The Rickshaw Man (無法松の一生, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1958)

Japanese cinema has a special affinity with loveable rogues. We forgive their mischief and inconvenient troublemaking because deep down we know they’re kindhearted and even when they act impulsively it’s only out of an abundance of misplaced emotion. The wild Matsu is a case in point, brought to life by the great Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s remake of a story he first adapted 15 years previously but was apparently unhappy with because of the censorship demands of the time. What is surprising, therefore, is that despite his otherwise liberal outlook Inagaki largely echoes those problematic pre-war views, opting to focus on the tragic comic figure of Matsugoro rather than engage with the destructive visions of toxic masculinity that his well-meaning paternalism represents or with the latent feudalism which continues to inform the later course of his life. 

Beginning in 1897, Inakagaki introduces us to “The Wild Matsu” (Toshiro Mifune) on his “illegal” return to Kokura from which he had apparently been “banished” because of an “incident” the previous year. This time, Matsugoro has crawled back home apparently ill in bed and nursing his head after getting into an argument with a man who turned out to be the kendo instructor for the local police. Unafraid to embarrass himself, Matsugoro later relates the tale as a funny anecdote, admitting that the kendo master put an end to their fight in record time by striking him on the head and knocking him out. Typical Matsugoro, seems to be the reaction from all around him. Later he takes offence with a ticket seller who refuses him a comp to the show when free tickets are usually available to rickshaw drivers (publicity tools haven’t changed as much as you’d think), returning later in the evening and buying a ticket with a friend but setting up a mini stove to bake garlic and stink the place out as his revenge. A calm and rational mediator later explains to him that though he can understand why he was upset because it causes confusion when people refuse to abide by longstanding traditions, his stunt has ruined the evening of a lot of people who weren’t really involved in his vendetta. Immediately seeing the error of his ways, Matsugoro determines to make a full and complete apology to the spectators whom he’d so thoughtlessly inconvenienced. 

This incident demonstrates Matsugoro’s essential goodness. He may be impulsive and easily offended, but he means no harm and even his “revenge” is an amusing, petty affair rather than something dark or violent. The main thrust of the narrative, however, kicks in when he spots a lonely little boy being made fun of by his friends because he’s too scared to climb a tree. Matsugoro pauses to tell him that he needs to man up, but on his way back finds the other kids running away and the boy on the floor crying after having fallen and broken a leg. Finding out where he lives, Matsugoro picks the boy up and takes him home to his mother (Hideko Takamine) who further enlists him to take the child to a doctor. 

The boy, Toshio, lives in the old “samurai district” and is the son of army officer Kotaro Yoshioka (Hiroshi Akutagawa), a cheerful man who though holding similar views on manliness to Matsugoro, finds the incident faintly amusing. In fact, Kotaro had heard of “The Wild Matsu” because he was once very rude to an army general he was charged with conveying from place to place during a series of official events. He decides to invite Matsugoro to dinner and the two men hit it off, but Kotaro suddenly dies of a fever leaving his wife Yoshiko alone with their son, worrying that she won’t be able to cure his sensitivity and turn him into a “strong” young man now that he lacks a male role model. 

Matsugoro is perfectly happy to fill that role, bonding with the little boy but always encouraging him to be “manly” which, in this age, largely means strong and athletic, rational and obedient while manfully repressing his feelings, and finally a willingness and ability to fight. While all of this is going on, we see the tides of militarism rising even in the early years of the century. The Russo-Japanese war giving way to the taking of Qingdao while flags go up everywhere and patriotic celebrations of martial glory become ever more frequent, but the problematic quality of this age of hypermasculinty is never questioned even as it leads the nation towards a decidedly dark destiny. 

Meanwhile, Matsugoro seems to have fallen in deep yet impossible love with Yoshiko but is prevented from voicing his feelings because of a deep seated sense of social inferiority. Matsugoro’s life has been limited not only because he was born poor, but because of a traumatic childhood with a cruel step-mother. Denied a proper education, he is largely illiterate and rickshaw driving, which depends only on his physical strength and stamina (the most highly praised qualities of the age), is all that he can expect out of life. We never have any inkling of how Yoshiko views Matsugoro, if there are any romantic feelings on her part or she simply admires him as a robust and good hearted friend, but the futility of Matsugoro’s unresolvable longing eventually drives him to drink which he had previously given up, along with his “wild” nature, in the need to provide a more respectable example to the young Toshio. 

