Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Umetsugu Inoue, 1962)

“I want to live in a world where things kiss spontaneously, money divides society like it does you and me” says the Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Kurotokage) to her mark, affecting the role of an elegant older woman but failing to conceal herself within the disguise. Though the later 1968 version by Kinji Fukasaku may be better known, Umetsugu Inoue’s adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s 1934 short story, filtered through Yukio Mishima’s stage play and scripted by Kaneto Shindo, is a camp classic in its own right. Making full use of Inoue’s talent for musicals and the dance background of marquee star Machiko Kyo, Black Lizard is a full hearted crime melodrama in which the villain’s defeat is a perverse tragedy leaving the truly treacherous to ponder what it is they may have destroyed. 

Another outing for Edogawa Rampo’s master detective Akechi (Minoru Oki), the picture opens with “Japan’s best detective” offering a monologue to camera in which he explains that the world is a brutal place but crime too can be an art, it is after all a man-made creation. If only we had more artful crimes, he claims, the world might be a better place. That is perhaps why he seems to have fallen for the crafty Black Lizard, his Irene Adler talented at elaborate heists involving disguise and subterfuge. 

His present case, however, finds him on a retainer to boorish jewellery merchant Iwase (Masao Mishima) who has been receiving threatening letters claiming that someone “very evil” is planning to kidnap his 19-year-old daughter Sanae (Junko Kano) whom he is currently trying to marry off. The reason they’ve made this trip to Osaka (without her mother) is so that Sanae can meet another prospective husband. She doesn’t seem very happy about the idea, but is going along with it and it seems Iwase doesn’t intend to pressure her into a marriage she doesn’t want. In any case, she’s something of a sheltered young woman which might be why she doesn’t suspect anything of the over friendly Mrs. Midorikawa other than she seems to have designs on her father. Knowing that no young girl relishes the prospect of arranged marriage, “Mrs. Midorikawa” makes a point of introducing her to a “friend” of hers, Amamiya (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), whom she thinks might be more to her liking. Of course, Midorikawa is really Black Lizard and Amamiya is her henchman. They’ve come to kidnap Sanae in the hope of ransoming her for the precious jewel “Egyptian Star” that Iwase can’t stop boasting about. 

The thing about Black Lizard is that she’s not driven by monetary gain but by a lust for beauty. She loves everything that sparkles, but more than that the aesthetic pleasure of the human form. Black Lizard tells Sanae that she dreams of a world with no borders, in which people are free into wander into the homes of others, and the subway hangers will be made of diamonds and platinum – literally a sparkling world of peace and freedom where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. In a slightly transgressive moment, she casts her eyes over Sanae’s youthful body, admiring her “perfectly shaped breasts” before turning melancholy in admitting that she feels sad whenever she sees someone beautiful in knowing they will soon grow old. Later, we realise we should have taken her at her word, her objection to transience apparently having turned murderous. 

Even so, Sanae in rejecting the idea of arranged marraige, foolishly admits she’d rather be stolen than bought. In her eyes, a desire to be swept off her feet by a romantic hero saving her from a bourgeois existence, but she is indeed about to be “stolen” if only to be redeemed when her father agrees to give up the Egyptian Star to save her. Iwase, however, like the Black Lizard herself, was seduced by the allure of precious jewels after striking it lucky as a working class young man labouring in a quarry. He loves his daughter, but cannot bring himself to surrender this the most precious of all his jewels even to save her life. Akechi assures him that he has a plan which will save both Sanae and the diamond, but is left with only contempt for the way that Iwase has been corrupted not quite by greed but by a kind of misdirected lust for illusionary lustre. 

Black Lizard, for her part, is smitten by Akechi’s acumen, taken both by his handsome form and by his ability to challenge her. They chase each other while wondering who it is that is really being pursued and what they intend to do if ever they manage to catch their quarry, but vowing to emerge victorious all the same. Black Lizard guards her heart jealously, like the most precious jewel of all, while Akechi is continually captivated by the perfection of her criminal escapades. “What I hate most in this world is fakes” Black Lizard exclaims, confronted by Akechi’s complicated doubles game where no one is quite whom they first seemed to be, but it’s her own authenticity which eventually blinds her in realising she might have made a damning confession to the man who has “stolen” her heart. Grotesque as it eventually is, and it ends in a bizarre museum of human taxidermy crafted into “beautiful” tableaux, Akechi cannot help but admire the “beauty” in Black Lizard’s artistry, lamenting the loss of something precious while those like Iwase will continue to sell their glittering emptiness to an increasingly “brutal” world. 


