The Phantom Goblin (まぼろし天狗, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1962)

“Everything is money these days” as a pirate king cheerfully proclaims in Nobuo Nakagawa’s tale of Edo-era corruption, Phantom Goblin (まぼろし天狗, Maboroshi Tengu). Perhaps named to capitalise on Nakagawa’s reputation for spookiness, Phantom Goblin features no real ghosts and only metaphorical goblins in the bright red tengu masks sported by the hero’s mysterious clan while otherwise conforming to the Toei programmer house style and starring jidaigeki superstar Hashizo Okawa in a double role as brothers separated at birth and reunited by their resistance towards the inherently corrupt authority of Edo society. 

Drawing parallels with the present day, the film opens at a bawdy banquet at which corrupt councillor Tanuma (Isao Yamagata) is being entertained by a pair of local social climbers with a floor show of dancing girls. Shortly after the performance begins, however, one of the women collapses writhing in agony and loudly crying out for drugs. Embarrassed, the lords would rather this not get out deciding to finish the woman off and dump her body in a nearby well. Unfortunately for them, the plan is interrupted by local policeman Shuma Moriya (Hashizo Okawa) who arrives in time to hear the woman exclaim the words “drugs” and “mastermind” before she passes away. Determined to figure out the truth, Moriya heads to the not so secret hideout of a local gang but is shot in the arm and has to take refuge in an inn where he encounters a man who looks just like himself, Kyonosuke Asakawa (also Hashizo Okawa) of the Goblin clan, who eventually sends him to his estate to recover and assumes his position as policeman in order to root out the truth. 

A former hatamoto who apparently resigned his position after finding himself unable to support corrupt lords, Kyonosuke declares himself “frustrated with how things are run”, realising that the system is rotten beyond repair on hearing that Moriya has been fired by a corrupt magistrate apparently in league with the conspirators. While comparatively rare in Edo-era dramas, drugs are a controversial subject in any age but in keeping with the sensibilities of the early ‘60s Phantom Goblin eventually slips into the Sinophobia then rampant in contemporary crime dramas as it becomes clear the drugs trade in the feudal economy is being driven by Chinese pirates trafficking it in from overseas while weak willed lords enable their rise to power. 

There is however a touch of conservatism in Kyonosuke’s desire to see justice served in that he fears a world in which “if you can buy power and position with money, then one day we will have a chief counsellor who is a pirate”. While he’s undoubtedly got a point, it’s also true that he is in a sense protecting his own privilege conveyed by birth rather than worth in addition to rejecting the influence of the “foreign” as he raises his sword against a Chinese pirate in order to target the corrupt lords who’ve been collaborating with him in order to bolster their own power and position. Kyonosuke wanted to “clean out evil in Edo”, but eventually succeeds rather ironically in simply becoming a part of the system himself after having supposedly cleaned it out by getting rid of the “obviously” corrupt elites. 

Recovering from his shoulder injury and flirting with the adopted sister of Kyonosuke, Moriya is largely relegated to a secondary role though the secret brotherhood of the two never develops into much of a plot point even as they bond as men too honest for the world in which they live. Nor do the respective romantic dilemmas ever materialise even as the conflicted figure of a female bandit in love with the noble policeman is forced to pay for her crimes with her life, unable to progress into the purified world the brothers are about to create. Working in the Toei house style, Nakagawa abandons his taste for the strange or otherworldly contenting himself only with a few ironic tengu masks and the literal shadows surrounding the shady mastermind while indulging in genre staples such as the comic relief provided by Kyonosuke’s bumbling retainers and the double casting of Hashizo Okawa as two brothers alike in both appearance and sensibility who find themselves unable to accept the increasing corruption of their society and determine to oppose it. 


Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (猫と庄造と二人のをんな, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

Post-war melodrama is largely concerned with the place of women, in particular, in a rapidly changing society, but given the centrality of domestic life, were men yearning for “independence” too? Shiro Toyoda was closely associated with comedic tales of strong women and weak men, and Shozo, a Cat and Two Women (猫と庄造と二人のをんな, Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna) is as its title implies no exception. Adapting the novel by Tanizaki, Toyoda offers a subtle critique of the traditional family as its hapless hero finds himself caught between the conflicting demands of his feudalistic mother, stoic first wife, hedonistic second, and his much loved but perhaps mercenary feline, Lily. 

Shozo (Hisaya Morishige) is perhaps a typical spoiled only son, lazy, feckless, and essentially passive. Shinako (Isuzu Yamada) who agreed to an arranged marriage with him four years previously is walking out, thoroughly fed up with her mother-in-law Orin’s (Chieko Naniwa) constant complaints not least among them that the couple have no children. Unbeknownst to Shinako, however,  Shozo has been carrying on with his slightly younger cousin, Fukuko (Kyoko Kagawa), who is a free spirited modern woman. In fact, Fukuko has already run away from home three times in the company of various men so her wealthy father would be only too pleased to see her settle down and is so desperate to offload her that he’s even offering a huge dowry. All of this is complicated by the fact that Fukuko’s father already owns the mortgage on Shozo’s family store, which presents a serious challenge to typical family dynamics. 

Shozo, meanwhile, is only really interested in his pet cat, Lily, something which was a bone of contention in his failed marriage to Shinako (and perhaps a reason they have not been blessed with children). On learning that Orin has already moved Fukuko into the family home mere seconds after she vacated it, Shinako is suddenly struck by remorse and feels the need to vindicate her pride through revenge. Plotting how best to drive a wedge between Fukuko and her new husband, she settles on petitioning Shozo to give her custody of Lily, and then suggests the same thing to her rival knowing that whatever happens it will cause a series of problems in the Oyama household. 

