The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

“Your kindness will harm you” a well-meaning retainer advises his charge, but in the end it is her kindness which saves her along with numerous others in Akira Kurosawa’s Sengoku-era epic, The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Kakushi Toride no San Akunin). Largely told from the point of view of two bumbling peasants trying to get rich quick by exploiting the hierarchal fluidity of a time of war, the film nevertheless cuts against the grain of the democratic era in advocating not so much the destruction of the class-bound feudal order as benevolent authority. 

This can quite clearly be seen in the dynamic figure of displaced princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the successor of her routed clan protected by a hidden fortress in the mountains which she must eventually leave. Her female servant laments that her father raised her as a boy which has given her a haughty and dominant manner at odds with the polite submissiveness usually expected of upperclass women. While often exerting her authority, she is otherwise uncomfortable with the uncritical servitude of her retainers, chief among them the talented general Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who sacrificed the life of his own sister, allowing her to be executed in Yuki’s place buying them some time. “Kofuyu was 16. I am 16. What difference is there in our souls?” she asks, yet even if she believes their souls are equal she is not quite so egalitarian as to forget her position or the power and privilege that comes with it. 

Nevertheless, hers is an authority that is tempered by compassion and in the end chosen. Her salvation comes in speaking her mind to an enemy retainer, Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who has been savagely beaten by his own lord for losing a duel with Makabe who, to the mind of some, humiliated him with kindness in refusing to take his life leaving him to live in defeat. Yuki says she doesn’t know who is stupider, Tadokoro or his lord, for never would she punish a man in such a way simply for losing to an enemy. She tells him that there is another way, and that he need not serve a lord who does not serve him leading Tadokoro to defect and choose to follow her instead. 

She also inspires confidence in a young woman she insists on redeeming after discovering that she is a former member of the Akizuka clan sold into sexual slavery after being taken prisoner by the Yamane. Kurosawa presents the girl with a dilemma on realising that the mysterious woman who saved her is the fugitive princess, knowing that she could betray her and pocket the gold, but finds her resolving to serve Yuki all the more. In a moment of irony, we learn that the girl was bought for five silver coins, the same amount of money a wealthy traveller offers for Makabe’s horse, but displeases her master in refusing to speak or serve customers. For Yuki he offers gold, though withdraws on being told that she is mute. Knowing that she would be unable to disguise her speech or accent which would instantly give her away as a haughty princess, Makabe convinces her to stay silent though as she tells him he cannot make her heart mute too. 

Even the peasants, oblivious to her true identity, view Yuki as part of the spoils insisting that they should be entitled to a third of her too and at one point preparing to rape her only to be fought off by the rescued girl. “We can rely on their greed” Makabe had said, knowing that their material desires make them easy to manipulate and that their loyalties are otherwise fickle. Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and his friend Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) sold their houses in their village to buy armour in the hope of achieving social mobility through distinguishing themselves in war, but have largely been humiliated, robbed of their armour, mistaken for captured members of the enemy, and forced to dig the graves of others. They pledge eternal friendship but their bond is continually disrupted by the promise of monetary gain. They fall out over a moral quandary, one willing to plunder the body of a fallen soldier and the other not, while even on reuniting squabbling about how to divide the money first deciding it should be equal and immediately disagreeing as soon as they get their hands on it. At the film’s conclusion it rests on Yuki to play mother, telling them that they must be good and share the boon she’s given them equally without complaint each then too only quick to be generous insisting that the other can keep it. 

The implication is still, however, that Matashichi and Tahei should return to their village to live as peasants while Yuki assumes her place in a castle no longer hidden as its ruler. Order has returned and the old system remains in place, all that changes is that this is now a compassionate autocracy ruled by a benevolent lord who views her subjects lives as equal to her own yet not perhaps their status. Where it might prompt Tadokoro to conclude that he need serve no lord at all for there should be no leaders only equals, the film concludes that a leader should be just and if they are not they should not be followed. Then again, the disagreement between firm friends Matashichi and Tahei is ended when they each have enough and no longer find themselves fighting for a bigger slice of the pie content in the validation of their equality. As Makabe puts it, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Yuki’s suffering is in the responsibility of rebuilding her clan though she does so with compassion and empathy ruling with respect rather than fear or austerity. Kurosawa utilises the novel scope format to hint at the wide open vistas that extend ahead of the peasants as they make their way towards the castle in search of gold only to leave with something that while more valuable may also shine so brightly as to blind them to the inherent inequalities of the feudal order. 


The Hidden Fortress screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 20th & 27th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

High and Low (天国と地獄, Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

A self-made man is landed with an unthinkable dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped in place of his own just at the moment he’s staked his entire fortune on a manoeuvre to outsmart cynical executives set on taking over his company in Kurosawa’s post-war crime film, High and Low (天国と地獄, Tengoku to Jigoku). The movie’s Japanese title, Heaven and Hell, might hint more strongly at the growing economic disparities in the era of the economic miracle but also at the dualities embodied in the hero’s choices. “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity” his wife tells him, but he still struggles with the validity of choosing his heart over his head knowing that to pay anyway even though it’s another man’s son means financial ruin, the final question being if he is really prepared to allow a child to die simply to maintain his own wealth and status. 

