Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenji Misumi, 1965)

An orphaned son’s attempts to overcome his cursed destiny are poisoned by the duplicities of the samurai society in third part of Kenji Misumi’s loose “Sword Trilogy”, Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenki). Perhaps unfairly dismissed by some as a mere genre craftsmen, Misumi was also an intense visual stylist, a quality very much on show in this vibrant drama which pits the beauty of the natural world against the samurai order but eventually finds its hero succumbing to cruelties of his age unable to outrun himself or his destiny. 

In the prologue which opens the film, shot in an arty theatrical style, a young peasant woman formerly a maid to the late Lady Makino gives birth to a “stranger’s” child after having been promoted and given a place in the women’s quarters as a reward for her loyalty in continuing to serve her mistress in the depths of her “madness”. Lady Makino claims that Kin’s kindness brought her back to reality and is keen to ensure she continues to be taken care of after her death, but also asks her to take charge of her precious pooch hoping that she will treat it “as herself”. This is perhaps why it is rumoured that the child, given the name “Hanpei” which ironically is in part inspired by the dog-like “Spot” coupled with a suffix which implies a lowly rank, is in fact the product of a taboo union between the maid and the dog (rather than admit he is almost certainly the illegitimate son of Lord Masanobu). For some reason this bizarre rumour persists throughout the boy’s life, cast out as he is from the palace and raised in an ordinary village as the son of a low-ranking samurai who appears to be kind and loving, worried enough about Hanpei’s (Raizo Ichikawa) future to advise him to find a special skill that will allow him to support himself and perhaps overcome some of the persistent prejudice against him after the old man’s death. 

The skill he perfects, however, continues to set him apart from his fellow men in that he chooses the cultivation of flowers. A particularly snotty neighbour describes Hanpei’s art as “annoying”, though others are impressed enough by his skill to marvel that they have such a man in their clan while also pointing out that in these times of peace becoming a samurai florist might be much more useful than perfecting the art of the sword. Ironically, however, it drags him back towards the court and intrigue when he’s invited to craft a flower garden to cheer up the present young lord who seems to be succumbing to the same “madness” as his mother. The trouble starts when the garden is completed to the lord’s satisfaction but marred by the sudden and apparently unexpected arrival of a bumblebee which damages the lord’s tranquility and provokes a violent outburst in which he begins to hack at the flowers hoping to punish the one which “rudely” invited the bee to the garden. Hiding behind a tree, Hanpei perfectly aims a rock at the lord’s head to prevent him destroying his precious work and is spotted by his chief retainer, Kanbei (Kei Sato), who earmarks him for future use in his nascent conspiracy. 

Hanpei finds himself at the centre of intrigue, increasingly seduced by promises of advancement that he might be “titleless” no more and perhaps in fact escape his lowly position as the son of a dog. He ingratiates himself by, like his mother, being one of the few servants willing to bear the lord’s violent rages in volunteering to accompany his horse even though he has none of his own and has to run along behind thereby demonstrating his slightly supernatural athletic ability that gives further credence to his canine origins. In similar fashion he learns by observation, captivated rather than appalled on witnessing an old ronin practicing his sword technique by cutting in half a butterfly in the forest. Preoccupied by his lowly status and consequent lack of sword skills, Hanpei is reassured by the man’s explanation that there’s nothing more to it than draw, strike, and sheath but takes yet another step towards the samurai dark side in accepting the gift of a sword. Later he breaks it, meaning to break with the cruel path on which fate has set him, only to pick up another, supposedly cursed sword to which he was attracted because of its “evil spirit”.

Osaki (Michiko Sugata), a kind and innocent woman seemingly attracted to Hanpei because of his difference in his gentle sensitivity in contrast to the rough men around her, refuses to believe the rumours he has become an assassin working for Kanbei because no one who loves flowers like he does could be a coldblooded killer. This is in fact what he has become, sent, like a dog, after Kanbei’s enemies killing without even knowing who it is who must die only to be remorseful on discovering he has killed someone known to him. There is division and sedition within the court caused by the lord’s madness, Kanbei and his associates keen to rule in his stead while keeping his mania secret from the shogun while others, a small group of lower samurai rebels, prefer to depose him in favour of his adopted heir. Hanpei is once again a pawn, taking no side in this debate but unthinkingly doing Kanbei’s dirty work in the service of his sword. He hopes that by taking the “evil” instrument in his hands he might double his bad luck to overcome his unhappy destiny, gazing at his distorted face in its reflection, but discovers himself merely outcast once again as the villagers begin to realise he is an obstacle to their rebellion and responsible for the assassinations of their loved ones. 

