Bull’s Eye of Love (おしどり駕篭, Masahiro Makino, 1958)

Masahiro Makino was best known for jidaigeki and ninkyo eiga but also had an interesting sideline in cheerful period musicals including many collaborations with post-war singing sensation Hibari Misora. Bull’s Eye of Love (おしどり駕篭, Oshidori Kago) is, like Singing Lovebirds, a musical comedy in which a samurai (in disguise) and a feisty young woman fall in love while battling the corruption of their times. Though in this case Hibari takes a back seat in fighting samurai hypocrisy, she still gives as good as she gets as she fights for love across the class divide even while accepting that she can only have her love if he consents to renounce his nobility and live as a humble plasterer. 

The trouble starts when the old lord dies and a prominent retainer, Hyobu, leaps into action, taking control of the situation in fast tracking the accession of second son Sannojo (Sentaro Fushimi) who many feel to be too immature, weak willed, and naive to lead effectively. Top servant Zenbei complains, pointing out that Sannojo has an older brother, Genjiro (Yorozuya Kinnosuke), who should be first in line. But Genjiro has long been absent from the court, apparently intent on escaping the “stuffy” samurai lifestyle. Hyobu claims not that Genjiro has forfeited his position, but that he has actively renounced it in favour of Sannojo. Zenbei is not convinced, at the very least he feels they should find Genjiro and explain the situation to find out for sure what it is he intends to do with the rest of his life. 

It happens that Genjiro is living humbly as Genta the plasterer and has fallen in love with Kocho (Hibari Misora), the proprietress of an archery parlour who also likes to put on a show every now and then. The major problem in his life is that both he and Kocho are too stubborn and proud to say “I love you” which is making them bicker endlessly as a kind of substitute. The arrival of Zenbei and another retainer blows his cover and sends his new life into disarray. He has no desire to return to the samurai world, but also knows his brother is too susceptible to manipulation to be allowed to succeed unadvised, especially as Hyobu seems to be manoeuvring to get him married to his troubled daughter Chidori (Hiroko Sakuramachi) who seems to have some kind of ongoing mental disturbance which renders her distant and childlike. His romantic hopes will have to go on the back burner for a while as he becomes “Genjiro” once again to sort out Hyobu before hopefully returning to the simple life of an Edo plasterer. 

From Kocho’s point of view, the news that Genta has hidden his true status from her is alarming on two fronts, not only that he’s “lied” about who he is, but that if he is a noble lord then they can never be together because samurai don’t marry outside of their order. Genta, however, seems to be a fairly atypical sort of samurai who is entirely uninterested in wealth, status, and the restrictive codes which bind the noble. He looks for freedom in living as an ordinary man, which may be a bit disingenuous because there’s little freedom in starving and being constantly oppressed by the cruel order he was born into, but there is truth in it. It’s also unlikely that his clan would allow him to just up and leave, disappearing into Edo era society and abnegating his responsibility, but Bull’s Eye of Love is intent on a more cheerful depiction of the samurai world than that found in many contemporary period dramas in which its heroes are allowed to choose love and freedom without being forced to sacrifice their feelings in the name of duty. 

Kocho finally confesses her love but makes clear it is for Genta, not for Genjiro, only to end up falling for Genjiro too because of his manly samurai charms coupled with an unusual sense of compassion. Despite being told to stay at home, she takes her bow and arrow and follows him, relieved to discover she didn’t need to join the fight because he’d already handled it. In a fairly strange turn of events, however, Genjiro wipes out most of the treacherous retainers but then more or less enables Hyobu’s plan by putting Sannojo in charge and agreeing that he should marry Chidori who was only playing mad to undermine her father’s nefarious schemes. Having sorted everything out, the pair leave on a more equal footing after confirming their feelings towards each other and their intentions for the future. Genjiro renounces his samurai status to live “free” in Edo, cheerfully proceeding out of the palace and into the streets singing as he goes rejecting elitist authoritarianism in favour of the earthy pleasures of warmth and friendship to live as an ordinary man unburdened by the cruel hypocrisies of samurai soceity. 


Detective Hibari 3: Hidden Coin (ひばり捕物帖 ふり袖小判, Kokichi Uchide, 1959)

Hibari Misora returns as Oshichi in another adventure for the Edo detective, this time becoming embroiled in a conspiracy against the Shogunate which she continues to serve. By this third instalment in the Detective Hibari series, Hidden Coin (ひばり捕物帖 ふり袖小判, Hibari Torimonocho: Furisode Koban), Oshichi is no longer hiding her noble birth as an esteemed princess, but is living as a singer/law enforcement officer under her “common” name, and upholding the interests of “common” people suffering under “corrupt” samurai oppression but, paradoxically, very much upholding the system which enables it.

The conspiracy in which Oshichi becomes involved this time around is concerned with the plot to overthrow the Shogunate. Rebel forces manage to ambush a convoy carrying tax money to the government, hoping to use the money to buy guns from the Dutch to aid their revolution. As only one of the retainers survives, he will be held responsible for the loss of the money and almost certainly asked to commit ritual suicide, but the Ota clan and most particularly retainer Kennoshin (Kotaro Satomi), are worried about the man’s daughter, Misuzu (Atsuko Nakazato), to whom he was very close. Oshichi becomes involved when she hears of an entire household being murdered and their funds stolen, while a lone pickpocket is found dead with a precious gold coin lying nearby. 

