Ken (剣, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

Most closely associated with jidaigeki, Kenji Misumi’s only film to be set in the contemporary era, Ken (剣), shifts his persistent concerns into the modern day in the clash of the warrior ideal and the emotional costs of living, but also takes a sideways look at conflicted post-war masculinity as two young men vicariously lock horns in a quest for mastery over their desires. Adapting a short story by Yukio Mishima, Misumi dials back on the tragic romance of militarism painting the hero’s ultimate acceptance of nihilistic futility less as a noble sacrifice than a humanist failure of the society that failed to save him from his absolutist fallacy. 

Obsessed with strength and honour, Kokubun (Raizo Ichikawa) has convinced himself that he can capture “this spark of pure life” he saw in the sun through perfecting the art of kendo. An aloof and austere figure, he has foregone all else and dedicated himself to his skill alone. For this reason he is appointed captain of his university kendo club over his jealous rival, Kagawa (Yusuke Kawazu), who loses out because his sword is “sentimental” and there is a concern that he draws his power from “arrogance”. There is indeed something in that, and it’s Kagawa’s sense of male pride that partly sets him on a quest for vengeance and vindication in a obsessive desire to dominate Kokubun but there’s also an unspoken attraction as he later admits to a female acquaintance in remarking that he finds Kokubun’s way of life “infuriating” but despite himself also “refreshing”. 

Literal sword play, Kagawa’s obsession with Kokubun results in a vicarious seduction in which he attempts to corrupt him by enlisting the help of a female student to expose him as a fraud by rupturing his asceticism and thereby destroying his source of strength if not his sense of self. The quasi-sadomasochistic relationship between the two men is further borne out by the implication that Kokubun is in fact finding his sexual release in the intense act of repression, satisfying himself through physical exhaustion in the company of other men, Misumi’s roving camera fully capturing the homoeroticism of this intensely homosocial society. Humiliated by Kokubun who forces him into a public act of contrition through physical endurance after disappointing the club by breaking the rules smoking on the job at their part-time gig at a supermarket, Kagawa goes to the chairman to complain that Kokubun’s leadership style is far too intense, “feudalistic” as another member puts it shortly before quitting, claiming that all he wants is for his rival to wake up from his militarist dream and live in the real world though his final act of mutiny will engender consequences unforeseen in his conviction that Kokubun’s ideology is largely performative self-delusion. 

The team manager perhaps thinks something similar, reminding Kagawa that he is merely “more grown up” as if Kokubun is in a sense maintaining his childlike innocence in refusing to enter an adult world he regards as “ugly” and “corrupt”. His ideal is simplicity and he finds it in the primacy of the sword. There is in this something of an uncomfortable militarist throwback that finds a disciple in the ever loyal Mibu (Akio Hasegawa) who dutifully parrots back the quasi-facist philosophy to his quietly horrified mother and sisters who probably don’t help the situation by mocking his lack of masculinity in his inability to grow a proper beard while insisting on shaving every day anyway. Attracted by Kokubun’s dynamism and energy, he longs for strength through self denial. “We must move away from those empty desires” Kokubun instructs him while discussing the suicide of a young man who was discovered next to a selection of half eaten fruit. Rather than sympathy the man is largely mocked by his male peers, Kokubun dismissing him as “weak in mind and body” for having taken his own life apparently in fear of failure, but also stressing that suicide is a choice taken by the very strong as well as the very weak. 

In this brief exchange he opens the door to a notion of nobility in the choice to take one’s own life which leads straight back into the death cult of militarism, perhaps something that only Mibu as a fellow devotee is able to see. Yet Misumi perhaps undercuts this sense of nobility with a return to collective shame, eulogising Kokubun’s determination to preserve his “uprightness and strength” as Kagawa admits defeat in the face of Kokubun’s unbreakable purity, while placing the burden of failed responsibility on the kendo troupe not for their inability to live up to his ideal but for their lack of understanding in failing to free him of his moral absolutism. The way of the sword once again leads only to death and while there may be an uncomfortable beauty in such moral purity, in the end all there is is futility. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Destiny’s Son (斬る, Kenji Misumi, 1962)

“Sad is his destiny” laments a seemingly omniscient lord in Kenji Misumi’s elliptical tale of death and the samurai, Destiny’s Son (斬る, Kiru). A chanbara specialist, Misumi is most closely associated with his work on long running franchises such as his contributions to the Zatoichi series and Lone Wolf and Cub cycle, and though sometimes dismissed as a “craftsman” as opposed to “auteur” is also known as a visual stylist capable both of the most poetic imagery and breathtaking action. 

Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Destiny’s Son follows cursed samurai Shingo (Raizo Ichikawa) who finds himself the victim of cruel fate and changing times during the turbulent years of the bakumatsu. His mother, Fujiko (Shiho Fujimura), a maid misused by a plotting courtier and talked into murdering the inconvenient mistress of a wayward lord, was executed for her crime by the man she loved, Shingo’s father who later renounced the world and became a monk. In a sense, it’s Shingo’s sense of displacement which later does for him, allowed the rare freedom of a three year pass from the apparently compassionate lord of the clan which took him in to go travelling during which he learns superior sword style something which came as a surprise to his old friends on his return who’d always thought him gentle and bookish. His talent makes him dangerous to an unexpected rival in his strangely mild-mannered neighbour who happens to have a crush on his sister Yoshio (Mayumi Nagisa) but is quite clearly under the thumb of his finagling father, Ikebe (Yoshio Inaba), who is convinced the family can “do better” as long as he triumphs in a contest of martial prowess with a passing master to whom the clan has given temporary shelter after he was cast out of his own. Of course, nothing goes to plan. The master easily defeats even the clan’s most talented warriors until Shingo is called up as a last resort only to best him with his signature move learned out on the road, a dangerous throat thrust. 

In a theme which will be repeated, Shingo finds himself in the middle of accidental intrigue through no fault of his own though the ill-conceived Ikebe revenge plot does at least allow him to discover the sad truth of his family history even as it deepens his sense of displacement. Slashing right into the mores of the chanbara, Misumi pares Shindo’s screenplay down to its poetic minimum as the hero sets off on his elliptical journey, achieving his revenge as the first stop before walking back into the past and then into an accidental future as a retainer to Lord Matsudaira (Eijiro Yanagi) himself at the centre of bakumatsu intrigue in trying to quell the divisions within the Mito clan some of whom have been involved in anti-shogunate terrorism setting fire to the British Legation shortly after the nation’s exit from centuries of isolation. An eternal wanderer, he resolves to have no wife and wanted no ties, haunted by the trio of women he couldn’t save from the mother who birthed him in part as a bid for mercy, to the sister who died a pointless and stupid death because of samurai pettiness, to another man’s sister whose name he never knew who stripped naked and threw her kimono at her assailants to save her brother’s life while they too were on the run after standing up to samurai corruption. He loses three women, and then three fathers, the first he never knew, the second taken from him in more ways than one, and the third betrayed by the complicated world in which they live. 

“I cannot be forgiven” Shingo exclaims, his end tied to that of his mother as a sword glints gently in the bright sunshine and blood drips, the only blood ever we see, on another woman’s breast. Elegantly composed and often set against the majestic Japanese landscape, Misumi’s ethereal camera with its dynamic tracking shots, controlled dolly movement, and frequent call backs to the setting sun lend Shingo’s journey an elegiac quality even in its evident nihilism as he finds himself consumed by the samurai legacy, discovering only futility in his rootlessness unable to protect himself or others from the vagaries of the times in which he lives. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Wife Confesses (妻は告白する, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

Mountains are dangerous places in Japanese cinema. Yasuzo Masumura’s tense, claustrophobic courtroom noir A Wife Confesses (妻は告白する, Tsuma wa Kokuhaku Suru) was released in the same year as Toshio Sugie’s Death on the Mountain, adapted from a popular story by legendary mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto in which a veteran climber is ushered towards his death through a series of machinations by his friend which might or might not be regarded as “murderous” depending on your point of view. Masumura wants to ask us a similar question but from another angle as he puts a woman on trial not quite for the “murder” of her husband but the fact of her survival.

Opening outside the courthouse with a gum-chewing paparazzo, Masumura unwittingly makes us part of the baying mob watching intently as a young woman hides her face with her handbag while the press more than live up to their name, pinning her with questions about the salacious case at hand. Inside, however, he shifts the focus. We are now in the dock with Ayako (Ayako Wakao), looking up at the three men who will judge her for her “crime” from a literal moral high ground. A youngish widow, Ayako is charged with the murder of her husband who died during a freak mountain climbing accident. Caught between a handsome young man, Koda (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), and her abusive husband, Takigawa (Eitaro Ozawa), with no way up or down Ayako chose to cut the rope and let her husband fall. If she had not done so, both she and Koda would also be dead. Ayako is on trial because she refused to sacrifice herself for a wifely ideal. The question is, in many ways, if a woman’s or more to the point a wife’s life has worth, not just worth equal to that of her husband’s but any kind of worth at all. 

