Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gate of Hell (地獄門, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Which is the greater challenge to the social order, love or ambition, or are they in the end facets of the same destabilising forces? Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (地獄門, Jigokumon) is, from one angle, the story of a man driven mad by “love”, reduced to the depravity of a crazed stalker betraying his samurai honour in order to affirm his status, but it also paints his need as a response to the chaos of his age along with its many repressions while the heroine is, once again, convinced that the only freedom she possesses lies in death. Yet in the midst of all that, Kinugasa ends with a triumph of nobility as the compassionate samurai restores order by rejecting the heat of raw emotion for an internalised contemplation of the greater good. 

Set in the 12th century, the film opens in revolt as two ambitious lords combine forces to attack the Sanjo Palace in what would become known as the Heiji Rebellion. The lords have attacked knowing that Taira no Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is not in residence, having departed on a pilgrimage. Fearful for the safety of his sister and father, retainers order decoys to be sent out to distract the rebels. Kesa (Machiko Kyo), a court lady in service to the emperor’s sister, agrees to be her decoy and Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), a minor retainer, is ordered to protect her. He manages to escort her back to his family compound where he assumes she will be safe, transgressively giving her a kiss of life, pouring water into her mouth with his own, after she has fainted during the journey. Unfortunately, Morito has miscalculated. His brother has sided with the rebels and they are not safe here. During the chaos they go their separate ways, and as soon as Kiyomori returns he puts an end to the rebellion restoring the status quo.  

Shocked at his brother’s betrayal, Morito tells him that only a coward betrays a man to whom he has sworn an oath of loyalty but he explains that he is acting not out of cowardice but self interest. He has made an individualist choice to advance his status in direct opposition to the samurai code. Morito doesn’t yet know it but he is about to do something much the same. He has fallen in love with Kesa and after meeting her again at the Gate of Hell where they are each paying their respects to the fallen, his brother among them, is determined to marry her, so much so that he asks Kiyomori directly during a public ceremony rewarding loyal retainers for their service. The other men giggle at such an inappropriate, unmanly show of emotion but the joke soon fades once another retainer anxiously points out that Kesa is already married to one of the lord’s favoured retainers. Kiyomori apologises and tries to laugh it off, but Morito doubles down, requesting that Kiyomori give him another man’s wife. 

This series of challenges to the accepted order is compounded by a necessity for politeness. Morito is mocked and derided, told that his conduct is inappropriate and embarrassing, but never definitively ordered to stop. Making mischief or hoping to defuse the situation, Kiyomori engineers a meeting between Morito and Kesa, cautioning him that the matter rests with her and should she refuse him he should take it like a man and bow out gracefully. Kesa, for her part, has only ever been polite to Morito and is extremely confused, not to mention distressed, by this unexpected turn of events. She is quite happily married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata) who is the soul of samurai honour, kind, honest, and always acting with the utmost propriety. That might be why he too treats Morito with politeness, never directly telling him to back off but refusing to engage with his inappropriate conduct. That sense of being ignored, however, merely fuels Morito’s resentment. He accuses Kesa of not leaving her husband because Wataru is of a higher rank, as if she rejects him out of snobbishness, rather than accept the fact she does not like him. 

Morito continues in destructive fashion. We see him repeatedly, break, smash, and snap things out of a sense of violent frustration with the oppressions of his age until finally forced to realise that he has “destroyed a beautiful soul” in his attempt to conquer it. “One cannot change a person’s feelings by force” Wataru advises, but is that not the aim of every rebellion, convincing others they must follow one man and not another because he is in someway stronger? The priest whose head was cut off and displayed at the Gate of Hell was killed in part because he reaped what he had sown in beheading the defeated soldiers of a previous failed revolution. Morito kills a traitor and he falls seemingly into rolling waves which transition to an unrolling scroll reminding us that rebellions ebb and flow through time and all of this is of course transient. Only Wataru, perhaps ironically, as the unambiguously good samurai is able to end the cycle, refusing his revenge in the knowledge it would do no real good. Morito is forced to live on in the knowledge of the destruction his misplaced passion has wrought, standing at his own Gate of Hell as a man now exiled from his code and renouncing the world as one unfit to live in it. 


