Black Sun (黒い太陽, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964)

black sun still 2The Warped Ones showed us a nihilistic world of aimless youth living not so much on their wits as by their pleasures, indulging their every animalistic whim while respectable society looked on in horror. By 1964 things have only got worse. Tokyo might have got the Olympics, Japan might be back on the international map, and economic prosperity might be on the rise but all around the city there’s an arid wasteland – a literal dumping ground in which the unburied past has been left to fester as a grim reminder of historical follies and the present’s reluctance to deal with them.

Akira (Tamio Kawaji), now calling himself “Mei” (perhaps a play on the reading of the character for his name 明), seems to have mellowed since the heady days of his youth. Living alone save for a dog named Thelonious Monk, Mei has co-opted a disused church and turned it into a shrine for jazz. The walls and ceilings are covered in photographs of famous jazz musicians and posters for club nights and solo shows. He has his own turntable and a well stocked selection of LPs, though he still seems to frequent the same kind of jazz clubs that so defined his earlier life.

Change arrives when Mei boosts a fancy car and is almost caught in a police net caused by the body of an American serviceman found floating in the harbour. Apparently the crime is the product of an internal GI squabble, but the offending soldier is on the run with a machine gun. As coincidence would have it, the wounded killer, Gil (Chico Lourant), fetches up at Mei’s church and, as Gil is a black man, Mei assumes that they will definitely be friends. It is, however, not quite that simple.

As in the earlier film, jazz is the force which keeps Mei’s mind from fracturing. His life still moves to improvisational rhythms even if apparently not quite so frenetically as it once did. Rather than the rampant animal of The Warped Ones, this Mei has embraced his outsider status through literally removing himself from the city in favour of self-exile and isolation as a squatter in the house of God – a place about to be torn down.

While Mei has been literally pushed out with only his beloved dog as evidence of his latent human feelings, his formerly delinquent friend, Yuki (Yuko Chishiro), has gone on to bigger and better things. No longer (it seems) a casual prostitute catering to foreigners, Yuki has repurposed the skills her former life gave her to shift into an aspirational middle-class world as a translator for those same American troops she once performed another service for. The American occupation is long over, but the US Army is everywhere.

Mei thinks of himself as one of Japan’s oppressed outsiders – an outcast in a land subjugated by a foreign power. He squats in a ruined church while the Americans “squat” in his ruined country. He likes jazz because it fits the rhythms of his mind but also because he believes it to be the music of the oppressed. In Gil he thinks he sees another like him, a man oppressed in his own homeland and ironically enough by the same forces that are (in part) oppressing him. Mei has a lot of strange, stereotypical ideas about black men – he’s excited to meet Gil because he thinks all black men must love jazz and that Gil must be some kind of jazz god, but Gil is a frightened rabbit on the run, terrified and bleeding. Thinking he’s in the middle of a visitation, Mei tries to make plain his enthusiasm despite the obvious language barrier, pointing wildly at his shrine to jazz, but all Gil wants is quiet and help with the bullet wound currently suppurating on his thigh.

The “relationship” deteriorates, but a strange kind of camaraderie is eventually born between the two men. Things take a turn for the surreal when Mei dons black face and paints Gil’s white, only to get stopped by GIs who want to see an ID from a “foreigner” driving a fancy car, and for Mei to introduce Gil at his favourite jazz bar as his new “slave”. In hindsight it’s all a little awkward as Kurahara throws in stock footage of the civil rights movement and tries to equate it both to the recent protest movements in Japan and to Mei’s self-identified status as one of Japan’s oppressed masses. Still, you can’t argue with the fact that the two men have found a bond in their shared alienation and desire to escape from the impotence of their current situations.

Ironically enough Kurahara does seem to believe in an escape, though it’s perhaps not so positive as it sounds. The tragic friendship of the two men in which one must save the other by releasing him towards the sea and the sun pushes Mei out of his self-exile and back into the “real” world even if he still considers himself to be an outsider within it. The sun is bright but it’s also dull, shining not with hope but with consolation for a hopeless world in which the only victory lies in the final act of surrender.

