Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊, Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)

Toei’s stock in trade through the 1960s had been the ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters set before the war and implicitly in a less corrupt Japan in which jingi could still triumph over the giri/ninjo conflict if at great personal cost to the idealistic hero. By the end of the decade, however, audiences were growing tired of yakuza romanticism particularly in the wake of grittier youth dramas produced by Nikkatsu. Originally conceived as a kind of sequel to Japan Organised Crime Boss, Kinji Fukasaku’s Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊,  Bakuto Gaijin Butai) marks a shift towards the jitsuroku or “true account” trend of the 1970s which would come to dominate the genre following the success of his Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle two years later, employing many of the same techniques from onscreen text to shaky handheld photography but doing so within the confines of moody noir as the hero emerges from a 10-year prison sentence into a very different Japan. 

When Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) gets out, he steps into an empty, windswept street his incongruous zori sandals clashing with his smart suit and sunshades and marking him out as a relic of a bygone era. He’s met only two loyal underlings, his gang apparently now disbanded following the death of his boss who refused to take his advice as regards the big name gang from Tokyo attempting to muscle in to their Yokohama territory. Part of the missing post-war generation, Gunji has no illusions about going straight, wandering into their former HQ now a derelict building and calling the guys, who’ve since moved on to more legitimate occupations, back together. He knows he can’t take on Daitokai with his meagre forces and so settles for extracting from them some compensation money to get out of town, later teaming up with Kudo (Noboru Ando) a similarly orphaned former member of a rival Yokohama gang wiped out by Daitokai, and resolving to relocate to Okinawa where he is convinced the post-war gangster paradise is still very much in existence. 

Okinawa was only “returned” to Japanese sovereignty in 1971, having been governed by the Americans since the end of the war, and of course maintains a large American military presence up to the present day. As such to Gunji, and in a yakuza movie trope which persists right into Takeshi Kitano’s Boiling Point, it exists in a permanent post-war present in which the conditions of the occupation are still very much in play. Gunji knows that he and his guys are products of the post-war era, they cannot adapt to the “new” world of corporatising yakuza in which street brawls and petty thuggery have given way to more sophisticated kinds of organised crime, and so they retreat into an Okinawan time warp, determining to steal turf from under two rival gangs who control between them the ports and the red light district mediated by black market booze from the American military.  

Fukasaku was apparently inspired by Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, intending to make a comment on resistance to American imperialism on the mainland though it has to be said that this is extremely ironic given that Japan is itself a coloniser of the Okinawan islands where there has long been a demand for self-determination and recognition of a distinct identity which has often been subject to oppression in the face of conformist Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the film continues the persistent theme that the chaotic post-war era which has come to a close thanks to rising economic prosperity in the time Gunji was inside is inextricable from the American occupation, implying that Okinawa is in a sense the last frontier and the only viable territory for men like Gunji who, like the melancholy ronin of the Edo era, lack the skills to live in time of peace.  

Nevertheless, modernity is also on its way to Okinawa and where there’s money there are gangsters so as expected Daitokai eventually rear their heads on the island pushing Gunji towards the revenge he didn’t want to take. The Okinawa he inhabits is one of loss and nostalgia, taking up with a sex worker who reminds him of the Okinawan woman who left him when he went to prison and perhaps playing into the slightly complicated political dialogue which positions Gunji as an ironic “migrant worker” salmoning back to Okinawa as many Okinawan youngsters are forced to travel to the mainland for work while the islands themselves remain, it’s implied, mired in poverty and crime economically dependent on the American military. Indeed, the head of the dock gang brokers a deal with Daitokai predicated on the fact that there is plenty of cheap labour available at the harbour. “Good place for a long life” he ironically adds, shortly before all hell breaks loose. Shot with typical Fukasaku immediacy, Sympathy for the Underdog looks forward to jitsuroku nihilism but does so through the prism of film noir cool as its fatalistic hero submits himself to his inexorable destiny.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1964)

Little known outside of Japan, Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with post-war noir and particularly with adaptations of Seicho Matsumoto’s detective novels, yet he had a wide and varied filmography directing in several genres including musicals and period dramas. The son of silent movie director Hotei Nomura, he spent the bulk of his career at Shochiku which had and to some degree still has a strong studio brand which leans towards the wholesome even if his own work was often in someway controversial such as in the shocking child abuse drama The Demon or foregrounding of leprosy in Castle of Sand. Part of the studio’s series of double-length epics, 1964’s Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Goben no Tsubaki) is nevertheless an unusual entry in Nomura’s filmography, adapting a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto essentially setting a policier in feudal Japan and perhaps consequently shot largely on stage sets rather than on location. 