Gate of Hell is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

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)

Punishment Room (処刑の部屋, Kon Ichikawa, 1956)

In the mid-1950s, Nikkatsu released a series of incendiary youth films which gave rise to a small moral panic in the older generation. The “Sun Tribe” movies proved so controversial that Nikkatsu could only release three of them before bowing to public pressure while Toho and Daiei both managed to release one each, bringing the total up to five. Produced by Daiei, Kon Ichikawa’s contribution to the Sun Tribe phenomenon, Punishment Room (処刑の部屋, Shokei no Heya), adapted another novel by Crazed Fruit’s Shintaro Ishihara who had, it seems, managed to capture something of the nihilistic spirit of the age.

Among the darkest of the Sun Tribe tales, Punishment Room follows near sociopathic university student Katsumi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) as he works out his frustration with his hangdog father Hanya (Seiji Miyaguchi) by kicking back against societal rigidity. Hanya is a bank clerk with some kind of stress-related stomach complaint for which he is forever taking medicine. One particular day, Katsumi and his friend Hideo (Shoji Umewaka) turn up to run some kind of scam on him, insisting that Hideo’s family are in dire straits because his dad’s working abroad and they don’t have money to make a payment on a loan. The boys want Hanya to buy the note of debt as security and lend them 30,000 yen, something which isn’t really allowed but he ends up taking out half of his own life savings to avoid embarrassing or being embarrassed by his own son in the workplace. The boys, however, were just trying to extort him and planning to use the money to host a college dance while making a little extra on the side. 

At this point, most still seem to feel that Katsumi is a “nice kid”, while Hideo is a bad influence. His middle school best friend Ryoji more or less says as much, but no one really knows the extent to which Katsumi is already becoming a black hole of nihilistic fury. His ire is provoked during a college debate session at which he’s outtalked by smart female student Akiko (Ayako Wakao) and abruptly cut off by the bored professor (Nobuo Nakamura). Despite knowing that one of his buddies has a crush on her, Katsumi makes a point of picking Akiko up during the chaos of celebration after a sports game. Along with Hideo and another, more innocent student they nickname “Sonny”, Katsumi takes Akiko and her friend to a nearby drinking house, popping out to buy sleeping pills and eventually spiking their drinks while they use the bathroom, knocking Sonny out for good measure to stop him getting in the way. After dragging the barely conscious girls back to Hideo’s family home, they take one each and rape them. On waking Akiko is defiant, threatening to call the police but an unrepentant Katsumi insists that she won’t be believed. Not content with their humiliations, the guys even insist on taking the girls home by cab only to run out and leave them with the bill. 

Katsumi is is equally unrepentant when someone sends his family a letter informing them of his conduct, admitting that the allegations are true but insisting that the women are complicit because they did not report him to the police. He even refers to Akiko, who has after a fashion fallen in love with him, as “sort of my girlfriend”. Hanya ironically blames his wife whom he has treated with nothing but contempt, giving his son a crash course in a inherited misogyny, but she turns the same logic of toxic masculinity back on him in pointing out that his own passivity is the major cause of his son’s resentful rebelliousness. If Katsumi is rebelling against something rather than just a sociopathic little punk, it is indeed the spinelessness he sees in his father, obliged to scrape and bow for a mere pittance as a “wage slave” of a cruelly conformist society. 

An angry young man, Katsumi preemptively rejects the salaryman straightjacket by rebelling against conventional morality. “I do what I want” he insists, as if proving that he’s a free agent acting under force of will alone and beholden to no one. His efforts are however, futile. His amoral violence buys him nothing but the same in return. Denied a mechanism for dealing with emotion, contemptuous of hollow authority figures, and infinitely bored by a society they believe has nothing to offer them bar empty consumerism, post-war youth seeks escape but finds only nihilistic self-destruction, trapped in a perpetual Punishment Room with no exit in sight. 


Opening Scene (no subtitles)

Super Express (黒の超特急, Yasuzo Masumura, 1964)

By 1964, Japan had returned to the world stage and was beginning to enter a new age of modernity as symbolised by the completion of the Shinkansen “bullet train” high speed rail network opened in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Behind the scenes, however, many were still trying to pull themselves free of post-war privation while others feared that the promised age of plenty had provoked a moral decline giving rise to widespread exploitation and rampant criminality. Yasuzo Masumura’s “Black” Super Express (黒の超特急, Kuro no Chotokkyu) was the last in a series of “Black” films (which also included the earlier Black Test Car) produced by Daiei in the mid-‘60s which exposed the seedy underbelly of the modern economy through tales of shady corporate shenanigans. Though in this case the hero finds himself in difficultly largely because of bad luck and his own poor judgement, he eventually exposes the cronyism and corruption which seem set to engulf the modern society. 

