The Thief in Black (黒の盗賊, Umetsugu Inoue, 1964)

Best known as a master of the musical, Umetsugu Inoue had a long and varied filmography embracing almost every genre imaginable. He began his career at Shintoho and later joined Nikkatsu where he quickly became an in demand director often working with top star Yujiro Ishihara, but took the somewhat unusual step of going freelance in 1960 thereafter working at various studios including Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. 1964’s The Thief in Black (黒の盗賊, Kuro no Tozoku) is not a musical but is characteristically playful even within the confines of the lighter side of Toei’s jidaigeki adventures. 

Set between the Battle of Sekigahara and the Siege of Osaka, the samurai corruption in play is essentially the burgeoning Tokugawa dictatorship, the heroes eventually uncovering Ieyasu’s secret plan for making sure his line (well, more himself in essence) remains in power for perpetuity through an insidious plot to weaken the feudal lords and ensure their loyalty to him. Meanwhile, the still developing city of Edo is beginning to turn against the Tokugawa who seem to be intent on exploiting ordinary people to enrich themselves most obviously through forcing the local workforce to renovate Edo castle rather than cleaning up the town which is apparently rampant with crime. Faced with such lack of leadership, the townspeople have come to admire a Robin Hood-like vigilante known only as the Thief in Black who alone is resisting overreaching lords. 

Part of the problem is that Ieyasu’s rule is still insecure because of the potential threat of Hideyori Toyotomi in Osaka. Consequently, they are fearful that some of the men working on the castle may be Toyotomi spies or otherwise disclose information that might benefit him if he chose to attack which is why they’ve refused the workers permission to return home to their families during the pause before beginning the second phase of works leading to further unrest. Meanwhile, corrupt local lord Tadakatsu (Ryutaro Otomo) and his sleazy priest buddy Tenkai (Minoru Chiaki) have an even darker plan in mind, preparing to simply kill the five master craftsmen in charge to ensure they present no threat. Alerted to the situation on the ground by idealistic samurai Jiro (Hashizo Okawa), their boss instructs Tadakatsu in no uncertain terms that he must treat the workers fairly in order to prevent civil unrest and/or disillusionment with the Tokugawa regime but the pair are entirely unfazed and determined to go on with their nefarious plan getting rid of Jiro if the occasion arises. 

As we later discover and in a typical jidaigeki plot device, Jiro is one of a pair of twins with his brother Kotaro (also Hashizo Okawa) abandoned because of the superstitious belief that multiple births are inauspicious. Though both men unwittingly lay claim to the name, Kotaro turns out to be the masked vigilante, his primary cause to regain the lands of the family who raised him unfairly displaced from their estates on the Musashino plains because of Tokugawa greed. Though Jiro, raised as a member of the establishment, is originally loyal to the Tokugawa who have after all brought about an era of peace, he soon begins to see that their rule is no good for the people of Edo. In his more egalitarian worldview, only by enriching the poor can they secure their rule which means less castle building and more infrastructural development along with paying people fairly for their work and absolutely not killing them afterwards. Kotaro too claims that his rebellion is for the good of the common people though unlike Jiro is much more transgressive in his ideology prepared to shake off his samurai status to become a wandering outlaw rather than content himself with the restrictive life of the heir to a samurai clan. 

Such messages are perhaps common in Toei’s brand of jidaigeki but seem unusually pronounced as the peasant workers are often given voice to lament their fate and resist their oppression more directly, pointing the finger not just at a rogue rotten lord but at the entire system built on exploiting their labour. Nevertheless, Inoue injects a hearty dose of whimsical humour to the politically charged narrative even going so far as to include a bumbling ninja claiming to be the famous Hattori Hanzo along with a comic relief magistrate and former samurai brothel owner taking his own kind of ironic revenge in getting the cowardly lords hooked on modernity with a load of faulty rifles. Obviously, Ieyasu couldn’t be stopped, but perhaps they slowed him down and reminded him of the dangers of underestimating the people. Shot with Inoue’s characteristic flare if remaining largely within the Toei house style, Thief in Black is a surprisingly direct attack on corrupt and entitled government but also a righteous romp as its idealistic heroes shuffle themselves back into their ideal positions while fighting Tokugawa oppression all the way. 