Before discovering the crime, Oshichi and her trusty sidekick Gorohachi (Takehiko Kayama) are talking to a kabuki actor who is about to undergo a succession ceremony which will cost a significant amount of money – 1000 Ryo. Gorohachi is mystified, wondering how many years he’d have to work in order to find that kind of money, while the two pickpockets outside wonder something much the same. The older of the two, Oshima (Keiko Yukishiro), wants to make sure the actor gets his money and has been desperately trying to get in touch with him but he is too snooty to see her. Oshichi starts connecting the dots between the pickpockets and the conspiracy to find a vital clue, but once again is keen to stress that “the law can be merciful too” as she both ensures that Oshima faces justice and allows her to find emotional fulfilment in revealing her true identity and finally seeing the show. 

Meanwhile, despite outwardly dressing in manly, action friendly outfits, this Oshichi is one more romantically inclined, fretting over the fate of her brother’s retainer Hyoma (Chiyonosuke Azuma) who, she thinks, has left his employ and become a drunkard. The drunken downward spiral of his life turns out to be a kind of undercover assignment, but provokes a little jealousy in Oshichi as she sees him “protecting” other women at a nearby restaurant, one of whom turns out to be Misuzu who holds a few more pieces of the puzzle. Vowing to save Misuzu and stop the conspiracy, Oshichi adopts a male persona complete with top knotted wig and takes on an entire boatload of sailors who stupidly tell her that they’re shipping out that very night. 

Oshichi rescues Misuzu and gets the money back, saving her father and “restoring” the status quo, but it’s difficult to see which side she should be on in this fight. As Gorohachi perhaps implies, it’s not exactly fair or responsible for the samurai class to be hoarding all these vast amounts of money, or for it to be necessary to spend the annual salaries of several ordinary people on an extravagant celebration for an actor’s promotion. We’re told that the rebels are “evil” and villainous, and they do indeed seem to be cruel and self-interested, willing to sacrifice anyone and everyone to achieve their goal, but it’s difficult to argue with the desire to stand up to this inherently oppressive system in which samurai corruption is the expected norm. 

Insisting that “the law can be merciful”, Oshichi serves a kind of moral justice, rescuing the innocent Misuzu and saving her wrongfully abused father while unmasking samurai corruption, but she remains a loyal servant of the Shogunate and a part of the system into which she was born. Oshichi has been permitted escape from her own oppression thanks to her “compassionate” brother who has allowed her to live freely in the city rather than pressuring her to marry and conform to the feminine norm, but living outside it herself seemingly has no sympathy for those who wish to reform the system and seeks only to preserve it. Having successfully solved the mystery, she reassumes her femininity and retreats into the cheerful festival atmosphere arm in arm with a clean shaven Hyoma finally embracing her romantic dream in an Edo freed from immediate strife. 


Short clip (no subtitles)

Detective Hibari 2: Secret of the Golden Coin (ひばり捕物帖 自雷也小判, Kinnosuke Fukada, 1958)

Oshichi returns! Two years after her first adventure, the princess in hiding has moved on, still living in the city hiding from the burdens of privilege but fiercely opposing injustice wherever she finds it as a detective in her own right. Unlike Mysteries of Edo and in keeping with Case of the Golden Hairpins, this Oshichi undergoes much less of a softening, remaining largely disinterested in the idea of romance, and cooly rebellious in her refusal to be cowed while strangely OK with Shogunate oppression as a quasi-agent of the state. 

As the film opens, a young woman impersonates Oshichi in order to gain entrance to a prison where her boyfriend is in jail for rebelling against the Shogunate. Meanwhile, Oshichi (Hibari Misora) is teaching a singing class as a favour to her boss who had to go out on an errand, after which she discovers that Hyoma (Chiyonosuke Azuma), currently a retainer of her brother’s, has been sent to bring her home. Once again she refuses because she likes her “ordinary” life. Shortly thereafter, a fire breaks out in the prison and the rebels escape. Oshichi becomes a prime suspect in the jailbreak, not only because the accomplice borrowed her name but because it’s advantageous to the plotters to blame her because they can use her guilt to tarnish her brother’s reputation and get him fired, usurping his position in the process. 

Oshichi, now working as a detective, is technically an agent of the Shogunate against which the rebels are rebelling for reasons which aren’t stated here but are probably easy to guess. They are, in many ways, the same sorts of reasons that Oshichi chose to become a detective, even if she’s coming at them from the other side. She doesn’t like bullies, or corruption, injustice or unfairness. Oshichi won’t stand for unkindness either, which is perhaps why she aligns so strongly behind the woman who blackened her name by impersonating her, knowing that she did it all for love and a little bit for justice, while also forgiving the rebel Seinosuke (Kotaro Satomi) who was preparing to kill the woman he loved because the corrupt samurai had kidnapped his dad and threatened to kill him if he didn’t. 

Despite all that however, Oshichi still insists that “the Shogunate can be compassionate too”, encouraging Seinosuke and his girlfriend Namiji (Hiromi Hanazono) to tell all so she can help them safe in the knowledge that they will be forgiven. It’s a slightly strange position for to her take, essentially authoritarian but arguing for a benevolent paternalism that is just and fair and kind, insisting that the corrupt samurai are bad apples which must be expelled rather than a product of an inherently oppressive social system as they are generally depicted in post-war jidaigeki. 