The first charge against Ayako is a lack of womanliness. A man at the scene testifies that they don’t usually allow wives or mothers to view bodies and Takigawa’s was in a particularly bad way but Ayako insisted on seeing it only to react with a calm he found suspicious. A policeman then echoes his sentiment, admitting that he arrested Ayako for her unwifeliness. “A wife should stick with her husband ’til the end no matter how tough it is” he says, adding that his own wife agrees with him. As her lawyer points out, had Ayako been a man, or the person below her on the rope a stranger, the policeman would not have arrested her but her refusal to die with her husband, which would have resulted in the “murder” of another man, is an arrestable offence. You can argue about the moralities of choosing to end someone else’s life to save your own, a kind of self defence permitted under Japanese law through the “necessity” legislation, but Ayako’s transgression is in believing that her life and her husband’s weigh the same and that she had a right to save herself. Many feel she should perhaps have cut the rope above her own head, saving Koda only in a lovers’ suicide with Takigawa. 

The policeman offers more grounds for suspicion having discovered that Ayako had taken out an insurance policy on her husband and hoped to profit from his “accidental” death, though as an act of premeditated murder this would certainly be quite an elaborate plot. Furthermore, the prosecution posit that she and Koda were having an affair but, for reasons which are not clear, Koda is not under suspicion or cited as a co-conspirator and is in fact testifying in her defence. He is also engaged to someone else, Rie (Haruko Mabuchi), though the marriage was arranged by his boss for strategic reasons because she is the daughter of a major client at their insurance firm and yes Koda drafted the policy which is currently being used as evidence against Ayako. All very Double Indemnity, but Ayako is certainly no cold and scheming Phyllis whether or not she made a conscious decision to free herself from a man who made her life a misery by literally cutting him loose. 

Yet Ayako’s victimisation is also used against her as further evidence of her unwomanly coldness. She testifies that she married Takigawa after he attempted to rape her and then proposed, confessing that she did so in order to escape a life of poverty that had already driven her into suicidal despair (she still has a vial of potassium cyanide she had taken from his office with just this in mind). She did not love him, but did her best to become a “good wife”, even beginning to wear kimono because he preferred it. Her predicament is no different than that of many other women who agreed to an arranged marriage and found themselves shackled to an unpleasant man with whom they could not get along but the marriage’s failure is laid squarely at Ayako’s feet for not trying hard enough and having insufficient love for the husband who treats her like a glorified maid, is cruel and emotionally abusive, and finally forces her to have an abortion against her will because he doesn’t want to spend money on a child. She asks for a divorce but he points out that as things stand a woman cannot escape a bad marriage without a husband’s consent and he has done nothing to break their marital contract and so to that extent he owns her. 

But for all she’s a cold woman who resented her husband and longed to be free of him, Ayako is also condemned for illicit passion in her secret love for Koda. Indeed we can see she is clearly fond of him, and in flashback we realise much of this is simply because he was kind to her though the extent of his kindness was only to the level of general civility. At heart, they are both “decent” people and so there is nothing more between them than unexpressed longing but still the kernel of their attraction remains and the prosecution has indeed found a grain of truth on which to found a motive for murder.

For his part, in another kind of film Koda would be the hero but here his “goodness” is intensely problematic in that he falls for Ayako precisely because of her suffering. His problem is that he later doubts her, swayed by arguments that paint her as a plotting femme fatale. Though amused by the whole affair, Koda’s boss warns him that women like Ayako are “trouble” and that he’s only been taken in because he is young and naive. Rie, meanwhile, is resentful and wounded, contemplating her own revenge but ultimately testifying in Ayako’s favour, she claims more for herself than for Koda or “justice” too embarrassed to take the stand and offer her own feminine “inferiority” as evidence against her romantic rival. Yet she later comes to admire her, seeing her as one who was bold enough to chase love at the expense of all else no longer caring what anyone might say or think. Ayako is the most liberated woman alive, and she would die for love but did not love her husband and so would not die for him. 

Koda is punished because he fell in love with an image of suffering womanhood but is afraid of Ayako’s transgressive femininity. He is conflicted in the knowledge that if she killed her husband her love for him may have been the reason, and is disturbed by her venality in that she would have taken the insurance money and lived well without finding it distasteful while he would have preferred to reject the settlement entirely lest it besmirch the innocence of their love. In real terms it doesn’t really matter why she did it, Ayako cut the rope and whether she did so out of an instinct for self preservation, in hate, or in love, the result is all the same. What she’s on trial for is defiance, that she acted, seized her own agency and made a choice to value her life over her husband’s which is still, as it turns out, a moral crime in the supposedly modern and democratic society of 1961. Masumura’s accusatory camera finds her pinned, confined, trapped at the edges of frames hiding her face with her single permitted feminine accessory while the subject of our judgemental gaze until the curtain finally closes leaving her in shadow but perhaps finally free of her cruel and oppressive society. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Third Shadow Warrior (第三の影武者, Umetsugu Inoue, 1963)

“In this world the weak are playthings of the strong” according to the hidden villain concealing himself slightly to the side in Umetsugu Inoue’s dark identity drama The Third Shadow Warrior (第三の影武者, Daisan no Kagemusha). Adapting a novel by Norio Nanjo, Inoue, most closely associated with sophisticated musicals, shoots in the manner of a ghost story adapting the trappings of a minor parable on the consequences of selling one’s soul for advancement in complicity with an inherently broken feudal order. 

