Big Shots Die at Dawn (顔役暁に死す, Kihachi Okamoto, 1961)

“Assassins make the world an unfit place to live in” according to a random gas station attendant clueing our errant hero in to the fact his small-town home is now a “den of yakuza” and unlikely tourist hotspot. An early, delightfully absurdist yakuza romp from Kichachi Okamoto, Big Shots Die at Dawn (顔役暁に死す, Kaoyaku Akatsukini Shisu) is part Nikkatsu parody, part ironic western, and all cartoonish fun as a prodigal son returns to find his father murdered and his uncle on the throne. Sound familiar? 

Jiro (Yuzo Kayama) has been working for the forestry commission in Alaska and has not returned to his small-town home of Kuraoka in some time which is why he didn’t even know his father, the mayor, was dead let alone that he was apparently assassinated in a manner which strongly anticipates the Kennedy assassination though the film was released in 1961. He also had no idea his father, a widower, had remarried and his family home is now occupied by his stepmother Hisako (Yukiko Shimazaki), a former secretary who scandalously lounges around in her underwear all day. His uncle Imamura (Eijiro Yanagi) is now the mayor, and as he explains to him, the town is a hotbed of gangster activity apparently a consequence of his attempt to turn it into a tourist hotspot. In trying to find out who killed his father, Jiro finds himself quite literally in the middle of a petty yakuza gang war aided and abetted by corrupt police. 

Quite clearly influenced by American cinema, Big Shots Die at Dawn situates itself in the new frontier of small-town Japan in which a war is being fought over the spoils of the post-war era. Uncle Imamura’s legacy is apparently a children’s theme park with the distinctly pregnant name Dreamland. Apparently a man who just loves the children but was unable to have any of his own, he’s also opened a pre-school for the local kids. Meanwhile, in the yakuza-backed casino, obsessive gamblers brush their teeth at the tables while local kingpin Goto (Akihiko Hirata) attempts to fend off the incursion of the rival Handa gang. Jiro’s return puts the cat among the pigeons as both sides attempt to use him as a way to take out the other.

The dark heart of small-town Japan is however present in the greed and double dealing which extends even to the police, a corrupt officer offering to sell Jiro a key piece of evidence he had concealed in the hope of profit. Just about everyone tries to sell the evidence to someone else at one time or another, leveraging an idea of justice alongside greed and self-interest. Meanwhile, Yoshiko (Kumi Mizuno), a quasi-love interest and former girlfriend of a fallen foot soldier, reports that she gave the police valuable evidence that her fiancé’s death wasn’t a suicide but they ignored her.

Jiro’s come to clean up the town, but the showdown takes place incongruously in the children’s theme park complete with its cutesy mascot characters and adverts for chocolate in the background making plain that these venal gangsters are really just boys playing war, taking pot shots at each other from tiny trains. What could be a dark comment on a loss of innocence is more cartoonish irony from Okamoto who shoots in extreme closeup with intentionally humorous composition and slapstick choreography. Nevertheless the message is unmistakable as we piece together the connections between small-town government and organised crime underpinned with a rather creepy all for the kids justification. 

Then again, the world has its share of misogyny, everything coming down to the incursion of transgressive femininity as one duplicitous woman manipulating her feminine wiles becomes the common link between each of the warring factions, as if this is all her fault and Jiro’s return is a way of clearing up the pollution her arrival provoked. Nevertheless as even he says, his father, and implicitly his father’s generation, must share some of the blame. Filled with stylish action sequences, car chases, self-consciously cool dialogue, and scored with a mix of moody jazz and dreamy childlike melodies, Okamoto’s cartoonish takedown of the zeitgeisty youth movie is very much in keeping with Toho’s spoofier side but chock full of charm even if its hero’s particular brand of smugness occasionally borders on the insufferable. 


Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Kei Kumai, 1974)

Sandakan 8 posterSome might argue that Japanese cinema has often been reluctant to examine the nation’s traumatic 20th century history with the proper rigour, but even if subtle and coming from unexpected angles there have been many and varied attempts to ask questions about the lingering consequences of feudalism. Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Sandakan Hachiban Shokan: Bokyo), inspired by a true life account of a woman unwittingly sold into sexual slavery as a child at the turn of the century, is not only a condemnation of socially approved people trafficking and its role in building the short-lived Japanese empire but a mild provocation of the contemporary society which refuses to engage with its traumatic past.

In the contemporary era, graduate student Keiko Mitani (Komaki Kurihara) is engaged in researching the “karayuki-san” – Japanese women who were sold into sexual slavery throughout Asia in the early 20th century. Almost forgotten, the karayuki-san are a taboo subject and even those still living in the areas from which women and girls were sent away are unwilling to speak of them. By chance, however, Keiko runs into an old woman in a cafe who speaks with a standard Tokyo accent and tells them that she spent most of her life “abroad”. Quickly realising she doesn’t mean she was a diplomat’s wife, Keiko wonders if the woman might be have been a karayuki-san and delays her return to Tokyo in order to find out.

There is something, it has to be said, ironically exploitative in Keiko’s determination to get the old woman, Osaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), to open up about a subject on which she so obviously does not want to be drawn. A visit to Osaki’s home reveals her to be living in a run-down hovel on the edge of town which is filled with stray cats whom Osaki feeds because “they’re all abandoned, but still they have to live”. Keiko gets herself brownie points by reacting politely to Osaki’s reduced living situation, eventually staying three weeks during which time she gradually teases out Osaki’s sad life story. Finally asking if there wasn’t anything Osaki might have liked to know about her, Keiko’s hypocrisy is fully brought home to her when Osaki admits that no one was more curious about Keiko than she was but that “people have reasons for not confiding in others” and if it’s something you need to ask about then it’s probably something that the other person may not want to share. In any case, Osaki seems to have known Keiko had an ulterior motive but does not regret sharing her story and has no worries about what Keiko might do with it as long as she makes sure to tell the truth.

The truth, in a sense, seems to be something the villagers feel themselves well acquainted with which is why Osaki lives in a shack on the edge of town. Tricked into sexual slavery as a child by an amoral people trafficker who lured her with promises of money to be made overseas, Osaki found herself in Borneo and a prisoner of “Sandakan No. 8” which was one of 10 numbered brothels on the island largely catering to Japanese travellers overseas, facilitating the expansion of the Japanese empire as accidental emissaries and ports of call. When Osaki was a child, Japan was a poor country and it was considered normal to sell one’s daughter in order to feed a family. Working overseas carried with it a kind of cache though no one, except perhaps her brother, seems to be fully aware of what Osaki is going to and she herself has not in any way chosen or consented to become a sex worker. When she eventually returns to Japan, she finds herself unwelcome in her brother’s house, which her money paid for, because of the shame associated with those who have “worked away”. Even 50 years later, she finds herself living alone, all but disowned by her only son, on the outskirts of her childhood village ostracised by the “respectable” townspeople who don’t for a second believe Osaki’s quick introduction of Keiko as her daughter-in-law.

The daughter-in-law deception is only one heartbreaking aspect of the complex relationship between the two women who are each, in a sense, hiding something from the other but end up forming a genuine connection anyway. Intensely lonely and having lived a life filled with suffering, Osaki is willing to pay for company with her story while Keiko is, not quite deliberately, using her loneliness against her in an attempt to earn her trust and get her to reveal her secrets. Nevertheless, Keiko is able to mine a rich and deep seem of 20th century trauma through the tragic story of just one woman which reaches out to hundreds like her some of whom rest in a graveyard in the forests of Borneo with their backs forever to Japan. The enemy is, once again, poverty more than it is patriarchy or even feudalism, a problem less of the essence in the rapidly improving post-war economy, but as Kumai is keen to point out, this system of state sanctioned people trafficking (finally outlawed only once Japan’s status on the world stage began to rise) had far wider implications than it might be thought which still echo into the present day and perhaps beyond if not for the efforts of women like Keiko who do not wish to forget.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Kihachi Okamoto, 1964)