The problem is that Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) has attempted to mount a rebellion against the evils of consumerism, incurring the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground. Though Gondo appears sympathetic, hinting that he might be interested if there’s a good enough promotion in it, he later tells them where to go on seeing that their business plan is to start producing poor quality disposable footwear. Gondo started on the factory floor and he doesn’t want to put the company’s name on such shoddy produce nor does he think that their admittedly fair point that if the shoes are well made and last a long time no one will need to buy any is a good way to do business. He doesn’t think the boss is right either and wants to make shoes his own way which is why he’s remortgaged the sizeable mansion he owns on top of a hill overlooking the city and has pretty much run through his wife’s dowry to buy a majority stake in the company.

On top of a hill is a good place to live if you want a good vantage point to oversee the land below, but while you’re looking down others look up and not all of them kindly. Gondo is as he says a self-made man, but also out of touch with contemporary society and not so far from an ambitious courtier always after a little more. He says it isn’t about getting the top job but getting shoes made right, but it seems he too had been bitten by the consumerist bug and is otherwise unable to affirm his status without material proof. When he thinks it’s his own son that’s been kidnapped, he’d have given it all away but when it’s the driver’s boy it’s a different question. Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu) isn’t his responsibility and as he points out there are plenty of other wealthy men, why is he the only one to pay? While his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) tearfully urges him to do the right thing, his assistant (Tatsuya Mihashi) tries stop him, insisting he should take the sizeable cheque they’ve had drawn up to Osaka and the stakeholder he’s buying the shares from. 

While he vacillates, the driver, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), is humiliated and forced into servitude. Gondo seems to have the old-fashioned idea that the kidnappers would simply let Shinichi go on realising they’ve got the wrong boy and his father can’t pay, but Aoki knows there’s nothing he can do to save his son but throw himself on Gondo’s mercy. He falls to the ground and prostrates himself, but later retracts all telling Gondo it doesn’t matter, that he hadn’t realised what he was asking of him, and insisting that Shinichi is a bright boy who will look for a chance to escape on his own. Once the boy is returned he treats him harshly, interrogating him about anything he might have forgotten and later driving him around looking for the hideout where he was kept in an attempt to do something and repay the debt he now feels he owes to Gondo by helping the police retrieve the money Gondo eventually agreed to pay for him. 

In agreeing to give up the money, Gondo is in a sense unburdened knowing he has made the right choice and realising that he would never live a comfortable life in that house if cost a child’s life to keep it. Part of his rationale for not wanting to pay had been that though he had been poor before and might be again, his wife had not been and does not truly understand what it is to live in poverty much as she says her life of luxury means nothing to her. She has never wanted for anything, after all. As for the kidnapper, Ginjiro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), we know little of his motives save for his intense resentment living quite literally in the shadow of Gondo’s mansion and feeling as if it were mocking him. Then again, though his life is hard Ginjiro already had a path to success in that he would soon have completed his medical studies implying at least that he or someone else was able to cover his tuition and costs of living, that he was able to continue in education, and really had no need to take such drastic action in rebellion against the antagonistic capitalism of the post-war society. “Do you think we have to hate each other?” Gondo asks him, but Ginjiro has no answer only his intense resentment for everything he represents.

The “hell” that Gondo inhabits is a backstreet wasteland peopled by the hopeless. Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), the earnest policeman, follows him through thronging clubs and on into “dope alley” where Ginjiro picked up his accomplices so desperate to escape their suffering that they’d agree to help him kidnap a child. Though it costs him his job, Gondo decision to do the right thing makes him a national hero, the working class millionaire who mows his own lawn and can still knock up a pair of shoes should the occasion call while women across the country decide to boycott the company in protest at his treatment. Ginjiro can only howl like a caged animal while facing a death sentence for the coldblooded murder of his accomplices. The light bouncing off his mirrored sunshades gives him an eerie supernatural quality, a demon arising from depths of hell to wreak havoc in heaven but finding only infinite tragedy in the contradictions of the consumerist post-war society.


High and Low screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kill! (斬る, Kihachi Okamoto, 1968)

“Samurai aren’t as great as you might think” according to a jaded retainer in Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! (斬る, Kiru) but it’s a message that the ambitious farmer at the film’s centre struggles to take in. Having been a victim of samurai violence he resolves to become a samurai while a former samurai turned yakuza drifter attempts to show him the hypocritical realities of the samurai life as they find themselves swept into local intrigue when a band of young revolutionaries arrive to cut down a corrupt and oppressive lord. 

Corrupt and oppressive is perhaps the defining image of the samurai in post-war cinema, but like the film’s title that cuts both ways. Farmer Tabata (Etsushi Takahashi) sold his lands to buy a sword after witnessing peasants cut down during an uprising but he’s decided the best way out of oppression is to become an oppressor and is dead set on achieving samurai glory through the time-honoured method of distinguishing himself in battle. That may prove a little difficult given that his new boss, Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama), immediately mocks him for swinging his sword as if it were a scythe. Then again as former samurai Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) explains to him, if you don’t know what you’re doing you can always just stab people which at the end of the day does rather undermine the idea of samurai elegance in the art of killing. 