The ironic conclusion finds the hero’s planned flower garden, a shared endeavour with love interest Osaki, rendered a bloody graveyard, men cut down like weeds as Hanpei’s quick draw philosophy makes a mockery of their fancy samurai fencing. The poisonous samurai legacy, infected with madnesses literal and figural, destroys everything, all beauty and grace falling under Hanpei’s “evil” sword as he finds himself, quite literally, chased out of town like a stray dog condemned to wander exiled from human society. 


Destiny’s Son (斬る, Kenji Misumi, 1962)

“Sad is his destiny” laments a seemingly omniscient lord in Kenji Misumi’s elliptical tale of death and the samurai, Destiny’s Son (斬る, Kiru). A chanbara specialist, Misumi is most closely associated with his work on long running franchises such as his contributions to the Zatoichi series and Lone Wolf and Cub cycle, and though sometimes dismissed as a “craftsman” as opposed to “auteur” is also known as a visual stylist capable both of the most poetic imagery and breathtaking action. 

Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Destiny’s Son follows cursed samurai Shingo (Raizo Ichikawa) who finds himself the victim of cruel fate and changing times during the turbulent years of the bakumatsu. His mother, Fujiko (Shiho Fujimura), a maid misused by a plotting courtier and talked into murdering the inconvenient mistress of a wayward lord, was executed for her crime by the man she loved, Shingo’s father who later renounced the world and became a monk. In a sense, it’s Shingo’s sense of displacement which later does for him, allowed the rare freedom of a three year pass from the apparently compassionate lord of the clan which took him in to go travelling during which he learns superior sword style something which came as a surprise to his old friends on his return who’d always thought him gentle and bookish. His talent makes him dangerous to an unexpected rival in his strangely mild-mannered neighbour who happens to have a crush on his sister Yoshio (Mayumi Nagisa) but is quite clearly under the thumb of his finagling father, Ikebe (Yoshio Inaba), who is convinced the family can “do better” as long as he triumphs in a contest of martial prowess with a passing master to whom the clan has given temporary shelter after he was cast out of his own. Of course, nothing goes to plan. The master easily defeats even the clan’s most talented warriors until Shingo is called up as a last resort only to best him with his signature move learned out on the road, a dangerous throat thrust. 

In a theme which will be repeated, Shingo finds himself in the middle of accidental intrigue through no fault of his own though the ill-conceived Ikebe revenge plot does at least allow him to discover the sad truth of his family history even as it deepens his sense of displacement. Slashing right into the mores of the chanbara, Misumi pares Shindo’s screenplay down to its poetic minimum as the hero sets off on his elliptical journey, achieving his revenge as the first stop before walking back into the past and then into an accidental future as a retainer to Lord Matsudaira (Eijiro Yanagi) himself at the centre of bakumatsu intrigue in trying to quell the divisions within the Mito clan some of whom have been involved in anti-shogunate terrorism setting fire to the British Legation shortly after the nation’s exit from centuries of isolation. An eternal wanderer, he resolves to have no wife and wanted no ties, haunted by the trio of women he couldn’t save from the mother who birthed him in part as a bid for mercy, to the sister who died a pointless and stupid death because of samurai pettiness, to another man’s sister whose name he never knew who stripped naked and threw her kimono at her assailants to save her brother’s life while they too were on the run after standing up to samurai corruption. He loses three women, and then three fathers, the first he never knew, the second taken from him in more ways than one, and the third betrayed by the complicated world in which they live. 