The irony is, in a sense, that it’s Shozo who has been displaced from his own home. Perhaps surprisingly, he often tries to help out with household tasks but his mother always stops him, insisting that housework isn’t something a man should pay attention to. Orin is of course perpetuating outdated ideas of traditional gender roles, but there is also an obvious anxiety in her need to protect her territory from possible incursion. She doesn’t necessarily trust the idea that she and Shozo are connected by anything deeper than practicality and filial obligation and her only currency is her ability to provide the services that Shozo “cannot” provide for himself. His learning to take care of himself is an existential threat to her position as his caregiver even though he is a grown man in his 30s perfectly capable of doing his own laundry and preparing his own meals (as he already does for Lily who particularly enjoys grilled chicken). 

When they brought Shinako into the house, they did so apparently because she was known to be a “good worker” at her job as a maid for a wealthy family. Since then she has indeed worked hard, but is viewed as little more than a glorified servant by Orin who has delegated much of the feminine labour to the younger woman, while Shozo emotionally neglects her in favour of the cat and apparently satisfies his carnal urges outside the home. They accept Fukuko for her money, but take the opposite approach, treating her as the lady of the manor. Fukuko does no housework (a cupboard is later discovered where she’d thrown all the washing she couldn’t be bothered to do), but Orin simply picks up her share and more, becoming maid to her daughter-in-law who frequently reminds them that it’s her money paying for everything so she is the one who is really in charge. 

Shozo does not seem to react too closely to these assaults on his masculinity, but only wants to escape to be alone with Lily whom he believes is the only one who really loves him. In this he is perhaps the truly modern man who wanted his family relations to be “real” rather than defined by social obligation, but he’s also self-centred and childish, still seeing the women (even Lily) as providers of service rather than fellow human beings. His mother satisfied his hunger, Shinako kept him financially by managing the business, and Fukuko sated his passion, but he feels oppressed by all of them in different ways and in the end does not want the responsibility of dealing with human emotions. Lily may be capricious, but her needs are easily satisfied and to that extent she is dependent on him. His desire to be “independent” and find emotional fulfilment only with his cat is just as much of a challenge to the social order as a woman who rejects marriage or seeks to fulfil herself outside of the home. 

Shozo’s dilemma is however presented as comedic until its unexpectedly melancholy conclusion which reduces him to the status of a stray cat as the women come to literal blows, fighting not quite over him (he isn’t worth fighting over) but for their own self-esteem and particular brand of womanhood. Shinako sits at home and calculates all the back pay she’d be entitled to for the labour she performed at the Oyama household in recognition that being a wife is also a job and they treated her as a maid anyway (which is to say as an outsider with no intention of love or loyalty), while Fukuko begins to see the “emptiness” in her party girl lifestyle but prefers to be pampered and resents being “beaten” by a mere housemaid. This system traps everyone, forcing them to manipulate the desires of others while suppressing their own. Shozo and his cat are left out in the cold, trapped between tradition and modernity but no more free than they were before even in their mutual dependency.


A Killer’s Key (ある殺し屋の鍵, Kazuo Mori, 1967)

Raizo Ichikawa returns as the jaded ace assassin only this time a little less serious. Set some time after the events of A Certain Killer, A Killer’s Key (ある殺し屋の鍵, Aru Koroshiya no Kagi) finds Shiozawa (Raizo Ichikawa) having left the restaurant business to teach traditional dance under the name Fujigawa while known as killer for hire Nitta in the underworld. Like the previous film, however, he thinks of himself as a justifiable good, standing up against contemporary corruption while still burdened by his traumatic past as a former tokkotai pilot. 

Nitta’s troubles begin when a corruption scandal kicks off with a prominent businessman, or less generously loan shark, arrested for tax evasion. Asakura (Asao Uchida) knows too much and political kingpin Hojo (Isao Yamagata) is worried because he knows Asakura has hard evidence about a land scandal and might be persuaded to spill the beans, exposing a circle of corrupt elitists for their shady goings on. He wants Asakura knocked off on the quiet, as he heavily implies but does not explicitly state to his underling Endo (Ko Nishimura) who gets in touch with their yakuza support who in turn decide that Nitta is the only man for the job.

Petty yakuza Araki (Yoshio Kanauchi) sells the job to Nitta as a public service, pointing out how unfair it is that Asakura has been cheating on his taxes when other people have taken their own lives in shame because they weren’t able to pay. Conveniently, he doesn’t mention anything about petty vendettas or that he’s essentially being hired to silence a potential witness before he can talk so Nitta is minded to agree, for a fee of course (which, we can assume, he won’t be entering on his tax form). Unfortunately things get more complicated for everyone when the gangsters try to tie up loose ends by engineering an “accident” for Nitta which sends him on a path of revenge not only taking out the gangsters but the ones who hired them too. 

Nitta’s revenge is personal in focus, but also a reflection of his antipathy to modern society as a man himself corrupted by wartime folly who should have died but has survived only to become a nihilistic contract killer. He perhaps thinks that the world is better off without men like Asakura, the dim yakuza, spineless underling Endo, and corrupt elitist Hojo but only halfheartedly. His potential love interest, Hideko (Tomomi Sato), a geisha learning traditional dance, has fallen for him, she says because she can see he’s not a cold man though continually preoccupied and there is indeed something in his aloofness which suggests that he believes in a kind of justice or at least the idea of moral good in respect of the men that died fighting for a mistaken ideal. 

