Three Resurrected Drunkards (帰って来たヨッパライ, Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

Three Resurrected Drunkards posterThe pop star movie has a long and distinguished history in Japanese cinema, but one might not have expected it to include Nagisa Oshima – a legendary iconoclast and conscientious objector to this particular strain of pop culture frivolity. Then again, taking a much hated form and turning it in on itself as a multifaceted form of protest is exactly the sort of thing one might expect Oshima to do. Therefore we find him in 1968 teaming up with The Folk Crusaders – a folk rock band enjoying a sudden flash of popularity after pressing their own indie record and seeing it go gold when radio stations picked up their North Korean themed Imujingawa and turned it into a giant hit. The band’s best known hit remains Kanashikute Yarikirenai which was released the same year, but it was perhaps Imujingawa with its melancholy Korean theme which attracted Oshima’s attention. A Monkees-esque surreal pop-star vehicle, Three Resurrected Drunkards (帰って来たヨッパライ, Kaette Kita Yopparai) is the third and most direct (strangely) in a series of films critiquing Japan-Korea relations, pushing further into the contemporary era with additional questions to ask about American imperialism and the complicity of both nations in the ongoing conflict in Vietnam.

Three students, played by the three members of The Folk Crusaders, frolic on a beach recreating the famous Vietnam war photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a prisoner in the street, before stripping off to go swimming. While they’re enjoying the waters, a hand rises up from beneath the sand and exchanges their clothes for a set of Korean military uniforms and some cash. The boys put on the strangers’ clothes and try to go home, but run into trouble when they try to scam an old grandma running a tobacco stand by pretending to have forgotten the price of cigarettes has gone up by 10 yen, assuming a dotty old grandma out in the sticks might not know anyway. Instantly suspicious, and seeing as this is “crack down on stowaways week”, the grandma tips off the authorities. After all, no Japanese person could be unaware of the rise in the price of cigarettes, so our heroes must be the “them” everyone is looking for.

What transpires is a surreal adventure of mistaken identities and rampant xenophobia in which our three students become temporarily transposed with their Korean counterparts – a draft dodging corporal trying to escape being sent to die in Vietnam, and his friend who’s come with him in the hopes of getting into a Japanese university. The third student, “Beanpole”, gets to keep his “Japanese” identity as a kind of control, but finds himself punished alongside his “Korean” friends as they face the harshest of punishments in this increasingly cruel and arbitrary world.

The three “stowaways” are then chased by the “real” Koreans who want to kill them and fake their own deaths to become Japanese. Later the three turn the tables on their pursuers but find themselves unable to pull the trigger because “Koreans don’t kill other Koreans”. In a bold piece of narrative reframing, Oshima abruptly resets the narrative halfway through, literally “resurrecting” our three drunkards who are instantly aware of what’s going on and determine to do things differently this time around – offering the grandma the right money, not taking the Korean uniforms with them when they leave the bathhouse etc, but they still get caught by the “real” Koreans and manage to survive only by “becoming” Koreans themselves, owning their new identities and rejecting their Japaneseness whilst turning their captors’ questions back on them and accusing them of being Japanese.

Meanwhile, the students take to the streets for an extended voxpop session in which they ask the question “are you Japanese?” to which all of their interviewees reply “No.”, asked “so how’s that then?”, they all calmly state it’s because they’re Korean. Aside from a pointed shot at a Westerner, Oshima seems to be making the rather banal point that Japanese and Koreans cannot be distinguished visually despite what some rather ignorant people might think – hence the identity confusion resulting from putting on “Korean” clothes, but he goes a little further in muddying the waters with a comparison between ongoing American imperialism and that of the Japanese past. Koreans in Japan experience oppression and xenophobic racism, but their nation as a whole also suffers from external oppression born of their government’s reliance on America for military support in the event that their truce with the North will someday be broken. Hence they find themselves packed off to another controversial war killing other Asians at the behest of a foreign government and its intense cold-war paranoia. 

