A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Tomu Uchida, 1965)

Fugitive from the past“There’s no way back” intones a spirit medium in the throws of a possession early on Tomu’s Uchida’s three hour police procedural, A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Kiga kaikyo, AKA Straits of Hunger). Her message will be repeated frequently throughout the journeys of our three protagonists – a guilty man seeking escape from himself, the hooker with a heart of gold who thinks of him as a “kind person”, and the obsessive policeman whose quest to find him threatens to destroy his own family and chance of ongoing happiness. Beginning in 1947, Uchida’s adaptation of the novel by Tsutomu Minakami is a cutting indictment of post-war inequalities but is also keen to remind us that the war was merely a symptom and intensifier of problems which existed long before and are likely to survive long after.

In 1947, three men in military uniforms attempt to escape from Hokkaido after committing a crime while the island is subject to a typhoon warning. Using a ferry disaster in which hundreds of people have been killed as cover, the men steal a boat and try their luck on the stormy seas. Only one of them makes it. Once all the bodies from the ferry are accounted for, two more are discovered and later identified as recent parolees from Abashiri prison. The dead convicts are then linked to a local robbery, murder, and arson case in which a large amount of money was stolen leaving the third man, described by witnesses as bearded, tall and imposing, the prime suspect in the deaths of the two prisoners as well as the original robbery.

Calling himself “Inugai” (Rentaro Mikuni), the “third man” takes off with all the money and ends up forging an unexpectedly genuine connection with a cheerful prostitute just on the way back from her mother’s funeral. Yae (Sachiko Hidari), claiming to have seen through to Inugai’s kindly soul, seems to reawaken something within him but the next morning he moves on leaving only a vast a mount of money and some nail clippings behind him. Meanwhile, Yumisaka (Junzaburo Ban), the dogged policeman who discovered the convicts’ bodies, tracks him at every turn.

The world of 1947 is a hellish one in which perpetual hunger is the norm and crushing impossibility all but a given. Inugai is starving. With rationing in place the black market is flourishing while the unscrupulous profiteer off the back of other people’s desperation. This is a land of defeat where to survive at all is both shame and victory, yet somehow you have to go on living. Inugai, like many a hero of golden age Japanese cinema, is engaged in an internal war to erase the dark past, drawing a veil over what it took to move from post-war privation to economic prosperity. He does however take his unseeing further than most in adopting a new, more respectable persona, remaking himself as self-made man and wealthy philanthropist keen to “pay back” the society which has been so supportive of his “success”.

Thus when Yae, whose attempt to remake herself in the capital has fared far less well, spots Inugai’s photo in the papers and decides she just must track him down, it’s not that Inugai fears blackmail or even really that she poses a threat but that she shatters the integrity of his carefully crafted post-war persona and reminds him who he really is. A climactic storm mirroring that which illuminated their first meeting also graces their last as “Inugai” finally resurfaces, committing an impulsive act of animal violence which tugs at the strings of his new life and sets the whole thing unravelling.

Yae used Inugai’s money to pay off her debts and get out of the brothel, but even if the Tokyo of 1947 was warmer than that of Hokkaido it was no more kind and her attempt to lead an “honest” life was quickly derailed by underworld crime and unforgiving law enforcement. Realising there’s nowhere left for her to go she resigns herself to life in the red light district but does at least manage to find a “nicer” establishment run by a kindly older couple where the girls are like one big family. Her meeting with Inugai has come to take on mythical proportions in her mind – she even worships a tiny relic of him in the form of one of his nail clippings. Hoping to repay his kindness she commits herself to hard work and barely spends any of her money on herself, dreaming of the day she will one day see him again.

Yumisaka, however, mirrors Yae’s devotion in his all encompassing “hate” for Inugai as his obsession consumes him, costs him his job, and threatens to ruin his family. Alerted by two more bodies washing up out of the sea, a young detective (Ken Takakura) puts two and two together and gives Yumisaka a chance to vindicate his long held convictions but what they discover through the shifting sands of invented truths and corrupted memories is a legacy of suffering and resentment which runs far further back than the recent wartime past. As Yumisaka later puts it, those who’ve never been poor or miserable cannot understand the desperation felt by those who have in the presence of money. Inugai, poor and trapped by circumstance, longed to escape the drudgery of Hokkaido life but couldn’t live with what he did to do it and so conjured up another history for himself.