As the film opens, shady businessman Nakae (Daisuke Kato) approaches local real estate agent Kikyo (Jiro Tamiya) with an unusual business proposition. It seems that someone wants to build a factory on a large stretch of land currently owned by a number of farmers and other small concerns. Nakae wants to buy it up, but he’s afraid he won’t get a good price as an outsider and wants Kikyo to handle things on the ground. Kikyo is a little confused by Nakae’s intention to offer a significant sum of money to the farmers while proposing a sizeable commission to him, but eventually decides to go along with it. Everything goes to plan – it’s a not a scam, the farmers get their money, and everyone’s happy. Everyone except Kikyo, that is, who loses everything playing the stock market. It’s then he’s contacted by a disgruntled farmer who realises he might have been able to get more because it turns out the land wasn’t purchased for a factory, but for a second line on the Shinkansen. Nakae took their land and sold it on to the government at huge profit. 

Kikyo is extremely pissed off even though he was originally happy with the money he received and the reasons he lost it are nothing at all to do with Nakae. He gets straight on a train (not a Shinkansen) to Tokyo to confront him, but only gets the brush off and an offer of token hush money when Nakae realises Kikyo could cause a problem, something he is apparently keen to do because he starts connecting the dots between the elegant young woman he saw delivering envelopes to Nakae and a senior executive at the rail office. 

Needless to say, Nakae is a totally immoral, not quite conman chancer with the gift of the gab. He approached Kikyo with the job because he’d done his research and knew he’d take the bait. Kikyo already had a failed business behind him and desperately wanted to succeed. In the end he’d find it too difficult to resist the temptation of such a big contract even if he had his doubts, and his greed might prevent him asking too many questions. What Nakae didn’t bank on, however, was the depth of his resentment when he realised he’d been used and then cheated. 

“Large corporations are the new Daimyo” Kikyo tells his later accomplice, Yoko (Yukiko Fuji), Nakae’s former squeeze. He quit his salaryman job because he wanted to be his own boss, but feels like the world has pulled away from people like him, forever denying them a ticket on the Shinkansen, allowing them only to ride the now ironically named “super express”. Yoko feels something similar. She’s refused marriage after coming to the conclusion that men can’t be relied on – her father died in an accident when she was 11 after which her now bedridden mother raised her alone by working as a maid, and an ill-advised “affair” with a married university professor who took advantage of her naivety only further convinced her that she’s better off a free agent. Yoko wants total independence and the opportunity to start a business of her own, which is why she agreed to team up with Nakae to become the mistress of her boss at the rail company, Zaitsu (Eiji Funakoshi), who’d taken a liking to her and is the classic sad middle-aged salaryman with a wife suffering from TB he’d long since grown apart from. 

“There’s nothing more important than life” Nakae later grimly admits, trying to save his own skin, but it’s too little too late. Previously, he’d claimed he was “ready to commit any crime for money”, but mainly thrived on sadistic machinations setting up complex blackmail plots lined with little bombs he could set off if and when the occasion called. Kikyo takes him on at his own game, blackmailing the blackmailer, never really intending to expose the corruption only to parasitically profit from it. What he discovers is there was a much higher price to be paid than he realised because Nakae was only ever a middle man. The people at the top of the tree won’t want to pay at all and they think they don’t have to because “peasants” are expendable. Eventually turning to the police, he finds himself thanked for his service but is forced to admit that he only really wanted the money until he realised how far others were willing to go to get it. Spotting the shiny new Shinkansen rocketing past his widow seat on the super express, all he can do is lower the blind and try to get some sleep. 


