Sword of the Beast (獣の剣, Hideo Gosha, 1965)

sword of the beast posterHideo Gosha’s later career increasingly focussed on men at odds with their times – ageing gangsters who couldn’t see their eras were ending. His second feature, Sword of the Beast (獣の剣 Kedamono no Ken), is much the same in this regard but its youthful hero knows perfectly that change is on the horizon. Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) tries to ride that change into a better, more equal future but the forces of order will not allow him. The cinematic samurai world of the post-war era is no longer that of honourable men, manfully living out the samurai code even when it pains them to do so. It is one of men broken by oppressive feudal rule, denied their futures, and forced to betray themselves in service to systemic hypocrisy. Yet even if men think of reforming the system, they rarely think to escape it unless it actively spits them out.

When we first meet Gennosuke, he’s crawling around in a muddy grass field, dishevelled and hungry. A lone woman spots him and plies her trade leading Gennosuke to embrace his baser instincts and give vent to his lust, but the pair are interrupted by the sound of approaching horses. Gennosuke is on the run from his clan for his part in the murder of a lord. His pursuers scream at him, “have you no pride?”, lamenting his lack of stoical resignation to one’s fate so central to the samurai ideal. “To hell with name and pride” Gensosuke throws back, “I’ll run and never stop.”

Gennosuke’s odyssey leads him into the path of petty bandits who’ve been swiping gold out of the local river. Unbeknownst to them, a couple from another clan have been living an isolated life in a small cottage where they too have been skimming the Emperor’s gold, only they’ve been doing it for their lord. The man, Jurota (Go Kato), is excited about this work because he thinks when it is completed he’ll finally be accepted as a true samurai and the future for himself and his wife, Taka (Shima Iwashita), will be much brighter. He is quite wrong in this assumption.

Gennosuke, it is later revealed, committed his fateful act of murder upon the assumption that he was part of a revolutionary vanguard, removing cruel and corrupt lords from their positions so fairer minded, decent men could rule in their stead. Instead he realises he’s been rendered a disposable pawn in a political game and that the new master he believed would usher in a brighter future only envisaged one for himself. Jurota has been duped in much the same way, asked to do something illicit, immoral, and against the samurai code under the assumption that he will finally be accepted as “one of us”. He has not considered the corruption of those he wants to join, and does not see that his crime likely means he cannot be allowed to live.

Gennosuke and Jurota are cynical men who nevertheless possess true faith in the way of the samurai. Exiled from his clan, Gennosuke is a wandering beast who pretends not to care about the people he meets, but ends up saving them anyway. Yet if Gennosuke has been “freed” from his illusions, Jurota’s devotion to them makes him a less heroic figure. When Taka is captured by bandits who threaten her life, Jurota has a difficult decision to make – surrender the gold or his wife. Jurota chooses poorly and abandons his wife to a fate worse than death at the hands of uncivilised ruffians. Taka finds this hard to forgive. No longer wishing to stay with a man who values her so lightly she turns to Gennosuke – her accidental saviour, and reveals to him that she longs to become “a beast” like him. Now “freed” of her own illusions as regards her husband’s love, their shared mission, and the fallacy of their future together as noble samurai, Taka is prepared to exile herself from the samurai world as Gennosuke has, but, as he tells her, the wife of a retainer cannot choose the life of a beast.

This world of samurai is facing its own eclipse. The Black Ships have arrived, the spell has been broken, and the modern world awaits. Gennosuke can see this future, he tried to grasp it in the murder of his lord, but it is not here yet. Gennosuke’s friend, Daizaburo (Kantaro Suga), is duty bound to take his revenge as the fiancé of the murdered lord’s daughter though he’d rather not do it, and does so only to give Gennosuke an “honourable” death. The daughter, Misa (Toshie Kimura), is understandably angry and filled with hate but she pays dearly for her vengeance. Following their ordeal, neither Daizaburo or Misa can return to their clan. They are also “freed”, their illusions broken, their debts forgiven. Breaking with the burden of their past, they would now follow Gennosuke into his new world, even if none of them know exactly where they’re going.