Still, the truth will out and there really is “no way back”, not for Inugai or for his nation which seems determined to continue unseeing the darkness of the previous 30 years as it begins to find a degree of comfort once again. Incorporating strong spiritual overtones from the sutras Yumisaka is so strangely adept at reciting to the gloomy intoning of the spirit medium, Uchida imbues all with a heavy sense of dread as a man attempts to outrun his fate by running from himself only to be tripped up by sudden moment of panic born of a lack of faith in his only true believer. A chronicle of the post-war era, A Fugitive From the Past makes poverty its ultimate villain but attempts to paper over spiritual corruption with the pretty trappings of conventional success will only end in ruin as the unresolved past eats away at the foundations of a brave new world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cleopatra (クレオパトラ, Osamu Tezuka & Eiichi Yamamoto, 1970)

Cleopatra posterMushi Pro’s first real foray into feature length (and feature length it really was at over two hours) animation for adults, A Thousand & One Nights, had earned some critical plaudits but nevertheless failed to set the box office alight. A year later they tried again as manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka and experimental animator Eiichi Yamamoto reteamed for a salacious tale of ancient Egypt. Or at least that’s what was promised by the suggestive title, Cleopatra (クレオパトラ), recalling Hollywood glamour and cinematic excess anchored by beauty to echo through the ages, but what emerges is less a tale of doomed love and imperial lust than a thinly veiled attack on the American “occupation” and associated foreign policy in an increasingly politicised age.

Because Tezuka likes to be perverse, he opens not with deserts and pyramids but with a silent ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey before a space ship drifts into view and sails into a very space age tower block filled with very ordinary corridors. Our team of space warriors are part of a colonising force hellbent on conquering nations which don’t which to be conquered. The Pasatorine have mounted a resistance and Earth intelligence has got wind of a covert operation codenamed “Cleopatra”. To figure out what the name might mean, they’ve decided to send three of their best agents back in time to hang out with the lady herself and gather a few clues.

Back in Ancient Egypt, the nation has been overrun by lecherous Roman troops who ride roughshod over the local population (which includes a number of well known characters from popular 1960s manga). Caesar (Hajime Hana) himself is a jolly green giant with skin like Osiris who turns out to be a little more sympathetic than might otherwise be assumed. Nevertheless, a resistance movement has spun into action guided by the royal nanny, Apollodoria (Kotoe Hatsui), who has convinced exiled princess Cleopatra (Chinatsu Nakayama) that their best hope for freedom lies in her body which she must use as a weapon against the lusty foreign general in order that she might seduce and betray.

Cleopatra, however, is conflicted. Molested by her old nanny and falling for her unexpectedly “decent” captor, she wavers in her conviction and begins to wonder if the best path for her people might lie in working alongside rather than against her nation’s new masters. As history tells us, she may not get to make that choice for herself for her stony general has a weakness his countrymen can exploit leaving her all at sea once again.

In 1970 Japan was about to revisit the post-war security treaty with the Americans giving rise to a wide scale protests against what many saw as Japanese complicity in controversial American foreign policy and particularly the ongoing war in Vietnam. The Romans, thinly veiled stand-ins for Americans in Japan, march in triumph, oppressing the locals and erasing traditional culture in favour of “modernity”. Yet Caesar and his ilk perhaps turn out not to be so bad as once feared, seducing with false promise as they show off their wealth and prosperity whilst subtly gesturing to their superior numbers and technology to assure any doubters. The colonisers are technically our heroes – the spacemen and women from the beginning we’ve all but forgotten about have come back in time from the position of the imperialists, hoping to find out how Cleopatra’s doomed romantic destiny might inform modern insurgency, but have discovered only a righteous loathing for “occupying” forces and their relentless tendency to ruin the lives of pure hearted women for their own nefarious gains.

Perhaps emboldened by A Thousand & One Nights, Tezuka cannot resist inserting a number of idiosyncratic gags for manga enthusiasts, including a few references to his own back catalogue, while also sending up the pop-culture of the day. Cleopatra is, on one level, a distinctly lowbrow effort filled with deliberately cartoonish slapstick, silliness, and anarchic humour but it also harbours a subversive idea at its centre which was certain to prove popular with a particular section, at least, of its target audience. Mixing live action footage with experimental animation, if retaining a cartoonish sensibility, Cleopatra is a strange interdimensional political metaphor but not without its charms even in its most outrageous moments.


