I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Tai Kato, 1968)

Nephew of Sadao Yamanaka, Tai Kato joined Toho as an apprentice in 1937, returning after the war training under Daisuke Ito and Akira Kurosawa, but later moved to Toei where he became closely associated with ninkyo eiga yakuza movies and jidaigeki. From the mid-1960s, however, he made several movies at Shochiku which had, it has to be said, a house style that was almost the polar opposite with a clear focus on polite, family-friendly melodrama. 1968’s I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Minagoroshi no Reika) meanwhile is a surprisingly dark affair even among the grittier examples of Shochiku’s similarly themed B-movie thrillers, an avant-garde noir and proto-giallo in which the fugitive, serial killer antihero sees himself as an agent of divine justice in a hellish and immoral post-war landscape. 

Kato opens with a shocking scene of sexualised violence in which a woman is knocked unconscious, stripped, bound with telephone cord, and finally revived, forced to write down the names of four other women before being brutally raped and murdered by a killer whose voice we have not yet heard nor face seen. The police are mystified, attributing the woman’s death to the fact that she had worked as a bar hostess and maybe things like this are an occupational hazard for women who are surrounded by too many men. Her landlord, however, laments that hers is the second death to occur recently after a laundry boy threw himself off the roof. All things considered, he wishes the boy had picked somewhere else. 

The police have no reason to connect the two unfortunate events and so remain largely clueless, but we gradually become aware that the killer, Kawashima (Makoto Sato), is targeting the women because he holds them directly responsible for the boy’s death. He is the inspector that calls, avenging the death of this young man who, he has learned, like him hailed from Hokkaido and had come to the city at only 16 years old to earn money to support his family, saving almost all of his wages in the hope of opening a shop. Kato shows us scenes of a city under construction, a land of girders casting shadows on the ground like prison bars trapping men like these who are building the new Japan but will be discarded as soon the job is done and their labour no longer so much in demand. Kawashima has another reason for living like this, but he perhaps admires something pure and innocent in the desire of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune so that he might take care of those he loves and that this world betrayed that desire is something he finds impossible to forgive.

The five women have apparently done quite well for themselves, despite the fact that more than one of them has worked on the fringes of the sex trade. Their treatment of the boy is attributed to their boredom in the relative ease of their lives as monied women with little to occupy their time other than getting their kicks abusing the less powerful. It’s an uncomfortable role reversal that places women in a position of power and then sees them abuse it in the exact same way that men do, slinging back the same pithy justifications that men offer for sexual violence while the police meditate on the relative connotations of rape when the word is applied to a man at the hands of women rather than the other way around. If it were their sister, they could understand the desire to kill the men who had done it but a part of them struggles to see that a teenage boy may still find unwanted sexual contact a traumatic enough experience to push him towards suicide. 

Yet Kawshima appears to have no real connection to the boy, and his “revenge” is also a product of his misogyny in that as we later learn he also has reason to feel betrayed by womanhood and is already on the run from previous crime. Nevertheless, he is drawn to the innocent Haruko (Chieko Baisho), a girl-next-door type who works in his favourite ramen restaurant, only to discover that she too has a dark and violent past which may be why she seems to be drawn to him. He struggles with himself, but believes that he is taking revenge on a brutalising society defined by violence and abuse while sublimating his sense of emasculation in the face of women’s growing social and sexual freedoms in the post-war era. It is perhaps the post-war era which is cast as the major villain, one of the women later escaping her protective custody to dance furiously a hip nightclub only to return to the scene of her crime while refusing to see that she has done anything so “wrong” as to merit this kind of persecution. 

“The cycle of divine punishment must be fulfilled” Kawashima finally laments, acknowledging his grim place within this series of post-war tragedies. Surprisingly avant-garde, Kato experiments with blown out negatives, extreme close up, and deep focus mixed with his characteristic low angle composition to add to the sense of noirish dread which paints the modern city as an inescapable hellscape while even the romantic place of refuge shared by Kawashima and Haruko is a gothic moorland lit by moonlight and filled with eerie mist. Lurid and sweaty, the film has a grim sense of humour even in its oppressive atmosphere with a running gag devoted to the lead investigator’s painful case of piles, but its overriding fatalism nevertheless offers the hero a sense of redemption if only in acceptance of his narrative destiny. 


Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Yoji Yamada, 1989)

“My uncle was born a kind man, but his kindness is intrusive. He’s short tempered too, so often his kindness ends up causing a fight” according to the introduction given by Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), nephew of the titular Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) in the 42nd instalment in the long running series, Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Boku no Ojisan). People may say he’s “an oddball”, but just recently, Mitsuo claims, he’s learned to appreciate his uncle’s peculiar charms. Up to this point, the series had followed a familiar pattern in which Tora-san has an encounter on the road and returns home to visit his family in Shibamata falling in love with an unattainable woman along the way. My Uncle, as the title perhaps implies, shifts the focus away from Tora directly towards his wayward nephew Mitsuo now a moody teenager studying to retake his university entrance exams. 

The problem is, Mitsuo is having trouble concentrating because he’s fallen in love. Izumi (Kumiko Goto) was a year below him in high school but after her parents got divorced she moved away and is currently living with her mother (Mari Natsuki) who runs a hostess bar in Nagoya. Mitsuo has been wanting to go and visit but his father, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), has banned travel until after his exams and his authoritarian ruling has placed a strain on their relationship while Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Mitsuo’s mother and Tora’s younger sister, is getting fed up with his moodiness. That might be why she asks Tora to have a word with him on one of his rare visits, hoping Mitsuo will be able to talk frankly to his uncle about things he might not want to discuss with his parents. Only when Tora’s uncle (Masami Shimojo) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) point out the dangers does she realise her mistake. Perhaps you might not want your son to receive the kind of advice a man like Tora might give. Their misgivings are borne out when Tora brings him home a little the worse for wear after teaching him how to drink sake (and flirt with waitresses). 

Rather than Tora it’s Mitsuo we follow as he ignores his parents and goes off to find Izumi on his own. Mitsuo is not Tora, however, and he’s still fairly naive, unaware of the dangers inherent in a life on the road which is how he gets himself into a sticky situation with a man who helped him (Takashi Sasano) after he had a bike accident but turned out to have ulterior motives. After discovering that Izumi has gone to live with her aunt (Fumi Dan) in the country and finally arriving, Mitsuo begins to have his doubts. She wrote to him that she was lonely so he jumped on his bike and came, but now he wonders if that was really an OK thing to do or if she might find it a little excessive, even creepy. Her neighbours may gossip after seeing a (slightly) older boy from Tokyo suddenly turn up on a motorbike, maybe like Tora he’s acted on impulse out of kindness but has accidentally made trouble for her?

Meanwhile, Sakura and Hiroshi are at home worried sick, aware their son has grown up and evidently has some important rite of passage stuff to do, but it would have been nice if he’d called. Everyone’s used to Tora breezing in and out of their lives and it’s not as if they don’t worry, but it’s different with Mitsuo. Luckily and through staggering coincidence Mitsuo ends up running into Tora who, perhaps ironically, gets him to phone home and then starts helping him out with his youthful romantic dilemma. Though some of the advice he gives is a little problematic, there’s a fine line when it comes to being “persistent” in love, he is nevertheless supportive and proves popular with Izumi’s mild-mannered aunt and lonely grandfather-in-law (Masao Imafuku) who subjects him to a day-long lecture about traditional ceramics which he listens to patiently because as he says, old people are happy when someone listens to them. The problems are entirely with Izumi’s extremely conservative school teacher uncle (Isao Bito) who appears to terrorise his wife and objects strongly to Mitsuo’s impulsive gesture of love, bearing out Mitsuo’s concerns in implying that he’s endangering Izumi’s reputation, though apparently more worried about how it looks for him as a school teacher if she’s caught hanging out with a motorcycle-riding “delinquent”. The final straw is his telling Mitsuo off for neglecting his studies, insisting no one so “stupid” could ever hope to go to uni.

Left behind, Tora tries to defend Mitsuo to the snooty uncle, telling him that he’s proud of his nephew for doing something kind even if others don’t see it that way, but the uncle simply replies that they obviously disagree and abruptly walks off. Perhaps there’s no talking to some people, but Tora does what he can anyway. Mitsuo gains a new appreciation for his kindhearted family, not to mention his eccentric uncle. “Trips make everyone wise”, Tora tells Hiroshi, well except for some people, he later adds before once again getting literally cut off from everyone waiting for him back in Shibamata. The signs of bubble-era prosperity are everywhere from Mitsuo’s motorbike and comparatively spacious family home to the increased mobility and the upscale interior of Izumi’s mother’s “snack” bar, but Tora is still a post-war wanderer bound for the road, drifting whichever way the wind blows him.


