Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

“Are you a critic?” asks the proprietress of of a lively night club, “Why?” replies a lonely man sitting at the bar, “Beauty fails to intoxicate you” she explains before wandering off to find a prettier prize. Nevertheless, a connection has been forged as two masters of the craft confront their opposing number. Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Kurotokage), based on the 1934 story by Edogawa Rampo, had been brought to the screen by Umetsugu Inoue in 1962 in a version which flirted with transgression but was frothy and fun, adding a touch of overwrought melodrama and gothic theatricality to Inoue’s well honed musical style.

Inoue’s version had been co-scripted by Kaneto Shindo and Yukio Mishima who had also written the stage version. Once again crediting Mishima’s stage adaptation, Fukasaku’s 1968 take on the story is, as might be expected, far less interested in class connotations than it is in notions of love, beauty, and aestheticism. Consequently, we open in a much harsher world, dropped straight into Black Lizard’s edgy nightclub which Akechi (Isao Kimura), Edogawa Rampo’s famous detective, has visited on a friend’s recommendation. He is shocked to read in the paper the next day that a young man he saw in the club has apparently committed suicide, while another article also mentions the shocking disappearance of a corpse from the local morgue. 

Meanwhile, Akechi is brought in on a retainer to protect the daughter of a wealthy jeweller who has been receiving threatening letters informing him of a plot to kidnap her. Unlike Inoue’s version, Iwase (Jun Usami) is a sympathetic father, not particularly demonised for his wealth. Rather than drinking too much, he simply takes his sleeping pills and gets into bed without realising that his daughter is already missing. As transgressive as ever, however, Black Lizard (Akihiro Miwa) wastes no time sizing up Sanae (Kikko Matsuoka), running her eyes over the “splendid curve” of her breasts and lamenting that beautiful people make her sad because they’ll soon grow old. She’d like to preserve that beauty forever, convinced that people age because of “anxieties and spiritual weakness”. The reason she loves jewels is that they have no soul and are entirely transparent, their youth is eternal. Now Black Lizard has her eyes on the most beautiful jewel of all, the Egyptian Star, currently in the possession of Iwase which is why she’s planning to kidnap Sanae and ask for it as a ransom. 

Though the Black Lizard of Inoue’s adaptation had been equally as obsessed with youth and beauty, she was a much less threatening presence, never actually harming anyone in the course of her crime only later revealing her grotesque hobby of creating gruesome tableaux of eternal beauty from human taxidermy. This Black Lizard is doing something similar with her “dolls”, but she’s also cruel and sadistic, not particularly caring if people die in the course of her grand plan even running a sword firstly through a body she believes to be Akechi’s, and then through a minion completely by accident. She picks up Amamiya (Yusuke Kawazu) in the bar because of his deathlike aura, his hopelessness made him handsome, but once he fell in deep love with his “saviour” she no longer found him beautiful enough to kill. 

Akechi, meanwhile, is captivated by her in the same way Holmes is captivated by Irene Adler. He admires her romanticism, and recognises her as someone who thinks that crime should come dressed in a beautiful ball gown. She, by turns is drawn to him but perhaps as to death, each of them wondering who is the pursuer and who the pursued but determined to be victorious. Casting Akihiro Miwa in the female role of Black Lizard adds an extra layer of poignancy to her eternal loneliness and intense fear of opening her heart, finally undone not by the failure of her crimes but by a sense of embarrassment that Akechi may have heard her true feelings that leaves her unable to go on living. 

Meanwhile, Amamiya attempts to rescue Sanae not because he has fallen in love with her, but because he too is drawn towards death. Showing the pair her monstrous gallery of taxidermy figures of beautiful humans, she pauses to kiss one on the lips (played by Yukio Mishima himself no less), leaving Amamiya with feelings of intense jealousy and a longing to be a cold and inanimate shell only to be touched by her. “Sanae”, meanwhile, who turns out to be a perfect mirror in having being picked up at rock bottom by Akechi for use in his plan, guides him back towards life. They did not love each other, yet their “fake” love was set to be immortalised forever as one of Black Lizard’s grim exhibitions. She wonders if the fake can in a sense be the real, that they may free themselves from their respective cages through love in accepting a romantic destiny. For Black Lizard, however, that seems to be impossible. Akechi has “stolen” her heart, but she cannot take hold of his, holding him to be a cold and austere man who has “trampled on the heart of a woman”. “Your heart was a genuine diamond” Akechi adds, lamenting that the true jewel is no more. Black Lizard meets her destiny in a kind of defeat, too afraid of love and the changes it may bring to survive it, but paradoxically grateful that her love is alive while taking her leave as a romanticist in love with the beauty of sadness. 


