught with it, Reiko offers the somewhat dark confession that the gun is less for her “protection” than her suicide. Not quite believing her, Tamura advises Reiko not to try anything like that in his place of business and to take it somewhere else. Nevertheless, Reiko stays in Tamura’s bar, eventually sharing a room with melancholy yakuza Shoji who is also hiding out there until the plan comes together to get him out of the country and away from the rival gangsters out for his blood.

As it turns out, Reiko had good reason to “hate yakuza” but she can’t seem to get away from them even in the city. Tamura’s life has also been ruined by organised crime as we later find out, and it’s these coincidental ties which eventually bring Reiko to him through his embittered sister-in-law who had been the mistress of Reiko’s lecherous step-father. The codes of honour and revenge create their own chaos as Shoji attempts to embrace and avoid his inevitable fate while his trusted underling (the yakuza who gave Reiko a lift) tries to help him – first by an act of symbolic though non-life threatening stabbing and then through a brotherly vow to face him himself to bring the situation to a close in the kindest way possible.

Meanwhile, a storm brews around a missing notebook which supposedly contains all the sordid details of the dodgy business deals brokered by a now corporatised yakuza who, while still engaging in general thuggery, are careful to mediate their world of organised crime through legitimate business enterprises. Reiko, like many a Kadokawa heroine, is an upperclass girl – somewhat sheltered and innocent, but trying to seem less so in order to win support and protection against the forces which are pursuing her. Though the film slots neatly into the “idol” subgenre, Harada takes much less of a leading role than in the studio’s regular idol output, retaining the mysterious air of the “lady in a black dress” while the men fight back against the yakuza only gradually exposing the truths behind the threat posed to Reiko.

Consequently, Reiko occupies a strangely liminal space as an adolescent girl, by turns femme fatale and damsel in distress. Wily and resourceful, Reiko formulates her own plan for getting the gangsters off her back, even if it’s one which may result in a partial compromise rather than victory. Though Kadokawa’s idol movies could be surprisingly dark, The Lady in a Black Dress pushes the genre into more adult territory as Reiko faces quite real dangers including sexual violence while wielding her femininity as a weapon (albeit inexpertly) – something quite unthinkable in the generally innocent idol movie world in which the heroine’s safety is always assured. Sai reframes the idol drama as a hardboiled B-movie noir scored by sophisticated jazz and peopled by melancholy barmen and worn-out yakuza weighed down by life’s regrets, while occasionally switching back to Reiko who attempts to bury her fear and anxiety by dancing furiously in a very hip 1987 nightclub. Darker than Kadokawa’s generally “cute” tales of plucky heroines and completely devoid of musical sequences (Harada does not sing nor provide the theme tune), The Lady in a Black dress is a surprisingly mature crime drama which nevertheless makes room for its heroine’s eventual triumph and subsequent exit from the murky Tokyo underground for the brighter skies of her more natural environment.


TV spot (no subtitles)

Theme song – Kuroi Dress no Onna -Ritual- by dip in the pool.

The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Noboru Nakamura, 1964)

(C) Shochiku 1964Despite having two films nominated for a best foreign language Oscar and a handful of foreign festival hits under his belt, Noboru Nakamura has been largely forgotten by Western film criticism though a centennial retrospective of three of his most well regarded films at Tokyo Filmex in 2013 has helped to revive interest. The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Yoru no Henrin), Nakamura’s 1964 Shochiku melodrama focussing on the suffocating life of a young woman pulled into the Tokyo red light district, was one of the three newly restored films featured and was also screened in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim. Making full use of its vibrant colour palate, The Shape of Night paints its city as a constant tormentor filled with artificial light and false promises.