Nomura opens with artifice as Shino (Shima Iwashita) stares daggers at an actor on the stage but later returns to his rooms every inch the giggling fan before finally offing him with her ornate silver hairpin leaving behind only the blood red camellia of the title. The first in a series of killings later branded the Camellia Murders, we later realise that the actor had to die because of his illicit relationship with Shino’s mother whom he brands a “nympho” and as we later discover had several extra-marital lovers. Extremely close to her father who, as we’re told, perished in a fire while resting in the country due to his terminal tuberculosis, Shino is apparently on a quest for revenge against the faithless men who humiliated him though her feelings towards her mother seem far more complex. 

Indeed, Shino regards her mother’s carrying on as “dirty” and seems particularly prudish even as she wields her sex appeal as a weapon in her quest for vengeance. Yet it’s not so much the free expression of sexuality which seems to be at fault but excess and irresponsibility. Shino resents her mother primarily for the ways in which she made her father suffer, off having fun with random men while he shouldered the burden of her family business which, Shino might assume, has contributed to his illness. Aoki (Go Kato), the Edo-era policeman to whose narrative perspective the second half turns, advances a similar philosophy in that there’s nothing wrong with having fun, he has fun at times too, but people have or at least should have responsibilities towards each other which the caddish targets of the Camellia Killer have resolutely ignored. He can’t say that he condones the killer’s actions, but neither can he condemn them because her motivations are in a sense morally justifiable. 

Realising the end is near, Shino indulges in a very modern serial killer trope in leaving a note for Aoki alongside one of her camellias in which she claims that she is exacting vengeance for “crimes not punishable by law”. There was nothing legally wrong in the way these men treated her mother or any other woman, but it is in a sense a moral crime. “You’re a woman and I’m a woman too” she later tells another scorned lover, a mistress thrown over by her patron with two small children after he tired of her, as she hands over a large sum of money and encourages her to return to her family in the country. Shino’s quest is essentially feminist, directed against a cruel and patriarchal society in which the use and abuse of women is entirely normalised, yet it is also slightly problematic in her characterisation of her mother as monstrous in her corrupted femininity for daring to embrace her sexuality in exactly the same way as her male counterparts though they, ironically, mainly seem to have been after her money rather than her body. 

Shino’s mother’s death is indeed regarded as “punishment from heaven” presumably for her sexual transgressions and neglect of her family, rejecting both the roles of wife and mother in a ceaseless quest for pleasure. Yet even in her resentment, Shino’s ire is directed firmly at the men taking the last of her targets to task when he justifies himself that women enjoy sex too and are therefore equally complicit by reminding him that he gets his moment of pleasure for free but the woman may pay for it for the rest of her life. Just as Shino’s mother neglected her family, the men harm not only their wives in their illicit affairs but cause concurrent damage to the mistresses they may later disown and the illegitimate children they leave behind. Abandoning the naturalism of his contemporary crime dramas for something much more akin to a ghost film with his eerie lighting transitions and grim tableaux of the skewered victims, Nomura crafts a melancholy morality tale in which the wronged heroine turns the symbol of constrained femininity back on the forces of oppression but is eventually undone by the unintended consequences of her quest for vengeance even as she condemns the architect of her misfortune to madness and ruin. 


