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. 


Inn of Evil (いのちぼうにふろう, Masaki Kobayashi, 1971)

inn-of-evil“Sometimes it feels good to risk your life for something other people think is stupid”, says one of the leading players of Masaki Kobayashi’s strangely retitled Inn of Evil (いのちぼうにふろう, Inochi Bonifuro), neatly summing up the director’s key philosophy in a few simple words. The original Japanese title “Inochi Bonifuro” means something more like “To Throw One’s Life Away”, which more directly signals the tragic character drama that’s about to unfold. Though it most obviously relates to the decision that this gang of hardened criminals is about to make, the criticism is a wider one as the film stops to ask why it is this group of unusual characters have found themselves living under the roof of the Easy Tavern engaged in benign acts of smuggling during Japan’s isolationist period.

Led by the innkeeper Ikuzo (Kan’emon Nakamura), the Easy Tavern is, effectively, the hideout of a smuggling gang conveniently located on a small island in the middle of a river where they can unload goods from the Dutch boats before shipping them on to Edo. Everything had been running smoothly, but the friendly policeman has been moved on and the new guy seems very straight laced. The gang’s routine existence changes one night when they receive two unexpected visitors – a young man they save from a beating in the street, and a drunk who wanders in looking for sake. The younger man, Tomijiro (Kei Yamamoto), brings a sad story with him in that all of his troubles have been caused by trying to save the woman he loves from being sold to a brothel. Moved by Tomijiro’s innocent ardour, even the most hardhearted residents of the Easy Tavern become determined to help him. Accepting a job everyone had a bad feeling about in order to get the money for Tomijiro to buy back his lady love before it’s too late, the gang’s unusual decision to risk their lives for someone else’s happiness may be the first and last time they ever do so.

The residents of the Easy Tavern have various different backstories, but the thing they all have in common is having been rejected by mainstream society at some point in their lives. The most high profile, Sadashichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), is known as “The Indifferent” which is both apt and slightly ironic. Sullen and cynical, he puts on a show about caring for nothing and no one but, as inn keeper’s daughter Omitsu (Komaki Kurihara) has figured out, it’s more that the opposite it true – he cares too much about everything. Abandoned as a child, Sadashichi’s sad story is that he once thought his saw his mother long after they were separated but killed her because she’d fallen into prostitution. Then again, perhaps it was just a woman who looked like her, or perhaps he made he whole thing up. Coming across a lost baby bird shortly after killing a man, Sadashichi is determined to look after it but is later distressed by the words of the drunk who reminds him that the bird’s mother is probably going crazy with worry. Sadashichi may identify with this lost little bird, but his empathy also extends to Tomijiro’s plight as his plaintive looks and gloomy face prompt him into action, if only to make them go away.

Similarly, the other members including “The Living Buddha” – a rabidly bisexual former monk thrown out of his temple for his lascivious ways, an effeminate homeless man, a stutterer, and an invalid all have reasons for living outside the law. As the sympathetic inn keeper later tries to explain to a policeman, most of these men are people who’ve faced rejection in one way or another. Craving sympathy, they’ve turned violent and suspicious, pushed away from the very things they wanted most. Far from an Inn of Evil, the Easy Tavern is the only place where these people have been able to find acceptance, building a community of lost souls from those cast out from society at large.

The decision to try and help Tomijiro to rescue his childhood sweetheart, cruelly sold by her selfish and uncaring father, is, in once sense, a selfless one but perhaps also reminds them of all the times they were also betrayed or abandoned and no one came to help. Even knowing the plan is unlikely to end well, the inn keeper is proud of his men’s decision, if they didn’t try to help the girl no one else would. They may be throwing their lives away in a pointless endeavour, but if they don’t at least try then what’s the point in living at all. This more than anything expresses Kobayashi’s constant preoccupation throughout his career in pointing to the essential goodness of those who refuse to simply accept acts of injustice as normal and stand up to oppose them, even if their resistance will produce little or no actual change.

Filming in a crisp black and white, Kobayashi creates an eerie atmosphere aided by Toru Takemitsu’s strangely ethereal score. The world of the The Easy Tavern is a dark one in which cruelty and betrayal lie at every turn and men ruin themselves through thoughtless and reckless decisions, but the best of humanity is to be found among this gang of outlaws who collectively decide it’s world risking their lives for someone else’s love story. Filled with impressive visual imagery including the strange sight of the looming bright white police lanterns and the impressively staged last stand as Sadashichi holds off the troops for Tomijiro to escape, Inn of Evil is a tightly controlled, minutely detailed character drama in which men who’d throw their lives away for nothing find that their sacrifice has not been in vain.


 

Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船, Sadao Yamanaka, 1937)

Humanity and Paper BalloonsThat Humanity and Paper Balloons (人情紙風船, Ninjo Kami Fusen) would turn out to be the final film of its director is just one of its cruel ironies. Sadao Yamanaka was one of the most promising young directors of the 1930s, but his career was ultimately cut short by historical circumstance as, despite his leftist views, he found himself drafted into the army and dispatched to the Manchurian front where he later died in a field hospital at only 28 years old. The film both begins and ends with suicide – an acknowledgement of the crushing hopelessness of the feudal society in which humanity itself is as fragile, transient, and often overlooked as a paper balloon. Necessarily bleak, but not absent of humour (at least of the gallows kind) Humanity and Paper Balloons neatly reframes the Edo era not as one of a glorious lost past where honourable men presided over a carefully controlled social order but one where the elites were absent, crime was rampant, and and promises were always “a series of possibilities”.

The scene opens with panic. A down on his luck samurai is dead by his own hand. So destitute was he, that he’s hanged himself – armed only with a bamboo sword he couldn’t even die in a manner befitting his social class. People are beginning to wonder if this is an “unlucky” street – this has been the third such suicide of recent times. Meanwhile, barber and upstart Shinzo has been conducting secret gambling sessions in local kingpin Yatagoro’s territory so his guys are out for blood. Neighbouring ronin Unno, whose wife manufactures the titular paper balloons, is convinced that a low level samurai who owes his status to the support of Unno’s now deceased father will help him as soon as he reads the letter his father wrote on his deathbed. Mori, however, is in no way interested and is currently in negotiations to “adopt” the daughter of a local merchant so she can be married to a noble samurai who otherwise would lose face in marrying down. Said daughter, Omoka, is not happy about this arrangement as she is in love with her father’s clerk, Chushichi. When Shinzo decides to kidnap Omoka, getting Unno involved by hiding her at his house, a series of unfortunate consequences ensue.

The world of the jidaigeki is often an idealised one. Centring on the higher echelons, they paint a picture of noble warriors bravely standing up for honour and justice whilst displaying fearsome loyalty to their feudal lords. This is no such idyll – this is a slum where the social classes mingle freely but with invisible barriers still dividing one from the other. The samurai were already in decline and so it was not unusual for the men who grew up in rarified halls to suddenly find themselves cast down into the lower orders without the means to support themselves. The former samurai who hangs himself at the beginning has had enough, evidently, having sold even his sword he finds himself unable to go on.

Unno is in a similarly desperate situation, reliant on the pittance his wife earns making the paper balloons. He still thinks Mori will obey ancient social codes and repay his father’s kindness by supporting him, but Mori has no use for him now and no inclination to follow the ideals of honour which underpin the samurai word. Unno is experiencing a rude awakening to Edo era hypocrisy. In making a rash decision to go along with Shinzo’s scheme, he damns himself in every conceivable way – by dishonouring himself as a samurai, by indulging in illegality, and in merely being a party to someone’s else’s underhanded scheme. “Samurai are wicked these days” say some of the neighbourhood women, not noticing Unno’s wife is just returning from a few days away, unaware of what her husband has been up to in her absence.

The verdict on the samurai class is damning. Honourable men without honour, they use and misuse each other but are entirely unwilling to help out even one of their own fallen on hard times. Yet men like Unno are also victims of their class, suddenly ejected from a life of comfort but with no skills to survive in world of “normal” people. Single men can become wandering ronin, drinking, fighting and whoring their way through life but married, mild mannered men like Unno are left with nothing to live on but resentment.

Yamanaka’s final feature is once again far ahead of its time more resembling the films of twenty years later than those of the mid 1930s. Aiming for a highly detailed approach closer to naturalism than the general trend of the time, Yamanka paints a vivd picture of a claustrophobic world, alive with the struggle of those desperately clawing over each other in order to survive while the landlords enjoy a life of ease in vast mansions surrounded by peace, quiet and open air. Pointedly a comment on the present more than the past, Yamanaka is getting away with much more than you would think possible in the highly pressured world of 1937 following the previous year’s failure of a complex military coup seeking to return power to the emperor in the hopes of a return to feudal style paternalistic socialism. Humanity here is a paper balloon – cheap, fragile, and often unnoticed. That it exists at all is something to be thankful for, but like a paper balloon, humanity requires careful construction and committed maintenance. The plea to the people of 1937 was clear but it is often hard to recognise the importance of so commonplace an object let alone ensure its survival.


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Kochiyama Soshun (河内山宗俊, Sadao Yamanaka, 1936)

kochiyama soshunThe second of the only three extant films directed by Sadao Yamanaka in his intense yet brief career, Kochiyama Soshun (河内山宗俊, oddly retitled “Preist of Darkness” in its English language release) is not as obviously comic or as desperately bleak as the other two but falls somewhere in between with its meandering tale of a stolen (ceremonial) knife which precedes to carve a deep wound into the lives of everyone connected with it. Once again taking place within the realm of the jidaigeki, Kochiyama Soshun focuses more tightly on the lives of the dispossessed, downtrodden, and criminal who invoke their own downfall by attempting to repurpose and misuse the samurai’s symbol of his power, only to find it hollow and void of protection.

The primary players are the virtuous and innocent Onami (Setsuko Hara) who runs a small sweet sake stall and her errant young brother, Hiro, who spends all of his time in a local drinking establishment run by the wife of the titular Kochiyama Soshun. Despite his priestly get up, Kochiyama is a conman, swinder, gambler and petty gangster but for some reason he takes a liking to Hiro not knowing that he’s Onami’s brother because he’s been using the fake name of “Nao” to prevent his sister tracking him down and bringing him home again. There’s a bigger criminal outfit in town run by a guy named Morita but mostly everyone knows Kaneko who comes and collects his protection money. Kaneko also has something of a crush on Onami and generally lets her off the payments.

Everything starts to go very wrong when Hiro pinches the dagger of a careless samurai. It turns out that the sword and dagger set were a gift from his lord who received them from the shogun so this loss is particularly embarrassing and if he were asked to produce the dagger but couldn’t, he’d be duty bound to commit harakiri. Hiro gets himself into even more trouble when he spots a childhood friend working in the red light district and tries to run off with her. If things weren’t difficult enough, Onami is now firmly pulled into his web of trouble as Morita’s gang want the compensation money for the loss of their girl, a sum so vast there is no way Onami could ever be able to repay it leaving her with only one, unthinkable, option.

Everything here is pretence – the “priest” who cheats and gambles, the young man who uses a fake name, the samurai with no real power, and the dagger itself with its uncertain authenticity. Onami is the only true and honest thing in the entire film, unsullied by the meanness of the world which surrounds her, yet even she finds herself sucked in by the reckless actions of her brother. She too becomes a commodity to be bought, traded, and sold, placed as a bargaining chip between the competing forces of Kochiyama and Kaneko. Kaneko, though he works for the “bad guys” is not a bad man (more mirroring) and has a noble heart unwilling to carry out the service of his master when it conflicts with his own desire for justice.

Onami’s essential goodness has infected both of them as they now see that they have lived morally disappointing lives but have also been given a chance for a final bid at redemption, albeit in the service of an idiotic, self centred teenager whose selfish and reckless actions have destabilised the lives of everyone around him. The film ends on a note of uncertainty as one character is permitted to escape with the means to save another in hand, paid for by the sacrifice of others, but whether they will be in time or opt to selfishly run away is very much open for debate.

In a more serious mood here, Yamanaka is less playful than in the more obviously comic Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot but nevertheless continues to push his art to the visible limit. Like Tange Sazen, Kochiyama Soshun is an ensemble led film but its plotting is far more intricate and involved. It’s possible that the film is incomplete, but events often seem hard to follow and we only learn of one extremely important incident during a throwaway conversation between two characters who clearly don’t know its import. Even so it’s no great hardship to piece things together as we go, and Yamanaka makes sure to draw his characters well enough that it doesn’t really matter. Even if the weaker of Yamanaka’s surviving films, Kochiyama Soshun is another characteristically innovative piece filled with wry humour but a fair degree of warmth too.


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