Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Nikkatsu’s brand of youth cinema could often have a nasty edge, its damaged heroes caught up in complicated rebellion but necessarily outsiders in a changing world which they feared held no real place for them. For each of those, however, there are others filled with life and possibility, not to mention a cartoonish sense of fun and infinite safety which perhaps largely disappeared from the films of the 1960s only to be found again in Kadokawa’s similarly aspirational teen movies of the bubble era. 

Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Muteppo Daisho, AKA Reckless Boss / A Hell of a Guy) once again stars Koji Wada as an earnest young man kicking back against the corrupt wartime generation. Still in high school, Eiji has a part-time job at an ice rink which he doesn’t treat quite as seriously as he ought to but his boss lets him get away with it because his handsome face is a hit with the local ladies. Eiji and two of his friends are keen members of a karate club and have decided to use their skills to fight for justice in their lawless town by going on “patrol”, clearing up the kinds of crimes the police might not make it to in time. Their plan backfires, however, when they come across the body of a recently deceased union leader and are arrested by a local bobby after getting caught with a joke knife one of the boys made for fun at his job on the family scrap yard. 

It comes as no surprise that Eiji’s arch enemy, sleazy mob boss Shinkai (Nakajiro Tomita), is behind the murder, apparently hired by a corrupt corporate CEO trying to stop his workforce exercising their legal rights. Eiji hates Shinkai because he bankrolled his widowed mother’s (Kotoe Hatsui) bar business but did so perhaps in return for being able to control her and by extension him by wielding his economic power against them. His loathing intensifies once he realises that the slightly older young woman he’s carrying a torch for, Yukiyo (Izumi Ashikawa), has fallen for one of Shinkai’s men, Goro (Ryoji Hayama). 

Goro is the classically “good” gangster who feels indebted to Shinkai because he took him in after the war, but wants to leave the underworld behind, going straight in Kobe where he intends to live a settled married life with Yukiyo. The modern yakuza is in many ways a Showa era phenomenon, a mechanism for men without families to protect themselves in the desperate post-war environment. By 1961, however, its existence was perhaps becoming harder to justify. The war orphans had grown up and had families of their own, the economy had significantly improved, and there was no need anymore to live a life of crime and heartlessness – a conclusion Goro has come to on his own after meeting the earnest Yukiyo who has similar problems with her goodhearted yet permanently drunk doctor father. 

Knowing he might have messed things up for his mother in interfering with her relationship with Shinkai, Eiji confesses that doesn’t “know what to do with the grownup world”. For him, everything is still very black and white. He hates yakuza because they prey on the vulnerable and Shinkai in particular because he does it so insidiously, forcing desperate people to accept loans on bad terms so that he can in fact “own” them and use them as he wishes. Eiji and his peer group kick back against what they see as the selfish corruption of the wartime generation, agitating for a fairer, more just world. The wealthy daughter of a corrupt CEO (Mayumi Shimizu) who has a crush on Eiji though he only has eyes for Yukiyo comes up with the idea of selling her fancy car to get money to help Eiji’s mother escape Shinkai’s control, but her father snaps at her that other people aren’t her responsibility and that she doesn’t understand how the real world works. 

Somewhat chastened by the youngsters’ pure hearted love of justice, he eventually comes up with a compromise in buying the car off her himself, but before that Eiji and his friends have to think carefully about the form they want their revolution to take. Taking him to task, Yukiyo points out that if all you do is fight with yakuza then maybe you’re a yakuza yourself, which shifts Eiji’s perspective towards ensuring that his rebellion is fully legal and involves the justice systems already in place. He comes to recognise that Goro is much like himself, and if he’s going to take down a sleazy brute like Shinkai it will take more than some fancy karate. Their resistance starts at home, giving others courage to stand up to yakuza oppression while living right themselves in the hope of creating a better, fairer world free of heartless organised crime.


Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Ko Nakahira, 1964)

© 1964 Nikkatsu CorporationDespite being among the directors who helped to usher in what would later be called the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira remains in relative obscurity with only his landmark movie of the Sun Tribe era, Crazed Fruit, widely seen abroad. Like the other directors of his generation Nakahira served his time in the studio system working on impersonal commercial projects but by 1964 which saw the release of another of his most well regarded films Only on Mondays, Nakahira had begun to give free reign to experimentation much to the studio boss’ chagrin. Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Suna no Ue no Shokubutsu-gun), adapted from the novel by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, puts an absurd, surreal twist on the oft revisited salaryman midlife crisis as its conflicted hero muses on the legacy of his womanising father while indulging in a strange ménage à trois with two sisters, one of whom to he comes to believe he may also be related to.