Short scene from the beginning of the film (English subtitles)

The Warped Ones (狂熱の季節, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960)

warped ones posterYouth was at an intense point of crisis in the Japan of 1960. The old pre-war ways were out, but what was youth supposed to do now – a question which found no answers. Whereas the intervening 15 years since the end of the war had been filled with somber soul searching and an intense dedication to forging a way through, the young of the late ‘50s were losing interest in rehashing the past and becoming keener to voice their concerns over what some saw as an undue influence wielded by the Americans. 1960 saw the biggest public protests in public memory as the citizens of Tokyo – many of them students and young people, took to the streets in protest of Japan’s continued reliance on America for military protection and the various comprises and complicities they felt that entailed.

Meanwhile, in cinema rebellious youth had become a bone of contention – the so called “Sun Tribe” movies of the mid 50s, inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara, had painted an unflattering picture of decreasing morality among the young. Rising economic prosperity had given birth to a class of overindulged, privileged young men and women who frittered their parents’ money away on fast cars, drugs, jazz, and promiscuous (often violent) sex. The bright young things of the early ‘60s, young people who lived without morality or purpose, terrified the older generations who feared their kids too might wind up devotees of the sun tribe and reject the world they had strived so hard to rebuild.

The Sun Tribe movies were so controversial that the studio, Nikkatsu, was eventually forced to halt production but Japan’s rebellious youth was a subject which refused to go quietly. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones (狂熱の季節, Kyonetsu no Kisetsu), released in 1960, revised the myth of the Sun Tribe by looking at it from the other side – these were no ennui filled elites, the crazed youth of the Warped Ones are poor boys and dropouts living by their wits and caring nothing for the rules of a society which has continually rejected them.

Akira (Tamio Kawaji), a petty teenage delinquent, gets caught pickpocketing in a jazz club and is sent for a spell in a reform school. Inside he meets another young man in a similar situation, Masaru (Eiji Go), and decides to team up with him after they’re released. Meeting up with fellow delinquent Yuki (Yuko Chishiro) – a casual prostitute hooking foreigners, the three decide to have some fun. Boosting a car and heading to the beach, they spot additional spice in the very reporter who got Akira arrested in the Jazz bar out for a promenade with his fiancée. The trio drive fast at Kashiwagi (Hiroyuki Nagato), knocking him flying before Yuki jumps out and grabs the girlfriend, Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto), and bundles her into the car. Driving to a secluded spot, Masaru and Yuki pair off while Akira rapes Fumiko and then cruelly abandons her with only the “kindness” of pointing her towards a local police station.

Akira is the new kind of delinquent so feared by traditional society. He has no job or intention of forging a career – he lives on the thrill of petty crime, giving full vent to each and every urge his adolescent body conjures. His friendship with Masaru is perhaps his only redeeming feature but it’s unclear how far this really runs even if his only particular code makes the idea of any non transactional action with Yuki off limits. Masaru’s romance by contrast does appear to be deep and genuine – he can get past Yuki’s life as a casual prostitute and is even willing to support her when she falls pregnant with a child that is most likely not his. To does this, Masaru considers joining a gang which is something Akira’s individualism will not permit him to do. “Only people who don’t listen to jazz join gangs” he opines superciliously. His is a life of freestyle joys and hedonistic pursuits in which his will is all and his body his only instrument.   

Kurahara opens with a heady, swirling shot of the ceiling in the jazz club Akira likes to frequent while the score dances wildly in the background. Akira’s head is filled with the sound of “good” jazz. He moves, breathes and lives his own symphony. His world is indeed noisy – cramped tenements with paper thin walls and and the ever present rumble of passing trains give his life its own kind of oppressive rhythms, echoing the inescapability of his dead end existence. The music is his escape and the only thing keeping him “sane”, only “sane” means his self destructive tendencies become externalised as a cruel and sadistic game of revenge on the society which refuses to accept him. Akira is indeed “warped”, life is an absurd joke to him, but he is far from alone and his alienation has very real causes which lie not in the evils of Jazz music and American individualism but in a stratified, high pressure society which leaves its restless young with little to survive on save the instant gratification of their baser urges.