Opening and titles (English subtitles)

The Scent of Incense (香華, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1964)

Scent of Incense still 1Sometimes regarded as overly sentimental, Keisuke Kinoshita’s later career grew progressively harder around the edges, as if he began to lose faith in the efficacy of human goodness but never it seems in its capacity for endurance. Spanning more than 50 years in the turbulent history of mid-20th century Japan, The Scent of Incense (香華, Koge) reverses the path of the hahamono in dramatising the complicated relationship of two women – a “selfish” mother and her “self-sacrificing” daughter who finds herself unable to give up on maternal approval despite the many disappointments of her life.

We open in late Meiji with a funeral interrupted by news from the Russo-Japanese war. Shortly after, young widow Ikuyo (Nobuko Otowa) argues with her mother, Tsuna (Kinuyo Tanaka), over custody of her five-year-old daughter Tomoko. Ikuyo is planning to remarry and her new husband has three children of his own. Fearing Tomoko would be an inconvenience, Ikuyo proposes to make her heir to her mother’s family, leaving her behind in her grandmother’s care. Though Tsuna loves Tomoko dearly, she resents her daughter’s intention to abandon them just because she’s got a better offer, and perhaps privately wonders how long she’ll actually stick it out for seeing as, as we later see, she has a strong tendency to give up when the going gets tough.

The prediction proves accurate. Ikuyo persuades her new husband to abandon his existing children and family home for the bright lights of Tokyo, while Tomoko and her grandmother live on alone in the country. Ikuyo has another daughter, Yasuko, but the couple quickly become impoverished without access to her husband’s family money. When Tsuna dies, Ikuyo decides to fetch Tomoko from the family residence, but then sells her to a geisha house. A few years later, she too falls into the sex trade but as a less exulted “oiran”, embarrassingly re-encountering her daughter from the other side of a brothel. Despite her abandonment and shame over her mother’s profession, Tomoko (Mariko Okada) continues to try to help her, maintaining an awkward familial relationship with a woman who only pays attention to her when she needs something.

Perhaps ironically, in one sense, Tomoko ends up becoming a successful, independent woman in pre-war Japan but is forever denied the kind of familial life she craves as a conventionally respectable wife and mother of the kind her own was not. In the course of her work, she meets dashing military cadet Ezaki (Go Kato) and, despite the warnings of her madam (Haruko Sugimura) who cautions her that she’s the type to fall in love too deeply, embarks on a longterm affair with him. Though he is obviously aware that she is a geisha, he is confident that his family would accept a marriage, but Tomoko’s hopes are later dashed when his pre-marital investigations turn up the fact that Ikuyo has worked as a “common prostitute”. Heartbroken, she resents once again paying the price for her mother’s transgressions, but does not break with her completely.

Tomoko’s liminal status is further brought home to her when her elderly patron, who has set her up with a geisha house of her own, suddenly dies and not only is she informed some days later by the madam at another house, but she’s not even permitted to attend the funeral. Another man, Nozawa (Eiji Okada), who’d had his eye on her but honestly admits that men of his class do not engage in “serious” relationships with geisha, asks her to become his mistress but she has had enough of the shadow life, vowing both that she doesn’t want to be “owned” anymore, and that her next man (if there is one) will have to marry her.

Loneliness renders that particular vow void as she finds herself embarking on a casual affair with Nozawa while Ikuyo considers getting married for the third time – this time, rather transgressively, with the family’s recently widowed former servant, Hachiran (Norihei Miki), who married into a wealthy family and apparently made something of himself. Hachiran, however, finds it difficult to shake off the old class attitudes, treating Ikuyo like a goddess while she bosses him around and makes a pretence of leaving every time she gets fed up.

Later we might wonder if Ikuyo’s sudden exit from Hachiran’s distant home is more that she missed her daughter than it was boredom with her husband. “I don’t think of her as a mother” each woman says, Ikuyo on learning that Tsuna is dangerously ill, and Tomoko when Nozawa suggests making a detour to visit Ikuyo and Hachiran. Ikuyo, it is true, is a cold woman who abandoned her daughter only to reclaim her in order to sell, later giving up two more children one of whom apparently disappears without trace. The proof of her love is found only in its end, while Tomoko suffers on all the long years otherwise alone, until in an immense act of circularity she at last becomes a kind of mother to another woman’s son.

