Two Wives (妻二人, Yasuzo Masumura, 1967)

Everything is facade in Yasuzo Masumura’s ironic exploration of the corruptions of the post-war society, Two Wives (妻二人, Tsuma Futari). Based on the novel by Patrick Quentin and scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Masumura’s dark mystery drama is a characteristically circular affair revolving around the hero’s moral confusion but positioning its two women as mirrors of each other, one a conservative upperclass daughter of a magazine editor whose intense properness has alienated all around her, and the other a perpetual mistress hung up on no-good starving artists.

Kenzo (Koji Takahashi), the hero, is married to the upperclass Michiko (Ayako Wakao) but is accidentally reunited with former uni girlfriend Junko (Mariko Okada) through an act of extreme coincidence. Junko is sporting a bandage around her neck to hide bruises caused by her violent drunk of a boyfriend Kobayashi (Takao Ito), a failed writer. This is in a sense ironic, as Kenzo had himself been an aspiring author during their uni days and it was Junko’s introduction to an old family friend, Nagai (Masao Mishima), which resulted in him getting a regular salaryman job before dumping her to marry the boss’ daughter. Despite himself, Kenzo ends up doing the same thing for Kobayashi but the young man’s motives are less than pure and he’s not so much tempted by consumerist comforts as coldly avaricious quickly setting his sights on Michiko’s wayward younger sister Rie (Kyoko Enami) who is just young and reckless enough to rebel against her sister’s puritanism through an affair with an unsuitable man. 

The magazine, Housewife’s World, seems to have been Michiko’s brainchild and runs under the slogan “clean, bright, beautiful”. Its target demographic is conservative wives and mothers with a particular interest in wholesome family values. These are all things Michiko practices in her personal life though as it becomes clear her excessive properness often annoys those around her who claim her moral authoritarianism pushes them towards transgressive rebellion. As the film opens, Nagai holds a meeting in which he announces that he’s fired two employees for being cautioned by the police when caught in an after-hours nightclub fearing that if such an event were to make to the papers it would tarnish their brand. However, pretty much no one other than Michiko is very dedicated to wholesomeness, her father having married off his mistress to a penniless aristocrat for the prestige of his name while employing the couple to manage a fund Michiko had set up for disabled children only for them to siphon all the money off for themselves. 

Having chosen consumerist fulfilment over the romantic, Kenzo has dedicated himself to his new role but is perhaps still conflicted in his decision especially after reuniting with Junko. His mirror Kobayashi, however, has no conflict at all and is willing to do anything and everything to achieve consumerist success. “You’ve no idea what a man without standing or money will do” he snarls, laying bare the effects of post-war inequality, pledging to use the Nagais like a springboard to jump as high as he can while threatening blackmail over having discovered all the sordid goings on at Housewife’s World. 

The soul of properness, Michiko is presented as the ultimate image of respectability while Junko is perceived as its inverse, a sexually active unmarried woman living in squalid backrooms and hanging out in bars. Yet Michiko’s austere exterior hides an inner ruthlessness in addition to an internal conflict over her own role in society. She publishes a magazine aimed at housewives though she is not a housewife herself but technically her husband’s boss. Eventually Nagai attempts to promote Kenzo above his wife claiming that the present situation does not fit with the traditional patriarchal outlook of magazine but he refuses, uncomfortable with this little piece of political manoeuvring in thinking that Michiko is better suited to the job and mildly insulted by the attempt at manipulation knowing that the reason for his promotion has nothing to do with his own ability. “I’m not interested in being a dog” he eventually barks back having come to the conclusion that this life of consumerist comfort is not worth the sacrifice of his autonomy or dignity. 

