Stray Dog (野良犬, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

“And, yes, I think the world’s not right. But it’s worse to take it out on the world” the conflicted policeman at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora Inu) explains as he struggles to reacquire his sense of authority while weighing up its limits and his own right to pass judgement on what is right or wrong or merely illegal. He must ask himself how he can enforce the law while faced with the reality that the man he chases is an echo of himself, the him that took another path amid the chaos, confusion, and despair that followed in the wake of defeat and occupation even as his well-meaning mentor insists that some people are good and others bad and he won’t be able to do his job if he gives it much more thought than that.

The policeman, Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is perhaps the stray dog of the title who can only follow the straight path towards his missing gun taken from him on a sweltering bus in the middle of summer while he was distracted not only by the heat but by exhaustion having been up all night on a stakeout. As we later discover, Murakami is a rookie cop and recently demobbed soldier trying to make a life for himself in the post-war society. In this he is quite lucky. Many men returned home and struggled to find employment leaving them unable to marry or support families, a whole pack of stray dogs lost in an ever changing landscape. This must have weighed quite heavily on his mind as he made the decision to resign from the police force to take responsibility for the laxity that led to the gun possibly ending up in the wrong hands only to discover his superiors don’t regard it as seriously as he does. His boss tears up the letter and tells him to turn his defeat into something more positive by trying to do something about it, which might in its own way be a metaphor for the new post-war society. 

So closely does Murakami identify himself with his gun that on hearing it has been used in a violent robbery it’s almost as if he has committed the crime and is responsible for anything it might do. There is an essential irony in the fact that this weapon that was supposed to prevent crime is being subverted and used in its service as if mirroring the paths of the two men who both returned to a changed Japan and had their knapsacks stolen on their way back home. Murakami has chosen the law, while the thief Yusa (Isao Kimura) is thrown into nihilistic despair unable to make a life for himself. Murakami’s sense of guilt is further compounded on realising that he may have frustrated Yusa’s attempt to turn back, returning the gun to the underground pistol brokers who make their living through selling illegal weapons stolen from police or bought from occupation forces.

As he admits, Murakami could have ended up committing a robbery but realised he was at a dangerous crossroads and made a deliberate choice to join the police instead. He literally finds himself walking the other man’s path when he’s told by a pickpocket, Ogin (Noriko Sengoku), that the underworld pistol dealers will find him if he walks around downtown looking like he’s at the end of his rope. Ogin, the woman reeking of cheap perfume who stood next to him on the bus, was once known for her fancy kimonos but is now in western dress, signalling perhaps a further decline. In this age of privation, only kimonos and rice have held their value and it’s not unreasonable to assume that she’s sold all of hers and joined the modern generation. Ogin doesn’t have anything to do with the theft, but seems to take pity on Murakami seeing him as naive and essentially unable to understand the way things work on the ground. His mentor, Sato (Takashi Shimura), seems to understand too well, on one level looking down on those like Ogin as simply bad but otherwise happy in her company knowing exactly how to get what he wants through their oddly flirtatious conversation as they suck ice lollies and smoke illicit cigarettes in the interview room. 

Dressed in a ragged military uniform, Murakami wanders around the backstreets of contemporary Tokyo past street kids and sex workers and groups of men just hanging around. Kurosawa employs montage and superimposition to reflect the endless drudgery and maddening circularity his of passage under the stifling heat of summer in the city that allows him a better understanding of what it is to live in this world. Even so, the boy who eventually makes contact seems to see through him pointing out that he looks too physically robust to pass for a desperate drifter. Yusa meanwhile is wiry and hollow, a frightened man who uses Murakami’s gun to affect an authority he does not own which might explain why both of his victims are women. Sato emphasises the worthiness of their victimhood, explaining that the first was robbed of the money she’d saved over three years for her wedding meaning she might have to wait even longer at which point there would be no point getting married at all, while the second woman was killed at home alone and defenceless. We’re also told that her body was nude when discovered which raises the question of whether she might have been assaulted before she died which would cast quite a different light on Yusa’s crimes no longer an accidental killer but a crazed rapist well beyond salvation. 

Yet the accidental nature of Yusa’s fall does seem to be key. The trigger seems to have been a childhood friend he’d fallen in love with gazing at a dress he could never afford to buy for her, pushed into a corner by his wounded masculinity and taking drastic action to reclaim it in much the same way Murakami later does in searching for his missing gun. In their final confrontation they grapple violently in existential struggle in a small grove behind some posh houses where a woman plays a charming parlour tune on the piano pausing only for a few moments to peer out of the window on hearing gunshots. Murakami retrieves his gun and the pair fall to the ground side by side to be met by the sound of children singing, provoking a wail of absolute despair from a defeated Yusa suddenly hit by the full weight of his transgressions. He too was a stray dog heading straight in one direction driven out of mainstream society by the unfairness of the post-war world. Sato tells Murakami that he’ll eventually forget all about Yusa, that he’ll become “less sentimental” and accept the world is full of bad guys and those who fall victim to them, but Murakami doesn’t seem too convinced, for the moment at least unable to forget that Yusa was man much like himself only less lucky or perhaps simply less naive.


Stray Dog screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 1st & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

One Wonderful Sunday (素晴らしき日曜日, Akira Kurosawa, 1947)

A young couple attempt to have a nice day out in Tokyo for only 35 yen but eventually discover something much more valuable in Akira Kurosawa’s surprisingly upbeat voyage through the backstreets of the post-war city, One Wonderful Sunday (素晴らしき日曜日, Subarashiki Nichiyobi). Though it may begin with frustration and progress to abject despair, the film allows its dejected heroes to find renewed hope for the future in the ashes of their defeat if only through the power of make-believe. 

Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita) are a young(ish) couple who’ve been together since before the war but are unable to marry because their precarious financial situation prevents them from finding a home in which they can live together. Though they are each in full employment, Masako currently lives with her sister and Yuzo with a friend. They can only spend Sundays together, but this particular Sunday Yuzo is fulled with frustration and resentment. He has only 15 yen, not much of a date as he tells Masako with irritation explaining that she’s had a wasted journey. She reveals that she has 20, but Yuzo has his male pride and is reluctant to take “a woman’s money” while internally humiliated not to be able to take her out on the town. Just before she had arrived, Yuzo had stared at an abandoned cigarette butt on the pavement. His desire soon overcame his shame. He picked it up and smoked it, only for Masako to bat it out of his hand as if insisting that he’s better than that. 

For her part, Masako is defiantly upbeat. Perhaps she’s putting on a brave face for Yuzo, but does her best to buoy his spirits so they can have a nice day together. It may be her only nice day all week. While she looks forward, he cannot move beyond the dissatisfying present. Masako begins by suggesting they check out a show home advertised on a billboard as a new kind of residence which is cheaper to build and available for only 100,000 yen for the first 100 buyers. She imagines how their life might be together in this space, while Yuzo merely sulks in the corner and points out the shoddiness of the build amid declining modern standards. It’s advertised as affordable, but they can’t afford it. Meanwhile, another man wanders in with a woman who is clearly his mistress. She exclaims that the place is a dump, “I hate matchbox houses”, while he agrees that it’s cheap for a reason and you get what you pay for. Presumably he already owns a home where his wife and family live and is about to drop a small fortune on a discreet love nest while his mistress, not unreasonably, attempts to haggle her way up to something a bit more fancy. Yuzo knows he won’t ever be able to afford even this “inexpensive” home that a wealthy man disdains as not worthy of his bit on the side. They’ve just come from seeing a crummy flat a few streets away which Masako asks directions to only to be put off by the doorman who warns them that the flat isn’t even really habitable and the landlord is heartless but they couldn’t afford that either even on the assumption they would both keep working (which depending on Masako’s job might not possible once she marries).

The landscape around them is in ruins. Yuzo and Masako wander through a bombed out city not yet ready for reconstruction looking for somewhere to stay out of the cold without eating into their 35 yen. He wants to give up and go home, but she convinces him to attend a concert of the music they heard on their first date before the war only when they get there all the cheaper tickets have been bought up by touts who sell them on at 50% markup. Beaten up for challenging the touts’ uncompromising cynicism, Yuzo hits rock bottom returning to his flat in a rundown tenement where a woman mopping the corridor gives Masako serious side eye. Frustrated, he tries to pressure her into premarital sex, her rock bottom coming a few minutes later when she firstly leaves in outrage and then returns as if admitting that their situation will never improve. 

“The war destroyed that dream” Yuzo had said of Masako’s attempt to rekindle his hopes for the future in the plan they made to open a cafe together after they married, but the reality of their mutual defeat finally seems to inspire defiance in the face of the world’s hostility. On their journey through the city, they’d encountered a ragged street kid who thought them fools after they refused his offer of ten yen for one of their rice balls and simply gave it to him out of human kindness. Yuzo felt himself a fool after trying to visit an old friend who’s done well for himself with a swanky cabaret bar only to be rebuffed and see his own image reflected in a mirror with his threadbare overcoat and battered hat juxtaposed with the image of a fine young couple eyeing him with disdain and suspicion. In the end Masako can only appeal to us, breaking the fourth wall in a moment reminiscent of Peter Pan asking us to clap if we believe in fairies as she tries to revive Yuzo’s sense of naive possibility to conduct an unfinished symphony of their imagined life together in a happier future of post-war Japan. Refusing to give in to their baser instincts, to become cynical and selfish or else simply to give up, this wonderful Sunday does seem to have given them a childish sense of hope that better days are on their way and until then there’s always next week. 


One Wonderful Sunday screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 3rd & 15th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Most Beautiful (一番美しく, Akira Kurosawa, 1944)

“One can’t improve productivity without improving one’s character” the manager of a factory crafting lenses for the military repeatedly insists, though by “character” he largely seems to mean a total erasure of the self in favour of service to the state. Kurosawa’s second feature is a National Policy Film intended to foster a spirit of patriotic fervour in which not only the factory girls at its centre but everyone else too must “become an outstanding human being” forgoing all human feeling to ensure Japan will win a war even the film seems to concede is already lost. 

Indeed, even for a relatively late propaganda film, The Most Beautiful (一番美しく, Ichiban Utsukushiku) makes little attempt to gloss over the undercurrent of defeat. At one point names of foreign territories fallen to the Americans briefly flash up on the screen leaving the girls looking increasingly bereft if resolving to work even harder. Then again even in the opening which sees all the workers lined up in military fashion it’s obvious that the factory is staffed by those who have not been deployed to more pressing duties, overwhelmingly teenage girls along with boys too young for the army, old men and those otherwise unable to serve in the military. 

Even so the atmosphere among the young women is often cheerful though the film is keen to show them overcoming their loneliness while bowing to photos of their far off parents, often farmers, in distant parts of Japan. They are looked after by a kind of nurse/chaperone, Mrs Mizushima (Takako Irie) whose husband has already been killed in the war marking her out as an example of the self-sacrifice that is being asked of the girls. Many of them have come of their own volition expressly to support the war effort and take their work incredibly seriously especially as the factory manager reminds them that the lenses they make are crucial to to production of military instrumentation and without them there would be no fighter planes or sniper rifles. 