Similarly, we aren’t privy to the parallel tragedy which will inevitably leave Yoshiko lonely as comparatively young widow whose only son will naturally become distant from his mother, grow-up, and find a wife to start a family of his own. Her anxiety over her son’s participation in a group fight is dismissed as hysterical womanliness, destructive maternity that may prevent Toshio from becoming a “proper” man. Something which is perhaps borne out when Matsugoro, who’d gone to watch over him just in case, has to wade in to defend Toshio who is too frightened to participate.

Nevertheless, Matsugoro is a big hearted man despite his intense masculinity, always acting with selfless kindness but also meekly accepting the fate his cards have dealt him rather than railing against the systems which have caged him all his life from his poverty to the perceived class differences which demand he keep his distance from the beautiful Yoshiko. The wheels of his rickshaw turn on ceaselessly as if relentlessly pulling him on towards his inescapable destiny, but shouldn’t we be asking more for men like Matsugoro whose hearts are good than being resigned to loneliness because of a few outdated social codes?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ironfinger (100発100中, Jun Fukuda, 1965)

Ironfinger posterBy 1965, Japan was back on the international map as the host of the last Olympics. The world was opening up, but the gleefully surreal universe of Toho spy movies isn’t convinced that’s an entirely good thing. Jun Fukuda had begun his career at Toho working on more “serious“ fare but throughout the 1960s began to lean towards comedy of the absurd, slapstick variety. 1965’s Ironfinger (100発100中, Hyappatsu Hyakuchu) boasts a script by Kihachi Okamoto – Okamoto might be best remembered for his artier pieces but even these are underpinned by his noticeably surreal sense of humour and Ironfinger is certainly filled with the director’s cheerful sense of cartoonish fun with its colourful smoke bombs, cigarette lighters filled with cyanide gas, and zany mid-air rescues. The English title is, obviously, a James Bond reference (the Japanese title is the relatively more typical “100 shots, 100 Kills”) and the film would also get a 1968 sequel which added the spytastic “Golden Eye” (though it would be given a more salacious title, Booted Babe, Busted Boss, for export). Strangely the unlikely villains this time around are the French as Tokyo finds itself at the centre of an international arms smuggling conspiracy unwittingly uncovered by a “bumbling vacationer”.

We first meet our hero as he’s writing a postcard to his mum in which he details his excitement in thinking that he’s made a friend of the nice Japanese man in the next seat seeing as he’s finally stopped ignoring him. When they land in Hong Kong, our guy keeps shadowing his “friend” until he decides to ask him about “Le Bois” to which his “friend” seems surprised but is gunned down by bike riding assassins before he can answer though he manages to get out the word “Tokyo” before breathing his last. Picking up his friend’s passport and swanky hat, our guy becomes “Andrew Hoshino” (Akira Takarada) – a “third generation Japanese Frenchman” and “possibly” a member of Interpol.

The bumbling “Andy”, who can’t stop talking about his mother and is very particular about his hat (for reasons which will become clear), is obviously not all he seems. Despite his penchant for pratfalls and cheeky dialogue, he also seems to be a crack shot with a pistol and have an ability to talk himself out of almost any situation – at least with the aid of his various spy gadgets including his beloved cigarette lighter and a knife concealed in his wristwatch for cutting himself free should he get tied up. Andy “said” he was just here on holiday, but are all those postcards really for his dear old mum waiting for him in Paris or could they have another purpose? Why is he so keen on finding out about “Le Bois” and why does he always seem to end up at the centre of the action?

These are all questions which occur to one of his early antagonists – Yumi (Mie Hama), the ace explosives expert who often feels under-appreciated in the otherwise all male Akatsuki gang. Apprehending Andy, Yumi originally falls for his bumbling charm only to quickly see through his act and realise she might be better hedging her bets with him – hence she finally teams up with Andy and straight laced streetcop Tezuka (Ichiro Arishima) who’s been trying to keep a lid on the growing gang violence between the Aonuma who now run the town and the Akatsuki who want to regain control. Andy doesn’t much care about sides in a silly territorial dispute, but it might all prove helpful in his overall mission which is, it turns out, very much in keeping both with that of the gang-affiliated Yumi and law enforcement officer Tezuka.

There isn’t much substance in Ironfinger, but then there isn’t particularly intended to be. There is however a mild degree of international anxiety as our heroes become, in a sense, corrupted by French sophistication whilst “relying” on “Interpol” to solve all their problems (“Interpol” is frequent presence in Toho’s ‘60s spoofs providing a somewhat distant frontline defence against international spy conspiracies). Fukuda keeps things moving to mask the relative absence of plot as the guys get themselves into ever more extreme scrapes before facing certain death on a mysterious island only to save themselves through a series of silly boys own schemes to outwit their captors. Perhaps not as much fun or not quite as interesting as some of Toho’s other humorous ‘60s fare, Ironfinger is nevertheless a good old fashioned espionage comedy filled with zany humour and a cartoonish sense of the absurd.


