Baby Assassins 2 Babies (ベイビーわるきゅーれ2ベイビー, Yugo Sakamoto, 2023)

Chisato (Akari Takaishi) and Mahiro (Saori Izawa) continue to struggle with everyday life in Yugo Sakamoto’s sequel to the hugely popular slacker comedy action fest, Baby Assassins, Baby Assassins 2 Babies (ベイビーわるきゅーれ2ベイビー, Baby Valkyrie 2 Baby). A deadpan satire on institutional bureaucracy in the underground hitman society, the film sees the girls targeted by a pair of rivals that in any other film may be the heroes of the story only this time around they’re hapless challengers whose attempt game the system only results in more chaos and misery. 

Beginning to get their act together, the girls are still it seems completely hopeless at managing their money and are suddenly faced not only with a hugely expensive bill for a gym membership they took out five years previously and forgot to cancel, but also reminded that they were upgraded from the “Jolly” insurance scheme to the “Merry” insurance scheme when they graduated high school so their payment information has expired and needs updating. It’s this extreme set of circumstances that lead to them being in a bank at the moment it is robbed by a pair of fugitive thieves. The terms of their assassins contract forbid them from using their skills outside of the job, but they can’t afford to wait any longer and decide to tackle the robbers so they can send their transfer through before the deadline but end up getting suspended for their pains. While suspended they’re forbidden from killing anyone and get no salary so they’re back where they started looking for part-time jobs to help make ends meet. 

Their predicament is mirrored by antagonists Yuri (Joey Iwanaga) and Makoto (Tatsuomi Hamada) who as the film opens end up killing completely the wrong gangsters because of a logistical mixup. The problem is that Yuri and Makoto are subcontractors not yet admitted to the Assassins Guild which means they don’t get access to the best jobs and have no workplace protections. Essentially what they want is to join the union, but they aren’t qualified so their boss, Akagi (Junpei Hashino), comes up with the neat idea of knocking off Chisato and Mahiro to free up their spots in the Guild. 

Sakamoto has great fun satirising Assassin’s Guild bureaucracy as the girls are constantly forced to reference their contract through Mr Susano (Tsubasa Tobinaga) and his little blue book to figure out what is and isn’t allowed in their lives as top hit women. Meanwhile, they’re once again forced to try and live “normally” and find they aren’t very good it at it while having to take quite literally odd jobs as shopping arcade mascots managed by a weird old man (Tetsu Watanabe) obsessed with Masaki Suda and the film We Made a Beautiful Bouquet which becomes something of a running gag. Both Chisato and Mahiro and Yuki and Makoto reflect on the strange cafe hierarchy of being offered a selection of tiered menu sets at escalating prices all the way from basic chicken to barbecued meats as reflective of a wealth-based social system while the boys continue to vacillate over asking out the pretty waitress. 

It’s kill or be killed but the girls know on some level that the guys are just like them and even quite good hitmen for “amateurs” so it’s a shame they have to die for having attacked and nearly killed one of their friends. After sorting out who’s won through a high octane series of shootouts and one on one fights, the four sit down on the ground and share snacks while waiting for the inevitable like they’d just been having a violent picnic while hanging out in a disused warehouse. Even the losers seem to accept their fates, acknowledging that they’ve lost in a fair fight and making no further attempt to resist. 

In any case, adulting is hard even when you’re not a top assassin struggling with when it’s appropriate to put your training to use. As the girls point out, it’s hard to get by on part time work when it would take a hundred days dressed in a humiliating panda outfit to earn what they’d get for one kill while freelancing is strictly forbidden along with strike action and taking one’s grievances to Twitter. Turns out the assassin life is more complicated that you’d think and just as filled with annoying bureaucracy as any salaryman job. Thankfully the friendship between Chisato and Mahiro has only grown stronger as they face off against the twin threats of red tape and adulting in their lives as “contract” killers.

Baby Assassins 2 Babies screens in Frankfurt 10/11th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2023 “BABY ASSASSINS 2” Film Partners

Egoist (エゴイスト, Daishi Matsunaga, 2022)

If love is unselfish, is it really love at all? Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Makoto Takayama, Daishi Matsunaga’s deeply moving romantic drama Egoist (エゴイスト) asks if all love is in the end transactional and if to deny its “selfishness” is akin to denying love itself because it would mean denying a basic human need for connection and reciprocity. In the end, perhaps selfish is what we should be with love because we are always running out of time and if we aren’t careful it will slip away from us unnoticed.

An “extreme realist”, fashion editor Kosuke (Ryohei Suzuki) is already full of regrets and many of them linking back to the early death of his mother from illness when he was only 14. It’s clear that his financial wealth helps to fill an emotional void but also that he’s lonely and longs for a sense of family that’s long been absent from his life. He rarely visits the conservative hometown where he was bullied for being different, and seems to have a strained relationship with his widowed father (Akira Emoto) who doesn’t know that Kosuke is gay and continues to ask him about getting married and settling down. Early on in his courtship with Ryuta (Hio Miyazawa), a personal trainer he met through a friend, Kosuke remarks that he’s never met a lover’s mother before hinting at the landmarks of a relationship such as marriage that LGBTQ+ people often miss out on in a conservative culture in which such things cannot always be discussed openly.