Japan of course is also subject to this same oppression in reliance on American military power and so is also complicit in the horrors of Vietnam. These twin threads meet not only in the melancholy folk song penned by The Folk Crusaders, but in the final image which sees the executed Vietnamese man replaced by a Korean “stowaway” and the soldier by a Japanese policeman. Concentric circles flash in and out but Korea is always left in the middle, suffering at the hands of external powers, though Oshima remains largely silent on that presented by the authoritarian government of the day save criticising its determination to cling to American military might. A pop star movie with a title named for one of the band’s biggest hits – the high pitched and cartoonish Kaette Kita Yopparai which is itself a nonsense adventure of silliness, Three Resurrected Drunkards is a psychedelic treatise against systemic prejudices, complicity, and the seemingly inescapable cycle of geopolitical manoeuvring such prejudices fuel and enable.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Imujingawa

Violence at Noon (白昼の通り魔, Nagisa Oshima, 1966)

Violence at Noon posterFor Nagisa Oshima, the personal is always political and urges for destruction and creation always inextricably linked. Violence at Noon (白昼の通り魔, Hakuchu no Torima), a noticeable shift towards the avant-garde, is a true crime story but the murder here is of idealism, the wilful death of innocence as manifested in the rampage of a disaffected sociopath whose corrupted heart ties together two women who find themselves bound to him in both love and hate. Each feeling responsible yet also that the responsibility for action belongs to someone else, they protect and defend the symbol of their failures, continuing on in despair and self loathing knowing that to turn him in is to accept the death of their idealism in its failure to reform the “demon” that won’t let them go.

Bright white gives way to the shadow of a man lurking behind bars. He opens a door and gazes at a woman doing the washing, lingering on her neck before he forces himself in. The woman, Shino (Saeda Kawaguchi) – the maid in this fancy household, knows the man – Eisuke (Kei Sato), a drifter from her home town, but her attempts at kindness are eventually rebuffed when she tells him to go back to his wife and he violently assaults her causing her to pass out at which he point he decides to spare her and murders her employer instead. Rather than explain to the police who Eisuke is, Shino offers only cryptic clues while writing to Eisuke’s wife, Matsuko (Akiko Koyama) – an idealistic schoolteacher, to ask for permission to turn him in and end the reign of terror her husband is currently wreaking as a notorious serial rapist and murderer.

Eisuke, Shino, and Matsuko are all inextricably linked by an incident which occurred in a failing farming collective the previous year. Matsuko, a kind of spiritual leader for the farming community as well as its schoolteacher, preaches a philosophy of absolute love, proclaiming that those who love expect no reward and that through the eyes of love all are equal. Meanwhile, Shino – daughter of a poor family, contemplates suicide along with her father after their lands are ruined by a flash flood and they are left without the means to support themselves. She enters into a loose arrangement with the former son of a village elder, Genji (Rokko Toura), exchanging a loan for sexual favours, later beginning develop something like a relationship with him but one which is essentially empty. Nevertheless when Genji suggested a double suicide she felt compelled to accompany him, only to survive and be “saved” by Eisuke who, believing her to be dead, raped what he assumed was her corpse before planning to dump her body in a nearby river.

It is this original act of transgression that underpins all else. Shino believes herself in someway responsible for Eisuke’s depravity, that his rape of her “corpse” was the trigger for the death of his humanity. Matsuko, meanwhile, sees herself as the embodiment of love – she “loved” Eisuke and thought her love could cure his savage nature and bring him back towards the light and the community. Matsuko was wrong, “love” is not enough and perhaps what she has come to feel for the man who later became her husband on a whim is closer to hate and thereby a total negation of her core philosophy. To admit this fact to herself, to consider that perhaps love and hate are in effect the same thing, is tantamount to a death of the self and so she will not do it. She and Shino are locked in a spiral of inertia and despair. They each feel responsible for Eisuke’s depraved existence, but each also powerless to stop him. Shino in not wishing to overstep another woman’s domain, and Matsuko in being unwilling to admit she has given up on the idea of forgiving the man who has dealt her nothing but cruelty.

Literally seduced by nihilism, Eisuke finally rejects both women. He claims they are responsible – that if Shino had married him instead of attempting double suicide with Genji he might not have “gone astray”, going on to characterise his crimes as “revenge” against his wife’s “hypocrisy”, but then he calmly states that he is the man he is and would always have done these terrible things no matter where and when he was born. Passivity has failed, blind faith in goodness has allowed a monster to arise and those who birthed him remain too mired in solipsistic soul-searching to do their civic duty. Too afraid to let go of their ideals and take decisive action, Shino and Matsuko choose to watch their society burn rather than destroy themselves in an act of personal revolution – Oshima’s thesis is clear and obscure at the same time, “Sometimes cruelty is unavoidable”.


Original trailer (no subtitles, incorrect aspect ratio)

Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Nagisa Oshima, 1965)

Pleasures of the Flesh posterHaving joined Shochiku apparently on a whim, Nagisa Oshima dramatically walked out on his home studio when they abruptly shelved his incendiary film Night and Fog in Japan citing political concerns following the assassination of the Socialist Party president by a right wing agitator. Oshima’s decision to abandon the studio system and form his own independent production company would eventually develop into a small movement, leading into that which would retrospectively be termed the “Japanese New Wave”. The first film produced by Sozo-sha, Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Etsuraku), was perhaps a shift towards “pink film” aesthetics though, as in much of Oshima’s work, eroticism is more tool and trap than it is a mechanism for liberation. Ironically titled, Pleasures of the Flesh is a tale of desire frustrated by an oppressive society provoking nothing more than nihilistic need for psychological abandon.

