Sing a Song of Sex (日本春歌考, Nagisa Oshima, 1967)

20120910022716257Aimless youth wastes its potency on repressed desires in Oshima’s avant-garde treatise on power dynamics and political fallacies. Sing a Song of Sex (日本春歌考, Nihon shunka-ko), less the bawdy romp the title promises than an irony tinged journey through music as a weapon against oppression, is the first of three films Oshima would make in the late ‘60s examining Japan’s complicated relationship with Korea. Its “heroes” however are about as depoliticised as it’s possible to get – they interrupt protests they don’t understand and obsess over a single pretty girl they fantasise about raping in an elaborate classroom based piece of erotic wish-fulfilment. All that matters to them is their craving for physical satisfaction which knows no morality or greater purpose save satiation, conquest, and implied humiliation.

Japan, spring, 1967. Four boys sit their university entrance exams with (externally at least) less seriousness than might be expected. Huddling together away from the snow they smoke cigarettes and gossip about miss 469 whose name they don’t know but caught their eye in the exam hall. The boys, along with three girls, are nominally under the care of their teacher, Mr. Otake (Juzo Itami), who takes them to a pub to “celebrate” before getting extremely drunk and kicking off on an inappropriate lecture about bawdy folk songs and their lasting legacy as the voice of the poor and the oppressed who have no other way of expressing their needs and desires. Lamenting that the young people of today lack the capacity for real feeling, Otake offers to put the kids up in a local inn, perhaps hoping to provoke some kind of awakening among his teenage charges but the loss of innocence he inspires in them is of a very different nature. Still extremely drunk, Otake falls asleep next to a faulty gas heater and dies of carbon monoxide poisoning.

One of the boys, Nakamura (Ichiro Araki), went to see Otake during the night and saw him keeled over in a room that smelt of gas but did nothing. The girls, wailing and distraught, attempt to make their way home while the boys joke about having murdered their teacher and continue to exchange increasingly lewd and disturbing banter about their female classmates including collective rape fantasies (but only of the pretty one). The “other” girl that they collectively decide they don’t fancy, Kaneda (Hideko Yoshida), is disturbed enough by the boys’ murderous joke that she comes back to make sure it isn’t true, accidentally finding out about their dreamscape rape of no. 469 and pushing Nakamura towards paying a visit to Otake’s girlfriend, whom the boys have also been fantasising about, to apologise to her about his possible contribution to Otake’s death.

While Kaneda and the other three set off to track down 469, Nakamura splits off for Otake’s wake where he finds himself alone among a collection of former student protestors with differing views about Otake’s legacy and relation to the cause. The protestors break into a traditional Japanese leftwing anthem, but Nakamura isn’t having any of it. That’s not the Otake he knew. He resists their politicisation of his mentor’s funeral by loudly singing the bawdy drinking song Otake taught them at the pub. The song becomes something like an anthem for Nakamura and his friends who sing it at every conceivable opportunity, delighting in its inappropriateness and ironic similarity to the acts they frequently discuss but seemingly do not directly engage in. Like the peasants Otake idolised, Nakamura takes up the song as a weapon against his own oppression and the unwilling repression of his physical desires.

The battle becomes one of audience and agency. Nakamura sings his song over the hymn of protest being offered by the defeated left while Kaneda later attempts to counter with a female tale of exploitation, snatching a microphone away from some Americanised hippies singing Woody Guthrie and protesting the Vietnam war while dancing round the stars and stripes. Kaneda eventually gets her moment in the spotlight but she pays a heavy and ironic price for it, partly at the hands of miss 469 who re-enters the boys’ rape fantasy after it is directly revealed to her and she dares them to realise their baser desires. Suddenly back in an empty classroom presided over by Otake’s girlfriend, Miss Tanigawa (Akiko Koyama), and the silent spectre of Kaneda now dressed in a sparkly white hanbok, the boys get an intense lesson in Japanese history and more specifically the origins of the Japanese state in the royal courts of Korea.