Genta keeps trying to tell Tabata that “samurai are no good” but Tabata still wants to be one anyway even after learning that Ayuzawa means to double cross them, hiring ronin to take out the young samurai whose sense of honour he manipulated to eliminate the admittedly corrupt (but aren’t they all?) lord for his own political gain while planning to send in his retainers to finish off the job to ensure there are no witnesses. Genta gave up his samurai status because he was “disgusted” by just this sort of duplicity along with the meaningless codes of loyalty that govern samurai society and caused him to betray a friend who was acting only in the interests of justice. Leader of the ronin Jurota (Shin Kishida) did something similar though in his case for love when his fiancée’s father was condemned on false charges and she and her mother exiled. He wants not land or status but only money in order to redeem the woman he loves from a geisha house and like Genta is under no illusions about the nature of samurai life having figured out most of what’s going on but hoping to emerge with the means to liberate both himself and his wife from samurai oppression. 

Even the elderly chamberlain later rescued by Genta tries to warn Tabata that the samurai life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, hinting at the ways they are also oppressed by their own code while clearly gleeful to have had the opportunity of stepping into a teahouse for the first time responding to Genta’s request to stay put that if he could he’d like to stay put for the rest of his days. Both former samurai, neither Genta nor Jurota are minded to draw their swords knowing that whatever the outcome it would be unhappy while the young who thought it was their duty to change the world by removing one who brought shame on their names are faced with the realisation that they have been used and their resistance will count for nothing. Even their bond as brothers banding together to achieve a common goal is eventually disrupted by alcohol and petty jealousy.

Genta acts as a kind of chorus, touched by the naivety of the seven samurai holed up in a mountain lodge because they believed in justice, while knowing that the society itself is innately unjust and already beyond redemption. Tabata eventually comes to a similar conclusion having gained samurai status but found it quite literally uncomfortable deciding to shake off his newfound nobility and rejoin Genta as a cynical yet pure hearted wanderer because the only way to escape samurai oppression is to actively live outside it. The final irony is that it’s the elderly chamberlain who eventually sets him, and all they women trapped in indentured servitude at the geisha house, free using samurai gold to enable them to escape a system he himself cannot escape but does not exactly support while Genta enlists the help of local peasants to hold a festival of rebellion to cover the final assault. Marked by Okamoto’s characteristically absurd humour and cartoonish composition along with the eerily gothic emptiness of the deserted ghost town where not even yakuza can survive the film takes on a quasi-spiritual dimension in which Genta and the gang eventually walk out of hell if only into a purgatorial freedom. 


Kill! screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 2 as part of the Monthly Classics series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Too Young to Die (死ぬにはまだ早い, Kiyoshi Nishimura, 1969)

Perhaps more or less forgotten for reasons we’ll come to later, Kiyoshi Nishimura was for a time a successful director associated with Toho’s line of noirish B-movie action dramas. When the Japanese cinema industry entered its decline in the 1970s, Nishimura shifted into similarly themed TV drama and was well respected for his ability to turn in on time and on budget. None of that mattered however when he was engulfed in scandal in 1987 after being caught operating spy cams in the female only area of a public bathhouse bringing his career to an abrupt end. Directing a few more projects under the name Yusai Ito, he sadly took his own life a few years later in 1993 at the age of 61. 

Nishimura’s 1969 debut Too Young to Die (死ぬにはまだ早い, Shinu ni wa Mada Hayai), however, is a masterclass in high tension filmed with shaky handheld set largely in a single location and imbued with a singular irony replete as it is with cosmic coincidences as a collection of customers at a roadside bar are taken hostage by a crazed criminal with a gun intent on finding the lover of the girlfriend he claims to have murdered for her infidelity. The heroes, however, are ennui-filled couple Matsuoka (Koji Takahashi) and Yumiko (Mako Midori) who are in fact not married, or at least not to each other, but carrying on an extra-marital affair which may be on the cusp of fizzling out. A former racing champ who claims he just got bored with the sport one day and now works for a company selling accessories for toy cars, Matsuoka is supposed to drive Yumiko home where she’s expecting a call from her controlling husband, away on a business trip, at 1am. These are all reasons they are unusually nervous about a police checkpoint searching for an armed fugitive, deciding to stop off at a roadside bar for a stiff drink and something to eat. Only, shortly after their arrival a young man (Toshio Kurosawa) in denim enters giving each of the other men intense side eye before shooting a policeman who comes in to make enquiries about the fugitive. 

The unnamed young tough takes the entire bar hostage intent on finding his lover’s lover, overcome with a sense of cosmic irony when Matsuoka calmly points out he may have arrived too early and the man he’s looking for had not yet arrived when he put the place in lockdown. Before the gunman’s arrival, Nishimura introduces us to each of the other customers via the handy device of two teenage girls apparently stranded and asking around for a lift back to the city. A middle-aged doctor (Chuzaburo Wakamiya), apparently a regular, eventually offers to take them but is dissuaded by the barman (Kazuya Oguri) who reminds him he’s been drinking too heavily to take passengers, while a taxi driver (Shigeki Ishida) who seems to be feeling unwell flat out refuses. The other customers are a suspicious looking man in a trenchcoat (Daigo Kusano) sitting in the corner piling matchsticks, and a newlywed couple who we later learn saved up for their wedding for three years, the wife (Nami Tamura) already going through her accounts book irritated by her friends’ decision to graffiti their car and wondering how much it’ll cost to get it cleaned up while the husband (Tatsuyoshi Ehara) disappoints her by wanting to rush home because he’s planning to return to work the next morning ahead of schedule. 