vlcsnap-2016-07-12-23h44m56s789Being stood up is a painful experience at the best of times, but when you’ve been in prison for three whole years and no one comes to meet you, it is more than usually upsetting. Sixth generation Oyabun of the Ona clan, Daisaku, has made a new friend whilst inside – Taro is a younger man, slightly geeky and obsessed with bombs. Actually, he’s a bit wimpy and was in for public urination (he also threw a firecracker at the policeman who took issue with his call of nature) but will do as a henchman in a pinch. Daisaku wanted him to see all of his yakuza guys showering him with praise but only his son actually turns up and even that might have been an accident.

His mistress has moved on, his wife got religion, and the clan has gone legit and formed a corporation. That last bit might have been OK except Daisaku isn’t the president, he’s the Chairman, and the new top dog is a pen obsessed political candidate who runs under the slogan that pens can save Japan and violence is the enemy! Taro and Daisaku come up with a way to get revenge on the usurper by sneaking a bomb into one of his beloved writing implements but it’s far from plain sailing in this typically anarchic Okamoto world.

Okamoto casts his ironic tale as a musical, cartoon style slapstick comedy with frequent digressions into musical interludes which take inspiration both from Hollywood movie musicals and classical Japanese drama. Daisaku may only have been inside for three years but he’s a man out of time with behaviour and attitudes more suited to the pre-war world than the modern era. Consequently he often breaks into theatrical rhythms inspired by noh or kabuki with their characteristic chant style recitative and stylised movements. Younger characters sing in the vernacular of the day with Taro and Daisaku’s son belting out a popular hit, and the office workers suddenly breaking into a musical set piece themed around the idea of overtime in which the men and women of the office bicker about balancing the books. Similarly, the would be mayor, Yato, takes his cues from ‘20s gangsters so he naturally dances the charleston before breaking into a tango when he gets some unwelcome news.

Rhythm is the key as the film continues to respond to its various musical fluctuations in highly stylised approach which takes advantage of Okamoto’s innovative editing techniques. Apparently inspired by a Cornell Woolrich story, this is nominally a noir inflected crime story of an ousted gangster trying to rub out his rival and get his old life back, but Okamoto neatly deconstructs the genre and turns it inside out with a hefty serving of irony on the top. Daisaku is an old guy and his era has passed, but Yato isn’t real enough to represent the future either which seems to either belong to bumbling bomber Taro, or Daisaku’s hardworking and straightforward son.

The plot to blow up Yato using his favourite prop becomes progressively more ridiculous as the pen ends up everywhere but where it’s supposed to be and threatening to explode at any second (to great comic effect). Things get even darker when Yato is talked into considering the orchestration of an “accident” for his mayoral rival involving a golf ball which once again causes everyone a lot of bother (though not the kind that was intended).

Daisaku has brought some of his old fashioned habits out of jail with him, quickly corrupting his old friend the chauffeur (who ultimately proves incorruptible even if grateful to have been reminded of the happiness he already shared with his wife, poverty or no) and allowing Taro and his crazy bomb plots access to the criminal mainstream, but ultimately he proves more of a loveable rogue living in the past than a criminal mastermind. Yato, by contrast, is a darker figure with his hypocritical campaign slogans and lack of personal integrity. Daisaku may be deluded in many ways but he never pretends to be anything other than he is, unlike the would be dictator.

Filled with Okamoto’s idiosyncratic touch of absurd irony, Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Aa Bakudan) is one of his most amusing and formally ambitious pieces of work. Mixing classical theatrical techniques with modern movie musicals, jazz rhythms, expressionist sets and unpredictable editing, he once agains creates a crazy cartoon world in which anything is possible but somehow it’s all quite good natured even when you’re talking about bank robbery and possible assassination plots. Hilarious fun but also intricately constructed, Oh, Bomb! ranks among Okamoto’s most charming masterpieces and is urgently in need of a reappraisal.