The songs of the youthful protestors, some Japanese some co-opted from abroad, have lost their meaning and their fire. Their protest is affected and purposeless, as solipsistic as the boys’ destructive desires. On the one hand, youth embraces the pop culture of rebellion – joining the flower power revolution and adopting the Americanised protests against a foreign war and (perhaps tangentially) their nation’s complicity in it, while age fixes its sights on a recently revived imperial holiday and a rejection of the fascist past (though not a rejection of the imperial past or a recognition of its lingering legacy). Painted in tones of red and white, the rising sun occasionally replaced with the blackened flag of protest, Sing a Song of Sex is a paradoxically nihilistic condemnation of post-war youth who allow their oppression to push them into senseless acts of violence rather towards the noble causes of revolution and social change which might finally set them free.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Most Dangerous Game (最も危険な遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1978)

the most dangerousThe late Yusaku Matsuda remains an ultra cool pop culture icon thirty years after his death and forty after his reign as the action king of Japanese cinema. Though there were several other contenders for the crown – Sonny Chiba, or the tough guy yakuza stars Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, to name but a few, it’s Matsuda’s intense screen presence which continues to endure as an example of mid-1970s extreme masculinity. This image was in large part created through his work with director Toru Murakawa in roles inspired by hardboiled novelist Haruhiko Oyabu in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf and The Beast Must Die, but before that it was the “Game” trilogy which helped to make his name.

The first of these, The Most Dangerous Game (最も危険な遊戯, Mottomo Kikenna Yuugi), introduces us to Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) – a sleazy hitman with a gambling problem who is capable of pulling off the most daring and precise of hits but remains a disaster outside of his working life. After losing a mahjong game and getting roughed up by gangsters, Narumi gets a job offer from an arms company currently vying for a large government contract to develop a Star Wars-style air defence system. As reported in the news, a number of top CEOs are being kidnapped for ransom thanks to a plot by the Godai Conglomerate. The Tonichi Corporation want Narumi to rescue their kidnapped employee, Nanjo (Masanori Irie), who also happens to be the son-in-law of CEO Kohinata (Asao Uchida).

Unlike the later Resurrection of the Golden Wolf or The Beast Must Die, the corporate conspiracy and shady government military project are merely background and never really dealt with in any further detail. Nevertheless, it appears Narumi has got himself involved in a much darker world than even he is used to. Kohinata claimed to want to save Nanjo because of their familial connection, but as it turns out he doesn’t really care so much about his daughter’s husband as he does about wiping out the Godai and getting the lucrative government contract all to himself. He’s even willing to pay Narumi twice for doing the same job, but then perhaps he’s not really looking to pay at all. Conspiracy may extend further than just the corporate realm.

Narumi makes for a strange “hero”. His very 1970s bachelor pad is a monument to sleaze with its prominent topless pinups displayed like precious artwork in his living room and his well stocked personal bar – a strange thing to have when it’s clear he does not entertain many visitors. Dancing around with his gun and posing topless in front of the mirror Taxi Driver-style implies perhaps he’s not so confident with his chosen profession yet he’s clearly well known enough to get a phone call out of the blue from the Tonichi Corp. Despite his rather pathetic attitude at the mahjong game and equally pathetic exit after falling asleep during a lap dance at a sex parlour, Narumi’s professional exterior is one of infinite capability and powerful masculinity.

Yet, like many films of the era Narumi’s masculinity is also intensely misogynistic. Gangster’s moll Kyoko (Keiko Tasaka) becomes an unlikely (and inconvenient) love interest after Narumi tries to use her to bait her boyfriend. Lying in wait in Kyoko’s apartment, he surprises her coming out of the shower while she is half naked and vulnerable. She tries to escape, he stops her, phone’s the boyfriend, and begins raping her so that the gangsters can hear her distress over the phone. Kyoko stops struggling and apparently gets into the groove, falling instantly in love with Narumi’s awesome love making skills and following him back to his apartment where she stays for the rest of the film.

Nevertheless Matsuda is presented as the epitome of cool, unshaken by danger and always coming out on top with enough time to strike a pose as he takes down a target with automatic precision. Murakawa’s approach is of its time but leaning towards arthouse rather than Toei’s unusual brand of action cinema. Its vistas are noirish but filled with 70s paranoid claustrophobia while the hopeless, melancholy jazz score by Yuji Ohno adds to the moody hardboiled aesthetic. An exercise in style, The Most Dangerous Game is as cynical as they come but its wry commentary and occasional fits of gleeful comedy lift it above both the B-movie silliness of other contemporary action movies and the dour seriousness of later Matsuda/Murakawa collaborations.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Aesthetics of a Bullet (鉄砲玉の美学, Sadao Nakajima, 1973)

aesthetics of a bullet1973 is the year the ninkyo eiga died. Or that is to say, staggered off into an alleyway clutching its stomach and vowing revenge whilst simultaneously seeking forgiveness from its beloved oyabun after being cruelly betrayed by the changing times! You might think it was Kinji Fukasaku who turned traitor and hammered the final nail into the coffin of Toei’s most popular genre, but Sadao Nakajima helped ram it home with the riotous explosion of proto-punk youth movie and jitsuroku-style naturalistic look at the pettiness and squalor inherent in the yakuza life – Aesthetics of a Bullet (鉄砲玉の美学, Teppodama no Bigaku). This tale of a small time loser playing the supercool big shot with no clue that he’s a sacrificial pawn in a much larger power struggle is one that has universal resonance despite the unpleasantness of its “hero”.