Murder Unincorporated (大日本殺し屋伝, Haryasu Noguchi, 1965)

0089_86_MURDER_UN-INCORPORATED“If you don’t laugh when you see this movie, I’m going to execute you” abacus wielding hitman Komatsu warns us at the beginning of Haryasu Noguchi’s Murder Unincorporated (大日本殺し屋伝, Dai Nihon Koroshiya-den). Luckily for us, it’s unlikely he’ll be forced to perform any “calculations”, and the only risk we currently run is that of accidentally laughing ourselves to death as we witness the absurd slapstick adventures of Japan’s craziest hitman convention when the nation’s “best” (for best read “most unusual”) contract killers descend on a small town looking for “Joe of Spades” – a mysterious assassin known only by the mole on the sole of his foot.

After the amusing Bond style opening, we witness the first victim of Joe of Spades who happens to be one of the five top gangsters in town. Sure enough, the other four then receive a threatening phone call to the effect that they’re next in line for a bullet in the brain. After ringing up an assassins agency and holding a series of auditions, the head honchos wind up with a gang of hitmen bodyguards each of whom have their own theme and wacky back story.

The leader of the gang is Heine Maki – a poetry loving, bowler hatted killer whose signature weapon is a heavy book of poems with a gun hidden inside,. He’s joined by O.N. Kane – an ex-baseball player who missed out on the major leagues through being too good and carries a baseball bat that’s really a gun, “Knife” Tatsu – ex-sushi chef knife thrower with an intense fear of fish, Al Capone III – a midget who claims to be the Japanese grandson of Al Capone and is obsessed with the Untouchables TV show, and of course Komatsu himself whose signature move is to throw his abacus in the air and invite chaos in the process.

The guys are really a little more than this small town can handle though they quickly discover the situation is nowhere near as straightforward as they thought and wind up facing off against some equally eccentric foes. That’s not to mention the mama-san at Bar Joker who turns out to be at the center of the case and a local mechanic who’s suspiciously handy with a pistol.

There really are no words to describe the quick fire, extremely zany universe in which Murder Unincorporated takes place. This is a world ruled by crime in which each of our “heroes” showcase extremely sad backstories which explain why they had absolutely no choice but to turn to killing people to survive. Take “Knife” Tatsu for example, he became a hitman because he was unable to kill the fish gasping away on his cutting board so he decided to kill people instead. O.N. Kane turned murderous after being let down in his baseball dream, Heine has a romantic tale of lost love, Capone III simply has it in the blood, and Komatsu? He wants to be a pharmacist…

This is all inspired by legendary Japanese funnyman Kobako Hanato who is famous for his Southern Japan flavoured absurd comedy routines. Kon Ohmura, who plays Komatsu, was one of his top collaborators for a time and became one of Japan’s all time great comedians. Meta quips such as remarking that the police are about to turn up “for the first time in this film” and involved jokes like the one that sees Komatsu tracking down identical “Joes” in varieties club, diamond, heart (amusingly, dressed as a geisha and playing pachinko), before heading into a punchline it would be a crime to spoil only add to the feeling that absolutely anything could happen and that would be perfectly OK.

Director Noguchi mostly keeps things straightforward but builds a fantastic comedic rhythm managing the quick fire dialogue and general absurdity with ease. Much of the film is told in flashback or reverie but the device never becomes old so much as easily syncing with with general tone of the film. There are some more unusual sequences such the opening itself, keyhole view, and a later sequence where we see directly though Komatsu’s big square glasses but otherwise the deadpan filming approach boosts the inherent comedy in the increasingly surreal situations. Quirky, oddly innocent, absurd, and just extremely laugh out loud funny, Murder Unincorporated is a world away from Nikkatsu’s po-faced crime dramas but exists in a crazy cartoon world all of its own that proves near impossible to resist!


Murder Unincorporated is the third and final film included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.