Kekkon Annai Mystery (結婚案内ミステリー, Yoshikuni Matsunaga, 1985)

Selected via a talent competition held in conjunction with the search for a new actress to play the leading role in Kosei Saito’s Ninja Wars, Noriko Watanabe became the second of the new “Sannin Musume” alongside the future star of The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Tomoyo Harada, and Kadokawa’s top idol Hiroko Yakushimaru. Her career with the studio was however comparatively short-lived affording her only three leading roles before she eventually left the agency and went independent after turning down a lead in Koibitotachi no Jikoku because of its explicit nude scenes. Again adapted from a novel by Jiro Akagawa, Kekkon Annai Mystery (結婚案内ミステリー) was her final leading performance as a Kadokawa idol (though she would also play a supporting role in Obayashi’s His Motorbike, Her Island) and saw her playing a slightly more mature role as a young woman working for a matchmaking agency who finds herself mixed up in a country house mystery after accepting an unusual proposal from a client. 

At 19, Hiroko (Noriko Watanabe) is the sole employee at the Fukada Marriage Consultation Agency owned and operated by her boss Mr. Fukada (Bengal). As we first meet her she’s deep undercover at a rival firm which has already shifted into a new era of computer-assisted matchmaking whereas Mr Fukada prefers to do things the old-fashioned way which is presumably why he has no business. It comes as something of a shock therefore when he receives a call from Mrs. Sekine (Aiko Nagayama), the temporary CEO of a major company who apparently wants to find a match for her son Masakazu (Ken Watanabe) who is shortly to return after graduating from Harvard in order to take over the family business following the death of his father six months previously. At the initial consultation, however, Mrs Sekine scandalises Mr Fukada by immediately selecting Hiroko as a potential bride. Seeing as it’s only an initial meeting, which would earn them a bonus payment, Hiroko agrees but when they drive out to the Sekines’ creepy gothic mansion in the middle of nowhere they discover all is not quite as it seems. Masakazu has a fiancée already, but unfortunately she was involved in a traffic accident and is currently in hospital which is a problem because for undisclosed reasons they need to hold the wedding right away. Hiroko is to act as a proxy seeing as no-one who’ll be coming to the ceremony has met Masakazu’s girlfriend and so will be none the wiser. 

Perhaps somewhat naively, Hiroko agrees and ends up staying in the house posing as Masakazu’s intended which includes sharing a room. Briefly shifting genres, a training montage sees Hiroko undertaking a crash course in how to be posh, adopting the correct deportment, using cutlery elegantly, and learning to walk downstairs in massive heals or up while wearing an inconveniently long dress. Which is all to say, the fabulously wealthy inhabit a different world of which Hiroko was hitherto ignorant. This is further brought home by the apparent cracks in the foundations of the Sekine family which is also a corporate entity with the other board members largely favouring other candidates more closely connected to the themselves to take over as chairman while apparent liability uncle Masao (Tamio Kawaji), whose creepy crossbow-carrying young son Mamoru is for some reason being raised by Mrs Sekine, is in some kind of trouble with yakuza loansharks. The other main issue is that Mrs Sekine is a second wife and longtime mistress of the late CEO. Masakazu was born out of wedlock and Mrs Sekine will do anything and everything she can to ensure he assumes his birthright. 

Counter-intuitively succession intrigue has little to do with the central mystery which begins to unravel when Hiroko is attacked on the eve of her wedding by a strange woman who had previously tried to warn her off Masakazu and kills her in self-defence. The body, which we can identify as that seen buried in the snow in the solarised green-tinted opening sequence, is taken care of by Mrs Sekine’s right hand man Kinoshita (Hayato Tani), but Hiroko begins to have her doubts after catching sight of a woman who looks exactly like the one she killed at the local ski resort. 

“Rich people are like that. They’d lie about anything in order to keep their wealth” Hiroko is told, realising she may be at the centre of an infinitely complex plot and becoming aware of Mrs Sekine’s tendency to throw money at people to get them to play along with her plans. Like any good gothic mystery, however, the house holds a dark secret in a hidden room which perhaps hints at the corruptions of the Bubble era along with those of the super rich elite and the undue pressure it puts on its young while uncomfortably suggesting that Mrs Sekine herself is the source of the corruption in her attempt to integrate into a higher social class into which she was not born. Atmospheric in its chilling vistas of the freezing snow, Kekkon Annai Mystery’s twisting tale of greed and manipulation may end in tragedy but ironically lives up to its name as its heroine finds a potential match in her accidental co-conspirator. 