Akira Takarada shows off his French

Love in the Mud (泥だらけの純情, Sokichi Tomimoto, 1977)

Love in the Mud posterJapanese youth cinema was in a strange place by the late 1970s. Angsty seishun eiga had gone out with Nikkatsu’s move into Roman Porno and the artier, angry youth films coming out through ATG were probably not much for a teen audience. The Kadokawa idol movie was only a few years away but until then, films like Love in the Mud (泥だらけの純情, Dorodarake no Junjo) arrived to plug the gap. Based on a novella by Shinji Fujiwara which had been previously adapted by Ko Nakahira in 1963 in a version starring Sayuri Yoshinaga and Mitsuo Hamada, Love in the Mud is a classic tale of poor boy meets rich girl and ends in a predictably hopeless way but in deep contrast to the prevailing culture of the time, the film takes the “junjo” or “purity” in its title literally in its innocent chasteness.

As the camera pans over a rapidly developing city, it settles on a bright red, flashy sports car being driven by Mami (Momoe Yamaguchi), the daughter of the Japanese Ambassador to Spain, with her friend sitting cheerfully in the passenger seat. Disaster strikes when the pair are run off the road by a biker gang who taunt them from outside the car, threatening rape and robbery. Luckily for them another gangster turns up, beats up the bad guys and saves the girls but alarm bells should have been ringing when he asks Mami to step out of the car and “thank him properly”. Mami, stupidly, does what she’s told and the girls are hijacked by gangsters round two. When they reach the shady place the gangsters are planning to have their wicked way with them, a third wave of gangster appears, disapproves of the goon’s intentions and heroically fights them off. However, the girls’ saviour is stabbed in the stomach and then later stabs and kills the leader of the aggressors.

The noble gangster, Jiro (Tomokazu Miura), tells the girls to run – which they do, but somehow Mami can’t quite bring herself leave him. A thoroughly middle-class girl, Mami is at university studying English literature but her dream is to open a hat shop in Paris and she spends most of her spare time working with a hat designer. In the absence of her father, Mami’s uncle (Ko Nishimura) has been looking after her but is the classic upperclass male who thinks the hat stuff is just a hobby and what Mami needs is a good husband as soon as possible. Accordingly he’s set her up with a pleasant enough business contact he hopes will both support Mami in the manner to which she’s been accustomed and his business dealings too.

Your average teenage girl might not be in such an extreme situation as young Mami, but most can certainly sympathise with her lack of agency. The life her uncle has planned for her is not what she wants but more than that, she’s acutely aware of being denied a choice in her future. She may be rich, but she’s never been free. Jiro, by contrast, grew up poor in tragic family circumstances and enjoys his own kind of freedom even if he feels himself constrained by his social class and lack of opportunities following a life in care with no real education. Not actually a yakuza but a gambler and petty punk living on the fringes of the underworld, Jiro has been content to live a meaningless life of empty gains but as his rescuing of Mami and her friend shows, he has a kind heart which extends to delivering presents to the daughter of a melancholy bar hostess currently living in an orphanage.

Jiro’s nobility is of a true and pure kind. After Mami comes forward to testify in Jiro’s defence, she tries to strike up a friendship but Jiro rebuffs her. He’s too smart not to know posh girl and poor boy never ends well, but then they do have a real connection which proves hard to kill. Their social differences are made apparent when Mami makes the naive decision to invite Jiro to a party at her fancy mansion. He buys a nice suit and an expensive necklace as a present, but Mami’s nanny doesn’t want to let him in and when Mami introduces Jiro to her uncle he whips out a checkbook causing Jiro to leave enraged. Nevertheless Mami chases Jiro through the shadier parts of Shinjuku, taking her first taste of gyoza, frequenting underground nightclubs and mahjong parlours, and swapping her elegant outfits for the casual jeans and T-shirts of Jiro’s world.

While all of this is going on, Jiro is also embroiled in the gang trouble which started with the stabbing in the beginning. A “friend”, almost, of the local policeman, it’s not surprising suspicion falls on Jiro and he faces a bleak future if he chooses to remain in Shinjuku. The courtship of the pair is a stuttering, nervous affair in which the emboldened Mami chases Jiro whose sense of honour teaches him to try and avoid her all the while he too is smitten. This is, however, a chaste and innocent love. Jiro and Mami spend a night together gazing at the moon but all they do is talk and the climax of the romance is met firstly with an innocent hug, and then a troubling slap from Jiro which is designed to show the depth his love in his desire to push Mami away, rather than anything more explicit.