As we meet her, melancholy street walker Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) has been trapped in her dead end existence for six years and has lost all hope of living a “normal” life filled with love and happiness. A chance encounter with a supercilious client, Fujii (Keisuke Sonoi), prompts her into a series of recollections in an effort to explain exactly how it was she ended up in such a sorry state. As the eldest daughter of a poor family Yoshie left school early to work in a factory (making those neon tubes you see everywhere) while supplementing her income by working as a barmaid (not a hostess, just a girl behind the bar). Just shy of her 20th birthday, she meets a handsome “salaryman”, Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), who starts coming to the bar regularly to see her. The pair became a couple, and then lovers, and then cohabiters, but Eiji isn’t a “salaryman” so much as a low level gangster with a gambling problem whose street name is “princess”. Continual losses put Eiji in a tight spot with his crew and he begins borrowing money from Yoshie before asking her to prostitute herself to get him out of a hole. Thinking it will just be a one time thing, Yoshie resolves to make a sacrifice for her man but, of course, it wasn’t a one time thing.

Yoshie’s story is a sadly familiar one – an innocent woman duped by a duplicitous man whose empty promises aim to mask his continued fecklessness. Eiji, despite his smart suits and coolly confident attitude, is unlikely to make much of himself in the yakuza world yet is as tied into its hellish system of loyalty and reciprocity as Yoshie is in her non-marriage to the man she thinks she loves. Seeking constant approval, Eiji thinks nothing of living off a woman and his childishly excited smile on re-entering the apartment after Yoshie has sacrificed herself to save his face is a grim reminder of his priorities. When pleading doesn’t work Eiji turns violent, prompting Yoshie to finally consider leaving him but she’s too late – the yakuza world has already got its hooks into her and any attempt to escape will be met with terrifying resistance.

Fujii may seem as if he presents another option for Yoshie, a chance for a better, kinder existence but he too is merely another man trying to tell her how she should live her life. Hypocritical at best (as he freely admits), Fujii pays Yoshie to “ease his sexual urges” but expresses disgust and disapproval of her lifestyle and seeks to “save” her from her life of humiliating immorality, “purifying” her just like the dam he is building is supposed to do to the Sumida river. Fujii’s obvious saviour complex is worrying enough in itself though there is also the additional worry of what his “salvation” may entail if Yoshie decides to make a break from her yakuza chains and run off to the comparative safety of provincial Hokkaido. Fujii may claim to have fallen in love with her, but so did Eiji and who’s to say Fujii’s idea of wedded bliss will be any better than Eiji’s brutal reign as a common law spouse.

The situation is further complicated by Eiji’s gradual shift from a violent, overbearing, abusive boyfriend to a genial figure of gentle domesticity and what that shift later provokes in Yoshie. Rendered physically impotent by an incident during a gang fight, Eiji is literally and figuratively emasculated. Though his sudden inability to satisfy Yoshie originally provokes his jealously, it soon robs him of his violent impulses and turns Eiji into a willing housewife who dutifully does the couple’s washing and prepares the meals much to Yoshie’s consternation. This transformation is what finally kills her love for him, but still Yoshie cannot find it in herself to sever her connection with the man who has been the cause of all her suffering. Not quite hate or loathing, Yoshie’s burned out love has become a burden of care as she finds herself duty bound to look after a man she now believes incapable of looking after himself.

While Yoshie and Eiji sit in a bar one night after “work”, the television plays a report featuring the sad news of the death of a female student at the ANPO demonstrations. Prompting Yoshie to exclaim “what is ANPO anyway?”, the news report lays bare just how isolated her life as become – as all of Tokyo is aflame with with righteous indignation and the streets are filled with the largest protest in living memory, Yoshie is trapped in her tiny neon world which promises so much and delivers so little.

Nakamura makes fantastic use of sound design to capture Yoshie’s interior world – the background music rising over the droning voice of a boring client who hasn’t quite made up his mind, the radio cutting out at intense moments of violence, the terrible clanging of Eiji’s geta on the iron staircase which leads to his flat. Fading into blue dissolves of memory, Nakamura makes a hellish wonderland of nighttime Tokyo whose flashing neon lights, crowded bars and oddly darkened streets turn it into a prison of dubious delights. Finally making a drastic decision, Yoshie attempts to free herself from her burdens and sever the chains which bind her to her misery but in cutting the cord she finds the knots tightening, realising she will never be released from the source of all her suffering.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.