Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

“No one can be happy without money” the villain of Seijun Suzuki’s Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Ankokugai no Bijo) claims, vainly trying to justify his actions. He may indeed have a point, but you can’t buy happiness through selfish immorality. A noirish tale of changing times, Underworld Beauty pits a noble hearted gangster on the road towards reform against his amoral bosses as he tries to ensure a better future for the sister of a friend whose life was irreparably changed through proximity to crime. 

Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima) has just been released from three years in prison. His first stop is the sewers where he locates a loose brick he’d been using as a dead drop and retrieves a handgun and a small bag containing three diamonds stolen in the heist which got him sent away. Paying a visit to his old gang, Miyamoto makes it plain that he intends to keep the diamonds for himself so that he can sell them and give the money to Mihara (Toru Abe), the man who was crippled during the job and now lives an “honest” life running a small oden stall. To Miyamoto’s surprise, his boss, Oyane (Shinsuke Ashida), says OK and offers to set him up with a foreigner in Yokohama who is interested in buying blackmarket jewels. Unfortunately, the whole thing goes south in predictable fashion when a gang of masked heavies turns up to disrupt the deal. Mihara, who had come along with Miyamoto, swallows the diamonds and promptly falls off a nearby wall. He survives just long enough to tell the police that he “slipped” thanks to his unsteady legs, which makes his death “accidental” meaning he won’t have to undergo an autopsy. That’s both good and bad for the crooks. The cops won’t find the diamonds, but getting them back before the body is burned is going to be difficult. 

Arita (Hiroshi Kondo), a sculptor of mannequins, finds himself perfectly primed to find a solution because he’s been dating Mihara’s little sister, Akiko (Mari Shiraki), who’d been working as a nude model. Mihara had talked to Miyamoto about his sister and his fears for her in the big city. Feeling his debt even more since his friend’s death, Miyamoto decides to save Akiko from the evils of city life, but finds himself fighting an uphill battle. Meanwhile, Akiko is smitten with the intellectual yet cold Arita, who may perhaps be more interested in her for access to her brother’s body than to her own. 

The diamonds themselves become a kind of MacGuffin and symbol of amoral post-war greed. Having been away for three years, Miyamoto is the classically conflicted film noir hero, a noble yet compromised figure forced to operate in a murky moral universe that is at odds with his own sense of justice. That is perhaps why he tries so hard to “save” Akiko even if she resents his sometimes patronising paternalism that, well-meaning as it is, denies her the agency that is a mark of the age. Mihara warned his sister about hanging out with Arita, suspecting he was a no good guy likely to drag her further into the underworld which he had now escaped, but she sees him as “different” from the men around her, mistaking his coolness for sophistication rather than a possibly sociopathic superiority complex. 

Yet it’s perhaps a sense of inferiority which sends him so crazy about the diamonds. A tortured artist slumming it in a mannequin factory, he resents the way he’s chosen to “sell” his art while superficially laughing at those who buy it. There is something quite perverse in the various ways he is “using” Akiko, literally commodifying her body and turning it into a lifeless object, a simulacrum of “real” womanhood sans voice or agency, all the while planning to use her in order to get his hands on the diamonds. Figuring out Arita may have mutilated her brother’s body in order to dig them out, she wonders if he ever really loved her at all. His sudden declarations of affection and an impromptu proposal only further convince her that what he wants is money. She hides the diamonds inside the breast of a half-baked mannequin, just about where the heart ought to be. Later we spot the poor thing dismembered and abandoned, a gaping hole in its chest as it floats ominously in the sewer, discarded in just the way a woman like Akiko might be if she’d let a man like Arita get his hands on the loot. 

Kidnapped as leverage to force Miyamoto to hand the diamonds over, Akiko loses her fascination with underworld darkness in learning what the “yakuza code” really means. “What do you mean, the yakuza way?” She barks at Oyane, “it’s wrong to kill, you idiot!”. Literally steamed clean and making an ironic escape up a coal shoot, she edges towards a new dawn. “What a beautiful day!” She exclaims, declaring herself not bored in the least, freed from the false promises of the underworld and released from the diamonds’ corruption into the bright sunshine of a wide open future.


Everything Goes Wrong (すべてが狂ってる, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

Everything goes wrong posterThe Tokyo of 1960 was one defined by unrest as the biggest protests in history filled the streets urging the government to rethink the renewal of the security treaty Japan had signed with America after the war in order to provide military support in the absence of a standing army. Yet the protests themselves are perhaps an indication of the extent to which the nation was already recovering. With the Olympics just four years away, post-war privation had been replaced by a rapidly expanding economy, dynamic global outlook, and increased possibilities for the young who enjoyed both greater personal freedom than their parents’ generation and a kind of optimism unthinkable merely ten years previously. Nevertheless, this sense of the new, of unchecked potential was itself disorientating and had, as some saw it, led to a moral decline in which youth aimlessly idled its time away on self indulgent pleasures – namely drink, drugs, promiscuous sex and American jazz.

This dark side of youth had become a talking point thanks to a series of notorious “Sun Tribe” movies produced by the youth-orientated Nikkatsu studios. The films were so controversial the studio was eventually forced to stop making them, but all they really did was tone down the shock factor to one of mild outrage. Seijun Suzuki, picking up the Sun Tribe mantle, goes further than most in Everything Goes Wrong (すべてが狂ってる, Subete ga Kurutteru), painting post-war malaise as a tragedy of generational disconnection as the chastened wartime generation, accepting their role in history, watch their children hurtle headlong down another alleyway of self destruction but are ultimately unable to save them.

Our “hero”, Jiro (Tamio Kawaji), is as someone later poignantly puts it, “a nice boy”. A student, he spends his spare time on the fringes of gang of petty delinquents who get their kicks freaking squares, engaging in acts of casual prostitution, and enacting non-violent muggings. Jiro’s main problem in life is his fierce attachment to his single-mother, Masayo (Tomoko Naraoka). After Jiro’s father was killed in the war (apparently run over by a Japanese tank), Masayo became involved with a married man who has been supporting herself and Jiro for the last ten years. Young enough to have an almost completely black and white approach to moral justice, Jiro cannot stomach this fact and accuses his mother of being a virtual prostitute, accepting money for sex without love.

Jiro repeatedly accuses the older generation of hypocrisy, that they lie about their true feelings and motivations whilst denying their responsibility for the war which took his father’s life. Yet, Nambara (Shinsuke Ashida), his mother’s lover, is a kind and honest man who answers every question put to him honestly and with fierce moral integrity. He admits his responsibility for the folly of war – something he feels keenly seeing as he is a weapons engineer by trade, but rejects Jiro’s characterisation of his relationship with Masayo as something essentially immoral. His justifications are perhaps, as Jiro puts it, “philanderer’s clichés”, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true. Nambara, as a young man, entered into an arranged marriage with the daughter of a now deceased general. The marriage is loveless and emotionally dead, but Nambara is an earnest person and will honour the commitment he made to his first wife even if it brings him personal pain. Masayo has always known this and even if he cannot legally marry her, Nambara has given her his heart and will also honour that commitment in continuing to try and make her son see that he is not the enemy, just another man who loves his mother.

There is something quite ironic in Jiro’s strangely conservative moral universe which rejects the “impure” nature of his mother’s romance, while the older generation are better positioned to understand that things are never as simple as they seem. Jiro is rigid and unforgiving where his parents are flexible and empathetic. He rejects his mother for being a “whore” but throws money at a girl who is in love with him because he thinks that’s what women “want”. Unable to accept her emotional needs, he thinks of her as a prostitute and thereby abnegates his responsibility – the exact opposite of the “goodness” Nambara displays in offering financial support for a woman he loves which (in his eyes) has no particular strings and is given only with the intention of making her life easier.

Jiro, infected both by mother and madonna/whore complexes, is profoundly disturbed when another young woman tries to point out that aside from being his mother Masayo is also a woman with normal human needs both emotional and physical. Following his botched attempt to blacken Nambara in her eyes, he drags his mother to a breezy youth fuelled beach party where he throws her into a tent full of lithe young male bodies and tells her to have her fill. Nambara, still determined to talk Jiro around, laments to Masayo that they never had the opportunity to experience the kind of freedom that these youngsters feel themselves entitled to. If only they were not so trapped by the social codes of their era, they might have been happy. Yet these youngsters, with everything in front of them, are anything but – determined to destroy themselves in nihilistic confusion, caught in a moment of flux when nothing is certain and everything is possible.

At the film’s conclusion, a cynical journalist remarks to a sympathetic mama-san that “today, goodwill between people can’t exist anywhere, everything has gone wrong”. Jiro’s tragic fate is that he, like many “nice” kids like him, cannot reconcile himself to the moral greyness of the post-war world in which the “heroic sacrifice” of their parents’ is hypocritically held up as wholesome entertainment. Unable to accept the love and kindness of Nambara who only wants to act as a father to him and continues to believe that “one day he will understand” even after Jiro has hurt him deeply both emotionally and physically, Jiro has only one direction in which to turn.