As Hideko puts it, Asakura made his money off the suffering of others, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he met a nasty end. She herself is a fairly cynical figure, aware as a geisha that she is in need of a sponsor and that it’s better to get the one with the most money though she too has her code and will be loyal to whoever’s paying the bills. Or so she claims, eventually willing to sell out Endo to protect Nitta but disappointed in his continued lack of reciprocation for her feelings. Echoing his parting words at the close of the first film but perhaps signalling a new conservatism he coldly tells Hideko that he doesn’t need a woman who stays with anyone who pays refusing to include her in the remainder of his mission.

Nitta is perhaps a man out of his times as a strange scene of him looking completely lost in a hip nightclub makes clear. He tries to play a circular game, stockpiling his winnings in different suitcases stored in a coin locker, but eventually finds that all his efforts have been pointless save perhaps taking out one particular strain of corruption in putting an end to Hojo’s nefarious schemes. More straightforwardly linear in execution than A Certain Killer, Killer’s Key is a less serious affair, resting squarely on an anticorruption message and easing back on the hero’s wartime trauma while allowing his needle-based hits to veer towards the ridiculous rather than the expertly planned assassination of the earlier film, but does perhaps spin an unusual crime doesn’t pay message in Nitta’s unexpected and ironic failure to secure the loot proving that sometimes not even top hit men can dodge cosmic bad luck. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gate of Hell (地獄門, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Which is the greater challenge to the social order, love or ambition, or are they in the end facets of the same destabilising forces? Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (地獄門, Jigokumon) is, from one angle, the story of a man driven mad by “love”, reduced to the depravity of a crazed stalker betraying his samurai honour in order to affirm his status, but it also paints his need as a response to the chaos of his age along with its many repressions while the heroine is, once again, convinced that the only freedom she possesses lies in death. Yet in the midst of all that, Kinugasa ends with a triumph of nobility as the compassionate samurai restores order by rejecting the heat of raw emotion for an internalised contemplation of the greater good. 

Set in the 12th century, the film opens in revolt as two ambitious lords combine forces to attack the Sanjo Palace in what would become known as the Heiji Rebellion. The lords have attacked knowing that Taira no Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is not in residence, having departed on a pilgrimage. Fearful for the safety of his sister and father, retainers order decoys to be sent out to distract the rebels. Kesa (Machiko Kyo), a court lady in service to the emperor’s sister, agrees to be her decoy and Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), a minor retainer, is ordered to protect her. He manages to escort her back to his family compound where he assumes she will be safe, transgressively giving her a kiss of life, pouring water into her mouth with his own, after she has fainted during the journey. Unfortunately, Morito has miscalculated. His brother has sided with the rebels and they are not safe here. During the chaos they go their separate ways, and as soon as Kiyomori returns he puts an end to the rebellion restoring the status quo.  

Shocked at his brother’s betrayal, Morito tells him that only a coward betrays a man to whom he has sworn an oath of loyalty but he explains that he is acting not out of cowardice but self interest. He has made an individualist choice to advance his status in direct opposition to the samurai code. Morito doesn’t yet know it but he is about to do something much the same. He has fallen in love with Kesa and after meeting her again at the Gate of Hell where they are each paying their respects to the fallen, his brother among them, is determined to marry her, so much so that he asks Kiyomori directly during a public ceremony rewarding loyal retainers for their service. The other men giggle at such an inappropriate, unmanly show of emotion but the joke soon fades once another retainer anxiously points out that Kesa is already married to one of the lord’s favoured retainers. Kiyomori apologises and tries to laugh it off, but Morito doubles down, requesting that Kiyomori give him another man’s wife. 

This series of challenges to the accepted order is compounded by a necessity for politeness. Morito is mocked and derided, told that his conduct is inappropriate and embarrassing, but never definitively ordered to stop. Making mischief or hoping to defuse the situation, Kiyomori engineers a meeting between Morito and Kesa, cautioning him that the matter rests with her and should she refuse him he should take it like a man and bow out gracefully. Kesa, for her part, has only ever been polite to Morito and is extremely confused, not to mention distressed, by this unexpected turn of events. She is quite happily married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata) who is the soul of samurai honour, kind, honest, and always acting with the utmost propriety. That might be why he too treats Morito with politeness, never directly telling him to back off but refusing to engage with his inappropriate conduct. That sense of being ignored, however, merely fuels Morito’s resentment. He accuses Kesa of not leaving her husband because Wataru is of a higher rank, as if she rejects him out of snobbishness, rather than accept the fact she does not like him. 

Morito continues in destructive fashion. We see him repeatedly, break, smash, and snap things out of a sense of violent frustration with the oppressions of his age until finally forced to realise that he has “destroyed a beautiful soul” in his attempt to conquer it. “One cannot change a person’s feelings by force” Wataru advises, but is that not the aim of every rebellion, convincing others they must follow one man and not another because he is in someway stronger? The priest whose head was cut off and displayed at the Gate of Hell was killed in part because he reaped what he had sown in beheading the defeated soldiers of a previous failed revolution. Morito kills a traitor and he falls seemingly into rolling waves which transition to an unrolling scroll reminding us that rebellions ebb and flow through time and all of this is of course transient. Only Wataru, perhaps ironically, as the unambiguously good samurai is able to end the cycle, refusing his revenge in the knowledge it would do no real good. Morito is forced to live on in the knowledge of the destruction his misplaced passion has wrought, standing at his own Gate of Hell as a man now exiled from his code and renouncing the world as one unfit to live in it. 