As for Junko, her love is indeed selfless continuing to support each of her starving artists even after they abandon her in favour of conventional success. Faced with Kobayashi’s rage, she cannot fire he effortlessly taking the gun from her which will eventually be retrieved by Michiko who does indeed use it to defend herself after Kobayashi attempts to rape her. “I want to be a woman who is loved like you” she exclaims on meeting Junko who has been accused of the murder she herself committed, jealous of her warmth and openness while Junko envies her for her refinement. Michiko claims that she hates lies, but discovers that everyone in her life has been lying to her while eventually forced to lie herself in covering up her crime. Yet it’s the weight of all the lies which eventually jolts Kenzo out of his complicity, resenting being made to lie to the police to cover up Rie’s potentially scandalous behaviour while unwilling to allow Junko to be convicted of a crime she did not commit. Nagai even convinces the family maid to lie for them in order to guarantee medical treatment for her sickly daughter. 

At his cruelest moment, Nagai goes so far as to undercut Michiko’s conflicted sense of self in telling her coldly that he only considered her a “token figure” he used for business who should have known her place and sat quietly in a corner ironically relegating her to the patriarchal space to which she on some level feels she ought to have confined herself while simultaneously wanting to take control as she had when she informed her father she would be marrying Kenzo rather than allowing him to find her a match. She too had worried about the direction of the current society and their magazine, wanting to move away from pure consumerism towards socially conscious content while her father clearly just wanted to make as much money as possible with no particular concern for morality only for optics. When she asks Kenzo if he loves her, he does not lie but replies only that he respects her which might in a way be an expression of love, later claiming that the properness which has alienated everyone else has in fact made him a better person who is determined to stand by her after she eventually commits to doing the right thing. 

In a final touch of irony, we see the “clean, bright” slogan echoed on a billboard outside the police station which is probably not an entirely transparent agency either though it appears as if in this case justice legal, moral, and emotional will be served striking back against amoral post-war consumerism and societal hypocrisy as the circle is brought to a close, both women landing on an equal footing and making their respective choices while Kenzo recommits himself to decency by pledging to start over together with Michiko. All in all, a more optimistic ending that might be assumed in a Masumura picture but then again no one can ever really escape the insidious hypocrisies of the contemporary society. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Great White Tower (白い巨塔, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1966)

“It’s about the right thing to do, it’s about conscience, and Prof. Zaizen lacks conscience” according to a star witness at the conclusion of a medical malpractice trial in Satsuo Yamamoto’s adaptation of the novel by Toyoko Yamasaki, The Great White Tower (白い巨塔, Shiroi Kyoto). One of a series of films heavily critical of the medical system in the midst of rising economic prosperity, Yamamoto’s tense political drama presents the succession intrigue at a university hospital as an allegory for the nation as a whole implying that lingering feudalistic and authoritarian thinking has poisoned the contemporary society. 

This is in part reflected in the way in which major hospitals are often run as large family businesses where succession is a dynastic matter. In this case, however, the scene is a prominent university hospital in Osaka at which the head of the surgical department, Azuma (Eijiro Tono), is about to retire. Generally, one of his assistant professors would simply move up after being approved by a board comprised of other department heads but the problem is no one, and especially not Azuma, is particularly happy with the most likely candidate, Zaizen (Jiro Tamiya). The issue between them seems to be one of ambition and authority. Zaizen is regarded by all as an excellent doctor with a stellar track record but he is also cold and arrogant with no regard for departmental protocol all of which of course offends Azuma as does his background and person. The son of a country teacher, Zaizen prospered through the dedicated labour of his widowed mother along with family connections before marrying into the extraordinarily wealthy and influential Zaizen family who run a large obstetrics clinic. Consequently, he is free to pursue his interests and lacks the economic anxiety that might make another employee wary of pushing his luck. 