Opening (English subtitles)

Espy (エスパイ, Jun Fukuda, 1974)

espy posterBy 1974 the Toho SFX movie was perhaps long past its heyday though Jun Fukuda’s Espy (エスパイ) was far from the last. Clearly influenced by popular spy franchises such as James Bond as well as more serious cold war spy dramas, Espy is a jet setting tale of superpowered assassins, international conspiracy, and love as an unexpected source of salvation, but as much as it embraces its hippyish message of total communication it also moves further into the realms of exploitation, skewing closer to Nikkatsu’s ’70s output than the more child friendly supernatural adventures of ages past.

The world is at breaking point. A small conflict in a tiny East European nation known as Baltonia threatens to spark a third world war. A UN delegation is currently en route to a conference in which they hope to settle the conflict in a peaceful way but all hope is lost when a sniper equipped with X-ray vision takes them all out with maximum precision.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, test driver Miki (Masao Kusakari) gets into trouble on the course when he swerves to avoid some pigeons. The car spins out of control but just at the last minute, Miki turns it around through his dormant psychic powers which brings him to the attention of the IPPG – the International Psychic Power Group. Following the assassination of the UN delegation, all eyes are on Japan where the prime minister of Baltonia is due to meet the US president in what is hoped will be a bold new development in international relations but the IPPG have reason to believe an attempt will be made on the prime minister’s life and only their ESP equipped team can stop it.

Espy takes the essential components of both the spy thriller in its international conspiracy set up, and the B-movie science fiction adventure in its presentation of the good and evil possibilities of advanced technologies or in this case innate superpowers. The Espy team are pitted against the Anti-Espy who have similar powers but are committed to using them to harm mankind. The leader of the Anti-Espy, Ulrov (Tomisaburo Wakayama), sees himself as a superior being to regular Earthlings and, believing that humans have overpopulated the planet which they continue to damage, is convinced the best solution is a mass cull. He plans to do this by helping the “lesser” humans destroy themselves by provoking a third world war or a hundred mini conflicts in which thousands will die.

Ulrov’s arguments tie in nicely with Toho’s trademark environmentalism and ambivalent attitude towards scientific development, but they go against the prevailing sense of humanism which is to be found in the studio’s genre output. In Ulrov’s fascistic view of the world, he and the other ESPers are a superior race whose existence is threatened by weaker humans and their reckless disregard for the planet as a whole. Due to a traumatic childhood incident, he believes that humans are cruel beasts who lust for blood and talk of peace with hearts filled with hate. He may have a point, but his message conflicts with the positive movement for peace which is advanced by the Baltonian PM who doesn’t want a world in which peace is brokered and balanced but one of true unity.

Espy is, however, of its time and fails to fully live out its peace and love ideals. Team member Maria (Kaoru Yumi) is kidnapped by Anti-Espy and taken to Ulrov’s lair where she is forced to dance lasciviously in front of fellow team member Tamura (Hiroshi Fujioka) with whom she shares an especially strong connection. Tamura’s arms and legs are cuffed as he communicates telepathically with Ulrov, semi-hypnotised by Maria’s strange dance. Maria is then approached by a large dark-skinned man wearing only a loincloth who proceeds to tear open her shirt at which point she snaps out of her trance, frees Tamura, and rips out the attacker’s tongue.

Meanwhile, new recruit Miki has failed in his mission and killed a man for the first time sending him into a kind of depression. Though Miki was introduced as the protagonist, he is in fact absent for most of the film though his journey is among the strangest as he reminisces about a foreign girl he was friends with as a child and enjoys an unusually strong bond with his intrepid dog, Caesar, who teaches the gang a few lessons about unconditional love. Maria is severely traumatised by her attack while Tamura reconsiders his sense of self worth having temporarily lost his powers, but eventually the team realise that their psychic abilities are nothing more than a manifestation of a great love. Ulrov later has the same epiphany but the team’s decision to consider him possessed by something “inhuman” is a worrying one. They don’t want to accept that it was humans who made him that way because it would be too sad, but not to do so is a failure to recognise humanity’s darkness as well as its light.