Gate of Hell is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Beautiful Days (美わしき歳月, Masaki Kobayashi, 1955)

“Life is unpredictable” according to the protagonists of Masaki Kobayashi’s Beautiful Days (美わしき歳月, Uruwashiki Saigetsu, AKA The Beautiful Years), becoming something of refrain in the face of constant change. Among the most quietly angry of post-war humanists, Masaki Kobayashi’s later work is defined by a central question of how the conscientious individual can survive in an oppressive society. Like many directors, however, he had to do his time making regular studio programmers, in his case at Shochiku which was then, and to some extent still is, the home of polite melodrama. Like Kobayashi’s other films from this period, Beautiful Days conforms to the studio’s classic shomin-geki formula, but does perhaps display something of his resistance to the system in its tale of three former school friends scattered by the complicated post-war society but each in his own way attempting to make a break with the past in order to move into a more positive future. 

The action opens, however, with the old. Grandma Mrs. Tokioka (Akiko Tamura) is hit by a fancy car while out shopping, but the owner, retired CEO Shigaki (Eitaro Ozawa), turns out to be a kind and considerate man who insists on taking her to a hospital despite her protestations that she’s absolutely fine. Finally she gives in and asks Shigaki to take her to her regular doctor, Imanishi (Isao Kimura), only when she gets to the clinic Imanishi is getting a dressing down from his boss who accuses him of vanity in insisting on treating an emergency patient without checking his finances first. Imanishi storms out, recklessly quitting yet another job on a matter of principle. 

Mrs. Tokioka wanted to see Imanishi because he was a close friend of her grandson who was killed in the war, along with her son and his wife who were explosives experts, leaving her to care for her only remaining relative, 22-year-old Sakurako (Yoshiko Kuga) who works alongside her at their florist’s shop. Imanishi is from a relatively wealthy family of doctors which is perhaps why he feels so free to prioritise his integrity because the economic consequences are relatively marginal. For his friends, Hakamada (Junkichi Orimoto) and Nakao (Keiji Sada) the situation is different. Hakamada’s family are poor, living in a makeshift shack in the slums while he supports them all with a job in a factory run by an unscrupulous and exploitive boss standing in for heartless post-war capitalism. Nakao, meanwhile, graduated with a law degree but hasn’t been able to find any steady work since coming home from the war and is earning a living playing drums in a cabaret bar for 600 yen a night. 

Formerly close friends since their middle school days, the men maintain a deep yet increasingly distant connection not least because Tokioka’s death has left them with a sense of sad incompleteness. As the others say, Nakao has indeed changed. His experiences in the war along with the death of a close friend who was killed while trying to seek a better life in Brazil, have made him embittered and cynical. He buries himself in the inconsequential pleasures of pool halls and nightclubs to avoid having to think about a future he feels he doesn’t deserve. As Imanishi puts it, he struggles with his kindness towards others, pushing people away, overly cautious in choosing a policy of self-isolation rather than risk potential hurt. It seems he was in love before the war, but she (Toshiko Kobayashi) married someone else and is now a widowed single-mother. He wants to help her, getting Imanishi to visit her mother who was diagnosed with asthma that is most likely TB, and helping her with a job as a tea dancer at the club but feeling conflicted in inviting her into such a low environment while also resisting his continuing love for her, partly in resentment over her past, and partly in a lingering sense of hopelessness about the future. 

Imanishi’s problems meanwhile are mostly born of stubborn male pride. He refuses to work for the increasingly capitalist hospitals of the contemporary era and wants to be a socially responsible doctor but realises that he can’t go on quitting one job after another. He and Sakurako, Mrs. Tokioka’s granddaughter and the sister of his late friend, are in love and want to marry, but he’s too shy to ask for her hand as a man without a steady salary or future prospects. “Men always like to think things over on their own” Sakurako complains, immediately before Imanishi announces he’s about to do just that and wants to take a “break” in their relationship to sort himself out. He’s been offered a place in a research facility in Akita far in the North, but isn’t sure if he should ask Sakurako to go with him because Mrs. Tokioka won’t leave Tokyo, possibly won’t approve of their marriage, and will be disappointed if Sakurako chooses a life of hardship in the remoteness of snow country when all she’s ever wanted is for her to live happily. 

Mrs. Tokioka is in fact entirely ignorant of their relationship, which is why she’s receptive when Shigaki proposes a potential marriage between Sakurako and his younger son Yuji (Akio Satake). She thinks that’s a nice idea, but also acknowledges that times have changed and Sakurako’s marriage isn’t something she should have much say over. Shigaki agrees, and so they decide to introduce the young people casually and see if they hit it off, which they do but Sakurako remains conflicted in her relationship with the distant, to his mind noble, Imanishi who leaves her to think he’s got someone else rather than clear up a simple misunderstanding. 

In a strange way, it’s Mrs. Tokioka and Mr. Shigaki who are perhaps slipping into a romance, Sakurako even jokingly refers to him as her grandmother’s “boyfriend” using the trendy English word which adds an additional layer of incongruity. They each profess a deep confusion with the way the youngsters think, Mr. Shigaki disappointed with his older son who prioritises the bottom line and is cutting corners buying cheaper materials and reducing the quality of the product he worked so hard to perfect. Rampant and irresponsible capitalism is also the force which is currently destabilising Hakamada’s life as he finds himself exploited by his heartless boss but unable to simply quit as Imanishi has repeatedly done because jobs are hard to come by and he’s also supporting his parents. His boss even tries to frame him for stealing materials from the factory, later berating him for “talking like a freeloader” when he tries to bring up workplace conditions, and calling the police to have him charged with assault when he fights back after he hits him. 