His humble background might have placed a chip on Zaizen’s shoulder but it’s also clear he’s part of a new generation that does things differently from the last, apparently keen to build a public media brand appearing in a glossy magazine which brands him “the magic scalpel” thanks to his success in treating pancreatic cancer. While they might not be able to argue with his track record, other doctors worry that Zaizen has developed a god complex and is slapdash with his practice often timing his operations and smugly pleased with himself when hitting a new record. Azuma first picks him up on this in the case of elderly patient, questioning his treatment decisions in accusing him of neglecting to fully consider the patient’s post-op wellbeing. This then becomes something of a recurring theme as good doctor Satomi (Takahiro Tamura) is minded to bring Zaizen in on the tricky case of a man, Sasaki (Nobuo Minamikata), he suspects may have pancreatic cancer but has been repeatedly diagnosed with chronic gastritis. 

Though it’s political intrigue that in some senses leads him to Zaizen, Satomi is otherwise depicted as the responsible physician who deeply cares for his patients’ wellbeing and not much at all for interoffice politics. Thus he continues to investigate Sasaki’s case even when other doctors tell him he’s wasting too much time on one patient and should just leave it at gastritis. Zaizen, meanwhile, is the exact opposite taking one look at the X-rays and deciding it is pancreatic cancer after all but thereafter ignoring Satomi’s advice after taking over the case refusing to run a CT scan to verify that the cancer hasn’t spread to the lungs as Satomi fears it might have. 

For Zaizen Sasaki ceases to matter, to him the human body is no different to a machine and he perhaps more engineer than doctor even as he proclaims medicine more art than science in insisting that he just knows the early signs of pancreatic cancer while others are unable to detect them. After the first operation we see him perform, a grateful wife stops to thank him profusely for saving her husband’s life though he treats her coldly and implies it’s all part of the job before going outside to celebrate his private glory in his record-breaking feat. It’s then a minor irony that he finds himself later slapped with a malpractice suit by Sasaki’s wife upset that he was unavailable as her husband was dying because he was preoccupied with the ongoing elections for Azuma’s successor.

The implication is that the dehumanisation of the health industry has reduced it to the status of any other company, the head doctors no better than ambitious salarymen whose lives are defined by their job titles. The various department heads eventually descend into factions with Azuma plumping for an external candidate, Kikukawa (Eiji Funakoshi), while others line up behind Zaizen or his internal rival Kasai (Koichi Ito). Influence is brokered largely by outright bribery or industry manipulation by external influential players including Zaizen’s wealthy father-in-law and a professor in Tokyo who can offer monetary perks, access to funding, and potential promotions to those willing to vote for their chosen candidate. The main argument against Zaizen is his bad character, yet the fact he has been carrying on an affair with a bar hostess is never used against him even as they prepare to smear a rival candidate with his mistress even suggesting they hire a hitman to take him out completely. Zaizen’s minions meanwhile make an ill-advised visit to Kikukawa to ask him to withdraw bizarrely stating the importance of maintaining “democracy” even as they themselves deliberately undermine it for their own gain.  

It’s this sense of feudalistic, fascistic authoritarian chumminess that Azuma’s daughter Saeko (Shiho Fujimura) later decries in asking her father why he did nothing to change such a destructive system while he himself had the power to do so the implication being that he saw no need because he continued benefit from it. Only she and Satomi present any kind of challenge to the hypocrisy that pervades the medical system but eventually discover that there is no place for integrity in the contemporary society. Zaizen miraculously falls upwards every time because his success is more expedient that his failure. Even the Tokyo professor brought in as an expert witness during the malpractice suit declares that Zaizen is unfit to be a physician because of his arrogance and total lack of human feeling but pulls back from testifying that he caused the death of his patient through negligence later explaining to a colleague that if a university professor were to be found guilty of malpractice it would undermine public faith in the medical system. 