The relationships of the two couples are often directly contrasted, Matsuoka and Yumiko unsure of their connection as adulterous lovers while the newly married couple also seem be under strain even before the traumatic events about to take place. Apparently brokenhearted, the gunman collapses over the jukebox playing a series of melancholy songs about lost love, Matsuoka later darkly musing that perhaps he was only able to kill his lover because he loved her so much. Unlike the other customers, Matsuoka appears entirely unperturbed by their predicament calmly talking to the gunman and even ringing the police to ask them to temporarily stand back so they can evacuate a hostage in need of medical treatment. The gunman sends Matuoka and the newlywed husband to take the injured party out, taking Yumiko hostage as security while she fears Matsuoka does not value her enough to return though both men do in fact come back rather than abandon their respective women. The newlywed husband, however, later fails a test of manhood when the enraged gunman goes off on a misogynistic rant and tries to force the doctor to rape the newlywed wife to prove that all women faithless “whores”, the husband reduced to a gibbering wreck cowering in the corner unable to protect his new wife or challenge the gunman’s authority as Matsuoka later does when he orders Yumiko to remove her clothes in front of the other hostages. 

Though Yumiko had feared the affair was on its way out, ironically describing Matsuoka as not so different from her husband while lamenting that their connection seemed to have dwindled, the traumatic experience seems to reinforce the reality of their love as something more than a casual extra-marital fling even as Matsuoka forgives her for not trusting him because their relationship is not founded on the same idea of “commitment” as the married couple. The question for the other customers is how much the lives of others they’ve only just met really mean to them, the two teenage girls deciding to attempt escape while the gunman takes Yumiko hostage to use the bathroom, the doctor edging round the sides as Matsuoka tries to stop them to protect her while the newlyweds similarly waltz towards the door. All the while the TV crackles with an inane variety show complete with its cheerful advertisements while the police apparently have the place surrounded ironically convincing the gunman he has no way out and therefore nothing to lose. A tense meditation on interpersonal relationships, Too Young to Die is not without its share of ironies in strange number of coincidences and misapprehensions as the siege eventually draws to an unexpected close sending our conflicted lovers back into the night if perhaps a little more alive for their brush with death. 


The Catch (飼育, Nagisa Oshima, 1961)

The Catch poster1960 was a turbulent year for many, not least among them Nagisa Oshima who dramatically broke his contract with Shochiku after the studio withdrew Night and Fog in Japan on grounds of sensitivity after the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party was murdered by a right-wing assassin live on TV. 1961’s The Catch (飼育, Shiiku), an adaptation of a novel by Kenzaburo Oe, was Oshima’s first post-studio picture and as uncompromising as anything else he’d worked on up to that point. Unlike many other filmmakers of the post-war generation who had been keen to use the corruption of the war as an excuse for a failure of humanity they now thought could be repaired, Oshima suggests that the rot was there long before and all the war did was give it justification.

In the summer of 1945, a small village captures a black American airman (Hugh Hurd) shot down over a nearby forest. They are originally quite jubilant about their act of heroism, believing that they will eventually be rewarded by the authorities, but are then irritated by their new responsibility. They are already low on food, and now they’ll have to feed this full grown man or risk being branded as amoral war criminals. Predictably, nobody wants to be saddled with looking after him until the authorities arrive with further instructions or knows what to do now, so in time-honoured fashion they tie him up in a shed and hope for the best. Only latterly when one of the children points it out do they realise that they should probably remove the bear trap attached to the airman’s foot which may already be infected seeing as he seems to be in a considerable amount of pain and is running a high fever.

It goes without saying that villagers are extremely racist, using quite pointed racial slurs and dehumanising language to describe their captive, even when others stop to remind them that he is after all human too even if he’s an enemy. Just as their sons and husbands are overseas fighting, and dying, bravely for the emperor so was this man valiantly risking his life for his country. Shouldn’t he be accorded some respect just for that? Wouldn’t they want that for their sons too?

Sadly thoughts are thin on the ground, as is food. Jiro (Toshiro Ishido), a young man shortly to enlist, wants a bag of rice off his dad to take into town to buy a woman, but his dad doesn’t have any because he’s already in debt to the immensely corrupt village chief (Rentaro Mikuni). Jiro eventually satisfies himself with a sexually liberated high school girl evacuated from the city and thereafter disappears – the first of many negative events to be randomly blamed on the captive airman. Meanwhile the village chief is responsible for a series of problems because of his out of control need for sexual dominance which sees him apparently abusing his daughter-in-law (Masako Nakamura) and attempting to assault a young widow (Akiko Koyama) with two children evacuated from the city and otherwise undefended in the village.

The rot here is feudalism, the idea that gives free rein to the village chief to misuse his position for his own satisfaction – extracting sexual favours from the women and controlling the men economically. Because he’s the village chief no one really questions his authority or his orders, so when he says all the problems are new and caused by the “black monster” they’ve brought into the village then everyone believes it to be true. The airman, who cannot be responsible for any of these crimes because he is still recovering and locked up in the shed, becomes a scapegoat for every bad thing that has ever happened in the village. More than an embodiment of the war, he is a symbol of all the external pressures that the village would like to pretend are the reasons it has turned in on itself.