Opening in 1564, the film wastes no time reminding us that the samurai were cruel and duplicitous, a troop of them riding through the contested mountain territory of Hida bearing the severed heads of their enemies casually insulting peasants as they go. Young farmer Kyonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa), however, can’t help but think that they’re heroic and dashing, longing like many young men as the voiceover explains to make his fortune as a samurai in this the age of war. Kyonosuke gets his wish when retainer Shinomura (Nobuo Kaneko) turns up and offers him a job at the castle, only it’s not quite what he expected. Bearing a striking similarity to lord Yasutaka, he has been hired as his third “shadow”, a decoy intended to shield the lord from harm. 

Sitting down with his two new brothers, Kyonosuke remarks how ironic it is that he’s here to escape the land but Kuwano (Katsuhiko Kobayashi) is patiently saving up his pay with the intention of using it to buy a farm and settle down with a beautiful wife. His is the most dangerous of doubling roles as the lord’s battlefield stand-in, while Ishihara (Yuji Hamada), a former actor apparently not much good with the sword, takes his place behind closed walls. Kyonosuke is quite taken with the world of the samurai, but Ishihara cautions that he’ll soon tire of this “phoney life”. In accepting this devil’s bargain, Kyonosuke has in essence consented to his own murder. A shadow man, he can no longer call himself Kyonosuke, but nor can he say he is Yasutaka. He has no fixed identity and is merely in waiting for a veil. Worse still as Ishihara has begun to suspect, they no longer have bodily autonomy because their physicality must match that of the lord. When he is blinded in a battlefield mishap with an arrow, so must they be. Deciding he’d rather not lose an arm, Kyonosuke finds himself in an altercation with his other self which leads to his demise. He intends to make a life for himself under his own name with another clan, but is forced to permanently assume Yasutaka’s identity after being cornered by Shinomura intent on manipulating him for his own ends. 

“I’m no puppet, I no longer need a puppeteer” Kyonosuke exclaims drawing strength from embracing his new identity as a samurai lord, but perhaps overreaches himself in ambitious desire failing to see the various ways he is still merely a pawn in a bigger game as Yasutaka himself once was because the lord is only ever an empty vessel and far more expendable than might be assumed. Princess Teru (Hizuru Takachiho), Yasutaka’s conquest bride, declares that she is “just a doll, the strongest will win me” but is of course playing a role herself, one which she does not desire but has been thrust upon her while her cousin, Sadamitsu (Shigeru Amachi), is engaged in a much more active piece of long form role play. Only the lord’s concubine (Masayo Banri) sees through him, falling for the gentle peasant after the rough lord who toyed with her, but their complicated love eventually seals his fate even as he believes it offers him victory. Kyonosuke became a samurai to escape his lack of agency but is arguably much less free than he ever was, driven slowly out of his mind by his fractured sense of identity and realising that in killing the only man who knew who he “really” was, he also killed himself. 

Quite literally imprisoned, Kyonosuke finds himself a shadow once again neither one man nor another, denied an identity and forever a puppet of duplicitous game players better versed in the realities of the samurai existence. “How ugly fighting over this transient kingdom” the princess disdainfully remarks while herself engaging this apparently meaningless foolishness, reminded by her cousin that a princess may hold the keys to a castle or even a nation even if he implies she is little more than his tool, a puppet to be manipulated if knowingly. Shooting with deep, expressionist shadows, chiaroscuro lighting, and a melancholy voiceover Inoue frames his tale as a parabolic caution against selling one’s soul for gold but also a crushing indictment of the inequalities of the feudal order built on wilful hypocrisy and cynical exploitation. 


On the Road Forever (無宿者, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

“I take to the road whether or not I am alive” confesses the spiritually defeated hero of Kenji Misumi’s filiality drama, On the Road Forever (無宿者, Mushukumono). Two sons each seeking vengeance for a wronged father become first accidental friends, then almost enemies, and finally something more like brothers bound and ruined by the failures of the samurai code. The villain may not unfairly claim that the system of the world is one “dirty great monster”, but the implications of his revelations lead directly back into the infinite corruptions of the samurai order as mediated through the failures of fatherhood. 