Available on blu-ray from Third Window Films as a part of double release with Eiichi Yamamoto’s A Thousand & One Nights.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

A Thousand & One Nights (千夜一夜物語, Eiichi Yamamoto, 1969)

one thousand and one nights poster 2The “Godfather of Manga” Osamu Tezuka had been a pioneer of what later became the mainstream of a burgeoning industry, kickstarting TV anime in the process with the long running Astro Boy. His ambitions, however, increasingly ran towards the avant-garde and he feared that the heavy association between his production company, Mushi Pro, and genial kids’ cartoons would only lead to diminishing artistic returns even if the increasing merchandising opportunities would perhaps allow the studio to engage in other less profitable areas such the adult-orientated anime he longed to produce. By the late ‘60s, Tezuka’s polite, inoffensive brand of child-friendly adventure stories were becoming distinctly old hat while the “gekiga” movement, acting more or less in direct opposition, continued to gain ground with older readers keen to move on to more adult fare. The Animerama series was intended to prove that Tezuka still had something new and dynamic to bring to the table and that there was a market for “racy” animation which embraced mature themes and experimental artwork.

The first of the Animerama films, A Thousand & One Nights (千夜一夜物語, Senya Ichiya Monogatari), is, as the title implies, loosely inspired by classic Arabian folktales as its hero “Aldin” (Yukio Aoshima) finds and then loses true love, overcomes the urge for vengeance, is himself corrupted by wealth and power, and then is returned to the very same state in which we first encountered him walking off into the sunset in preparation for the next adventure.

The tale begins with a slave auction at which the lowly water seller Aldin first catches sight of the beautiful Milliam (Kyoko Kishida). He tries to buy her but is too poor while the son of the local police chief (Asao Koike) outbids all to win the prize. However, in the first of many strokes of luck that will befall Aldin, a sandstorm allows him steal away with Milliam who falls in love with him too and gives herself willingly to a man she sees as an equal rather than a master. Sadly, their true love story is short lived and they are soon separated sending Aldin off on a quest to return to his beloved that will only end in tragedy.

Despite the later protestations that the love of Aldin and Milliam is one of equals in which there are no masters or slaves, only a man and a woman, it remains true that Aldin watched the slave auction with a degree of titillation and would have bought Milliam had he only been able to afford her. Surviving on his wits, Aldin is a cheeky chancer waiting for that big lucky break he is sure is waiting somewhere round the corner but he is not, perhaps, above becoming that which oppresses him. Later, having become a wealthy and powerful man, he uses his wealth and his power in the same way that others use theirs against him in pressuring a vulnerable young girl to become his mistress against her will, ripping her away from her own true love in the same way he was once ripped away from Milliam by another man wearing a crown. As a “king” he wonders what “power” is, pushing his as far as it will go in order to find out and risking “losing himself” in a way he’d once thought he’d overcome in rejecting a pointless act of vengeance that would forever have changed him.

Milliam, and later Jallis – the daughter of Aldin and Milliam raised by their worst enemy, Badli (Hiroshi Akutagawa), fight for the right to decide their own romantic destiny. Like Madlia (Sachiko Ito), the feisty bandit’s daughter, they resist the social codes of their era in which women are merely prizes divided among men and actively attempt to free themselves through love only to find defeat and despair. Yet love, or more precisely lust, can also be a force of constraint and or ruin as Aldin discovers on a paradise island when he unwisely decides to abandon Madlia, who has also fallen in love with him, for the empty pleasures of orgiastic sex with the voracious islanders whose unrestrained desire soon threatens to consume him whole.

A picaresque adventure, A Thousand & One Nights is a bawdy, flippant retelling of the Aladdin myth in which the hero begins as a poor yet free and cheerful young man before experiencing what it is to be wealthy and all powerful and discovering that it only makes him mean and miserable. Shifting from model shots to live photography and abstract to cartoonish animation, Yamamoto’s direction may appear restrained in comparison to the more outlandish and surreal Belladonna of Sadness but is a masterclass in finding artistry through budgetary limitations. A psychedelic odyssey through freedom and constraint, desire and obsession, A Thousand & One Nights is a forgotten landmark of experimental animation as relentlessly strange as it is endearing.