I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Tai Kato, 1968)

Nephew of Sadao Yamanaka, Tai Kato joined Toho as an apprentice in 1937, returning after the war training under Daisuke Ito and Akira Kurosawa, but later moved to Toei where he became closely associated with ninkyo eiga yakuza movies and jidaigeki. From the mid-1960s, however, he made several movies at Shochiku which had, it has to be said, a house style that was almost the polar opposite with a clear focus on polite, family-friendly melodrama. 1968’s I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Minagoroshi no Reika) meanwhile is a surprisingly dark affair even among the grittier examples of Shochiku’s similarly themed B-movie thrillers, an avant-garde noir and proto-giallo in which the fugitive, serial killer antihero sees himself as an agent of divine justice in a hellish and immoral post-war landscape. 

Kato opens with a shocking scene of sexualised violence in which a woman is knocked unconscious, stripped, bound with telephone cord, and finally revived, forced to write down the names of four other women before being brutally raped and murdered by a killer whose voice we have not yet heard nor face seen. The police are mystified, attributing the woman’s death to the fact that she had worked as a bar hostess and maybe things like this are an occupational hazard for women who are surrounded by too many men. Her landlord, however, laments that hers is the second death to occur recently after a laundry boy threw himself off the roof. All things considered, he wishes the boy had picked somewhere else. 

The police have no reason to connect the two unfortunate events and so remain largely clueless, but we gradually become aware that the killer, Kawashima (Makoto Sato), is targeting the women because he holds them directly responsible for the boy’s death. He is the inspector that calls, avenging the death of this young man who, he has learned, like him hailed from Hokkaido and had come to the city at only 16 years old to earn money to support his family, saving almost all of his wages in the hope of opening a shop. Kato shows us scenes of a city under construction, a land of girders casting shadows on the ground like prison bars trapping men like these who are building the new Japan but will be discarded as soon the job is done and their labour no longer so much in demand. Kawashima has another reason for living like this, but he perhaps admires something pure and innocent in the desire of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune so that he might take care of those he loves and that this world betrayed that desire is something he finds impossible to forgive.

The five women have apparently done quite well for themselves, despite the fact that more than one of them has worked on the fringes of the sex trade. Their treatment of the boy is attributed to their boredom in the relative ease of their lives as monied women with little to occupy their time other than getting their kicks abusing the less powerful. It’s an uncomfortable role reversal that places women in a position of power and then sees them abuse it in the exact same way that men do, slinging back the same pithy justifications that men offer for sexual violence while the police meditate on the relative connotations of rape when the word is applied to a man at the hands of women rather than the other way around. If it were their sister, they could understand the desire to kill the men who had done it but a part of them struggles to see that a teenage boy may still find unwanted sexual contact a traumatic enough experience to push him towards suicide. 

Yet Kawshima appears to have no real connection to the boy, and his “revenge” is also a product of his misogyny in that as we later learn he also has reason to feel betrayed by womanhood and is already on the run from previous crime. Nevertheless, he is drawn to the innocent Haruko (Chieko Baisho), a girl-next-door type who works in his favourite ramen restaurant, only to discover that she too has a dark and violent past which may be why she seems to be drawn to him. He struggles with himself, but believes that he is taking revenge on a brutalising society defined by violence and abuse while sublimating his sense of emasculation in the face of women’s growing social and sexual freedoms in the post-war era. It is perhaps the post-war era which is cast as the major villain, one of the women later escaping her protective custody to dance furiously a hip nightclub only to return to the scene of her crime while refusing to see that she has done anything so “wrong” as to merit this kind of persecution. 

“The cycle of divine punishment must be fulfilled” Kawashima finally laments, acknowledging his grim place within this series of post-war tragedies. Surprisingly avant-garde, Kato experiments with blown out negatives, extreme close up, and deep focus mixed with his characteristic low angle composition to add to the sense of noirish dread which paints the modern city as an inescapable hellscape while even the romantic place of refuge shared by Kawashima and Haruko is a gothic moorland lit by moonlight and filled with eerie mist. Lurid and sweaty, the film has a grim sense of humour even in its oppressive atmosphere with a running gag devoted to the lead investigator’s painful case of piles, but its overriding fatalism nevertheless offers the hero a sense of redemption if only in acceptance of his narrative destiny. 