“Drifting crow” Ipponmatsu (Raizo Ichikawa) temporarily teams up with fallen samurai Kuroki Yaichiro (Jun Fujimaki) who has become desperate enough to unwisely attempt robbing a gambling den. Nevertheless, we are clued in to the idea that these are the good guys when they’re helped by a young village woman, Haru (Mikiko Tsubouchi), who lends them her father’s horse instructing them to return it to him at a nearby village which the guys later do even attempting to hand the old man some of their ill-gotten gains as a thank you though he refuses and warns them not to hang around too long because “it’s a rough neighbourhood”. All too soon we discover what he means. A big wig former yakuza who suspiciously came into massive amounts of money two years previously has pressed the villagers into debt and is currently inducting them into indentured servitude on Sado island in order to recoup costs. Perhaps Ipponmatsu doesn’t approve, but he’s on a journey for a reason and would have carried on by had he not heard word that that shady yakuza Shima-ya Jubei (Toru Abe) may be connected to the death of his father during a high stakes robbery on a mountain pass. 

Ipponmatsu, whose name literally means “a single pine”, is the archetypal wandering son who ran away from his clan without permission in rebellion against his authoritarian father who raised him alone after his mother’s death and tried to instil in him the values typical of his class through the medium of violence. Having come across a decomposed body with his father’s distinctive sword at the scene of the robbery, Ipponmatsu has had a change of heart and dedicated his wandering to avenging his memory. Sticking around in the town, he comes to suspect that Yaichiro’s father Hanbei may have been behind the theft of the missing imperial gold only later realising that he too is on a quest to learn the truth in the hope of clearing his father’s name. The two men end up raising swords against each other but discovering they are indeed different, Yaichiro a gentle soul who apparently excelled in the dojo but has no “courage” in the field and Ipponmatsu a fiery hothead who thinks killing is less a matter of skill than “courage and explosiveness”. 

There is, it has to be said, a fairly obvious twist that neither man perhaps too bound up in their own sense of responsibility fully considers. Nevertheless, they are both faced with the decision of what to do should they discover the truth considering that raising a sword against one’s father is an unforgivable sin while knowing that such a heinous betrayal of their code cannot go unpunished. The villains boast of their well connected networks and supposed untouchability laying bare the essential corruption of the samurai order as they wilfully manipulate and exploit impoverished peasantry for their own ends while cruelly joking that all classes are alike in their greed when tempted with riches, entirely unrepentant even as they lament the hypocrisy of the samurai who have no money yet continue in their arrogance. 

Despite having been raised in a homosocial environment told that falling in love with women is a pointless waste of time, Ipponmatsu picks up the affections of two firstly earnest farm girl Haru and secondly misused mistress and sister of Shima-ya, Osei (Eiko Taki). This is however a manly drama concerned with the ways in which men interact with other men, firstly in the awkward fraternity of Ipponmatsu and Yaichiro and then in their mutual and continually changing relationships with their absent fathers living in the shadow of patricide and justice. Elegantly composed as always, Misumi frequently shoots through obstacles imprisoning the men within the broken beams of ruined buildings or spying in a POV shot from an upstairs balcony while making full use of his trademark love for the natural world in closing with a painful confrontation in which the nature of filiality is turned inside out as a corrupt father falls on his sword for his noble son amid the rocks surrounded by rolling waves. As the title suggests, the melancholy ending severs the hero from his ancestral “home” leaving him forever a wanderer untethered yet in a sense never free of his paternal legacy. 


Warm Current (暖流, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

Never one to tread the beaten path, Yasuzo Masumura studied film abroad in Italy before, perhaps counter intuitively, entering the Japanese studio system apprenticing at Daiei where he’d remain until its bankruptcy in the early ‘70s forced him into freelancing. His 1957 debut Kisses was a response to the taiyozoku or sun tribe craze of nihilistic youth movies though it was in its own way quietly hopeful and even sweet, at least in contrast to some the more cynical views of romance which colour some of the director’s later work, but again despite being positioned as precursor to the New Wave is also very much in the classical tradition if owing something to contemporary European art house. Masumura’s second film Blue Sky Maiden continued in the same vein, an ostensibly cheerful take on Sirkian melodrama in which the plucky heroine finds self-actualisation while dealing with her difficult family history. Warm Current (暖流, Danryu), meanwhile, builds on the same Sirkian foundations, remaking a popular weepy which had proved a big hit for Kozaburo Yoshimura 20 years earlier, but further undercutting it with a sense of ironic inconsequentiality as the heroes engage in a background battle for the post-war future. 