These private revolutions amount to a kind of deprogramming, reawakening a sense of individual agency but one which is unselfish and carries with it the best of samurai honour. Gennosuke may be a “beast” on the run, reduced to a creature of needs rather than thoughts, but there’s honesty in this uncivilised quest for satisfaction which leaves no room for artifice or hypocrisy. It may be a rough world and lonely with it, but it is not unkind. To hell with name and pride, Gennosuke will have his honour, even as a nameless beast, a self-exile from a world of cruelty, greed, and inhumanity.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blue Christmas (ブルークリスマス , Kihachi Okamoto, 1978)

blue-christmasThe Christmas movie has fallen out of fashion of late as genial seasonally themed romantic comedies have given way to sci-fi or fantasy blockbusters. Perhaps surprisingly seeing as Christmas in Japan is more akin to Valentine’s Day, the phenomenon has never really taken hold meaning there are a shortage of date worthy movies designed for the festive season. If you were hoping Blue Christmas (ブルークリスマス) might plug this gap with some romantic melodrama, be prepared to find your heart breaking in an entirely different way because this Kichachi Okamoto adaptation of a So Kuramoto novel is a bleak ‘70s conspiracy thriller guaranteed to kill that festive spirit stone dead.

A Japanese scientist disgraces himself and his country at an international conference by affirming his belief in aliens only to mysteriously “disappear” on the way back to his hotel. Intrepid reporter Minami (Tatsuya Nakadai) gets onto the case after meeting with a friend to cover the upcoming release of the next big hit – Blue Christmas by The Humanoids. His friend has been having an affair with the network’s big star but something strange happened recently – she cut her finger and her blood was blue. Apparently, hers is not an isolated case and some are linking the appearance of these “Blue Bloods” to the recent spate of UFO sightings. Though there is nothing to suggest there is anything particularly dangerous about the blue blood phenomenon, international tensions are rising and “solutions” are being sought.

A second strand emerges in the person of government agent, Oki (Hiroshi Katsuno), who has fallen in love with the assistant at his local barbers, Saeko (Keiko Takeshita). Responsible for carrying out assassinations and other nefarious deeds for the bad guys, Oki’s loyalty is shaken when a fellow officer and later the woman he loves are also discovered to be carriers of the dreaded blue blood.

Okamoto lays the parallels on a little thick at times with stock footage of the rise of Nazism and its desire to rid the world of “bad blood”. Sadly, times have not changed all that much and the Blue Bloods incite nothing but fear within political circles, some believing they’re sleeper agents for an alien invasion or somehow intended to overthrow the global world order. Before long special measures have been enforced requiring all citizens to submit to mandatory blood testing. The general population is kept in the dark regarding the extent of the “threat” as well as what “procedures” are in place to counter it, but anti Blue Blood sentiment is on the rise even if the students are on hand to launch the counter protest in protection of their blue blooded brethren, unfairly demonised by the state.

The “procedures” involve mass deportations to concentration camps in Siberia in which those with blue blood are interrogated, tortured, experimented on and finally lobotomised. This is an international operation with people from all over the world delivered by their own governments in full cognisance of the treatment they will be receiving and all with no concrete evidence of any kind of threat posed by the simple colouring of their blood (not that “genuine threat” would ever be enough to excuse such vile and inhuman treatment). In the end, the facts do not matter. The government has a big plan in motion for the holiday season in which they will stage and defeat a coup laid at the feet of the Blue Blood “resistance”, ending public opposition to their anti-Blue Blood agenda once and for all.

Aside from the peaceful protest against the mandatory blood testing and subsequent discrimination, the main opposition to the anti-Blue Blood rhetoric comes from the ironically titled The Humanoids with the ever present Blue Christmas theme song, and the best efforts of Minami as he attempts to track down the missing scientist and uncover the conspiracy. This takes him around the world – firstly to America where he employs the somewhat inefficient technique of simply asking random people in the street if they’ve seen him. Laughed out of government buildings after trying to make serious enquires, Minami’s last hope lies in a dodgy part of town where no one would even try to look, but he does at least get some answers. Unfortunately, the information he receives is inconvenient to everyone, gets him fired from the investigation, and eventually earns him a transfer to Paris.

In keeping with many a ‘70s political thriller, Blue Christmas is bleaker than bleak, displaying little of Okamoto’s trademark wit in its sorry tale of irrational fear manipulated by the unscrupulous. In the end, blue blood mingles with red in the Christmas snow as the bad guys win and the world looks set to continue on a course of hate and violence with a large fleet of UFOs apparently also on the way bearing uncertain intentions. Legend has it Okamoto was reluctant to take on Blue Christmas with its excessive dialogue and multiple locations. He had a point, the heavy exposition and less successful foreign excursions overshadow the major themes but even so Blue Christmas has, unfortunately, become topical once again. Imperfect and cynical if gleefully ironic in its frequent juxtapositions of Jingle Bells and genocide, Blue Christmas’ time has come as its central message is no less needed than it was in 1978 – those bleak political conspiracy thrillers you like are about to come back in style.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (子連れ狼 三途の川の乳母車, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

baby-cart-at-river-styxThe first instalment of the Lone Wolf and Cub series saw the former Shogun executioner framed for treason and cast down from his elite samurai world onto the “Demon’s Way” on a quest to clear his name and avenge the murder of his wife whilst caring for his young son, nominally also on the path of vengeance alongside his father. As far as progress goes, Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) has made little other than dispatching a few of his enemy Yagyu foot soldiers and earning himself 500 ryou by ridding a spring town of some pesky gangsters. Well trained genre fans will correctly have guessed that chapter two in this six part series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (子連れ狼 三途の川の乳母車, Kozure Okami: Sanzu no Kawa no Ubaguruma), contains more of the same as Ogami trudges onward pushing his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) in a bamboo cart earning a living by way of the sword with his sights set on the Yagyu stronghold.

