Espy (エスパイ, Jun Fukuda, 1974)

espy posterBy 1974 the Toho SFX movie was perhaps long past its heyday though Jun Fukuda’s Espy (エスパイ) was far from the last. Clearly influenced by popular spy franchises such as James Bond as well as more serious cold war spy dramas, Espy is a jet setting tale of superpowered assassins, international conspiracy, and love as an unexpected source of salvation, but as much as it embraces its hippyish message of total communication it also moves further into the realms of exploitation, skewing closer to Nikkatsu’s ’70s output than the more child friendly supernatural adventures of ages past.

The world is at breaking point. A small conflict in a tiny East European nation known as Baltonia threatens to spark a third world war. A UN delegation is currently en route to a conference in which they hope to settle the conflict in a peaceful way but all hope is lost when a sniper equipped with X-ray vision takes them all out with maximum precision.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, test driver Miki (Masao Kusakari) gets into trouble on the course when he swerves to avoid some pigeons. The car spins out of control but just at the last minute, Miki turns it around through his dormant psychic powers which brings him to the attention of the IPPG – the International Psychic Power Group. Following the assassination of the UN delegation, all eyes are on Japan where the prime minister of Baltonia is due to meet the US president in what is hoped will be a bold new development in international relations but the IPPG have reason to believe an attempt will be made on the prime minister’s life and only their ESP equipped team can stop it.

Espy takes the essential components of both the spy thriller in its international conspiracy set up, and the B-movie science fiction adventure in its presentation of the good and evil possibilities of advanced technologies or in this case innate superpowers. The Espy team are pitted against the Anti-Espy who have similar powers but are committed to using them to harm mankind. The leader of the Anti-Espy, Ulrov (Tomisaburo Wakayama), sees himself as a superior being to regular Earthlings and, believing that humans have overpopulated the planet which they continue to damage, is convinced the best solution is a mass cull. He plans to do this by helping the “lesser” humans destroy themselves by provoking a third world war or a hundred mini conflicts in which thousands will die.

Ulrov’s arguments tie in nicely with Toho’s trademark environmentalism and ambivalent attitude towards scientific development, but they go against the prevailing sense of humanism which is to be found in the studio’s genre output. In Ulrov’s fascistic view of the world, he and the other ESPers are a superior race whose existence is threatened by weaker humans and their reckless disregard for the planet as a whole. Due to a traumatic childhood incident, he believes that humans are cruel beasts who lust for blood and talk of peace with hearts filled with hate. He may have a point, but his message conflicts with the positive movement for peace which is advanced by the Baltonian PM who doesn’t want a world in which peace is brokered and balanced but one of true unity.

Espy is, however, of its time and fails to fully live out its peace and love ideals. Team member Maria (Kaoru Yumi) is kidnapped by Anti-Espy and taken to Ulrov’s lair where she is forced to dance lasciviously in front of fellow team member Tamura (Hiroshi Fujioka) with whom she shares an especially strong connection. Tamura’s arms and legs are cuffed as he communicates telepathically with Ulrov, semi-hypnotised by Maria’s strange dance. Maria is then approached by a large dark-skinned man wearing only a loincloth who proceeds to tear open her shirt at which point she snaps out of her trance, frees Tamura, and rips out the attacker’s tongue.

Meanwhile, new recruit Miki has failed in his mission and killed a man for the first time sending him into a kind of depression. Though Miki was introduced as the protagonist, he is in fact absent for most of the film though his journey is among the strangest as he reminisces about a foreign girl he was friends with as a child and enjoys an unusually strong bond with his intrepid dog, Caesar, who teaches the gang a few lessons about unconditional love. Maria is severely traumatised by her attack while Tamura reconsiders his sense of self worth having temporarily lost his powers, but eventually the team realise that their psychic abilities are nothing more than a manifestation of a great love. Ulrov later has the same epiphany but the team’s decision to consider him possessed by something “inhuman” is a worrying one. They don’t want to accept that it was humans who made him that way because it would be too sad, but not to do so is a failure to recognise humanity’s darkness as well as its light.

Espy bites off a little more than it can chew in failing to deal with some of the more interesting ideas it raises though it makes the most of its meagre budget to present an exciting spy thriller voyaging from Japan to Turkey and Switzerland. Skewing more towards Nikkatsu’s brand of exploitation action, Espy is definitely among the more adult orientated of Toho’s SFX adventures but its messages are broadly the same in its insistence on human interconnectedness as the ultimate superpower. 


