Get ’em All (「みな殺しの歌」より 拳銃よさらば, Eizo Sugawa, 1960)

A recently released young man is forced onto a nihilistic path of meaningless violence when his bank robber brother is killed in a hit and run in Eizo Sugawa’s moody post-war noir, Get ‘em All (「みな殺しの歌」より 拳銃よさらば, ‘Minagoroshi no uta’ yori kenju yo saraba). Adapted from a novel from Japan’s hardboiled master Haruhiko Oyabu who also provided the source material for Sugawa’s The Beast Shall Die, the film is as much about defeated aspiration and personal despair as it is about the corrupting influence of money and the futility of vengeance.

After waiting a year to divide the loot from a bank robbery, a random syndicate of crooks is shocked to discover that it has gone missing from its hiding place in an ancestral tomb belonging to one of their members along with a gun connected to the crime which is presumably being kept for insurance purposes. Everyone is convinced someone else has taken it with Tanabe (Tetsuro Tanba), the owner of the tomb, most particular about getting his hands on his share as quickly as possible and directing his suspicion towards the heist’s mastermind, Koromogawa (Akihiko Hirata). 

Koromogawa is currently doing quite well for himself, having recently married and moved into a fancy new flat on a danchi. His brother Kyosuke (Hiroshi Mizuwara) has just been released from prison for an undisclosed juvenile crime and evidently has never met his sister-in-law Mamiko (Yukiko Shimazaki). Strangely buoyant and incredibly naive for someone who’s spent time inside, Kyosuke is determined to go straight and is intending to save money to buy a truck he can use to start his own business. He has no idea that his brother’s newfound wealth is down to robbing banks and is absolutely certain that he is a morally upright person who’d never have anything to do with criminality. When Koromogawa is killed in a hit and run after leaving to meet Tanabe, the suspicion is that he’s been murdered by one of the crooks in a dispute over the money though that would admittedly be quite a counterproductive move as if he really has taken it now that he’s dead no one knows where it is.   

Kyosuke is shocked by Mamiko’s apparently indifference to her husband’s death, even going so far as openly flirt with him. After discovering a receipt for a coin locker in his brother’s wallet, he opens it and finds a pistol first planting the seeds of doubt in his mind about Koromogawa’s life and death. The gun, however, begins to take him over. After reuniting with old girlfriend Yuriko (Akemi Kita), Kyosuke was beaten up by her new squeeze but when he tries the same thing again and notices the pistol tucked into Kyosuke’s waistband he immediately backs down. With the gun in his hand, Kyosuke is able to completely humiliate him, forcing the man to crawl on the floor like a pig and drink dirty water from a puddle in the road. This new sense of ultimate power fuels his desire for revenge setting him on a killing spree starting with Tanabe in an effort to figure out what happened to his brother, an exercise often frustrated by his killing those concerned before turning up any real information. 

Meanwhile, using the gun is also quite a stupid and naive thing to do as the police already have it on file from a shot that was fired during the robbery bringing the crime back into police consciousness and therefore making it impossible for any of the men to spend the money should they finally get their hands on it. Each has a different reason for wanting the loot, a clockmaker wanting to support a daughter left with disabilities after contracting polio, a former record producer realising that he’s aged out of his industry, a former boxer with a lame leg (Tatsuya Nakadai) dreaming of buying a small plot of land, and a couple of embezzlers looking for ways out along with in one case divorcing a wife to marry a bar hostess mistress. But then as in the last two cases and Koromogawa’s own it is perhaps the allure of rising consumerism that has already corrupted them. So much of the action revolves around big American cars, while we’re also told that the gun was one manufactured in Nazi Germany and was most likely bought or stolen from an American serviceman. 