So self-sacrificing are they that the girls go into huff when it’s announced that the factory will be entering a period of increased productivity (another thinly veiled hint that the war is not going well), yet they are upset not because they resent being asked to work harder, nor by the implication that they have more to give than they have been giving, but by the fact they’ve been underestimated having had their quotas increased by only 50% as opposed to the men’s 100%. Their leader, Watanabe (Yoko Yaguchi), explains that, though they know they cannot match the men, they are sure they can do better and will produce at least 2/3 more rather than just half. The managers seem to think that this is naive, but are wary of talking the girls down in fear of damaging their morale which they see as the most crucial thing when it comes to generating “productivity”. Yet that notion of “morale” is mostly a kind of internecine peer pressure brokered by petty competition and a desire not to be the one who lets everyone else down. Hence the girls continue working while they’re sick, which is no good at all for productivity if all they do is spread it around while unable to work at full capacity, afraid to tell anyone in case they get sent home to recover. 

Watanabe is tempted to to take a trip to see her family after receiving a letter from her father to say that her mother has been taken ill, though her parents are also fiercely patriotic and insist that she should not leave but stay and do her duty. She is guilted out of her temptation by another girl, Yamaguchi (Shizuko Yamaguchi), who is sickly by nature but has been hiding her suffering in order to be allowed to stay. Being out of the line fosters feelings of guilt and failure, not only in having let the country down but in increasing the burden on their friends who will now have to work harder in their stead. The “character” that they are supposed to be building, is in the end only in service of their “productivity” that they work to the point of collapse with no thought for themselves or their feelings wilfully sacrificing the opportunity to see dying relatives to prove their dedication. 

In what now might seem like subversive touches but just as well may have been sincere, Kurosawa often flashes signs and slogans which appear in the factory including one urging the girls to “follow the example of the war dead” suggesting that the only real way to prove your devotion is to die in the service of the emperor. On the other hand, the girls don’t actually seem to do a lot of factory work but are otherwise expected to participate in band practice banging out military marches on the drum or else improving their physicality through playing volleyball. In any case as they begin wear themselves out tempers begin to fray leaving the girls at odds, tired and resentful if not actively hopeless in beginning to realise they probably won’t make their overly ambitious quota as a tacit acceptance that Japan most likely is not going to win the war and all their efforts are for nothing. At the film’s conclusion, Mrs Mizushima exclaims that Watanabe has become “such a good girl”, ironically forced to abandon the directly filial for the national in prioritising her role as an imperial daughter rather than a biological one. Even so, the film discovers a much more comfortable sense of solidarity between the young women even if brokered by militarist fervour and a nihilistic bid for self-destruction in perpetual servitude. 


The Most Beautiful screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 1st & 9th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1933)

“As long as I breathe, I’ll remember my debt to you” avows a young man to his unexpected benefactor becoming one of many claiming they will never forget her kindness though in his case he actually means it. Kenji Mizoguchi would later become known for tragic tales of female suffering, but his central themes were established early on and very much in evidence in 1933 silent The Water Magician (瀧の白糸, Taki no Shiraito) in which a truly good woman tries to use her independent success to improve the lives of those around her but finds herself cruelly betrayed by a greedy and self-interested patriarchal society. 

Tomo Mizushima (Takako Irie) goes by the stage name Taki no Shiraito, which means something like white threads of the waterfall, particularly apt seeing as she is a “water magician” with a troupe of itinerant players. A beautiful woman who can make the water dance, she has her share of followers and is financially independent if subject to the vagaries of the show business existence. Her life changes one day when she is travelling in a horse-drawn coach that is embarrassingly overtaken by a fast running rickshaw man. The passengers are irate, wondering what they’re paying for, while the driver ignores their pleas not to spare the horses. Tomo decides to use her feminine appeal and then her financial power to convince him to speed up, but he ignores her too until he eventually decides to gallop forward recklessly while the passengers shake inside until the coach’s axle finally snaps and leaves them stranded. A gallant young man, the driver grabs Tomo and throws her on his horse to get her to the next town. She faints on the journey and only comes round after the coachman has left but discovers herself in possession of a complicated law book she assumes is his.  

Tomo cannot stop thinking about the dashing young man, only identified as “Kin” (Tokihiko Okada). She is surprised to reencounter him asleep on a bridge though he seems not to remember her. After finding out that he is an unluckily orphaned former samurai who was fired from the coach for breaking the axle and endangering the passengers, she resolves to use her financial power to help him achieve his dreams of studying law in Tokyo. Tomo does this because she is in love and asks for nothing in return except a future promise of romantic union to which the young man does not exactly agree but does take her money and vows to live up to the faith she has shown in him. 

Alone once again Tomo tries to contend with the world around her while dreaming of Kinya, sending him her savings for his upkeep while the troupe continues to suffer especially during the traditional dry spells of the heavy winter. The troupe’s leader makes the decision to get involved with dangerous loanshark Iwabushi (Ichiro Sugai), a huge hulking man with a mean look and lecherous temperament. While Tomo dreams of Kinya, two romances mirror each other in the failed relationship of the cruel knife thrower Minami (Koju Murata) and his terrorised wife Gin (Kumeko Urabe), and the innocent young love of the beautiful Nadeshiko (Suzuko Taki) and the barker Shinzo (Bontaro Miake). Gin also borrows money from Tomo which she was reluctant to surrender because she saved it for Kinya, claiming she needs it to visit her sick mother in Tokyo and vowing once again never to forget Tomo’s kindness but later skipping out with a stagehand to escape Minami’s control. Nadeshiko and Shinzo, however, are forced to flee on learning that Minami plans to sell her to Iwabushi to settle his private debts. The couple regret leaving Tomo who has always supported them in the lurch, but she helps them escape, ushering them out the back towards a waiting boat and handing them still more money asking only that they be happy and stay together always. 

That’s not perhaps a power that’s in their keep, but the youngsters keep it as best they can and eventually attempt to protect her in the way she has protected them. The world, however, is cruel. With work thin on the ground Tomo finds herself unable to go on funding Kinya as she’d promised, and is only shamed by his well-meaning letter explaining that he’ll try to find a way of supporting himself until his studies are finished so she needn’t worry. She cuts a deal with Iwabushi and sells her body on Kinya’s behalf, but he is in league with Minami who sets his goons on her to retrieve the money seconds after she’s obtained it. 

