Empire of Kids (ガキ帝国, Kazuyuki Izutsu, 1981)

Empire of Kids posterJapan in 1981 was a vastly different place than the Japan of 1967. Rising economic prosperity had produced an amiable social calm in which desire for conventional success and increasingly aspirational consumerism had replaced the firebrand need for social change which had defined the previous decade. Filmmaker, film critic, and sometimes outspoken TV personality Kazuyuki Izutsu was presumedly not a huge fan of consumerism and for this, his first “mainstream” film made for ATG, retreats back to the Osaka of 1967 in which petty street punks lamented their lack of opportunities by banding together and battling for control of their respective neighbourhoods like boys in the schoolyard only armed with knives and filled with nihilistic desperation.

The film opens with our “hero”, Ryu (Shinsuke Shimada), being released from juvie after presumably getting into trouble for his petty punk antics. Waiting for him are his two best friends – soulful zainichi Korean Ken (Cho Bang-ho), and rockabilly Chabo (Ryusuke Matsumoto). Ryu is released alongside another boy, Ko (Takeshi Masu), whom he tries to recruit into their mini gang but quickly becomes an enemy, teaming up with the boys’ rivals – the Hokushin Alliance, while also becoming a potential rival for Ryu’s old girlfriend with dancing dreams, Kyoko (Megumi Sanuki). The boys, still in their last year of high school, become obsessed with trouncing their competition, proving their manhood on the streets while asserting their rightful place as the dominant forces in their native area, but as it increases in intensity the game becomes frighteningly serious and its dangers all too apparent.

Izutsu’s film fits comfortably into the “delinquent” genre but perhaps takes its cues from the Hollywood cinema of alienation more than the tough guy antics of the youth movie past. From Chabo’s bright red jacket and neatly greased quiff, the starting point is Rebel Without a Cause as these otherwise not too bad kids struggle with their place in the world, unable to see a clear path and direction for themselves in the society of 1967 which seemed both frustratingly open and closed to unremarkable lower middle-class boys. Ryu’s brother is going to give up football to go to cram school so he doesn’t end up like Ryu, while Ryu has taken to reading brain training books to try and get back on the academic path to success which he fears may have already passed him by. Ken, idly talking of the future, can’t see much beyond winding up in the yakuza, opening a bowling alley, or maybe becoming a comedian (this is Osaka after all). None of these guys is going to university or getting a salaryman job, they know not much awaits them outside of low-paid manual work, marriage, children, family and death, so they take their frustrations out on each other playing at gangsterism out on the streets.

For Ryu, Ken, and Chabo the reasons for their violence are “honourable” – they want to keep their local space local and are committed to defending it from the “external” threat of the shadier street punks from uptown. Apparently from stable economic backgrounds, the boys’ acts of street justice have no particular economic component, in contrast to those of the Hokushin Alliance which positions itself as a yakuza training school with a brutal hazing regime for new recruits and a business plan which involves hunting young women and trapping them through rape and blackmail to force them into prostitution. 

Aside from lack of direction, Ken – the most introspective of the boys, also has to deal with the constant threat of discrimination due to his roots as an ethnic Korean living in Japan. One of the reasons he hates the Hokushin Alliance and distrusts some of the other gangs is that they deliberately target Koreans in racially motivated attacks. One of his old friends, Zeni (Masaaki Namura), is a member of an all Korean street gang which attempts to defend itself against the strong anti-Korean sentiment out on the streets but finds itself outgunned by the sheer weight of numbers. Ken speaks Korean openly with his friends (even when there are non-Koreans close-by) and has no interest in hiding his ethnic identity even if he uses his Japanese name in his every day life, while Ko (whom we later realise is also ethnically Korean) hides his ethnicity completely and subsumes himself into the Hokushin with a view to finally joining the yakuza even whilst knowing that the gangs he has joined are extremely prejudiced against “foreigners” and Koreans in particular. Ken would never out someone deliberately, but finds Ko’s attitude difficult to stomach, not only in his willingness to hide his roots to fit in with gangster thugs, but in his willingness to persecute his own in order to do it.

The atmosphere that surrounds the boys is one of intense futility. They fight each other pointlessly, like children in the playground, and it’s all fun and games until someone reaches for a knife. Petty disputes quickly escalate when the yakuza gets itself involved in children’s games – an assault rifle, after all, has little place in a kids’ disco where teenagers come to drink Coca Cola and slow dance to a terrible covers band singing the “uncool” music of the day. Despite the melancholy air of frustration and inevitability, Empire of Kids (ガキ帝国, Gaki Teikoku) adopts the otherwise warm and nostalgic tone of the Japanese teen movie, embracing the typically Osakan need for spiky comedy even as our guys fall ever deeper into the hole their society has cut out for them. There are few rays of sunshine to be found here, friendships are broken, trusts betrayed, and futures ruined but then again, that was only life, in Osaka, in 1967.