An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

An Actor's Revenge blu-ray cover“Revenge is difficult even for an actor” our secret observer tells us, watching quietly from the rooftops like a spectator at a play. In celebration of his 300th screen appearance, Kazuo Hasegawa stars once again as vengeful onnagata Yukinojo in another version of An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Yukinojo Henge), this time directed by Kon Ichikawa with a script written by his wife, Natto Wada, which was itself based on the earlier film with minor adaptations. Recasting the scope frame for the Kabuki stage, Ichikawa shows us a maddening world of theatricality, defined by artifice and governed by the rules of narrative determinism.

Orphaned after his parents were driven to suicide, Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) was taken in by an actor at a young age and trained as an “onnagata” – an actor specialising in female roles on the kabuki stage where women were forbidden to tread. Years later Yukinojo is one of the most popular actors of the age and lives more or less as a woman on stage and off. Having brought his Osakan theatre company to the Edo capital he finally sees his chance for revenge against the trio of corrupt and ambitious merchants who conspired to ruin his father for personal gain. He is, however, conflicted – not in his desire for vengeance but in the strain it continues to place on his mental state as well as the moral corruption need for it provokes.

Despite his feminine appearance, Yukinojo is regarded as male and most assume that his (volitional) romantic attachments will be with women. His gender ambiguity is, however, a problem for some such as the spiky pickpocket Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) who describes him as “creepy” in being neither male nor female. Then again, Ohatsu’s gender presentation is also atypical in that though she dresses and acts as a woman, most regard her as inappropriately masculine in the independence and authority which make it possible for her to act as the leader of a gang of street thieves. Lamenting her tomboyishness, some of her minions make the suggestion common in these kinds of films that Ohatsu will rediscover her femininity on falling in love (with a man). Despite her supposed hatred of men, Ohatsu finds herself falling for Yukinojo possibly precisely because of his gender ambiguity in that she is in some sense permitted to fall in love with him as a woman because he is a man.

Meanwhile, Yumitaro (also played by Kazuo Hasegawa) – another street thief only a much more egalitarian one, has no desire for women and has also developed some kind of fascination with Yukinojo as man who presents as female. Yukinojo is remarkably uninterested in Ohatsu, but seems drawn both to the mysterious Yumitaro and to the pawn in his revenge plot, lady Namiji (Ayako Wakao). The daughter of Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), the ambitious lord who orchestrated the plot against Yukinojo’s father, who has sold her to the Shogun as a concubine in order to buy influence, Namiji develops a deep fascination with the feminine actor which is then manipulated both by Yukinojo who plans to break her heart solely to get at Dobe, and by Dobe who intends to indulge her fascination in order to persuade her to return to the Shogun. Namiji is entirely innocent and effectively powerless. Involving her in the plot weighs on Yukinojo’s conscience but he refuses to look back, preparing to sacrifice her solely in order to a strike blow towards her father.

Meanwhile, chaos reigns in Edo as the corruption of the ruling elite provokes a rebellion by the ordinary people fed up with their persistent profiteering. This too Yukinojo harnesses as a part of his plot, setting his greedy merchants one against the other as they weigh up the benefits of making themselves look good to the people and the Shogun through engineering a crash in the price of rice by dumping the stocks they’ve been hoarding. The theatrical world and the “real” begin to overlap as Yukinojo performs the ghosts of his parents to bring the merchants’ crimes home to them, but his revenge plot has devastating and unforeseen consequences which perhaps begin to eat away at his carefully crafted chameleonism. Possessing no true identity of his own, Yukinojo passes into legend, retreating back to his natural home of the stage the shadow of an avenger disappearing over the horizon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Elegant Beast (しとやかな獣, Yuzo Kawashima, 1962)

elegant-beast-poster-2.jpgBy 1962 the Japanese economy had begun to improve and with the Olympics on the horizon the nation was beginning to look forward towards hoped for prosperity rather than back towards the intense suffering that had defined the post-war era. There would be, however, a kind of reckoning to be had if not quite yet. Yuzo Kawashima’s Elegant Beast (しとやかな獣, Shitoyakana Kedamono) is perhaps among the first to start asking questions about what the legacy of the immediate aftermath of the war might be. It may have been impossible to survive with one’s integrity entirely intact, but how should one proceed now that there is less need to be so self serving, calculating, and cruel when there is more food on the table?