Inverting the melancholy flower metaphor, Imanishi describes himself and his friends as horsetail in a field crushed when a dog comes by and defecates on it, but later remembers that horsetail eventually springs back up, while Mrs. Tokioka had wanted to see if her damaged bulbs would grow when planted in the right soil. The three friends are forced into a realisation that they’re heading out on different paths and will inevitably be scattered but they are at least finding their way, learning to come to an acceptance of the traumatic past to move into a happier future. “Life is unpredictable” but sometimes people surprise you and it’s best to give them the opportunity or risk losing your chance to seize happiness wherever you find it. 


The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

After the war during the American occupation, the samurai film encountered a de facto ban with the authorities worried that historical epics may encourage outdated fuedal and fascistic ideology. The period films of the post-war era, however, are often fiercely critical of the samurai order even as it stands in for the hypocrisies of the contemporary society. Two years before Masaki Kobayashi launched a similar assault on the notion of samurai honour in Harakiri, Tomu Uchida’s The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Sake to Onna to Yari) finds a loyal retainer similarly troubled when he is ordered to die only to be ordered not to and then finally told that yes he must commit suicide to serve a kind of honour in which he no longer believes. 

Takasada (Ryutaro Otomo) is a battlefield veteran with the Tomita clan much revered for his skill with the spear. As a retainer to the current regent, Hidetsugu (Yataro Kurokawa), he finds himself in trouble when the ageing Hideyoshi (Eijiro Tono) stages a coup to solidify his power, accusing his nephew of treason on abruptly “discovering” a stash of illegally obtained rifles. Takasada is outraged not to have been ordered to die with his master, but later resents being “strongly encouraged” to do so by his brother, the head of their clan. Storming out, he temporarily retreats into a drunken haze during which he convinces his favourite actress, Umeme (Hiromi Hanazono), to stay with him (just serving drinks, no funny business), before committing himself to public seppuku on a date of his own choosing. When the day arrives, Takasada is greeted by parades of “well wishers” keen to congratulate him for being such a fine samurai. Encouraging those in line to step out of it and stand horizontally without account of rank or status, he agrees to drink with them all, with the consequence that he becomes extremely drunk and passes out. 

Just as he’s about to cut his belly, a messenger arrives from Hideyoshi himself ruling Takasada’s suicide illegal. He if goes ahead and does it anyway, his clan will be disgraced. Takasada’s brother changes his tune and begs him not to proceed for the sake of the Tomita honour. Thoroughly fed up, Takasada has a sudden epiphany about the hypocrisies of the samurai code and decides to renounce his status, dropping out of court life to live simply in the country where he is eventually joined by Umeme who has fallen in love with him. 

Meanwhile, court intrigue intensifies. These are the quiet years leading up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara which in itself decided the course of Japanese history. While the elderly Hideyoshi attempts to hold on to power by ruling as a regent on behalf of his sickly son Hideyori, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Eitaro Ozawa) plots on the sidelines. Hideyoshi is advised by his steward Mitsunari (Isao Yamagata) to take a hard line with treachery, executing all 36 “spies” planted in his household by Ieyasu, including a number of women and children. Mitsunari is himself working with the other side, and the executions are nothing short of a PR disaster for Hideyoshi, provoking fear and resentment in the general populace who can’t accept the inherent cruelty of putting women and children to the sword. Sakon (Chikage Awashima), a kabuki actress and fiercely protective friend of Umeme, comes to a similar conclusion to Takasada, hating the samurai order for its merciless savagery. 

That’s perhaps why she’s originally wary of Takasada’s interest in Umeme, uncertain he will keep his promise to keep his hands off her and so staying over one night herself to make sure Umeme is safe. Umeme, meanwhile, may not have wanted him to be quite so honourable, leaving in the morning visibly irritated and exclaiming that Takasada is drunk on himself and understands nothing of women. That may be quite true, but it’s his sense of honour which eventually tells him that he must reject the samurai ideal. First they tell him honour dictates he must die, then that he must not, then when Hideyoshi dies and the prohibition is lifted, that he must die after all because his entire clan is embarrassed by his continuing existence. By this point, Takasada has decided to accept his “cowardice”. Sickened by the spectacle of his ritual suicide and the humiliation of its cancelation, he came to the conclusion that “loyalty and honour for world fame, glorious exploits etc” is all a big joke. He loves food, and wine, and his wife, and if that means others call him coward so be it because he’s finally happy and perhaps free. 

His spear, however still hangs over his hearth. He hasn’t truly let go of it or of the code with which he was raised. Sakon, perhaps on one level jealous and guarding her own feelings as she accepts that Umeme has chosen to leave the stage to retreat into an individual world with Takasada, warns her that her happiness will end if Takasada is convinced to accept a commission from the Tokugawa. He surprises her by once again renouncing his status as a samurai, choosing to stay a “coward” living a simple life of love and happiness. But as soon as he puts his hand on the spear intending to break it for good something in him is reawakened. He can’t do it. He finds himself at Sekigahara, confronted not only by samurai hypocrisy but by his own as Sakon does what he could not do to show him what he has betrayed. His rage explodes and he raises his spear once again but not for the Tokugawa, against the samurai order itself piercing the very banners which define it in an ironic assault on an empty ideology.  


Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yasushi Sasaki, 1961)

The post-war world was one of increasing globalisation which brought with it anxiety as well as hope as Japan readied itself to step back onto the world stage. The populist cinema of the early ‘60s is marked by ambivalent attitudes to international influences, not just towards creeping Americanisation and its perceived costs but perhaps somewhat uncomfortably towards the wider world and Asia in particular with the same old prejudices which had marked the previous 20 years rearing their heads once again. Voice of the post-war era, the films of Hibari Misora are, by contrast, about as forward looking and progressive as it was possible to be but Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yurei-jima no Okite) in which she plays a noticeably smaller part, is a bizarre exception in which a “lawless” melting pot outpost must be “civilised” by Japanese influences else the creeping rule of thuggish Asian gangs finally reach Japan “proper”.