Later, Ryuta’s mother Taeko (Sawako Agawa) tells Kosuke that knew from that first meeting that they were more than just friends and was happy that her son had someone he loved who loved him regardless if they were a man or a woman. But just when the relationship had seemed to be blossoming, Ryuta had abruptly tried to break up with Kosuke explaining that he had been involved in sex work since his early teens in order to support his mother who was unable to work due to illness. Now that he’s experienced real romantic love he finds sex work “painful” but has no other means of supporting himself and so gives up love for economic necessity. “I’ll buy you,” Kosuke unironically counters adding a note of literal transactionality to their relationship which is already fraught with disparity in the respective differences in their ages along with Kosuke’s wealth and Ryuta’s poverty. 

Kosuke later describes his gesture as “pure”, something he’d previously called Ryuta while also remarking that he found him too “polite” in bed and would rather he be a little more “selfish”. In a way it’s altruistic, he isn’t really trying to trap Ryuta into a compensated relationship only to help him while simultaneously ensuring that he stays in his life. His wealth fills a void, but it’s by giving pieces of it away that he feels that void decreasing. Kosuke first gives Ryuta gifts for his mother, knowing that it’s easier for him to accept them because doing so is unselfish when the gift is for someone else. Even so as he later acknowledges sometimes the gift is more for himself than the recipient, a means not of manipulation but of healing. Kosuke claims not to know what love is and largely mediates it through money along with additional acts of care, but as Taeko later tells him it doesn’t really matter if he doesn’t know because they felt his love anyway. 

Matsunaga frequently cuts backs to visual motifs such as door numbers, envelopes, and dropped coins to hint at the transactionality of love but eventually reflects that love is an act of exchange in which the desire to be loved is an essential component. Kosuke eventually asks his father how it was for him when his mother was dying and he recalls a conversation in which she said she wanted to leave him because she couldn’t bear to see him suffering for her, a request which could in itself be read as “selfish” even in its “selflessness” with his reply implying that it’s alright to be selfish in love because in way it might be its ultimate expression. Filming with handheld realism, Matsunaga captures the rhythms of contemporary gay life along with the easy giddiness of burgeoning romance and the poignancy of profound loss tempered only by a fleeting feeling of warmth and the jealous memory of a “selfish” love. 

Egoist screens in Frankfurt 9th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Amiko (こちらあみ子, Yusuke Morii, 2022)

Is there a sadder thing than a solo walkie talkie? The heroine of Yusuke Morii’s quirky dramedy Amiko (こちらあみ子, Kochira Amiko) is given a pair of retro presents for her birthday, a set of toy radios and a disposable camera each intended to help her bond with the baby brother expected to join the family in the immediate future, but the sad fact is that Amiko has no one else to communicate with and largely lives in her own little world like a ghost in her own home. 

Even so, she doesn’t seem to be particularly lonely and is only just beginning to realise that she’s a little different from the other kids. Living in a nice house in tranquil seaside town in Hiroshima, Amiko appears to be a happy little girl with a loving family around her even if her relationship with step-mother Sayuri (Machiko Ono) who teaches calligraphy in a back room may be a little strained. Sayuri disapproves of Amiko’s unusual behaviour and for some reason does not allow her to join the other children at the classes leading Amiko to peer in from a crack in the door until one of the other kids inevitably notices her. 

In an odd way, Amiko’s situation improves when the family encounters a tragedy, losing the baby they’d all been so excited about welcoming. Touched by her attempts to look after her as she recovers at home, Sayuri warms to Amiko and embraces her as a daughter finally inviting her to take part in the calligraphy classes once they resume. But a well-meaning gesture on Amiko’s part that from an adult perspective is insensitive and inappropriate throws Sayuri into a depressive spiral from which she never recovers. The rest of the family describe Amiko’s gesture as a “prank” as if she did it with malicious intent when really it was just her way of dealing with her grief. Of course, everyone else is trying to deal with their grief too and each going about it in their own way so they don’t have time or really the inclination to sit down with Amiko and help process what’s just happened to their family. 

Amiko becomes convinced that there’s a ghost haunting her balcony and it must be that of her younger brother who hasn’t made it to Heaven yet and is trying to come home, though her attempts to ask her father about it see her literally pushed away while he can’t see her confusion as anything other than a hurtful fantasy. There is indeed a ghost haunting her family, but it’s the grief they cannot share with each other or bear to explain. Amiko’s older brother Kota (Kensei Okumura) begins to go off the rails and then leaves the family entirely to join a biker gang instead. Amiko’s father (Arata Iura) doesn’t even bother to look for him, expressing only mild confusion when Amiko points out that Kota doesn’t come home anymore answering only that he’s sure he saw him “the other day”. 