Suzuki weaves Jiro’s tale around that of his friends – the unhappy delinquents and the struggling workers, women used by men who promise them love but reject their responsibilities, women who think they have to trade something to win love which ought to be freely given, and the older generation who can do nothing more than look on with sadness as youth destroys itself. Suzuki’s sympathies lie with everyone, but more than most with the Nambaras of the world who are desperately trying to fix what was broken but find that in a world that’s already gone crazy kindness is met with suspicion while money, corrupting true emotional connection, has become the only arbiter of bitter truths.


Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

o0500070913581105946Nikkatsu’s main stock in trade during its 50s/60s heyday was the youth movie – films which captured the frustrations of being young (and usually male) in the scrappy post-war years. It’s a surprise then that the hero of Seijun Suzuki’s “action” movie Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Jusango Taihisen Yori: Sono Gososha wo Nerae) is a genial middle-aged man who’s more Cary Grant in North by Northwest than Japanese James Dean. A programme picture, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the movie on paper but it’s among the first in which Suzuki indulges his talent for the surreal including a number of fantastically choreographed action sequences.

The film opens with a warning as a sniper trains his sights on a set of road signs which state that many accidents have occurred in this area. The one which is about to befall unlucky prison warden Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) is however entirely man made. Momentarily confused by the figure of a woman watching the bus from the roadside, Tamon is blindsided when the sniper opens fire and kills several of the passengers while another, Goro (Shoichi Ozawa), cowers in the back. Tamon is suspended for six months but isn’t particularly upset about it. He’s not a detective and he knows he should leave it to the professionals, but he’s desperate to know why someone would bother attack such a lowly crew of petty criminals. Wondering who the woman was and how she fits into the case, who the snipers were aiming for and if they got them, and perhaps wanting to assuage his own feelings of powerlessness during the attack Tamon gets on the case.

Tamon is not your typical Nikkatsu action hero. He’s a little on the old side for starters – hardly the marquee face the studio was beginning to favour with its collection of “Diamond Guys”. He’s also not a policeman or a detective, he has no idea what he’s doing or what he’s getting himself into. What Tamon is is a righteous man. Almost immediately he’s sucked into the seedy underbelly of late ‘50s Tokyo with its strip clubs, trafficked women, and petty gangsters. This world is alien to him and he’s disgusted by it. Meeting the female manager of the “talent agency” which supplies in-room strippers to sleazy hotels where businessmen go when they’ve told their wives they’re at a conference, Tamon is horrified to hear her admit she thinks of the girls as “merchandise”. He pauses to explain to her that he always thought of the felons he looked after as “humans” rather than “criminals”, no matter what it was they’d done. Such naive humanitarianism is too much for Yuko (Misako Watanabe) – she’s instantly smitten, which is a problem because it means she needs to play both sides of her own game.

The pair end up in an uneasy alliance as Tamon’s goodness begins to work its magic. An unlikely white knight, Tamon finds himself wanting to save all the ladies threatened by “Akiba’s” dastardly plan from the icy charms of Yuko to Goro’s cabaret girl Tsunako (Mari Shiraki), and another young one, Shoko (Kyoko Natsu), about to get sucked into the Akiba web. What he discovers is a nasty trail of exploitation running from the bars and clubs of the city centre to the genial holiday spa towns where the moderately wealthy travel to pursue their discrete pleasures.

Tamon may be a little older than your average Nikkatsu action star, but he’s also a perfect fit for a film noir hero in wrong man mould. Tamon is not on the run, but he is out of place in this world, perhaps harking back to a presumably more innocent age where honesty and compassion still counted for something. He views his job as a prison warden as a public service, believing that there is goodness in everyone and it’s the job of people like him to find it and bring it to the surface. This he does at least seem to accomplish with Yuko who (despite her role in events so far) seems to have “reformed” and intends to follow Tamon’s lead in taking her “talent agency” in a more legitimate direction. 

Suzuki often claimed that Youth of the Beast was the first of his films where he was able to fully embrace his madcap desires, but Take Aim at the Police Van contains a fair few Suzuki touches of its own from the bold opening sequence shot through the sights of a sniper rifle, to the show girl killed by an arrow to her bare breast, bizarre murder by petrol tanker set piece, and exciting train station finale. Keeping the camera fluid, Suzuki captures a world in motion, seemingly running away from our noble hero until justice, in the form of an unstoppable steam train, finally arrives.


Attack on the police van clip (English subtitles)