Yet the airman is only one kind, the deepest kind, of other. The village hasn’t quite even integrated its evacuees who also constitute a secondary community. The young woman’s two starving children are repeatedly caught with their fingers in other people’s rice jars and receive little sympathy from the villagers, but their crimes only expose the fact that the man who has sheltered them, and also owns the shed where the airman is kept, has been keeping quiet about people thieving his potatoes. He knows it’s not the widow because there are simply too many taken to feed a small family of three, which means that there are probably several “thieves” among the villagers, content to betray their neighbours in thinking that the wealthy farmer won’t miss a measly few root vegetables.

Predictably, rather than deal with the problem, everyone obsesses over the idea that the corruption is born only of the airman and if they could just eliminate him everything would go back to “normal” – i.e. the feudal past in which everyone does what the village chief says and lives in superficial harmony without complaining about their reduced status as lowly peasants forced to live in penury by an unfair and essentially corrupt system. To cure the discord between them, they decide that the airman must be killed, no longer caring about the censure they may face from the authorities. Only two young boys stick up for him, remaining sane amid the madness all around them in insisting that the airman is a person too, is unrelated to the village drama, and deserves his dignity and respect. Sadly, however, the madness has already taken hold.

On learning that the war is over, the villagers refuse to reflect on their behaviour and seek only to bury the past, superficially smoothing over their barbarity with convenient justification. They receive the news that the American authorities do not trust the Japanese with surprise and hurt, despite the fact they are living proof of the reasons why they would be foolish to do so. We gave him white rice while we ate potatoes, he had goats milk, they say, what more could he have wanted? The answer is self evident, but it’s already been forgotten. The villagers start blaming each other, and eventually settle on another scapegoat – a deserter, as if another death could tie all of this into a neat bundle to be burned away on a funeral pyre as if it never existed at all. The evacuees are invited to leave, and the villagers start thinking about the harvest festival, as if the evil has been excised and everything is returning to the way it’s supposed to be, but this “peace” is brokered on the back of secrecy and an abnegation of responsibility. A grim exposé of man’s essential cruelty and selfishness, The Catch rejects the tenets of post-war humanism to suggest that the corruption of feudalism has not and may never be eliminated at least as long as a nation remains content to bury its past along with its shame.


Short clip (English subtitles)

Evil of Dracula (血を吸う薔薇, Michio Yamamoto, 1974)

Evil of Dracula posterThe first two of Michio Yamamoto’s “vampire” movies for Toho made a valiant attempt to repurpose the idea of the bloodsucking ghoul to explore something other than their usual reason for being. In The Vampire Doll, the vampiress at the centre was a knife wilding, grudge bearing ghost of vengeance in keeping with the familiar image from Japanese folklore. In Lake of Dracula, Dracula was (uncomfortably) a bearer of bad blood and a symbol of the destructive capabilities of a repressed memory. Evil of Dracula (血を吸う薔薇, Chi wo Su Bara) takes us back to source as this time Dracula really is a sex crazed, bloodsucking maniac with a sideline in strange ambitions which include being the headmaster of an all girls’ high school in a no horse town somewhere in the frozen north.

Professor Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa) gets off the train in a tiny provincial town but there’s no welcoming party there to great him. The station seems to work on an honour system and he drops his money in the box, but when Shiraki walks past the ticket office there is an employee, only he seems to be allergic to customers. The attendant gruffly explains that there are no busses running today and goes back to his paper, leaving Shiraki to wonder what to do next. Someone from the school he’ll shortly be working at eventually comes to fetch him but Mr. Yoshii (Katsuhiko Sasaki) is a bit strange too. It’s nothing, however, next to his new employer (Shin Kishida) whom, he learns, was widowed a few days ago when his wife died in a terrible car accident. In fact the headmaster’s wife is still at rest in the cellar – a “local custom” apparently demands holding off on burial for seven days while praying for the deceased’s “resurrection”. Shiraki is surprised to learn from the headmaster that he is being groomed as a potential successor which is why he asks him to stay over so they can get to know each other better. Whilst there, however, Shiraki has a “dream” in which he’s attacked by (he presumes) the headmaster’s wife and another much younger woman dressed in blue…

Evil of Dracula situates itself neatly in the middle of the girls’ school exposé, upping the camp factor with its overexcited adolescent girls apparently chomping at the bit for a little male attention. Shiraki is the new psychology teacher and one would expect him to be a paragon of ethics and an astute judge of character. He is, however, very much of his time and has a distinctly ‘70s approach to sexual politics. When the girls, flirting with him while he (refusing to deflect) appears flattered, complain to him about the “creepy” Mr. Yoshii who keeps leering at them from behind chainlink fences, he tells them Yoshii can’t be blamed because the girls are all so pretty to which they giggle and turn coy. Of course, they’ve all instantly fallen in love with Mr. Shiraki but unbeknownst to them there’s much more going on with creepy guys at the school than they could ever have guessed.

Shiraki finds out a girl recently went missing (apparently that’s something that happens often enough that no one thinks much of it), and can’t get it out of his mind that that’s the girl he saw in his “dream” even though he obviously didn’t know what she looked like. Meanwhile another of his charges, Kyoko (Keiko Aramaki), has turned pale and entered a semi-catatonic state. Her friends have agreed to stay behind and look after her while everyone else goes on vacation but Shiraki remains worried, especially as the school’s folklore obsessed doctor (Kunie Tanaka) has told him what happened to his predecessor.