Wakizaka (Katsuo Nakamura), an unsuccessful young man, pines for his first love – a young girl he tutored when he was a college student and she a precocious high schooler. Shoko (Mariko Kaga) has, however, married – her new husband someone more in keeping with her class and social standing. Wakizaka sees himself attend Shoko’s wedding, dreaming of her running away from the altar in her wedding dress to return to him but, no, he remains little more than a pleasant memory for the woman who has come to define his life. So devoted to Shoko was Wakizaka that when he learned from her family that a man who had molested her when she was just a child had returned to cause yet more harm by attempting to blackmail them, Wakizaka wanted to help. Seeing the man and paying him off convinced Wakizaka that the man would never give up and there would be no final payment or assurance of silence. Following him onto his train home Wakizaka took drastic action for justice, or perhaps it was revenge, or even out of a strange kind of jealousy, but nevertheless he transgressed by pushing the man from a moving train and thereby ending the threat posed to his beloved.

Wakizaka’s problems, however, are far from over. As ever in Japanese cinema, someone is always watching – in this case, a corrupt government official looking for a likely stooge with whom to stash a large amount of embezzled cash. Irony, a minor theme of the picture, rears its head as Wakizaka finds himself blackmailed over the murder of a blackmailer. The official makes a deal with him – Wakizaka must keep living in his same old horrible apartment and hang on to the suitcase full of money without opening it until he gets out of jail which is where he assumes he will shortly be headed now that his scam is reaching the tipping point. Wakizaka has little choice but to agree but when Shoko marries someone else he comes to believe his original transgression has been in vain, his life is now meaningless, and all that remains for him is a lonely death. Hence, he might as well go in style by spending all of that stolen doe, committing a bizarre act of revenge against Shoko and an unkind society by enjoying a year of debauchery followed by suicide before the official gets out of jail and turns him in as another act of retaliation.

Rejected in love, Wakizaka’s quest becomes one of continual search for conquest as he attempts to force himself on various women he wants to pretend are Shoko though of course knows are not. His approaches are many and various but begin with the obvious – he rents a fancy apartment and convinces a bar girl who looks a little like Shoko to live with him as his wife in return for a generous salary and the promise that the arrangement will only last a year. Hitomi (Yumiko Nogawa) is willing enough to submit herself to Wakizaka’s demands but he is dissatisfied by the inescapable hollowness of the relationship, uncertain who is using whom in this complicated series of transactions. His second choice is a married woman whose ongoing misery arouses in him a taste for sadism, convinced that the only way to make her “happy” is to plunge her into pain and suffering. The third woman, Keiko (Hiroko Shimizu), proves his biggest challenge – a feminist doctor afraid of men, she keeps him at arms length until he finally attempts to rape her, though this too she manages to frustrate insisting that he marry her even if they divorce a month later when Wakizaka’s time limit rolls around. Sick of Keiko’s resistance, Wakizaka opts for a mute prostitute who literally cannot talk back to him but finally makes her own defiant act of self actualisation despite Wakizaka’s attempt to assert total dominance over her existence.

Wakizaka uses the money for a life of “pleasure” but finds only despair and emptiness in each of his manufactured relationships. Having failed to “earn” it, he tries to buy love, but what he really chases is death and oblivion along with a way out of his ruined life and the humiliation he feels in his perceived failure to win Shoko’s heart. An idealised figure of elegance and purity, Shoko is an unattainable prize – the parents gentle pressing of an envelope into his hands following his “handling” of the blackmail case a subtle reminder that he is a servant, and now one perhaps cast out as tainted with a scandal they all wish to forget. Money, another recurrent motif, brings with it only sorrow and resentment. The embezzled cash didn’t do anyone any good, and neither of the blackmailers manages to make their scheme work out for them. Wakizaka is a haunted man, not so much by his crime which he sees as morally justified and feels no particular guilt over, but by his unresolvable desires as surfacing in his frequent hallucinations of Shoko who echoes in and round each and every woman in a form created entirely by her adoring suitor. In the end, reality betrays where the simulacrum remains true, but it is Wakizaka who betrays himself in allowing his pure love to become perverse revenge in the ultimate individualist act of self harm.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