So drunk is Kyosuke on the power of the gun that he doesn’t really take stock of what he’s doing until it’s already too late, realising he’s become an accidental serial killer and no longer has a possibility of leading a normal life. He had begun to feel that way before, especially in the wake of his brother’s death, as he finds each of his job applications failing when prospective employers learn of his criminal past. He’s repaid his debt to society, but if society refuses to give him a second chance then realistically he has no other avenue than heading deeper into crime. Kyosuke liked it that the gun made people fear him but is confronted by the illusionary quality of its power when a child suddenly grabs it in the middle of a game of cops and robbers, pointing the gun at him believing it to be a toy while passers-by laugh at the amusing sight of this little boy holding a grownup hostage. It seemed to confuse Kyosuke that Yuriko had not been afraid of him even with the gun in his hand, but her sudden terror on realising that he has killed and may yet kill her only shows him what he’s become. 

He wanted revenge for his brother’s death, but what if it really was just an accident? The gang begin to turn on each other after the money disappears, some believing Koromogawa took it for safekeeping to prevent them incriminating each other by spending it too early and others that he just took it for himself while each suspecting one another believing one of them is slowly killing the others to pocket the whole amount for themselves. But in the end it’s all for nothing, they couldn’t spend it anyway and several of them decide they’d rather not have the bother and are ready to live quiet lives in the country only it’s too late for that now. A final revelation confirming his brother’s criminality coupled with the betrayal of a friend’s well-meaning attempt to keep him in the dark lead only to an internecine confrontation with the futility of crime. With its noirish jazz score and photography reminiscent of contemporary American independent cinema Sugawa captures a sense of restless youth but also the latent desperation of those left languishing on the margins of an increasingly prosperous society.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dodes’ka-den (どですかでん, Akira Kurosawa, 1970)

By the late 1960s, Akira Kurosawa was in the midst of a creative crisis having spent two years working on the Japanese segments of the Hollywood war film Tora! Tora! Tora before he was eventually let go by the parsimonious US producers who feared he was spending too much money and making too little progress. Meanwhile, the studio system which had supported his career was collapsing and could no longer offer the kinds of budgets necessary for his personal brand of epic cinema. Teaming up with Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita, he formed the Club of the Four Knights production company but the first and only film they produced, Dodes’kaden (どですかでん), was not perhaps the kind of film many were expecting.

Inspired by a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, the film like The Lower Depths focuses on a small community living in a slum only in this case on the edge of the modern city. Shot in classical 4:3, it was also Kurosawa’s first foray into colour and makes the most of his painterly eye with its surrealist backdrops and exaggerated sunsets. Once again there is the feeling that these people are already dead or trapped in a kind of purgatory unable to escape their desperate suffering, the slum as much of a mindset as a physical place. “Life is nothing but pain to me” one man claims, stating his hope that he die as quickly as possible while relating the sad story of his life: falling into depression when his sons were killed in the war and losing his wife, business, and finally home to the Tokyo air raids. Yet he is reminded that his family live on in him as long as he does and to kill himself is to kill them too, rediscovering a desire to survive even in his suffering. 

Another man, Hei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), dresses in a soldier’s uniform and wanders around like a zombie with, as one person puts it, the eyes of a dead man. Later a woman comes to find him, but he is seemingly unable to reawaken himself and move on from his trauma, now numbed to life, an already spent force. A young woman, Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki), is little different. Never speaking she has been raised by her uncle who begins sexually abusing her while her aunt is in hospital. She says that she wants to die, stabbing the only boy who showed her kindness because she feared he’d forget her. 

These people have largely been forgotten, living almost in another era and entirely cut off from mainstream society in a kind of etherial purgatory. Like the residents of The Lower Depths, a degree of fantasy is necessary for their survival a case in point being that of a beggar and his son who live an abandoned car and fantasise about the kind of house they’d build, a vast modernist building in white with a swimming pool. Like Katsuko, the boy is let down by his father who remains the car and sends him out to beg for food, telling him off when he lights a fire to boil fish as the man at the sushi shop had told him to do insisting, with disastrous results, that as it’s pickled it doesn’t need to be cooked. The furthest out of the residents, the pair have an almost grotesque appearance, their faces tinged with a morbid green. 

