Boxer (ボクサー, Shuji Terayama, 1977)

Boxer posterArtistic polymath Shuji Terayama was fond of claiming that more could be learned about life from boxing rings and race courses than from conventional study. Immersing himself in the countercultural epicentre of mid-century Shinjuku, he became known for iconoclastic street theatre before shifting to film, instantly recognisable for his striking use of colour filter and theatrical, avant-garde aesthetic. 1977’s Boxer (ボクサー) is, however, his most conventional experiment, a generic tale of a struggling boxer yearning to be a champion and battling himself, along with his society, in the claustrophobic arena of the ring, but for all the expected triumph it’s futility which marks his life and the ropes which restrain rather than liberate.

Former boxing champion Hayato (Bunta Sugawara) now lives a lonely existence alone with his beloved dog in a rundown boarding house. His brother is about to be married and wanted him to be in the engagement photos, but he told the young couple to go ahead without him. He may come to regret that because his brother quickly becomes the victim of an accident that may not have been quite that at the construction site where he and his fiancée worked. It seems that another employee, Tenma (Kentaro Shimizu) – an aspiring boxer with a limp, had taken a liking to the same girl and, either distracted by the news she intended to marry someone else, or not thinking clearly, he allowed his digger to hit Hayato’s brother and kill him. Of course, Hayato is not happy about that and determines to track Tenma down, looking for him at a neighbourhood bar where a small boy guides him to the gym, which he is eventually expelled from by the other boxers. Nevertheless, Tenma, having heard about Hayato’s past and been dismissed by his trainers because of his disability, is determined to overcome the debt that exists between them and become Hayato’s mentee hoping to go on to boxing glory.

Like many a Shinjuku tale, this is one of scrappy chancers longing to escape the vice-like grip of an underworld that refuses to release them. In the land of broken dreams, the hopeless man is king, and Hayato is nothing if not hopeless. Years ago, we’re told, he was a champion, yet he suddenly quit boxing mid-way through a bout that he was clearly winning. He had a wife and daughter, but now lives alone (except for the dog), making a living by pasting up flyers. In response to Tenma’s request, Hayato recounts to him the histories of boxing champions in Japan all of whom met a sticky end: dying of typhus in Manchuria, drowning after demobilisation, dying under a bridge, hit by a train, suicide after revenge on a yakuza who’d killed his brother, killed when a runaway truck hit his home, car accidents etc. The boxing match which opens the film is preceded by a minute of silence for a champion who died just a few days previously. So what, Hayato seems to say, we fight but we all die in the ring anyway. What’s the point?

Still, for all the meaningless of his success, he too finds a kind of purpose in Tenma’s quest even if he knows it’s futile and that it is perhaps perverse to commit to saving the man who killed his brother either by accident, as he claims, or out of romantic jealousy. Tenma tells him that he wants to be a champion to appear on TV and be famous. He has, it seems, something to prove. Hayato tells him that boxing’s not for everyone, cruelly echoing the words of the president of the boxing society in his letter explaining to Tenma that there is no place for him in the boxing world because of his disability. His reasoning is however different. He asks him if he is able to hate, to which which he replies that yes, he hates his mother, father, brother, and in fact “the whole damn world” which makes him a perfect mirror for his defeated mentor.

Terayama opens the film with a melancholy black and white sequence in which a boxer walks down a long corridor towards a door filled with light while other contenders pass him from the opposite direction, some badly beaten and others unable to walk. This is the price, he seems to say, a literal manifestation of life’s battery. Even the denizens of the strangely colourful, warm and cheerful little neighbourhood bar with its Taisho intellectual, former actress turned streetwalker, smoking child, and bookmakers who don’t pay their bills, are fighting a heavy battle, crushed under the weight of their broken dreams. Hayato tries to offer encouragement from the sidelines, “Get up if you refuse to be a loser”, he yells to a barely conscious Tenma struggling raise himself from the mat, but even if he does what will he gain? Suitcase in hand the women leave looking for better lives, while Tenma struggles to escape from the ring, chasing hollow victories of illusionary manhood but finding salvation only in the struggle.