It’s no wonder then that Amiko retreats into a fantasy world, singing a song to herself to ward off ghosts while followed around by several of them including for some reason mummies and people from 18th century Europe. She in turn follows a boy she likes seemingly oblivious to the various ways he attempts to avoid her, while otherwise ignoring a loudmouth kid who is the only other person willing to talk to her despite her classmates’ conviction that she is simply “weird”. Amiko maybe beginning to realise this herself, wondering if her forced courtship may have strayed into the “creepy” and asking directly for advice wanting to know what about her seems to make others uncomfortable or embarrassed. After a period of mild neglect, Amiko even starts walking around school in bare feet because she doesn’t have indoor shoes or clean socks but most seem to just regard it as another expression of her oddness. As the other kid points out, it’s both a symbol of her “freedom” and one of the reasons she gets bullied. Amiko’s story is sad, but Amiko doesn’t know that and simply goes on living in her own little world with its strange logic simply waving to the departing boats of the floating dead with a cheerful “I’m fine” while otherwise abandoned on an unfamiliar shore with only herself to rely on.

Amiko screens in Frankfurt 8th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Roleless (宮松と山下, Masahiko Sato, Yutaro Seki, Kentaro Hirase, 2022)

Ever felt like a bit player in your own life? For the hero of Masahiko Sato, Yutaro Seki and Kentaro Hirose’s Roleless (宮松と山下, Miyamatsu to Yamashita), it’s more like he lives ten thousand lives if only for an instant in his life as an extra and may have, in a way, cultivated an image of himself as a blank canvas who no longer exists in an absolute form. In a way you could call it multiverse living, but when confronted with a possible point of origin, a lost selfhood he may have forgotten or wilfully rejected, it presents him with an existential question not so much of who he wants to be but if he wants to be at all. 

We first encounter him as an unlucky retainer in a jidaigeki who is quickly cut down only to rise again and run around the back to give his name as “Miyamatsu, a samurai” to the prop girl who gives him a different hat so can he go back out there and die a second time. Miyamatsu has an air of perpetual blankness in his often vacant expression as if he were both there and not. The film often wrong foots us and we can never be sure what is “real” and what part of a movie, except that it all obviously part of the movie we ourselves are watching. We see what we think are moments from Miyamatsu’s private life only to realise that the camera was rolling all along when someone shouts “Cut!” and it becomes apparent that Miyamatsu was not its main focus. 

Along the way he gives hints of his loss of selfhood, earnestly replying that he doesn’t know when a fellow extra quizzes him on the watch he’s wearing and how he got it but his discomfort could stem from several places and it’s never quite clear how much of an interior life Miyamatsu creates for his various roles, whether he really does just see them as performers of an action, is playing “himself” as he peers over a police cordon at a crime scene, or is a fully fledged person with an individual history. Later he tells a colleague who admires the way he fills in forms at his part time job working at a cable car that he’s always enjoyed the process of filling in a predetermined frame but also that he likes the floating sensation the cable cars give him. 

All of which might explain why he’s so destabilised when a man (Toshinori Omi) approaches him claiming that they worked together as taxi drivers more than a decade earlier and that his name is Yamashita. He apparently “disappeared” after sustaining a head injury and has been “missing” ever since. The man takes him back to the home of his much younger sister, Ai (Noriko Nakagoshi), who has since married and appears to be incredibly relived to see him even if it seems she might also be hiding something. He wonders if it’s suspicious that there are no photos of him in their family home, but is reminded that with the age difference he hadn’t lived there while she was a child and only came back after their parents died to take care of her because she was still in high school. Her husband, Kenichiro (Kanji Tsuda), seems to be constantly needling him though again, it isn’t always clear whether he actually wants him to remember or suspects that he already does and is choosing to pretend not to. 

Even so, Miyamatsu slides into the life of Yoji Yamashita as easily as any other role finding his way back into the character with unexpected moments of connection such as the muscle memory that grants him a perfect baseball swing, or the strangely familiar taste of cigarettes to a non-smoker. Then again, there’s obviously something sinister going on, a darkness underlying his “personal” history that might have made him want to absent himself from himself or else an oppressive sense of bullying that is reflected in Ai’s hesitant answer when Yamashita remarks on what a good husband Kenichiro seems to be. Miyamatsu claims that he’s ever only played one “real” role, and in a way this is it as he begins to claim something like a backstory even if it’s one he may not ultimately want that nevertheless renders him a little less vacant. Mysterious and unsettling, the film asks some probing questions about the nature of identity, whether it is self-defined or gifted, but also discovers a kind of serenity in Miyamatsu’s free floating life of transient realities.

Roleless screened as part of this year’s Nippon Connection

Clip (no subtitles)

Father of the Kamikaze (ゝ決戦航空隊, Kosaku Yamashita, 1974)

By the mid-1970s, Japanese cinema at least had become much more comfortable with critiquing the wartime past, considering it from a greater distance than the often raw depictions of war in the films from the previous two decades. 1974’s Father of the Kamikaze (ゝ決戦航空隊, A Kessen Kokutai), however, is among the few to skew towards the nationalist rather than the ambivalence or simple anti-war messages of other similarly themed films of its era. 

