Puppets Under Starry Skies (星空のマリオネット, Hojin Hashiura, 1978)

Puppets under starry skies posterThe youth movie had been the populist rebellion against the stately Japanese cinema of the golden age, but many of its representative directors had quickly tired of the restrictive studio system. Some had decamped into the “independent” arena which offered relative artistic freedom if without the resources and financial rewards of the commercial sector. The Art Theatre Guild had provided a valuable outlet for experimental film since it began to shift from distribution of foreign films into production of Japanese language art movies, but paradoxically the early 1970s saw it shift again as the studio’s “arthouse” aims fell by the wayside and more conventional youth films made a gradual return. Puppets Under Starry Skies (星空のマリオネット, Hoshizora no Marionette), the first of three films directed by Hojin Hashiura for ATG (aside from an earlier 16mm independent effort, the only films Hashiura would ever make), is very much a youth movie in the new ATG mould which is to say its tone is one of sadness rather than anger as its protagonists find themselves adrift in the changing 1970s society, unable to find their place in the world their parents have been building for them.

Hideo (Yoichi Miura), leader of small biker gang, is best friends with Hiroshi (Kazuhito Takei) – an effeminate young man from a wealthy family who likes to wear makeup and dress in (slightly) flamboyant outfits. The trouble starts when Hideo picks a fight with a rival gang boss and then charges in for a rematch to avenge his honour only to be set on by thugs, stabbed, and beaten so badly he winds up in hospital for over a week. Humiliated, Hideo loses all his gang member friends with only Hiroshi sticking by him. Later he takes up with a local bar girl, Akemi (Ako), who has a promiscuous past and is already pregnant with another man’s child. Together the three attempt to find a way forward into a more conventional adulthood but struggle to find a place for themselves within a rigidly conformist society which has already rejected them.

Parental disconnection seems to be a recurrent theme in the lives of each of the troubled youngsters. Hideo lost his mother young, not long after they’d moved into the town from the mountains. Never having been able to come to terms with his mother’s death he has a difficult relationship with his father and takes out his frustrations through meaningless violence and male posturing. Akemi too has a difficult family background but this time with a single mother who is a former sex worker turned publican. Working in a local bar (not her mother’s) Akemi is harassed by the customers but is well known for being open to casual sex, suffering a degree of social stigma both because of her liberated attitude and because of her mother’s former profession.

Hiroshi’s problems are perhaps of a different order. From an “elite” family, he feels himself entirely disconnected from normal family life and has been raised in an atmosphere of cold austerity rather than parental love. Hiroshi believes this is partly because he has “bad blood” and is cursed beyond redemption. He is not his father’s biological son but the child of a sperm donor enlisted to ensure an heir for his father’s bloodline. Hiroshi, however, is gay and will not be able fulfil the purpose he was born for, at least not in the way that was expected of him. He is also effeminate, something of which his family do not approve, and feels himself excluded from mainstream society because of his sexual orientation. To combat his feelings of intense alienation, Hiroshi has become a drug user, sniffing glue in order to send himself on psychedelic trips to outer space in which he merges with the deep blue vacuum free of all worldly concerns.

Hideo too gets in on the glue sniffing act but feels himself becoming one with the river of life and death, feeling it flow through him as he flows with it. The river itself, and the idea of passive resignation that comes of simply allowing oneself to float, becomes a grim symbol of the futility that faces Hideo as he struggles to reassemble an identity in a world which consistently denies him one. The future looks bleak for each of our protagonists, the only one with any sense of hope once again investing it in the system which has already betrayed her – the family. Youth looks for new models, new standards by which to live, but does not find them. Puppets of fate, the trio dance under starry skies until the sun comes up and they realise that the day holds nothing for them except the nihilistic desire for its end.


Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース, Eiichi Kudo, 1981)

Yokohama bj bluesYusaku Matsuda may have been the coolest action star of the ‘70s but by the end of the decade he was getting bored with his tough guy persona and looked to diversify his range a little further than his recent vehicles had allowed him. Matsuda had already embarked on a singing career some years before but in Eiichi Kudo’s Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース), he was finally allowed to display some of his musical talents on screen as a blues singer and ex-cop who makes ends meet through his work as a detective for hire.

After his set at a rundown jazz bar, BJ’s first job is tracking down a missing son. When he finds the guy, Akira, he seems to have become the employee (and possible sex slave?) of a gay gangster. Akira says he’s fine with his new life and wants his mother to leave him alone so BJ gets the hell out of there to give her the message but the unpleasantness of the situation lingers with him a little.

Shortly after, BJ receives a telephone call from an old police buddy, Ryo, who needs his help. Ryo got in too deep with the same gang BJ just came up against and is thinking of quitting the force in a bid to make the “Family” lose interest in him. However, Ryo is gunned down in broad daylight leaving his partner, Beniya, convinced that BJ is somehow responsible. BJ now doubly has it in for Family and starts working on his own behalf to try and find some answers and possibly a little vengeance too.

You see, back when Ryo and BJ were partners, they both liked the same girl, Tamiko, who eventually married Ryo. Beniya thinks BJ killed his friend to steal his wife and is much more interested in giving BJ a good kicking rather than investigating this very strange gang set up which seems to have some kind of drug smuggling gig going with the triads in Hong Kong.

BJ forms an odd sort of friendship with Akira in the hopes of tracking down the four gay, leather clad punk henchmen of Ali who probably gunned down his friend. However, the conspiracy only deepens and BJ finds himself suspecting even his closest of friends.

With its jazz soundtrack and melancholy tone, Yokohama BJ Blues is channelling hard boiled in a big way though does so in a distinctly modern fashion. BJ sings the blues whilst walking around this strange noir world which seems to endlessly disappoint him. Unfortunately for him, BJ is quite a good detective and quickly gets himself in way over his head only to end up finding out a few things it might be better not to know.

One of the film’s most notable components is its use of homoerotic themes with its gangs of gay gangsters, rent boys and punks. Indeed, though the wife of his former partner is floated as a possible motive, the love interest angle is never fully explored and all of BJ’s significant interactions in the film are with other men. Firstly his relationship with his former police partner Ryo which kick starts the entire adventure and then his strange almost date-like experience with Akira about half way through. BJ remains otherwise alone, a solo voice seeking justice for his fallen friends.

Of course, the film’s selling point is Matsuda’s singing so he’s allowed to play his own chorus in a sense by narrating the events from the stage in the form of the blues. Not quite “The Singing Detective”, but almost – BJ tries to bring some kind of order to his world by turning it into a song. In addition to adding to the noir tone, the bluesy soundtrack even allows for a New Orleans-esque musical funeral which oddly fits right in with the film’s weird, macabre atmosphere.

A surreal, noir inspired crime drama with musical elements, Yokohama BJ Blues is quite a hard film to categorise. Unusual for its homosexual milieu and overt homoerotic plotting the film occupies something of a unique place given its obvious marketing potential and star’s profile coupled with its decidedly murky noir tone. Difficult, yet interesting, Yokohama BJ Blues ultimately succeeds both as an intriguing crime drama and as a star vehicle for its versatile leading man.


This is a really, deeply, strange film.

Unsubtitled trailer:

I actually quite like Matsuda’s foray into the world of jazz, the title song from Yokohama BJ Blues which is heard in the trailer is called Brother’s Song and is included on Matsuda’s 1981 album Hardest Day. Here he is on a talk show singing Yokohama Honky Tonk Blues: