Too Young to Die (死ぬにはまだ早い, Kiyoshi Nishimura, 1969)

Perhaps more or less forgotten for reasons we’ll come to later, Kiyoshi Nishimura was for a time a successful director associated with Toho’s line of noirish B-movie action dramas. When the Japanese cinema industry entered its decline in the 1970s, Nishimura shifted into similarly themed TV drama and was well respected for his ability to turn in on time and on budget. None of that mattered however when he was engulfed in scandal in 1987 after being caught operating spy cams in the female only area of a public bathhouse bringing his career to an abrupt end. Directing a few more projects under the name Yusai Ito, he sadly took his own life a few years later in 1993 at the age of 61. 

Nishimura’s 1969 debut Too Young to Die (死ぬにはまだ早い, Shinu ni wa Mada Hayai), however, is a masterclass in high tension filmed with shaky handheld set largely in a single location and imbued with a singular irony replete as it is with cosmic coincidences as a collection of customers at a roadside bar are taken hostage by a crazed criminal with a gun intent on finding the lover of the girlfriend he claims to have murdered for her infidelity. The heroes, however, are ennui-filled couple Matsuoka (Koji Takahashi) and Yumiko (Mako Midori) who are in fact not married, or at least not to each other, but carrying on an extra-marital affair which may be on the cusp of fizzling out. A former racing champ who claims he just got bored with the sport one day and now works for a company selling accessories for toy cars, Matsuoka is supposed to drive Yumiko home where she’s expecting a call from her controlling husband, away on a business trip, at 1am. These are all reasons they are unusually nervous about a police checkpoint searching for an armed fugitive, deciding to stop off at a roadside bar for a stiff drink and something to eat. Only, shortly after their arrival a young man (Toshio Kurosawa) in denim enters giving each of the other men intense side eye before shooting a policeman who comes in to make enquiries about the fugitive. 

The unnamed young tough takes the entire bar hostage intent on finding his lover’s lover, overcome with a sense of cosmic irony when Matsuoka calmly points out he may have arrived too early and the man he’s looking for had not yet arrived when he put the place in lockdown. Before the gunman’s arrival, Nishimura introduces us to each of the other customers via the handy device of two teenage girls apparently stranded and asking around for a lift back to the city. A middle-aged doctor (Chuzaburo Wakamiya), apparently a regular, eventually offers to take them but is dissuaded by the barman (Kazuya Oguri) who reminds him he’s been drinking too heavily to take passengers, while a taxi driver (Shigeki Ishida) who seems to be feeling unwell flat out refuses. The other customers are a suspicious looking man in a trenchcoat (Daigo Kusano) sitting in the corner piling matchsticks, and a newlywed couple who we later learn saved up for their wedding for three years, the wife (Nami Tamura) already going through her accounts book irritated by her friends’ decision to graffiti their car and wondering how much it’ll cost to get it cleaned up while the husband (Tatsuyoshi Ehara) disappoints her by wanting to rush home because he’s planning to return to work the next morning ahead of schedule. 

The relationships of the two couples are often directly contrasted, Matsuoka and Yumiko unsure of their connection as adulterous lovers while the newly married couple also seem be under strain even before the traumatic events about to take place. Apparently brokenhearted, the gunman collapses over the jukebox playing a series of melancholy songs about lost love, Matsuoka later darkly musing that perhaps he was only able to kill his lover because he loved her so much. Unlike the other customers, Matsuoka appears entirely unperturbed by their predicament calmly talking to the gunman and even ringing the police to ask them to temporarily stand back so they can evacuate a hostage in need of medical treatment. The gunman sends Matuoka and the newlywed husband to take the injured party out, taking Yumiko hostage as security while she fears Matsuoka does not value her enough to return though both men do in fact come back rather than abandon their respective women. The newlywed husband, however, later fails a test of manhood when the enraged gunman goes off on a misogynistic rant and tries to force the doctor to rape the newlywed wife to prove that all women faithless “whores”, the husband reduced to a gibbering wreck cowering in the corner unable to protect his new wife or challenge the gunman’s authority as Matsuoka later does when he orders Yumiko to remove her clothes in front of the other hostages. 

Though Yumiko had feared the affair was on its way out, ironically describing Matsuoka as not so different from her husband while lamenting that their connection seemed to have dwindled, the traumatic experience seems to reinforce the reality of their love as something more than a casual extra-marital fling even as Matsuoka forgives her for not trusting him because their relationship is not founded on the same idea of “commitment” as the married couple. The question for the other customers is how much the lives of others they’ve only just met really mean to them, the two teenage girls deciding to attempt escape while the gunman takes Yumiko hostage to use the bathroom, the doctor edging round the sides as Matsuoka tries to stop them to protect her while the newlyweds similarly waltz towards the door. All the while the TV crackles with an inane variety show complete with its cheerful advertisements while the police apparently have the place surrounded ironically convincing the gunman he has no way out and therefore nothing to lose. A tense meditation on interpersonal relationships, Too Young to Die is not without its share of ironies in strange number of coincidences and misapprehensions as the siege eventually draws to an unexpected close sending our conflicted lovers back into the night if perhaps a little more alive for their brush with death. 


Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Shiro Toyoda, 1960)

Director Shiro Toyoda, closely associated with high minded literary adaptations, nevertheless had a talent for melancholy comedy and for capturing the everyday reality of ordinary people. A fierce condemnation of the patriarchal society at a moment of intense masculinity, Twilight Story (濹東綺譚, Bokuto Kitan), an adaptation of the novel by Kafu Nagai, follows an ambivalent author as he covertly observes the life and love of a former geisha daring to dream of romantic salvation while fully aware of the world’s cruelty.

Set in 1936, the film opens with an author on a research trip who guides us into the world of the Tamanoi pleasure quarter which he seems to disdain but is drawn to all the same. Whilst there he runs into a nervous middle-aged man, Junpei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), who is later accosted by sex worker Oyuki (Fujiko Yamamoto) for use of his umbrella during a violent storm. A mild-mannered sort, Junpei is unused to the ways of the red light district and quickly makes his escape after being invited into Oyuki’s home. After a swift drink, however, he returns and the pair begin an awkward semi-romantic relationship.

Despite his affirmation that he is single, Junpei is in fact already married if (for the moment) unhappily. Though he knew his future wife Mitsuko (Michiyo Aratama) had given birth to an illegitimate child fathered by her employer, Junpei chose to marry her anyway because he was in love. The pair married, they say, for “genuine” reasons but the father of Mitsuko’s son continues to send maintenance money for the boy’s education and his constant presence has begun to play on Junpei’s mind especially as his teacher’s salary is dwindling in this age of militarism in which educational hours are decreasing in favour of compulsory military drills. Meanwhile, Mitsuko also seems to have got religion and spends most of her time reciting sutras with the implication that she has begun to neglect her husband, emotionally, spiritually, and most particularly physically. In order to escape his depressing home life, Junpei hangs out in the Tamanoi where men’s hearts are lighter and people talk frankly about love.

This is, of course, not quite the case, but the fantasy the pleasure quarters sell of themselves. Our jaded author is perfectly aware of that and broadly sympathetic towards the women caught in its web. Oyuki, a former geisha, has “debased” herself in order to earn extra money to send home to her family and pay the medical fees for her sickly mother. Her uncles constantly pressure her for more and she wonders if they are not merely exploiting her, using her money for their own benefit and refusing to chip in for her mother’s care. Nevertheless, she is trapped. On meeting Junpei with whom she seems to develop a genuine emotional connection, she dares to dream that one day they might marry, that she could leave this life behind and build a stable family home of her own.

Of course, it’s not to be. Like all men in the Tamanoi, Junpei is misrepresenting himself for his own ends. He is only using Oyuki as an idealised point of refuge from the unhappy marriage he shows no other signs of leaving. As the author points out, the men think they’re using women but the women are also using them though they do so without calculation. Denied power or agency of their own, the women of the Tamanoi have no other option than to manipulate that of men, though the author sympathises with them so strongly that to expose the hidden “vulgarity” seems to him an act of intense cruelty.

Junpei falls in love with the world of the Tamanoi because he thinks it’s more emotionally honest, but the truth is quite the reverse. Wandering through the narrow streets at night, the author pities the women in the windows, knowing that men come here to escape their isolation but there is no escape for these women who are forced to delude themselves that a better future is waiting in order to go on living. Meanwhile Junpei’s colleague, looking back over his shoulder towards the young men in uniform, declares that he too has lost all hope for a promising future. With militarism on the rise, hyper-masculinity has led to a further decline in the already woeful status of women with even the girls’ sympathetic pimp lamenting that the army, who have been rounding up sex workers for forced service in Manchuria, regard them as little more than products to be poked and prodded and giggled over as they are cruelly bought and sold.

Reuniting with his wife, Junpei is forced to face his emotional cowardice, that he was just playing with Oyuki’s feelings in indulging the fantasy of an idealised romantic union. Oyuki, meanwhile, faces the destruction of all her dreams when she realises her uncle has betrayed her, her mother is dead, and all her sacrifices have been for nothing. On some level she may have known Junpei had another woman, but needed to believe in the fantasy of his love for her in order to make her life bearable. Even so, she now sees no other future for herself than a return to work shorn of all her hope. Toyoda’s condemnation of the red light district is bleak and total, even as the jaded author himself becomes an ambivalent part of it, but the Tamanoi is only a symptom of longstanding social oppression exacerbated by militarist fervour as the lights go out all over town.