Forever haunted by the spectre of soldiers, Tomoko loses everything in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but perseveres and rebuilds. She loses everything again in the firebombing of Tokyo, only later remembering her foresight in burying a large collection of crockery in the cellar which might allow her to open a restaurant. She resents her mother but keeps her close, while Ikuyo’s affections seem to ebb and flow as she disappears off to greener pastures only to resurface again when they’ve been thoroughly grazed. A flighty, perhaps selfish woman, Ikuyo too proves unable to sever connection from her daughter. Tomoko disapproves of her mother’s gaudiness, her unbridled lust for life and disregard of social conventions, but the two women are more alike than they first seem – each in their own way fiercely independent and unwilling to allow their desires to be defined or defeated by the world around them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Deep Blue Sea (青い海原, Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1957)

Deep Blue Sea posterHibari Misora turned 20 in 1957, but she’d already been working for eight years and was well on her way to becoming one of the most successful stars of the post-war era. The Deep Blue Sea (青い海原, Aoi Unabara) is one of her earliest grown up musical dramas and finds her sharing the bill with another of the biggest acts of the day in Hachiro Kasuga who, despite being stuck in second lead limbo, does the bulk of the musical heavy lifting. It also sees her star opposite an actor who would become her frequent leading man which might come as something of a surprise to those most familiar with his later work – Ken Takakura, then very fresh faced and playing the juvenile lead.

The action begins with Takakura’s Ken as the stranger who walks into town. In fact he’s not that much of a stranger – he runs into an acquaintance, Saburo (Hachiro Kasuga), right away, but he’s come on a mission. He’s looking for the friend of a man who died in an accident on his boat in order to give him a photograph and some money he’d saved for the daughter he had to leave behind. Before any of that happens, however, he ends up in a meet cute with Misora’s Harumi who manages to tip a whole bucket of water over him, and then later a jug of beer when he fetches up at the bar where she works (and where Saburo is a regular). As coincidence would have it, the man Ken is looking for also lives at the bar and is actually Harumi’s father. Harumi never knew she was adopted and is stunned when she overhears the conversation between the two men but decides to go on pretending not to know anything.

The real drama revolves around a lecherous gangster, Sakazaki (Isamu Yamaguchi), who is having an “affair” with the owner of the bar where Harumi and her dad live. He’s taken a liking to Harumi who wants nothing to do with him, but when her dad gets into an accident and needs money for medical treatment, Saburo makes a deal and unwittingly gives him an additional angle to start railroading Harumi into his arms.

Director Tsuneo Kobayashi would later be best known for genre pieces and tokusatsu. Besides some quite beautiful and unusually convincing work with backdrops, there are no shocks or special effects in Deep Blue Sea but there is plenty of music, most of it sung by Hachiro Kasuga with Misora taking centre stage for a few solo numbers of her own as well as humming an odd tune here and there. Despite not being an integrated musical (all of the songs have a diegetic genesis) and in contrast with many of Misora’s films, The Deep Blue Sea is otherwise a fairly typical musical drama in which the songs drive the narrative rather than being an aside to it.

It does however begin to blur genres, shifting into familiar Toei territory with the introduction of the sleazy yakuza tough guys who are willing to go to quite a lot of trouble to ruin the life of an ordinary girl like Harumi. The central romance follows a familiar pattern as Ken comes to care about Harumi and her dad through his connection with her birth father and becomes their noble protector, while Saburo, who’d silently harboured a crush on Harumi all along hovers sadly on the sidelines, wanting to support his friends in their romantic endeavour but also somewhat grateful when Ken decides to sacrifice himself on Harumi’s behalf. Ken’s sacrifice, however, doesn’t entirely work – you can’t get rid of men like Sakazaki through honest or logical ways and simply paying them off is never enough, in fact it might just make everything worse.

The Deep Blue Sea may be a little darker than most musical romances with its seedy port town setting, gangsters, smuggling action, and the constant sense of things always floating away with the boats that come and go, but in true musical fashion it all works out in the end. Despite learning that she is adopted and that a wealthier blood relative was keen to take her in, Harumi chooses to stay with her adopted father, steadfastly choosing real feeling over blood ties or pragmatic concerns – unlike the greedy bar owner who steals the money her father left her, or the nefarious gangster who tries to manipulate her into giving up her principles and stepping into his world of betrayal and avarice. As usual for a Toei film, the forces of good (for a given definition of “good”) eventually triumph and the bad pay for all their mistakes while the merely unlucky accept their fates with good grace and resolve to make the most of new opportunities. It may not have made any great waves, but The Deep Blue Sea is cheerful and fun and chock full of post-war humanism as the noble Ken comes to the rescue of the goodhearted Harumi and her steadfast father to stand up against the forces of corruption.