The film opens with a suicide, a nurse discovered dead on a bench after apparently having poisoned herself. She is, however, not the focus of the story and all too quickly forgotten in favour of the return of Keiko (Hitomi Nozoe), the daughter of the hospital’s director who has until recently been studying abroad. She’s come to the hospital because she has a piece of a sewing needle somehow embedded in her finger which needs rather more treatment than one might expect. Anyway, while there she attracts the attentions of handsome doctor Sasajima (Ryuji Shinagawa) and meets up with old schoolfriend Gin (Sachiko Hidari) who has since become a nurse. The problem is that the hospital is in big financial trouble and Keiko’s father Shima (Toranosuke Ogawa) is secretly terminally ill with cancer. He brings in Hibiki (Jun Negami), a pharmaceuticals executive he’s been supporting as a favour to his late father, as a consultant to streamline the business, while sidelining his rather feckless son Yasuhiko (Eiji Funakoshi), an orthopaedics doctor who might be assumed to take over were he not so entirely useless. 

Introduced rather late, Hibiki is positioned almost as a villain, a destabilising force within this very bourgeois world of the hospital determined to strip it of the corrupt entitlement of the surgical class. To that extent, he comes in like a new broom to apply modern business thinking to the ancient art of medicine but does so with rather old-fashioned ideas of gratitude and loyalty to Shima, always acting in the best interests of the family while positioning himself as a servant retainer. This the minor conflict that defines his complicated relationship with the equally confused Keiko who too has returned from abroad with taste for Western individualism but is uncertain how to live her life as a woman in still conservative Japan. All her friends ask her about blue-eyed boyfriends, and though it seems that she is immediately smitten with Hibiki she quite rudely dismisses him for his slightly condescending manner later remarking that she was turned off by a sense of his overconfidence. 

Keiko tells her father she’s no plans to marry and has come back to Japan intending to continue her studies. For his part, Shima is all for a woman working but not as he puts it if it causes her to become a “brainy spinster”. Eventually courted by Sasajima she finds herself torn, even as he tells her that, unexpectedly, he has no issue with her desire to work or study were she to become his wife, uncertain in her attraction to Hibiki while drawn back towards conservatism in knowing that her father favours marriage and that Sasajima is her class-appropriate match. Despite his own attraction to her, Hibiki says nothing even on hearing of her engagement precisely because of this increasingly outdated sense of social inferiority. Meanwhile, he remains seemingly oblivious to the fact that Gin, who like him is a war orphan, has fallen in love with him which is why she continues to help him as a “spy” within the hospital. 

In response to her war trauma, Gin has developed the habit of laughing loudly, an especially unusual trait in a generally reserved culture, and often remarks on her own “stupidity”, the childlike excitability which so clearly positions her as a mirror to the elegant Keiko. Yet the push and pull between the two women has little rancour in it, save that Gin is already aware that Sasajima was responsible for the suicide of the nurse on the rooftop but has chosen not to say anything hoping they’ll marry and Hibiki will be hers. As Keiko later discovers, Sasajima is fairly brazen in his “modernity”, having lived with an aspiring model who declines to marry him because it would adversely affect her career but has no problem with him marrying someone else confident that their physical relationship will continue. Sasajima turns up while Keiko is visiting her, but calmly sits down on the bed and explains that he essentially plans to have two wives, the model for the bedroom and Keiko to be his companion of the mind. He brands her vulgar and small-minded in her conservatism when she proves unconvinced, laying bare an essential misogyny when he echoes that brainy women are “boring”, which is why he “needs” the model to satisfy himself sexually. Nevertheless, Keiko is not that kind of “modern” and in any case not so in love with Sasajima nor deluded enough to think she needs him to agree to his arrangement. 

Gin meanwhile echoes something of the model’s passive resignation when she too declares that she doesn’t care if Keiko marries Hibiki because she’s certain he’s supposed to be with her in the end because they are “alike”. There is no class conflict between them, and as they are both war orphans they share a sense of displacement in the post-war society. Unlike Keiko Gin is open in her feelings, declaring her love for Hibiki even chasing after him at the station and calling out across the ticket barriers that she’ll wait forever even if she only becomes his mistress. Earlier on, Keiko had been reading a foreign romance about a woman courted by two men she was unable to choose between only making up her mind when one of the men’s accent slipped, but in essence it’s Hibiki who finds himself torn if earnestly, thinking himself in love with Keiko but prevented from pursuing her because of his class anxiety rather than attracted to her precisely because of her class standing and everything it represents which is in a sense the target of his “revolutionary” reforms at the hospital. Tempted, he is eventually pulled back towards the side of “passion”, won over by Gin’s slightly scary if unwavering love for him. 