Tora-san, My Uncle streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Yoji Yamada, 1975)

Spanning 48 films and almost 30 years from the middle of the economic miracle to the post-Bubble depression, the Tora-san series provided a certain kind of comforting stability with its well established formula that saw the titular travelling salesman alternately hit the road and return home to his wholesome family waiting and worrying in Shibamata, always glad to see him but also anxious as to what kind of trouble he’ll be causing this time around. Among the most melancholy of the series, Tora-san #15, Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro Aiaigasa, AKA Tora-san’s Rise and Fall) sees him flirt with the idea of settling down while others wrestle with the costs of the salaryman dream and the contradictions of the post-war era. 

Yamada opens, however, with an exciting dream sequence in which Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi) re-imagines himself as a heroic pirate saving his family members, and all the residents of Shibamata, from enslavement by some kind of evil capitalist villain. He wakes up and leaves the cinema, but Shibamata is perhaps on his thoughts once again acting as it does as a kind of “port” in his life of perpetual wandering. For the moment he’s travelling with a depressed salaryman, Hyodo (Eiji Funakoshi), whom he rescued at a train station fearing he may have been about to take his own life. Meanwhile, back in Shibamata, Tora’s old friend Lily (Ruriko Asaoka) has come looking for him at the dango shop apparently now divorced, tearfully explaining to Tora’s sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) that she wasn’t well suited to being a housewife after all and is planning to head back out on the road as an itinerant singer. 

Perhaps ironically, Tora is angry with Hyodo for causing worry to his family by disappearing without notice, eventually ringing Sakura to tell her to ring Hyodo’s wife and let her know he’s alright (why he doesn’t just ring himself is a mystery, and in any case he only has the one coin for the payphone so runs out of time to explain). What we can infer is that Hyodo has in a sense achieved the “salaryman dream” but it’s left him feeling empty and unfulfilled. Mrs. Hyodo appears to be very prim and proper, their home spacious and tastefully decorated. When Sakura calls two men from her husband’s company are with her trying to figure out where Hyodo could have gone. She explains that her husband is a timid man and earnest, it’s unlikely he’s gone off with another woman and it’s out of character for him go AWOL from work so she’s at least very relieved to learn he’s alive even if Tora ran out of time to say where they were. Hyodo isn’t really sure anyone’s missing him, and as we later discover his flight is part mid-life crisis in that he’s heading to the hometown of his first love. He assumes she also will have married and has no illusions of a romantic reunion but simply wants to make sure she’s happy (as he, presumably, is not). Discovering she’s a widow gives him pause for thought, but on seeing her he realises the futility of his situation and resolves to return home to his dull and conventional salaryman life. 

It’s a huge source of irony to Tora that anyone might envy him. Indeed, Mrs. Hyodo quite snobbishly insists on asking Sakura about Tora’s company joking that “he can’t just be a pedlar” much to Sakura’s embarrassment. But that sense of freedom and the open road appears to be something Hyodo is looking for, childishly romanticising hardship, finding sleeping on park benches and helping Tora pull salesman’s scams in the street exciting rather than worrying (he could after all always just go home). Yet he also envies Tora for having such a loving and forgiving family, explaining that his now look down on him because he’s been demoted at work, as if they only value him for what he represents an embodiment of the salaryman dream. Lily too is as much in love with Tora’s family as anything else, though the complex relationship between the pair begins to scandalise the conservative local community. Sakura frames it as a joke but puts it to Lily that it would be nice if she and Tora could marry so she’d be a part of their family. Lily unexpectedly agrees, overcome with emotion, but Tora is his old insensitive, if perhaps perceptive self, declaring that they’re too alike. Like him she’s a bird meant to wander. She’d only stay until she felt ready to fly. 

Tora-san and Lily are wandering souls cast adrift in the post-war era, unable to find firm footing while Hyodo’s existential angst suggests the salaryman dream is not the answer either. Only Sakura and the Kurumas seem to be doing well enough, living their ordinary, wholesome lives in Shibamata. “She probably has problems we don’t know about” Tora’s aunt remarks watching Queen Elizabeth II waving gracefully on the television, lamenting that it must be tiring to have to stand around so long. Everyone has problems but they carry on. In Shibamata they try to be kind and especially to big-hearted men like Tora no matter what kind of trouble they may cause.


Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Yoji Yamada, 1969)

“It’s tough being a man” according to the Japanese title of the long running series affectionately known as “Tora-san” to its many fans. Tora-san began as a TV drama broadcast in 1968-9 in which the hero died of a snakebite in the very last episode much to viewers’ disappointment. Director Yoji Yamada then resurrected the loveable travelling salesman and made him the star of a reboot movie which proved so popular that it spawned a 48-film series which lasted until the death of star Kiyoshi Atsumi at the age of 68 in 1996. 

Yamada directed all but two instalments in the series each of which broadly follow a similar pattern to that introduced in the first film following the eponymous Tora as he gets himself mixed up in some kind of trouble, returns home to visit his family in Shibamata, and falls in love with a beautiful but unobtainable woman known as the “Madonna” in the series’ “mythology”, if you can call it that. At the beginning of Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Otoko wa Tsurai yo), Torajiro Kuruma (Kiyoshi Atsumi) or “Tora-san”, explains that he’s been in a wistful mood thinking about his hometown while viewing the cherry blossoms and has decided to go back to Shibamata for the first time in 20 years having left swearing never to return after arguing with his father who has since passed away as has his brother. Tora-san’s only remaining family members are his younger sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), a small child when he left but now a grown woman in her mid-20s, and an uncle (Shin Morikawa) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) who’ve been looking after her and run a small dango shop. 

Being away for 20 years necessarily means that Tora has been on the road since he was a young teenager back in 1949 when Japan was still very much in the throws of post-war chaos, in contrast to the increasingly prosperous nation it has since become. On his return to town he is relieved to discover that the local priest (Chishu Ryu), as well as his aunt, still remember and recognise him but shocks them all with an incongruous, and frankly over the top, show of politeness as he expresses gratitude and filial piety towards his uncle and aunt for having raised his sister but then immediately afterwards tries to sell them some of his tacky sales goods including some kind of electronic bracelet with supposed health benefits. Nevertheless, the family, including his sister Sakura who works as a typist at an electrical goods company, are very glad to seem him after all these years. 

Hardly in the house five minutes before peeing in the garden instead of using the bathroom like a regular person, Tora is already undercutting the image he first presented and causing trouble with the neighbours. The major drama occurs when he ends up accompanying Sakura to an omiai arranged marriage meeting set up by her boss in a fancy hotel. Sakura hadn’t been keen to go to the omiai, her uncle and aunt assume because arranged marriages are already outdated, but as we later discover she’s developed a fondness for factory worker Hiroshi (Gin Maeda) who lives in the house directly behind theirs. The uncle and aunt encourage the match because it’s an opportunity to marry up, viewing it as better than Sakura could otherwise hope for as an orphan with no dowry. Tora agrees with them, encouraging his sister not to write off tradition, but he has little understanding of the etiquette for these kinds of situations and quickly scandalises the refined, upper-class family by drinking far too much, making bawdy jokes about the composition of Chinese characters, and using vulgar language. As expected the suitors decide not to take things further, though luckily Sakura’s boss does not seem to mind or hold Tora’s behaviour against her.

On the road since he was little more than a child, perhaps it’s no wonder that Tora struggles when trying (or not) to adapt to the rules of civilised society though as he later tells us, he also had a traumatic childhood beaten by his father who resented him for being illegitimate, conceived during a drunken indiscretion with a geisha (Sakura is a half-sister born to his father’s legal wife). At one point he loses his temper completely and finds himself slapping Sakura, accidentally starting a mass brawl in their courtyard, though it’s obvious afterwards that he deeply regrets his behaviour and despite being forgiven by his ever patient sister feels as if it might be better to leave again before he makes even more trouble for his family. 

Tora is, however, perhaps good trouble in that his heart is (broadly) in the right place even if he makes a lot of mistakes. He meddles in Sakura’s love life and almost destroys her chance of romantic happiness, but it all works out in the end and he might have a point in implying that without his mistaken intervention she and Hiroshi would have just gone on in silent longing. Nevertheless, he remains a romantically naive figure, falling for the elegant daughter of the local priest (Sachiko Mitsumoto) who surprises him by expressing a fondness for low entertainment but in real terms is never going to marry a man like Tora. “Mine’s a hard world” he explains to a boatman, sadly making his way back towards the road filled with a deep sense of despair but pressing on all the same, trying his luck wherever he goes just another plucky, though no longer so young, guy, left behind by the rapid pace of the post-war economic miracle.  


Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)