Espy bites off a little more than it can chew in failing to deal with some of the more interesting ideas it raises though it makes the most of its meagre budget to present an exciting spy thriller voyaging from Japan to Turkey and Switzerland. Skewing more towards Nikkatsu’s brand of exploitation action, Espy is definitely among the more adult orientated of Toho’s SFX adventures but its messages are broadly the same in its insistence on human interconnectedness as the ultimate superpower. 


Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (探偵事務所23 くたばれ悪党ども, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

detective-bureau-2-3Before Seijun Suzuki pushed his luck too far with the genre classic Branded to Kill, he bided his time adding his own particular brand of zany absurdism to Nikkatsu’s standard cool guy fights crooks and gets girl formula. Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (探偵事務所23 くたばれ悪党ども, Tantei Jimusho 23: Kutabare Akutodomo) is just one of these efforts. Made around the time of Suzuki’s major turning points such as the similarly named The Bastard, and relatively better known Youth of the Beast, the film follows Nikkatsu’s standard pattern but allows frequent Suzuki leading man and Nikkatsu A-lister Joe Shishido to swan about the place in grand style, effortlessly manipulating everything and everyone to come out on top once again. Filled with snappy dialogue and painted with an irony filled noirish aesthetic, Detective Bureau 2-3 does not care about its plot, and wants you to know you shouldn’t either.

The action kicks off when a low level yakuza, Manabe (Tamio Kawachi), is captured by the police following a bloody turf battle. Manabe isn’t talking, the police can’t hold him much longer, and a bunch of gangsters from all factions are already waiting outside to eliminate him as soon as he’s released. Enter Tajima (Jo Shishido) – private detective and head of Detective Bureau 2-3. Managing to convince his “buddies” in the regular police that he’s exactly the right guy to sort all of this out, Tajima constructs an undercover ID, stages a daring rescue of Manabe, and worms his way into his gang to find out what’s going down in yakuza land. Whilst there he begins romancing the boss’ cold hearted girl and attempting to find out the whereabouts of a cache of stolen weaponry before getting all of the bad guys together in one place so the police can arrest them with maximum efficiency.

Even more so than Suzuki’s other films from the period, Detective Bureau 2-3 moves like a rocket with barely anytime to follow the plot even if there was one. Tajima is like some cartoon hero, half Lupin III and half Top Cat, always landing on his feet or speeding away from danger in a swanky sports car. Even when trapped (along with his love interest) inside a burning basement with no means of escape, he comes up with an ingenious solution to get the all important evidence out there in the hope that his police buddies will come and rescue him. Tajima is the guy you can always rely on to get you out of a fix, even if it gets you into an even bigger fix.

Unexpectedly, Detective Bureau 2-3 also has a mild Christmas theme as the seedy dive bar Tajima and the crooks hang out in attempts to get into the festive spirit. This is a world of gamblers and showgirls where the glamour of the smokescreen underworld undercuts the less savoury aspects the men who people it. Suzuki gives us a fair number of cabaret numbers set against the Christmassy decorations and creates an awkward situation for Tajima as his on and off cabaret star girlfriend threatens to blow his cover, even dragging him up on stage for a pointed duet about useless boyfriends who never keep their promises. Actually that all kind of works for him too because it annoys the boss’ girl, who is definitely starting to at least develop complicated feelings towards him. Trapped with her cruel yet supposedly impotent gang boss boyfriend-cum-jailer, she’s about eight different kinds of frustrated and has been waiting for someone like Tajima to come and set her free (in about eight different ways), so all of this is really going very well for him.

