Super Express (黒の超特急, Yasuzo Masumura, 1964)

By 1964, Japan had returned to the world stage and was beginning to enter a new age of modernity as symbolised by the completion of the Shinkansen “bullet train” high speed rail network opened in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Behind the scenes, however, many were still trying to pull themselves free of post-war privation while others feared that the promised age of plenty had provoked a moral decline giving rise to widespread exploitation and rampant criminality. Yasuzo Masumura’s “Black” Super Express (黒の超特急, Kuro no Chotokkyu) was the last in a series of “Black” films (which also included the earlier Black Test Car) produced by Daiei in the mid-‘60s which exposed the seedy underbelly of the modern economy through tales of shady corporate shenanigans. Though in this case the hero finds himself in difficultly largely because of bad luck and his own poor judgement, he eventually exposes the cronyism and corruption which seem set to engulf the modern society. 

As the film opens, shady businessman Nakae (Daisuke Kato) approaches local real estate agent Kikyo (Jiro Tamiya) with an unusual business proposition. It seems that someone wants to build a factory on a large stretch of land currently owned by a number of farmers and other small concerns. Nakae wants to buy it up, but he’s afraid he won’t get a good price as an outsider and wants Kikyo to handle things on the ground. Kikyo is a little confused by Nakae’s intention to offer a significant sum of money to the farmers while proposing a sizeable commission to him, but eventually decides to go along with it. Everything goes to plan – it’s a not a scam, the farmers get their money, and everyone’s happy. Everyone except Kikyo, that is, who loses everything playing the stock market. It’s then he’s contacted by a disgruntled farmer who realises he might have been able to get more because it turns out the land wasn’t purchased for a factory, but for a second line on the Shinkansen. Nakae took their land and sold it on to the government at huge profit. 

Kikyo is extremely pissed off even though he was originally happy with the money he received and the reasons he lost it are nothing at all to do with Nakae. He gets straight on a train (not a Shinkansen) to Tokyo to confront him, but only gets the brush off and an offer of token hush money when Nakae realises Kikyo could cause a problem, something he is apparently keen to do because he starts connecting the dots between the elegant young woman he saw delivering envelopes to Nakae and a senior executive at the rail office. 

Needless to say, Nakae is a totally immoral, not quite conman chancer with the gift of the gab. He approached Kikyo with the job because he’d done his research and knew he’d take the bait. Kikyo already had a failed business behind him and desperately wanted to succeed. In the end he’d find it too difficult to resist the temptation of such a big contract even if he had his doubts, and his greed might prevent him asking too many questions. What Nakae didn’t bank on, however, was the depth of his resentment when he realised he’d been used and then cheated. 

“Large corporations are the new Daimyo” Kikyo tells his later accomplice, Yoko (Yukiko Fuji), Nakae’s former squeeze. He quit his salaryman job because he wanted to be his own boss, but feels like the world has pulled away from people like him, forever denying them a ticket on the Shinkansen, allowing them only to ride the now ironically named “super express”. Yoko feels something similar. She’s refused marriage after coming to the conclusion that men can’t be relied on – her father died in an accident when she was 11 after which her now bedridden mother raised her alone by working as a maid, and an ill-advised “affair” with a married university professor who took advantage of her naivety only further convinced her that she’s better off a free agent. Yoko wants total independence and the opportunity to start a business of her own, which is why she agreed to team up with Nakae to become the mistress of her boss at the rail company, Zaitsu (Eiji Funakoshi), who’d taken a liking to her and is the classic sad middle-aged salaryman with a wife suffering from TB he’d long since grown apart from. 

“There’s nothing more important than life” Nakae later grimly admits, trying to save his own skin, but it’s too little too late. Previously, he’d claimed he was “ready to commit any crime for money”, but mainly thrived on sadistic machinations setting up complex blackmail plots lined with little bombs he could set off if and when the occasion called. Kikyo takes him on at his own game, blackmailing the blackmailer, never really intending to expose the corruption only to parasitically profit from it. What he discovers is there was a much higher price to be paid than he realised because Nakae was only ever a middle man. The people at the top of the tree won’t want to pay at all and they think they don’t have to because “peasants” are expendable. Eventually turning to the police, he finds himself thanked for his service but is forced to admit that he only really wanted the money until he realised how far others were willing to go to get it. Spotting the shiny new Shinkansen rocketing past his widow seat on the super express, all he can do is lower the blind and try to get some sleep. 