Some of Hibari’s musical numbers (no subtitles)

The Vampire Doll (幽霊屋敷の恐怖 血を吸う人形, Michio Yamamoto, 1970)

Vampire doll posterIn a roundabout way, Toho can almost be thought of as the most “international” of mainstream Japanese cinemas operating in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Though their view of “the foreign” was not always positive, their forays into science fiction often made a point of the need for international co-operation to combat extraterrestrial threats and “Interpol” became a (slightly humorous) fixture in the studio’s small number of sci-fi inflected spy films. If the spy movies were an attempt to echo the increasing ‘70s cold-war paranoia coupled by post-Bond camp, Toho was also looking overseas for inspiration in its wider genre output which is presumably how they wound up adding Hammer-esque vampire horror to their tokusatsu world.

The Vampire Doll (幽霊屋敷の恐怖 血を吸う人形, Yurei Yashiki no Kyofu: Chi wo Su Ningyo) draws influence both from classic European gothic and, perhaps less predictably, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to create a new hybrid horror model which effectively merges the Western “vampire” mythology with the “traditional” long haired, grudge bearing ghost. The tale begins with a young man who has recently been “abroad” for a number of months and has been looking forward to reuniting with his fiancée. When Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) reaches the gothic country mansion owned the family of Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi), his longed for love, he learns that she has, unfortunately, passed away in a car crash just two weeks previously. Heartbroken he decides to stay over but is unable to sleep, not because of the grief or shock, but because of strange noises and the conviction that he has seen Yuko wandering around the house. Visiting her grave the next day, he finally meets her but she seems “different” and tearfully asks him to end her life.

Cut to the city, Sagawa’s sister Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) wakes up from a nightmare in which Yuko killed her brother and tries to cancel a date with her boyfriend to go look for him. Keiko’s boyfriend Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) eventually agrees to drive her to Yuko’s country pile to help investigate. On arrival, Yuko’s mother Shidu (Yoko Minakaze) tells them Sagawa left in heartbreak the day before, but Keiko doesn’t believe her and the couple fake car trouble to stay the night and investigate further.

Yamamoto’s film does indeed raid classic vampire movie tropes and mine them for all they’re worth. The curiously gothic architecture is explained away by Shidu’s husband having been a diplomat who developed a fondness for the European while overseas, but the presence of the hunched over, barely verbal servant Genzo (Kaku Takashina) seems a much more obvious Hammer homage. Shidu laments that the house is now “very old” and crumbling, a remnant of a pre-war world of lingering feudalism, all faded grandeur and declining influence – a fitting seat for a vampiric meditation of changing class and value systems with its kimono’d mistress and seemingly incongruous temporality.

Yet Yuko, not quite a “vampire” as we would usually think of them, is an extension of the traditional ghost story villainess rather than the sex crazed bloodsucker of European literature. Once again, the war is raised as a partial explanation of the tragedies which have befallen the family, if in a more logical fashion than the otherwise outlandish narrative would imply. Shidu carries a prominent scar across her neck – the mark of having tried to take her own life after a frustrated demobbed soldier massacred the family on learning that the woman he loved had married someone else while he was away fighting. This is apparently the origin of Yuko’s grudge (as the film clumsily explains), leaving her with a profound sense of rage against the world that killed her mother’s husband as well as intense resentment that she would die mere days before true happiness was finally in her grasp after enduring so much suffering.

Yuko may put on the billowing white nightgown of the repressed vampiress, her hair a flowing a chestnut-brown, but her blood lust is born of vengeance – she craves destruction rather than satisfaction. Toho flexes its tokusatsu muscles as lightning forks over the gothic mansion, perfectly achieving the air of oppressive supernatural unease provoked by the claustrophobic Western estate which seems to have even the local residents resolved to take the long way home to avoid it. Fusing European gothic with Japanese ghost story, Yamamoto’s first “vampire” movie is an unusual take on the material, refusing the foreign origins of the demonic for a homegrown tale of violence and tragedy consuming the life of a young woman attempting to find happiness in the rapidly changing post-war society.