“I cannot be forgiven” Shingo exclaims, his end tied to that of his mother as a sword glints gently in the bright sunshine and blood drips, the only blood ever we see, on another woman’s breast. Elegantly composed and often set against the majestic Japanese landscape, Misumi’s ethereal camera with its dynamic tracking shots, controlled dolly movement, and frequent call backs to the setting sun lend Shingo’s journey an elegiac quality even in its evident nihilism as he finds himself consumed by the samurai legacy, discovering only futility in his rootlessness unable to protect himself or others from the vagaries of the times in which he lives. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Third Shadow Warrior (第三の影武者, Umetsugu Inoue, 1963)

“In this world the weak are playthings of the strong” according to the hidden villain concealing himself slightly to the side in Umetsugu Inoue’s dark identity drama The Third Shadow Warrior (第三の影武者, Daisan no Kagemusha). Adapting a novel by Norio Nanjo, Inoue, most closely associated with sophisticated musicals, shoots in the manner of a ghost story adapting the trappings of a minor parable on the consequences of selling one’s soul for advancement in complicity with an inherently broken feudal order. 

Opening in 1564, the film wastes no time reminding us that the samurai were cruel and duplicitous, a troop of them riding through the contested mountain territory of Hida bearing the severed heads of their enemies casually insulting peasants as they go. Young farmer Kyonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa), however, can’t help but think that they’re heroic and dashing, longing like many young men as the voiceover explains to make his fortune as a samurai in this the age of war. Kyonosuke gets his wish when retainer Shinomura (Nobuo Kaneko) turns up and offers him a job at the castle, only it’s not quite what he expected. Bearing a striking similarity to lord Yasutaka, he has been hired as his third “shadow”, a decoy intended to shield the lord from harm. 

Sitting down with his two new brothers, Kyonosuke remarks how ironic it is that he’s here to escape the land but Kuwano (Katsuhiko Kobayashi) is patiently saving up his pay with the intention of using it to buy a farm and settle down with a beautiful wife. His is the most dangerous of doubling roles as the lord’s battlefield stand-in, while Ishihara (Yuji Hamada), a former actor apparently not much good with the sword, takes his place behind closed walls. Kyonosuke is quite taken with the world of the samurai, but Ishihara cautions that he’ll soon tire of this “phoney life”. In accepting this devil’s bargain, Kyonosuke has in essence consented to his own murder. A shadow man, he can no longer call himself Kyonosuke, but nor can he say he is Yasutaka. He has no fixed identity and is merely in waiting for a veil. Worse still as Ishihara has begun to suspect, they no longer have bodily autonomy because their physicality must match that of the lord. When he is blinded in a battlefield mishap with an arrow, so must they be. Deciding he’d rather not lose an arm, Kyonosuke finds himself in an altercation with his other self which leads to his demise. He intends to make a life for himself under his own name with another clan, but is forced to permanently assume Yasutaka’s identity after being cornered by Shinomura intent on manipulating him for his own ends. 

“I’m no puppet, I no longer need a puppeteer” Kyonosuke exclaims drawing strength from embracing his new identity as a samurai lord, but perhaps overreaches himself in ambitious desire failing to see the various ways he is still merely a pawn in a bigger game as Yasutaka himself once was because the lord is only ever an empty vessel and far more expendable than might be assumed. Princess Teru (Hizuru Takachiho), Yasutaka’s conquest bride, declares that she is “just a doll, the strongest will win me” but is of course playing a role herself, one which she does not desire but has been thrust upon her while her cousin, Sadamitsu (Shigeru Amachi), is engaged in a much more active piece of long form role play. Only the lord’s concubine (Masayo Banri) sees through him, falling for the gentle peasant after the rough lord who toyed with her, but their complicated love eventually seals his fate even as he believes it offers him victory. Kyonosuke became a samurai to escape his lack of agency but is arguably much less free than he ever was, driven slowly out of his mind by his fractured sense of identity and realising that in killing the only man who knew who he “really” was, he also killed himself. 

Quite literally imprisoned, Kyonosuke finds himself a shadow once again neither one man nor another, denied an identity and forever a puppet of duplicitous game players better versed in the realities of the samurai existence. “How ugly fighting over this transient kingdom” the princess disdainfully remarks while herself engaging this apparently meaningless foolishness, reminded by her cousin that a princess may hold the keys to a castle or even a nation even if he implies she is little more than his tool, a puppet to be manipulated if knowingly. Shooting with deep, expressionist shadows, chiaroscuro lighting, and a melancholy voiceover Inoue frames his tale as a parabolic caution against selling one’s soul for gold but also a crushing indictment of the inequalities of the feudal order built on wilful hypocrisy and cynical exploitation. 