Kiyoshi Koike is a former chef with a gambling problem and a living room full of rabbits that he bought hoping to sell as pets but his sales patter could use some work and the business is not exactly taking off. Getting violent with his girlfriend after borrowing money from her to play mahjong and then getting annoyed when she doesn’t seem keen to lend him more to change his rabbit business into a dog business, Kiyoshi is at an impasse. So, when the local gangsters are looking for a patsy they can send into enemy territory as a “bullet” Kiyoshi’s name is high on the list. They need someone “hotblooded, must have daredevil courage, when he flips he should make a huge racket” – Kiyoshi more than fits the bill, and more to the point he has no idea what he’s doing.

Given a large amount of money and a gun, Kiyoshi gets a haircut and buys some fancy suits to play his part as a super cool gangster who doesn’t take any shit from anyone. He goes around telling everyone his name and gang affiliation very loudly, waving his pistol and acting like a big shot despite the fact he obviously has no name and no reputation. The plan is he fires his gun, gets killed, his gang swoop in for a gang war and wipe out the opposition. Only, when Kiyoshi gets too invested in his part and beats up a rival gangster, the local boss apologises and offers him a knife to make things even with the guy who just disrespected him…

If he fires his gun, it’s game over but what exactly is keeping his finger off the trigger – fear, or self preservation? Either way, Kiyoshi is way over his head in a game he never understood in the first place.

This is no ninkyo eiga. There’s no nobility here, these men are animals with no humanity let alone a pretence of honour. Kiyoshi is a loser, through and through, but once the gun is in his hand he transforms into something else. The gun becomes an extension of himself, a symbol of his new found gangster hero status. A fancy suit and a fire arm are handy props for a method actor but the performance only runs so deep, what is Kiyoshi now, a man, or a bullet?

Whatever he is, he’s no hero. In his untransformed state he violently beat his girlfriend whom he also forced to work as a prostitute, and even after getting the gun he witnesses a woman being gang raped yet appears to be more amused than anything else. He ends up getting into a fight with the other two guys waiting for their go and seems to feel heroic after the woman gets away but his intention was never to rescue her. Indeed, bumping into her again he makes a clumsy attempt at subtle blackmail though she gets a kind of revenge on him in the end. Even his “romantic” encounter with the glamorous former photo model girlfriend of the rival gang boss ends with a bizarre sex game in which he makes her get on all fours and bark like a dog.

When the time comes, Kiyoshi can’t contemplate the idea of returning to his old loser self and is fixated on reaching the peak of Kirishima which is said to be the place where the gods descended to Earth. When the bullet finally emerges, it heads in the wrong direction. Self inflicted wounds are the name of the game as an aesthetically pleasing, poetic end to this tragic story follows the only trajectory available for a classic yakuza fable.

After beginning with a montage of people sloppily eating junk food set against a proto-punk rock song dedicated to the idea of living the way you please and not letting anyone get in your way, the film contrasts the independent, non-conformist yakuza ideal of total freedom with Kiyoshi’s lowly status in an increasingly consumerist environment. The yakuza life would indeed prove a passport for a man like Kiyoshi to jump into the mainstream, but this fantasy world is one that cannot last and one way or another the curtain must fall on this expensive piece of advanced performance art.

Aesthetics of a Bullet has, like its hero, been abandoned on the roadside. Whereas the Battles Without Honour series has become a landmark of the yakuza genre, Aesthetics of a Bullet has never even received a home video release in Japan and has received barely a mention even the histories of ATG movies. This is surprising as its noir style and art house approach ought to have made it one of ATG’s more commercially viable releases even with its sleazy, nihilistic tone. Opting for a more naturalistic approach, Nakajima nevertheless breaks the action with expressionistic sequences as Kiyoshi fantasises a glorious death for himself, climaxes through gunshot, or remembers the student riots through a blue tinted sequence of still photographs. A complex yet beautifully made, genre infused character piece, Aesthetics of a Bullet is a long lost classic and one in urgent need of reappraisal.