We’re deep in the Bakumatsu. The Black Ships have already arrived and there is considerable political trouble brewing back in Japan. That’s not our immediate concern however because we’re on a creepy boat with slovenly ronin Yagi Hanzo (Hashizo Okawa) and a mysterious woman wearing a cheongsam (Hibari Misora). Fellow petty gangster and slave trafficker Bunji (Chiyonosuke Azuma) is suspicious of Hanzo, but decides he’s probably just an unlucky retainer on the run from something or other and might prove useful. Therefore, on arrival at Dragon Island, Bunji starts on trying to recruit Hanzo for his boss Chou Yang Po (Isao Yamagata), but Hanzo’s his own man and he hasn’t come here looking for a job. Fearing Hanzo is a government official here to bring the law down on all their heads, Chou tries to force him to harm a man they have in custody and believe to be working for the state. Hanzo gets round this by breaking a chair over the man’s back but leaving him otherwise unharmed, keeping his cover (if that’s what it is) firmly intact.

During his stay on Dragon Island, Hanzo will meet several other shady characters, many of them dressed in outfits more usually associated with the Chinese, Indians, nondescript “islanders”, and strange movie pirates, but what must be assumed is that though Japan “owns” this distant island it is unable to police it and as such it has become a den of scum and villainy in which various tribal gangs vie for hegemony and control over the lucrative smuggling hub which has unwittingly formed in direct response to Japan’s unwise policy of internal isolation which is itself at breaking point thanks to Perry’s Black Ships which we later hear are also on their way to Dragon Island.

Our key into this conflict is the crazed child of the leading gangster, Isakichi (Hiroki Matsukata), who dresses like a cowboy and likes to showoff his hard-won saloon credentials as sharpshooting libertine and all round party animal. Hanzo is not as impressed by this as Isakichi was hoping though an awkward sort of camaraderie eventually arises between them. Meanwhile, Isakichi has fallen in innocent love with the sister of his childhood best friend who is deep into a putative resistance movement hoping to end the stranglehold the smugglers have placed over the previously peaceful island.

Misora’s Madame Song, for some reason posing as a Chinese sex worker, hints at the various ways nothing is quite as it seems in her astute observations of the world around her, sensing that Hanzo is hiding something but also assuming that he is on the “right” side. There is conspiracy everywhere – the putative revolution at home is sending its shockwaves all the way out here as our unscrupulous gangsters try to procure guns to send to various sides on the mainland, while Madame Song ironically laments that what Dragon Island needs is to be more like Japan which is to say ruled less by law itself than an internalised acceptance of the proper order of things. Uncomfortably, it also probably means sending the people who aren’t wearing kimono somewhere else and trying to stop them tricking nice women from Kyushu into coming to tropical islands where they discover they’ve been trafficked into sex work and are unable to leave.

Among Toei’s lower budgeted efforts, Law in Ghost Island bills itself as a supernatural tale and does indeed open with a creepy scene of a misty boat but Hanzo doesn’t end up anywhere like the isle of the dead only a fantasy tropical “paradise” filled with zany movie pirates. Somewhere between pirate fantasy and western, Law in Ghost Island is closer to the kind of spy spoofs Toho would start producing in a few years’ time and even ends with a strangely comic scene in which just about everyone reveals themselves as spy for the same side during the climactic final shootout having been too busy playing spy games to figure any of it out before.

The final messages too are uncomfortable and ambivalent as Hanzo affirms that if there were more “good samurai” Japan would not become lawless like it is here while also claiming Dragon Island for the mainland in fear external forces may use it as a base to attack Japan. The smugglers pay heavily for their “treachery” in contributing to internal mainland chaos while the revolutionary islanders declare their intentions to make the island a better place, which mainly seems to mean making it more “Japanese” which is a fairly ambivalent message whichever way you look at it. Misora only sings two songs and is relegated to a minor mystery in the strange goings on of Ghost Island which features absolutely no ghosts or supernatural intrigue. It does however perhaps shine a light on a strange moment of cultural flux however how unflattering that mirror may turn out to be.


Brief clip of some of Hibari’s songs (no subtitles)

Feisty Edo Girl Nakanori-san (ひばり民謡の旅シリーズ べらんめえ中乗りさん, Masamitsu Igayama, 1961)

Nakanori-san posterThe voice of the post-war era, Hibari Misora also had a long and phenomenally popular run as a tentpole movie star which began at the very beginning of her career and eventually totalled 166 films. Working mostly (though not exclusively) at Toei, she starred in a series of contemporary and period comedies all of which afforded her at least a small opportunity to showcase her musical talents. Directed by Masamitsu Igayama, Feisty Edo Girl Nakanori-san (ひばり民謡の旅シリーズ べらんめえ中乗りさん, Hibari Minyo no Tabi: Beranme Nakanori-san, AKA Travelsongs: Sharp-Tongued Acquaintance) once again stars Hibari Misora as a strong-willed, independent post-war woman who stands up to corruption and looks after the little guy while falling in love with regular co-star Ken Takakura. 

Nobuko (Hibari Misora) is the daughter of a formerly successful lumber merchant whose business is being threatened by an unscrupulous competitor. With her father ill in bed, Nobuko has taken over the family firm but is dismayed to find that a contract she assumed signed has been reneged on by a corrupt underling at a construction company who has been bribed by the thuggish Tajikyo (Takashi Kanda). Unlike Nobuko’s father Sado (Isao Yamagata), Tajikyo is unafraid to embrace the new, completely amoral business landscape of the post-war world and will do whatever it takes to become top dog in the small lumber-centric world of Kibo.