Yamamoto goes back to source in partially blaming the girls for being led to destruction, allowing their nascent sexuality to pull them into the path of a supernatural evil rather than remaining chaste and innocent as schoolgirls should, punishing them for being flattered when Shiraki (with a slightly condescending air) tells them they can’t be annoyed by men looking them because that’s their fault too in being so very “pretty”. This time around the vampires like to bite their prey above the heart which takes us into the artier realms of exploitation as blood drips salacious from the girls’ bared breasts, though Yamamoto does his best to mitigate the sleaze factor by pushing a heavily romanticised gothic aesthetic complete with innocent white roses which ultimately turn a violent blood red once the vampires have had their way.

Once again, the “corruption” is foreign born though this time it has a Japanese catalyst, as folklore expert Dr. Shimomura explains. Long ago, a European washed up in Japan after a shipwreck, but he was a Christian when Christianity was illegal. He was persecuted, they made him betray his god and it turned him into a bloodsucking demon whose rage has lived on through a succession of Japanese hosts for more than a century. Why he particularly wants to be the headmaster of an elite girls boarding school in the middle of nowhere is never explained but it does at least seem to give him ready access not only to young and innocent victims, but also to weak willed minions.

The police, deciding vampires aren’t in their remit, declare themselves disinterested leaving Shiraki all that stands between the innocent young girls and the bloodsucking predator. The atmosphere is florid in the extreme, each frame filled with a macabre beauty as bodies fall artfully and vampires move with the elegance of dancers, but Yamamato also gives free reign to Hammer-inflected camp humour as hands almost wave from an open coffin behind the still unsuspecting Shiraki and the headmaster comes to a sticky end on the point of his own poker. Repeating the death motif from the second film which itself echoed Christopher Lee’s demise in the 1958 Hammer classic, romanticism is where Yamamoto chooses to end as his vampires decay, melting into skeletons but together, caught in one last gesture of an oddly eternal “love”.


Evil of Dracula is the third of three films included in Arrow’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy box set which also includes extensive liner notes by Jasper Sharp detailing the history of vampires and horror cinema in Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lake of Dracula (呪いの館 血を吸う眼, Michio Yamamoto, 1971)

Lake of Dracula posterThe Vampire Doll, the first in a loose trilogy of films along vampiric themes released by Toho in the 1970s, had done its best to relocate Hammer-style horror to contemporary Japan. Adopting the best of the gothic from thundery skies to creepy mansions in the middle of nowhere, Vampire Doll successfully merged the Japanese longhaired grudge bearing ghost with the “romantic” bloodsucking tragedy of a young woman corrupted by illicit desires (though in this case for revenge). Returning to the theme a year later, Michio Yamamoto steps away from Japanese folklore altogether and positions his “foreign” Dracula as a “living” embodiment of repressed trauma, sucking the life out of his unwitting enemy until she finally learns to remember him, burning him away in the bright sunlight of his own eye.

Unlike Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula (呪いの館 血を吸う眼, Noroi no Yakata: Chi wo Su Me) begins with a short prologue in which some children play on a rocky outcrop underneath a strangely ominous pink sky. When little Akiko’s pet dog Leo uncharacteristically runs off, she follows him and he leads her straight into the path of danger. Finding herself in a creepy mansion complete with stained glass windows and a dead body posed at a piano, the last thing that Akiko remembers is the pale face of a strange man with golden eyes and blood staining his chin.

Flashforward 20 years and Akiko (Midori Fujita) is a school teacher still living with her younger sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi) in their childhood home. She is convinced her traumatic childhood incident must have been a dream though it continues to haunt her enough to be a frequent subject in her artwork including a striking canvas she has just completed featuring a frightening golden eye looming over a tiny girl and her dog. Akiko has nice boyfriend, Takashi (Choei Takahashi), who is a doctor in the city, and all things considered a pretty nice life. Sadly it is not to last.

The trouble begins when someone randomly delivers a coffin to the local boathouse. First Akiko’s dog goes missing, then her trusted uncle figure tries to attack her before running off never to be seen again. Meanwhile, at Takashi’s hospital, a young “runaway” has been brought in in a catatonic state though no one can find much wrong with her until Takashi spots two suspicious bite marks on her neck. In case you’d forgotten about Natsuko, she has also begun behaving strangely – offering snide comments to her sister, going out alone in the middle of the night, and most alarmingly she has begun to grow pale.

Like Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula is also an experimental vampire movie hybrid – a B-movie stalker picture in which Dracula is the creepy guy who can’t seem to take no for an answer. Yamamoto films the “naturalistic” action in standard Toho fashion but shifts into a higher register for his conception of heightened vampiric romanticism as Akiko’s “dream” erupts under a blood red sky and eventually leads her to an artfully appointed gothic cottage in which even the dead bodies are tastefully arranged.

Yet what Dracula comes to represent is the soul sucking power of the repressed past. Akiko has largely been able to move past her traumatic childhood adventure, convincing herself it was nothing more than a dream, and seems to be living a pleasant enough life even if her paintings betray her continuing anxiety. As we later find out, it is not quite so much the episode itself as the refusal to accept it which has caused Akiko so many problems – not least a buried rift with her treasured sister resulting from unfortunate sibling rivalry never fully dealt with both because of the incident and the early death of their parents. Akiko, resentful of having a new sister who had “displaced” her in her parents’ affections, sought to win back her rightful place by being the ideal child – good and obedient. Hence when no one believed her about the creepy house and strange man, she backed down, let them tell her it was only a dream to avoid being thought argumentative. Now she wonders if Natsuko harboured ill will towards her too for “stealing” back her parents’ love through her crazy story and perhaps relegating her to second place when she had become used to first.