Opening sequence (no subtitles)

Case of the Disjointed Murder (不連続殺人事件, Chusei Sone, 1977)

Case of the disjointed murders posterJapanese cinema of the 1970s fell hard for the prestige murder mystery. Following the success of The Inugami Family, an early and unexpected hit thanks to Kadokawa’s “innovative” marketing strategy, multi-cast detective dramas dominated the box office for the rest of the decade. Meanwhile, ATG had been known for serious and high-minded avant-garde cinema throughout the 1960s but its brand of left-leaning, politically conscious, arthouse-fare was tantamount to box office poison in the increasingly consumerist post-Asama-Sanso world. ATG’s Kindaichi-centric Death at an Old Mansion, updated to the present day, pre-dated Ichikawa’s series for Toho by a whole year and perhaps signalled their resignation to shifting into the mainstream. By 1977, that transition was perhaps complete with former Nikkatsu Roman Porno director Chusei Sone’s adaptation of a classic serial penned by Ango Sakaguchi, an author of the “Buraiha“ school well known for chronicling post-war aimlessness.

Set in the summer of 1947, Case of the Disjointed Murder (不連続殺人事件, Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken, AKA Unrelated Murder Cases) is a classic country house mystery in which a series of high profile writers are invited to a mansion owned by a wealthy family, the Utagawas. Only, as it turns out, many of the letters of invitation are forgeries or have been doctored so that several unexpected guests have arrived including dissolute artist Doi (Yuya Uchida) whose presence is particularly awkward because he is the former husband of the host Kazuma’s (Tetsuro Sagawa) new wife Ayaka (Junko Natsu). Soon enough, one of the guests is murdered, and then another, and still more, seemingly for no real reason. Amateur detective Kose (Kazuya Kosaka), one of the “unexpected” guests, tries to piece the crime together to prevent its expansion but finds himself outflanked by a lack of material evidence.

Sakaguchi’s original tale ran as a newspaper serial which promised a cash prize for anyone clever enough to identify the murderer(s) before the truth was revealed as it eventually is in true country house mystery fashion with the detective explaining everything in a lengthy monologue while all the interested parties sit around a dinner table. The gamified nature of the serial is perhaps the reason for the large cast of characters comprising of Utagawa family members, the literary house guests, and staff all of whom become mixed up in the ongoing crime drama which Kose comes increasingly to believe is engineered rather than random as it might originally seem.

The “supposed” random chaos of the the “unconnected” murders is a key part of Sakaguchi’s interrogation of post-war anxiety. For a time it seems as if these mostly quite unpleasant people have taken the opportunity of being trapped within a claustrophobic environment to air out their own grievances with each other in an atmosphere already tainted with violence and resentment. Meanwhile, the moral corruption of the Utagawa household continues to come back to haunt them in the sexual transgressions of the late grandfather who apparently fathered several illegitimate children in addition to those from multiple marriages. The half-siblings bring additional strife into the Utagawa home in Kazuma’s incestuous desire for his half-sister Kayoko (Hitomi Fukuhara) who returns his affections and even hopes to marry her brother, while he has also transgressed by “buying” Ayaka from her venal first husband Doi.

As in most Japanese mysteries, however, the motives for murder turn out to be banal – simply monetary greed and seemingly nothing more even if backed up by a peculiar kind of romanticism. Such unbound desire for riches is perhaps another symptom of the precariousness of the post-war world in which individual survival is all in a chaotic environment where financial security is more or less impossible for those not already born into wealth. Kose begins to solve the crimes through the “psychological traces” the killer(s) leave behind, the various ways in which “scenes” are calculated and contrived but fail to entirely mask the truth which lies behind them.

Which is to say that the mechanics behind the killings ultimately become secondary to their psychological import in which Kose analyses superficial relationships to uncover the depths which underpin them and their implications for a conspiracy of crime. This persistent amorality in which human relationships and connections are subverted for personal gain is yet another example of post-war inhumanity in which the corruption of the war has destroyed the “innocence” of pre-modern Japan and provoked nothing more than a moral decline born of a confused anxiety and a generation struggling to adjust itself to a new reality.