A tragic tale of love across the class divide, Love in the Mud indulges the worst aspects of its genre in the fetishisation of doomed romance and extreme dedication the idea of “pure” emotion. The force that keeps Jiro and Mami apart, rather than entrenched social mores and differing forms of oppression is a kind of fatalistic pessimism which says the only true love is death. Perhaps too innocent and too chaste, Love in the Mud never earns its melodramatic ending but does what it needs to in appealing to its teenage target audience, neatly anticipating the genial edginess of the idol movie but failing to move much beyond capturing its moment as a snapshot of late ’70s youth culture.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Kihachi Okamoto, 1964)

vlcsnap-2016-07-12-23h44m56s789Being stood up is a painful experience at the best of times, but when you’ve been in prison for three whole years and no one comes to meet you, it is more than usually upsetting. Sixth generation Oyabun of the Ona clan, Daisaku, has made a new friend whilst inside – Taro is a younger man, slightly geeky and obsessed with bombs. Actually, he’s a bit wimpy and was in for public urination (he also threw a firecracker at the policeman who took issue with his call of nature) but will do as a henchman in a pinch. Daisaku wanted him to see all of his yakuza guys showering him with praise but only his son actually turns up and even that might have been an accident.

His mistress has moved on, his wife got religion, and the clan has gone legit and formed a corporation. That last bit might have been OK except Daisaku isn’t the president, he’s the Chairman, and the new top dog is a pen obsessed political candidate who runs under the slogan that pens can save Japan and violence is the enemy! Taro and Daisaku come up with a way to get revenge on the usurper by sneaking a bomb into one of his beloved writing implements but it’s far from plain sailing in this typically anarchic Okamoto world.

Okamoto casts his ironic tale as a musical, cartoon style slapstick comedy with frequent digressions into musical interludes which take inspiration both from Hollywood movie musicals and classical Japanese drama. Daisaku may only have been inside for three years but he’s a man out of time with behaviour and attitudes more suited to the pre-war world than the modern era. Consequently he often breaks into theatrical rhythms inspired by noh or kabuki with their characteristic chant style recitative and stylised movements. Younger characters sing in the vernacular of the day with Taro and Daisaku’s son belting out a popular hit, and the office workers suddenly breaking into a musical set piece themed around the idea of overtime in which the men and women of the office bicker about balancing the books. Similarly, the would be mayor, Yato, takes his cues from ‘20s gangsters so he naturally dances the charleston before breaking into a tango when he gets some unwelcome news.

Rhythm is the key as the film continues to respond to its various musical fluctuations in highly stylised approach which takes advantage of Okamoto’s innovative editing techniques. Apparently inspired by a Cornell Woolrich story, this is nominally a noir inflected crime story of an ousted gangster trying to rub out his rival and get his old life back, but Okamoto neatly deconstructs the genre and turns it inside out with a hefty serving of irony on the top. Daisaku is an old guy and his era has passed, but Yato isn’t real enough to represent the future either which seems to either belong to bumbling bomber Taro, or Daisaku’s hardworking and straightforward son.

The plot to blow up Yato using his favourite prop becomes progressively more ridiculous as the pen ends up everywhere but where it’s supposed to be and threatening to explode at any second (to great comic effect). Things get even darker when Yato is talked into considering the orchestration of an “accident” for his mayoral rival involving a golf ball which once again causes everyone a lot of bother (though not the kind that was intended).

Daisaku has brought some of his old fashioned habits out of jail with him, quickly corrupting his old friend the chauffeur (who ultimately proves incorruptible even if grateful to have been reminded of the happiness he already shared with his wife, poverty or no) and allowing Taro and his crazy bomb plots access to the criminal mainstream, but ultimately he proves more of a loveable rogue living in the past than a criminal mastermind. Yato, by contrast, is a darker figure with his hypocritical campaign slogans and lack of personal integrity. Daisaku may be deluded in many ways but he never pretends to be anything other than he is, unlike the would be dictator.

Filled with Okamoto’s idiosyncratic touch of absurd irony, Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Aa Bakudan) is one of his most amusing and formally ambitious pieces of work. Mixing classical theatrical techniques with modern movie musicals, jazz rhythms, expressionist sets and unpredictable editing, he once agains creates a crazy cartoon world in which anything is possible but somehow it’s all quite good natured even when you’re talking about bank robbery and possible assassination plots. Hilarious fun but also intricately constructed, Oh, Bomb! ranks among Okamoto’s most charming masterpieces and is urgently in need of a reappraisal.