After swiftly despatching a series of Yagyu agressors, Ogami and Daigoro procede along the Demon’s Way, jointly earning their living as hitmen for hire. The procedures for hiring the Lone Wolf and his Cub are complicated – talismans are positioned on the road calling for their services, and if the pair are interested, they’ll build a trail of rocks to indicate a meeting. Their mission this time is in the name of a put-upon clan whose income stems from a unique dyeing technique, only they’ve been “underestimating” their takings to avoid unfair taxation by the Shogun. Another clan found out about their practices and sent in undercover agents to agitate among the workforce who were already feeling oppressed and misused. The elite samurai took out most of the ringleaders, but their foreman has run off and taken refuge with a neighbouring clan who claim to know nothing about him. Ogami’s job is to kill the manager before he reaches the Shogun and blows the whistle on everything and everyone.

In addition to the Hidari brothers – a trio of skilled ronin acting as bodyguards to Ogami’s target, Ogami also has to contend with the Yagyu currently still angry over the foot soldiers he dispatched in the first film. Now that they know Ogami is not a man to be taken lightly, they’ve handed over the assignment to their crack troop of female ninja led by the expert swordswoman, Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo).

As in the first film the action scenes are impressively choreographed if filmed with a degree of absurd whimsy. Sayaka attempts to ambush Ogami by having her women hanging out in the country performing normal tasks such as washing daikon at the riverside, only the daikon are filled with knives and these are no ordinary housewives. Ogami is not fooled and quickly despatches the full complement of female warriors with ease (and a little help from Daigoro and his well equipped cart), leaving him to face Sayaka one-to-one. Their battle ends in a stalemate in which Sayaka effects a daring ninja escape (from her kimono no less) to retreat to fight another day.

As much as Ogami is on the road to hell, he maintains his honour – as do his opponents, the Hidaris, who take the time even whilst trapped on a burning boat to explain to him that they have no particular grudge towards Ogami and mean him no ill will. They will though respond without mercy if attacked. Unfortunately, Ogami will have to do battle with them as they stand between himself and his target but his philosophy is broadly the same. He will be ruthless in the execution of his mission but is not a ruthless man and will attempt to leave bystanders out of his quarrels.

This oddly stoical quality of his threatens to turn Ogami into something of a wandering heartbreaker as once again he attracts the admiration of a woman, this time his closely matched rival Sayaka, just as he had the prostitute in the first film. Though determined to gain revenge for her fallen clan members, Sayaka is uncomfortable with her clansmen’s plan to kidnap Daigoro and use him as bait to trap Ogami. As the plan offends her honour, she frustrates it at a crucial moment, allowing Ogami to escape with Daigoro in hand. Later following him and trying again to assassinate Ogami during his flight from the aforementioned burning boat, Sayaka finds herself rescued by the very man she was trying to kill. Though misunderstanding Ogami’s rough tearing off of her wet clothes – ever uncommunicative, Ogami is simply trying to prevent her dying of hypothermia and borrow some of her body heat to help himself and Daigoro do the same, Sayaka eventually finds herself literally and figuratively “disarmed” by her target.

Heading back into the world of the spaghetti western, the final fight takes place in the desert with enemies buried in the sand itself. Misumi’s approach is even more psychedelic this time round in which he has Ogami fighting shadows and even more elaborate blood sprays striking the camera as heads, limbs, ears and fingers are severed with glee abandon. The mood shifts slightly as one fallen warrior is allowed a long dying monologue about the sad wail emanating from his fatal wound and his lingering feelings of jealously that he was never able to inflict the kind of elegant kill which Ogami so effortlessly effected on him. Still, the road is long. Ogami remains on the Demon’s Way seemingly no closer to achieving his goal and with a trail of fallen enemies and broken hearts stretching out behind him, but continue he must, pushing his baby cart onwards towards hell in search of both redemption and revenge but with no guarantee of finding either.