 

Inn of Evil (いのちぼうにふろう, Masaki Kobayashi, 1971)

inn-of-evil“Sometimes it feels good to risk your life for something other people think is stupid”, says one of the leading players of Masaki Kobayashi’s strangely retitled Inn of Evil (いのちぼうにふろう, Inochi Bonifuro), neatly summing up the director’s key philosophy in a few simple words. The original Japanese title “Inochi Bonifuro” means something more like “To Throw One’s Life Away”, which more directly signals the tragic character drama that’s about to unfold. Though it most obviously relates to the decision that this gang of hardened criminals is about to make, the criticism is a wider one as the film stops to ask why it is this group of unusual characters have found themselves living under the roof of the Easy Tavern engaged in benign acts of smuggling during Japan’s isolationist period.

Led by the innkeeper Ikuzo (Kan’emon Nakamura), the Easy Tavern is, effectively, the hideout of a smuggling gang conveniently located on a small island in the middle of a river where they can unload goods from the Dutch boats before shipping them on to Edo. Everything had been running smoothly, but the friendly policeman has been moved on and the new guy seems very straight laced. The gang’s routine existence changes one night when they receive two unexpected visitors – a young man they save from a beating in the street, and a drunk who wanders in looking for sake. The younger man, Tomijiro (Kei Yamamoto), brings a sad story with him in that all of his troubles have been caused by trying to save the woman he loves from being sold to a brothel. Moved by Tomijiro’s innocent ardour, even the most hardhearted residents of the Easy Tavern become determined to help him. Accepting a job everyone had a bad feeling about in order to get the money for Tomijiro to buy back his lady love before it’s too late, the gang’s unusual decision to risk their lives for someone else’s happiness may be the first and last time they ever do so.

The residents of the Easy Tavern have various different backstories, but the thing they all have in common is having been rejected by mainstream society at some point in their lives. The most high profile, Sadashichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), is known as “The Indifferent” which is both apt and slightly ironic. Sullen and cynical, he puts on a show about caring for nothing and no one but, as inn keeper’s daughter Omitsu (Komaki Kurihara) has figured out, it’s more that the opposite it true – he cares too much about everything. Abandoned as a child, Sadashichi’s sad story is that he once thought his saw his mother long after they were separated but killed her because she’d fallen into prostitution. Then again, perhaps it was just a woman who looked like her, or perhaps he made he whole thing up. Coming across a lost baby bird shortly after killing a man, Sadashichi is determined to look after it but is later distressed by the words of the drunk who reminds him that the bird’s mother is probably going crazy with worry. Sadashichi may identify with this lost little bird, but his empathy also extends to Tomijiro’s plight as his plaintive looks and gloomy face prompt him into action, if only to make them go away.

Similarly, the other members including “The Living Buddha” – a rabidly bisexual former monk thrown out of his temple for his lascivious ways, an effeminate homeless man, a stutterer, and an invalid all have reasons for living outside the law. As the sympathetic inn keeper later tries to explain to a policeman, most of these men are people who’ve faced rejection in one way or another. Craving sympathy, they’ve turned violent and suspicious, pushed away from the very things they wanted most. Far from an Inn of Evil, the Easy Tavern is the only place where these people have been able to find acceptance, building a community of lost souls from those cast out from society at large.

The decision to try and help Tomijiro to rescue his childhood sweetheart, cruelly sold by her selfish and uncaring father, is, in once sense, a selfless one but perhaps also reminds them of all the times they were also betrayed or abandoned and no one came to help. Even knowing the plan is unlikely to end well, the inn keeper is proud of his men’s decision, if they didn’t try to help the girl no one else would. They may be throwing their lives away in a pointless endeavour, but if they don’t at least try then what’s the point in living at all. This more than anything expresses Kobayashi’s constant preoccupation throughout his career in pointing to the essential goodness of those who refuse to simply accept acts of injustice as normal and stand up to oppose them, even if their resistance will produce little or no actual change.

Filming in a crisp black and white, Kobayashi creates an eerie atmosphere aided by Toru Takemitsu’s strangely ethereal score. The world of the The Easy Tavern is a dark one in which cruelty and betrayal lie at every turn and men ruin themselves through thoughtless and reckless decisions, but the best of humanity is to be found among this gang of outlaws who collectively decide it’s world risking their lives for someone else’s love story. Filled with impressive visual imagery including the strange sight of the looming bright white police lanterns and the impressively staged last stand as Sadashichi holds off the troops for Tomijiro to escape, Inn of Evil is a tightly controlled, minutely detailed character drama in which men who’d throw their lives away for nothing find that their sacrifice has not been in vain.


