A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Tomu Uchida, 1965)

Fugitive from the past“There’s no way back” intones a spirit medium in the throws of a possession early on Tomu’s Uchida’s three hour police procedural, A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Kiga kaikyo, AKA Straits of Hunger). Her message will be repeated frequently throughout the journeys of our three protagonists – a guilty man seeking escape from himself, the hooker with a heart of gold who thinks of him as a “kind person”, and the obsessive policeman whose quest to find him threatens to destroy his own family and chance of ongoing happiness. Beginning in 1947, Uchida’s adaptation of the novel by Tsutomu Minakami is a cutting indictment of post-war inequalities but is also keen to remind us that the war was merely a symptom and intensifier of problems which existed long before and are likely to survive long after.

In 1947, three men in military uniforms attempt to escape from Hokkaido after committing a crime while the island is subject to a typhoon warning. Using a ferry disaster in which hundreds of people have been killed as cover, the men steal a boat and try their luck on the stormy seas. Only one of them makes it. Once all the bodies from the ferry are accounted for, two more are discovered and later identified as recent parolees from Abashiri prison. The dead convicts are then linked to a local robbery, murder, and arson case in which a large amount of money was stolen leaving the third man, described by witnesses as bearded, tall and imposing, the prime suspect in the deaths of the two prisoners as well as the original robbery.

Calling himself “Inugai” (Rentaro Mikuni), the “third man” takes off with all the money and ends up forging an unexpectedly genuine connection with a cheerful prostitute just on the way back from her mother’s funeral. Yae (Sachiko Hidari), claiming to have seen through to Inugai’s kindly soul, seems to reawaken something within him but the next morning he moves on leaving only a vast a mount of money and some nail clippings behind him. Meanwhile, Yumisaka (Junzaburo Ban), the dogged policeman who discovered the convicts’ bodies, tracks him at every turn.

The world of 1947 is a hellish one in which perpetual hunger is the norm and crushing impossibility all but a given. Inugai is starving. With rationing in place the black market is flourishing while the unscrupulous profiteer off the back of other people’s desperation. This is a land of defeat where to survive at all is both shame and victory, yet somehow you have to go on living. Inugai, like many a hero of golden age Japanese cinema, is engaged in an internal war to erase the dark past, drawing a veil over what it took to move from post-war privation to economic prosperity. He does however take his unseeing further than most in adopting a new, more respectable persona, remaking himself as self-made man and wealthy philanthropist keen to “pay back” the society which has been so supportive of his “success”.

Thus when Yae, whose attempt to remake herself in the capital has fared far less well, spots Inugai’s photo in the papers and decides she just must track him down, it’s not that Inugai fears blackmail or even really that she poses a threat but that she shatters the integrity of his carefully crafted post-war persona and reminds him who he really is. A climactic storm mirroring that which illuminated their first meeting also graces their last as “Inugai” finally resurfaces, committing an impulsive act of animal violence which tugs at the strings of his new life and sets the whole thing unravelling.

Yae used Inugai’s money to pay off her debts and get out of the brothel, but even if the Tokyo of 1947 was warmer than that of Hokkaido it was no more kind and her attempt to lead an “honest” life was quickly derailed by underworld crime and unforgiving law enforcement. Realising there’s nowhere left for her to go she resigns herself to life in the red light district but does at least manage to find a “nicer” establishment run by a kindly older couple where the girls are like one big family. Her meeting with Inugai has come to take on mythical proportions in her mind – she even worships a tiny relic of him in the form of one of his nail clippings. Hoping to repay his kindness she commits herself to hard work and barely spends any of her money on herself, dreaming of the day she will one day see him again.

Yumisaka, however, mirrors Yae’s devotion in his all encompassing “hate” for Inugai as his obsession consumes him, costs him his job, and threatens to ruin his family. Alerted by two more bodies washing up out of the sea, a young detective (Ken Takakura) puts two and two together and gives Yumisaka a chance to vindicate his long held convictions but what they discover through the shifting sands of invented truths and corrupted memories is a legacy of suffering and resentment which runs far further back than the recent wartime past. As Yumisaka later puts it, those who’ve never been poor or miserable cannot understand the desperation felt by those who have in the presence of money. Inugai, poor and trapped by circumstance, longed to escape the drudgery of Hokkaido life but couldn’t live with what he did to do it and so conjured up another history for himself.