Tajikyo has teamed up with the similarly minded, though nowhere near as unscrupulous, Oka (Yoshi Kato) whose son Kenichi (Ken Takakura) has recently returned from America. Kenichi, having come back to Japan with with clear ideas about the importance of fair practice in business, is not happy with his father’s capitulation to Tajikyo’s bullying. Of course, it also helps that he had a charming meet cute with the spiky Nobuko and became instantly smitten so he is unlikely to be in favour of anything which damages her father’s business even if they are technically competitors.

As in the majority of her films, Misora plays the “feisty” girl of the title, a no nonsense sort of woman thoroughly fed up with the misogynistic micro aggressions she often encounters when trying to participate fully in the running of her family business. Though her father seems happy enough, even if casually reminding her that aspects of the job are more difficult for women – particularly the ones which involve literal heavy lifting and being alone with a large number of men in the middle of a forest, he too remarks on her seeming masculinity in joking that her mother made a mistake in giving birth to her as a girl. Likewise, Tajikyo’s ridiculous plan to have Nobuko marry his idiot son is laughed off not only because Tajikyo is their enemy, but because most people seem to think that Nobuko’s feistiness makes her unsuitable for marriage – something she later puts to Kenichi as their courtship begins to become more serious. Kenichi, of course, is attracted to her precisely because of these qualities even if she eventually stops to wonder if she might need to become more “feminine” in order to become his wife.

To this extent, Feisty Edo Girl is the story of its heroine’s gradual softening as she finally writes home to her father that she is happy to have been born a girl while fantasising about weddings and dreaming of Kenichi’s handsome face. Meanwhile, she also attracts the attentions of an improbable motorcycle champion who just happens to also be the son of a logging family and therefore also able to help in the grand finale even if he never becomes a credible love rival despite Nobuko’s frequent admiration for his fiery, rebellious character which more than matches her own.

Nevertheless, the central concern (aside from the romance) is a preoccupation with corruption in the wartime generation. Where Nobuko’s father Sado is “old fashioned” in that he wants to do business legitimately while keeping local traditions alive, the Tajikyos of the world are content to wield his scruples against him, destroying his business through underhanded methods running from staff poaching to bribery and violence. Kenichi’s father has gone along with Tajikoyo’s plans out of greed and weakness, irritated by his son’s moral purity on one level but also mildly horrified by what he might have gotten himself into by not standing up to Tajikyo in the beginning.

As expected, Nobuko and Kenichi eventually triumph through nothing more than a fierce determination to treat others with respect. Working together cheerfully achieves results, while the corrupt forces of Tajikyo eventually find themselves blocked by those who either cannot be bought or find the strength to refuse to be. Nobuko’s big job is finding prime lumber to be used to build a traditional pagoda in America as part of a cultural celebration. She wants to do her best not only because she takes pride in her work but because she knows this project will represent Japan overseas. Tajikyo, however, would cut corners, believing that the Americans wouldn’t notice even if he sent them rotten logs riddled with woodworm as long as the paperwork tallies. Filled with music and song, Nakanori-san is an action packed outing for Misora in which she once again succeeds in setting the world to rights while falling in love with a likeminded soul as they prepare to sail off into kinder post-war future.


Some of Hibari’s songs from the film (no subtitles):

Floating Clouds (浮雲, Mikio Naruse, 1955)

(C) 1955 Toho

floating clouds poster“The past is our only reality” the melancholy Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) intones, only to be told that her past was but a dream and now she is awake. Adapted from a novel by Fumiko Hayashi – a writer whose work proved a frequent inspiration for director Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds (浮雲, Ukigumo) is a story of the post-war era as its central pair of lovers find themselves caught in a moment of cultural confusion, unsure of how to move forward and unable to leave the traumatic past behind.

We begin with defeat. Shifting from stock footage featuring returnees from Indochina, Naruse’s camera picks out the weary figure of a young woman, Yukiko, drawing her government issue jacket around her. She eventually arrives in the city and at the home of an older man, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), whom we later find out had been her lover when they were both stationed overseas working for the forestry commission but has now returned “home” to his family. Kengo had promised to divorce his wife, Kuniko (Chieko Nakakita), in order to marry Yukiko but now declares their romance one of many casualties of war. With only the brother-in-law who once raped her left of her family, Yukiko has nowhere left to turn, eventually becoming the mistress of an American soldier but despite his earlier declarations the increasingly desperate Kengo cannot bear to let her go and their on again off again affair continues much to Yukiko’s constant suffering.

Floating Clouds is as much about the post-war world as it is about a doomed love affair (if indeed love is really what it is). Kengo and Yukiko are the floating clouds of the title, unable to settle in the chaos of defeat where there is no clear foothold to forge a path into the future, no clear direction in which to head, and no clear sign that the future itself is even a possibility. Naruse begins with the painful present marked by crushing defeat and hopelessness, flashing back to the brighter, warmer forests of Indochina to show us the lovers as they had been in a more “innocent” world. At 22, Yukiko smiles brightly and walks tall with a lightness in her step. She went to Indochina in the middle of a war to escape violence at home and, working in the peaceful environment of the forestry commission, begins to find a kind of serenity even whilst dragged into an ill-advised affair with a moody older man more out of loneliness than lust.