Available on blu-ray from Third Window Films as a part of double release with Eiichi Yamamoto & Osamu Tezuka’s Cleopatra.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

A Mummy’s Love (木乃伊の恋, Seijun Suzuki, 1973)

vlcsnap-2018-05-28-23h20m55s542After getting fired from Nikkatsu for making films which made no sense and no money, Seijun Suzuki cemented his place as a thorn in the side of the establishment by suing them for breach of contract. The “dispute” dragged on, eventually seeing him blacklisted by the other major studios and unable to make a feature film for ten years. This did not mean however that Suzuki was entirely idle between the releases of Branded to Kill and his 1977 “comeback” movie A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness. Like many other directors who found themselves adrift in the changing film industry, Suzuki busied himself with short projects for television, both commercials and stand alone episodes of anthology series including one for Eiji Tsuburaya’s Twilight Zone-esque Horror Theater Unbalance.

Horror Theater Unbalance, produced by Tsuburaya Pro, was in keeping with the studio’s other similarly themed horror and science fiction SFX series but took the form of 13 one off one hour dramas. Although production began in earnest in 1969, filming didn’t finish until 1972 and the series eventually aired in 1973. Many of the episodes were inspired by well known mystery stories and each also featured a framing sequence in which author/actor/TV personality (and later politician) Yukio Aoshima introduced and then wrapped up the tale à la Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling, or perhaps Cookie Monster whilst sitting in a creepy mansion filled with weird skeletal objet d’art. Tsuburaya Pro was able to mop up some prime Nikkatsu talent which was gradually seeping out of the studio as it crept towards its eventual rebirth as the producer of Nikkatsu Roman Porno. This included not only Suzuki but also Yasuharu Hasebe and Toshiya Fujita among others, as well as outlying figures from the independent world such as Kazuo Kuroki.

The first to be broadcast, Suzuki’s episode was adapted from a short story by Fumiko Enchi whose recurrent themes share much with those of the director in her frequent use of fantasy and eroticism. A Mummy’s Love (木乃伊の恋, Miira no Koi) is technically a triple tale as it contains an internal framing sequence in addition to the broader one common to the series. The lead is actually Shoko (Misako Watanabe) – a widowed middle-aged editor working with her now elderly professor on a new version of a classic tale from Japanese literature. Her memory is sparked when she catches sight of an oddly vacant-looking monk in the back of a car – eerily like the one in the story which revolves around the discovery of a monk who was buried alive as way of achieving enlightenment but has recently (or perhaps not) begun ringing his bell to alert those above to his conscious presence.

One of the villagers, Shoji, becomes fascinated with the idea of the unsleeping monk. When they dig up the corpse it’s a stiff, strangely robust skeleton which some of the villagers end up using for a game of punt the monk, but little by little his flesh returns. He is not, however, as enlightened as one might hope. To begin with he’s a gibbering wreck, and then finally something more like a crazed sex pest whose pent up amorous energy eventually wears out his new “wife” in a matter of days when she suddenly gives “birth” to a small army of mini dust buddhas. Shoji is sick of the monk and wants to get rid of him, but when he takes his own wife sometime later all he can hear is the sound of a little tinkling bell and suddenly he can’t bear to touch her.

The theme seems to be that unquenched desire will drive you insane with the ambiguous addition that desire itself is best overcome rather than satisfied. Having recounted to us the story of the monk, Shoko finds his tale echoing in her own life. A war widow she lost her husband young and has experienced near constant sexual harassment from her former professor, now bedridden and defeated. Unbeknownst to her, the professor has been keeping her engagement photo in his study for the last decade. He claims that it’s not impossible for an ordinary many to resurrect himself solely through the power of enduring sexual desire, rightly (but somewhat inappropriately) implying that Shoko too harbours lingering desires which have gone unsatisfied since her husband’s passing.

The story culminates with Shoko’s pleading hope for a resurrection as she unwittingly arrives at the place of her husband’s death where she encounters a strange man who might or might not be her late spouse. Making either real or hallucinatory love atop a grave with either a resurrected corpse, a ghost, a phantom of memory, out of body spirit, or just a random rough man talking shelter from the rain, Shoko is a prisoner of her desires but the source of her visitation remains difficult to discern.