Her hopes are at least repaid on discovering that her love is true to his word, has never forgotten her, and is well on the way to achieving his dreams as person of note. “Chance and fate, that’s all there is” Kinya had lamented on their second meeting, but he couldn’t know how right he’d be. Tomo’s dreams are fulfilled only their negation. Kinya must do his duty even if it does her harm, yet he too feels responsible and wants to share her burden though that, ironically, would only destroy everything for which she has sacrificed so much. “The river flows on as it always has and always will” the Benshi adds in solemn contemplation of this romantic tragedy, somehow inevitable in its cruelty. Tomo finds herself at the mercy of her times in which money is all, goodness is a weakness, and love too fragile to survive. The woman who made the water dance floats away on a river of tears, a victim of a cruel and unforgiving society.


A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

“Why are women in Japan so unhappy?” the carefree Casanova at the centre of Yasuzo Masumura’s 1961 sex romp A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Koshoku Ichidai Otoko) laments, never quite grasping the essential inequalities of the world in which he lives. Masumura is best known for extremity, a wilful iconoclast who flew in the face of golden age cinema’s genial classism, but shock was not his only weapon and he could also be surprisingly playful. Adapted from a well known novel by creator of the “floating world” Ihara Saikaku, A Lustful Man finds him indulging in ironic satire as his hero sets out to “make all the women in Japan happy” chiefly by satisfying their unfulfilled sexual desire while resolutely ignoring all of the entrenched patriarchal social codes which ensure that their lives will be miserable. 

Set in the Edo era, the film opens not with the hero Yonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa) but with his miserly father who berates a servant after discovering a single grain of rice on the hall floor. According to him, the central virtues necessary to become rich are endurance, diligence, and vitality. You must treasure each and every grain of rice in order to accumulate. A cruel and austere man who only thinks of money, Yonosuke’s father keeps his wife in earnest poverty despite their wealth, angrily grabbing an obviously worn kimono out of her hands and insisting that it’s still good for another year, apparently caring nothing for appearances in the otherwise class conscious Kyoto society. It’s this meanness that Yonosuke can’t seem to stand. He hates the way his father disrespects his mother, and her misery is a primary motivator in his lifelong quest to cheer up Japan’s melancholy women though the weapon he has chosen is sex, a convenient excuse to live as a genial libertine to whom money means essentially nothing. 

Yonosuke’s father has set him up with an arranged marriage into a much wealthier family, which is not something he’s very interested in despite the fact she seems to be quite pretty but on learning that she has transgressively found love with the family butler he determines to help her instead, ending the marriage meeting by chasing her round the garden like a dog in heat. Several similar stunts eventually get him sent away from his native Kyoto to Edo but he takes the opportunity to escape, travelling all over Japan making women “happy” as he goes. 

As the first example proves, Yonosuke genuinely hates to see women suffer. His own pleasure, though perhaps not far from his mind, is secondary and he never seeks to take advantage of a woman’s vulnerability only to ease her loneliness. Despite that, however, he remains essentially superficial opting for the transience of postcoital bliss while ignoring the very real societal factors which make an escape from misery all but impossible. During an early adventure, he spends all of the money he conned out of his new employer on redeeming a geisha (at more than three times the asking price) so that she can be with the man she loves, but he continues to visit sex workers without interrogating their existence as indentured servants, “merchandise” which is bought and sold, traded between men and entirely deprived of freedom. In fact, he proudly collects hair cuttings from the various geishas he has known as a kind of trophy only to later discover the grim truth, that the hair likely doesn’t belong to the geisha herself but is sold to them by middlemen who get it by digging up dead bodies. 

Yonosuke remains seemingly oblivious to the duplicitous hypocrisy of the yoshiwara, but is repeatedly confronted by the evils of Edo-era feudalism with its proto-capitalist cruelty where everything is status and transaction. He is often told that as he is not a samurai he would not understand, but seems to understand pretty well that “samurai are idiots” and that their heartless elitism is the leading cause of all the world’s misery. To some a feckless fool, Yonosuke refuses to give in to the false allure of worldly riches. As soon as he gets money he spends it, and does so in ways he believes enrich the lives of women (even if that only extends to paying them for sex), eventually getting himself into trouble once again reneging on his taxes after trying to prove a geisha is worth her weight in gold. 

Yogiri (Ayako Wakao) complains that women are but “merchandise”, valued only as toys for men. “Japan is not a good country for women” Yonosuke agrees, suggesting they run away together to find a place where women are respected, indifferent to Yogiri’s rebuttal “no, wherever you go, no one can change women’s sad fate”. Yonosuke’s naive attempts to rescue women from their misery often end in disaster, a runaway mistress is dragged back and hanged, the woman he was set to marry goes mad after her father and lover are beheaded for having the temerity to speak out about corrupt lords, Yogiri is killed by a samurai intent on arresting him for tax evasion, and his own mother dies seconds after his father only to be immediately praised as “the epitome of a Japanese wife”. Yet he remains undaunted, wandering around like an Edo-era Candide, setting off into exile to look for a supposed female paradise without ever really engaging with the systems which propagate misery or with his own accidental complicity with them. Nevertheless, he does perhaps enact his own resistance in refusing to conform to the rules of a society he knows to be cruel and unfair even if his resistance is essentially superficial, self-involved, and usually counterproductive which is, in its own way, perfectly in keeping with Masumura’s central philosophies on the impossibilities of individual freedom within an inherently oppressive social order.


The Sound of Waves (潮騒, Kenjiro Morinaga, 1964)

Still a major marquee name well into her 70s, Sayuri Yoshinaga began her career as one of Nikkatsu’s young starlets in the early 1960s. Based on the well known novel by Yukio Mishima, The Sound of Waves (潮騒, Shiosai) finds her starring alongside regular co-star Mitsuo Hamada in another tale of love across the class divide. Usually, such forbidden love would be fodder for romantic tragedy, but Sound of the Waves is a cheerful exploration of tranquil island life where the people are simple and honest and the good will always triumph. 

