Prison Boss (獄中の顔役, Yasuo Furuhata, 1968)

“Both you and I must do what a man must do and live this life to the very end” according to the melancholy theme song of Yasuo Furuhata’s fatalistic tale of gangster nobility, Prison Boss (獄中の顔役, Gokuchu no Kaoyaku). Another vehicle for tough guy star Ken Takakura, this post-war drama despite the name spends less time in a cell than one might imagine but casts its melancholy hero as a man imprisoned by the times in which he lives, too good to survive in an ignoble society and eventually brought down by his self-destructive need for retributive justice. 

As the film opens, Hayami (Ken Takakura) is goaded into a knife fight with a foot soldier from the evil Honma gang, Tetsu the Viper, and eventually kills him. Stumbling into a nearby bar, his only intention is to do the right thing and turn himself in filled with remorse as he is that he’s offed Tetsu in territory which belongs to “good” mob boss Tajima (Ichiro Ryuzaki). Tajima lives up to his name when some of his guys rescue Hayami and take him to their HQ where the old man insists that he rest and recover from his wounds. Whilst there, Hayami is cared for by Tajima’s teenage daughter Toshiko (Junko Fuji) who falls in love with him and vows to wait while he honours his word and spends seven years in jail for the killing of Tetsu. 

Meanwhile, awkward small-town politics is destabilising the precarious post-war environment as the Honma, embodiments of the new, venal and violent yakuza who care nothing for honour or humanity, are intent on squeezing Tajima’s influence mostly through muscling in on the running of the local bike races for which Tajima currently runs security. Though the Tajima gang is presented as an unambiguous good, the old style noble yakuza who live by a code and care about protecting the little guy, you can’t deny the levels of nepotistic corruption on display at the local council meetings given that the mayor and Tajima are apparently childhood friends while his rival shouts about allowing yakuza too much sway in politics while in the pay of Honma. 

Nevertheless, the central drama exists solely in the soul of Hayami who emerges from seven years in prison into this already destabilised environment owing a debt of honour to Tajima. Not quite a yakuza, he feels himself a perpetual other forever tainted by his crime having lost the right to live as other men live. Thus he struggles with discovering that Toshiko has also remained true to her word, having waited for him all this time running a small coffee bar rather than getting married. Even so, he finds himself dragged back into yakuza drama avenging the death of a Tajima man gunned down by Honma and thereby ending up back inside where he’s reunited with another childhood friend, Kurosaki (Ryo Ikebe), who’s been far less fortunate and is now affiliated with Honma.  

Kurosaki and veteran prisoner Pops (Shogo Shimada) are perhaps both mirrors of Hayami’s internal conflict, Kurosaki like him bound by a code but forced to act in ways which betray his own sense of honour and humanity and eventually paying a heavy price for doing so. Pops meanwhile as a man nearing the end of his life tries to talk him down from the road of destructive nobility, reminding him that he has a choice and ought to choose himself rather continuing to suffer for an outdated ideal. Hayami’s selflessness, his oft remarked tendency to disregard his own interest to protect others (the true mark of the noble gangster), is his weakness and fatal flaw. A yakuza’s daughter, Toshiko understands the code of manliness well enough and even she eventually tells him to run, to abandon his revenge and live free rather than becoming just another sacrifice on the altar of yakuza honour, but of course a man has to do what a man has to do. 

Though Hayami himself becomes a big man in prison, it’s Honma to whom the film’s title primarily refers hinting at the corruption involved in a society in which it is perfectly possible (and in some ways advantageous) to continue running a yakuza gang from behind bars, while the central crisis also turns on post-war desperation in betting all on controlling the lucrative bicycle races. In such a world as this, there’s precious little room for the noble gangster who must in the end damn himself if only to redeem it. 


Murder of the Inugami Clan (犬神家の一族, Kon Ichikawa, 2006)

the inugami family 2006 posterBeginning his career in the late 1940s, Kon Ichikawa was a contemporary of the leading lights of Japanese cinema during the golden age though has never quite achieved the level of international acclaim awarded to studio mate Akira Kurosawa. Unlike Kurosawa however, whose career floundered the wake of the studio system’s collapse, Ichikawa was able to go on making films through the difficult years of the 70s and 80s precisely because he was willing to take on projects that were purely commercial in nature. His biggest box office hit was an adaptation of the Seishi Yokomizo novel The Inugami Family which led to a further four films starring the author’s eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi. 30 years later, in what would turn out to be his final film, Ichikawa took the unusual step of remaking his biggest commercial success and even more unusually decided to recast several of the same actors in their original roles.

The script remains almost identical to the 1976 version though slightly slimmer. In 1947, pharmaceuticals magnate Sahei Inugami (Tatsuya Nakadai) dies leaving a confusing will which upsets absolutely everyone – not least his three daughters whom he fathered with three different women none of whom he was legally married to. Sahei has elected to leave the bulk of his estate to a young lady, Tamayo (Nanako Matsushima), who is not part of the family, on the condition that she marry one of his grandsons though he stresses that she is free to choose. If she chooses to marry someone else, the estate will be split between the three grandsons and another illegitimate son fathered with a maid whose whereabouts are apparently unknown. With such a vast fortune at stake, it is not long before the first murder occurs.

The most major difference between the 1976 and 2006 versions is, perhaps counterintuitively, the budget. Whereas the 1976 version had been one of the “taisaku” prestige pictures which dominated the mainstream cinema of the era and had the marketing genius of a young Haruki Kadokawa behind it, the 2006 version is a much more modest affair with minimal production values and a noticeably unfussy approach. The 1976 version, like the other instalments in the ‘70s series, also boasted a starry cast including golden age star Mieko Takamine, even employing Kyoko Kishida in a tiny two scene role as a blind koto teacher. Perhaps the strangest and most experimental choice made by Ichikawa in terms of his “remake”, is the one to cast original star Koji Ishizaka as the eccentric detective, reprising his role from the earlier film 30 years later. In fact, many of the other characters whose ages are not important are also played by the original actors including the bumbling policeman (Takeshi Kato) and his sidekick who appear throughout the series (comedy director Koki Mitani makes a noted cameo in the spot occupied by Seishi Yokomizo in the original adaptation).