Still, the truth will out and there really is “no way back”, not for Inugai or for his nation which seems determined to continue unseeing the darkness of the previous 30 years as it begins to find a degree of comfort once again. Incorporating strong spiritual overtones from the sutras Yumisaka is so strangely adept at reciting to the gloomy intoning of the spirit medium, Uchida imbues all with a heavy sense of dread as a man attempts to outrun his fate by running from himself only to be tripped up by sudden moment of panic born of a lack of faith in his only true believer. A chronicle of the post-war era, A Fugitive From the Past makes poverty its ultimate villain but attempts to paper over spiritual corruption with the pretty trappings of conventional success will only end in ruin as the unresolved past eats away at the foundations of a brave new world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Junya Sato, 1977)

proof of the man posterOne could argue that Japanese cinema had been an intensely Japanese affair throughout the golden age even as the old school student system experienced its slow decline. During the ‘70s, something appears to shift – the canvases widen and mainstream blockbusters looking for a little something extra quite frequently ventured abroad to find it. Pioneering producer Haruki Kadokawa was particularly forward looking in this regard and made several attempts to crack the American market in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before settling on creating his own mini industry to place a stranglehold around Japanese pop culture. Sadly, his efforts mostly failed and faced the same sorry fate of being entirely recut and dubbed into English with new Amero-centric scenes inserted into the narrative. Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Ningen no Shomei) is one of Kadokawa’s earliest attempts at a Japanese/American co-production and, under the steady hands of Junya Sato, is a mostly successful one even if it did not succeed in terms of overseas impact.

Based on the hugely popular novel by Seiichi Morimura, Proof of the Man stars the then up and coming Yusaku Matsuda as an ace detective, Munesue, investigating the death by stabbing of a young American man in Japan. The body was discovered in a hotel lift on the same night as a high profile fashion event took place with top designer Kyoko Yasugi (Mariko Okada) in attendance. After the show, an adulterous couple give evidence to the police about finding the body, but the woman, Naomi (Bunjaku Han), insists on getting out of the taxi that’s taking them home a little early in case they’re seen together. On a night pouring with rain, she’s knocked down and killed by a young boy racer and his girlfriend who decide to dispose of the body to cover up the crime rather than face the consequences. Kyohei (Koichi Iwaki), the driver of the car, is none other than the son of the fashion designer at whose show the central murder has taken place.

Like many Japanese mysteries of the time, Proof of the Man touches on hot-button issues of the immediate post-war period from the mixed race children fathered by American GIs and their precarious position in Japanese society, to the brutality of occupation forces, and the desperation and cruelty which dominated lives in an era of chaos and confusion. The only clues the police have are that the victim, Johnny Hayward (Joe Yamanaka), said something which sounded like “straw hat” just before he died, and that he was carrying a book of poetry by Yaso Saiji published in 1947. Discovering that Hayward was a working-class man of African-American heritage from Harlem whose father took a significant risk in getting the money together for his son to go to Japan (hardly a headline holiday destination in 1977), the police are even more baffled and enlist the assistance of some regular New York cops to help them figure out just why he might have made such an unlikely journey.

The New York cops have their own wartime histories to battle and are not completely sympathetic towards the idea of helping the Japanese police. Munesue, of a younger generation, is also harbouring a degree of prejudice and resentment against Americans which stems back to a traumatic incident in a market square in which he witnessed the attempted gang rape of a young woman by a rabid group of GIs. Munesue’s father tried to intervene (the only person to do so) but was brutally beaten himself, passing away a short time later leaving Munesue an orphaned street kid. In an effort to appeal to US audiences, Proof of the Man was eventually recut with additional action scenes and greater emphasis placed on the stateside story. Doubtless, the ongoing scenes of brutality instigated by the American troops would not be particularly palatable to American audiences but they are central to the essential revelations which ultimately call for a kind of healing between the two nations as they each consider the ugliness of the immediate post-war era the burying of which is the true reason behind the original murder and a secondary cause of the events which led to the death of Naomi.

Naomi’s death speaks more towards a kind of growing ugliness in Japan’s ongoing economic recovery and rising international profile. Kyohei is the son not only of high profile fashion designer Kyoko, but can also count a high profile politician (Toshiro Mifune) as his father. Spoiled and useless, Kyohei is the very worst in entitled, privileged youth driving around in flashy cars and going to parties, living frivolously on inherited wealth whilst condemning the source of his funds as morally corrupt citing his mother’s acquiescence to his father’s frequent affairs. Yet aside from anything else, Kyohei is completely ill-equipped for independent living and is essentially still a child who cannot get by without the physical and moral support of his adoring mother. 

Johnny Hayward, by contrast, retains a kind of innocent purity and is apparently in Japan in the hope of restoring a long severed connection as echoed in Saiji’s poem about a straw hat lost by a small boy on a beautiful summer’s day. The words of the poem are later repeated in the title song by musician Joe Yamanaka who plays Johnny in the film and is of mixed race himself. As in most Japanese mystery stories, the root of all evil is a secret – in this case those of the immediate post-war period and things people did to survive it which they now regret and fear the “shame” of should they ever be revealed. Some of these secrets are not surmountable and cannot be forgiven or overcome, some atonements (poetic or otherwise) are necessary but the tone which Sato seems to strike encourages a kind of peacemaking, a laying to rest of the past which is only born of acceptance and openness. Despite the bleakness of its premiss on both sides of the ocean, Proof of the Man does manage to find a degree of hopefulness for the future in assuming this task of mutual forgiveness and understanding can be accomplished without further bloodshed.