Yet this is no grand weepy, just the romantic confusion of three young(ish) friends who eventually find direction in their lives as mediated through “love”. Keiko reassumes her stance as a thoroughly modern woman, explaining to her rather naive mother that Yasuhiko, who has wrested control of the estate away from Hibiki, is not capable of looking after them even if he had the desire and so she intends to work, apologising to her father for her intention to become a “brainy spinster” after all. Hibiki loses out in the hospital too which is quickly retaken by the same corrupt forces Shima brought him in to combat. “I understand a woman’s feelings” Hibiki somewhat patronisingly claims as a result of his experiences, immediately proving that he doesn’t in misreading Keiko’s intentions while she, ironically, claims that she is no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by male authority. Unable to change their respective futures, the only option that remains is to abandon them for new ones of their own making but this is far from a tragedy, merely the ironic fate of the post-war generation remaking itself in real time, letting the door close behind them as they walk away from the irredeemably corrupt. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Killer’s Key (ある殺し屋の鍵, Kazuo Mori, 1967)

Raizo Ichikawa returns as the jaded ace assassin only this time a little less serious. Set some time after the events of A Certain Killer, A Killer’s Key (ある殺し屋の鍵, Aru Koroshiya no Kagi) finds Shiozawa (Raizo Ichikawa) having left the restaurant business to teach traditional dance under the name Fujigawa while known as killer for hire Nitta in the underworld. Like the previous film, however, he thinks of himself as a justifiable good, standing up against contemporary corruption while still burdened by his traumatic past as a former tokkotai pilot. 

Nitta’s troubles begin when a corruption scandal kicks off with a prominent businessman, or less generously loan shark, arrested for tax evasion. Asakura (Asao Uchida) knows too much and political kingpin Hojo (Isao Yamagata) is worried because he knows Asakura has hard evidence about a land scandal and might be persuaded to spill the beans, exposing a circle of corrupt elitists for their shady goings on. He wants Asakura knocked off on the quiet, as he heavily implies but does not explicitly state to his underling Endo (Ko Nishimura) who gets in touch with their yakuza support who in turn decide that Nitta is the only man for the job.

Petty yakuza Araki (Yoshio Kanauchi) sells the job to Nitta as a public service, pointing out how unfair it is that Asakura has been cheating on his taxes when other people have taken their own lives in shame because they weren’t able to pay. Conveniently, he doesn’t mention anything about petty vendettas or that he’s essentially being hired to silence a potential witness before he can talk so Nitta is minded to agree, for a fee of course (which, we can assume, he won’t be entering on his tax form). Unfortunately things get more complicated for everyone when the gangsters try to tie up loose ends by engineering an “accident” for Nitta which sends him on a path of revenge not only taking out the gangsters but the ones who hired them too. 

Nitta’s revenge is personal in focus, but also a reflection of his antipathy to modern society as a man himself corrupted by wartime folly who should have died but has survived only to become a nihilistic contract killer. He perhaps thinks that the world is better off without men like Asakura, the dim yakuza, spineless underling Endo, and corrupt elitist Hojo but only halfheartedly. His potential love interest, Hideko (Tomomi Sato), a geisha learning traditional dance, has fallen for him, she says because she can see he’s not a cold man though continually preoccupied and there is indeed something in his aloofness which suggests that he believes in a kind of justice or at least the idea of moral good in respect of the men that died fighting for a mistaken ideal. 

As Hideko puts it, Asakura made his money off the suffering of others, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he met a nasty end. She herself is a fairly cynical figure, aware as a geisha that she is in need of a sponsor and that it’s better to get the one with the most money though she too has her code and will be loyal to whoever’s paying the bills. Or so she claims, eventually willing to sell out Endo to protect Nitta but disappointed in his continued lack of reciprocation for her feelings. Echoing his parting words at the close of the first film but perhaps signalling a new conservatism he coldly tells Hideko that he doesn’t need a woman who stays with anyone who pays refusing to include her in the remainder of his mission.