This insistence on the “compassion” of the Shogunate is perhaps the concession to Oshichi’s femininity which she has otherwise rejected in rejecting her life as a cosseted princess. As Kawashima had in Mysteries of Edo, Oshichi’s “protector” Hyoma asks her how she can take on all those men before challenging her to a contest of masculinity as mediated through a drinking competition which she does not exactly “win” but makes a minor victory all the same. Rather than rely on her brother or Hyoma, Oshichi vows to clear her name herself and starts investigating on her own dressing as a man and fighting bad guys while insisting on her independence. 

Nevertheless, she is but a pawn in a game of courtly intrigue, manipulated as a means of getting to her brother. The corrupt samurai think nothing of killing anyone who gets in their way, be they princesses or peasants, even going far as to mount an attack on the stage of a theatre mid-performance in front of a room full of spectators, many of whom join Oshichi by throwing projectiles as she tries to fend them off. Once again, she isn’t quite permitted to save herself but is “rescued” by the patriarchal forces representing the greater Shogunate including her protector Hyoma, and her brother, the embodiment of state authority. She is, however, the primary motivator in unmasking the corruption as she both clears her own name, and creates a better future for Namiji in which she can be with the man she loves, reminding her to always remember the compassion the Shogunate has shown her (in case she was minded to mount any more rebellions). As for herself, she manages to slip the loop once again, running off into the wild to claim her independence rather than be forced back into the golden cage of her princesshood while the loyal Hyoma contents himself with following her lead. 


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Detective Hibari 1: Case of the Golden Hairpins (ひばり捕物帖 かんざし小判, Tadashi Sawashima, 1958)

Two years after Mysteries of Edo and a year after its sequel, Hibari Misora returns as Oshichi in a new series of films, still living undercover in Edo solving crimes and living her best life as a singer and performer. Like Mysteries, Detective Hibari 1: Case of the Golden Hairpins (ひばり捕物帖 かんざし小判, Hibari Torimonocho: Kanzashi Koban, AKA Edo Girl Detective / Here Comes the Girl Detective) sees Oshichi investigating murders of women, though this time the crime is far less involved and much more typical of Toei’s period films in its venal samurai and their insatiable appetites for wealth and status. Oshichi is, essentially, an agent of the state but a much less ambiguous one than she’d become in the following pictures, fighting bravely against corruption and standing proudly for justice in the face of implacable samurai arrogance. 

Having escaped the cage of her noble birth, Princess Tae/Oshichi (Hibari Misora) is still living as an “ordinary” woman in Edo and has just won a singing competition to be named as Queen Beauty. The competition is marred however when one of the other contestants is offed on the way home. Still working with her trusty sidekick Gorohachi (Shunji Sakai), Oshichi quickly realises the woman seems to have been murdered with an ornate hairpin and starts an investigation.

What she discovers is that an unscrupulous gang of samurai is attempting to recover a set of three hairpins which were stolen in a robbery some years previously. The lord claims he’s doing it to satisfy his clan’s honour, but more likely has a less honorable goal in in mind. To put the plan in action, he’s mobilised his conflicted daughter, Sumie (Eiko Maruyama), who thinks this is all a bit much for set of shiny hair ornaments, and her boyfriend Tamiya (Kotaro Satomi) whose family originally owned the jewels which is why he sees it as his duty to get them back, even if that means murdering innocent women and sending the entire city into a panic in the process. Of course, Oshichi agrees with Sumie, and as usual immediately sympathises with her romantic dilemma which earns her a few sarcastic comments from sometime love interest Hyoma (Chiyonosuke Azuma) who will recur throughout the rest of the series.

Hyoma, posing as a drunken ronin but in reality shadowing Oshichi as a protector, like Kawashima in Mysteries, expresses consternation with Oshichi’s atypical feminity, echoing Kawashima’s words that “a woman should be feminine” while claiming not to find Oshichi’s manly fortitude very effective. Kawashima’s words may have wounded her, but Hyoma’s only irritate. She fires back that as a talented samurai he’s wasting his potential drowning himself in drink and he should “stop fighting and do something for society”. Meanwhile, she doubles down – dressing as a man and even joining a kendo dojo to spy on the corrupt lords, scrapping with the best of them and holding her own in a fight. 

Swinging the other way, another of her investigative tactics sees her posing as a geisha and then later as a noble lady, even getting dressed up in her formal princess clothes to beg a favour from her extremely understanding brother. Sympathy for Sumie and a few romantic songs may be the sole concessions to conventional femininity, but Oshichi remains proudly defiant and intent on maintaining her freedoms. It may be true that the unusual degree of freedom she has is permitted her because of her progressively minded brother who ignores “advice” from an elderly servant to exercise more control because he can see being of use to society makes his sister happy and that she’ll probably come home when she wants to, but it’s also freedom that she has actively chosen for herself and chooses to maintain. 