lone-wolf-and-cub-sword-of-vengeanceWhen it comes to period exploitation films of the 1970s, one name looms large – Kazuo Koike. A prolific mangaka, Koike also moved into writing screenplays for the various adaptations of his manga including the much loved Lady Snowblood and an original series in the form of Hanzo the Razor. Lone Wolf and Cub was one of his earliest successes, published between 1970 and 1976 the series spanned 28 volumes and was quickly turned into a movie franchise following the usual pattern of the time which saw six instalments released from 1972 to 1974. Martial arts specialist Tomisaburo Wakayama starred as the ill fated “Lone Wolf”, Ogami, in each of the theatrical movies as the former shogun executioner fights to clear his name and get revenge on the people who framed him for treason and murdered his wife, all with his adorable little son ensconced in a bamboo cart.

The first instalment in the series, Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kozure Okami: Kowokashi Udekashi Tsukamatsuru), begins with Itto Ogami’s fall from grace when he’s framed by a rival clan, Yagyu, who have their eyes on his family’s historical position as the Shogun’s official “executioner”. In fact, when we first meet Ogami he’s in the middle of an unusual job – he’s to be the “second” in the seppuku of a noble lord, only this noble lord is a toddler whom Ogami must behead (the child will obviously be spared the horror of cutting his own stomach, but not excused the execution). Returning home after completing his grim task with seemingly no reaction at all, Ogami embraces his own young son, not so different in age from the boy whose head he just removed, and talks warmly with his wife who describes to him an ominous nightmare she’s been having in which some of the lords Ogami has been the second for come back for revenge.

Though Ogami decries his wife’s fears as ridiculous, his house is indeed raided, his wife killed and a tablet bearing the Shogun’s crest placed on his memorial altar neatly incriminating him for plotting against his master. Ogami manages to defeat the Yagyu clan members who’ve been sent to arrest him and sets off on a quest for vengeance, wandering the land as a swordsman for hire with his little son, Daigoro, also apparently for rent too.

Despite his cool exterior and lack of outward expression, Ogami is clearly attached to his son both as the head of his clan and as a father. In deciding what to do with the child, he gives Daigoro a simple test in which he positions a sword and a ball on the floor and instructs his infant son to choose one, even knowing that he can’t understand well enough to make anything other than an instinctual choice. Had he chosen the ball, Ogami would have sent him to meet his mother but Daigoro chooses the way of the sword and so the pair are forced onto the “Demon Way”, a path filled with blood and violence as they journey onward to avenge the death of a wife and mother, and restore the good name of their clan unfairly tarnished by a dark plot.

Though his quest is for bloody vengeance, Ogami is not a cruel man as evidenced by the first job the pair receive which is for little Daigoro who finds himself seized by a woman driven mad by grief following the death of her own infant son but seems to calm down a little after being allowed to breastfeed Ogami’s boy. Though the woman’s mother apologises and offers to pay for “borrowing” Daigoro as it says on the large sign attached to his cart, Ogami refuses to take the money seeing as Daigoro needed feeding anyway. Similarly, when the pair find themselves swordless and trapped among vicious bandits, Ogami saves the life of a prostitute who just attempted to stick up for him by giving in to the bandits’ demands and publicly sleeping with her.

This earns him the woman’s eternal admiration, not only for “degrading” himself by sleeping with such a lowly woman as herself and in such a public way, but apparently making quite a success of it for someone supposedly terrified into silence. No one, she says, could be so considerate and bring such satisfaction to a woman in a state of fear. Indeed, Ogami has been playing the long game, pretending to be just another terrified hostage of this tiny hot spring town but when the bandits suddenly declare it’s time to get rid of anyone who’s seen their faces, Ogami leaps into action with a series of cleverly hidden tools secreted about Daigoro’s cart.

That is to say, he’s there on a job, saving the townspeople is more of a happy byproduct than his ultimate intention. On his entrance into the town, Ogami comes across the scene of a local woman failing to escape the bandits’ clutches before being stripped, molested, raped and murdered in front of the father who has come to try and save her and is also murdered for his pains. Ogami, end game in mind, does nothing. The bandits eventually find their comeuppance on the edge of Ogami’s sword, but it’s too late for a poor young woman and her elderly father.

