Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

o0500070913581105946Nikkatsu’s main stock in trade during its 50s/60s heyday was the youth movie – films which captured the frustrations of being young (and usually male) in the scrappy post-war years. It’s a surprise then that the hero of Seijun Suzuki’s “action” movie Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Jusango Taihisen Yori: Sono Gososha wo Nerae) is a genial middle-aged man who’s more Cary Grant in North by Northwest than Japanese James Dean. A programme picture, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the movie on paper but it’s among the first in which Suzuki indulges his talent for the surreal including a number of fantastically choreographed action sequences.

The film opens with a warning as a sniper trains his sights on a set of road signs which state that many accidents have occurred in this area. The one which is about to befall unlucky prison warden Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) is however entirely man made. Momentarily confused by the figure of a woman watching the bus from the roadside, Tamon is blindsided when the sniper opens fire and kills several of the passengers while another, Goro (Shoichi Ozawa), cowers in the back. Tamon is suspended for six months but isn’t particularly upset about it. He’s not a detective and he knows he should leave it to the professionals, but he’s desperate to know why someone would bother attack such a lowly crew of petty criminals. Wondering who the woman was and how she fits into the case, who the snipers were aiming for and if they got them, and perhaps wanting to assuage his own feelings of powerlessness during the attack Tamon gets on the case.

Tamon is not your typical Nikkatsu action hero. He’s a little on the old side for starters – hardly the marquee face the studio was beginning to favour with its collection of “Diamond Guys”. He’s also not a policeman or a detective, he has no idea what he’s doing or what he’s getting himself into. What Tamon is is a righteous man. Almost immediately he’s sucked into the seedy underbelly of late ‘50s Tokyo with its strip clubs, trafficked women, and petty gangsters. This world is alien to him and he’s disgusted by it. Meeting the female manager of the “talent agency” which supplies in-room strippers to sleazy hotels where businessmen go when they’ve told their wives they’re at a conference, Tamon is horrified to hear her admit she thinks of the girls as “merchandise”. He pauses to explain to her that he always thought of the felons he looked after as “humans” rather than “criminals”, no matter what it was they’d done. Such naive humanitarianism is too much for Yuko (Misako Watanabe) – she’s instantly smitten, which is a problem because it means she needs to play both sides of her own game.

The pair end up in an uneasy alliance as Tamon’s goodness begins to work its magic. An unlikely white knight, Tamon finds himself wanting to save all the ladies threatened by “Akiba’s” dastardly plan from the icy charms of Yuko to Goro’s cabaret girl Tsunako (Mari Shiraki), and another young one, Shoko (Kyoko Natsu), about to get sucked into the Akiba web. What he discovers is a nasty trail of exploitation running from the bars and clubs of the city centre to the genial holiday spa towns where the moderately wealthy travel to pursue their discrete pleasures.

Tamon may be a little older than your average Nikkatsu action star, but he’s also a perfect fit for a film noir hero in wrong man mould. Tamon is not on the run, but he is out of place in this world, perhaps harking back to a presumably more innocent age where honesty and compassion still counted for something. He views his job as a prison warden as a public service, believing that there is goodness in everyone and it’s the job of people like him to find it and bring it to the surface. This he does at least seem to accomplish with Yuko who (despite her role in events so far) seems to have “reformed” and intends to follow Tamon’s lead in taking her “talent agency” in a more legitimate direction. 

Suzuki often claimed that Youth of the Beast was the first of his films where he was able to fully embrace his madcap desires, but Take Aim at the Police Van contains a fair few Suzuki touches of its own from the bold opening sequence shot through the sights of a sniper rifle, to the show girl killed by an arrow to her bare breast, bizarre murder by petrol tanker set piece, and exciting train station finale. Keeping the camera fluid, Suzuki captures a world in motion, seemingly running away from our noble hero until justice, in the form of an unstoppable steam train, finally arrives.