Shinji (Mitsuo Hamada) is indeed good. Though still only a teenager, he’s become the man of the house following his father’s death, working hard as a fisherman to support his family and saving most of his salary to pay for his little brother’s education. The trouble starts when the beautiful Hatsue (Sayuri Yoshinaga) who had been living as a pearl diver on another island is called back to live with her father, island big man Terukichi (Kenjiro Ishiyama), after her brother dies. There have long been rumours that, as what Terukichi wants is a son to take over his business, he will soon be marrying Hatsue off and probably to the slick and handsome Yasuo (Daizaburo Hirata) who seems to be his favoured choice of son-in-law. 

When Shinji lays eyes on Hatsue helping out with the boats it’s love at first sight, and even more so when he foolishly drops his pay packet while delivering a fish to an elderly couple and Hatsue takes the trouble of finding out where he lives and delivering it to his mother safely. Though everyone in Shinji’s household is quite taken with the beautiful, kind, and responsible newcomer, they are also aware that she is far out of Shinji’s reach. Terukichi is mean and arrogant, there’s no way he’d let his daughter marry a regular fisherman, and Shinji knows he can’t compete with an eligible young man like Yasuo. Hatsue, however, seems to like him too, especially after she gets bitten by a snake and his quick thinking, immediately sucking out the poison, probably saves her life. 

This being an innocent story of pure love, the couple have the opportunity to consummate their relationship after stripping off during a rainstorm but collectively decide to wait for marriage. That doesn’t stop the rumours starting, however, when they are spotted in the forest by Chiyoko (Kayo Matsuo), a young woman sweet on Shinji who’d gone away to study at university in Tokyo. She tells Yasuo who is immediately threatened, not only feeling unjustly betrayed, but acutely aware that the bright future he’d been so proudly boosting of as Terukichi’s future son-in-law might be in jeopardy. 

Where Shinji is kind and responsible, working hard to look after his family and always supporting the other villagers, Yasuo is, like Terukichi, arrogant and self-centred. He’s perfectly aware that he’s the island’s most eligible bachelor and makes a point of swaggering around like a little prince in waiting. Perhaps for that reason he’s also a snivelling coward and intensely insecure, angrily confronting Hatsue and even attempting to rape her while she collects water at the local spring. She manages to fend him off when he’s stung by hornets coming to her defence, and all he can do is plead with her not to tell her father so he won’t mess up his bright future any further. 

Hatsue seems not to have very much say in her future, romantic or otherwise. Having heard the rumours, Terukichi keeps her prisoner in her own home, insisting that she will marry his choice of son-in-law. The islanders, however, who seem to have grown used to ignoring Terukichi as much as it is possible to do so, are fully behind the youngsters’ romance. After all, what could be more natural than two young people falling in love? Eventually the island women launch a small petition to Terukichi to convince him to end his pettiness, but the contest, it seems, comes down to a test of manliness, Terukichi embarking on a young people today speech in complaining that his boat’s come loose in a storm but no one is man enough to retrieve it. Yasuo is found wanting once again, shrinking back from real risk while Shinji puts himself in harm’s way not only to prove himself a man and win Terukichi’s approval, but simply to serve the community. Manliness is redefined not only as strength and bravery, but kindness and patience too. Shinji’s goodness is indeed rewarded allowing him to dream of a brighter future, building a life for himself alongside a woman who loves him on their idyllic island home. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Nikkatsu’s brand of youth cinema could often have a nasty edge, its damaged heroes caught up in complicated rebellion but necessarily outsiders in a changing world which they feared held no real place for them. For each of those, however, there are others filled with life and possibility, not to mention a cartoonish sense of fun and infinite safety which perhaps largely disappeared from the films of the 1960s only to be found again in Kadokawa’s similarly aspirational teen movies of the bubble era. 

Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Muteppo Daisho, AKA Reckless Boss / A Hell of a Guy) once again stars Koji Wada as an earnest young man kicking back against the corrupt wartime generation. Still in high school, Eiji has a part-time job at an ice rink which he doesn’t treat quite as seriously as he ought to but his boss lets him get away with it because his handsome face is a hit with the local ladies. Eiji and two of his friends are keen members of a karate club and have decided to use their skills to fight for justice in their lawless town by going on “patrol”, clearing up the kinds of crimes the police might not make it to in time. Their plan backfires, however, when they come across the body of a recently deceased union leader and are arrested by a local bobby after getting caught with a joke knife one of the boys made for fun at his job on the family scrap yard. 

It comes as no surprise that Eiji’s arch enemy, sleazy mob boss Shinkai (Nakajiro Tomita), is behind the murder, apparently hired by a corrupt corporate CEO trying to stop his workforce exercising their legal rights. Eiji hates Shinkai because he bankrolled his widowed mother’s (Kotoe Hatsui) bar business but did so perhaps in return for being able to control her and by extension him by wielding his economic power against them. His loathing intensifies once he realises that the slightly older young woman he’s carrying a torch for, Yukiyo (Izumi Ashikawa), has fallen for one of Shinkai’s men, Goro (Ryoji Hayama). 

Goro is the classically “good” gangster who feels indebted to Shinkai because he took him in after the war, but wants to leave the underworld behind, going straight in Kobe where he intends to live a settled married life with Yukiyo. The modern yakuza is in many ways a Showa era phenomenon, a mechanism for men without families to protect themselves in the desperate post-war environment. By 1961, however, its existence was perhaps becoming harder to justify. The war orphans had grown up and had families of their own, the economy had significantly improved, and there was no need anymore to live a life of crime and heartlessness – a conclusion Goro has come to on his own after meeting the earnest Yukiyo who has similar problems with her goodhearted yet permanently drunk doctor father. 