Familial love becomes an odd kind of theme as we discover Dracula had a father of his own – a descendent of non-Japanese immigrants who had purposefully built a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere in order to limit the possibility of his “bad blood” wreaking havoc in the world. The bad blood apparently skips a generation here and there and so Dracula, the third generation, is the first to be affected by it. His father tried to sacrifice himself to control his son, but now the demon is loose and is after Akiko who, creepily enough, seems to have caught his eye all those years ago (when she was five!) and he is determined to make her his “wife”. Vampirising someone’s sister is probably not a good way to win their heart, but Dracula, oddly, has never been very good at conventional romance.

Dracula’s “foreign” origins are perhaps an uncomfortable nod back to the xenophobic nature of the vampire myth. Despite being 3/4 Japanese and born and raised in Japan, Dracula’s late in the game exposure as not properly “Japanese” enough unfortunately reinforces the idea that “mixed” blood is somehow “impure”, even dangerous, and that even those who’ve spent their lives in Japan are not the same as those who are descended from long lines fully recorded 100% Japanese ancestors. Thus the danger becomes a “foreign object” which must be expelled to restore the integrity of the whole.

Restoring integrity is Akiko’s quest as she, along with her doctor boyfriend, attempts to solve the mystery through revisiting her traumatic childhood incident and finally learns to put it behind her. Yamamoto’s direction shifts between standard B-movie naturalism and florid avant-garde compositions but perhaps fails to capitalise on their inherent theatricality. Picking up the pace for the final set piece, Yamamoto also allows himself to go grim in taking a leaf directly out of the Hammer book by lifting the final death scene from the Christopher Lee starring Hammer Horror from 1958 in his crumbling, melting vampire, not to mention the other decomposing corpse resting in the house whose skin slides sickeningly from his body. A strange, hybrid adventure, Lake of Dracula makes an early attempt to pair the vampire chiller with serial killer thriller and does so moderately successfully even if its psychology remains firmly within the realms of the B-movie.


Lake of Dracula is the second of three films included in Arrow’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy box set which also includes extensive liner notes by Jasper Sharp detailing the history of vampires and horror cinema in Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Invisible Man (透明人間, Motoyoshi Oda, 1954)

invisible man 1954 posterThe Invisible Man is a frightening presence precisely because he isn’t there. The living manifestation of the fear of the unknown, he stalks and spies, lurking in our imaginations instilling terror of evil deeds we are powerless to stop. Daiei made Japan’s first Invisible Man movie back in 1949 – a fun crime romp with the underlying message that scientific research is important but not as important as ensuring knowledge is placed in the right hands. Toho brought Eiji Tsuburaya back for another go at the same material in 1954 as part of their burgeoning tokusaku industry fathered by Godzilla. The 1954 Invisible Man (透明人間, Toumei Ningen), directed by Motoyoshi Oda, is once again a criticism of Japan’s wartime past but also perhaps of its future. This Invisible Man is an invisible hero but one whose heroism is only recognised once the mask is removed.

Opening in grand style, the film gets off to a mysterious start when a speeding car hits “something” in the road. The “something” turns out to be a previously invisible man whose appearance is returned to him as blood leaks out from under the now stopped car. In his pocket, the man has a suicide note explaining that living life invisible is just too depressing and he can’t go on. Seeing as the note is addressed to a “friend” who is also apparently an Invisible Man that means there are more out there. Despite there being no real threat involved in any of this, the newscasters are alarmed and the public frightened.

This is quite useful for some – a shady gang quickly starts putting on Invisible Man suits including wrapping their heads in bandages just like in the movies, and robbing banks. Admittedly this makes no practical sense but adds to the ongoing fear of an “invisible” threat. An intrepid reporter, Komatsu (Yoshio Tsuchiya), links the crimes to a nightclub where the head of the gang is also trying to pressure the headline star, Michiyo (Miki Sanjo), into a career as a drug mule. Besides violence, their leverage is the little girl who lives across from Michiyo and is blind – the money they would be paying her could also be used to pay for the girl’s eye surgery. Mariko is waiting patiently for her grandfather to make the money, unaware that he has also fallen under the spell of the criminal gang.

The real “Invisible Man” is doing a good job of hiding in plain sight by proudly standing out in a traditional clown outfit complete with makeup and a fluffy nose. Nanjo (Seizaburo Kawazu) works as a promoter for the club and is also good friends with little Mariko who is unable to see him either with or without his clown suit. Unlike other Invisible Men, Nanjo is good and kind – the curse of his condition has not ruined soul.

He is, however, afraid of being exposed. Aside from social ostracism (perhaps someone who wears a clown suit 24/7 isn’t particularly bothered about that), Nanjo fears what his government would do to him if they discovered he was still alive. Like his friend who later committed suicide, Nanjo was a member of an experimental army squad recruited towards the end of the war as Japan sought to create the ultimate warriors to turn the tide in the battle against the Americans. The Invisible Men were born but the war lost, and it was assumed that they had all fallen. Nanjo, surviving, has been abandoned by the land that he fought for. His existence is a secret, an embarrassing relic of Japan’s attempt at scientific warfare, and something which no one wants to deal with. Nando’s friend could no longer cope with his non-existence. Unable to return home, unable to work, unable to marry, there was no “visible” future which presented itself to him.