Starring ninkyo icon Koji Tsuruta who served in the air force himself, the film is a kind of biopic dedicated to Admiral Onishi who oversaw the kamikaze operations at the end of the war. As is pointed out, Onishi had been against the war in general terms even before its inception and is originally against the philosophy behind the kamikaze squadrons but as Japan’s fortunes continue to decline he becomes its biggest advocate citing a kind of sunk cost fallacy that it would be in someway unfair to the men that have already died to surrender while insisting that suicide missions are the only feasible way to turn the tide because one kamikaze could take out a hundred men by destroying battleships singlehandedly. 

The film in part attributes this extreme solution to the prevailing with your shield or on it philosophy of the contemporary society which placed extreme shame on the act of being taken prisoner. In the prologue that opens the film, a squadron of downed pilots whose heroic deaths have already been recorded is discovered alive in an American prisoner of war camp but as being a prisoner of war is so shameful and would reflect badly on the military, the decision is taken to fix the books by sending the men on a mission from which they are not intended to return. Onishi is opposed to the plan, he asks why they can’t find a way for the men to live, but the decision is already made. In any case, he describes the action of a suicide mission as a “beautiful ideal” even when insisting that a war cannot be fought in that way not least for purely practical reasons in that they do not have the resources to be wilfully sacrificing skilled pilots and their planes. 

Having come round to the idea, however, Onishi is a crazed zealot who cannot accept the idea of surrender and even goes so far as to barge into a cabinet meeting to urge ministers against a truce even though the war is clearly lost. To his mind, the only way to honour the sacrifices of those who’ve died is to fight to the last man. Kozono (Bunta Sugawara), another officer opposed to the kamikaze, eventually meets a similar fate in refusing to obey the order to lay down his arms and ending up in a psychiatric hospital. His objection had partly been that it’s wrong to turn men into ammunition, but also that the kamikaze project is itself defeatist and self-defeating when there are men such as himself who are committed to fighting on.  

In this the film leans into the image of militarism as a death cult in which dying for the emperor is the only noble goal of the whole imperial expansion. In its eventual lionising of Onishi’s image, his bloody suicide atop a white cloth resembling the flag of Japan while his parting words scroll across the screen in text, it does not shy away from his more problematic aspects in which he fails to object to a request from a junior officer that soldiers should be allowed to test their swords on American prisoners of war, roundly telling a subordinate who breaks protocol to insist that such a thing is not only morally wrong but will ruin their international reputation that he has no need to think of consequences because Japan will win this war. He claims to want to find a way of defeat that will satisfy the living and the dead, but in reality cannot accept it not least in that it would entail admitting that he sent 2600 young men to their deaths for nothing. 

Tsuruta brings the same level of pathos to his performance as he did in playing conflicted yakuza stoically committed to a destructive code, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the film focuses mainly on Onishi’s personal suffering as a man who sent other men to die for a mistaken ideal and then could not admit his mistake offering an apology only in his death in which he urged the young people of Japan to work to rebuild the nation in the name of peace. In switching to the present day and showing us Onishi’s dilapidated former residence and in fact the room in which he died with its tattered shoji and peeling paintwork, he veers towards the nationalistic in uncomfortably reinforcing the nobility of his death rather than the folly of war or absurdist tragedy of the kamikaze programme. Adopting a quasi-jitsuroku approach with frequent use of onscreen text, a narratorial voiceover, and stock footage of kamikaze in action Yamashita may portray war as madness in Onishi’s crazed devotion but cannot help depicting it as a “beautiful ideal” even in the undignified violence of Onishi’s ritual suicide. 

The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese (窮鼠はチーズの夢を見る, Isao Yukisada, 2020)

It’s quite a potent image somehow, a mouse caught in a trap unable to reach out and touch the cheese they’ve risked their life for yet continuing to dream of it as if nothing else really existed. Perhaps love is much the same, at least according to a young woman who warns against falling in love too deeply worrying that in the end you won’t be able to keep it together and so will fall apart. Adapted from a popular Boys Love manga by Setona Mizushiro, Isao Yukisada’s The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese (窮鼠はチーズの夢を見る, Kyuso Wa Chizu No Yume Wo Miru) is in someways in dialogue with his earlier tale of triangulated love between two women Luxurious Bone, if sharing some of that film’s perhaps outdated attitudes towards sexuality. 

The titular mouse is office worker Kyoichi (Tadayoshi Ohkura) who is halfheartedly having an affair with a colleague seemingly just because he can. Unbeknownst to him, his wife has hired a private detective who just happens to be an old friend from university, Wataru (Ryo Narita). Wataru warns him that he’s got pictures of him and his mistress but agrees not to tell his wife, if Kyoichi agrees to accompany him to a hotel for some low level intimacy. The abruptness of the overture seems to hint that the two men had some kind of history in university but this appears not to be the case and Kyoichi continues to struggle with his sexuality partly it seems out of a degree of self-loathing that convinces him he’s not the sort of person anyone should love.