Death at an Old Mansion aside, the ‘70s mystery boom had a peculiar obsession with post-war crime in the comparative comfort of the economic miracle. 30 years on, society was perhaps ready to ask more questions about an intensely traumatic moment in time but equally keen to ask what they might say about another anxious moment of social change only opposite in nature. No longer quite so burdened by post-war regret or confusion, some began to wonder if consumerism was as dangerous as poverty for the health of the national soul, but nevertheless seem content to bask in the essential cosiness of a country house mystery in which the detective will always return at the end to offer a full and frank explanation to a roomful of compromised suspects. If only real life were so easy to explain.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Manhunt (君よ憤怒の河を渉れ, Junya Sato, 1976)

manhunt 1976 posterMost people, when faced with being framed for a crime they did not commit, become indignant, loudly shouting their innocence to the rooftops and decrying injustice. Prosecutor Morioka (Ken Takakura) reacts differently – could he really be a master criminal and have forgotten all about it? Does he have an evil twin? Is he committing crimes in his sleep? The answer to all of these questions is “no”, but Morioka will have to go on a long, perilous journey in which he pilots his first solo aeroplane flight, fights bears, and escapes a citywide police net via horse, in order to find out. Junya Sato’s adaptation of the Juko Nishimura novel Manhunt (君よ憤怒の河を渉れ, Kimi yo Fundo no Kawa o Watare, AKA Dangerous Chase, Hot Pursuit) is a classic wrong man thriller though it has to be said thrills are a little thin on the ground.

Morioka’s very bad day begins with a woman (Hiroko Isayama) pointing at him and screaming, clutching the arm of a policeman and insisting that Morioka is the man who burgled her a few nights ago and stole her diamond engagement ring. Morioka is very confused but goes calmly to the police station before asking to see an officer he knows, Yamura (Yoshio Harada). Unfortunately, at the police station things only get worse as they dig up another witness (Kunie Tanaka) who says Morioka mugged him in the street for his camera. Beginning to doubt his sanity Morioka is sure things will be sorted out when they search his apartment, only when they get there they do indeed find a camera, the ring hidden in his fish tank, and a whole lot of dodgy money. Realising the game is up and that his prosecutor buddies aren’t interested in helping him, Morioka takes to the road to clear his name, finding himself increasingly compromised every step of the way.

This being Japan Morioka’s options for disappearing are limited – it’s not as if he can dye his hair or radically change his appearance, he’ll have to make do with sunshades and burying his face in the collar of his mac. Looking askance at policemen and trying to avoid people reading newspapers, he tries to investigate his case beginning with his accusers who, predictably, are not quite who they seemed to be. When one of them ends up dead Morioka can add murder suspect to his wanted card but at least he correctly figures out that this all goes back to one particular case his boss was very keen to rule suicide but Morioka was pretty sure wasn’t.

During his quest Morioka picks up an ally – Mayumi (Ryoko Nakano), the daughter of a wealthy horse trader with political ambitions whom he saves during a random bear attack. Mayumi falls instantly in love with him and despite the best efforts of one of her father’s underlings determines to help him clear his name. Morioka is an honest sort of guy but does also pick up another girl in the city (a cameo appearance by Mitsuko Baisho) who rescues him and takes him home to recuperate from an illness. Much to her disappointment he only has eyes for Mayumi who unexpectedly saves the day thanks to her herd of horses, not to mention her father’s “kind offer” of a light aircraft which Morioka will have to learn to pilot “on the fly”.

Eventually Morioka gets himself confined to a dodgy mental hospital to find the final clue during which time he uncovers a corporate conspiracy to manufacture drugs which turn people into living zombies, all their will power removed and compliance to authority upped. Rather than a dig at corporate cultism, enforced conformity, and conspiratorial manipulation, the Big Pharma angle is a just a plot device which provides the catalyst for Morioka’s final realisations – that having experienced life on the run he can never return to the side of authority. For him, the law is now an irrelevance which fails to protect its people and the “hunted” are in a much stronger position than the “hunters”. Accepting his own complicity in the adventure he’s just had, he willingly submits himself to “justice” for the rules he broke as a man on the run but it looks like those sunshades, the anonymous mac, and the beautiful and loyal Mayumi are about to become permanent fixtures in his impermanent life.