Black Sun (黒い太陽, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964)

black sun still 2The Warped Ones showed us a nihilistic world of aimless youth living not so much on their wits as by their pleasures, indulging their every animalistic whim while respectable society looked on in horror. By 1964 things have only got worse. Tokyo might have got the Olympics, Japan might be back on the international map, and economic prosperity might be on the rise but all around the city there’s an arid wasteland – a literal dumping ground in which the unburied past has been left to fester as a grim reminder of historical follies and the present’s reluctance to deal with them.

Akira (Tamio Kawaji), now calling himself “Mei” (perhaps a play on the reading of the character for his name 明), seems to have mellowed since the heady days of his youth. Living alone save for a dog named Thelonious Monk, Mei has co-opted a disused church and turned it into a shrine for jazz. The walls and ceilings are covered in photographs of famous jazz musicians and posters for club nights and solo shows. He has his own turntable and a well stocked selection of LPs, though he still seems to frequent the same kind of jazz clubs that so defined his earlier life.

Change arrives when Mei boosts a fancy car and is almost caught in a police net caused by the body of an American serviceman found floating in the harbour. Apparently the crime is the product of an internal GI squabble, but the offending soldier is on the run with a machine gun. As coincidence would have it, the wounded killer, Gil (Chico Lourant), fetches up at Mei’s church and, as Gil is a black man, Mei assumes that they will definitely be friends. It is, however, not quite that simple.

As in the earlier film, jazz is the force which keeps Mei’s mind from fracturing. His life still moves to improvisational rhythms even if apparently not quite so frenetically as it once did. Rather than the rampant animal of The Warped Ones, this Mei has embraced his outsider status through literally removing himself from the city in favour of self-exile and isolation as a squatter in the house of God – a place about to be torn down.

While Mei has been literally pushed out with only his beloved dog as evidence of his latent human feelings, his formerly delinquent friend, Yuki (Yuko Chishiro), has gone on to bigger and better things. No longer (it seems) a casual prostitute catering to foreigners, Yuki has repurposed the skills her former life gave her to shift into an aspirational middle-class world as a translator for those same American troops she once performed another service for. The American occupation is long over, but the US Army is everywhere.

Mei thinks of himself as one of Japan’s oppressed outsiders – an outcast in a land subjugated by a foreign power. He squats in a ruined church while the Americans “squat” in his ruined country. He likes jazz because it fits the rhythms of his mind but also because he believes it to be the music of the oppressed. In Gil he thinks he sees another like him, a man oppressed in his own homeland and ironically enough by the same forces that are (in part) oppressing him. Mei has a lot of strange, stereotypical ideas about black men – he’s excited to meet Gil because he thinks all black men must love jazz and that Gil must be some kind of jazz god, but Gil is a frightened rabbit on the run, terrified and bleeding. Thinking he’s in the middle of a visitation, Mei tries to make plain his enthusiasm despite the obvious language barrier, pointing wildly at his shrine to jazz, but all Gil wants is quiet and help with the bullet wound currently suppurating on his thigh.

The “relationship” deteriorates, but a strange kind of camaraderie is eventually born between the two men. Things take a turn for the surreal when Mei dons black face and paints Gil’s white, only to get stopped by GIs who want to see an ID from a “foreigner” driving a fancy car, and for Mei to introduce Gil at his favourite jazz bar as his new “slave”. In hindsight it’s all a little awkward as Kurahara throws in stock footage of the civil rights movement and tries to equate it both to the recent protest movements in Japan and to Mei’s self-identified status as one of Japan’s oppressed masses. Still, you can’t argue with the fact that the two men have found a bond in their shared alienation and desire to escape from the impotence of their current situations.