In Luxurious Bone, the problem had been that the two women could not quite accept the validity of their desire for each other and instead ended up having vicarious sex with the same guy. Something similar occurs between Kyoichi and Wataru each in their own way unable to accept the way they feel. Kyoichi repeatedly states that he doesn’t want to cause someone else pain but in fact hurts everyone around him because of his own inability to reckon with his feelings. He continues to womanise, but eventually asks Wataru to move into the grey industrial bachelor pad he gets when his marriage breaks down while keeping him at arm’s length. Wataru is jealous in a direct sense, resenting Kyoichi’s various girlfriends, but also on deeper level lacking faith in his homosexuality or at least ability to accept it fearing he will always in the end choose to be with a woman. 

Both men are imprisoned by an internalised homophobia, Kyoichi most obviously in rejecting his desire for Wataru. “A straight guy can’t handle it” he tells him in an ironic choice of words, earlier having told him that guys like him belonged “in another world”. The film seems to present Kyoichi’s sexuality as a binary choice, men or women, precluding the idea that he might simply be bisexual while inviting the inference that his womanising is an attempt to mask his latent homosexuality and that he is in fact living a lie in betrayal of himself in denying his desire for Wataru. But then Wataru is consumed by insecurity, as if on some level believing he is inherently inferior to a woman and that Kyoichi will always “choose” to be straight while simultaneously certain that he does in fact return his feelings. He tells him that his problem is that he passively accepts love from others but in the end doesn’t trust it and continues to look for it in the next person who shows any interest in him, but it seems Wataru doesn’t have much faith in love either pulling away just as Kyoichi draws closer and unable to accept the validity of his love for him. 

The film maintains some of the more frustrating aspects of BL literature in that it never really considers why Kyoichi rejects his same sex desire nor does it address what the potential complications of his life maybe if he were fully to accept his sexuality and attempt to live openly with Wataru. On the other hand, it perhaps lessons the impact of the darker elements of the interplay between the two men in which Wataru effectively stalks Kyoichi and then blackmails and bullies him into sex which the film justifies on the basis that Kyoichi must on some level want to be liberated from his repressed desire while Kyoichi in turn manipulates and tortures Wataru through his womanising and reluctance to enter a full sexual relationship even while living together. The film’s ambiguous closing scene in which Kyoichi sits on Wataru’s stool and places his yellow ashtray, looking oddly like a wedge of cheese, on his grey coffee table the only splash of colour in his exquisitely decorated yet desolate grey room may also uncomfortably hint that their love is always impossible because it is a love between two men rather than accepting that the only barriers to it lie in internalised homophobia and emotional vulnerability. Even so it is a fairly touching love story of a man learning to accept his sexuality even if in the end it leads to a re-imprisonment rather than a liberation. 

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Beast Alley (けものみち, Eizo Sugawa, 1965)

In the opening title sequence of Eizo Sugawa’s Beast Alley (けものみち, Kemonomichi), a thick blob of inky blackness gradually expands over an aerial view of the city until it obscures it entirely. The title card which then appears is written in plain white, but will reappear at the film’s conclusion this time ashen as if it too had been singed by the deeply ironic flames with which the film ends. Based on a novel Seicho Matsumoto and scripted by The Beast Shall Die’s Yoshio Shirasaka, the film similarly takes an incredibly cynical view of the modern post-war society in which it is revealed the militarists are still basically in charge and presiding over a deeply corrupt social order. 

The big bad, Kito (Eitaro Ozawa), says as much when he states the need for reforming the nation’s “rotten political system” by which he means post-war democracy. Kito made his made his money doing deeply dodgy things in Manchuria in addition to running an exploitative coal mine in Japan. Now mainly bedridden, he basically runs the country as a far-right political fixer working in tandem with big business and the yakuza who have traditionally been big supporters of conservative and nationalist forces. Early on we see one of his underlings negotiating with politicians to ensure that Taiyo Roads will be hired be hired for a large scale construction project planning to put highways all the way through Tokyo. As we later discover, he’s prepared to go to great lengths in order to achieve his goal, going so far as to have a sex worker murdered to implicate the uncooperative CEO of a rival construction film into resigning by threatening to frame him for the crime so they can install their stooge in his position. 

It’s into this world that everywoman Tamiko (Junko Ikeuchi) is drawn while working as a hotel maid at a traditional Japanese inn. Trapped in a bad marriage to a man who is also bedridden yet still attempts to rape her when she returns home to find him in bed with the housekeeper, Tamiko longs for escape and is therefore ripe for the picking when approached by Kotaki (Ryo Ikebe), the manager of an upscale Western hotel, to join him in an unspecified enterprise which will apparently make her very rich. The only catch is that she will have to “get rid” of her “dependent”, which she probably wanted to do anyway, by burning down her house with him inside it. Once she’s done this, there is no turning back for her even if she had not developed complicated feelings for Kotaki who is both her salvation and damnation. 

Tamiko’s husband had failed to give her the comfortable life that he had promised, something which she thinks Kotaki can deliver even if it requires her to become the plaything of Kito whom does she actually seem to like even if aware of the precarity of her position and still in thrall to Kotaki. Leaving the hotel so abruptly was however a strategic error as it arouses the suspicious of (originally) earnest cop Hisatsune (Keiju Kobayashi) who quickly realises that Tamiko set the fire to kill her husband. Though he seemed to be motivated by justice, Hisatsune too is soon corrupted explaining to Tamiko that he has become cynical and jaded. Years of police work have shown him that true criminals know how to break the law and get away with it so he can’t do anything about them, but “good” people, like he implies Tamiko, are pushed into crime by desperation and are easily caught. Tamiko wields her sexuality against him by agreeing to a tryst, though when it doesn’t go to plan he tries blackmail and then rape before she, ironically, manages to escape from his bungled crime. 