But then the couples living at the centre seemed to have found an antidote to despair in a surreal process of wife swapping now unable to remember whose husband is whose despite being neatly colour coded in matching outfits. A man with a nervous tic defends his grumpy yet fiercely loyal wife, and another man raises several children who may not be biologically his but are loved all the same. The old man who acts as a kind of confidant giving out advice and settling disputes through benevolent trickery has evidently learned how to live in this world and gets by as best he can while the son of the melancholy woman who runs the tempura stall drives an imaginary train through the slum the rhythm of which gives the film its name in its slow and certain progress towards nowhere at all. Heartbreakingly there are moments where the young man can hear the train in the distance, but it remains forever out of reach. Dodes’kaden didn’t do very well at the box office or with critics, its lack of success of cited as a factor in Kurosawa’s attempt to take his own life the following year, yet had perhaps set him on a new artistic course of colour and light which would define the further direction of his later career.


Dodes’ka-den screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 15th & 16th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Sasuke and His Comedians (真田風雲録, Tai Kato, 1963)

Criminally unknown in the Anglophone world, where Tai Kato is remembered at all it’s for his contribution to Toei’s ninkyo eiga series though his best known piece is likely to be post-war take on High Noon made at Shochiku, By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him in which a jaded doctor finds himself caught in the middle of rising tensions between local Japanese gangsters and Zainichi Koreans. Kato’s distinctive visual style shooting from extreme low angles with a preference for long takes, closeups and deep focus already make him an unusual presence in the Toei roster, but there can be few more unusual entries in the studio’s back catalogue than the wilfully anarchic Sasuke and his Comedians (真田風雲録, Sanada Fuunroku), a bizarre mix of musical comedy, historical chanbara, and ninja movie, loosely satirising the present day student movement and the limits revolutionary idealism. 

An opening crawl introduces us to the scene at Sekigahara, a legendary battle of 1600 that brought an end to Japan’s warring states period and ushered in centuries of peace under the Tokugawa. Onscreen text explains that this is the story of the boys of who came of age in such a warlike era, giving way to a small gang of war orphans looting the bodies of fallen soldiers and later teaming up with a 19-year-old former samurai realising that the world as he knew it has come to an end. Soon the gang is introduced to the titular Sasuke who, as he explains, has special powers having been irradiated during a meteor strike as a baby. Recognising him as one of them, the war orphans offer to let Sasuke join their gang, but he declines because he’s convinced they’ll eventually reject him in fear of his awesome capabilities. Flashing forward 15 years, the kids are all grown up and the only girl, Okiri (Misako Watanabe), is still carrying a torch for Sasuke (Kinnosuke Nakamura) who dutifully reappears as the gang find themselves drawn into a revolutionary movement led by Sanada Yukimura (Minoru Chiaki) culminating in the Siege of Osaka in 1614. 

Don’t worry, this is not a history lesson though these are obviously extremely well known historical events the target audience will be well familiar with. A parallel is being drawn with the young people of early ‘60s Japan who too came of age in a warlike era and who are now also engaging in minor revolutionary thought most clearly expressed in the mass protests against the ANPO treaty in 1960 which in a sense failed because the treaty was indeed signed in spite of public opinion. Kato’s Sanada Yukimura is a slightly bumbling figure, first introduced banging his head on a low-hanging beam, wandering the land in search of talented ronin to join up with the Toyotomi rebellion against the already repressive Tokugawa regime. His underling sells this to the gang as they overlook a mile long parade of peasants headed to Osaka Castle as a means of bringing about a different future that they can’t quite define but imply will be less feudal and more egalitarian which is how they’ve caught the attention of so many exploited farmers. 