Attack on the police van clip (English subtitles)

Kokoro (こころ, Kon Ichikawa, 1955)

kokoro coverAmong the most well-regarded of his works, Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (こころ) is a deeply felt mediation on guilt, repression, atonement, and despair as well as an examination of life on a temporal threshold. Kon Ichikawa’s long career would be marked by literary adaptations both of classics and genre fiction but even among these Kokoro is something of an exception, marshalling all of his skills bar his trademark irony in a melancholy tale of loneliness, self loathing, and the destructive effects self-destruction on those caught in the cross fire.

Ichikawa opens in media res as Nobuchi (Masayuki Mori) and his wife, Shizu (Michiyo Aratama), appear to have had an argument. She darns angrily while he paces and eventually seems to relent on his decision not to let her accompany him to the grave of a mutual friend, Kaji (Tatsuya Mihashi), who died when Nobuchi was still a student. Eventually Nobuchi goes alone but is disturbed in the graveyard by the approach of an enthusiastic young university student, Hioki (Shoji Yasui), who has been redirected by Shizu after turning up to ask to borrow some books. Nobuchi is not really in the mood to talk but the two men chat, eventually sharing a drink together in the local bar before Nobuchi abruptly returns home, pausing only to invite Hioki to visit another time for the books he wanted to borrow.

Though the marriage of Nobuchi and Shizu may seem to be a model one, their lives together are mostly performance. Nobuchi is a melancholy, gloomy man who does not work and lives the life of a scholar, living off family money. The household is not wealthy but they are able to afford one maid and live in reasonable comfort. They have no children and, it seems, the marriage may be one of companionship rather than passion.

On their first meeting Nobuchi refuses to tell Hioki the reason why he is the way he is, but decides he must explain and that Hioki is the only person he can unburden himself to. Badly let down by those who should have had his best interests at heart at a young age, Nobuchi has learned not to trust, believes that love is a “sin”, and that he is unworthy of any kind of personal happiness or fulfilment. As a young man, Nobuchi did something completely unforgivable for the most selfish (and fiendishly complicated) of reasons and his best friend, Kaji, later died as a direct result.

Where Nobuchi is cynical, Kaji is ascetic and closed off but sincere in his Buddhist practice. Nobuchi’s actions are not only hurtful in their deliberate betrayal, but amount to a slow implosion of Kaji’s entire spiritual universe. Having been tempted away from his religious beliefs by irrepressible desire, Kaji’s path to spiritual fulfilment has been severed and his path to other kinds of happiness blocked by Nobuchi’s own panicked act of personal betrayal. Unable to reconcile his cowardly, cruel actions which have, in a sense, broken Kaji’s “heart”, Nobuchi resolves to deny himself the life he stole from his friend, committing himself to a living death defined by the absence of physical love, desire, or success.

Hioki first meets Nobuchi when he sees him attempt to walk into the sea and saves him from drowning. Immediately drawn to him, Hioki believes he and the man he calls “sensei” share the same kind of existential loneliness. His eagerness to forge a friendship with the older, aloof scholar may seem strange but Ichikawa is keen to build on a much disputed subtext of the original novel in Nobuchi’s possible repressed homosexuality. Hioki steps into the space vacated by Kaji which has been empty the last 15 years as the sort of man who might understand Nobuchi’s “heart”.

Shizu attempts to ask the question directly, both about Nobuchi’s relationship with Kaji whose name she is forbidden to mention and to new friend Hioki whom she fears maybe taking Kaji’s place in her husband’s affections. Pleading that she just wants to understand his “heart”, Shizu tries to get some clarification on the empty hell that is her married life, but Nobuchi’s heart is firmly closed to her and she’s shut out once again.

On hearing of the death of the Emperor Meiji, Nobuchi’s gloom descends still further as he feels himself to be a man who’s outlived his age. At one point, long before, he pushes Kaji on his spiritual weaknesses prompting him to admit he doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. Nobuchi, cynical and perceptive, points out that there likely is no back even if you wanted to go there. Taking the teacher/student relationship to its natural conclusion, Nobuchi’s final testament in which he confesses the circumstances which have led to his spiritual death is intended only for Hioki in the hope that the younger man can learn from his mistakes and prepare himself to step forward into the bright new age where Nobuchi fears to tread. Once again his actions are selfish in the extreme, but there is something universally understood in Nobuchi’s particular pain and the steps he takes to ease it.