Hisatsune’s corruption is gradual and self serving. He starts with suspicion, tailing Tamiko in the interests of justice but also because he desires her, before stumbling on the conspiracy, putting the pieces together, attempting to use them for his own gain and trying to blow a whistle mostly out of resentment. Kito’s reach is all encompassing. Hisatsune is warned off investigating certain aspects of the crime by his senior officers and is then fired on Kito’s instructions for fiddling his expenses after harassing Tamiko. He tries to give his findings to his boss but it goes nowhere and then tries the press but is given the brush off, the editor his reporter friend refers him to gently implying he’s just a crank with an axe to grind. Of course, it turns out that the reporter is already in league with dodgy lawyer Hatano (Yunosuke Ito) who is Kito’s right-hand man. 

The connections between the three men, Kotaki who was once a communist, Hatano, and Kito go back to Manchuria and the corruptions of militarist era which it becomes clear has never really ended. Kito has only one rival and it’s another faction of the conservative ruling party who are probably just waiting for him die. Attempts are made on his life and they don’t go well for those who make them. Even if Hatano hoped to simply inherit an empire he, as he points out, put in much of the work to build he is sorely mistaken while Tamiko may intellectually understand that Kito’s death would place her in a precarious position but carries on regardless. “You never know who will betray you in this world” Kotaki laments, echoing Kito’s later claim that his Buddhist statues are the only ones will never betray him even as sleeps next to a statue of Aizen Myo whom he ironically claims protects mankind from their lust and desire. 

It could be said that desire is Tamiko’s undoing, but as Hisatsune had suggested perhaps you couldn’t blame her for longing to be free of the bedridden husband who had not delivered what he promised her. As she said, she was doing what could to survive even if you’d think she’d know putting on a ring taken from the finger of a murdered woman is akin sealing your own fate. Sugawa shoots with a noirish sense of dread, tracking Tamiko with her coat drawn up around her face as she tries to leave the scene of her crime, and makes the most of his fiery imagery before ending on a note of cynical laughter amid the inescapable hell the of post-war society. 

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Eighteen Years in Prison (懲役十八年, Tai Kato, 1967)

Genre star Noburu Ando had a certain cachet in that he had been a yakuza prior to becoming an actor. He had in fact been the head of his own gang which at its high point had over 300 members and controlled much of the lucrative Shibuya nightlife scene. His first onscreen appearance was in a gangster movie in which he played himself. Rather than the jitsuroku epics he would later become associated with, Tai Kato’s Eighteen Years in Prison (懲役十八年, Choueki Juhachi Nen) essentially casts him in a ninkyo role as a noble if compromised former captain of the kamikaze squad who finds himself caught between the contradictions of post-war Japan and the American occupation. 

Indeed, in this as in many other yakuza movies set during the immediate post-war era, the Americans are really just the biggest gang. Suffering with survivor’s guilt, Captain Kawada (Noboru Ando) has set up an association together with former comrade Tsukada (Asao Koike) to look after he dependent relatives of men who fell in war. To do this, he has to resort to criminality raiding American boats for supplies such as sugar and rice which he redistributes to war widows and their families. His ultimate goal is amassing enough money to buy a patch of land in the town centre and do away with the black market which exploits the vulnerable replacing it with a legitimate market so the surviving family members can set up businesses to support themselves. 

Around this time, the association manages to track down the younger sister of one of their men who died as a kamikaze, Hisako (Hiroko Sakuramachi ), and discovers she is living in desperation having lost the family home to aerial bombing. As her mother is seriously ill and she needs money for food and medical treatment, Hisako contemplates turning to sex work and is almost assaulted by a gang of drunk and abusive American servicemen from whom she is rescued by a passing Kawada. This incident makes plain his resentment towards the occupation and sense that it is the American influence that is wilfully suppressing the efforts of the Japanese people to rebuild their society. It’s this resentment that lends a note of justification to Kawada’s decision to rob a nearby factory of valuable copper wire to get the money to save Hisako’s mother thereby saving her from falling into sex work and thereafter helping to achieve their ultimate goal of building the market. The raid, however, goes wrong. Kawada sends an injured Tsukada back to the association and is arrested.

In prison he discovers only more corrupt authority in which guards beat and torture prisoners, just another bigger gang. He finds out that block warden Hanya (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is actively accepting bribes and in cahoots with some of the inmates that attempt to terrorise newbies to the point that one attempts suicide by swallowing glass though Hanya refuses to call for help forcing Kawada and some of the other men to pull the alarm themselves. The sources of moral authority lie in the new college-educated deputy warden recently returned from five years as a POW in Manila, and a veteran yakuza with a grudge against Hanya who apparently had his girlfriend raped leading to her suicide. 