After a brief prologue in which our hero, cosmetics salesman Ichiro Igi (Noboru Nakaya), imagines a scenario for a novel in which a dying husband becomes so jealous of the man that may succeed him in his wife’s life that he sets about plotting to make her the weapon of that very man’s destruction, Igi heads to his regular barber and longtime family friend where he takes the time to probe him about his late father’s womanising habits. Igi’s father died young at only 34 for years of age, three years younger than the age Igi is now. His father’s spitting image, Igi cannot help seeing him everywhere he goes and feels unable to evade his ongoing influence, almost as if he were possessed by his father’s (un)departed spirit.

The major preoccupation Igi has is that his wife (Yukiko Shimazaki) may have slept with his father before they were married while she was just a teenager. The barber tells him he’s pretty sure not, but Igi cannot let the idea go and repeatedly brings it up with his wife, creating discord in the family home. Meeting a precocious schoolgirl at the Marine Tower one evening, Igi finds himself taking her to a hotel and deflowering her even though she begins to resist him at the last minute. The girl, Akiko (Mieko Nishio), then makes a strange request of him – she wants Igi to seduce and “hurt” her older sister Kyoko (Kazuko Inano) whose sanctimonious attitude she can no longer stand. Igi does indeed visit the bar where Kyoko works as a hostess and embarks on an intense affair with her but Akiko’s pleas to “hurt” her sister are complicated by Kyoko’s masochistic tendencies and Igi’s descent into a kind of madness.

Beginning with the painting by Paul Klee which gives the film its name, Nakahira asks us to imagine what would happen if a large dash of red were suddenly to appear, disrupting the comforting harmony of Klee’s perfectly matched colours. The discomforting redness does dutifully appear as strangely shaped squares on the canvas but the symbolic value of the colour is felt throughout the black and white narrative from the dark stain of Akiko’s broken maidenhead to the affectation of her lipstick and constant references to red seas and suns.

Though Igi’s world may have seemed just as perfectly ordered as Klee’s painting from the outside, his constant preoccupations with his father become the disruptive influence which leads to all of the redness later leaking in. Haunted by his father as he is, seeing his face everywhere from train windows to the barber shop mirror, Igi’s attempt at a plot for a murder mystery takes on a strangely Oedipal quality as we begin to wonder if it’s his father rather than Igi himself who has assumed the role of the “protagonist”, leaving a time bomb for his wayward son, the inheritor of his woman, just as Igi laid out in his prologue. Bizarre reality or another symptom of Igi’s increasingly fractured mind, the plot seems likely to succeed at least in a sense as Igi declines into a dishevelled mess, prone to hallucinations and uncertain visions.

Nakahira gives us several of these as Igi panics and struggles with a key only to open a door into bright white light and nothingness or another in which he and Kyoko dine in an empty restaurant which is suddenly filled with the noisy chatter of other diners. Strange touches such as the German beerhall with a Spanish guitarist, or the odd peepshow in which Igi and his two friends take on the appearance of demons or impassive Buddhist statues thanks to the light reflected into their eyes, add to the unbalanced atmosphere as do the frequent closeups of lips and hands, and the symbolic value of seeds never meant to be planted which nevertheless flower at an unintended moment. Shooting in black and white, Nakahira begins with a colour sequence featuring the abstract artwork with occasional flashes of colour as well as voice over and occasional intertitle-style captions adding to the absurdist atmosphere.

A surreal and complex psychological exploration of sex, power, obsession, identity, and legacy Flora on the Sand finds Nakahira flexing his experimental mussels for a drama rife with ambiguity and strangeness. Sadly this brand of innovation was not entirely welcome at Nikkatsu head offices and so he found himself left out in the cold eventually ending up in Hong Kong making action movies for Shaw Brothers. Despite some later success at international festivals, Nakahira’s work remains sadly neglected but the unusual degree of sophistication and almost playful atmosphere seen in Flora on the Sand make him worthy of attention as more than just an almost was of the rising New Wave.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.