Nitta is perhaps a man out of his times as a strange scene of him looking completely lost in a hip nightclub makes clear. He tries to play a circular game, stockpiling his winnings in different suitcases stored in a coin locker, but eventually finds that all his efforts have been pointless save perhaps taking out one particular strain of corruption in putting an end to Hojo’s nefarious schemes. More straightforwardly linear in execution than A Certain Killer, Killer’s Key is a less serious affair, resting squarely on an anticorruption message and easing back on the hero’s wartime trauma while allowing his needle-based hits to veer towards the ridiculous rather than the expertly planned assassination of the earlier film, but does perhaps spin an unusual crime doesn’t pay message in Nitta’s unexpected and ironic failure to secure the loot proving that sometimes not even top hit men can dodge cosmic bad luck. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Certain Killer (ある殺し屋, Kazuo Mori, 1967)

A nihilistic hitman safeguards the post-war future in Kazuo Mori’s chivalrous B-movie noir, A Certain Killer (ある殺し屋, Aru Koroshiya). Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War with US airplanes flying constantly overhead, Mori’s crime thriller situates itself in the barren wasteland of a rehabilitated city in which betrayal, exploitation and duplicity have become the norm while a former tokkotai pilot turned killer for hire takes his revenge on social hypocrisy as a product of his society, a man who did not die but knows only killing. 

Shiozawa (Raizo Ichikawa) runs a stylish restaurant by day and supplements his income by night as a killer for hire, apparently highly regarded by the local underworld. As such, he’s approached by a yakuza underling, Maeda (Mikio Narita), on behalf of the Kimura gang who want him to off another gangster, Oowada (Tatsuo Matsushita), who double crossed them in contravention of the yakuza codes of honour. Shiozawa is resolutely uninterested in yakuza drama and so turns the job down but changes his mind when he’s paid a visit by boss Kimura (Asao Koike) himself who sells him a different kind of mission. Kimura characterises Oowada as a “bad” yakuza, one has subverted the traditional gangster nobility by dealing in the “dirty” sides of organised crime, corrupting the modern society by trafficking in illegal prostitution, drugs, and extortion, where as he is a “good” yakuza mostly running construction scams and therefore building the post-war future. His crime is, literally, constructive, where Oowada’s is not. 

Shiozawa doesn’t quite buy his justifications, but men like Oowada represent everything he hates. “They’re not worthy of this world. They’re nothing but cockroaches” he laments, recalling the young men who served with him and gave their lives because they believed in a country which betrayed them. He agrees to take the job in rebellion against post-war venality, but only at a price, asking for four times the original fee. Kimura is willing to pay, because his true aim is profit more than revenge. He plans to take over Oowada’s remaining business concerns. 

Fully aware of this, Shiozawa seems almost uninterested in the money despite having asked for so much of it. He runs his shop as a front for his side business and otherwise lives a quiet, unostentatious life keeping mostly to himself. He is not, it would seem, a cold blooded killer, often making a point of leaving those who get in his way incapacitated but alive. Targeted by a street punk for supposedly messing with his girl he cooly disarms him and walks away, only for the girl to follow attracted partly by his icy manliness and partly by the thickness of his wallet as glimpsed when he made the fatal decision to offer to pay for her meal in order to save the chef from embarrassment over her attempts to pay with things other than money. Unable to get by on her own, Keiko (Yumiko Nogawa) attaches herself to various capable men beginning with the pimp, transferring her affections to Shiozawa whom she petitions to marry her, and then to Maeda, eventually vowing to find a new partner and make lots of money. 

Both Maeda and Keiko chase Shiozawa and are rebuffed. Impressed by his cool handling of the Oowada affair, not to mention the amount of money he now realises you can make in his line of business, Maeda asks to become his pupil in order to become a “real man”. Shiozawa doesn’t regard his work as something “real men” do, and in any case prefers to work to alone. Maeda repeatedly asks to be allowed to accompany him even after plotting betrayal, only to be rejected once again as Shiozawa tells him that he doesn’t like people who don’t know the difference between the job and romance, flagging up the homoerotic subtext for those not paying attention. Maeda parrots his words back to Keiko with whom he had begun a halfhearted affair as joint revenge against Shiozawa’s indifference. 

Following the successful offing of the mob boss, Shiozawa finds himself coopted into another job robbing a drug handoff between Oowada’s former associates, the illicit narcotics ironically packaged inside cartons intended for baby powder. Shiozawa apparently doesn’t object to profiting off the drug trade himself, but later abandons the loot in protest while the remainder is lost or squandered during the final battle with the remaining gang members, Shiozawa’s cartons left sitting ironically on top of a gravestone taken by no one. Cool as ice, Shiozawa places himself above petty criminality, always one step ahead, trusting no one and looking out for himself but reacting as a man created by his times, forged by a war he was a not intended to survive while looking on at another cruel and senseless conflict across the sea. Adapting the hardboiled novel by Shunji Fujiwara, Yasuzo Masumura’s jagged, non-linear script (co-written with Yoshihiro Ishimatsu) is imbued with his characteristic irony but also coloured with nihilistic despair for the post-Olympics society and its wholesale descent into soulless capitalistic consumerism.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.