The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

blue sky maiden dvd coverYasuzo Masumura is generally remembered for dark, erotic and disturbing explorations of human behaviour but the early part of his career was marked by a more hopeful innocence and a less cynical yet still cutting humour. His debut, Kisses, was very much in the mould of the youth movie of the day but its themes were both more innocent and more controversial as a boy and girl bond after running into each other at the prison where both of their parents are serving time. Marked by darkness as it is, the worldview of Kisses is much kinder than Masumura would later allow as the pair of lovers seem to shake off their respective concerns to embrace the youthful joy and boundless freedom young love can offer.

The Blue Sky Maiden (青空娘, Aozora Musume), Masumura’s second film, does something similar but with added bite. Working for the first time with actress Ayako Wakao who would later become something of a muse, Masumura takes a typical melodrama storyline – the returned illegitimate child treated as a poor relation by her own “family”, and turns it into a genial comedy in which Wakao’s charming heroine shines brightly despite the often cruel and heartless treatment she receives. As far as the family drama goes, the genre was still in its heyday and the family unit itself fairly unquestioned yet as Masumura shows times were changing and perhaps the family is not the bedrock it initially seems to be.

18 year old Yuko (Ayako Wakao) stands at the gates of adulthood. Taking a last photo in school uniform with her high school friends as they prepare for graduation, Yuko expresses her nervousness about being sent to Tokyo to live with the family of a father she barely knows while her friends worry about getting married or getting stuck in their tiny village all alone respectively. Tragedy strikes when the girls’ teacher arrives on a bicycle and informs them that Yuko’s grandmother has been taken ill. On her death bed, the grandmother reveals the reason Yuko is the only one of her father’s four children to be raised in the country is not a concern for her health, but that she is illegitimate. Yuko’s father, unhappy in his marriage, fell in love with his secretary (Kuniko Miyake) who later gave birth to Yuko, but he was already married with two children and so Yuko’s mother went to Manchuria leaving her to be raised in secret in the country.

Having nowhere else to go, Yuko arrives at her father’s large Western style house to be greeted coldly by her half-siblings, and treated as a maid by her still angry step-mother while her father (Kinzo Shin) is away on business. It has to be said that this model middle class family are an extremely unpleasant bunch. Step-mother Tatsuko (Sadako Sawamura) is shrewish and embittered while oldest daughter Teruko (Noriko Hodaka) spends all her time chasing wealthy boyfriends (but failing to win them because she’s just as mean as her mother). The oldest brother (Yuji Shinagawa) idles away in a hipster jazz band while the youngest boy, Hiroshi (Yukihiko Iwatare), is rude and boisterous but later bonds with his new big sister when she is the only one to really bother interacting with him.

The Ono household has always been an unhappy one. Yuko’s father married his wife after being bamboozled into it by an overbearing boss trying to offload his difficult daughter. Feeling trapped and avoiding going home he fell in love with a kind woman at work, had an affair, and wanted to marry her but wasn’t strong enough to break off not only from his unwanted family but also from his career in pursuing personal happiness. By Masumura’s logic, it’s this failure to follow one’s heart which has poisoned the Ono family ruining not only the lives of Tatsuko and the children who have no respect for their father or capacity for real human feeling (as Yuko later tells them), but also that of Yuko’s poor mother  whose life has been one of constant suffering after being unfairly jettisoned by a man who was bold enough to have an affair, but not to defy social conventions and leave an unhappy home.

Yuko herself, however, refuses to allow her life to be ruined by the failings of others. Looking up at the bright blue sky with her teacher (Kenji Sugawara), she learns to create her own stretch of heaven if only in her own mind. Though others might have fought and complained at being forced into the role of maid in what is her own family home, Yuko bears her new circumstances with stoicism and good humour. Thanks to her kindness and enthusiasm, the family maid, Yae (Chocho Miyako), is quickly on her side and if Teruko’s latest target, Hirooka (Keizo Kawasaki) starts to prefer the “new servant girl” his defection is completely understandable. Unlike later Masumura heroines, Yuko’s “revenge” is total yet constructive. She refuses to be cowed by unkindness, remains pure hearted in the face of cruelty, and resolves to find her own happiness and encourage others to do the same. With a few cutting words offered kindly, Yuko gets to the heart of the Onos, essentially reminding her father that all of this unhappiness is his own fault – he made his bed 20 years ago, now he needs to lie it and be a full-time husband and father to the family of lonely misfits he created in the absence of love.

Light and bright and colourful, The Blue Sky Maiden is among Masumura’s more cheerful films, not least because it does seem to believe that true happiness is possible. Yuko does not so much defy social convention as ignore it. She lives openly and without rancour or regret. She takes things as she finds them and people (aside from the Onos) are good to her because she is good to them. Though Masumura’s later work would become increasingly dark and melancholy, Yuko bears out many of his most central themes in her steadfast claim to her own individuality and equally steadfast commitment to enabling the happiness of others in defiance of prevailing social codes.