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! is just as zany and frenetic as the title suggests, moving from one bizarre action set piece to another filled with exploding coke bottles and weaponised cement trucks all while Shishido grins wildly and poses in his sharp suit and trench coat. Inconsequential, yes, but Detective Bureau 2-3 never claims to be anything other than cartoonish fun as Shishido and co offer up a series of wacky one liners and breeze through the action with an effortless kind of glee. Filled with Suzuki’s visual flair, Detective Bureau 2-3 is among his lesser efforts but is undeniably good fun and another colourful outing for the increasingly cool Shishido.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

nikutai_no_mon_2_film-1600x900-c-defaultWhat are you supposed to do when you’ve lost a war? Your former enemies all around you, refusing to help no matter what they say and there are only black-marketers and gangsters where there used to be merchants and craftsmen. Everyone is looking out for themselves, everyone is in the gutter. How are you supposed to build anything out of this chaos? Perhaps you aren’t, but you have to go one living, somehow. The picture of the immediate post-war world which Suzuki paints in Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Nikutai no Mon) is fairly hellish – crowded, smelly marketplaces thronging with desperate people. Based on a novel by Taijiro Tamura (who also provided the source material for Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute), Gate of Flesh has its lens firmly pointed at the bottom of the heap and resolutely refuses to avert its gaze.

A nervous young woman, clearly tired, starving and alone wanders through a marketplace in desperation before a yakuza offers to buy her something to eat. She is wary but has little choice. Soon after she meets toughened prostitute Sen who is the de-facto head of a small group of streetwalkers committed to supporting and protecting each other. They have few rules but the biggest one is no giving it away for free. Maya joins their “merry” band and things are going OK for them until they make the fateful decision to take in a wounded ex-soldier on the run from the American military police. Shin puts a great big wedge between the members of the group, deepening the cracks which were present all along. Sure enough, Maya starts to fall for this damaged man threatening to fall foul of the gang’s single taboo. When you’ve lived like this, without hope, without a future, can you ever go back to being a “real human being” ever again?

Make no mistake, this is a ruined world. Almost post-apocalyptic, it’s populated by the starving and the desperate. The sweet potato seller is king here – the working girls are depicted like packs of rabid animals, descending on any passing male ready to extract any amount of loose change which they immediately run out to thrust into the hands of anyone who has food. The great horror is hunger.

The other great horror is, of course, violence and particularly male violence against women. Maya is assaulted early on and a truck carrying two army officers and a priest tries to make a quick escape after noticing her lying wounded by the roadside. The Americans aren’t going to help her, she’s just another raped Japanese woman after all, but the priest stops and offers another kind of salvation shining from his dangling crucifix. He repeatedly turns up later and tries to convince Maya to come back to church but you can’t live on a communion wafer alone and eventually Maya puts a definite end to the idea of any kind of religious solution to her predicament.

Sex is business for the woman under Sen’s command. They sell their bodies, hence the prohibition on giving them away. Breaking the rules will get you cruelly beaten and humiliated before being thrown out of the group and it’s near impossible to survive alone. The other women have all been injured by the war, they’re all among those left behind. One of them, Machiko, stands a little to the side as a middle class war widow rigidly sticking to her kimono and dreaming of becoming someone’s wife again. Needless to say, she and Sen do not always see eye to eye as Machiko’s desire to return to a more innocent age conflicts with Sen’s hard nosed pragmatism.

This is Japan in defeat. The girls live in a warren of ruined buildings haunted by visions of the past. Shin has returned from the war to a land devoid of hope. He’s a broken man and, as the woman have been “reduced” to prostitution, he has been “forced” into crime. There aren’t any real people here anymore, just animals willing to do whatever it takes just to stay alive.

When Suzuki was given this assignment, they wanted him to make a soft-core exploitation pic full of the sleazy lives of the red light district. Suzuki doesn’t give them that, he gives them another round of beautifully composed, surrealist social commentary in which the downtrodden citizens of Japan are defeated for a second time by the corrupting influences of the American occupation. The final shot of the ascendant Stars and Stripes flapping in the wind while the Japanese flag lies drowned in the muddy river speaks for itself and though Suzuki shows us those defiantly trying to live his prognosis for them is not particularly hopeful. He uses multiple exposure here more than in any other film as the past continues to haunt the traumatised populace in quite a literal way where one scene of degradation leads on to another. Extended metaphor, surrealist examination of the post-war world and also the low level exploitation feature Suzuki was hired to direct (albeit in more ways than one) Gate of Flesh proves one of his most complicated and accomplished features even given his long and varied career.

Gate of Flesh is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from The Criterion Collection.