The Maedas may not be the best people to ask. Carrying the scars of their poverty, they have made a “comfortable” life for themselves in a cramped flat on the fifth floor of an ordinary walk-up apartment building. When we first meet them, dad Tokizo (Yunosuke Ito) and mum Yoshino (Hisano Yamaoka) are having a furious tidying up because they’ll shortly be receiving visitors, only unlike most they’re quickly trying to scuzz up the apartment so that they look sufficiently humble. When their guests arrive, it turns out to be the boss of their only son Minoru (Manamitsu Kawabata) who has come along with one of the artists he represents and his accountant, to have a word about possible embezzlement. Tokizo and Yoshino outdo themselves with humility, pointing out the simplicity of their surroundings, and appear offended that their son is being accused of thievery but of course in reality they know all about it and are willing accomplices in his scheming. Tokizo hasn’t had a steady job since coming back from the war and the entire family is supported by the kids with the remainder of their income coming from daughter Tomoko (Yuko Hamada) who has become the mistress of a famous author (Kyu Sazanka).

Universally unrepentant, cracks start to appear in the Maeda’s morally dubious existence when they begin to realise that Minoru is not quite on the level. He’s only been giving them a portion of the money he’s been stealing – something they can understand and perhaps even admire, if it were not that he’s given most of it to a lover to fund her hotel business. The surprise twist is that the lover is none other than the accountant at the company Minoru had been working for, Yukie (Ayako Wakao), who is a widow with a 5-year-old son (which is to say, not Minoru’s usual type). Now that the hotel is fully funded and the scam has been exposed, Yukie feels there’s no more need to associate herself with lowly punks like Minoru and draws the affair to a businesslike conclusion.

Yukie is, perhaps, the “elegant beast” of the title. Refined, seemingly sweet and innocent, she inspires trust and affection. The slightest suspicions are unlikely to fall on her – something she well knows and is prepared to use to her advantage, along with her sex appeal and, ironically, reduced desirability in the marriage stakes as a widow with a child. Yukie has her dreams and they are ordinary enough. She wants a peaceful, stable life in economic comfort alone with her son. She does not want to remarry and means to be independent which necessarily means industrious. Thus she needs to get her hotel business off the ground as quickly as possible. She needed money, a lot of money, much more than she could get “honestly” but she didn’t want to dirty herself with crime and so she used the tools at her disposal, making her “weakness” a strength as she later puts it. Using her womanliness as a weapon against venial men, she convinced them to ruin themselves on her behalf and thereafter resolved to put the past behind her.

The past is, however, difficult to forget. “Your mind still wears an old fashioned coat”, the quip happy Minoru tells his father as he laments the new society’s tolerance for youthful ebullience and reluctance to forgive the wartime generation for even its most recent transgressions. As much as they resent her, there is perhaps a grudging admiration for a woman like Yukie who has managed to outsmart them all while, technically at least, remaining on the right side of the law. Tomoko, on the other hand, seems to be losing out in playing much the same game by the old rules. Essentially pimped out by her dad, she’s damned herself by becoming the mistress of one man who is becoming rather bored of her family’s obvious attempts to bleed him dry, rather than fleecing several at the same time and bending them to her will as Yukie has managed to do. Old fashioned thinking won’t get you far in this world. The Maedas, however, seem to be out of ideas.

In the closing moments, they may ponder abandoning their hard-won apartment, believing that there’s always trouble brewing in the big city and the clean country air may be what they really need to thrive but, it’s clear that this insular claustrophobic environment filled with peep holes and tiny imprisoning windows will be near impossible to escape. Tokizo hasn’t left the apartment for the entire picture. A woman ascends the stairs, walking purposefully towards a future of her own making, while the Maedas remain locked inside unable to escape the painful legacy of post-war poverty for the bright, if no more ethical, lights of a consumerist future dancing quietly on the horizon.


Seisaku’s Wife (清作の妻, Yasuzo Masumura, 1965)

Seisaku's wife posterFor Yasuzo Masumura, sexuality is both freedom and constraint but also the ultimate act of social rebellion. Seisaku’s Wife (清作の妻, Seisaku no Tsuma), set in late Meiji as Japan prepares for the possibility of war with Russia, finds its melancholy heroine a defiant outcast as she first abandons her cruel, conformist society for empty independence and then reclaims her sense of self only through a love deemed inappropriate by those around her. The seeds of militarism are already being sown and breaking the programming is hard but transgressive acts of love can, it seems, overcome persistent societal oppression.