 

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (子連れ狼 死に風に向う乳母車, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

lone-wolf-and-cub-baby-cart-to-hadesOgami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his (slightly less) young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) are going to hell in a baby cart in this third instalment of the six film series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (子連れ狼 死に風に向う乳母車, Kozure Okami: Shinikazeni Mukau Ubaguruma). The former shogun executioner, framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan intent on assuming his position, is still on the “Demon’s Way”, seeking vengeance and the restoration of his clan’s honour with his toddler son safely ensconced within a bamboo cart which also holds its fair share of secrets. In the previous chapter, Baby Cart at the River Styx, Ogami’s stoic personality came to the fore as he showed that sometimes there is more strategic value to be found in avoiding a fight rather than charging into one where it isn’t necessary. Baby Cart to Hades will further test this element of his life philosophy as he finds himself bound onwards, seeking his redemption.

Neatly attaching Daigoro’s cart for towing, Ogami boards a boat which appears to be being followed by underwater ninjas, if the reeds he notices whilst using his sword as a mirror are anything to go by. Also on the boat is a distressed young woman, apparently on her way to be sold to a brothel. Diagoro takes pity on the girl and catches her tiny bundle of belongings when the loquacious middle man knocks them overboard. Later they all end up at the same inn where the unfortunate woman kills her procurer when he attempts to rape her (bad business decision as that would be). Daigoro takes pity on the woman once again and Ogami decides to help her, especially after he notices the wooden memorial tablet among her belongings. Rather than fight off the brothel running samurai who come to find her, Ogami agrees to undergo the torture which is the alternative to entering a brothel on the girl’s behalf.

In addition to saving a life from fear and suffering, Ogami’s forbearance also earns him the respect of the madam in question, Torizo (Yuko Hama), who has another job for him. Her older sister was raped at the court of their lord and subsequently committed suicide, she and her father would like him dead and are willing to pay for it. Amusingly enough, the corrupt lord in question also tries to hire Ogami for another assassination for which he will pay double, but Ogami is an honest man. This latest mission brings him closer to his fated battle with the Yagyu but the Demon’s Way is long and Ogami is not yet approaching its end.

Directed once again by Kenji Misumi, this third instalment is much less psychedelic and action packed than the preceding film but seems keener to explore more of Ogami’s world which is often cruel and unforgiving. An early scene in the film features a discussion between four mercenaries, one a fine samurai who refuses to associate too much with the other three who are of a much more earthy character. Caring only for women and sake, the three men live a life of banditry by another name, fleeting from one clan to another participating in parades to bulk out an otherwise lacking show of force. Kanbei (Go Kato), by contrast, at least has a consciousness of the “true samurai” and a conflicted heart when it comes to his way of life. Having been a loyal retainer and later betrayed by the very lord he was seeking to protect over a matter of protocol, he has lost sight of his place in the world but knows himself to be superior to these venal, dishonest, empty scabbards for hire.

These same three men then attempt to have some sport with a well to do mother and daughter unwisely travelling with a single attendant. After despatching their escort, the three rape the two women before turning to Kanbei for help to clear up the giant mess they’ve just made. Kanbei does indeed clear it up by killing the two women in the gentlest and most elegant way he can before instructing the three culprits to draw lots – one of them will have to die and take the blame for everything to avoid getting entangled with the local police. Neither Kanbei or Ogami arrive in time to save the two women, whose deaths are both a solution to their “defilement” and the means to coverup a crime, leaving two thirds of the perpetrators free to commit the same crime again further along the road. Female life is both cheap and worth a lot of money to the right people, though there are precious few willing to defend it as a matter of honour – even Ogami’s decision to help the young woman about to be sold against her will has more to do with the cosmic coincidence of her memorial tablet than a desire to defend a vulnerable girl in trouble.

Where the dying monologue in Baby Cart at the River Styx was about the elegance and nobility of killing, Baby Cart to Hades focuses on the nature of the “true samurai” as the similarly disenfranchised Kanbei and Ogami discuss the “proper” way of life and death. Kanbei, like Ogami, is a brave man who served his lord in his own way, only to accomplish his mission and be cast out by those who disagreed with his methods. Is it really wrong to fight to live, rather than prepare to die? Both men say no, but the conclusion that is reached is that a samurai can only live by death. Meeting for the first time, Kanbei requests a dual from Ogami, promising to care for his son if only he survives. Ogami agrees but later sheaths his sword and declares the fight a draw. He would rather not fight a man who appears to be his equal in every way and has no quarrel with him, though the two will meet again for an unavoidable showdown.