If can’t they can’t have faith in the medical system, the very people who are supposed to care for them when they are most in need, how can they have faith in anything else? As the rather bleak conclusion makes clear, the entire system is rotten to the core and no longer has any place for idealists like Satomi who are continually pushed to the margins by those jockeying for power in this infinitely corrupt society defined by hierarchy and cronyism while ordinary people, like Sasaki, continue to pay the price. Just as in his opening sequence, Yamamoto takes a scalpel to the operations of the medical industry to expose the messy viscera below but ultimately can offer no real cure in the face of such an overwhelming systemic failure. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

In a Ring of Mountains (中山七里, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1962)

A noble-hearted libertine stands up for love in an increasingly corrupt Edo in Kazuo Ikehiro’s adaptation of the well-known novel by Shin Hasegawa, In a Ring of Mountains (中山七里, Nakayama Shichiri, AKA 7 Miles to Nakayama). The son of a Daiei executive, Ikehiro joined the studio in 1950 working as an AD to Kenji Mizoguchi, Kazuo Mori, and Kon Ichikawa before being promoted to director in 1960 and then briefly demoted back to AD for annoying studio head Masaichi Nagata with the satirical content of his second film. Nevertheless, he later developed a close working relationship with top star Raizo Ichikawa and gained a reputation for unconventional jidaigeki displaying many of the techniques associated with the New Wave rather than the often more classically minded period films which were a Daiei mainstay. 

In this rather more modern tale set sometime in the Edo era, Ichikawa stars as big guy around town Masakichi who is nevertheless viewed with suspicion by local law enforcement officer Tohachi (Koh Sugita) who rebukes him for spending too much time with “yakuza” while out on the road conducting business for the lumber yard where he works. As we’ll come to discover this is a bit rich because Tohachi is as bent as they come, later raiding a gambling den in order to seize the proceeds for himself while in cahoots with equally corrupt magistrate who is also Masakichi’s boss but has designs on his girlfriend Oshima (Tamao Nakamura). After Masakichi proposes to her and goes so far as to set up a house and set a date to solemnise the union, his boss rapes Oshima which leads to her committing suicide and Masakichi killing him thereafter heading out on the run vowing to be Tohachi’s enemy for evermore. Sometime later, however, he gets himself mixed up in intrigue in another town where the corrupt magistrate is actually running the illegal gambling den and taking advantage of a naive young man, Tokunosuke (Koichi Ose), to press him into debt while trying to get his hands on his fiancée Onaka (also Tamao Nakamura) who happens to look exactly like Oshima. 

Something is very definitely rotten in Edo, the corruption so rampant as to be all but inescapable but Masakichi is so jaded that to begin with he doesn’t much care only to be reawakened on realising the same thing is happening again and to another woman who looks like his first love. Before he even sees her, he half-heartedly tries to warn Tokunosuke off gambling realising that he has no idea what he’s doing and seems to be having a run of very bad luck but Tokunosuke is a stubborn and insecure man who doesn’t know what’s good for him making one bad decision after another. When they are forced on the run together, Tokunosuke can’t help but feel his masculinity is being challenged by Masakichi’s infinite capability and is convinced that Onaka will eventually choose to leave with him. Consequently he repeatedly attempts to convince Onaka that Masakichi is a third wheel while quite obviously out of his depth and entirely incapable of protecting her from the mess that he has in part made through his series of poor decisions and general uselessness. 

In this case, the hero isn’t so much standing up to injustice in the corrupt Edo-era society as standing up for love, exorcising his guilt over having been unable to protect Oshima by ensuring that Tokunosuke and Onaka’s romance is allowed to blossom. Even so, Onaka eventually concedes that his eyes frighten her while he remains trapped in the past reassuring her that he is aware she and Oshima are not the same and has no desire to intrude on her romantic destiny. The final showdown literally takes place in the ruins of the destroyed society as the trio take refuge in an abandoned village, an entire house later collapsing as Masakichi fights off Tohachi’s goons while beset by a heavy mist. Making frequent use of dissolves and canted angles to reflect Masakichi’s listlessness and sense of despair along with a couple of songs performed by Yukio Hashi, Ikehiro’s jidaigeki drama is an unusually romantic affair as the hero stands up to injustice only indirectly as means of rescuing love from the oppressive corruptions of Edo-era society. 


Trailer (no subtitles)

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)