Knowing he might have messed things up for his mother in interfering with her relationship with Shinkai, Eiji confesses that doesn’t “know what to do with the grownup world”. For him, everything is still very black and white. He hates yakuza because they prey on the vulnerable and Shinkai in particular because he does it so insidiously, forcing desperate people to accept loans on bad terms so that he can in fact “own” them and use them as he wishes. Eiji and his peer group kick back against what they see as the selfish corruption of the wartime generation, agitating for a fairer, more just world. The wealthy daughter of a corrupt CEO (Mayumi Shimizu) who has a crush on Eiji though he only has eyes for Yukiyo comes up with the idea of selling her fancy car to get money to help Eiji’s mother escape Shinkai’s control, but her father snaps at her that other people aren’t her responsibility and that she doesn’t understand how the real world works. 

Somewhat chastened by the youngsters’ pure hearted love of justice, he eventually comes up with a compromise in buying the car off her himself, but before that Eiji and his friends have to think carefully about the form they want their revolution to take. Taking him to task, Yukiyo points out that if all you do is fight with yakuza then maybe you’re a yakuza yourself, which shifts Eiji’s perspective towards ensuring that his rebellion is fully legal and involves the justice systems already in place. He comes to recognise that Goro is much like himself, and if he’s going to take down a sleazy brute like Shinkai it will take more than some fancy karate. Their resistance starts at home, giving others courage to stand up to yakuza oppression while living right themselves in the hope of creating a better, fairer world free of heartless organised crime.


The Straits of Love and Hate (愛怨峡, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1937)

straits of love and hate poster“Tokyo is a dangerous city that traps innocent people like you” the heroine of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1937 melodrama The Straits of Love and Hate (愛怨峡, Aien kyo) is told, but it’s not so much the darkness of the city streets as the world’s cruelty which threatens to consume her soul. Loosely inspired by Tolstoy’s Resurrection, then particularly popular in Japan and a frequent source for adaptation in the silent era, Straits of Love and Hate is a familiar tale of an innocent maid seduced and betrayed by the weak willed son of her social superiors, but rather than see her beaten by a broken heart Mizoguchi allows to her to find new strength in the determination to move forward in a direction of her choosing.

Kitchen maid Ofumi (Fumiko Yamaji) is in love with Kenkichi (Masao Shimizu ), the son of local hotel owners. Now that he’s finished his studies, his parents were expecting him to take over the inn so they’re not exactly pleased when he tells them he plans to go to Tokyo to become a teacher, nor would they be very happy about the idea of him marrying a lowly maid. After arguing with his father, Kenkichi more or less gives up on the idea of leaving, deciding to postpone until his parents come round or perhaps going on his own and sending for Ofumi when he’s financially stable. Twin pressures, however, force him to accept that it’s now or never. Ofumi is a few months pregnant and will soon be showing so his hand is in a sense forced. Meanwhile, Ofumi is keen to leave as soon as possible because her uncle, Murakami (Seiichi Kato), has turned up extremely drunk and is talking to her employers about taking her away to join his troupe of travelling players which she is desperate to avoid because she remembers her mother telling her he was no good and would sell her to a brothel as soon as look at her.

Kenkichi relents and the pair elope to Tokyo, but once there his general fecklessness resurfaces. The couple have begun to outstay their welcome at the apartment of a friend whose wife is becoming thoroughly fed up with Kenkichi who lounges about all day not looking for work, while an increasingly pregnant Ofumi is out job-hunting alone in the unforgiving city. A naive bumpkin, she’s nearly scammed by a street pimp who claims to be saving her from someone in fact just like him, but is rescued by Yoshi (Seizaburo Kawazu) – a wandering accordion player regarded by all as a petty thug. Kindhearted by nature, Yoshi takes pity on her and sets Ofumi up with a job in a cafe but is soon arrested for stabbing the pimp who was bothering her. Meanwhile, the irritated wife of Kenkichi’s friend has wired his dad who promptly arrives to retrieve his son. Spineless, Kenkichi walks out on his pregnant girlfriend leaving her only with a note that says “sorry, good luck with the rest of your life”, and an insultingly small amount of compensation money.

It’s easy enough to think that Kenkichi wasn’t really invested in his romance, got cold feet, or simply rejected adult responsibility, but the truth is more that he’s just as trapped by patriarchal social codes as Ofumi is and no more free even with his comparatively comfortable class background. He lacks the will to defy his father, and is simply too lazy to consider living an ordinary life in the city with a regular job where no one calls him “young master”. Ofumi, by contrast, fights for love. She breaks the class barrier, naively believes that Kenkichi’s parents will accept her because they cannot reject their grandchild, and forgives Kenkichi’s fecklessness because she truly believes in him. One word from his father, and he crumbles. Left alone Ofumi is forced to send her son out to foster parents and has no other choice than to become a bar hostess.

Unlike Kenkichi, Yoshi is patient and kind. He truly means to protect Ofumi and her son, but also has a self-destructive violent streak as manifested in his over the top attack on the pimp and later altercation with a remorseful Kenkichi. Ironically enough, Uncle Murakami whom she so feared becomes an unlikely source of salvation, inviting Ofumi and Yoshi to join the company as a standup double act. Witnessing Ofumi reenact her romantic tragedy on stage as part of a routine forces Kenkichi to confront his moral cowardice. While the intervening years have seen Ofumi become cynical and bitter, still angry and resentful, Kenkichi has become weary and resigned. His parents have moved to the country, and he now runs the hotel, but he’s still not free. Hoping to convince Ofumi to come back, he invites his dad to meet their son but it becomes clear to her that Kenkichi will never change. He lacks the strength to reject his father’s authority, and as he’s abandoned her before he will likely do so again.