A Woman in the Typhoon Area (颱風圏の女, Hideo Oba, 1948)

vlcsnap-2017-12-14-23h50m20s302Setsuko Hara acquired the nickname “the eternal virgin” from her fans inspired by the genial ingenue roles she was most associated with especially in her long career with Yasujiro Ozu in which she often played a reluctant daughter finally getting married (though only at the end of the picture). The nickname took on something of an ironic quality after her abrupt retirement from the acting world in which, rather than getting married, she remained single and locked herself away in her quaint little house in Kamakura, refusing all subsequent requests relating to showbiz. Woman in the Typhoon Area (颱風圏の女, Taifuken no Onna) is a rare entry in her filmography in which she plays completely against type (and does so brilliantly) as a damaged, brassy, and sensual woman caught up in a storm of her own as the sole female between a gang of vicious smugglers and a nerdy group of weather scientists marooned on an island by a typhoon.

As the film opens, the smugglers have been spotted by the coastguard and are engaged in a lengthy firefight trying to escape. Eventually they manage to evade government forces, but they’re way off course and running out of fuel while one of their number is also badly injured. Luckily they eventually run into an island which is home to a Japanese weather station. Unfortunately, the weather station has received a telegram from the coastguard and works out who the smugglers are. There isn’t enough fuel or food for the smugglers to steal and escape, but even if there were the approaching typhoon means it would be unwise to try.

The set-up is uncannily close to that of John Huston’s Key Largo, released the same year, though the tiny band of smugglers is nowhere near as intimidating as Edward G. Robinson’s band of thugs, nor are they particularly emblematic of a persistent lingering threat of fascism in the rise of bullies making their way through fear. What the smugglers are is mildly pathetic and intensely self interested. The weather station staff, government officials, are the good guys but they’re also easily cowed by three men (and a sympathetic/indifferent woman) with a single gun. The major conflict is over control of the radio which the smugglers have temporarily broken in fear of someone calling the coastguard. The weathermen want to repair it because it’s imperative they let the surrounding area know that a dangerous typhoon is on the way.

Like many films of the immediate post-war era, the central theme is one of the common good vs selfish interest. The radio operator, Amano (Jun Usami), is determined to act for “the common good” and is confident that he is the sort of person who will do the “right” thing at the right time. The smugglers don’t particularly care if a lot of people end up dying because they weren’t warned about the storm as long as they don’t get caught by the coast guard. For Kijima (So Yamamura), the boss of the smugglers, all that matters is strength – a strong man will never kneel but Amano would kneel if it meant he could get up later and do the right the thing even if it then costs him his life.

Where gangster narratives are often about surrogate families, the band of smugglers actively rejects familial bonds and only maintains cohesion through shared suspicion. Kuriko (Setsuko Hara) is Kijima’s girl, but Kataoka (Isao Yamaguchi) continually goes behind his boss’ back to seduce her finally even attempting rape. Though second mate Yoshii (Eijiro Tono) may seem more loyal, he too holds little love for his boss and will betray him if he thinks Kijima no longer strong enough to rule. Trapped within the claustrophobic environment of the weather station, the gang destroys itself in petty rivalries and long standing suspicions. Kijima was right when he said you couldn’t trust anyone on a ship, but he can’t trust his guys on land either.

The war is an obvious and recurrent theme but Kuriko’s troubles were only exacerbated rather than caused by it. An abandoned child, she recounts eating cold rice with strangers at 11 and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what she means when she says she remembers the name of her first man but not his face. Kuriko is a good girl turned bad by persistent social indifference and subsequent trauma experienced as a nurse in frontline field hospitals. She’s distant and embittered, living as a man on ship, dressing in slacks and shirts and chain smoking her life away. Trapped in the station and exposed to the “goodness” of Amano she starts dressing in more feminine fashions and reconsidering her gangster lifestyle. Though she starts to change, helps the weather station to save the locals, it’s clear that it’s already too late for her to save herself other than through a final act of sacrifice in service of a new ideal and an old love.

Only 70 minutes long Woman in the Typhoon Area is a taught, tense character piece which doesn’t quite manage to make the most of its intensely claustrophobic settings but still manages to reinforce its central message of selfishness being bad and altruism good. Hara is a revelation in such an unusual role, stealing each and every scene in steely uncertainty, giving the impression of a woman whose ongoing fall is as much a willing act of self harm as it is a natural consequence of her impossible circumstances.