In this sense, Nanjo represents a point of view many might have identified with in 1954. These men fought and risked their lives for a god they now say is only a man, to come home to a land ruled by the “enemy” in which they can neither criticise the occupation or the former authorities. These men may well feel “invisible” in the new post-war order in which the younger generation are beginning to break free while they suffer the continuing effects of their wartime service even if not quite as literally as Nanjo.

Yet there’s a kind of internalised resentment within Nanjo who describes himself as a “monster created by militarism”. Disguising himself as a clown he attempts to live a “normal” life though one segregated from mainstream society. A half-hearted romance with club girl Michiyo and a well meaning paternalism for the orphaned little blind girl point to Nanjo’s altruistic heroism but also to a reluctance to fully engage with either of them due to a lingering sense of guilt and shame.

The Invisible Man is the hero here while the bad guys subvert and misuse his name to do their evil deeds, terrorising women and threatening to burn the city down rather than surrender to authority. Even more than others in Toho’s expanding universe of tokusatsu heroes, Invisible Man is a defence of the other as not only valid but morally good even in the face of extreme prejudice and violence. It is, however, also one of their less well considered efforts and Tsuburaya’s effects remain few and far between, rarely moving beyond his work on Daiei’s Invisible Man five years previously. Bulked out with musical numbers and dance sequences, Toho’s Invisible Man is a less satisfying affair than Daei’s puply sci-fi adventure but is nevertheless interesting in its defence of the sad clown who all alone has decided to shoulder the burdens of his world.


 

The H-Man (美女と液体人間, Ishiro Honda, 1958)

H-man
Toho produced a steady stream of science fiction movies in the ‘50s, each with some harsh words directed at irresponsible scientists whose discoveries place the whole world in peril. The H-man (美女と液体人間, Bijo to Ekitainingen), arriving in 1958, finds the genre at something of an interesting juncture but once again casts nuclear technology as the great evil, corrupting and eroding humanity with a barely understood power. Science may have conjured up the child which will one day destroy us, robbing mankind of its place as the dominant species. Still, we’ve never particularly needed science to destroy ourselves and so this particularly creepy mystery takes on a procedural bent infused with classic noir tropes and filled with the seedier elements of city life from gangsters and the drugs trade to put upon show girls with lousy boyfriends who land them in unexpected trouble.

Misaki (Hisaya Itou) is not a man who would likely have been remembered. A petty gangster on the fringes of the criminal underworld, just trying to get by in the gradually improving post-war economy, he’s one of many who might have found himself on the wrong side of a gangland battle and wound up just another name in a file. However, Misaki gets himself noticed by disappearing in the middle of a drugs heist leaving all of his clothes behind. The police immediatetely start hassling his cabaret singer girlfriend, Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa), who knows absolutely nothing but is deeply worried about what may have happened to her no good boyfriend. The police are still working on the assumption Misaki has skipped town, but a rogue professor, Masada (Kenji Sahara), thinks the disappearance may be linked to a strange nuclear incident…..

Perhaps lacking in hard science, the H-Man posits that radiation poisoning can fundamentally change the molecular structure of a living being, rendering it a kind of sentient sludge. This particular hypothesis is effectively demonstrated by doing some very unpleasant looking things to a frog but it seems humans too can be broken down into their component parts to become an all powerful liquid being. The original outbreak is thought to have occurred on a boat out at sea and the scientists still haven’t figured out why the creature has come back to Tokyo though their worst fear is that the H-man, as they’re calling him, retains some of his original memories and has tried to return “home” for whatever reason.

The sludge monster seeps and crawls, working its way in where it isn’t wanted but finally rematerialises in humanoid form to do its deadly business. Once again handled by Eiji Tsuburaya, the effects work is extraordinary as the genuinely creepy slime makes its slow motion assault before fire breaks out on water in an attempt to eradicate the flickering figures of the newly reformed H-men. The scientists think they’ve come up with a way to stop the monstrous threat, but they can’t guarantee there will never be another – think what might happen in a world covered in radioactivity! The H-man may just be another stop in human evolution.

Despite the scientists’ passionate attempts to convince them, the police remain reluctant to consider such an outlandish solution, preferring to work the gangland angle in the hopes of taking out the local drug dealers. The drug lord subplot is just that, but Misaki most definitely inhabited the seamier side of the post-war world with its seedy bars and petty crooks lurking in the shadows, pistols at the ready under their mud splattered macs. Chikako never quite becomes the generic “woman in peril” despite being directly referenced in the Japanese title, though she is eventually kidnapped by very human villains, finding herself at the mercy of violent criminality rather than rogue science. Science wants to save her, Masada has fallen in love, but their relationship is a subtle and mostly one sided one as Chikako remains preoccupied over the fate of the still missing Misaki.

Even amidst the fear and chaos, Honda finds room for a little song and dance with Chikako allowed to sing a few numbers at the bar while the other girls dance around in risqué outfits. The H-man may be another post-war anti-nuke picture from the studio which brought you Godzilla but its target is wider. Nuclear technology is not only dangerous and unpredictable, it has already changed us, corrupting body and soul. The H-men may very well be that which comes after us, but if that is the case it is we ourselves who have sown the seeds of our destruction in allowing our fiery children to break free of our control.


Original trailer (no subtitles)