Kenkichi, perhaps meaning well, offers to take the child, pointing out that growing up among travelling players is an inauspicious start in life whereas he can bring the boy up with all the advantages of middle-class comfort. Ofumi is guilty in her immediate refusal, acknowledging that she may be denying her son a “better life” than she can give him, perhaps selfish in her reluctance to be parted from her child, but equally certain that she doesn’t want her son to grow up like Kenkichi, a spineless product of a patriarchal social order unable to stand up to his father or seize his own agency. She tells Kenkichi that she’s fallen in love with Yoshi because theirs is a partnership of equals, they understand and support each other, moving forward as one. He won’t abandon her by choice, but he isn’t perfect either and his foolish self-destructive impulses and selfless nobility threaten his new hope for the future as he embarks on a high risk strategy to prompt Ofumi to accept the “better life” that Kenkichi can offer her. Nevertheless, the point is that the choice is finally hers – no man is going to make it for her, not even her son. What she chooses is a kind of independence, stepping boldly forward into a future that’s entirely of her own making.


Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

yakuza law posterOne of the things that (supposedly) separates the “yakuza” from regular thugs is that they have a “code”. That code means many and various things, but in their grand mission to justify their existence it often means that they stand up for the little guy, all too often oppressed by the powers that be. Of course, a lot of people might feel themselves to be oppressed by yakuza thugs who like to throw their weight around and generally cause trouble for small business holders, but that’s beside the point. Teruo Ishii’s Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Yakuza Keibatsushi: Lynch!) goes one step further and asks if the yakuza are themselves “oppressed” by their own code, or at least the various ways it is used and subverted by all who subscribe to it.

Set in three distinct time periods, Yakuza Law is also fairly unique in that the vast majority of those on the receiving end of its violence are male. The yakuza is an extremely homosocial world after all. Each of the three tales presented is preceded by a title card featuring the particular “laws” the unhappy gangsters are about to break and what kind of punishment they might expect for doing so.

The first and earliest, set in the Edo era, is a typical giri/ninjo tale that places the ideal of the yakuza code against the need to preserve a personal vision of justice. The “rules” here are that a yakuza does not steal and he does not fool around with married women. Our hero, Tsune (Bunta Sugawara), takes the heat for a nervous underling, Shinkichi (Hiroshi Miyauchi), who crumbled in the heat of battle, but incurs the wrath of his boss while a devious footsoldier, Viper (Renji Ishibashi), hides in the bushes and then stabs a corpse numerous times to make it look as if he’s done good service. Viper, not content with his ill-gotten gains, sets up Tsune and his superior Tomozo (Ryutaro Otomo) by implicating them in a gambling scam while Tsune falls for the boss’ girl Oren (Yoshiko Fujita) who is also desperately trying to protect the feckless Shinkichi.

The problem with all of this, it would seem, is not so much that the yakuza “law” has been broken but that’s it’s being misused in all quarters and is clearly in conflict with basic humanity. The boss uses the code to manipulate his underlings and keep a firm grip on his power, while Viper bends it to his own nefarious ways and a third underling, Shohei (Shhinichiro Hayashi), rests on the sidelines playing a little each way but remaining loyal to his brothers even as the axe falls on his head. The punishments meted out are suitably gruesome, escalating from finger cutting to eye gauging and ear removal in a senseless and counterproductive lust for violence which does eventually blow back on the boss who pushes his authority too far over too small a cause.

In tale two, however, which takes place in 20th century pre-war Japan, the “crime” is causing trouble and the punishment exile, but again the problem is not the code but the men who subvert it. Thus, hotheaded foot soldier Ogata (Minoru Oki) sets the cat amongst the pigeons by starting a gang war on his own and is sent to prison for three years during which time his gang prospers because of the movement he started. Even so, they aren’t keen to have him back when he gets out and immediately exile him from their territory. He sticks around waiting for his girl, Sayo (Masumi Tachibana), but she gets picked up by the evil boss who wants her for himself and delays her departure so that Ogata can be captured. Believing he’s dead, she hooks up with another goodhearted yakuza, Amamiya (Toyozo Yamamoto), who saves her from the bad guys only to have a romantic crisis when Ogata suddenly resurfaces. Amamiya and Ogata are, however, both “good” yakuza which means they both really love Sayo and want the best for her, each respecting the other for the old love and the new as they team up to kick the corrupt yakuza out of town and make sure she’s permanently safe whoever it is she eventually ends up with.

By the third tale we’ve reached the contemporary era, but we’re no longer in a traditional “yakuza” world so much as one seemingly ripped from a spy spoof in which the cardinal rule is that if you undermine the organisation you will be eliminated. More thugs than yakuza, this kind have no code and will stoop to the lowest kind of cruelty solely for money. Debonair, 007-esque international hitman Hirose (Teruo Yoshida) accepts a job from shady gangster Shimazu (Takashi Fujiki) to assassinate his boss, only Shimazu offs him first and then frames Hirose (which he finds very irritating). Hirose spends the rest of the picture teaching him a lesson while Shimazu tries to eliminate his competition in increasingly inhuman ways (including having someone crushed into a cube while trapped inside a luxury car).

Bar the third episode which isn’t really even about “yakuza”, what Ishii seems to be saying is that the yakuza are also oppressed because they are forced to live with fragmented integrity, torn between giri and ninjo in their adherence to an arcane set of values which are often overly enforced at the cost of true “justice”. To be fair, that is the idea behind every other yakuza film, but Ishii does is add a more cynical edge in suggesting the issue isn’t the code and conflicting value systems but individualised corruption (which is itself perhaps a kind of “ninjo”) in those who deliberately misuse the “noble” idea of the code for their own ends – something which has intensified since the Edo era though is apparently not a result of post-Meiji internationalism. All of that aside, despite the brutality of the title, Yakuza Law is fairly tame outing for Ishii which tempers its lust for blood with cartoonish irony as its deluded heroes battle themselves in service of a code which has never and will never truly serve them.