Black Lizard dancing away from the scene of the crime (no subtitles)

Blood is Dry (血は渇いてる, Kiju Yoshida, 1960)

Blood is dry DVD coverIn the new post-war economy, everything is for sale including you! Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida’s second feature Blood is Dry (血は渇いてる, Chi wa Kawaiteru) takes its cues from Yasuzo Masumura’s earlier Technicolor corporate satire Giants and Toys, and Frank Capra’s 1941 comedy Meet John Doe in taking a faceless corporate drone and giving him a sense of self only through its own negation. The little guy is at the mercy not only of irresponsible capitalist fat cats, but of his own imagination and the machinations of mass media who are only too keen to sell him impossible dreams of individual happiness.

The action opens with a grandstanding rooftop speech from a former CEO to his distressed workforce informing them that because of “indifferent capitalism” this small business is going bust and everyone’s out of a job. Then, dramatically, our hero Kiguchi (Keiji Sada), steps out with a pistol and threatens to shoot himself, proclaiming that he no longer cares for his own life but doesn’t want anyone else to lose their job. Another worker, Kanai (Masao Oda), tackles Kiguchi and the gun goes off. Thankfully, he is only mildly wounded but Kiguchi’s case reaches the papers who make it into a human interest issue exemplifying the precarious economic conditions of the modern society. While he’s still somewhat current, an enterprising advertising executive hits on the idea of getting Kiguchi to act as the face of their campaign, bizarrely attempting to sell life insurance with the image of a man putting a gun to his head while proclaiming that “it’s high time everyone is happy”.

When we first meet him, Kiguchi is indeed a faceless, broken man at the end of his tether. His noble sacrifice is interpreted as an act of war on an unfair capitalist society, but as he later affirms in exasperation, Kiguchi had no political intent and never considered himself as acting with a greater purpose, he was simply terrified at the prospect of losing his job which is, in a sense, also his entire identity. Shy and mild-mannered, he stammers through speeches and curls himself into a hostile ball of awkwardness in front of the camera but ad exec Nonaka (Mari Yoshimura) is sure that only makes him a better sell for being “real” and relatable. Like the hero of Meet John Doe, however, Kiguchi starts to buy into his own hype. He fully embraces his role as the embodiment of the everyman, at once gaining and losing an identity as he basks in the unexpected faith of his adoring populace.

Kiguchi’s conversion wasn’t something Nonaka had in mind and it frightens her to realise she has lost control of her creation. Meanwhile, Nonaka’s ex, a paparazzo with a penchant for setting up celebrities in compromising situations in order to blackmail them, has it in for Kiguchi as the personification of his own dark profession. He resents the idea of using “suicide” as a marketing tool and the cynical attempt to sell the idea of happiness through the security of life insurance which, it has to be said, is a peculiarly ironic development.

Kiguchi’s liberal message of happiness and solidarity does not go down well with all – he’s eventually attacked in a taxicab by a right-wing nationalist posing as a reporter who accuses him of being a traitor to Japan, and it’s certainly not one which appeals to the forces which created him. Nevertheless, he does begin to capture something of the spirit of the man in the street who just wants to be “happy” only to have his message crushed when his image is tarnished by tabloid shenanigans and left wondering if the only way to reclaim his “artificial” identity is to once again destroy himself in sacrifice to his new ideal.

Yet Kiguchi’s motivation is both collectivist and individual as he claims and abandons his identity in insisting that he belongs to the people. His confidence is born only of their belief in him and without it he ceases to exist. Kiguchi’s entire identity has been an artificial creation with an uncertain expiry date and his attempts to buy it authenticity only damn him further while his actions are once again co-opted by outside forces for their own aims. The little guy has achieved his apotheosis into a corporate commodity leaving the everyman firmly at the mercy of his capitalist overlords, dreaming their dreams of consumerist paradise while shedding their own sense of self in service of an illusionary conception of “happiness”.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Incorrigible (悪太郎, AKA The Bastard, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

(C) Nikkatsu 1963

(C) Nikkatsu 1963Seijun Suzuki often credits 1963’s Youth of the Beast as the real turning point in his directorial career, believing that it marked the first time he was ever really able to indulge his taste for the surreal to the extent that he truly wanted. The Incorrigible (悪太郎, Akutato, AKA Bastard), completed directly after Youth of the Beast, is another turning point of a kind in that it marks Suzuki’s first collaboration with set designer Takeo Kimura who would accompany him through his ‘60s masterpieces contributing to the uniquely theatrical aesthetic which came to be the director’s trademark.