Dead or Alive 2: Birds (DEAD OR ALIVE 2 逃亡者, Takashi Miike, 2000)

dead-or-alive-2-birds

How do you make a sequel to a film which ended with the apocalypse? Takashi Miike is no stranger to strange logic, but he gets around this obvious problem by neatly sidestepping it. Dead or Alive 2: Birds (DEAD OR ALIVE 2 逃亡者, Dead or Alive 2: Tobosha) is, in many ways, entirely unconnected with its predecessor, sharing only its title and lead actors yet there’s something in its sensibility which ties it in very strongly with the overarching universe of the trilogy. If Dead or Alive was the story of humanity gradually eroded by internecine vendetta, Dead or Alive 2 is one of humanity restored through a return to childhood innocence though its prognosis for its pair of altruistic hitmen is just as bleak as it was for the policeman who’d crossed the line and the petty Triad who came to meet him.

Signalling the continuous notions of unreality, we’re introduced to this strange world by a magician (Shinya Tsukamoto) who uses packets of cigarettes to explain the true purpose of a hit ordered on a local gangster which just happens to be not so different from the plot of the first film. Because the gangster world has its own kind of proportional representation, neither the yakuza nor the Triads can rule the roost alone – they need to enter a “coalition” with a smaller outfit no doubt desperate to carve out a little more power for themselves. The free agents, however, have decided on a way to even the power share – hire a hitman to knock off a high ranking Chinese gangster and engineer a turf war in which a proportion of either side will die, leaving the third gang a much more credible player.

Mizuki (Sho Aikawa), bleach blond and fond of Hawaiian shirts, is an odd choice for a secret mission but his sniper rifle is rendered redundant when a man in a dark suit does the job for him – loudly and publicly. So much the better, thinks Mizuki, but the memory of the strangely familiar figure haunts him. Finding himself needing to get out of town, Mizuki has a sudden urge to go home where he encounters the suited man again and confirms that he is indeed who he thinks he is – childhood friend, Shuichi (Riki Takeuchi).

Revisiting an old theme, Mizuki and Shuichi are orphans but rather than being taken directly into the yakuza world they each spent a part of their childhood in a village orphanage on an idyllic island. Miike frequently cuts back between the violent, nihilistic lives of the grown men and the innocent boyhood of long hot summers spent at the beach. The island almost represents childhood in its perpetual safety, bathed in a warm and golden light at once unchanging and eternal. Reconnecting with fellow orphan Kohei (Kenichi Endo) who has married another childhood friend, Chi (Noriko Aota), the three men regress to their pre-adolescent states playing on the climbing bars and kicking a football around just like old times.

Returning to this more innocent age, Mizuki hatches on an ingenious idea – reclaim their dark trade by knocking off those the world would be better off without and use their ill gotten gains to buy vaccines for the impoverished children of the world. In their innocent naivety, neither Mizuki nor Shuichi has considered the effect of their decision on local gangland politics (not to mention Big Pharma) and their desire to kill two “birds” with one stone will ultimately boomerang right back at them.

Innocence is the film’s biggest casualty as Miike juxtaposes a children’s play in which Mizuki and Shuichi have ended up playing a prominent role, with violent rape and murder going on in the city. Whether suggesting that the posturing of a gang war is another kind of playacting, though one with far more destructive consequences, or merely contrasting the island’s pure hearted fantasy with the cold, hard, gangland reality, Miike indulges in a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of childhood with its straightforward goodness filled with friendship and brotherhood rather than the constant betrayals and changing alliances of the criminal fraternity.

The question “Where are you going?” appears several times throughout the film and perhaps occurred to Mizuki and Shuichi at several points during their journeys from abandoned children to outcast men. Neither had much choice in their eventual destination and if they asked themselves that same question the answer was probably that they did not know or chose not to think about it. All of these hopes and ruined dreams linger somewhere around the island’s shore. Kohei is about to become a father but the birth of a child now takes on a melancholy air, the shadow of despair already hanging over him. There is no way out, no path back to a time before the compromises of adulthood but for two angelic hitmen, the road ends with meeting themselves again and, in a sense, regaining lost innocence in shedding their city-based skins.