Okane (Ayako Wakao), our heroine, was sold as a bride to a much older man (Taiji Tonoyama) at 17 to provide for her parents. Three years later she views her husband, a wealthy kimono merchant, with contempt – as does much of the local area where he is derided as a sex crazed pervert. Luckily for her, Okane’s husband eventually dies leaving her a small sum of money while his extended family would rather she absent herself as quickly as possible to minimise embarrassment. Her father now too passed away, she and her mother (Tamae Kiyokawa) return to their home village which they were chased out of some years previously for their massive debts, but are now resented by their former neighbours for their seeming wealth and aloofness. Okane, traumatised by her experiences and having lost the will to live, barely interacts with the villagers who regard her as arrogant and haughty, and has been ostracised as a result.

The situation begins to change with the return of Seisaku (Takahiro Tamura) – the village’s bright hope. Seisaku had been away doing his military service and has come back with order and discipline on his mind. Now believing that the villagers are lazy and frivolous he has brought back with him a bell he had forged himself which he hooks to a nearby tree and bangs early in the morning to “awaken” them lest they sleep in rather than hasten to their fields. As might be anticipated, the villagers find this quite irritating but respect Seisaku too much to stop him and so find themselves going along with his new brand of militarist austerity. Meanwhile Okane is the only one to refuse the call, wasting no time in telling Seisaku that she has no intention of following his “orders” and his assumption that she should is in itself offensive.

Seisaku is intrigued rather than offended and finds himself attracted to Okane despite the villagers’ obvious animosity towards her. Convincing her that his feelings are real, the pair drift into an intense sexual relationship which eventually sees the model soldier Seisaku make a transgressive choice of his own in rejecting his longstanding betrothal to a village girl in favour of marrying Okane without the approval of his conservative mother and sister. Holed up together in Okane’s remote farmland shack, they remove themselves as much as possible from village life in an insular, obsessive world of their own.

Okane, rejected because of her past as the kept woman of a wealthy man (something over which she herself was powerless and means never to be powerless again), in turn rejects the village after having lost all faith in human relationships except perhaps that with her mother whose cruel treatment at the hands of her father she both identified with and resented. Intensely lonely, she subsumes herself entirely into her love for Seisaku, eventually trying to rebuild bridges in the village in order to strengthen their relationship but finding herself rejected once again by Seisaku’s austere mother even if his sister begins to come around. Meanwhile, the spectre of the war hovers on the horizon. Seisaku, as hopelessly in love with Okane as he is, is still the model soldier in his heart and unwilling to abandon his proto-militarist ideology which tells him that dying in service of the nation is man’s highest calling.

Having abandoned such obvious brainwashing to claim her independence, Okane struggles to convince Seisaku he should do the same. She clings to him and pleads, begging him not to leave her behind alone while he resolves to go off to battle and a glorious death. The village men too regard failure to die on the battlefield as a disgrace but send their sons away with cheers and celebration. Facing the possibility her dream of love may die, Okane takes drastic action to ensure its survival but does so at an ironic cost which sees her separated from her love possibly forever. Seisaku, meanwhile, angry and resentful, begins to understand something of Okane’s life when branded a coward and traitor by his former friends, no longer the model soldier but an outcast himself. Having suffered her fate, he begins to let go of his rage in favour compassionate understanding, allowing his love to triumph over his hate as he strives to forgive the woman who has both trapped and helped him to free himself from the oppressive ideology which turned him into an unthinking “model soldier” who wilfully abandoned his freedom in favour of internalised conventionality.

Freed from didactic social brainwashing, the pair are then in a sense imprisoned by their individualistic freedom, forced to isolate themselves within a bubble of love and mutual dependence but with a new hope for the future for which they now plan even while acknowledging that they cannot know what will come of it save that they will face it together. They can no longer live within the conservative society, but must form their own new world within it in which they can be fully free and express their freedom through their love. Melancholy but tranquil, Masumura ends on an uncharacteristically hopeful note which implies that love, though violent and transgressive, can be an effective weapon against destructive militarist ideology and the folly of war through a warmer path towards compassionate freedom.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nakano Spy School (陸軍中野学校, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

Nakano Spy School posterFor Yasuzo Masumura, freedom and individuality were often elusive concepts in a society as rigidly conformist as Japan’s even in the increasingly liberal post-war era. Casting an eye back almost 30 years, 1966’s Nakano Spy School (陸軍中野学校, Rikugun Nakano Gakko) stopped to ask what it took to make young men and women abandon their sense of self in order to become faceless warriors for cause in which it was extremely difficult to believe. Masumura described his spy story not as a critique of militarism but of the naivety of youth, carried away by misguided passions and essentially seduced by a corrupted sense of romantic heroism.