Original trailer (intermittent German subtitles only)

Kwaidan (怪談, Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

tumblr_ly5zbgdNH61rn3yrmo1_1280Kwaidan (怪談) is something of an anomaly in the career of the humanist director Masaki Kobayashi, best known for his wartime trilogy The Human Condition. Moving away from the naturalistic concerns that had formed the basis of his earlier career, Kwaidan takes a series of ghost stories collected by the foreigner Lafcadio Hearn and gives them a surreal, painterly approach that’s somewhere between theatre and folktale.

The first tale, Black Hair, is the story of an ambitious young samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who abandons his one true love to marry a wealthy woman and advance his career. However, his second marriage is far from happy and he begins to appreciate just what it is he’s cast aside. Eventually returning home he meets his former wife again and harbours the desire to start afresh. However, when the sun comes up all is not as it seems.

Tale two, The Woman of the Snow, begins when two woodsmen are caught in a blizzard and a mysterious woman appears to suck one of them dry of blood. She spares the other, Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), because she’s moved by his youth but she instructs him never to reveal the events of that evening or she will return to finish what she started. Minokichi returns home and meets another mysterious woman who later becomes his wife and bears him three children but will he remember to keep his secret even from the love of his life?

The third tale is perhaps the most famous, Hoichi the Earless, and features the sad tale of a blind biwa player (Katsuo Nakamura) whose storytelling ability is so great that the dead themselves petition him nightly to recount their story. Eventually the head monk finds out and disapproves of Hoichi’s dealings with the supernatural so the monks paint sutras all over his body to protect him from the malevolent spirits. However, like achilles and his vulnerable heel, they forget to paint Hoichi’s ears…

The fourth tale, A Cup of Tea, is a little more whimsical and opens with a framing sequence lamenting the fact that some ancient tales were never finished for one reason or another. The tale within the tale features a samurai who keeps seeing a face appear in his tea. Obviously this is quite disturbing, but eventually he just decides to drink it anyway only for the owner of the face to suddenly appear and complain about soul having been stolen.

Like all good fables the stories each have a moral to offer but also, crucially, paint the protagonists as victims of circumstance more than rash or unwise people. The samurai feared poverty so he abandoned his love in search of riches only to discover he’d been chasing the wrong kind of dreams. Minokichi momentarily forgot himself, perhaps entrapped by the Snow Woman’s final trick, Hoichi just wanted to play his biwa but his desires were frustrated by the powers at be who further mess things up for him by botching the sutra application. The protagonist of A Cup of Tea does choose to drink the tea himself but the resultant madness is not something that could ever have been reasonably expected. These are worlds of spirits where the doorway to the supernatural is always ajar, waiting for some ordinary person to tumble through accidentally.

Though employing slightly different styles for each of the four segments, Kobayashi sets his stage with a deliberately theatrical, almost hyperreal set design. Obviously shot on a soundstage, the tales take on the feeling of stories which have been told and retold, replayed countless times across the great theatre of life. Black Hair steers closest to a traditional kabuki play, an effect aided by Toru Takemitsu’s more traditional score but The Woman of the Snow gives way to intense color play full of cold blue ice vistas mixed with impressionistic, passionate red skies. Hoichi’s tale begins with an overlay of a scroll painting recounting the famous The of the Heike of which Hoichi sings his song. Full of epic battle scenes, ghostly apparitions and a whole load of biwa music, this segment is the lengthiest but also the meatiest when it comes to subtext. The final tale by contrast is much more straightforward and brings a little chanbara exuberance to the otherwise heavy atmosphere though it does leave us with one of the most haunting images in the entire film.

Kwaidan may look like an exercise in style for Kobayashi – it was also his first colour picture and he makes full use of that aspect of the film. However, that isn’t to say he’s abandoned his recurrent concerns. The people in the stories are all ordinary, they’re flawed but they aren’t evil. The samurai comes closest to bringing his fate on himself when he makes the selfish decision to abandon his loving wife for money and status though he pays a heavy price when he finally realises his foolishness. Minokichi’s crime is a loss of faith of perhaps of having doubted the truth of his tale in itself. In the end, he simply forgot his promise rather than making a conscious decision break it like the samurai. Hoichi is something of a passive player here as his blindness renders him unable to understand his plight – he is unable to keep his promise to the fallen samurai firstly because of the physical toll it’s taking on him and secondly as he’s prevented by his superiors. The protagonist of the final tale simply gives in to temptation and then to madness perfectly symbolising human weakness. Kobayashi maybe more artful here than acerbic but his bleak view of human nature still wins out. However, what Kobayashi crafted in Kwaidan is a beautiful, dreamlike canvas of supernatural visions which continue to dazzle in their artistry long after the screen has gone dark.


Kwaidan is available on blu-ray in the US from Citerion and on DVD in the UK from Eureka Masters of Cinema.