The recasting adds to the level of uncanniness created by the dissonance between the opulence of the 76 version, and the austerity of that from 2006. This time around, Ichikawa shoots in 16:9 rather than (the then) TV friendly 4:3, but in the scaled back hyperrealist style common to lower budget dramas from the 2000s. The flat digital cinematography only serves to add to the general lifelessness of the drama which features only the main players, the sole crowd scene occurring during a flashback to the repatriation shot to match the accompanying stock footage just as in the 1976 version. Whereas Ishizaka and the other veterans are mainly acting within the broader yet largely naturalistic style of 70s cinema, the younger members have adopted the decidedly theatrical tones common in contemporary indie drama which somewhat undercuts the strange mix of camp fun and serious drama which had defined the Kindaichi series.

In contrast to the ‘70s movies, Ichikawa plays it uncharacteristically safe – opting for many of the same techniques but reining them in, using plain black and white instead of negative, easing back on the gore, and lowering the level of violence. The results are decidedly mixed and though the central mystery has not changed, the 2006 edition proves a much less satisfactory experience that does not so much attempt to recapture the strange magic of the original as throw it into contrast through its absence. The story of the Inugami murders is, like many a Kindaichi mystery, one less of greed and selfishness than the lasting effects of repression, frustrated desires, and difficult loves and as such it is timeless, yet lightning doesn’t strike twice and Ichikawa’s second attempt at bottling it only goes to show that there’s little to gain in slavishly aping the past.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその-, Shun Nakahara, 2008)

The Cherry Orchard- Blossoming poster In 1990, Shun Nakahara adapted Akimi Yoshida’s manga Sakura no Sono and created a perfectly observed capsule of late ‘80s teenage life at an elite girls school where the encroaching future is both terrifying and oddly exciting. Revisiting the same material 28 years later, one can’t help feeling that the times have rolled back rather than forwards. Starring a collection of appropriately aged teenage starlets The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその- Sakura no Sono), dispenses with the arty overtones for a far more straightforward tale of melancholy schoolgirls finding release in art but, crucially, only to a point.

Less an attempt to remake the original, Blossoming acts as an odd kind of sequel in which the leading lady, Momo (Saki Fukuda), becomes fed up with her rigid life at a music conservatoire and rebelliously storms out. Already in her last year of high school, Momo is lucky enough to get a transfer to Oka Academy solely because her mother and (much) older sister are old girls. However, transfer students are rare at Oka and the other girls aren’t exactly happy to see her – they worked hard to get here but she’s just waltzed straight in without any kind of effort at all.

Gradually the situation improves. Wandering around the old school building (a European style country house) which was the setting for the first film and has now been replaced with a modern, purpose built high school complex, Momo finds the script for The Cherry Orchard and becomes fixated on the idea of putting the play on with some of the other students. However, though The Cherry Orchard used to be an annual fixture it hasn’t been performed in 11 years after being abruptly cancelled when one of the stars disgraced the school by falling pregnant.

Whereas Nakahara’s 1990 Cherry Orchard was a tightly controlled affair, penning the girls inside the school and staying with them through several crises across the two hours before their big performance, Blossoming has no such conceits and adopts a formula much more like the classic sports movie as the underdog girls fight to put the play on and then undergo physical training (complete with montages) rather than rehearsals.

Momo’s rebellion is (in a sense) a positive one as she abandons something she was beginning to find no longer worked for her to look for something else and also gains a need to see things through rather than give up when times get hard. The drama of the 1990 version is kickstarted when a student is caught smoking in a cafe with delinquents from another school, aside from being told that students are expected to go straight home, Momo feels little danger in hanging out in an underground bar where her music school friend plays in a avant-garde pop band.

Though this reflects a change in eras it also points to a slight sanitisation of the source material. Gone are the illicit boyfriends (though there is one we don’t see) and barely repressed crushes, these teens are still in the land of shojo – dreaming of romance but innocently. Teenage pregnancy becomes a recurrent theme but lost opportunities hover in the background as the girls are seen from their own perspective rather than the wistful melancholy of those looking back on their youth.

Such commentary is left to the “old girls” represented by Momo’s soon to be married sister and the girls’ teacher, each of whom is still left hanging thanks to the cancellation of the play during their high school years. Despite her impending marriage, Momo’s sister does not seem to be able to put the past behind her and may be nursing a long term unrequited crush on a high school classmate. Blossoming echoes some of the concerns of Cherry Orchard, notably in its central pairing as lanky high jumper Aoi (Anne Watanabe) worries over a perceived lack of femininity while the more refined Mayuko (Saki Terashima) silently pines for her, unable to make her feelings plain. The 1990 version presented a painful triangle of possibly unrequited loves and general romantic confusion but it did at least allow a space for overt discussion rather than the half hearted subtly of a mainstream idol film in a supposedly more progressive era.

Nevertheless, Nakahara’s second pass at teenage drama does fulfil on the plucky high school girls promise as the gang get together to put the show on right here. Much less nuanced than the earlier version, Blossoming’s teens are just as real even if somehow more naive than their ‘80s counterparts. Team building, friendship, and perseverance are the name of the day as the passing of time takes a back seat, relegated to Momo’s sad smile as she alone witnesses the painful love drama of her melancholy friend.


Original trailer (no subtitles)