Oshichi gets drunk with Hyoma (apparently for the first time), fights bad guys, and gives orders that stop seasoned samurai in their tracks but not so much for herself as to help those like Sumie who have become victims of corrupt samurai ethics. She does this, however, as someone who largely believes in the righteousness of the system, that the Shogunate is kind and forgiving while local lords may be avaricious or cruel. When her brother arrives to save the day, he announces that the hairpins will be sent to the Shogun who will return them to the people, sharing the treasure with everyone rather than keeping it for himself. Oshichi, meanwhile has found something greater – a worthy sparring partner in the dashingly romantic Hyoma, and the confirmation of herself not as Tae the caged princess but Oshichi who owns the very ground she walks upon and allows no other to tell her where she may be permitted to go. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mysteries of Edo (ふり袖捕物帖 若衆変化, Shoji Matsumura, 1956)

The voice of the post-war era, Hibari Misora was a major marquee star but in contrast to expectation, appears to have been fully in command of her contradictory brand, selling an image of herself not as docile and innocent in the manner of many a manufactured idol but feisty and true, refusing to backdown in the face of injustice. In her contemporary movies, she stood up to gangsters and corrupt corporations alike with salt of the earth charm, while her period roles saw her do much the same only against the inherently corrupt samurai order. An early outing for Toei, Mysteries of Edo (ふり袖捕物帖 若衆変化, Furisode Torimonocho: Wakashu Henge) sees her star in the first of a series of films as a princess in hiding turned feminist detective, investigating series of abductions in the rapidly changing bakumatsu society. 

A “newspaper” seller in the street informs us that 14 girls have recently gone missing in this area of town, and no one’s doing much about it. A dance teacher escorts her pupils home to be on the safe side while her apprentice, Oshichi (Hibari Misori), stays behind to teach cowardly samurai Kawashima (Hashizo Okawa) some moves. Local bobby Gorohachi (Shunji Sakai), himself a dance enthusiast, arrives to get some guidance from Oshichi but their lesson is interrupted by the news that the dance mistress and her daughter have become the latest two abduction victims. Oshichi springs into action but quickly falls under suspicion from a rival policeman, Gonroku (Haruhisa Kawada), who questions her background. All too soon, the body of a young woman is discovered at the local shrine and believed to be connected to the abduction cases. Gonroku accepts a bribe from a samurai to get rid of the body as quickly as possible, but Oshichi immediately notices the bruises on the woman’s neck and concludes it’s a murder. She and Gorohachi trace the samurai back to the red light district and discover some shady goings on in a “back house” behind a brothel belonging to a prominent merchant. 

During this era, Japan was still in its isolationist period during which consorting with foreigners was forbidden outside of a few explicitly designated trading spots. Oshichi figures out that the merchant, Nagasaki (Ryosuke Kagawa), is involved with smuggling and uses his second house as a place to entertain foreigners in collusion with local politicians. When he ran out of courtesans from the brothel next door, he started simply abducting random women off the street to entertain his guests with more authentic charms. Those who don’t comply are threatened with being sold off on slave ships, itself another evil of the age. 

Of course, a lowly dance teacher and a bumbling policeman aren’t much of a match for entrenched samurai corruption, but Oshichi has a trump card – she’s secretly a princess in hiding. Bored with the life of an upperclass noblewoman, she ran away from her brother’s home to live an independent life in Edo but can still rely on her class background when necessary. Stealing a pistol and a letter box, she rebrands herself as a man and gets a job in the ministry to try and spy on the corrupt lords while hoping to save her boss, keeping up the ruse well enough but eventually unmasked as a girl. 

As in many of her films, Misora plays on gender ambiguity. Rejecting the cosseted life of a lady, she takes to the streets and then takes charge. She’s technically Gorohachi’s subordinate, but in reality he follows her lead, and she gives as good as she gets in the frequent fight sequences. In the end, however, she’s “rescued” by a masked samurai dressed in white with whom she becomes instantly smitten. She dreams of meeting him in a deserted field where he mildly berates her for her lack of femininity, insisting that he liked “the Oshichi from before”, meanwhile she conjures up the figure of Kawashima who manfully wades in to save her. Previously, in refusing to help, Kawashima had told her that “a woman should know her place and act like a woman”. Oshichi tells him perhaps he should act like a man, practice kendo or something else more manly rather than prancing about learning to dance. His words have perhaps cut her because he tells her the same thing in her dream, insisting that he “could fall for the womanly Oshichi”.

Oshichi tries on womanliness for size, but it only seems to confuse the “real” Kawashima who describes her attempt at genial femininity as “creepy”. She quickly goes back to holding her own, pushing forward where the men hold back perhaps bashful in love but never in justice. Even if it’s true that the dashing samurai arrives to save the day, Oshichi is no damsel in distress watching passively from the sidelines but an active participant threatening bad guys with a gun cunningly smuggled in while she distracted them with a song, and grabbing a sword off the wall to wade into the fray. Rewarded for her good work and asked what she’d like in return, Oshichi chooses her freedom, intending to stay in the town a little longer, solving crimes in old Edo and ensuring that no one, even those who think they have a right to be, is truly above the law.


Tsukigata Hanpeita (月形半平太, Kokichi Uchide, 1952)

Tusgikata Hanpeita still 1In the midst of post-war confusion, Japanese cinema increasingly looked back to Meiji in all of its chaotic possibility in order to ask what went wrong and what lessons it might have for a second kind of revolution as the nation tried to rebuild itself after decades of militarist folly and chastened wartime defeat. “Tsukigata Hanpeita” (月形半平太) is a “legendary” fictional character first imagined for a kabuki play in 1919 who finds himself swept up in Bakumatsu intrigue as he tries, along with daring revolutionaries Sakamoto Ryoma and Katsura Kogoro, to forge an alliance between the clans of Choshu and Satsuma in order to take on the corrupt shogun in defence of the Emperor and foster a new era of peace in an increasingly uncertain world.