Of course, we all already know how the Siege of Osaka worked out (not particularly well for anyone other than the Tokugawa) so we know that this version of the 16th century better world did not come to pass the implication being that the 1960s one won’t either. The nobles are playing their own game, the Toyotomi trying to cut deals but ultimately being betrayed, while the gang fight bravely for their ideals naively believing in the possibility of victory. Sasuke, for his part, is a well known ahistorical figure popular in children’s literature and this post-modern adventure is in essence a kids’ serial aimed at a student audience, filled with humorous anachronisms and silliness while Kato actively mimics manga-style storytelling mixed with kabuki-esque effects. Boasting slightly higher production values than your average Toei programmer, location shooting gives way to obvious stage sets and fantastical set pieces of colour and light which are a far cry from the studio’s grittier fare with which Kato was most closely associated. That might be one reason that the studio was reportedly so unhappy with the film that it almost got Kato fired, but nevertheless its strange mix of musical satire and general craziness remain an enduring cult classic even in its ironic defeatism. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Takashi Nomura, 1967)

colt is my passport posterJo Shishido played his fare share of icy hitmen, but they rarely made it through such seemingly inexorable events as the hero of Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Colt wa Ore no Passport). The actor, known for his boyishly chubby face puffed up with the aid of cheek implants, floated around the lower end of Nikkatsu’s A-list but by 1967 his star was on the wane even if he still had his pick of cooler than cool tough guys in Nikkatsu’s trademark action B-movies. Mixing western and film noir, A Colt is My Passport makes a virtue of Japan’s fast moving development, heartily embracing the convenience of a society built around the idea of disposability whilst accepting the need to keep one step ahead of the rubbish truck else it swallow you whole.

Kamimura (Joe Shishido) and his buddy Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio) are on course to knock off a gang boss’ rival and then get the hell out of Japan. Kamimura, however, is a sarcastic wiseguy and so his strange sense of humour dictates that he off the guy while the mob boss he’s working for is sitting right next to him. This doesn’t go down well, and the guys’ planned airport escape is soon off the cards leaving them to take refuge in a yakuza safe house until the whole thing blows over. Blowing over, however, is something that seems unlikely and Kamimura is soon left with the responsibility of saving both his brother-in-arms Shiozaki, and the melancholy inn girl (Chitose Kobayashi) with a heart of gold who yearns for an escape from her dead end existence but finds only inertia and disappointment.

The young protege seems surprised when Kamimura tosses the expensive looking rifle he’s just used on a job into a suitcase which he then tosses into a car which is about to be tossed into a crusher, but Kamimura advises him that if you want to make it in this business, you’d best not become too fond of your tools. Kamimura is, however, a tool himself and only too aware how disposable he might be to the hands that have made use of him. He conducts his missions with the utmost efficiency, and when something goes wrong, he deals with that too.

Efficient as he is, there is one thing that is not disposable to Kamimura and that is Shiozaki. The younger man appears not to have much to do but Kamimura keeps him around anyway with Shiozaki trailing around after him respectfully. More liability than anything else, Kamimura frequently knocks Shiozaki out to keep him out of trouble – especially as he can see Shiozaki might be tempted to leap into the fray on his behalf. Kamimura has no time for feeling, no taste for factoring attachment into his carefully constructed plans, but where Shiozaki is concerned, sentimentality wins the day.

Mina, a melancholy maid at a dockside inn, marvels at the degree of Kamimura’s devotion, wishing that she too could have the kind of friendship these men have with each other. A runaway from the sea, Mina has been trapped on the docks all her adult life. Like many a Nikkatsu heroine, love was her path to escape but an encounter with a shady gangster who continues to haunt her life put paid to that. The boats come and go but Mina stays on shore. Kamimura might be her ticket out but he wastes no time disillusioning her about his lack of interest in becoming her saviour (even if he’s not ungrateful for her assistance and also realises she’s quite an asset in his quest to ensure the survival of his ally).

Pure hardboiled, A Colt is My Passport is a crime story which rejects the femme fatal in favour of the intense relationship between its two protagonists whose friendship transcends brotherhood but never disrupts the methodical poise of the always prepared Kamimura. The minor distraction of a fly in the mud perhaps reminds him of his mortality, his smallness, the fact that he is essentially “disposable” and will one day become a mere vessel for this tiny, quite irritating creature but if he has a moment of introspection it is short lived. The world may be crunching at his heels, but Kamimura keeps moving. He has his plan, audacious as it is. He will save his buddy, and perhaps he doesn’t care too much if he survives or not, but he will not go down easy and if the world wants a bite out of him, it will have to be fast or lucky.


Original trailer (no subtitles)