Ironically enough Kurahara does seem to believe in an escape, though it’s perhaps not so positive as it sounds. The tragic friendship of the two men in which one must save the other by releasing him towards the sea and the sun pushes Mei out of his self-exile and back into the “real” world even if he still considers himself to be an outsider within it. The sun is bright but it’s also dull, shining not with hope but with consolation for a hopeless world in which the only victory lies in the final act of surrender.


Short scene from the beginning of the film (English subtitles)

North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)

north sea dragon dvd cover.jpgAt the beginning of the 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity would put the ninkyo eiga firmly to bed, but in the mid-1960s, they were still his bread and butter. Fukasaku’s earlier career at Toei leant towards the studio’s preference for youthful rebellion but with a stronger trend towards standardised gangster tropes than the countercultural thrills to be found in similar offerings from Nikkatsu. For Fukasaku the rebellion is less cool affectation than it is a necessary revolt against increasing post-war inequality and a constraining society though, as the heroes of If You Were Young, Rage or Blackmail is My Life find out, escape can rarely be found by illicit means. Jiro, the prodigal son of North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Hokkai no Abare-Ryu), finds something similar even whilst conforming almost entirely to Toei’s standard “young upstart saves the village” narrative.

Jiro (Tatsuo Umemiya), dressed in white with jet black sunshades, nonchalantly walks into his childhood fishing village filled with a sense of nostalgia and the expectation of a warm welcome. The village, however, is much changed. There are fewer boats around now, and the fishermen are all ashore. Arriving at his family home he discovers they now live in the boat shed and his mother doesn’t even want to let him in. Jiro, as his outfit implies, has spent his time away as a yakuza, and his family want little to do with him, especially as his father has been murdered by the soulless gangsters who are currently strangling the local fishing industry.

The local fishermen are all proudly tattooed but they aren’t yakuza, unlike the tyrannical son of the local boss, Gen Ashida (Hideo Murota), who carries around a double barrelled shotgun and fearsome sense of authority. The Ashidas have placed a stranglehold around the local harbour, dictating who may fish when and extracting a good deal of the profits. An attempt to bypass them does not go well for Jiro’s mother who is the only one brave enough to speak out against their cruel treatment even if it does her no good.

When Jiro arrives home for unexplained reasons he does so happily, fully expecting to be reunited with his estranged family. Not knowing that his father had died during his absence, Jiro also carries the guilt of never having had the opportunity to explain himself and apologise for the argument that led to him running away. An early, hot headed attempt to take his complaint directly to the Ashidas ends in disaster when he is defeated, bound, and whipped with thick fisherman’s rope but it does perhaps teach him a lesson.

The other boys from the village – Jiro’s younger brother Shinkichi (Hayato Tani) and the brother of his childhood friend Reiko (Eiko Azusa), Toshi (Jiro Okazaki), are just as eager as he is both to avenge the death of Jiro’s father and rid the village of the evil Ashida tyranny. Jiro tries to put them off by the means of a good old fashioned fist fight which shows them how ill equipped they are in comparison with the older, stronger, and more experienced Jiro but their youth makes them bold and impatient. The plot of Toshi and Shinkichi will have disastrous consequences, but also acts as a galvanising force convincing the villagers that the Ashidas have to go.

Jiro takes his natural place as the hero of a Toei gangster film by formulating a plan to undermine the Ashidas’ authority. His major strategic decision is to bide his time but he also disrupts the local economy by attempting to evade the Ashida net through sending the fisherman to other local ports and undercutting the Ashida profit margin. As predicted the Ashidas don’t like it, but cost themselves a crucial ally by ignoring the intense bond between their best fighter and his adorable pet dog. Things do not quite go to plan but just as it looks as if Jiro is about to seal his victory, he stays his sword. The Ashidas’ power is broken and they have lost enough already.

Fukasaku’s approach tallies with the classic narrative as the oppressive forces are ousted by a patient people pushed too far finally deciding to fight back and doing so with strategic intelligence. It is, in one sense, a happy ending but not one without costs as Jiro looks at the restored village with the colourful flags of fishing boats enlivening the harbour and everyone going busily about their work. He knows a sacrifice must be made to solidify his mini revolution and he knows who must make it. Like many a Toei hero before him, he prepares to walk away, no longer welcome in the world his violence has saved but can no longer support.


Original trailer (no subtitles)