Inhabiting a similar cinematic world to the also Koike scripted Lady Snowblood, Sword of Vengeance is a Leone-esque, western-tinged tale of a mysterious wandering assassin, albeit one pushing a baby cart. Complete with the more expressionist aesthetics of the Japanese ‘70s exploitation film from the colourful ice and fire opening to the exaggerated blood spray in the genre’s characteristically thick, too bright red, Sword of Vengeance is a worthy start to the cycle which casts Ogami downwards from his elite samurai roots and onto the “Demon Way”, bound for hell by way of vengeance, and all with a smiley faced toddler peeking out from a constantly moving cart.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Shunya Ito, 1972)

scorpion-2Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Joshu Sasori – Dai 41 Zakkyobo) picks up around a year after the end of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and finds Matsu (Meiko Kaji) tied up in a dingy prison basement, apparently left bound and in solitary confinement for the entire interval. Once again directed by Shunya Ito, the second instalment in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series is another foray into the women in prison field but Ito resolutely refuses to give in to the exploitative genre norms, overlaying his tale of individualistic rebellion with an arthouse sensibility that has a much wider scope than its ordinary vengeance driven narrative may suggest.

Matsu may have been lying bound and gagged in a dingy underground hole for the best part of a year but today is a special day and sadistic prison warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) is going to let her out to be shown off in front of a visiting inspector who’s paying a final visit before Goda is promoted to a top job in Tokyo. When Matsu makes a lunge for Goda, the inspector is so afraid that he wets himself, sending the other woman into a frenzy and resulting in a riot. Once again the entirety of the prison is punished, but this time Matsu is singled out for a public punishment gang rape by Goda’s goons. This kind of humiliation is too much for her fellow prisoners who instantly turn on her, but their violence provides an opportunity for escape and before long Matsu is on the run, again.

At the end of the first film, Matsu had accomplished her first round of vengeance – against the man who orchestrated her downfall and the men who secured it, but ultimately she wound up a female prisoner once again. Though Goda may have had her hidden away because of her habitual escapism, Matsu had not given up as we see from her attempts to scrape the floor away with her spoon held tight in her mouth. Barely speaking, Matsu is an unstoppable column of pure rage but an elegant one, supported by her self contained restraint.

Her anger this time is directed towards Goda himself, especially after his despicable organised punishment rape that was designed both to break her own spirit once and for all and also to damage her in the eyes of her fellow inmates who are intended to see her defeated and destroyed. The guards are a stand in for society at large, using sexual dominance and social position to keep their women in line. The visiting prison inspector makes a point of telling Matsu that “they” don’t hate her personally – they’re there for her, to help her “recover” and become a functioning member of society. Which is ironic because Goda does hate her personally as he holds her responsible for the damage to his eye sustained in the previous film. His last act before moving on is one against Mastu – an attempt by the forces of authority to crush her individual rebellion and use their victory as a coercive tool to force others to conform.

In this way, Matsu’s position as a member of a subjugated class is less important than her status as an agitator but these are women who have each suffered at the hands of men. As an extremely theatrical sequence sung in the traditional form informs us, the women who escaped with Matsu committed their crimes out of love or jealousy. Poisoned rivals, dead lovers, even children murdered to get back at their philandering father in some Medea level psychotic rage which ruins the perpetrator even more than the intended victim.

Later while the women are enjoying their brief taste of freedom, one of them is brutally raped and murdered by a troupe of feral men who boast about the wartime atrocities they committed before descending on a lone woman like a pack of rabid dogs. The others take their revenge for their friend, but also for all the women who have met a similar fate inflicted by a male dominated society which sees them as something to be controlled and then made use of, little more that cattle hemmed in and milked until dry.

As in the first film Ito makes use of expressionist techniques and strange angles to give his film a more elevated feeling that might be expected but this time he adds in a surrealist, spiritual dimension as with the old woman who sings the stories of our heroines and then dies only to bury herself in leaves and disappear into the ether, like some forgotten deity of misused women. Likewise, when one of the prisoners is raped and murdered, the men throw her body into a nearby river like an empty beer can but the waterfall behind her suddenly runs with blood as an expression of the violence which pollutes the natural world. A bus suddenly splits in two, separating our subjugated women from the violent men who mentally sentence them, given free reign simply because of their sex. Ironically enough, our last glimpse of of Matsu takes place in the reflection of Goda’s glasses and then in his false eye when she is suddenly rejoined by her compatriots for a triumphant dance of freedom on a city rooftop.

Even stronger than in the original Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion, Jailhouse 41 further advances its ideology of free individuals battling the conformist authority of the state all filtered through the prism of the patriarchy. Matsu’s vengeance is personal, she keeps her distance from the other women who do not seem inclined to band together to oppose the forces which oppress them so much as seek a wary, temporary alliance of necessity, but seeing them all reassembled in spirit at the end brings a larger dimension to Matsu’s victory which now seems much less like solving a practical problem than a deliberate strike at a wall which was solely designed to keep a certain group of people in their place. The jail is broken, all that remains is to choose to escape its restraints.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW/gore)