Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道, Kenji Misumi, 1973)

baby-cart-land-demonsOgami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former Shogun executioner now a fugitive in search of justice after being framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan who are also responsible for the death of his wife, is still on the Demon’s Way with his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Five films into this six film cycle, the pair are edging closer to their goal as the evil Lord Retsudo continues to make shadowy appearances at the corners of their world. However, the Demon’s Way carries a heavy toll, littered with corpses of unlucky challengers, the road has, of late, begun to claim the lives of the virtuous along with the venal. Conflicted as he was in his execution of a contract to assassinate the tragic Oyuki in the previous instalment, Baby Cart in Peril, whose story was perhaps even sadder than his own, Ogami is about to descend further still as a commission to kill a living Buddha proves even more sordid than expected.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道,  Kozure Okami: Meifumado) starts as it means to go on as Ogami finds yet another coded way of touting for business when he notices the strange demonic drawing on the face mask of a resting man and correctly reads it as a message for the Lone Wolf and Cub. The Kuroda clan have despatched five of their best men wearing just such masks in order to test his skills and find out if he’s worthy of their job. Each time he defeats one, he’ll receive 100 ryou (a fifth of his fee) and part of the reasons and explanations he requires in deciding whether to take the job.

This time the assignment is to do with a mislaid yet incriminating letter from the Kuroda lord, Naritaka (Shingo Yamashiro), who has unwisely been deceiving the Shogun as to the identity of his children. Very much in love with his mistress, Naritaka has been passing off their daughter, Hamachiyo (Sumida Kazuyo), as his son Matsumaru. Meanwhile the real Matsumaru, his legitimate heir through his legal wife, has been imprisoned in the compound and kept away from prying eyes. A particularly stupid and pointless ruse, yet the lord has created even more problems for himself by allowing a letter outlining all of this to fall into the hands of a treacherous priest, Jikei (Hideji Otaki), who turns out to be the head of a ninja spy network. Ogami’s job is to kill Jikei and get the letter back but it comes with some additional spice – Jikei plans to hand the letter to Lord Retsudo, Ogami’s arch nemesis.

Ogami’s world is a feudal one where allegiance to one’s lord trumps almost everything. The lords are, however, often dishonest, selfish, and cruel. The hypocrisy of the samurai world is a phenomenon well known to all, and most particularly to Ogami who has found himself at the mercy of the ambitious Yagyu clan. Whatever else he may have become, Ogami is a man of honour to whom the way of samurai maintains a deep spiritual importance. Jikei’s attempt to unsettle Ogami by asking him what he thinks he’s going to achieve on the Demon’s Way and if killing a living Buddha is a fitting use of his talents, further pushes Ogami into a spiritual crisis regarding his quest for vengeance and ongoing career as a sword for hire.

Naritaka has, indeed, broken his code in lying to the Shogun but also in rejecting his position and creating an alternative family of his choosing by favouring the female child of his mistress over his legitimate male heir. In addition to his contract to kill Jikei and retake the letter, Ogami also receives a request to assassinate the lord himself alongside his concubine and even their daughter. This illegitimate line cannot be allowed to continue, the illicit family born of personal choice must be cut off before it begins to corrupt the future of the Kuroda clan. Actively plotting the death of one’s lord is an unthinkable concept, yet a retainer also has a responsibility to guard the honour of their house and so the lord must go, even if the retainer is bound to follow him.

The decision to execute the entire family recalls the series’ origins in which Ogami was seen to act as a second in the “harakiri” of a toddler shortly before seeing his own family fall under the sword of a Yagyu plot. Daigoro is growing older at an unnatural rate but shows a little more willingness to engage in acts of altruistic heroism than his father, such as in an episode where he decides to refuse to identify a local pickpocket even if it means he himself will be flogged in her place. Ogami looks on in inaction, yet there is the faintest flicker of pride in his otherwise impassive face as his fearless son opts to undergo a harsh punishment rather than allow someone else to suffer even as she tries to save him in turn. Daigoro also has an awkward moment of connection with the similarly aged unlucky princess but remains apparently unmoved by her fate at the end of their mission. The legitimate prince may have been liberated and the official line restored, but there has been a heavy price for all concerned and the Kuroda clan is far from saved.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons marks the return, albeit for the last time, of the series’ original director Kenji Misumi who gets rid of the heavily exploitation leaning approach brought by Buichi Saito in the previous film, Baby Cart in Peril. No voiceovers, no musical sequences, and an overall return to quiet contemplation mixed with impressively balletic fight sequences rather than the frenetic action and sudden trickery which defined Baby Cart in Peril send the series back to its spiritual roots after a brief foray into the contemporary jidaigeki. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is also the first in the series which contains no female nudity though it does make room for another skilled female warrior and also repeats the motif of Ogami leaving a melancholy woman behind him as he sets off into the sunset, yet this time it’s a woman who has chosen her own path in keeping with her own code and earned Ogami’s respect, and perhaps sorrow, in the process. Ogami is drawing closer to Retsudo, though his path leads him through a land of demons each more villainous than the last and justice seems like an unrealistic ideal where only men like Ogami stand at the gates of man and beast.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (子連れ狼 親の心子の心, Buichi Saito, 1972)