Fine, with Occasional Murders (晴れ、ときどき殺人, Kazuyuki Izutsu, 1984)

fine with occasional murders posterIn Japan’s ailing late ‘70s cinema market, studios were taking extreme decisions to get the public away from their TV sets and back into movie houses, yet one enterprising would-be media mogul had another idea. Haruki Kadokawa, a man with a publishing house and cinematic ambitions hit on a then innovative marketing strategy which amounted to a perfect storm for his own particular capabilities. Amassing a small stable of idols, he resurrected the studio system to produce a steady stream of youth movies adapting novels he also published and featuring title songs which his idols sang and he released on his record label. Hitting their heyday in the early to mid-1980s, Kadokawa’s idol films are a perfect time capsule of their pre-bubble setting in which, unlike the “seishun eiga” of twenty years before, upperclass young girls solved crimes and defied authority all whilst remaining prim, elegant and innocent. Fine, with Occasional Murders (晴れ、ときどき殺人, Hare, Tokidoki Satsujin) is a prime example of this gentle yet somehow dangerous world as its heroine returns home from studying abroad only to become embroiled in a conspiracy lodged firmly within her own home.

As the film opens, a middle-aged man and woman pay a nighttime visit to the site of a new factory, reminiscing about their youth and the small soap business they started thirty years ago which is now a full scale plastics film. The woman catches sight of someone leaving and stops to wish him goodnight only to suddenly wonder why he’s there in the first place. The reason becomes apparent when she steps forward a little and discovers the body of a young woman lying against her fence post. As if that weren’t worrying enough, factory owner Mrs. Kitazato (Mitsuyo Asaka) then starts getting threatening letters telling her she must go to the police and confirm that an innocent man is the killer or her daughter, Kanako (Noriko Watanabe), studying overseas, will be in danger. Mrs. Kitazato frets and worries but goes along with the killer’s demands to save her daughter only to be confronted with the dead body of the patsy as it lands right at her feet after being thrown from a police station window.

Suffering from a heart condition, Mrs. Kitazato remains unwell until Kanako comes home but then lasts only long enough to impart two important secrets – one being that the man Kanako assumed was her father may not have been, and secondly the whole story with the threatening letters and her belief that they were sent by someone in the family from whom she received a New Year card written in the same handwriting.

As usual Kanako is left to deal with all of this on her own, though slightly less usually remains within her own family home for the vast majority of the picture. Paid a visit by the police, Kanako comes into contact with their prime suspect in the first murder, Kamimura (Yosuke Tagawa) – a young man who had been a high school friend of the victim and had given her a place to stay while she was trying to escape her career as a hotel hooker. Kamimura becomes Kanako’s innocent love interest as she hides him in the secret room her mother had built behind a dresser in the dining room. Together the pair try to investigate the strange goings on in the Kitazato household whilst also exploring their very different backgrounds. 

Like many of Kadokawa’s idol movies (often adapted from the novels of Jiro Akagawa) the setting is both dark and hopefully innocent as Kanako is burdened with the knowledge that someone close to her is a murderer but faces her situation with cheerful resilience and determination. Whilst pursuing her spiky relationship with Kamimura, she’s also being haunted by the spectre of an arranged marriage to the dreadful son of a business associate, Masahiko (Akihiro Shimizu), who attempts to rape her with her mother’s body still still lying on the bed in the same room, and is also having an affair with their maid, Mari (Mariko Miike). Masahiko is also revealed as a prime suspect in the murders when another body is discovered in the living room with Masahiko standing red handed over it. The murder scenes (and there are more than you’d expect), are nasty, bloody and violent. Despite the innocence of Kanako’s wide open world, misogynistic killers lurk round every corner as do corrupt businessmen, untrustworthy servants, and enemies masquerading as friends.

As darks as it gets, the tone is always one of irony filled with bumbling policemen who form an odd double act in their humorous black and forth, running jokes about hard contact lenses and improbably large sandwiches, and the general whimsy of a young man’s dream of building a real flying bicycle. Despite being one of Kadokawa’s new “Sannin Musume” (alongside Hiroko Yakusushimaru and Tomoyo Harada), Noriko Watanabe played fewer leading roles than her two compatriots. Fine with Occasional Murders (released in the same year as Someday, Someone Will Be Killed), is her first big idol movie lead for which she also sings the theme song which has an almost identical title. She is, however, the archetypal Kadokawa heroine – steadfast, strong, confident, kind, and noble, calmly solving the mystery behind her own mother’s death mere days after losing her, figuring out that poor boys are probably OK, and that awful CEOs and their sons will always be awful. Valuable lessons indeed for increasingly wealthy 1980s teens. 


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And the song itself which has the same title as the movie only the last two characters are read differently – Hare, Tokidoki Kirumi