Available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes a new audio commentary by Jasper Sharp and a vintage interview with Teruo Ishii, as well as a booklet featuring new writing by Tom Mes.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Apostasy (破戒, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)

Hakai still 1For all his good hearted humanism and intense belief in the simple power of human goodness, the films of Keisuke Kinoshita can also be surprisingly conservative, most particularly in their attachment to the old, pre-war Japan which they often see as unsullied by the corruption and ugliness of the militarist era. A new constitution film, Kinoshita’s adaptation of the Toson Shimazaki novel The Broken Commandment, The Apostasy (破戒, Hakai), opens with a series of bold titles proclaiming “Freedom and equality”, and “respect for human rights” before breaking into an attack on the persistent feudalism which has managed to survive into the new era along with prejudice and contempt. Zooming back to the missed opportunity of Meiji-era liberation, Kinoshita too remains somewhat ambivalent about the the decline of a social order in a Chekhovian lament for the rise of the petty middleman and the fall of noble aristocracy.

In Meiji 35 (1902), despite the advent of the Meiji Restoration and abolishment of the class system, prejudice against the “burakumin” – untouchable “outcasts” who lived in isolated settlements and (historically) made their living in occupations connected with death, was still very much in existence. This is all too apparent to Segawa (Ryo Ikebe). A bright young man, Segawa’s father sent him out of their village to make something of himself with the solemn promise that he must never reveal his burakumin origins to anyone. The world being as it is, however, Segawa is conflicted especially as he has fallen in love with his mentor’s daughter Oshiho (Yoko Katsuragi) and wonders if it would be fair to marry a non-burakumin woman without telling her truth and live with the threat of discovery forever over their heads.

The Broken Commandment would later be adapted again by Kon Ichikawa whose focus is, perhaps quite surprisingly, very different to that of Kinoshita who, uncharacteristically, chooses to prioritise class concerns over the right to live freely and honestly in a compassionate society. Ichikawa’s adaptation deliberately widens the implications of Segawa’s dilemma, making it plain that he is talking not just about burakumin rights but directly to all oppressed peoples and most particularly to those who feel obliged to keep their true natures a secret in an oppressive and conformist society. Strangely, Kinoshita chooses not to engage with this theme which might otherwise seem tailor made for his persistent concerns if perhaps a little close to home, preferring to focus not on Segawa’s gradual shift into accepting his own identity and hearing the call to activism but on the reactions of the changing world around him which seems to be imploding while besuited upstarts enact their petty revenge on the chastened nobility.

This is most clearly seen in the unfair treatment of Segawa’s mentor and landlord, Kazama (Ichiro Sugai) – a former samurai and until recently the local school teacher. Mere months away from his retirement, Kazama has been instructed to resign so that the school will not need to pay his pension while his position has been taken by a pushy local man with limited education whose sole claim to the job is being of the people. Kazama is understandably resentful but stoic. Segawa’s liberal colleague, Tsuchiya (Jukichi Uno), takes the school board to task for its unreasonableness and underhanded attempt to save money by forcing an old man out of his position with no thought for his 30 years of service. Though Tsuchiya might be broadly in agreement with the changes taking place in Meiji-era society, he too worries about the greedy upstarts usurping privilege rather than seeking to eradicate it.

Stepping back for second, Apostasy is a post-war film designed to echo the egalitarian philosophies of the new constitution drawn up under the American occupation. It is then somewhat subversive that our villains are the Westernised lower middle classes of Meiji-era society who seem to have embraced “modernity” by dressing in suits but refuse to abandon ridiculous ancient prejudices such as that towards burakumin, doubtless because those prejudices largely work out in their favour. It would be tempting to read these prejudices as foreign imports, but that against the burakumin is wholly Japanese and truth be told somewhat backward in contrast to (the kimono’d) Tsuchiya’s forward looking socialist beliefs which superficially at least seem more in keeping with the age.

Yet it is in some senses Segawa himself who struggles to emerge from the feudal yoke. His promise to his father is a sacred vow underlined by loss and sacrifice. He feels it is his duty to live as his father wished, as a “normal” Japanese citizen in success and comfort, but also begins to become acutely aware that to do so may be cowardly and selfish. If he chooses to keep his promise to his father and never reveal himself as a burakumin, he will be complicit with the systems which oppress him and thereby ensure those like him will always be oppressed. His awakening comes, in a sense, from a second father – Inoko (Osamu Takizawa), a burakumin who has come out of the closet and loudly fought for burakumin rights along with the general liberty of all oppressed people. Caught between two fathers and his growing love for Oshiho, Segawa remains lost while one of the suited proto-militarists threatens to out him leaving him floundering in the face of intense social stigma and the possibility that those he loves may turn against him.

Segawa has to free himself or risk becoming like Kazama – a man haunted by the feudal past, as Tsuchiya puts it. Kazama himself is painted in broadly sympathetic terms, forced to endure the melancholy fate of being eclipsed by a Lopakhin-esque member of the insurgent middle-classes, but his prejudice is later exposed despite his original support of Segawa when he notices one of the suits smirking at him and instantly feels humiliated, turning his impotent rage back on the outcast as if his presence further dishonours him as a samurai. Segawa’s aim as a teacher had been to teach his children the power of individual thought, which would seem to be the best weapon against prejudice but his message has been cut off at source thanks to the self-interested school board who have been all to quick to claim the benefits of modernity with none of the responsibility. Resolved to fight for a freer future, Segawa finally accepts his responsibility as a burakumin spokesman in the knowledge that his calling is to educate and that only through education can anything ever change. The lessons of Meiji may have gone unheeded, but the opportunity presents itself again to abandon the feudal past in favour of an egalitarian modernity built on fairness and compassion rather than obligation and oppression.


Titles/opening (no subtitles)