Black Test Car (黒の試走車, Yasuzo Masumura, 1962)

tumblr_n2w2l2mX1a1tvmqcgo1_1280The automobile business is a high stakes game. Do you want to play faster, shinier and sleeker, or safer, family friendly and reliable? Family cars are the best sellers – everyone one wants something that’s reliable for getting to work every morning, getting the grocery shopping done and that you won’t worry about taking your kids to the park in. However, it’s the 1960s and lifestyles are shifting, men (in particular) are marrying later and they want to have fun before they do – hence having quite a lot of disposable income they can blow on a flashy two-seater sports car with no wife to complain about it. Tiger have just finished a new prototype called the Pioneer they plan to launch as a revolution in commercial sports cars which is super speedy but with the convenience of an everyday sedan. However, the Yamato company are also set to launch a new car and it keeps looking suspiciously like the Pioneer – does Tiger have a mole?

Black Test Car (黒の試走車, Kuro no Test Car) begins with the prototype model of the Pioneer bursting into flames during a test run. Not the best start, but it’s early days and at least the driver wasn’t hurt. The guys at Tiger suspect sabotage as they can’t find anything wrong with car’s design. Onoda, the man who’s in charge of the project, has summoned some of his best employees to become the “industrial spying” department to flush out the mole. However, their first few plans fail and Yamato always seems to get there ahead of them. Yamato’s “chief of spying” is a slightly sleazy older man by the name of Mawatari who lost his wife and daughter during the Manchurian campaign (where he also may have been a more official kind of spy). Luckily (for some more than others), Onoda’s protege, Asahina, is dating a girl who works in the hostess industry and it’s suggested to him that he get his girlfriend to spy on Mawatari as he has a particular fondness for a certain hostess bar. The shady dealings only get worse from here on in, blackmail, bribery, pimping and prostitution – is this the yakuza or the automobile industry?

Yasuzo Masumura turns his cynical eye to big business and finds just as must drama as in your cold war spy epic. Onoda is a fanatical company man whose primary reason for living is his work. He barely comes home, rarely sees his children and views his precious Pioneer as his legacy. As such, he’s determined to find the man who’s betraying all his secrets and has become something of a petty dictator in the process. “We’re industrial spies!” he keeps declaiming, as if those words had any kind of authority. He’s not a policeman, he’s not a warrior for justice, he’s just a guy at a car firm who’s poured altogether too much of himself into a few scraps of metal.

His assistant, the up and coming Asahina, seems set to follow in Onoda’s footsteps. He’s young and ambitious, he wants to get the head of department job so he can marry his girlfriend who is still working as a bar hostess (which he doesn’t actually seem to mind about if she doesn’t mind about it either). The girlfriend, Masako, worries that work is changing him. When Asahina asks her to spy on Mawatari she refuses, but when he half jokes that he might not want to marry her she if won’t do as he says, she eventually agrees. Later he asks her for more than that which might just be enough to nip this young love story well and truly in the bud.

Having lost out several times already, the Tiger guys think they’ve got an angle and decide to launch the Pioneer way ahead of schedule to undercut Yamato’s price and release date. However, right away there is a scandalous accident which ends up all over the papers as the driver of the car (who survived unscathed, there were no serious injuries involved) drags the wreck all over town with a loud speaker to announce just how dangerous he believes the car to be. Of course, he’s a stooge, set up by Yamato and aided by another undiscovered mole in the Tiger camp. This incident is the last straw for those who still have a moral backbone at Tiger – culminating in violence and suicide, it leaves the fresh faced executives wondering whether they’re on the career ladder at a respectable firm or among the ranks of thuggish gangsters prepared to lie, cheat and extort to get along.

Shot in a noirish black and white with a moody jazz score, Black Test Car has its film noir overtones with the immorality of big business at its centre. At the beginning of the film everything is for the company – no one thinks of themselves or their own soul, they just want in and to climb the ladder while its there. Or so it seems because everyone is also taking kickbacks whilst blackmailing other people for doing exactly the same thing. There are spy cams interpreted by lip readers, undercover prostitutes masquerading as nurses and men in bushes with microphones – not a dignified way of doing business. At one point Onoda scoffs “you can’t get hung up on  morals. You’ll just have remorse” – this is the choice that presents itself, would you rather have the flashy sports car or retain your humanity?


Black Test Car is available on R1 DVD with English subtitles courtesy of Fantoma.

(unsubbed trailer)