Previously available on DVD from Eureka, now sadly OOP.

Scene from midway through the film

My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Shohei Imamura, 1959)

vlcsnap-2017-01-07-22h53m01s073Like most directors of his era, Shohei Imamura began his career in the studio system as a trainee with Shochiku where he also worked as an AD to Yasujiro Ozu on some of his most well known pictures. Ozu’s approach, however, could not be further from Imamura’s in its insistence on order and precision. Finding much more in common with another Shochiku director, Yuzo Kawashima, well known for working class satires, Imamura jumped ship to the newly reformed Nikkatsu where he continued his training until helming his first three pictures in 1958 (Stolen Desire, Nishiginza Station, and Endless Desire). My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Nianchan), which he directed in 1959, was, like the previous three films, a studio assignment rather than a personal project but is nevertheless an interesting one as it united many of Imamura’s subsequent ongoing concerns.

Set in the early 1950s, the film focuses on four children who find themselves adrift when their father dies leaving them with no means of support. The father had worked at the local mine but the mining industry is itself in crisis. Many of the local mines have already closed, and even this one finds itself in financial straits. Despite the foreman’s promise that he will find a job for the oldest son, Kiichi (Hiroyuki Nagato), there is no work to be had as workers are being paid in food vouchers rather than money and strike action frustrates what little production there is. After receiving the unwelcome suggestion of work in a “restaurant” in another town, Yoshiko (Kayo Matsuo) manages to find a less degrading job caring for another family’s children (though she receives only room and board, no pay for doing so). With younger brother Koichi (Takeshi Okimura) and little sister Sueko (Akiko Maeda) still in school, it seems as if the four siblings’ days of being able to live together as a family may be over for good.

Based on a bestselling autobiographical novel by a ten year old girl, My Second Brother is one of the first films to broach the Zainichi (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) issue, even if it does so in a fairly subtle way. The four children have been raised in Japan, speak only Japanese and do not seem particularly engaged with their Korean culture but we are constantly reminded of their non-native status by the comments of other locals, mostly older women and housewives, who are apt to exclaim things along the lines of “Koreans are so shiftless” or other derogatory aphorisms. Though there are other Koreans in the area, including one friend who reassures Kiichi that “We’re Korean – lose one job, we find another”, the biggest effect of the children’s ethnicity is in their status as second generation migrants which leaves them without the traditional safety net of the extended family. Though they do have contact with an uncle, the children are unable to bond with him – his Japanese is bad, and the children are unused to spicy Korean food. They have to rely first on each other and then on the kindness of strangers, of which there is some, but precious little in these admittedly difficult times.

In this, which is Imamura’s primary concern, the children’s poverty is no different from that of the general population during this second depression at the beginning of the post-war period. The film does not seek to engage with the reasons why the Zainichi population may find itself disproportionately affected by the downturn but prefers to focus on the generalised economic desperation and the resilience of working people. The environment is, indeed, dire with the ancient problem of a single water source being used by everyone for everything at the same time with all the resultant health risks that poses. A young middle class woman is trying to get something done in terms of sanitation, but her presence is not altogether welcome in the town as the residents have become weary of city based do-gooders who rarely stay long enough to carry through their promises. The more pressing problem is the lack of real wages as salaries are increasingly substituted for vouchers. The labour movement is ever present in the background with the Red Flag drifting from the mass protests in which the workers voice their dissatisfaction with the company though the spectre of mine closure and large scale layoffs has others running scared.

One of the most moving sequences occurs as Koichi and another young boy ride a mine cart up the mountain and talk about their hopes for the future. They both want to get out of this one horse town – Koichi as a doctor and his friend as an engineer, but their hopes seem so far off and untouchable that it’s almost heartbreaking. Sueko skipped school for four days claiming she had a headache because her brother didn’t have the money for her school books – how could a boy like Koichi, no matter how bright he is, possibly come from here and get to medical school? Nevertheless, he is determined. His father couldn’t save the family from poverty, and neither could his brother but Koichi vows he will and as he leads his sister by the hand climbing the high mountain together, it almost seems like he might.