Title sequence and first scene (unsubtitled)

Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (書を捨てよ町へ出よう, Shuji Terayama, 1971)

throw away your booksCaught in a moment of transition in more ways than one, Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (書を捨てよ町へ出よう, Sho o Suteyo Machi e Deyo) is a clarion call to apathetic youth in the dying days of ‘60s youthful rebellion. Neatly bridging the gap between post-war avant-garde and the punk cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Terayama experiments gleefully with a psychedelic, surreal rock musical which is first and foremost a sensory rather than a cerebral experience.

The film opens with an uncomfortably long black screen which has a subtle soundscape running behind it. Just when you begin to think there’s something wrong with the video, a young man dressed in a trench coat (collar turned up) appears and berates our idiocy for haven fallen for the trick. What are we doing here, sitting in a dark room waiting for something to happen when the real action is, and always has been, out in the streets? We’re trapped in here – we’re the ones inside the screen, the boy is free to smoke and we are free only to watch him do it.

It becomes clear that we are also trapped within the realm of his unrealisable dreams. He worked at a factory but he didn’t like it so he quit. He wanted to be a boxer but it frightened him so he gave up. He hears a story of a Korean boy who built a glider and tried to fly home on his own only to crash somewhere over the ocean. He envies the moments of blue skies the Korean boy flew through as the brief fulfilment of a dream. From this point on he builds a glider in his mind but is perpetually unable to launch finally seeing it too go up in flames.

The boy says he comes from a dead end place where he lives with his unemployed father, needy grandmother and younger sister whose attachment to her pet rabbit is beginning to raise eyebrows. He finds another outlet for his youthful masculinity in the local football team (football is the most manly because the ball is bigger) where an older brother substitute tries to introduce him to the better things in life including sending him to a local prostitute to “make him a man” and teaching him about “sophisticated” western dining and marxist discourse. Throughout all of this the boy remains alone, perpetually observing from the outside but never successfully finding his way in. There’s a repeated riddle – what has one way in and two ways out? We expect an answer that carries some profound weight about the nature of human existence but, no, after all it’s just a pair of trousers.

Terayama travels from black to white – beginning with the bleak opening which is all darkness and silence, he takes us to an ending of blinding white light and the eclipse that will come to us all. The boy tells us the the film will be over soon and no one will remember him – that’s all that’s left to show, a blank white screen and the images of men who will shortly disappear. However, this is not the end though we see the white screen interrupt us a few more times, the boy has another monologue in which he tells us how the film has consumed him so that the lines between reality and fantasy have become indistinguishable. The film crew have become his family, the actor playing his father is, in a sense, his father, the 28 day shoot has become an entire universe which lives and dies inside the film. A film is something which only lives in the dark, when we flick on the lights, the magic is broken and it dies.

The boy says he loved this world but does not love the cinema yet the film is rife with cinematic references and Terayama is always careful to remind us we’re watching a film by deliberately making us aware of the camera. He calls out Polanski, Oshima, and Antonioni by name and even sings a love song to Ken Takakura as well as pledging his devotion to female leading yakuza actress Junko Fuji. Yet the world of the film is totally its own encompassing proto-punk rock songs, surrealistic imagery and inserted street art quoting artists and dreamers including the Russian futurist poet Mayakovsky. As in his other work Terayama also employs Godard style colour filters from the violent green of the boy’s family life to the standard colouring of the football club and the purple tinged insert scene in which a group of hopefuls read out classified ads featuring men seeking men, missing wives and mothers, and finally a couple of obvious scams.

Way ahead of its time and successfully anticipating the anarchic pop-punk movement which was to come some years later Terayama’s youthful masterpiece remains one of the most important if inscrutable films of the era. Sadly, Terayama died at the young age of 47 in 1983 walking into his own blank white screen but even in this first feature length effort he imprinted all the pain and rage of his times into a story of a young man lost and confused in the modern consumerist era. It calls on youth to awaken, go out into the streets and do something, anything, but also has little faith that it will. We’ll go on watching Ken Takakura to feel like a tough guy before going back to being vaguely disappointed with our circumstances but doing nothing much of anything at all about it. We too, live only in the film, inside the dream, until the screen burns white and our dreams dissolve with it.


This trailer was created for a specific film screening (The North Star Ballroom is where the screening took place) but does have subtitles. It’s a little NSFW though, be warned.