Blackmail is My Life (恐喝こそわが人生, Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

81eOlRLzY4L._SL1200_Suffice to say, if someone innocently asks you about your hobbies and you exclaim in an excited manner “blackmail is my life!”, things might not be going well for you. Kinji Fukasaku is mostly closely associated with his hard hitting yakuza epics which aim for a more realistic look at the gangster life such as in the Battles Without Honour and Humanity series or his bloody tale of high school warfare, Battle Royale but he also made a few comedies too and often has his tongue firmly in his cheek. Blackmail is My Life (恐喝こそわが人生, Kyokatsu Koso Waga Jinsei) is nominally a crime film, it follows the adventures of a group of young people having a lot of fun doing crime and crime related activities, but the whole thing’s so flippant and ironic that it threatens to drown itself in late ‘60s cool. It doesn’t, of course, it swims around in it whilst looking cool at the same time.

Shun starts the film with a slightly melancholy voiceover (a technique much borrowed in the ‘90s). He was young, he was ambitious but the best thing was he had friends who were more like family. He breaks up with his girlfriend and mopes about his awful job cleaning toilets at a cabaret bar but one day he overhears something about a scam going on with the whiskey they’ve been selling. Shun spots a business opportunity to get his own back on the cabaret owners and get some dough in the process. So begins his life as a petty blackmailer and it’s not long before he’s got his three best mates trapping businessmen into compromising situations so they can film it and blackmail them. The gang carry out petty crime and everything would probably be OK for them if they had stuck to shallower waters, not tried to get revenge for a family member’s death and, crucially, known when they were in way over their heads. Could it really ever be any other way for a self confessed small time punk?

Shun is a bit of an odd duck really. As a girlfriend points out, he’s always thinking about the past like an old man rather than the future, like a young one. He has an irreverent attitude to everything and a vague sense of entitlement mixed with resentment at having missed out in Japan’s post-war boom town. The blackmailing not only allows him to feel smugly superior to everyone else as if he’s some kind of mastermind trickster, but of course also allows him to live the highlife on the proceeds with far less time spent working himself to the bone like the average salaryman.

However, he also has this unexplained sadness, almost as if he’s narrating the film from the point of view of its ending despite being smack in the middle of it. When thinking of happy things he always comes back to his gang of friends enjoying a joyful, innocent day on the beach but later he starts having flashes of rats drowned in the river. Somehow or other he fears he’ll end here, dead among the detritus of a world which found no place for him. He tries to convince himself he’s bucking the system, trying to start a revolution for all the other young punks out there but at the end of the day he’s just another hungry scrapper terrified he’s going to land up on the trash heap.

Like a lot of Fukasaku’s other work, Blackmail is My Life is bright and flashy and cool. Full of late ‘60s pop aesthetics, the film seems to have a deep affinity with the near contemporary work of Seijun Suzuki, in fact one of the characters is always whistling Tokyo Nageremono, the theme tune to Suzuki’s pop art masterpiece Tokyo Drifter. Having said that Fukasaku swaps nihilistic apathy for a sort of flippant glibness which proves a much lighter experience right through until the film’s fairly shocking (yet inevitable?) ending.

Not quite as strong as some of his later efforts, Blackmail is My Life nevertheless brings out Fukasaku’s gift for dynamic direction though the comparatively more mellow scenes at the sea are the film’s stand out. Pulling out all the stops for his crazed, POV style ending with whirling cameras and unbalanced vision Fukasaku rarely lets the tension drop for a second as Shun and co. get hooked on crime before realising its often heavy tarrifs. Another bleak and cynical (though darkly comic) look at the unfairness of the post-war world, Blackmail is My Life may not rank amongst Fukasaku’s greatest achievements but it wouldn’t have it any other way.


Blackmail is My Life is available with English subtitles on R1 US DVD from Homevision and was previously released as part of the Fukasaku Trilogy (alongside Black Rose Mansion and If You Were Young: Rage) by Tartan in the UK.