Yet, Yukiko’s troubles started long before the war. Assaulted by her brother-in-law she escapes Japan but falls straight into the arms of Kengo who is thought a good, trustworthy man but proves to be anything but. Kengo, frustrated and broken, attempts to lose himself through intense yet temporary relationships with younger women. Every woman he becomes involved with throughout the course of the film comes to a bad end – his wife, Kuniko, dies of tuberculosis while Kengo was unable to pay for treatment which might perhaps have saved her, an inn keeper’s wife he has a brief fling with is eventually murdered by a jealous husband (a guilty Kengo later attempts to raise money for a better lawyer to defend him), Yukiko’s life is more or less destroyed, and goodness only knows what will happen to a very young errand runner for the local bar whom he apparently kissed in a drunken moment of passion.

The lovers remain trapped by the past, even if Kengo repeatedly insists that one cannot live on memory and that their love died in Dalat where perhaps they should have remained. Yukiko’s tragedy is that she had nothing else than her love for Kengo to cling to, while Kengo’s is that he consistently tries to negate the past rather than accept it, craving the purity of memory over an attainable reality, chasing that same sense of possibility in new and younger lovers but once again squandering each opportunity for happiness through intense self obsession. “Things can’t be the same after a war”, intones Kengo as an excuse for his continued callousness, but they find themselves retreating into the past anyway, taking off for tropical, rainy Yakushima which might not be so different from the Indochina of their memories but the past is not somewhere one can easily return and there can be only tragedy for those who cannot let go of an idealised history in order to move forward into a new and uncertain world.


A Fishwife’s Tale (魚河岸の女石松, Eiichi Kudo, 1961)

A Fishwife's Tale VHS coverWho better to take on post-war corruption and personal injustice than Hibari Misora? In another of her typically feisty roles, Hibari stands up for her friends, her community, and her family when they are threatened by the exploitative forces of the tabloid press, rubbish boyfriends, and evil corporations all while accidentally falling in love with Ken Takakura in an early role as cynical reporter with a heart of gold. Eiichi Kudo may be best remembered for a string of samurai movies in the ‘60s including 13 Assassins and The Great Killing, but like many of his generation he made a fair few programme pictures including several starring Hibari Misora of which A Fishwife’s Tale (魚河岸の女石松, Kashi no Onna Ishimatsu) is one.

Kudo opens with stock footage of a small fishing harbour which is all aflutter with the arrival of some unusual outsiders. A photographer from a “magazine” has arrived claiming that he wants to document the lives of ordinary working class people from the fishing industry. While some of the young women doll themselves up and plead with the photographer, “Lady Ishimatsu”, Keiko Kano (Hibari Misora), steals all the attention by defiantly rolling through in her truck ready for a day’s work. As predicted Keiko doesn’t want anything to do with this photography nonsense, and as it turns out she was right not to. The guys aren’t from the Sundays or National Geographic, they’re a scandal rag and they’ve bulked out their story with a lot of made up rubbish about the “sexy lives of fishwives” which paints them all as predatory nymphomaniacs. Matters come to a head when Keiko’s friend Yoko (Yukiko Nikaido) tries to kill herself in shame because of the paper’s implication that she’s a loose woman which causes her wealthy boyfriend to dump her (luckily, she’d mixed up tummy tablets with sleeping pills so thankfully survived even if feeling a little sick and silly).

The newspaper business has a second unforeseen consequence. When Keiko stands up to the achingly cool reporter, he realises she’s connected to another case he’s working on. Across town, a canned food magnate is facing ruin thanks to a standards scandal and is also earnestly searching for his long lost daughter, born to a geisha 20 years earlier and then adopted by another family. Dogged reporter Kitagawa (Ken Takakura), recognising the necklace around Keiko’s neck, wonders if she might be the girl Tachibana’s looking for. When it turns out that he’s right, Keiko’s world turns upside-down. Tachibana (Eijiro Yanagi), overjoyed to have found his daughter, goes about everything the wrong way and tries to take her back from her loving home with the promise of wealth and comfort, but Keiko loves her parents even if they aren’t hers by blood and resents the attempt to drag her away. 

Nevertheless, when the two cases turn out to be even more connected thanks to Yoko’s terrible boyfriend being the no good son of one of the conspirators, and Mr. Tachibana falling ill though the stress of his situation, the entire family reconsiders if they haven’t perhaps been selfish in resolutely rejecting a lonely old man trying to make up for a past mistake. Keiko becomes committed to standing up to the bullies. “We’re still young, as long we’re alive we’ll resist you” she tells her biological father’s arch enemy in what might as well be a rallying cry for post-war youth fed up with the corrupted older generation.

Then again perhaps things don’t change all that much. Rather than a salt scam or rice profiteering, this time it’s fiddling with the labels on tin cans but ordinary people are still having their food supply tampered with by those with enough money not to need to worry so much about food security – the amoral petty samurai of the Edo era have merely become amoral businessmen in the dog eat dog post-war world.

Comparatively light on song and dance – Hibari sings the title track as she drives in on her truck, hums a few tunes, and gets one dramatic musical number when she goes undercover as a nightclub singer to spy on the bad guys, Kudo ups the action quotient as Hibari makes herself the chief of the fishwives and takes on the photographers, sneaks around investigating, and then starts a full on brawl with goons in the final showdown. This time around the romance between frequent co-stars Hibari Misora and Ken Takakura is spiky and sparky, fuelled by Keiko’s strange positioning as a “tomboyish” bossy boots more at home in her truck and wellies than prancing around for the camera like the other girls. Oddly warm and filled with rebellious energy, A Fishwife’s Tale is, in its own quiet way, perhaps subversive in allowing a little political spirit of the age to creep in around the edges as Keiko steps forward to stay true to her roots, opposing injustice wherever she sees it and always acting on her own initiative.


Selection of scenes from the movie including Hibari’s big club number (no subtitles)

Maintitles song – Hibari no Dodonpa