Out now in the UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Shunya Ito, 1972)

scorpion-2Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Joshu Sasori – Dai 41 Zakkyobo) picks up around a year after the end of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and finds Matsu (Meiko Kaji) tied up in a dingy prison basement, apparently left bound and in solitary confinement for the entire interval. Once again directed by Shunya Ito, the second instalment in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series is another foray into the women in prison field but Ito resolutely refuses to give in to the exploitative genre norms, overlaying his tale of individualistic rebellion with an arthouse sensibility that has a much wider scope than its ordinary vengeance driven narrative may suggest.

Matsu may have been lying bound and gagged in a dingy underground hole for the best part of a year but today is a special day and sadistic prison warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) is going to let her out to be shown off in front of a visiting inspector who’s paying a final visit before Goda is promoted to a top job in Tokyo. When Matsu makes a lunge for Goda, the inspector is so afraid that he wets himself, sending the other woman into a frenzy and resulting in a riot. Once again the entirety of the prison is punished, but this time Matsu is singled out for a public punishment gang rape by Goda’s goons. This kind of humiliation is too much for her fellow prisoners who instantly turn on her, but their violence provides an opportunity for escape and before long Matsu is on the run, again.

At the end of the first film, Matsu had accomplished her first round of vengeance – against the man who orchestrated her downfall and the men who secured it, but ultimately she wound up a female prisoner once again. Though Goda may have had her hidden away because of her habitual escapism, Matsu had not given up as we see from her attempts to scrape the floor away with her spoon held tight in her mouth. Barely speaking, Matsu is an unstoppable column of pure rage but an elegant one, supported by her self contained restraint.

Her anger this time is directed towards Goda himself, especially after his despicable organised punishment rape that was designed both to break her own spirit once and for all and also to damage her in the eyes of her fellow inmates who are intended to see her defeated and destroyed. The guards are a stand in for society at large, using sexual dominance and social position to keep their women in line. The visiting prison inspector makes a point of telling Matsu that “they” don’t hate her personally – they’re there for her, to help her “recover” and become a functioning member of society. Which is ironic because Goda does hate her personally as he holds her responsible for the damage to his eye sustained in the previous film. His last act before moving on is one against Mastu – an attempt by the forces of authority to crush her individual rebellion and use their victory as a coercive tool to force others to conform.

In this way, Matsu’s position as a member of a subjugated class is less important than her status as an agitator but these are women who have each suffered at the hands of men. As an extremely theatrical sequence sung in the traditional form informs us, the women who escaped with Matsu committed their crimes out of love or jealousy. Poisoned rivals, dead lovers, even children murdered to get back at their philandering father in some Medea level psychotic rage which ruins the perpetrator even more than the intended victim.

Later while the women are enjoying their brief taste of freedom, one of them is brutally raped and murdered by a troupe of feral men who boast about the wartime atrocities they committed before descending on a lone woman like a pack of rabid dogs. The others take their revenge for their friend, but also for all the women who have met a similar fate inflicted by a male dominated society which sees them as something to be controlled and then made use of, little more that cattle hemmed in and milked until dry.

As in the first film Ito makes use of expressionist techniques and strange angles to give his film a more elevated feeling that might be expected but this time he adds in a surrealist, spiritual dimension as with the old woman who sings the stories of our heroines and then dies only to bury herself in leaves and disappear into the ether, like some forgotten deity of misused women. Likewise, when one of the prisoners is raped and murdered, the men throw her body into a nearby river like an empty beer can but the waterfall behind her suddenly runs with blood as an expression of the violence which pollutes the natural world. A bus suddenly splits in two, separating our subjugated women from the violent men who mentally sentence them, given free reign simply because of their sex. Ironically enough, our last glimpse of of Matsu takes place in the reflection of Goda’s glasses and then in his false eye when she is suddenly rejoined by her compatriots for a triumphant dance of freedom on a city rooftop.