When we first meet him, Tsukigata Hanpeita (Utaemon Ichikawa) is on the run from Kyoto-based special police force the Mimawarigumi but also making time for his mistress, Umematsu (Chizuru Kitagawa) – a geisha. This in particular is a problem which has left him dangerously exposed, even the Mimawarigumi leader Okudaira (Joji Kaieda) seems to be aware of the relationship and is apparently not above using it to his advantage. Meanwhile, he’s not only threatened by shogunate defenders, but by his own side – both by those who remain unconvinced by Sakamoto’s (Jotaro Togami) internationalist philosophy, and by those who simply hold a grudge against Satsuma because of a previous conflict and regard Tsukigata as a traitor for daring to talk to them at all. Despite everything, Tsukigata hides in the shadows and commits himself to living, and if necessary dying, to bring about a better world free of shogunate oppression.

Unlike other revolutionary legends, however, Tsukigata’s fervour has not made him cold or cruel even if he must sometimes act in ways which are mysterious and confuse those around him. Meeting a young man on a bridge, he applauds his studious nature, agreeing that “nothing is more important than to understand advanced civilisation”, and is as polite as he could be when the man tells him he has just joined the Mimawarigumi. Rather than attack or berate him, Tsukigata cheerfully wishes the young man well, allowing him the space to see that his present allegiance to the shogunate is perhaps misguided and out of line with his personal beliefs.

Indeed, his compassion extends even to Okudaira – his mortal enemy. Offering his condolences to a grieving Somehachi (Isuzu Yamada), Tsugikata laments that in a better world he and Okudaira may have been friends, that he had no personal grudge against him despite the fact that they clearly lived on different sides of an ideological divide. He could perhaps even harbour a kind of professional respect for him in his dogged defence of his duty for all he believes it to be misguided. “It’s so unfortunate”, he exclaims, “We have to make the world a better place”.

His desire to change the world is what keeps Tsukigata alive. Several times he faces certain death, but declares but he cannot die now with his great work left unfinished. He is not afraid of death and would gladly give his life in the service of his cause, only not just yet. “Would you please spare my life until I change the world?” he begs of someone he fully believes has a right to kill him, eventually winning their support and unexpected allegiance solely through his guileless goodness.

Yet for all that, his moral austerity does at times perhaps cause him problems in giving rise to emotional confusion. So it is that he winds up in an accidental love triangle with the smitten Somehachi – a former geisha turned madam whose patron is none other than Okudaira, and Umematsu an ageing courtesan with whom he has developed a more or less settled relationship. This is clearly the story of Tsukigata Hanpeita, but more than that it’s the story of the three women who support him without whom the revolution may even be impossible. Somehachi, despite her allegiance to Okudaira, has been a longstanding Tsukigata ally several times helping him escape from the oncoming Mimawarigumi, while Umematsu provides him with safe harbour and occasional message carrying services which is where teenage geisha Hinagiku (Hibari Misora) comes in, acting as a revolutionary go-between with deep-seated political passion.

Speaking strongly of female solidarity, the fallout from the love triangle is eventually minimised by the sisterly geishas who later bond in their shared support of Tsukigata and resolve to put past pettiness behind them. Meanwhile, Tsukigata is deceived by male treachery, only to finally receive the message he’s been waiting for which seems to make everything worthwhile. “I can see the dawn of a new era”, he exclaims, “the new era will be peaceful”. Suddenly he’s not just talking of himself anymore, but directly to the post-war era as he begins to see the way out of a “chaotic society” towards a prosperous future in the faces of his friends united in mutual support and the belief that his better world will soon be a reality.


Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yasushi Sasaki, 1961)

The post-war world was one of increasing globalisation which brought with it anxiety as well as hope as Japan readied itself to step back onto the world stage. The populist cinema of the early ‘60s is marked by ambivalent attitudes to international influences, not just towards creeping Americanisation and its perceived costs but perhaps somewhat uncomfortably towards the wider world and Asia in particular with the same old prejudices which had marked the previous 20 years rearing their heads once again. Voice of the post-war era, the films of Hibari Misora are, by contrast, about as forward looking and progressive as it was possible to be but Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yurei-jima no Okite) in which she plays a noticeably smaller part, is a bizarre exception in which a “lawless” melting pot outpost must be “civilised” by Japanese influences else the creeping rule of thuggish Asian gangs finally reach Japan “proper”.

We’re deep in the Bakumatsu. The Black Ships have already arrived and there is considerable political trouble brewing back in Japan. That’s not our immediate concern however because we’re on a creepy boat with slovenly ronin Yagi Hanzo (Hashizo Okawa) and a mysterious woman wearing a cheongsam (Hibari Misora). Fellow petty gangster and slave trafficker Bunji (Chiyonosuke Azuma) is suspicious of Hanzo, but decides he’s probably just an unlucky retainer on the run from something or other and might prove useful. Therefore, on arrival at Dragon Island, Bunji starts on trying to recruit Hanzo for his boss Chou Yang Po (Isao Yamagata), but Hanzo’s his own man and he hasn’t come here looking for a job. Fearing Hanzo is a government official here to bring the law down on all their heads, Chou tries to force him to harm a man they have in custody and believe to be working for the state. Hanzo gets round this by breaking a chair over the man’s back but leaving him otherwise unharmed, keeping his cover (if that’s what it is) firmly intact.