Working within a TV budget, Suzuki reins himself in but lends his idiosyncratic sense of ironic fun to an otherwise gloomy, dread-laden tale as the villagers gleefully kick around the dried corpse of the old monk as if he were a long buried football and then seem to meet an unquiet knowingness in his ever hungry eyes. Peppered with surrealist touches, Suzuki’s contribution to Horror Theater Unbalance is a heady affair but one imbued with his characteristic twinned sense of irony and wistful melancholy in a tale of those undone by unresolved longing.


North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)

north sea dragon dvd cover.jpgAt the beginning of the 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity would put the ninkyo eiga firmly to bed, but in the mid-1960s, they were still his bread and butter. Fukasaku’s earlier career at Toei leant towards the studio’s preference for youthful rebellion but with a stronger trend towards standardised gangster tropes than the countercultural thrills to be found in similar offerings from Nikkatsu. For Fukasaku the rebellion is less cool affectation than it is a necessary revolt against increasing post-war inequality and a constraining society though, as the heroes of If You Were Young, Rage or Blackmail is My Life find out, escape can rarely be found by illicit means. Jiro, the prodigal son of North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Hokkai no Abare-Ryu), finds something similar even whilst conforming almost entirely to Toei’s standard “young upstart saves the village” narrative.

Jiro (Tatsuo Umemiya), dressed in white with jet black sunshades, nonchalantly walks into his childhood fishing village filled with a sense of nostalgia and the expectation of a warm welcome. The village, however, is much changed. There are fewer boats around now, and the fishermen are all ashore. Arriving at his family home he discovers they now live in the boat shed and his mother doesn’t even want to let him in. Jiro, as his outfit implies, has spent his time away as a yakuza, and his family want little to do with him, especially as his father has been murdered by the soulless gangsters who are currently strangling the local fishing industry.

The local fishermen are all proudly tattooed but they aren’t yakuza, unlike the tyrannical son of the local boss, Gen Ashida (Hideo Murota), who carries around a double barrelled shotgun and fearsome sense of authority. The Ashidas have placed a stranglehold around the local harbour, dictating who may fish when and extracting a good deal of the profits. An attempt to bypass them does not go well for Jiro’s mother who is the only one brave enough to speak out against their cruel treatment even if it does her no good.

When Jiro arrives home for unexplained reasons he does so happily, fully expecting to be reunited with his estranged family. Not knowing that his father had died during his absence, Jiro also carries the guilt of never having had the opportunity to explain himself and apologise for the argument that led to him running away. An early, hot headed attempt to take his complaint directly to the Ashidas ends in disaster when he is defeated, bound, and whipped with thick fisherman’s rope but it does perhaps teach him a lesson.

The other boys from the village – Jiro’s younger brother Shinkichi (Hayato Tani) and the brother of his childhood friend Reiko (Eiko Azusa), Toshi (Jiro Okazaki), are just as eager as he is both to avenge the death of Jiro’s father and rid the village of the evil Ashida tyranny. Jiro tries to put them off by the means of a good old fashioned fist fight which shows them how ill equipped they are in comparison with the older, stronger, and more experienced Jiro but their youth makes them bold and impatient. The plot of Toshi and Shinkichi will have disastrous consequences, but also acts as a galvanising force convincing the villagers that the Ashidas have to go.

Jiro takes his natural place as the hero of a Toei gangster film by formulating a plan to undermine the Ashidas’ authority. His major strategic decision is to bide his time but he also disrupts the local economy by attempting to evade the Ashida net through sending the fisherman to other local ports and undercutting the Ashida profit margin. As predicted the Ashidas don’t like it, but cost themselves a crucial ally by ignoring the intense bond between their best fighter and his adorable pet dog. Things do not quite go to plan but just as it looks as if Jiro is about to seal his victory, he stays his sword. The Ashidas’ power is broken and they have lost enough already.

Fukasaku’s approach tallies with the classic narrative as the oppressive forces are ousted by a patient people pushed too far finally deciding to fight back and doing so with strategic intelligence. It is, in one sense, a happy ending but not one without costs as Jiro looks at the restored village with the colourful flags of fishing boats enlivening the harbour and everyone going busily about their work. He knows a sacrifice must be made to solidify his mini revolution and he knows who must make it. Like many a Toei hero before him, he prepares to walk away, no longer welcome in the world his violence has saved but can no longer support.


Original trailer (no subtitles)