Inspired by an autobiographical novel by Toko Kon, The Incorrigible of the title, Togo Konno (Ken Yamauchi), is a young man coming of age in the early Taisho era. He’s of noble birth and enjoys both wealth and privilege – something of which he is well aware, but is also of a rebellious, individualist character believing himself above the normal rules of civil society. Expelled from his posh Kyoto school after getting into a dalliance with a teacher’s daughter (she’s been sent off to a convent), Konno is then abruptly abandoned by his mother who has tricked him into travelling to a remote rural town where a friend of a family friend has promised to reform him at his military middle school. Konno thinks he’s too clever for this, he makes a point of deliberately failing his entrance exam in the mistaken belief that failing to get in would make him free to travel to Tokyo and start life on his own. He’s wrong, and failure to pass the exam would only entail being held back a year. Konno capitulates and agrees to start his new life as one among many in a backward little village in Southern Japan.

Though set in the Taisho era, Konno’s youth seems to suffer from the same problems that would plague the young men of 30 years later. His school is proto-militarist and hot on discipline. The boys are trained to be strong rather than smart and have inherited all the petty prejudices of their parents which they hone to the point of weaponry. The “Public Morals” department operates almost like a mini military police for students – making routine inspections of students’ home lives and keeping an eye out for “illicit” activities round and about town. Konno sees himself as grown man with a rebellious heart – he smokes openly, keeps a picture of the girl who got him into this mess in his room, and tells bawdy, probably made up stories about how he lost his virginity to a geisha (for free). He will not bow to the morality police, or any authority but his own.

Authority is something Konno seems to be good at. Picked on for his continuing preference for Japanese dress, Konno neatly deflects the attentions of the Public Morals division and comes out on top. When they raid his room and complain about his novel reading habit, he shouts them all down and gets them to sit on the floor while he “educates” them about foreign literature. Militarism has not yet arrived, but anti-intellectualism is already on the up and up. Konno’s love of literature is one of his many “deficient” qualities as teachers and students alike bemoan his “frivolous” hobbies, seeing his sensitivity and disregard for the commonly accepted ideals as signs of his unwelcome “unmanliness”.

Konno’s other big problem is, as might be expected, girls. Having been in town only moments Konno takes a fancy to doctor’s daughter Emiko (Masako Izumi) – his desire is only further inflamed after catching sight of her in the book shop and realising she too has bought a copy of Strindberg’s Red Room. She doesn’t care for Strindberg’s misanthropy, but a bond is quickly forged between the two sensitive souls trapped in this “traditional” small town where feelings are forbidden and youth constrained by social stricture.

It is, however, a love doomed to fail. The majority of Suzuki’s early work for Nikkatsu had been contemporary youth dramas, yet the artfully composed black and white photography of the Taisho setting is a melancholic affair which rejects both the rage of the modern action dramas and Suzuki’s trademark detached irony. Using frequent dissolves, The Incorrigible conjures a strong air of nostalgia and regret, a sad love story without end. Yet at its conclusion it makes sure to inject a note of uplifting inspiration as our hero wanders off into a fog of confusion, filled with a passion for pursuing truth and vowing to live without losing hope.


The Incorrigible is the fourth of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

School in The Crosshairs (ねらわれた学園, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1981)

Still most closely associated with his debut feature Hausu – a psychedelic haunted house musical, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s affinity for youthful subjects made him a great fit for the burgeoning Kadokawa idol phenomenon. Maintaining his idiosyncratic style, Obayashi worked extensively in the idol arena eventually producing such well known films as The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (starring Kadokawa idol Tomoyo Harada) and the comparatively less well known Miss Lonely and His Motorbike Her Island (starring a very young and extremely skinny Riki Takeuchi). 1981’s School in the Crosshairs (ねらわれた学園, Nerawareta Gakuen) marks his first foray into into the world of idol cinema but it also stars one of Kadokawa’s most prominent idols in Hiroko Yakushimaru appearing just a few months before her star making role in Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun.

