Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

Killing Yoshiwara posterHaving led a somewhat floating life, Tomu Uchida returned to Japan in only in 1953 after a sustained period with the Manchurian Film Cooperative followed by a brief flirtation with Maoism. Before the war Uchida had been closely identified with the Keiko Eiga movement of broadly left-wing filmmaking but later fell hard for the inherent romanticism of militarist ideology during his time in Manchuria. Nevertheless it was apparently the Maoist doctrines of progress through contradiction that influenced his later dramatic philosophy in which he came to think of narrative as a series of conflicts which culminate in an explosive act designed to resolve them (or not, as we will see). 1960’s Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri, AKA Hero of the Red Light District) is perhaps a prime example as it takes a seemingly generic story inspired by a kabuki play and uses it to tell a melancholy tale of parallel yet mutually thwarted desires for vengeance against a cruel and oppressive society.

Ostensibly, our “hero” is Jiro (Chiezo Kataoka) – a successful silk merchant. A good and kind man, Jiro is beloved of all his staff for his careful consideration of them as people as well as employees. This concern is, however, perhaps not as wholly “good” as it seems. Jiro’s major problem in life is that he is an adopted child, taken in by his parents who auspiciously discovered him abandoned on the anniversary of their own child’s death. Jiro, apparently of noble birth, was abandoned because he has a prominent grey birthmark “staining” his face. This is the reason he has so far been unable to find a wife despite his good character and relative wealth. Desperately grateful to the couple who took him in “despite” his “imperfection”, Jiro feels this failure heavily in his current inability to provide them with a male heir to take over the family business.

Being good and earnest, Jiro has never dared to fritter money away in the red light district but is tempted when invited by a valued client whom he would not want to offend by refusing. Nevertheless, his first visit to the Yoshiwara is not an altogether pleasant experience as even the seasoned courtesans find it difficult to bear the sight of his “monstrous” face. Embarrassed, the innkeepers finally decide to employ a lowly servant, Otsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), who is not a trained courtesan but a woman convicted for illegal prostitution, to minister solely to Jiro. Otsuru does her work and is relatively unbothered by Jiro’s facial abnormality – something which endears her to Jiro’s heart and has the desired effect of hooking him through his weakness.

Otsuru, later “Tamarazu” the courtesan, is in many ways our villainess but she is also Jiro’s mirror and merely another outsider trying to escape oppression through any means possible. Uchida is careful to frame Otsuru not as a cruel and amoral adventurer, but someone who has decided to survive and can at least be honest about her intentions. We see her caged, imprisoned inside the Yoshiwara to do inside it what was declared “illegal” outside and acknowledging that she may well die here to met by a lonely funeral and rest unnamed in a communal grave. Otsuru decides that if she has to stay in the Yoshiwara then she will be its queen and then use that success to catapult herself into a more comfortable life even if she knows that it will be little more than a nicer kind of cage.

Jiro and Otsuru are each victims of the oppressive society in which they live as symbolised by the cruelly hypocritical worldview of the brothel owners who set out to exploit them both. Otsuru, worldly wise, is fully aware of the ways in which she is and will continue to be exploited but has chosen to be complicit within them as a means of effecting her escape. Jiro, meanwhile, is obviously aware that the “stain” across his face is the reason for his unhappy destiny but has only ever sought to minimise the distress his appearance causes to others. Thus he overcompensates by being relentlessly nice and infinitely humble, grateful for each and every concession which is extended to him as a fully human being rather than the “monster” which he is later branded by the innkeepers in a rare moment of candour which exposes their venial desires. 

This extreme desire for acceptance is in itself a symptom of his self loathing and internalised shame regarding his appearance which is after all merely an accident of birth over which he had no control. Abandoned by his birthparents who left him with a “cursed” destiny in the form of an unlucky sword, Jiro has been working overtime to overcome social prejudice but finding his path continually blocked. He latches on to Otsuru simply because she was nice to him without understanding the peculiar rules of interactions within the Yoshiwara, or as she later puts it “no money, no love”. Jiro ruins himself out of frustrated loneliness and a forlorn hope of repaying the debt he owes the couple who took him in by being able to provide them with a male heir to inherit the family business.

It is these mutual conflicts which eventually lead to the explosive finale hinted at by the violence of the title. Otsuru’s star rises while Jiro’s falls – not only is he fleeced by the innkeepers and an unrepentant Otsuru, his business also fails thanks to an act of God while his reputation lies in tatters once his associates get to know of his “frivolous” behaviour in the Yoshiwara. This in itself is doubly hypocritical as it was this same major client who introduced Jiro to the “pleasure” quarters in the first place only to remind him that business is a matter of trust and that they no longer trust him because he has broken his promise of keeping away from the Yoshiwara.