During his stay on Dragon Island, Hanzo will meet several other shady characters, many of them dressed in outfits more usually associated with the Chinese, Indians, nondescript “islanders”, and strange movie pirates, but what must be assumed is that though Japan “owns” this distant island it is unable to police it and as such it has become a den of scum and villainy in which various tribal gangs vie for hegemony and control over the lucrative smuggling hub which has unwittingly formed in direct response to Japan’s unwise policy of internal isolation which is itself at breaking point thanks to Perry’s Black Ships which we later hear are also on their way to Dragon Island.

Our key into this conflict is the crazed child of the leading gangster, Isakichi (Hiroki Matsukata), who dresses like a cowboy and likes to showoff his hard-won saloon credentials as sharpshooting libertine and all round party animal. Hanzo is not as impressed by this as Isakichi was hoping though an awkward sort of camaraderie eventually arises between them. Meanwhile, Isakichi has fallen in innocent love with the sister of his childhood best friend who is deep into a putative resistance movement hoping to end the stranglehold the smugglers have placed over the previously peaceful island.

Misora’s Madame Song, for some reason posing as a Chinese sex worker, hints at the various ways nothing is quite as it seems in her astute observations of the world around her, sensing that Hanzo is hiding something but also assuming that he is on the “right” side. There is conspiracy everywhere – the putative revolution at home is sending its shockwaves all the way out here as our unscrupulous gangsters try to procure guns to send to various sides on the mainland, while Madame Song ironically laments that what Dragon Island needs is to be more like Japan which is to say ruled less by law itself than an internalised acceptance of the proper order of things. Uncomfortably, it also probably means sending the people who aren’t wearing kimono somewhere else and trying to stop them tricking nice women from Kyushu into coming to tropical islands where they discover they’ve been trafficked into sex work and are unable to leave.

Among Toei’s lower budgeted efforts, Law in Ghost Island bills itself as a supernatural tale and does indeed open with a creepy scene of a misty boat but Hanzo doesn’t end up anywhere like the isle of the dead only a fantasy tropical “paradise” filled with zany movie pirates. Somewhere between pirate fantasy and western, Law in Ghost Island is closer to the kind of spy spoofs Toho would start producing in a few years’ time and even ends with a strangely comic scene in which just about everyone reveals themselves as spy for the same side during the climactic final shootout having been too busy playing spy games to figure any of it out before.

The final messages too are uncomfortable and ambivalent as Hanzo affirms that if there were more “good samurai” Japan would not become lawless like it is here while also claiming Dragon Island for the mainland in fear external forces may use it as a base to attack Japan. The smugglers pay heavily for their “treachery” in contributing to internal mainland chaos while the revolutionary islanders declare their intentions to make the island a better place, which mainly seems to mean making it more “Japanese” which is a fairly ambivalent message whichever way you look at it. Misora only sings two songs and is relegated to a minor mystery in the strange goings on of Ghost Island which features absolutely no ghosts or supernatural intrigue. It does however perhaps shine a light on a strange moment of cultural flux however how unflattering that mirror may turn out to be.


Brief clip of some of Hibari’s songs (no subtitles)

Feisty Edo Girl Nakanori-san (ひばり民謡の旅シリーズ べらんめえ中乗りさん, Masamitsu Igayama, 1961)

Nakanori-san posterThe voice of the post-war era, Hibari Misora also had a long and phenomenally popular run as a tentpole movie star which began at the very beginning of her career and eventually totalled 166 films. Working mostly (though not exclusively) at Toei, she starred in a series of contemporary and period comedies all of which afforded her at least a small opportunity to showcase her musical talents. Directed by Masamitsu Igayama, Feisty Edo Girl Nakanori-san (ひばり民謡の旅シリーズ べらんめえ中乗りさん, Hibari Minyo no Tabi: Beranme Nakanori-san, AKA Travelsongs: Sharp-Tongued Acquaintance) once again stars Hibari Misora as a strong-willed, independent post-war woman who stands up to corruption and looks after the little guy while falling in love with regular co-star Ken Takakura. 

Nobuko (Hibari Misora) is the daughter of a formerly successful lumber merchant whose business is being threatened by an unscrupulous competitor. With her father ill in bed, Nobuko has taken over the family firm but is dismayed to find that a contract she assumed signed has been reneged on by a corrupt underling at a construction company who has been bribed by the thuggish Tajikyo (Takashi Kanda). Unlike Nobuko’s father Sado (Isao Yamagata), Tajikyo is unafraid to embrace the new, completely amoral business landscape of the post-war world and will do whatever it takes to become top dog in the small lumber-centric world of Kibo.

Tajikyo has teamed up with the similarly minded, though nowhere near as unscrupulous, Oka (Yoshi Kato) whose son Kenichi (Ken Takakura) has recently returned from America. Kenichi, having come back to Japan with with clear ideas about the importance of fair practice in business, is not happy with his father’s capitulation to Tajikyo’s bullying. Of course, it also helps that he had a charming meet cute with the spiky Nobuko and became instantly smitten so he is unlikely to be in favour of anything which damages her father’s business even if they are technically competitors.