baby-cart-in-perilNow four instalments into the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) have been on the road for quite some time, seeking vengeance against the Yagyu clan who framed Ogami for treason, murdered his wife, and stole his prized position as the official Shogun executioner. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (子連れ狼 親の心子の心, Kozure Okami: Oya no Kokoro Ko no Kokoro) is the first in the series not to be directed by Kenji Misumi (though he would return for the following chapter) and the change in approach is very much in evidence as veteran Nikkatsu director Buichi Saito picks up the reins and takes things in a much more active, full on ‘70s exploitation direction. Where Baby Cart to Hades was content to take a break for contemplation of Ogami’s quest, Baby Cart in Peril is a post-thought spring into action. It is, however, among the most melancholic episodes in the series as it continues to explore the often precarious position of women and the disenfranchised poor in Ogami’s often cruel world.

Opening with a thrilling action sequence in which a topless and heavily tattooed female warrior elegantly despatches a series of enemies, Saito makes the most of the genre’s tendency for economy to jump straight to a scene of Ogami receiving the request to assassinate her. As they travel onward, father and son become accidentally separated after Daigoro wanders off to follow a pair of street performers. Looking for his dad in all the familiar places he can think of, Daigoro unwittingly comes into contact with an old foe, Gunbei (Yoichi Hayashi) – son of Ogami’s arch enemy, Lord Retsudo, who is immediately alarmed by the steely look in Daigoro’s eyes which he claims is only born of mass killing. Daigoro gets himself into trouble when he’s accidentally caught in a field of long grass which the local peasants are set to clear by burning, but gets himself out of it by cleverly digging himself into the mud. Gunbei, impressed, is poised to execute Daigoro on the spot but luckily Ogami turns up to save the day.

Once Ogami has accepted a contract he will see it through but this one brings him no pleasure as his target, Oyuki (Michi Azuma), has a sad story to rival his own. A skilled swordswoman, she finds employment with a local clan but is deceived and then raped by one of their retainers leading her to escape and seek her vengeance. Oyuki’s origins lie in an underclass of street performers, loosely grouped into a clan of their own but with communities spanning the entire country. On meeting Oyuki’s father, Ogami’s sorrow in his task deepens as he finds him to be an honest, decent and kind man who accepts his forthcoming suffering with a weary resignation. Further torn between his contract and his personal judgement, Ogami steps back to allow his target to avenge her honour but then must obey his own.

Baby Cart in Peril, even more so than the other chapters, dives into the parent and bond between Ogami and Daigoro as Ogami is once again forced to consider if he made the right choice for his son in bringing him into the “Demon’s Way” of death dealing vengeance. Oyuki, thoroughly and heartbreakingly alone, is distressed to learn that her own father also consents to her death but in Ogami’s view, it’s sometimes lucky to have a parent who wishes for the death of their child. This uncomfortable idea leads him back into that first fateful decision when he allowed Daigoro to choose the sword or the ball and then consented to his choice of the sword. Oyuki also chose the sword as a child and has paid heavily for it, yet more so than Daigoro will ever be she is a victim of her class and gender, subject to a second set of rules of which Daigoro and his father live on the opposing side.

Betrayed, scarred and in the view of the world she lives in defiled, Oyuki has every right as much to seek her vengeance as Ogami has, yet Ogami has already agreed to carry out her sentence for breaking the rules of that same world. He does, however sympathise and feel sorry her plight which is not so different from his own though hers is a heavier burden. Treating Oyuki with far more respect than his previous targets which have all been in some way guilty of crimes against samurai honour, Ogami also tries to help her father whose adherence to that same code (with a sincerity absent from the countless “true samurai” he’s encountered so far despite being a member of an underclass) has sparked his admiration but Ogami is unable to salvage anything at all from the rapacious hands of the uncaring lords.

Baby Cart in Peril marks the return of evil antagonist Lord Retsudo (Tatsuo Endo), not seen since the first instalment, which hints at Ogami finally getting closer to his goal even as Retsudo and his (disgraced) son Gunbei amp up their plotting. This climaxes during one of the large scale brawl scenes the films are famous for as Ogami faces off against hordes of grey clad ninja and basket heads in white. Though badly injured, Ogami makes his way onward even whilst Gunbei celebrates his survival in order that he might face him on equal footing and end his own cycle of vengeance in person.

From the exciting action packed opening, the fight scenes are once again innovative in design including a surprising sequence in which Ogami is attacked by ninjas masquerading as statues in a temple. Saito’s approach is much more contemporary than Misumi’s artful aesthetic, prioritising speed over beauty though that’s not to say the film lacks for impressive visuals. Baby Cart in Peril breaks from the series pattern in adding in other narrative devices from film cycles of the time as in the narrative voice over and greater use of non-diegetic music most obviously when Daigoro’s forlorn wandering turns into a kind of sad music video. Nevertheless, even if Baby Cart in Peril sinks a little from the artistic highs of the first three instalments, it does at least embrace some of its more outlandish elements with a degree of self aware witticism that plays to its exploitation roots. The baby cart and its master have escaped the peril for now, but Ogami and his son are still bound on the Demon Way leaving the sad story of Oyuki behind them. Lord Retsudo may be coming into vision but the road stretches on promising nothing other than death and suffering for all who travel it.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only, NSFW)