Misumi is more straightforward his direction save for a few expressionist scenes of the bright sunset and a dramatic switch to POV as a head is severed from its body and rolls away. Nevertheless the ninja antics become ever more impressive, as do Ogami’s methods of detecting them. Once again Ogami attracts the attention of a grateful woman in the person of Torizo who, in keeping with the previous two chapters, watches him push his baby cart away with tears in her eyes (all accompanied by the first appearance of a closing ballad in the series). There are a lot more bodies behind him now as Ogami strides away from a battlefield littered with corpses, yet he’s seemingly no closer to achieving his goal despite his brush with the Yagyu. The price of vengeance is increasing, but the Demon Way is long, and Ogami must follow it to its end, no matter where it leads.


Original trailer (German subtitles for captions only, NSFW)

Cesium and a Tokyo Girl (セシウムと少女, Ryo Saitani, 2015)

CesiumCaesium is a chemical element which has the distinction of being one of the very few metals which remains liquid at room temperature. These days you’re most likely to hear about one of its isotopes which is produced as a result of nuclear fission and can pose a serious environmental problem following a nuclear related disaster. Caesium comes to be something of an obsessive concern for the 17 year old heroine of Ryo Saitani’s debut film, Cesium and a Tokyo Girl (セシウムと少女, Cesium to Shojo), as Mimi comes to connect the presence of caesium in the water with the constant soreness she’s been experiencing with her tongue since the disaster hit.

A fairly normal teenager, Mimi is a precocious student, obviously bright but undoubtedly forthright and unafraid to correct her teachers should they make a mistake (she is also entirely unaware of the way her direct manner may make other people feel). She lives a comfortable life with her successful father and cheerful nursery school teacher mother and even makes sure to visit her grandmother who is ill in the hospital.

One day, she runs into a strange man during a thunderstorm who claims to be the god of thunder and also knows lots of other supposed deities currently living out their immortal existences in the modern Japan. When grandma’s beloved mynah bird, named Hakushu after the famous poet Hakushu Kitahara, suddenly ups and flies away, Mimi hits on the idea of trying to get some of her new found omnipotent friends to help her though the quest to track down one missing bird ends up leading her on a strange odyssey through time and geography as she follows a meandering path through Japan’s modern history.

Like many people following the Great East Japan Earthquake and the accompanying tsunami, Mimi has been left with deep seated existential doubts which prompt her into a deliberate consideration of the way she’s living her life and what might happen to her in the future. Using the unique powers of the gods, she travels back in time to 1940 and experiences the life her grandmother led at her own age but in very different circumstances. These wartime episodes don’t shy away from uncomfortable historical truths as her grandmother loudly and proudly extols the virtue of the nation’s “ally” Adolf Hitler whilst singing a patriotic song penned by her favourite poet, Hakushu Kitahara, who, at this point has lost his sight due to complications from diabetes and will eventually pass away in 1942 never knowing the outcome of the war.

Joining the seven gods as a kind of Snow White figure, Mimi’s life takes a surreal turn filled with cheerful musical sequences which run the gamut from a cute kids song to an oddly ‘80s inspired dance sequence as her grandmother meets sailor granddad to be. Saitani also ropes in another few top animators to come up with some impressively designed scroll painting inspired set pieces to give us a suitably ancient backstory on our gods as well as adding some humorous stop motion and brief pop-art inspired moments to make what could be a fairly heavy condemnation of recent history and the rise of nuclear technology into a fun and quirky comedy.

That said, there is a tendency at certain points to fall into an educationalist mood leaving things feeling like an entertaining for schools programme rather than a comedy with an ingrained streak of social commentary. Saitani began his career working with the similarly ironic Kihachi Okamoto and you can definitely see a lot of Okamoto influence in Saitani’s approach to his material as he adds in layer upon layer of surreal playfulness but always anchors his flights of fancy in a serious concern. Bright and cheerful it may be, but the ideas are anything but trivial.