As in the majority of her films, Misora plays the “feisty” girl of the title, a no nonsense sort of woman thoroughly fed up with the misogynistic micro aggressions she often encounters when trying to participate fully in the running of her family business. Though her father seems happy enough, even if casually reminding her that aspects of the job are more difficult for women – particularly the ones which involve literal heavy lifting and being alone with a large number of men in the middle of a forest, he too remarks on her seeming masculinity in joking that her mother made a mistake in giving birth to her as a girl. Likewise, Tajikyo’s ridiculous plan to have Nobuko marry his idiot son is laughed off not only because Tajikyo is their enemy, but because most people seem to think that Nobuko’s feistiness makes her unsuitable for marriage – something she later puts to Kenichi as their courtship begins to become more serious. Kenichi, of course, is attracted to her precisely because of these qualities even if she eventually stops to wonder if she might need to become more “feminine” in order to become his wife.

To this extent, Feisty Edo Girl is the story of its heroine’s gradual softening as she finally writes home to her father that she is happy to have been born a girl while fantasising about weddings and dreaming of Kenichi’s handsome face. Meanwhile, she also attracts the attentions of an improbable motorcycle champion who just happens to also be the son of a logging family and therefore also able to help in the grand finale even if he never becomes a credible love rival despite Nobuko’s frequent admiration for his fiery, rebellious character which more than matches her own.

Nevertheless, the central concern (aside from the romance) is a preoccupation with corruption in the wartime generation. Where Nobuko’s father Sado is “old fashioned” in that he wants to do business legitimately while keeping local traditions alive, the Tajikyos of the world are content to wield his scruples against him, destroying his business through underhanded methods running from staff poaching to bribery and violence. Kenichi’s father has gone along with Tajikoyo’s plans out of greed and weakness, irritated by his son’s moral purity on one level but also mildly horrified by what he might have gotten himself into by not standing up to Tajikyo in the beginning.

As expected, Nobuko and Kenichi eventually triumph through nothing more than a fierce determination to treat others with respect. Working together cheerfully achieves results, while the corrupt forces of Tajikyo eventually find themselves blocked by those who either cannot be bought or find the strength to refuse to be. Nobuko’s big job is finding prime lumber to be used to build a traditional pagoda in America as part of a cultural celebration. She wants to do her best not only because she takes pride in her work but because she knows this project will represent Japan overseas. Tajikyo, however, would cut corners, believing that the Americans wouldn’t notice even if he sent them rotten logs riddled with woodworm as long as the paperwork tallies. Filled with music and song, Nakanori-san is an action packed outing for Misora in which she once again succeeds in setting the world to rights while falling in love with a likeminded soul as they prepare to sail off into kinder post-war future.


Some of Hibari’s songs from the film (no subtitles):

Deep River Melody (風流深川唄, So Yamamura, 1960)

Deep River Melody poster 2An actor with a long and distinguished career, So Yamamura first stepped behind the camera in 1953 with an adaptation of the famous proletarian novel by Takeji Kobayashi, The Crab Cannery Ship (later adapted by Sabu in 2009), and eventually completed six features. Deep River Melody (風流深川唄, Furyu Fukagawa Uta), released in 1960 and adapted from a novel by Matsutaro Kawaguchi, was last among them and starred post-war singing sensation Hibari Misora in the leading role. Hibari Misora was a frequent presence at Toei through the ‘50s and ‘60s, appearing in a series of musical dramas both period and contemporary but Deep River Melody is among the small number of purely dramatic pieces in which she starred which do not feature any musical numbers even over the opening and closing.

Set in the early years of militarism, the story revolves around Setsu (Hibari Misora) – the daughter of a restaurant owner, and her head chef, Cho (Koji Tsuruta). Having grown up together, Setsu and Cho have quietly fallen in love but these are times in which it is difficult to state one’s feelings plainly. Luckily, Setsu’s father, Isaburo (Kan Ishii), and his warm hearted mistress (Isuzu Yamada), have noticed the growing affection between the pair and are only too happy for them. What could be better after all than the head chef marrying into the family? Despite some qualms on Cho’s side in breaking a class ceiling taboo, the matter appears to be settled and both he and Setsu are blissfully happy.

However, tragedy soon strikes. Isaburo unwisely agreed to become the guarantor of a loan taken out by Shunsuke Ohta (So Yamamura) – the leader of the communist party in Japan (not an easy thing to be amid the rising tides of militarism). He, of course, defaults on the loan putting the restaurant at risk. The other relatives, learning of the prospective marriage between Setsu and Cho are extremely unhappy, viewing it as improper for mere servant to inherit the restaurant. Isaburo stands firm, but matters are pushed to crisis point by grumpy uncle Koshikawa who is determined to act as a go-between for the wealthy son of a rival restaurant who has long had designs on Setsu.

Though this is definitively a pre-war story, many of the problems faced by Setsu and Cho are the same as those in Hibari Misora’s contemporary movies in that she, in particular, finds herself trapped by a series of outdated social codes in which her extended family expect her to consent to marry a man she does even like for money in order to save their “good” name. They believe Isaburo is a feckless fool who has lost the restaurant through a needless gesture of loyalty towards a man who had been good to him in the past and was now in trouble. Isaburo places human relationships above money and politics, remaining uninterested in the relatives’ insistence on class hierarchies and preservation of the family’s good standing. Though he may, to a degree at least, be sympathetic towards Ohta’s political intentions, he acts as guarantor out of respect and gratitude rather than deep belief in a cause.