In October 1938, reservist Jiro Miyoshi (Raizo Ichikawa) has been putting off marriage to his fiancée Yukiko (Mayumi Ogawa) until he’s completed his obligatory two years of military service overseas. At the mercy of his times, he’s suddenly given a new and mysterious assignment as one of the first recruits to the Nakano Spy School – the first military intelligence training school in Japan. He tells his family that he’ll be away for an unspecified period of time but unbeknownst to him, entering the spy school will require a complete erasure of his original identity. Miyoshi will cease to exist, and Shiina will take his place.

Masumura paints the spy school with a hint of absurdist camp clearly inspired by James Bond as the recruits take lessons in ridiculous gadgetry, safecracking, and the erotic arts while learning to act like gentlemen even if not exactly born to the manor. What he’s most interested in, however, is how these fiercely intelligent and brave young men were convinced to abandon their identities in order to serve an abstract cause like country. The answer he finds, surprisingly, is “passion”. Jiro is among the first to question the rationale of their would-be-spymaster who tells them that their role will be indispensable in Japan’s ongoing activities in Asia in order to “liberate” to continent from European imperialists. An exasperated recruit points out that Japan’s main aim is colonisation which doesn’t quite square with Lieutenant Kusanagi’s (Daisuke Kato) depiction of them as revolutionary insurrectionists. Kusanagi agrees but offers only the justification that he set the school up against the army’s wishes because he knew things had to change. He doesn’t quite claim to be anti-militarist despite his insistence that a spy’s greatest weapon is empathy, but appeals to a sense of righteousness rather than loyalty in winning hearts and minds.

A strange, avuncular man, Lieutenant Kusanagi is an odd fit for the militarist crowd. A former spy himself, his entire conception of spyhood seems to be informed by European romance which is why he trains his guys to become suave gentlemen who know how to be charming at dances and manipulate feminine affection in order to facilitate their missions. Nevertheless, despite his affiliation he appears to be a basically good, noble hearted man who cares deeply for the men under his command even in the knowledge that he is training them for a precarious existence in which many of them will die young. He asks them to abandon not only their presents but their futures and they do it, not for Japan but for this very good, very earnest man who has earned their respect and whose dream they wish to realise even at the costs of their lives.

Jiro is only too quick to forget about Yukiko after throwing his lot in with Kusanagi. Yukiko, however, is frantic and leaves her job working for a British trading company to become a typist with the army in the hope of hearing news of him. Her position in the office obviously makes her a top asset for British intelligence by whom she eventually recruited. Her former boss, who turns out to be a high ranking spy, tells her that Jiro is dead – executed for speaking out against the war, and that her real enemy is none other than the Japanese army whose iron militarist grip is slowly destroying her nation.

Like Jiro, Yukiko is recruited through “passion” only this time out of anger and revenge, hastening the fall of those she believes responsible for the death of the man she loves. The irony is cruel. Jiro is presented with a choice – on discovering that Yukiko is a mole, he could choose to save the woman he loves but risk losing the chance to take down the operative that is running her. His original choice is to do nothing, allow events to take their course and absolve himself of responsibility even in the knowledge that if caught Yukiko will face extreme cruelty at the hands of the military police. He never considers rescue. Only a conversation with the kindly, remorseful Kusanagi leads him towards a “kinder” solution which is in itself a kind of spiritual suicide.