Though the film is titled eighteen years in prison, Kawada becomes eligible for parole in 1952 which is of course the year the occupation ends. By this point he discovers that Tsukada has abandoned their idealistic mission and turned full yakuza, building an immense red-light district on the land they bought for the market and making himself rich through the violent trafficking and exploitation of women. Eventually confronted, he tries to convince Kawada that the world has changed, that the post-war years of privation are over and that he sees only “the ghost of a nation that lost the war” rather than burgeoning new economy stimulated by the Korean War and an ironically a repositioned America now no longer occupiers but still somehow influential if leaving a vacuum a man like Tsukada may step into. It’s no coincidence that he threatens Hisako with deportation to a brothel in Okinawa he’s set up to service American servicemen in a place where the conditions of occupation are still largely in place. 

Tsukada clearly feels that he need have no more responsibility for his wartime conduct, roundly telling Kawada that the families of the fallen are not his responsibility and should “stop leeching off other people and start working for a living”. Hisako’s long lost younger brother Kenichi (Masaomi Kondo) who ended up alone on the streets after being conscripted as a student factory worker and returning to find his home in ashes, turns the blame back on the authorities reminding them that it’s their fault, they started the war the cost him his home and family and turned him into the half-crazed man of violence who immediately introduces himself as “King” on moving up from a juvie prison. Much of Kawada’s prison life is then given over to saving Kenichi, a representative of the next generation, from becoming mired in a life of nihilistic crime. 

In many ways, he remains a squad leader trying to atone for having sent so many young men to die by accepting the responsibility for their families while trying to protect those left behind from the vagaries of the post-war era including the amoral capitalism represented by the infinitely corrupt Tsukada. Dressed in a military uniform ironically pinched from an American soldier he goes on the rampage knowing that he has to deal with Tsukada himself in order to defend the post-war future from those like him who’ve apparently learned nothing much at all even from such recent history. Shooting from his characteristically low angles, Kato explores the seedy underbelly of the beginnings of the economic miracle while his noble hero does his best to offer a course correction to those who have already forgotten their responsibility not just to others but to those they left behind.

Break Out (行き止まりの挽歌 ブレイクアウト, Toru Murakawa, 1988)

Good cop or bad cop? A maverick detective crosses the line in the name of justice in Toru Murakawa’s hardboiled thriller, Break Out (行き止まりの挽歌 ブレイクアウト, Ikidomari no Banka: Break Out). Like many of Murakawa’s films throughout the ‘80s, the main villain turns out to be political corruption along with a complicit police force which the hero must in a sense divorce realising that he can enforce the law only by breaking it but tragically failing to protect those most in need of his care. 

Kaji (Tatsuya Fuji) is indeed the archetype of the lone wolf cop. Stumbling out of bed with an obvious hangover and fuzzy beard that stands in stark contrast to his clean-shaven colleagues, he immediately butts heads with follow officer Sakura (Renji Ishibashi) who is technically in charge of the latest homicide case which Kaji believes may be connected to the death of a young woman at a hotel that the force has so far proved reluctant to investigate. To him, it all seems to point to local gangster Nakai (Kiyoshi Nakajoe) with whom he seems to have an ongoing rivalry which might be why Nakai has implicated Kaji’s ex wife Saeko (Saiko Isshiki) in his drug smuggling operation. 

Kaji quickly identifies the body as a bass player, Shimada, who just happens to have played at a club connected to Nakai, and soon realises that a young woman, Miki (Yoko Ishino), who belongs to a local biker gang, is most likely responsible for his death. But, somehow feeling sorry for her and suspecting she may have access to information that would help him take out Nakai for good, Kaji actively helps Miki evade the police by harbouring her in his own apartment while they are both stalked by a mysterious, Terminator-esque hitman who seems intent on recovering some kind of evidence obviously harmful to his client whoever that may be. 

Murakawa’s greatest successes had occurred in the 1970s partnering with the great Yusaku Matsuda who had at this point moved away from genre films though he would later reunite with the director in his final screen appearance, a television movie in which he played an earnest policeman investigating a terrorist incident, before sadly passing away of bladder cancer at only 39. In any case the image of Matsuda hangs heavy over Murakawa’s subsequent films and it’s quite obvious that the menacing hitman has a distinctly Matsuda-esque silhouette, while Tatsuya Fuji plays a similar role to that he’d inhabited in Yoichi Sai’s Let Him Rest in Peace only this time as a world weary ‘80s cop who has his own particular code of righteousness he feels the world has failed. 

His more cynical boss, played by Murakawa stalwart Mikio Narita, is quick to tell him that he should have resigned after a previous incident and that if he had done so his wife would not have left him, a sentiment which she later confirms which is in part surprising because the incident involved him fatally shooting her father. The implication is that Kaji is a true defender of justice who refused to surrender to institutional corruption even at great personal cost. Yet we do definitively see him cross the line, coldly executing a suspect who goads him by claiming he has already killed someone he cared about and thereafter little caring for conventional morality deciding to take the bad guys down with him no longer having anything left to lose except perhaps the girl, Miki, with whom he has developed a paternal bond. 