Nevertheless, the barriers between Cho and Setsu are less physical than they are psychological. Cho, raised as a servant, feels himself inferior and has difficulty accepting Isaburo’s talk of marriage owing to their differing social status. Isaburo, somewhat embarrassed, has not yet spoken with Setsu, but then knows his daughter well and is right in assuming the pair will eventually sort things out on their own if given a gentle push. When the relationship is tested by the restaurant’s failure, Isaburo and Setsu stand firm. No one entered this relationship for the wrong reasons – Cho loves the restaurant and everyone who works in it, but he fell in love with Setsu independently and would marry her for nothing. He remains uncertain, however, if his devotion is selfish and if the best way to love her is to leave her and allow her to save her familial legacy by marrying a man with money.

Like many post-war films, Deep River Melody is essentially about learning to let go of outdated ideas and that the maintenance of tradition is less important than individual happiness. Setsu and her father are ready to let go rather than commit themselves to a course of lifelong unhappiness solely to please their snooty relatives. Cho, however, struggles to free himself of a feeling of social inferiority. His own family tell him that his desire to marry Setsu is not only wrong but dangerous, that they have built a life for themselves though being loyal servants and that crossing the class divide risks all of their futures. Conflicted, Cho remains unwilling to fight for his love because he does not believe he can win and not only that, he feels it would be inappropriate to even try. If the pair are to find true happiness, they will have to find the courage to move on from the past and build their own future free of feudal ideas but to do so will require both sacrifice and support in the belief that a better life is possible.


Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Tadashi Sawashima, 1966)

actress vs greedy sharks soundtrack albumA studio director at Toei, Tadashi Sawashima is best remembered for his work in the studio’s ninkyo eiga genre – prewar tales of noble gangsters, and samurai movies but he also made the occasional foray into the world of musical drama, teaming up with top name singing star Hibari Misora on a few of her historical action musicals. In 1966’s Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Kobanzame Oyakusha Jingi) Hibari once again plays a dual role though this time her casting is entirely arbitrary and the visual similarity of the legit actress and the acrobatic outlaw is never explicitly remarked upon.

The action opens with Shichi (Hibari Misora), an acrobat and member of a Robin Hood style band of outlaws (they don’t so much give to the poor as “share” with the less fortunate) interrupting the plot of Yamitaro (Yoichi Hayashi) – a nobleman in disguise to pursue revenge against corrupt lord Doi (Eitaro Shindo) who exiled his father to Convict Island when he began to raise questions about judicial corruption. Meanwhile, Yuki (also played by Hibari) is a top stage actress who is plotting against Doi for sending her father to Convict Island 20 years previously on a trumped up charge. Just as the “tomboyish” Shichi is beginning to fall for the mysterious Yamitaro, he teams up with Yuki to pursue their mutual quests for revenge which has Shichi feeling (needlessly, as it turns out) betrayed and vengeful.

Once again, the samurai order is shown to be corrupt beyond redemption. Doi, a greedy lord, is planning to sell off his only daughter, Ran (Yumiko Nogawa), as a concubine to the shogun. Meanwhile, he is also engaging in a rice profiteering scheme in order to bolster his financial resources. He is also still misusing his influence, just as he did when he had Yuki’s father sent to prison and got rid of Yamitaro’s so he couldn’t expose him.

As in her other movies, Hibari cannot allow this corruption to continue and becomes a thorn in the side of authority. However, the situation this time around is further complicated by her double casting in which she plays two visually identical characters who are, nevertheless, entirely unrelated and the resemblance between them entirely unremarked upon. The “tomboyish” Shichi, apparently falling in love for the first time much to the confusion of herself and others who regarded her lack of traditional femininity as a barrier to romance, becomes awkwardly resentful of the graceful Yuki whose charms she assumes will sway the handsome Yamitaro. Shichi does not seem to consider a class barrier between herself and Yamitaro as a problem but fears his natural affinity with a woman she perceives as superior to herself in her refinement, yet Yuki proves herself as staunch a fighter as Shichi and just as feisty. She appears to have little romantic interest in Yamitaro even if she resents Shichi’s rather blunt instructions to back off, and aside from concentrating on her revenge, spends the rest of the film dealing with the rescue of Doi’s daughter Ran who has drawn inspiration from her stage performances to rebel against her cruel fate and father.

Ran is just another symptom of her father’s corruption in his obvious disregard for her feelings as he prepares to send her off as a concubine to buy himself influence with only the mild justification that her ascendence to the imperial court is an honour even if she will never be a wife, only one of many mistresses. Unlike Ran, Yuki and Shichi have managed to seize their own agency, living more or less independently and as freely as possible within the society they inhabit. Experiencing differing kinds of bad luck and betrayal, they find themselves at odds with each other yet on parallel paths despite their obvious dualities.

With less space for song, Hibari’s dual casting does at least offer twice the fight potential as the outlaw and the actress finally find themselves on the same side to tackle the persistent injustice of Edo era society as manifested in the corrupt Doi and his slimy cronies gearing up for the mass brawl finale in which the wronged take their revenge on the wicked lord by proving him a villain in the public square and earning themselves not a little social kudos in the process. All of which makes the strangely melancholy ending exiling one aspect of Hibari to the outer reaches somewhat uncomfortable but then it does provide an excuse for another song.


Hibari’s musical numbers