Set once again in a high school, School in the Crosshairs is the ultimate teen movie for any student who’s ever suspected their place of education has been infiltrated by fascists but no one else has noticed. Top student Yuka (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is the archetypal Obayashi/idol movie heroine in that she’s not only bright and plucky but essentially good hearted and keen to help out both her friends and anyone else in trouble. Her life changes when walking home from school one day with her kendo obsessed friend Koji (Ryoichi Takayanagi) as the pair notice a little kid about to ride his tricycle into the path of a great big truck. Yuka, horrified but not quite knowing what to do, shouts for the little boy to go back only it’s time itself which rewinds and moves the boy out of harm’s way. Very confused and thinking she’s had some kind of episode, Yuka tests her new psychic powers out by using them to help Koji finally win a kendo match but when a strange looking man who claims to be “a friend”  (Toru Minegishi) arrives along with icy transfer student Takamizawa (Masami Hasegawa), Yuka finds herself at the centre of an intergalactic invasion plot.

Many things have changed since 1981, sadly “examination hell” is not one of them. Yuka and Koji still have a few years of high school left meaning that it’s not all that serious just yet but still, their parents and teachers have their eyes firmly on the final grades. Yuka is the top student in her class, much to the chagrin of her rival, Arikawa (Macoto Tezuka), who surpasses her in maths and English but has lost the top spot thanks to his lack of sporting ability. Koji is among the mass of students in the middle with poor academic grades but showing athletic promise even if his kendo career is not going as well as hoped.

Given everyone’s obsession with academic success, the aliens have hit on a sure thing by infiltrating a chain of cram schools promising impressive results. Grades aside, parents are largely laissez-faire or absent, content to let their kids do as they please as long as their academic life proceeds along the desired route. Koji’s parents eventually hire Yuka as a private teacher to help him improve only for her to help him skip out to kendo practice. Her parents, by contrast, are proud of their daughter and attentive enough to notice something’s not right but attribute her recent preoccupation to a very ordinary adolescent problem – they think she’s fallen in love and they should probably leave her alone to figure things out her own way. A strange present of an empty picture frame may suggest they intend to give her “blank canvas” and allow her to decide the course of her own life, but she has, in a sense, earned this privilege through proving her responsible nature and excelling in the all important academic arena.

School is a battlefield in more ways than one. Intent on brainwashing the teenagers of Japan, “mysterious transfer student” Takamizawa has her sights firmly set on taking over the student council only she needs to get past Yuka to do it. Takamizawa has her own set of abilities including an icy stare which seems to make it impossible to refuse her orders and so she’s quickly instigated a kind of “morality” patrol for the campus to enforce all those hated school rules like skirt lengths, smoking, and running in the halls. Before long her mini militia has its own uniforms and creepy face paint but her bid for world domination hits a serious snag when Yuka refuses to cross over to the dark side and join the coming revolution. Asking god to grant her strength Yuka stands up to the aliens all on her own, avowing that she likes the world as it and is willing to sacrifice her own life for that of her friends. Accused of “wasting” her powers, Yuka asks how saving people could ever be “wasteful” and berates the invaders for their lack of human feeling. Faced with the cold atmosphere of exam stress and about to be railroaded into adulthood, Yuka dreams of a better, kinder world founded on friendship and basic human goodness.

Beginning with a lengthy psychedelic sequence giving way to a classic science fiction on screen text introduction Obayashi signals his free floating intentions with Yuka’s desaturated bedroom floating over the snowcapped mountains. Pushing his distinctive analogue effects to the limit, Obayashi creates a world which is at once real and surreal as Yuka finds herself at a very ordinary crossroads whilst faced with extraordinary events. Courted by the universe, Yuka is unmoved. Unlike many a teenage heroine, she realises that she’s pretty happy with the way things are. She likes her life (exam stress and all), she loves her friends, she’ll be OK. Standing up for the rights of the individual, but also for collective responsibility, Yuka claims her right to self determination but is determined not to leave any of her friends behind.


Original trailer (no subtitles)