Meanwhile his earnest partner, Nishimura (Hiroaki Murakami), who originally disapproved of Kaji’s old school, maverick policing has changed his tune now seeing the value in his belligerence not least when his own wife is taken hostage by Nakai leaving him equally powerless at police HQ. Kaji is constantly told to back off the hotel case because of pressure from above, eventually discovering a connection to a sleazy politician but knowing that he can’t touch him or Nakai while bizarrely ordered to continue investigating Shimada’s death despite the evidence that suggests they are quite clearly connected. Still as the rather more poetic Japanese title which means something more like “elegy for a dead end” implies, this world is already beyond redemption and the only recourse open to Kaji is to make a sacrifice of himself in the name of justice. A good bad cop, all he can do is pass on his outrage to those left behind. Shot with Murakawa’s trademark hardboiled mist, and a noirish sense of fatalism the film paints a bleak picture of infinite corruption in Bubble-era Japan in which the only hero on offer is a morally compromised cop prepared to die for an illusionary justice. 

Goodbye, Bad Magazines (グッドバイ、バッドマガジンズ, Shoichi Yokoyama, 2022)

With the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, Japan began looking for ways to tidy up its image expecting an influx of foreign visitors which for obvious reasons never actually materialised. As part of this campaign, leading chains of convenience stores announced that they would stop selling pornographic magazines in order to create a more wholesome environment for children and families along with tourists who might be surprised to see such material openly displayed in an ordinary shop. Then again, given the ease of access to pornography online sales had fast been falling and the Olympics was perhaps merely a convenient excuse and effective PR opportunity to cut a product line that was no longer selling. 

Based on actual events, Shoichi Yokoyama’s Goodbye, Bad Magazines (グッドバイ、バッドマガジンズ) explores the print industry crisis from the inside perspective of the adult magazine division at a major publisher which has just announced the closure of a long running and well respected cultural magazine, Garu. Firstly told they don’t hire right out of college, recent graduate Shiori (Kyoka Shibata) who had dreamed of working in cultural criticism is offered a job working on adult erotica and ends up taking it partly in defiance and encouraged by female editor Sawaki (Seina Kasugai) who tells that if she can make a porn mag she can make anything and be on her way to working on something more suited to her interests with a little experience under her belt. 

Her first job, however, consists entirely of shredding voided pages filled with pictures of nude women which is slightly better than the veteran middle-aged man who joined with her after being transferred from Garu who is responsible for adding mosaics to the porn DVDs they give away with the magazines to ensure they conform to Japan’s strict obscenity laws. Later a mistake is made and mosaics are omitted placing the publishing company bosses at risk of arrest and the magazine closure. Aside from being one of two women in an office full of sleazy men and sex toys, Shiori’s main problem is that she struggles to get a handle on the nature of the erotic at least of the kind that has been commodified before eventually falling into a kind of automatic rhythm. “It’s easy when it does’t mean anything” she explains to sex columnist and former porn star Haru (Yura Kano) who is much franker in her expression but perhaps no more certain than Shiori when it comes to the question asked in her column, why people have sex. 

Shiori asks her sympathetic colleague Mukai (Yusuke Yamada) for advice and he tells her that what’s erotic to him is relationships, but it seems his work has placed a strain on his marriage while his wife wants a baby and he has trouble separating the simple act of meaningless sex with that which has an explicit purpose such as an expression love or conceiving a child. According to Shiori’s editor Isezaki (Shinsuke Kato), the future of erotica will come from women with their boss finally agreeing to an old idea of Sawaki’s to create an adult magazine aimed at a female audience in the hope of opening a new market while handing a progressive opportunity to Sawaki and Shiori to explore female desire, but at the same time magazines are folding one after the other with major retailers canceling their orders and leaving them to ring elderly customers who’ve been subscribing for 30 years but don’t have the internet to let them know the paper edition is going out of circulation. 

The editorial team have an ambivalent attitude to their work, at once proud of what they’ve achieved and viewing it as meaningless and a little embarrassing. Not much more than a few months after working there, Shiori has become a seasoned pro training a new recruit who’s just as nervous and confused as she was but offering little more guidance was than she was given while becoming ever more jaded. When handed evidence that her boss has been embezzling money, she just ignores it though perhaps realising that when he’s found out it means the end for all of them too. Like everyone else, he’d wanted to start his own publishing company but the editor who left to do just that ended up taking his own life when the business failed. Yet, on visiting a small independent family-run convince store near the sea, Shiori hears of an old man who visits specifically to buy the magazines she once published because he can’t get them anywhere else while they have steady trade from fishermen who need paper copies to takes out to sea. The message seems to be there’s a desire and a demand for print media yet, even if it’s not quite enough to satisfy the bottom line. A sympathetic and sometimes humorous take on grim tale of industrial decline, Goodbye, Bad Magazines sees its steely heroine travel from naive idealist to jaded cynic but simultaneously grants her the full freedom of her artistic expression along with solidarity with her similarly burdened colleagues.  

Goodbye, Bad Magazines streamed as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)