Pushed to the brink by successive humiliations, Jiro’s rage erupts in a singular act of violence which takes the sword not only to the Yoshiwara but the entrenched systems of oppression and exploitation which it represents. Otsuru, now an oiran, is literally trapped by her ostentatious outfit (in reality the very purpose it is designed to serve) as she struggles to escape male violence, her hand on the gate of the Yoshiwara which refuses to release her. Their parallel quests for revenge eventually converge only to defeat each other in a staggering act of futility which remains unresolved as the curtain falls on a moment of unanswerable rage.


Hibari Ohako: Ojo Kichisa (ひばり十八番お嬢吉三, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Ojo Kichisa still 1Following Benten Kozo, Ojo Kichisa (ひばり十八番お嬢吉三, Hibari Obako Ojo Kichisa) is the second in a small series of movies starring Hibari Misora in a tale adapted from a well known kabuki play and featuring a cross dressing hero/heroine. This time around Misora plays a young woman dressing as a man for the purposes of revenge who eventually meets up with two men sharing the same “Kichisa” name – a lord (Obo), and a priest (Osho), to form a brotherhood of three including her “Ojo” as in “young lady”. Together they fight the injustices of the feudal world (which are myriad) whilst helping Ojo Kichisa get revenge on the men who murdered her parents forcing her into a precarious life of self preservation.

Beginning with Misora singing the title song of the three Kichisa, the action then switches to a small drinking house where a young woman gets herself into trouble with a bossy samurai who accuses her of spilling sake on him. Though the woman, Otose (Eiko Maruyama), apologises profusely, the samurai threatens to make her pay with her body. Fortunately Ojo Kichisa strides in and fights the samurai into submission, temporarily saving the day. Unfortunately, the samurai come back later brandishing a loan agreement Otose’s father had signed and demand immediate repayment or they will take Otose in its stead.

Once again the feudal world is one of intense unfairness and corruption in which the samurai class abuse their privilege to oppress the ordinary men and women of the Edo era. The samurai who takes such extreme offence at Otose’s possible slip-up has no real reason to do so other than expressing his superiority and once humiliated by Ojo Kichisa feels himself duty bound to double down. The samurai order looks after its own and so his underlings spring into motion to manipulate Otose’s family into giving her up. The two loan sharks gleefully celebrate their good luck, confessing that a major reason for lending money to the needy is for occasions such as this – not only for the interest but for the leverage in getting the desired outcome in ongoing schemes.

Meanwhile, there is a bigger game at play concerning the new finance minister and local governor. The governor accepts “gifts” from a shopkeeper hoping to be promoted onto the council whilst subtly hinting that more “gifts” might be an idea while he needs to be turning a blind eye to the smuggling that’s currently going on in town. Of course, the governor turns out to be involved in Ojo Kichisa’s mission too and is currently being blackmailed by an old acquaintance who once helped him steal a famous sword from its rightful owner.

Another of Misora’s frequent cross-dressing roles, Ojo Kichisa starts out as male but is later revealed to be female having adopted male dress to survive in male dominated Edo and pursue revenge on those who rendered her an orphan. After losing her parents, Ojo Kichisa and her young brother Sannosuke (Takehiko Kayama) were travelling in search of relatives when they were abducted by slave traders and separated. Presumably, both managed to escape at some point and have been living by their wits vowing revenge and reunification but apparently largely untouched by the darkness of feudal society.

The darkness is something which gets pushed into the background in this otherwise comedic tale of the little guy standing up to corrupt elites. The three Kichisas each represent various areas of society – the priest, the noble lord who hates the cruelty of his class, and the elegant lady, Ojo. Obo Kichisa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), the lord with a conscience, is committed to protecting the weak and fighting injustice everywhere he sees it, but it’s not long before pretty much everyone has decided the governor has to go thanks to his inherently corrupt approach to governing in which he’s all about take and never about give, neglecting the townspeople under his care and prioritising his personal gain.

Hibari Misora sings the title song twice – at the opening and closing, as well as another insert song but her brother Sannosuke also gets an opportunity to showcase his singing his voice in a mild departure from the star vehicle norm (actor Takehiko Kayama was also Misora’s real life brother). As in Benten Kozo, Wakayama takes on the bulk of the heroic fighting but Misora gives it her all in the many fight scenes in which she too gets to defeat injustice and rescue maidens to her heart’s content. A straightforward jidaigeki idol movie, Ojo Kichisa is unremarkable in many ways but nevertheless another entertaining example of Misora’s talent for playing ambiguous gender roles.


The Crucified Lovers (近松物語, Chikamatsu Monogatari, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

E8BF91E69DBEE789A9E8AA9EB2Bunraku playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon had a bit of a thing about double suicides which feature in a number of his plays. Though these legends of lovers driven into the arms of death by a cruel and unforgiving society are common across the world, they seem to have taken a particularly romantic route in Japanese drama. Brought to the screen by the great (if sometimes conflicted) champion of women’s cinema Kenji Mizoguchi, The Crucified Lovers (近松物語, Chikamatsu Monogatari) takes its queue from  one such bunraku play and tells the sorry tale of Osan and Mohei who find themselves thrown together by a set of huge misunderstandings and subsequently falling headlong into a forbidden romance.