Original trailer (no subtitles) – includes major plot spoilers!

Oar (櫂, Hideo Gosha, 1985)

oar posterUntil the later part of his career, Hideo Gosha had mostly been known for his violent action films centring on self destructive men who bore their sadnesses with macho restraint. During the 1980s, however, he began to explore a new side to his filmmaking with a string of female centred dramas focussing on the suffering of women which is largely caused by men walking the “manly way” of his earlier movies. Partly a response to his regular troupe of action stars ageing, Gosha’s new focus was also inspired by his failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter which convinced him that women can be just as devious and calculating as men. 1985’s Oar (櫂, Kai) is adapted from the novel by Tomiko Miyao – a writer Gosha particularly liked and identified with whose books also inspired Onimasa and The Geisha. Like Onimasa, Oar also bridges around twenty years of pre-war history and centres around a once proud man discovering his era is passing, though it finds more space for his long suffering wife and the children who pay the price for his emotional volatility.

Kochi, 1914 (early Taisho), Iwago (Ken Ogata) is a kind hearted man living beyond his means. Previously a champion wrestler, he now earns his living as a kind of procurer for a nearby geisha house, chasing down poor girls and selling them into prostitution, justifying himself with the excuse that he’s “helping” the less fortunate who might starve if it were not for the existence of the red light district. He dislikes this work and finds it distasteful, but shows no signs of stopping. At home he has a wife and two sons whom he surprises one day by returning home with a little girl he “rescued” at the harbour after seeing her beaten by man who, it seemed, was trying to sell her to Chinese brokers who are notorious for child organ trafficking.

Iwago names the girl “Kiku” thanks to the chrysanthemums on her kimono and entrusts her to his irritated wife, Kiwa (Yukiyo Toake), who tries her best but Kiku is obviously traumatised by her experiences, does not speak, and takes a long time to become used to her new family circumstances. Parallel to his adoption of Kiku, Iwago is also working on a sale of a girl of a similar age who ends up staying in the house for a few days before moving to the red light district. Toyo captures Kiwa’s heart as she bears her sorry fate stoically, pausing only to remark on her guilt at eating good white rice three times a day at Iwago’s knowing that her siblings are stuck at home with nothing.

Iwago’s intentions are generally good, but his “manly” need for control and his repressed emotionality proceed to ruin his family’s life. He may say that poverty corrupts a person’s heart and his efforts are intended to help prevent the birth of more dysfunctional families, but deep down he finds it hard to reconcile his distasteful occupation with his traditional ideas of masculine chivalry. Apparently “bored” with the long suffering Kiwa he fathers a child with another woman which he then expects her to raise despite the fact that she has already left the family home after discovering the affair. Predictably her love for him and for the children brings her home, but Iwago continues to behave in a domineering, masterly fashion which is unlikely to repair his once happy household.

Kiwa is the classic long suffering wife, bearing all of Iwago’s mistreatments with stoic perseverance until his blatant adultery sends her running from marriage to refuge at the home of her brother. Despite the pain and humilation, Kiwa still loves, respects, and supports her husband, remembering him as he once was rather than the angry, frustrated brute which he has become. Despite her original hesitance, Kiwa’s maternal warmth makes a true daughter of Kiku and keeps her bonded to the eldest and more sensitive of her two sons, Ryutaro, even if the loose cannon that is Kentaro follows in his step-father’s footsteps as an unpredictable punk. Her goodheartedness later extends to Iwago’s illegitimate daughter Ayako whom she raises as her own until Iwago cruelly decides to separate them. For all of Iwago’s bluster and womanising, ironically enough Kiwa truly is the only woman for him as he realises only when she determines to leave. Smashing the relics of his “manly” past – his wrestling photos and trophies, Iwago is forced to confront the fact that his own macho posturing has cost him the only thing he ever valued.

Gosha tones down the more outlandish elements which contributed to his reputation as a “vulgar” director but still finds space for female nudity and frank sexuality as Iwago uses and misuses the various women who come to him for help or shelter. More conventional in shooting style than some of Gosha’s other work from the period and lacking any large scale or dramatic fight scenes save for one climactic ambush, Oar acts more as a summation of Gosha’s themes up until the mid-80s – men destroy themselves through their need to be men but also through destroying the women who have little choice but to stand back and watch them do it. Unless, like Kiwa, they realise they have finally had enough.


Short clip from near the beginning of the film (no subtitles)

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)

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)