It is this question that Masumura wants to ask, what force is so strong that it could make a young man wilfully destroy his humanity in its service? The answer isn’t patriotism, it’s a kind of misplaced love and the passionate earnestness of a good man who himself is working for a misguided cause in which he believes totally. Jiro does not sacrifice himself for Japan, he sacrifices himself for Kusanagi because Kusanagi is good and he is young and naive enough to be swayed by goodness and passion alone. It is not militarism which seduces Jiro, but the misuse of his youthful idealism and absolute faith in the righteousness of one man who convinced him that he too was good and could act only in goodness.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Play (遊び, Yasuzo Masumura, 1971)

5a4a5621a8387Yasuzo Masumura is most often associated with the eroticism and grotesquery which marked the middle part of his career, but his beginnings as a regular studio director at Daiei are a more cheerful affair even if darker in tone and with additional bite. His debut, 1957’s Kisses, was an unusual youth drama for the time – an innocent romance between a naive boy and girl who meet when each of their parents is languishing in jail. Far from the tragic conclusion of Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit, Masumura offers his youngsters a degree of hope and the possibility, at least, of a happy ending. Daiei would go bust in 1971, and so it’s a minor irony that Masumura would revisit a similar theme towards the end of his tenure at the studio. Play (遊び, Asobi, AKA Play With Fire / Games), inspired by Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel, is another tale of youthful romance threatened by a harsh society, but this time around Masumura is not quite so hopeful.

A 16 year old (unnamed) girl has become the main breadwinner for her mother and bedridden older sister following the death of her father, formerly a violent drunk. Having had to leave school, she has a full-time job at an electronics factory where she lives in the company dorm along with a number of other female employees, most of whom are a few years older than she is. The girl is an earnest sort, she resents her mother’s constant pestering of her for money, but she sends her pay checks home keeping only enough to keep herself fed and clothed.

When an older woman, Yoshiko, who works as a “hostess” in one of the local cabaret bars comes to visit, she does so dressed to the nines with a handsome man sporting fancy sunglasses and porting a selection of upscale cakes. Yoshiko sells the virtues of life in the clubs, talking about the money to be made by having fun while the naive gaggle of young women remain in awe of her confidence, poise, and fancy haircut. In desperate need of money, the girl considers Yoshiko’s suggestion which is what brings her into contact with the (unnamed) boy (Masaaki Daimon).

The boy is 18 and pretends to be more worldly wise than he really is. He offers to show the girl around the cabaret scene, though he discourages her from working there. Taking her out and around town, the boy charms the girl though he has a dark and ulterior motive. The boy is a petty yakuza for a gang whose main stock in trade is pulling girls off the street and raping them for reasons of both blackmail and forced prostitution.

Owing to her young age and bad experience with her father who was often drunk and violent, the girl has steered clear of men. The other girls make fun of her for not having a boyfriend, not wearing make up, and for being “good” in sending all her money home. The girl isn’t really interested in the same kind of fun loving life as the more jaded of the factory girls – especially when she sees them roll in drunk boasting about the bruises on their skin from a night of debauchery, or even staggering back crying with a dress torn to shreds after being violently assaulted (perhaps by the same kind of yakuza thugs that will shortly target her). Despite the harshness of her life, she remains naive and innocent, concerned for her mother and invalid sister who have only her to depend on.

The boy is in a similar situation, though far less keen to confess it. Also let down by a drunken, promiscuous mother, he’s found himself in a gang desperate for the approval of his new “big brother”. Though he reacts with horror to the gang’s main stock in trade, he does not try to stop it even if he stops short of rape himself, but continues to assist in trapping the girls whilst fully aware of what will happen to them.

Coming from a harsh world, the boy has never met anyone as earnest or as naive as the girl and her goodness starts to reawaken something in him. Likewise, the girl, unaware of the boy’s true purpose, has never met anyone that was so immediately nice to her – her fear of men and alcohol dissipates as she (mistakenly, or perhaps not) believes she has met someone truly good and kind who only wants to help her. The girl does not belong in the boy’s world of sleazy clubs and youth haunts but bears them well enough for him. The boy recognises the incongruity and takes her somewhere else, still conflicted in his true purpose of delivering her to the dingy love hotel where his boss conducts his illicit trade.

The boy and the girl are innocents corrupted by their environments. Let down by irresponsible parenting (perhaps also a symptom of the difficulties of the society they live in), the pair remain trapped, dreaming of freedom and happiness but seeing no way of finding them. Deciding to make a break for it, leave their respective disappointing families far behind, the boy and the girl sail away. Their boat is full of holes, but they refuse to be beaten, committing to forge ahead together they swim towards the sea and an uncertain but hopeful future.


Title sequence (no subtitles)