A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

“Why are women in Japan so unhappy?” the carefree Casanova at the centre of Yasuzo Masumura’s 1961 sex romp A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Koshoku Ichidai Otoko) laments, never quite grasping the essential inequalities of the world in which he lives. Masumura is best known for extremity, a wilful iconoclast who flew in the face of golden age cinema’s genial classism, but shock was not his only weapon and he could also be surprisingly playful. Adapted from a well known novel by creator of the “floating world” Ihara Saikaku, A Lustful Man finds him indulging in ironic satire as his hero sets out to “make all the women in Japan happy” chiefly by satisfying their unfulfilled sexual desire while resolutely ignoring all of the entrenched patriarchal social codes which ensure that their lives will be miserable. 

Set in the Edo era, the film opens not with the hero Yonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa) but with his miserly father who berates a servant after discovering a single grain of rice on the hall floor. According to him, the central virtues necessary to become rich are endurance, diligence, and vitality. You must treasure each and every grain of rice in order to accumulate. A cruel and austere man who only thinks of money, Yonosuke’s father keeps his wife in earnest poverty despite their wealth, angrily grabbing an obviously worn kimono out of her hands and insisting that it’s still good for another year, apparently caring nothing for appearances in the otherwise class conscious Kyoto society. It’s this meanness that Yonosuke can’t seem to stand. He hates the way his father disrespects his mother, and her misery is a primary motivator in his lifelong quest to cheer up Japan’s melancholy women though the weapon he has chosen is sex, a convenient excuse to live as a genial libertine to whom money means essentially nothing. 

Yonosuke’s father has set him up with an arranged marriage into a much wealthier family, which is not something he’s very interested in despite the fact she seems to be quite pretty but on learning that she has transgressively found love with the family butler he determines to help her instead, ending the marriage meeting by chasing her round the garden like a dog in heat. Several similar stunts eventually get him sent away from his native Kyoto to Edo but he takes the opportunity to escape, travelling all over Japan making women “happy” as he goes. 

As the first example proves, Yonosuke genuinely hates to see women suffer. His own pleasure, though perhaps not far from his mind, is secondary and he never seeks to take advantage of a woman’s vulnerability only to ease her loneliness. Despite that, however, he remains essentially superficial opting for the transience of postcoital bliss while ignoring the very real societal factors which make an escape from misery all but impossible. During an early adventure, he spends all of the money he conned out of his new employer on redeeming a geisha (at more than three times the asking price) so that she can be with the man she loves, but he continues to visit sex workers without interrogating their existence as indentured servants, “merchandise” which is bought and sold, traded between men and entirely deprived of freedom. In fact, he proudly collects hair cuttings from the various geishas he has known as a kind of trophy only to later discover the grim truth, that the hair likely doesn’t belong to the geisha herself but is sold to them by middlemen who get it by digging up dead bodies. 

Yonosuke remains seemingly oblivious to the duplicitous hypocrisy of the yoshiwara, but is repeatedly confronted by the evils of Edo-era feudalism with its proto-capitalist cruelty where everything is status and transaction. He is often told that as he is not a samurai he would not understand, but seems to understand pretty well that “samurai are idiots” and that their heartless elitism is the leading cause of all the world’s misery. To some a feckless fool, Yonosuke refuses to give in to the false allure of worldly riches. As soon as he gets money he spends it, and does so in ways he believes enrich the lives of women (even if that only extends to paying them for sex), eventually getting himself into trouble once again reneging on his taxes after trying to prove a geisha is worth her weight in gold. 

Yogiri (Ayako Wakao) complains that women are but “merchandise”, valued only as toys for men. “Japan is not a good country for women” Yonosuke agrees, suggesting they run away together to find a place where women are respected, indifferent to Yogiri’s rebuttal “no, wherever you go, no one can change women’s sad fate”. Yonosuke’s naive attempts to rescue women from their misery often end in disaster, a runaway mistress is dragged back and hanged, the woman he was set to marry goes mad after her father and lover are beheaded for having the temerity to speak out about corrupt lords, Yogiri is killed by a samurai intent on arresting him for tax evasion, and his own mother dies seconds after his father only to be immediately praised as “the epitome of a Japanese wife”. Yet he remains undaunted, wandering around like an Edo-era Candide, setting off into exile to look for a supposed female paradise without ever really engaging with the systems which propagate misery or with his own accidental complicity with them. Nevertheless, he does perhaps enact his own resistance in refusing to conform to the rules of a society he knows to be cruel and unfair even if his resistance is essentially superficial, self-involved, and usually counterproductive which is, in its own way, perfectly in keeping with Masumura’s central philosophies on the impossibilities of individual freedom within an inherently oppressive social order.


Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


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.

Blood End (天狗党, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1969)

When the black ships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853, it provoked a moment of crisis which eventually led to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. Between those two events however lay a period of intense confusion as several groups and movements attempted to lay claim to the future direction of the nation. Many, such as the legendary figure Sakamoto Ryoma, held that above all else Japan needed to Westernise as quickly as possible in order to defend itself against foreign powers now far more technologically advanced than the Japan which had attempted to hold back time for over 200 years. Others felt quite the opposite, that what was needed was an end to the corrupt rule of the Shogunate and the restoration of power to the emperor while expelling foreign influence and going back into isolation. 

Satsuo Yamamoto’s Blood End (天狗党, Teng-to) dramatises this debate through the melancholy tale of the Mito Rebellion as a brutalised peasant farmer is sucked in by the idea of revolution but eventually betrayed by it in discovering that the samurai, even revolutionary samurai, will never change. They may claim they want an end to the feudal caste system and to live in a world where all men are equal, but continue to feel themselves entitled to more equality than others and insist on deference from those they still believe to be inferior. 

The action begins with a scene familiar from many a jidaigeki in that a small farming community is being pressed to provide the usual amount of rice despite the failure of the harvest. Revolutionary yakuza Jingoza (Kanemon Nakamura) and egalitarian samurai Kada (Go Gato) stumble on the scene of a “stubborn” peasant being subjected to 100 blows as punishment for the village’s raising the unfairness of their situation with the local lord. Surviving his ordeal, Sentaro (Tatsuya Nakadai) asks only for water but is denied by his cruel samurai tormentor. Jingoza intervenes and offers him his flask along with some money by way of an apology on behalf of these savage nobles, a gesture for which Sentaro remains grateful. While many of his friends are exiled and lose their lands, Sentaro disappears from the village and becomes a yakuza himself, learning the art of the sword in preparation for his mission of revenge. 

Meeting Jingoza by chance, he takes the opportunity to thank him and agrees to transport some money back to his family in a nearby village while he engages in urgent business in the mountains. While there, Sentaro ends up defending Jingoza’s steely daughter Tae (Yukiyo Toake) who is running something like an orphanage for children rendered fatherless by the ongoing chaos. It’s at Tae’s that he ends up running into Kada, who is a member of revolutionary movement “Tengu-to”, named for the mythical ogres with long noses and bright red faces. Sentaro ends up joining the movement, but gradually discovers that Tengo-to is not all he thought it to be. In the modern parlance, many of their actions are terrorist, they care little for human life and have no issue with looting wealthy houses as they prove after helping Sentaro assassinate the man who beat him, killing the man’s wife and servants and making off with his money as “military funds”. Sentaro is shocked, but only manages to get some of the money for himself to take back to Tae as a way of making amends. He continues to associate with Tengu-to despite his growing disillusionment with their philosophy. 

The Mito clan were perhaps outliers in the great Bakumatsu culture war, running under the “Sonno Joi” banner but doing so alone and forcefully advocating that the emperor’s instruction to expel all foreigners with immediate effect be enforced. At least as far as Yamamoto’s revolutionaries go, they advocate for this not so much because they reject foreign influence but because they resent the country’s elites maintaining a stranglehold on the riches to be gained by foreign trade. Kada, however, claims to have a more revolutionary spirit in that he wants to improve conditions for farmers like Sentaro, protecting them from the “corrupt system” but he’s still a product of his society and finds the programming increasingly hard to break. Having recruited vast numbers of peasants to their cause and witnessing the failure of their campaign, the other leaders want to go to Kyoto to talk to the emperor but are embarrassed to go there in the company of so many men who are not samurai. The solution is that they simply kill them, because peasants aren’t really people anyway. 

Sentaro thought they were “doing something good for peasants and the poor”, but samurai will always be “samurai” and eventually they will betray him. He wavers when Kada and the others ask him to assassinate Jingoza because he’s gone over to the Westernising cause, and is half talked round by his insistence that he’s acting blindly without thinking far enough ahead but himself finds it hard to break with the idea that samurai are honest and know what they’re doing. 

Yamamoto is perhaps making a direct allusion to the imminent failure of the student movement in Japan which finds itself in much the same place as the Tengu-to, torn apart by infighting and increasingly corrupted by duplicitous dogma. Kada has a lot of fine ideas but he doesn’t act on them, doubling down on ruthlessness in complaining that Sentaro is too sentimental, insisting that emotion is the enemy. Sentaro, however, has figured out that the enemy is the sword and everything it represents. Jingoza’s “Restoration” is the one he should have been fighting for if he wanted to see a classless Japan, but the Tengu-to have misused his idealism for their own ends and turned him into a defender of his own oppression. Still, the Tengu-to are the ones who pay the price, their entreaties to the emperor falling on deaf ears with 353 retainers beheaded as punishment. Sentaro lives on, vowing he will never die, as he walks towards the “Restoration” of the future and away from the Blood End of an inherently corrupt insurrection. 


Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

lone-wolf-and-cub-sword-of-vengeanceWhen it comes to period exploitation films of the 1970s, one name looms large – Kazuo Koike. A prolific mangaka, Koike also moved into writing screenplays for the various adaptations of his manga including the much loved Lady Snowblood and an original series in the form of Hanzo the Razor. Lone Wolf and Cub was one of his earliest successes, published between 1970 and 1976 the series spanned 28 volumes and was quickly turned into a movie franchise following the usual pattern of the time which saw six instalments released from 1972 to 1974. Martial arts specialist Tomisaburo Wakayama starred as the ill fated “Lone Wolf”, Ogami, in each of the theatrical movies as the former shogun executioner fights to clear his name and get revenge on the people who framed him for treason and murdered his wife, all with his adorable little son ensconced in a bamboo cart.

The first instalment in the series, Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kozure Okami: Kowokashi Udekashi Tsukamatsuru), begins with Itto Ogami’s fall from grace when he’s framed by a rival clan, Yagyu, who have their eyes on his family’s historical position as the Shogun’s official “executioner”. In fact, when we first meet Ogami he’s in the middle of an unusual job – he’s to be the “second” in the seppuku of a noble lord, only this noble lord is a toddler whom Ogami must behead (the child will obviously be spared the horror of cutting his own stomach, but not excused the execution). Returning home after completing his grim task with seemingly no reaction at all, Ogami embraces his own young son, not so different in age from the boy whose head he just removed, and talks warmly with his wife who describes to him an ominous nightmare she’s been having in which some of the lords Ogami has been the second for come back for revenge.

Though Ogami decries his wife’s fears as ridiculous, his house is indeed raided, his wife killed and a tablet bearing the Shogun’s crest placed on his memorial altar neatly incriminating him for plotting against his master. Ogami manages to defeat the Yagyu clan members who’ve been sent to arrest him and sets off on a quest for vengeance, wandering the land as a swordsman for hire with his little son, Daigoro, also apparently for rent too.

Despite his cool exterior and lack of outward expression, Ogami is clearly attached to his son both as the head of his clan and as a father. In deciding what to do with the child, he gives Daigoro a simple test in which he positions a sword and a ball on the floor and instructs his infant son to choose one, even knowing that he can’t understand well enough to make anything other than an instinctual choice. Had he chosen the ball, Ogami would have sent him to meet his mother but Daigoro chooses the way of the sword and so the pair are forced onto the “Demon Way”, a path filled with blood and violence as they journey onward to avenge the death of a wife and mother, and restore the good name of their clan unfairly tarnished by a dark plot.

Though his quest is for bloody vengeance, Ogami is not a cruel man as evidenced by the first job the pair receive which is for little Daigoro who finds himself seized by a woman driven mad by grief following the death of her own infant son but seems to calm down a little after being allowed to breastfeed Ogami’s boy. Though the woman’s mother apologises and offers to pay for “borrowing” Daigoro as it says on the large sign attached to his cart, Ogami refuses to take the money seeing as Daigoro needed feeding anyway. Similarly, when the pair find themselves swordless and trapped among vicious bandits, Ogami saves the life of a prostitute who just attempted to stick up for him by giving in to the bandits’ demands and publicly sleeping with her.

This earns him the woman’s eternal admiration, not only for “degrading” himself by sleeping with such a lowly woman as herself and in such a public way, but apparently making quite a success of it for someone supposedly terrified into silence. No one, she says, could be so considerate and bring such satisfaction to a woman in a state of fear. Indeed, Ogami has been playing the long game, pretending to be just another terrified hostage of this tiny hot spring town but when the bandits suddenly declare it’s time to get rid of anyone who’s seen their faces, Ogami leaps into action with a series of cleverly hidden tools secreted about Daigoro’s cart.

That is to say, he’s there on a job, saving the townspeople is more of a happy byproduct than his ultimate intention. On his entrance into the town, Ogami comes across the scene of a local woman failing to escape the bandits’ clutches before being stripped, molested, raped and murdered in front of the father who has come to try and save her and is also murdered for his pains. Ogami, end game in mind, does nothing. The bandits eventually find their comeuppance on the edge of Ogami’s sword, but it’s too late for a poor young woman and her elderly father.

Inhabiting a similar cinematic world to the also Koike scripted Lady Snowblood, Sword of Vengeance is a Leone-esque, western-tinged tale of a mysterious wandering assassin, albeit one pushing a baby cart. Complete with the more expressionist aesthetics of the Japanese ‘70s exploitation film from the colourful ice and fire opening to the exaggerated blood spray in the genre’s characteristically thick, too bright red, Sword of Vengeance is a worthy start to the cycle which casts Ogami downwards from his elite samurai roots and onto the “Demon Way”, bound for hell by way of vengeance, and all with a smiley faced toddler peeking out from a constantly moving cart.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Snow Woman (怪談雪女郎, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1968)

snow womanThe Snow Woman is one of the most popular figures of Japanese folklore. Though the legend begins as a terrifying tale of an evil spirit casting dominion over the snow lands and freezing to death any men she happens to find intruding on her territory, the tale suddenly changes track and far from celebrating human victory over supernatural malevolence, ultimately forces us to reconsider everything we know and see the Snow Woman as the final victim in her own story. Previously brought the screen by Masaki Kobayashi as part of his Kwaidan omnibus movie, Tokuzo Tanaka’s expanded look at the classic tale (怪談雪女郎, Kaidan Yukijoro) is one of extreme beauty contrasting human cruelty with supernatural inevitability and the endless quest for compassion.

As in the original folktale, the film begins with two sculptors venturing into snow filled forests looking for the perfect tree to carve a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kanon, for the local temple. Having finally located the longed for tree, the pair spend the night in a cabin only to receive a visit from the Snow Woman herself who freezes the older man but is taken by the younger one’s beauty and spares his life, instructing him never to speak of these events.

Yosaku is taken back to the village followed not long after by the tree trunk. In tribute to his master, the head of the temple asks him to complete the statue himself despite his relative lack of experience. Later, a beautiful yet mysterious woman takes shelter from the intense rain under Yosaku’s roof and is taken in by his adoptive mother and wife of his former master. Eventually, Yosaku and “Yuki” fall in love and marry but the two quickly come to the notice of the higher samurai orders who seem determined to ruin their happy union.

Inspired by Lafcadio Hearn’s version of the story, this retelling adds a layer of social commentary with the constant interference of the higher echelons who exist solely to plague those below them with their petty games of subjugation. We first meet the local bailiff Jito when he rides into town trailing a massive entourage and immediately stars beating some of the local children who were playing with piles of wood. When Yosaku’s adoptive mother pleads with them to stop, he beats her too for having the temerity to speak to a samurai. Unfortunately, he has it in for Yosaku because he has another master sculptor he wants to use for the statue, and now he’s also taken a liking to the beautiful Yuki and will stop at nothing to have his wicked way with her. He is in for quite a nasty shock but even so, the higher orders remain the higher orders and those below them are left with no recourse but simply to follow suit.

The real villain of the film is this enforced class system which allows or even encourages those at its summit to run rampant over those below. The samurai will have their way and the people have nothing to oppose them with save their sense of personal integrity. The Snow Woman then becomes the film’s unlikely heroine. By the time we reach the film’s emotionally devastating finale, Yuki claims that she learned human compassion in her life with Yosaku and their child and ultimately sacrifices her own happiness to preserve that of her husband and son. Yosaku finds himself in competition with the other sculptor who manages to complete a beautiful statue but the temple priest finds it wanting, its expression is soulless and devoid of the sense of compassion he was looking for in the face of a goddess of mercy. Yosaku finds the very look he needs in his wife’s face, exhausted from lending her supernatural strength to save the life of a small child and her husband’s freedom, and in her eyes as she prepares to bid goodbye to him.

The Snow Woman is only obeying her own nature and cannot be blamed for merely being what she is, but the human cruelty and selfishness inherent in the feudal world is a matter of choice. Jito is an evil man, doubtless his world has also made him cruel and selfish but the choice always remains for him not to be – a choice which he is incapable of making. Men like Yosaku toil away endlessly and honestly but their rewards are fragile, personal things rarely recognised by the world at large. Only the Snow Woman, a cold creature, possesses the necessary warmth to breath life into a monument to mercy built solely by a pair of sincere hands.

Tanaka creates a stunning visual world using mostly simple effects and optical trickery to bring the Snow Woman’s icy domain into the ordinary feudal environment. The Snow Woman glides eerily through impressively layered snow scenes, dissolving from one world only to reappear in another. Beautifully filmed and filled with warmth and compassion despite its frozen aesthetic, The Snow Woman is deeply moving plea for empathy in a cruel world which successfully makes a tragic heroine out of its supernatural protagonist.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1969)

haunted castle 1969These days, cats may have almost become a cute character cliche in Japanese pop culture, but back in the olden days they weren’t always so well regarded. An often overlooked subset of the classic Japanese horror movie is the ghost cat film in which a demonic, shapeshifting cat spirit takes a beautiful female form to wreak havoc on the weak and venal human race. The most well known example is Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko though the genre runs through everything from ridiculous schlock to high grade art film.

Daiei’s 1969 genre effort The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Hiroku Kaibyoden) sits towards the high art end but remains firmly within the realm of entertainment. Displaying the high production values the studio was known for, the film paints its 18th century tale with a plush opulence and makes fantastic use of the nighttime gloom to evoke a gothic, supernatural atmosphere which is at least extremely unsettling even if it stops short of actual terror.

As for the story, it’s another take on the classic Japanese supernatural tale The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima. Events are set in motion when blind monk Mataichirou and his sister Sayo run into their lord whilst out walking one day. Lord Tangonokami Nabeshima takes a liking to Sayo and wants to add her to his collection of concubines. He despatches an underling to ask Mataichirou about it, but Mataichirou understandably refuses, offering the excuse that Sayo is “too awkward” and the the lord wouldn’t find her very good company anyway. Nabeshima is angry at this affront to his authority and summons Mataichirou for their regular round of Go where Mataichirou once more resolutely refuses to surrender his sister. When Mataichirou realises Nabeshima and his aid are cheating, the pair argue and Nabeshima loses his temper and kills him.

This is a big problem for several reasons so they pretend not to know anything about it and dump the body in a well. Fearing discovery, they also banish the sister, Sayo, but she opts to commit harakiri and begs the weird cat that had been attached to her brother to drink her blood and become a demon to enact their revenge! Soon enough, two maids are dead in the Nabeshima household and the lord’s favourite mistress is refusing to take baths and has developed a liking for fish which she previously could not stand….

Ghost cats mostly come at night (mostly) so the majority of the film takes place in the intense darkness of the pre-electric world. The cat begins to stalk its prey quietly with only the tinkling of its ghostly bell and then tiny, bloody paw prints left as evidence of a supernatural killing. Tanaka opts for a floating, dreamlike shooting style weaving a degree of hypnotic confusion into the proceedings which also manage to keep up a high level of tension as the demonic cat spirit goes about its bloody business.

Of course, the moral of the tale is to live your life in a more altruistic manner – stop trying to take things which aren’t yours, respect the views of others, and don’t lose your temper and rashly kill people for no reason at all. All good advice there. The “hero” of the story is the more sympathetic vassal, Komori, who is trying to broker a satisfactory outcome of this complex situation right from the start, but finds himself frustrated as the servant of an unreasonable lord whose will cannot be restrained. Komori can’t avoid the supernatural retribution but manages to ride the waves well enough to ensure a morally satisfying ending where corruption is exposed and the land returned to its rightful owners rather than remaining in the hands of a lascivious usurper. It’s an old story, but a good one, and is presented with such a degree of sophistication to make The Haunted Castle one of the better horror offerings of the late ‘60s.