The Vampire Doll is the first of three films included in Arrow’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy box set which also includes extensive liner notes by Jasper Sharp detailing the history of vampires and horror cinema in Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Woman in the Typhoon Area (颱風圏の女, Hideo Oba, 1948)

vlcsnap-2017-12-14-23h50m20s302Setsuko Hara acquired the nickname “the eternal virgin” from her fans inspired by the genial ingenue roles she was most associated with especially in her long career with Yasujiro Ozu in which she often played a reluctant daughter finally getting married (though only at the end of the picture). The nickname took on something of an ironic quality after her abrupt retirement from the acting world in which, rather than getting married, she remained single and locked herself away in her quaint little house in Kamakura, refusing all subsequent requests relating to showbiz. Woman in the Typhoon Area (颱風圏の女, Taifuken no Onna) is a rare entry in her filmography in which she plays completely against type (and does so brilliantly) as a damaged, brassy, and sensual woman caught up in a storm of her own as the sole female between a gang of vicious smugglers and a nerdy group of weather scientists marooned on an island by a typhoon.

As the film opens, the smugglers have been spotted by the coastguard and are engaged in a lengthy firefight trying to escape. Eventually they manage to evade government forces, but they’re way off course and running out of fuel while one of their number is also badly injured. Luckily they eventually run into an island which is home to a Japanese weather station. Unfortunately, the weather station has received a telegram from the coastguard and works out who the smugglers are. There isn’t enough fuel or food for the smugglers to steal and escape, but even if there were the approaching typhoon means it would be unwise to try.

The set-up is uncannily close to that of John Huston’s Key Largo, released the same year, though the tiny band of smugglers is nowhere near as intimidating as Edward G. Robinson’s band of thugs, nor are they particularly emblematic of a persistent lingering threat of fascism in the rise of bullies making their way through fear. What the smugglers are is mildly pathetic and intensely self interested. The weather station staff, government officials, are the good guys but they’re also easily cowed by three men (and a sympathetic/indifferent woman) with a single gun. The major conflict is over control of the radio which the smugglers have temporarily broken in fear of someone calling the coastguard. The weathermen want to repair it because it’s imperative they let the surrounding area know that a dangerous typhoon is on the way.

Like many films of the immediate post-war era, the central theme is one of the common good vs selfish interest. The radio operator, Amano (Jun Usami), is determined to act for “the common good” and is confident that he is the sort of person who will do the “right” thing at the right time. The smugglers don’t particularly care if a lot of people end up dying because they weren’t warned about the storm as long as they don’t get caught by the coast guard. For Kijima (So Yamamura), the boss of the smugglers, all that matters is strength – a strong man will never kneel but Amano would kneel if it meant he could get up later and do the right the thing even if it then costs him his life.

Where gangster narratives are often about surrogate families, the band of smugglers actively rejects familial bonds and only maintains cohesion through shared suspicion. Kuriko (Setsuko Hara) is Kijima’s girl, but Kataoka (Isao Yamaguchi) continually goes behind his boss’ back to seduce her finally even attempting rape. Though second mate Yoshii (Eijiro Tono) may seem more loyal, he too holds little love for his boss and will betray him if he thinks Kijima no longer strong enough to rule. Trapped within the claustrophobic environment of the weather station, the gang destroys itself in petty rivalries and long standing suspicions. Kijima was right when he said you couldn’t trust anyone on a ship, but he can’t trust his guys on land either.

The war is an obvious and recurrent theme but Kuriko’s troubles were only exacerbated rather than caused by it. An abandoned child, she recounts eating cold rice with strangers at 11 and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what she means when she says she remembers the name of her first man but not his face. Kuriko is a good girl turned bad by persistent social indifference and subsequent trauma experienced as a nurse in frontline field hospitals. She’s distant and embittered, living as a man on ship, dressing in slacks and shirts and chain smoking her life away. Trapped in the station and exposed to the “goodness” of Amano she starts dressing in more feminine fashions and reconsidering her gangster lifestyle. Though she starts to change, helps the weather station to save the locals, it’s clear that it’s already too late for her to save herself other than through a final act of sacrifice in service of a new ideal and an old love.

Only 70 minutes long Woman in the Typhoon Area is a taught, tense character piece which doesn’t quite manage to make the most of its intensely claustrophobic settings but still manages to reinforce its central message of selfishness being bad and altruism good. Hara is a revelation in such an unusual role, stealing each and every scene in steely uncertainty, giving the impression of a woman whose ongoing fall is as much a willing act of self harm as it is a natural consequence of her impossible circumstances.