Even stronger than in the original Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion, Jailhouse 41 further advances its ideology of free individuals battling the conformist authority of the state all filtered through the prism of the patriarchy. Matsu’s vengeance is personal, she keeps her distance from the other women who do not seem inclined to band together to oppose the forces which oppress them so much as seek a wary, temporary alliance of necessity, but seeing them all reassembled in spirit at the end brings a larger dimension to Matsu’s victory which now seems much less like solving a practical problem than a deliberate strike at a wall which was solely designed to keep a certain group of people in their place. The jail is broken, all that remains is to choose to escape its restraints.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW/gore)

At This Late Date, the Charleston (近頃なぜかチャールストン, Kihachi Okamoto, 1981)

At this late date, the charlestonKihachi Okamoto first made his name with his samurai movies but his output was in fact far more varied in tone than the work most often screened outside of Japan might suggest. Marked by heavy irony and close to the bone social commentary, Okamoto’s movies are nothing if not playful even in the bleakest of circumstances. He first teamed up with Japan’s indie power the Art Theatre Guild for The Human Bullet in 1968 which recounted the absurd final days of the war in true Okamoto fashion and then bounced back to the Edo era for Battle Cry before deciding on the very contemporary satire At This Late Date, the Charleston (近頃なぜかチャールストン, Chikagoro Nazeka Charleston) in 1981.

Shot in 4:3 and a stately looking black and white, At This Late Date, the Charleston begins when Jiro – a slightly strange younger son of a wealthy family, punches out a girl’s boyfriend whilst the pair are sitting on a bench and subsequently chases her through the park util he eventually gets himself arrested on a charge of “attempted rape”. He then gets thrown into a cell with a gang of crazy old guys who took the decision sometime ago to secede from the state of Japan and create their own independent nation known as the land of Yamatai. Consequently, they all refer to each other by their “cabinet titles” such as Foreign Minister and Army Minister etc each inspired by their former lives which is why they have a minister for mail (he used to be a postman). They’re in jail because they tried to make a “state visit” to the Diet building and whilst there enjoyed some of the canteen food but as this was an official event they didn’t see why they should pay for any of it (and their Finance Minister was busy at the races).

Soon enough everyone gets released – the old guys when the Finance Minister turns up to pay their bill and Jiro when he’s bailed out by his older brother and the family housemaid (who quickly realises the “victims” aren’t quite what they seem). However, in a fantastically weird coincidence it turns out that the government of Yamatai have commandeered a house on the estate of Jiro’s father for their sovereign territory. Jiro’s brother is desperate to evict them but there’s also the problem that their multimillionaire dad has been missing for months and no one’s quite sure what might have happened to him…

Crazy old guys (and gal) who’ve become so disillusioned with their nation that they’ve started a new one on their own, missing industrialists, a Lupin III-like policeman who’s so obsessed with looking cool that the suspects always run away while he’s left striking a pose – Okamoto really knows how to pile on the strangeness, but somehow it all seems to make perfect sense. Madcap doesn’t even begin to do justice to crazy cartoon world Okamoto has created but it’s all so effortlessly funny that it hardly matters what you’d call it.

After initially being captured and branded a spy when he marches on over to Yamatai to ask them about his father, Jiro finds himself defecting to become “Minister of Labour” (this seems to involve doing all of the old guys’ menial tasks). As the youngest member of the group, he becomes the repository for their stories which mostly date back to the days of their youth from the fun loving Charleston era to the rise of militarism and eventually the war itself. This comes to the fore even more as the events take place in August, meaning that there’s both the anniversary of the atomic bomb and of the end of the war raising painful memories for this group of older folks, even if not quite so relevant to the younger contingent. The gang are planning a special trip to a hot spring on the 15th, but first they have to defend their micro-country against the onslaught of gangsters and bailiffs who are trying to “invade” their sovereign territory.

The old folks are pacifists, more or less (they didn’t really want an “Army Minister” but it was argued that no one would take them seriously without means of defence) but are still determined to protect their ideal state of Yamatai all the while clamouring for a silent kind of diplomatic immunity. They have some very unusual ideas but they know what’s what and having made an unlikely ally in the form of an unhappily married and soon to be retired policeman, have even managed to expose a little corruption and evil corporate shenanigans in the process of defending their own freedom. A vote for dancing cheerfully over a military march, At This Late Date, The Charleston is a warm and funny tale of eccentric oldsters who’ve seen it all before and finally decided it’s all kind of ridiculous anyway which can’t help but get your own toes tapping, whatever age you are.


Several unsubtitled trailers for the price of one: