Poem (哥, Akio Jissoji, 1972)

Poem dvd coverThere might be a temptation to view Akio Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy” as an intensely Japanese affair given its obvious preoccupation with Eastern religious thought and background dialogue with the political confusion of the day, but like fellow New Wave outsider Kiju Yoshida, Jissoji had studied French literature and there is something classically European about his nihilistic ennui in the midst of a decaying social order. Poem (, Uta), the trilogy’s final instalment, bears this out most of all as the servant boy of a noble house, secretly its spiritual heir, alone attempts to resist the march of time to save the natural essence of a culture about to eclipse itself in consumerist emptiness.

Jun (Saburo Shinoda), a strange young man, is a servant/legal clerk to a lawyer, Yasushi (Shin Kishida), who is the oldest son of the Moriyama family. Though he has inherited stewardship of the house and mountains, Yasushi and his wife Natsuko (Eiko Yanami) long to break free of its traditionalist constraints by ripping it apart and replacing tatami mat comfort with Western modernity. They can’t do that, however, because old Moriyama (Kanjuro Arashi), Yasushi’s father, is still alive and Yasushi doesn’t particularly want to have to talk to him. Meanwhile, the spacious mansion is also shared by a legal student, Wada (Ryo Tamura), who is kind of interning with Yasushi while repeatedly failing the bar exam, and the family’s maid Fujino (Hiroko Sakurai).   

Unlike Yasushi, Jun sees his life’s purpose as serving the Moriyama family. Intensely worried that a fire may engulf this fine house built with only the best Japanese cedar, Jun gets up every night at midnight and patrols with an electric torch, looking for loose sparks. One night he finds some, though not the kind he was expecting, on accidentally witnessing Wada make love to Fujino. Apparently uninterested, Jun looks it over and moves on while the lady of the house, Natsuko, starved of affection by her impotent husband, finds herself stirred by such unexpected eroticism.

Yasushi’s physical impotence is perhaps merely a manifestation emasculated powerlessness as the oldest son of a noble house who, nevertheless, wields no real power and is entirely unable to make decisions for himself. Yet his big case at work is thrown into confusion when his social climbing client suddenly tries to have his partner, Arita (Haruhiko Okamura), removed days before the court hearing because it might look nicer to have someone of Moriyama’s standing representing him. Even so, Yasushi is so clueless with the modern world that he needs Jun, a calligraphy enthusiast and advocate for the old, to operate the photocopier because he doesn’t know how (and neither does Wada). Only Jun, in another contradiction, insists on working to rule and leaving at 5pm because his “main job” is protecting the house and serving the Moriyama family, not Yasushi. Jun allows himself to be seduced by Natusko on the grounds that if she does not receive sexual satisfaction inside the house she will need to look for it outside which could bring shame on the Moriyama name. Finding out his wife is sleeping with another man, the weird servant boy no less, Yasushi doesn’t even care (besides being mildly turned on), as long as she doesn’t do anything which might arouse “rumours”.

The dirty secret that neither Yasushi or his debauched brother Toru (Eishin Tono) know is that Jun, whose name means “pure”, is their illegitimate half-brother that their father had with a maid. As we later discover, old Moriyama plans to divide his estate not in two but three, believing that it hardly matters anyway because division, in a break with the system of traditional succession by the oldest son, will be the end of the Moriyama family. He may well have a point as neither Yasushi, who eventually abandons the house to Toru and escapes to Kyoto, or his brother are interested in legacy. Once Moriyama passes, they plan to sell the entire plot, mountains and trees and all, to developers. In fact, the house already technically belongs to someone else because as soon as he moved in Toru started taking out exorbitant loans to fund his wastrel playboy lifestyle and has already figured out the jig is up and they’re all broke. Only Jun, who hears the voice of the mountains as if it were the voice of existence itself, is desperate to save the family name though he is at this point almost beyond saving himself.

Looking for the “absolute” in tombstones, Jun is told that only darkness exists inside. Yet he is certain that as long as form survives, content can return. He sees the Moriyamas’ forests as the essence of an older Japan and their untouched natural beauty the rock on which their souls are anchored. Yet his half-brothers oppose him. For them, Japan, even the world, is already ruined and nothing worth protecting remains. Existence itself is nothing more than a dream, and suicide no different. They no longer feel they can live “in such an age”.

Yet Jun, his father’s spiritual heir even if he doesn’t know it, keeps reaching, perhaps not quite hoping but demanding even in his powerlessness which may, in a sense result in a kind of transcendence in its purity. Unlike the ambiguously hopeful ending of This Transient Life, or the urgent ominousness of that of Mandala, Poem ends in defeat and futility, suggesting that time cannot be stopped or progress arrested even by those who seek the eternity of enlightenment. And so Jissoji brings us full circle by showing us a world in entropy unsalvageable in the cruelty of its contradictions.


Poem is the third of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set which also features an introduction and selected scene commentaries by scholar of the Japanese New Wave David Desser plus a 60-page booklet with new writing by Tom Mes and Anton Bitel.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Takashi Nomura, 1967)

colt is my passport posterJo Shishido played his fare share of icy hitmen, but they rarely made it through such seemingly inexorable events as the hero of Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is My Passport (拳銃は俺のパスポート, Colt wa Ore no Passport). The actor, known for his boyishly chubby face puffed up with the aid of cheek implants, floated around the lower end of Nikkatsu’s A-list but by 1967 his star was on the wane even if he still had his pick of cooler than cool tough guys in Nikkatsu’s trademark action B-movies. Mixing western and film noir, A Colt is My Passport makes a virtue of Japan’s fast moving development, heartily embracing the convenience of a society built around the idea of disposability whilst accepting the need to keep one step ahead of the rubbish truck else it swallow you whole.

Kamimura (Joe Shishido) and his buddy Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio) are on course to knock off a gang boss’ rival and then get the hell out of Japan. Kamimura, however, is a sarcastic wiseguy and so his strange sense of humour dictates that he off the guy while the mob boss he’s working for is sitting right next to him. This doesn’t go down well, and the guys’ planned airport escape is soon off the cards leaving them to take refuge in a yakuza safe house until the whole thing blows over. Blowing over, however, is something that seems unlikely and Kamimura is soon left with the responsibility of saving both his brother-in-arms Shiozaki, and the melancholy inn girl (Chitose Kobayashi) with a heart of gold who yearns for an escape from her dead end existence but finds only inertia and disappointment.

The young protege seems surprised when Kamimura tosses the expensive looking rifle he’s just used on a job into a suitcase which he then tosses into a car which is about to be tossed into a crusher, but Kamimura advises him that if you want to make it in this business, you’d best not become too fond of your tools. Kamimura is, however, a tool himself and only too aware how disposable he might be to the hands that have made use of him. He conducts his missions with the utmost efficiency, and when something goes wrong, he deals with that too.

Efficient as he is, there is one thing that is not disposable to Kamimura and that is Shiozaki. The younger man appears not to have much to do but Kamimura keeps him around anyway with Shiozaki trailing around after him respectfully. More liability than anything else, Kamimura frequently knocks Shiozaki out to keep him out of trouble – especially as he can see Shiozaki might be tempted to leap into the fray on his behalf. Kamimura has no time for feeling, no taste for factoring attachment into his carefully constructed plans, but where Shiozaki is concerned, sentimentality wins the day.

Mina, a melancholy maid at a dockside inn, marvels at the degree of Kamimura’s devotion, wishing that she too could have the kind of friendship these men have with each other. A runaway from the sea, Mina has been trapped on the docks all her adult life. Like many a Nikkatsu heroine, love was her path to escape but an encounter with a shady gangster who continues to haunt her life put paid to that. The boats come and go but Mina stays on shore. Kamimura might be her ticket out but he wastes no time disillusioning her about his lack of interest in becoming her saviour (even if he’s not ungrateful for her assistance and also realises she’s quite an asset in his quest to ensure the survival of his ally).

Pure hardboiled, A Colt is My Passport is a crime story which rejects the femme fatal in favour of the intense relationship between its two protagonists whose friendship transcends brotherhood but never disrupts the methodical poise of the always prepared Kamimura. The minor distraction of a fly in the mud perhaps reminds him of his mortality, his smallness, the fact that he is essentially “disposable” and will one day become a mere vessel for this tiny, quite irritating creature but if he has a moment of introspection it is short lived. The world may be crunching at his heels, but Kamimura keeps moving. He has his plan, audacious as it is. He will save his buddy, and perhaps he doesn’t care too much if he survives or not, but he will not go down easy and if the world wants a bite out of him, it will have to be fast or lucky.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him (男の顔は履歴書, Tai Kato, 1966)

by a man's faceJapanese cinema has not been as shy as might be supposed in examining uncomfortable topics concerning the nation’s mid 20th century history but perhaps prefers to tackle them from a subtle, sideways viewpoint. By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him (男の顔は履歴書, Otokonokao wa Rirekisho) is, in essence, a fairly straightforward gangster pic – save that the rampaging gangsters are a mob of “zainichi” Koreans rather than post-war yakuza or petty hoodlums. Less about what it is to be an outsider or the quest for identity in second generation immigrants, Kato’s film is about what it says it is about – a man’s face.

The film begins in the contemporary era when morose doctor Amamiya is contemplating a transfer to an island posting which proves unappealing to him. Shortly after, a badly injured man is brought in following a car accident and, though Amamiya originally suggests the man be taken to a hospital as his chances of survival are slim, he changes his mind after lifting the sheet and recognising the man on the stretcher. The two men go back a long way – firstly to the battlefield where “Shibata” was a private in the army serving alongside Amamiya and secondly to an incident which dictated the rest of Amamiya’s life when he ran the local GP’s office and also happened to own the deeds to some land a bunch of Korean gangsters wanted to get their hands on. Thanks to their earlier association, “Shibata” now returning to his Korean name “Choi” was able to assist Amamiya in mitigating the gangster onslaught as he himself was a member of the gang.

Perhaps more to do with the production styles of the time, all of the “Korean” gangsters are played by Japanese actors and only ever speak Japanese even to each other. Nevertheless, they all want “revenge” for Japan’s treatment of Korea and Koreans during the years of occupation and warfare. In 1949 Japan is still in ruins and the gangsters see this as a prime opportunity to finally take Japan apart and presumably also profit in the process. The leader of this particular gang has set his sights on taking over the “New Life Marketplace” (a pregnant title if ever there was one) with the intention of turning it into an “entertainment district”. His guys, including one totally crazy foot soldier played by a particularly manic Bunta Sugawara, run roughshod over the town until finally raping and murdering Japanese women which they dismiss as par for the course given Japan’s treatment of Korean women over the past thirty years.

This is not a subtle examination of Korean Japanese relations in the post-war environment, these are gangsters and movie gangsters are generally all the same. They say they want to destroy Japan but ultimately they want what all gangs want – to control the area and extort maximum profit. Choi, and the young female Korean Gye, were born in Japan, have never even been to Korea and can’t really claim to have a great deal of Korean cultural knowledge. All they have are their names, now reclaimed after Japan’s wartime defeat. Throughout the war years, Choi used the Japanese version of his name “Shibata” and tried to pass himself off as Japanese (apparently successfully) but is now committed to embracing his Korean heritage even if it once again sees him placed in a subjugated position.

Amamiya returned from the war and took over his father’s medical clinic in his home town. He’s cynical and apathetic. He treats the people who come in to his clinic without discrimination but he doesn’t care very much about the area either. The only thing he really cares about is his nurse, Maki, with whom he’s been having a passionate affair and seems to be deeply in love. Amamiya makes an enemy of the Koreans early on when he fights off some guys who are hassling his nurse proving that he’s no pushover. The title deeds for the land the market is built on also belong to Amamiya who is unlikely to surrender them. The townspeople first turn to the regular Japanese yakuza who are unable to help with their currently depleted manpower leaving Amamiya as their only form of salvation.

When Amamiya’s hotheaded brother turns up and starts causing all sorts of trouble with the Koreans as a way of avenging Japan’s wartime defeat, Amamiya is dragged into a battle he had no desire to fight. Shunji was too young to fight in the war but is a representative of the younger generation who can’t accept the new post-war society and what they see as their older siblings failure to support the nation. Though a strong attraction develops between Shunji and Gye, their love story becomes another casualty of the harsh post-war world. Reluctantly, Amamiya becomes the last defender of these put upon people leading to a High Noon style solo stand against the Koreans whilst the terrified populace look on in fear and hope.

Kato creates a colourful world rich in symbolism such as the early scene in which Choi’s red blood drips down the white sheet accidentally recreating the Japanese flag. Amamiya’s prominent scar becomes both a plot point and a symbolic motif as it echoes the film’s title in bearing out his “history”. A man’s life is indeed written on his face, and Choi’s wife’s urging to her daughter that they watch Choi’s face as he fights for his life is another indication that one’s true nature is seen most clearly in times of duress. The film closes on an ambiguous note, in one sense, but closes its thematic line neatly. Amamiya faces a choice and no choice at the same time but through his face we know him and so we understand.