The gods are not angry, exactly, just disappointed. We’ve been given this beautiful gift of bountiful green forests and flowing rivers and yet we’ve shown so little interest in taking care of it that much of it is withering before us like a forgotten houseplant after an extended holiday. However, the final piece of advice given to Mimi is that perhaps we need to stop harping on the past and concentrate on making the most of what we have right now, only that way can we begin to undo some of the damage that we’ve done in our relatively brief time as the dominant species and finally face up to our responsibilities as caretakers of our planet.


Reviewed as part of the SCI-FI London Film Festival 2016.

Unsubbed trailer:

No Grave for Us (俺達に墓はない, Yukihiro Sawada, 1979)

No Grave for Us posterThough he might not exactly be a household name outside of Japan, the late Yusaku Matsuda was one of the most important mainstream stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Had he not died at the tragically young age of 40 after refusing chemotherapy for bladder cancer to star in what would become his final film, Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, he’d undoubtedly have continued to move on from the action genre in which he’d made his name. No Grave For Us (俺達に墓はない, Oretachi ni Haka wa Nai) is fairly typical of the kinds of films he was making in the late ‘70s as he once again plays a cool, streetwise hoodlum mixed up in a crazy crime world where no one can be trusted.

The film begins with a humorous incident in which a man sets fire to a small parcel in the ladies’ area of a department store and loudly starts shouting about a bomb before using the resulting panic and chaos to calmly extract the money from the nearby tills. His plan is going perfectly except for one cashier who’s rooted to the spot, confused by the rat who lives under the counter who isn’t perturbed by the presence of a “bomb”. Shima makes off with his money and starts planning a new job which he plans to carry out with his longtime friend and brother in arms Ishikawa. The pair carry out a robbery on a rival gang but an ex-yakuza, Takita, tries to make off with the loot. Shima and Takita bond and agree to split the money but Ishikawa gets captured and subjected to humiliating treatment by the gangsters. The intrusion of Takita and of the resurfacing problematic shopgirl, Michi, slowly drive a wedge between the previously inseparable Shima and Ishikawa.

No Grave for Us is, as the title suggests, a noir inflected B-movie in which the lowlife punk Shima contends with the various trials and tribulations associated with a life of petty crime. Child of an uncaring society, he’s been in and out of trouble since adolescence. He met Ishikawa when the pair were both in reform school together, Shima for assault and Ishikawa for drug related offences. Shima is not a drug user and seems to disapprove of his friend’s habit but makes no great protest against it. When Michi turns up at Ishikawa’s bar (just by coincidence) she’s lost her job at the department store after being accused of taking the money that Shima stole. It turns out that she too is a junkie and has been living a life of dissipation since being picked up for prostitution during middle school. She fits right in with Shima and Ishikawa but, predictably, begins to prefer the more assured Shima to the loose cannon Ishikawa which begins to present something of a problem for the pair.

Shima and Takita originally reach an understanding based on a gangster code of honour which they both understand. Ishikawa aside, the pair would make a good team but their growing comradeship only adds to Ishikawa’s sense of insecurity causing him to take matters into his own hands with fairly disastrous consequences. A misunderstanding makes Takita and Shima mortal enemies putting an end to any kind of alliance that might have been possible. There’s no comradeship here, no true friendship. Every relationship is a possible betrayal waiting to take place, every warmth a weakness.

Director Yukihiro Sawada had mostly worked in Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno line other than co-helming Sogo Ishii’s first feature, Panic High School, the previous year but No Grave for Us is refreshingly light on exploitative content. There is some brief nudity but nothing particularly out of keeping for a regular studio picture of the time. Likewise, the fights are of a more realistic nature and bloodshed kept to a minimum. The look of the film is also very typical of its era though Sawada only rarely uses the extreme zooms which are the hallmark of ‘70s cinema opting for a more straightforward, often static, approach. The film’s jazz inspired score also helps to bring out its noir undertones as these three guys who could have been allies find themselves turning on each other for the most trivial of reasons.

In many ways there’s nothing particularly special about No Grave for Us save for being an excellent example of mainstream action cinema in the late ‘70s. The film is full of knowing references to other recent genre hits as well as popular culture of the time including a lengthy tribute to top idol group Pink Lady whose song Zipangu also features on the soundtrack, and has an all round “cool” sensibility to it that was no doubt very popular at the time of its original release. An enjoyable enough genre effort, No Grave for Us is an impressively handled slice of late ‘70s noir inspired B-movie action but perhaps has little else to recommend it.


Unsubtitled trailer:

and a clip of Pink Lady performing Zipangu, just because