Set in 17th century Kyoto, the story begins with a reminder that adultery is currently illegal and that the penalty is crucifixion of both parties. A samurai woman and a man servant are being paraded through the streets for having committed the double transgression of an extra-martial affair which also crosses class borders. We set our tale at the top printing house in the city where the most promising employee, Mohei, is being pulled from his sickbed to complete a particularly important order. At the same time, mistress of the house Osan receives an unwelcome visit from her brother who is once again in pecuniary difficulty. He wants her to ask her wealthy husband, Ishun, to lend him some more money to meet the latest mortgage payment on their family home. However, Ishun is a stingy old man and outright refuses. Mohei overhears the brother’s visit and offers to help but his idea to temporarily embezzle some of the money backfires when he’s caught.

To make matters worse, Ishun now has it in for Mohei as Ishun has been after the servant girl Otama who has been refusing his advances and finally lied to him by claiming that she and Mohei are secretly engaged. After Otama reveals Ishun’s true nature to Osan, they hatch a plan to confront him by swapping rooms so that when Ishun makes his nightly visit to Otama he’ll find his wife waiting for him instead and have to backdown for awhile. This backfires too when Mohei decides to escape and stops by Otama’s room to say goodbye only for another servant to find Mohei and Osan together there. Mohei flees but a rumour starts about his friendship with Osan and it’s not long before she’s stormed out too. Accidentally running in to each other the pair find themselves on the run and eventually falling in love, but this isn’t the sort of place where two people can just move to another town and disappear. The police and Ishun’s men are hot on their tail determined to try and prevent the impending scandal…

Life was pretty harsh in feudal Japan. In some ways Osan might be thought lucky – married off at a young age to a well connected and prosperous husband. Indeed, at the beginning of the film she doesn’t seem too unhappy though is obviously nervous to talk to her husband about her brother’s predicament. Ishun is not a good man though he is perhaps sadly typical of his petty samurai merchant class. He swaggers around complaining about having to pay for everything and won’t even lend any of his vast wealth to his own sister let alone his wife’s family. Though outwardly miserly he’s no problem promising fancy kimonos and even a house to Otama if she’d only consent to becoming his mistress. Something of a double standard then when his wife is accused of having affair with a servant merely by having been found in a compromising position alone in a room with another man.

Mohei, by contrast, is the archetypal loyal retainer. When ever a problem comes up he reminds himself that one needs to be a “good servant” – a sentiment he utters to Otama when she asks for his help to fend off Ishun. He doesn’t approve of the idea of her simply giving in, but thinks she ought to grin and bear it. Similarly when some of the female members of staff are sympathising with the samurai lady about to be crucified for love, Mohei agrees that he feels sorry for her but also that she’s broken a law and what is happening is simply a natural consequence. He’s the last sort of person you would expect this sort of thing to happen to, and yet, it does.

The irony is that nothing existed between the pair other than the loose friendship and loyalty of a mistress and a member of staff before this whole thing started. Their union is quite literally unthinkable, not only a relationship between a married woman and another man, but love across the class divides. Even if Osan were free, a marriage with Mohei would be considered a disgrace. When the pair face the hopelessness of their situation and decide on suicide, Mohei confesses his love which immediately changes Osan’s mind about dying. She’s fallen in love with him too, and now she wants to live. For her now there can be no life without Mohei. Though Mohei entertains the noble idea of handing himself in to the police and sending Osan back to Ishun who would doubtless be glad to cover up the affair and avoid a bigger scandal, he later finds himself unable to give her up. The pair cannot, and will not, deny their love even if it costs their lives. In this unforgiving world of harsh social justice, the only freedom left to Osan and Mohei is to ride proudly to their agonising deaths hand in hand and with beatific smiles on their faces.

In the end, two grand houses fall because of a series of coincidental misunderstandings and lapses of protocol. Envious of his position, another petty samurai is perfectly happy to manipulate the situation to take down Ishun fully knowing that it will mean the deaths of two people. In ordinary circumstances this passionate, romantic love would never be permitted to exist (or at least among this social class). Its blossoming is an impossible miracle that threatens the very foundation of the extraordinarily regimented society of the two people at its centre. Parents betray their children to protect these archaic laws and preserve their family “honour” but what honour could their possibly be in the denial of love and society that places standing above basic compassion?

Though not perhaps Mizoguchi’s most impressive effort, The Crucified Lovers is an impassioned attack on needlessly repressive social systems and the self centred shenanigans which perpetuate them. Unashamedly melodramatic and filled with a melancholy though passionate resilience, The Crucified Lovers is a tragic tale of true love torn asunder by a cruel and unforgiving world. It would be so easy to say this would never happen today, and yet…


The Crucified Lovers is available on blu-ray in the UK as part of Eureka’s Late Mizoguchi box set.

No trailer but here is a particularly beautiful scene from the film

And an introduction from Tony Rayns