Teenage Yakuza (ハイティーンやくざ, Seijun Suzuki, 1962)

teen age yakuza poster jpgNikkatsu’s stock in youthful angst could have a nasty edge, even in their early days, but even so the Japanese teen movie is often a charming affair in which plucky youngsters defy the perils of their time from a position of relative safety. Rebellious punks die in Nikkatsu Action, but in the poppier coming of age world, innocence wins out as the angry young man finds a way to repurpose his rage for the good of society. Though Seijun Suzuki is generally associated with his “incomprehensible” work for the studio which eventually fired him in 1968, his trademark sense of absurd irony is a perfect fit for the essentially innocent world of the small town teen in ‘60s Japan.

High schooler Jiro (Tamio Kawaji) lives in a fatherless family with a grown-up older sister (Noriko Matsumoto) thinking about marriage and a mother (Kotoe Hatsui) about to open a trendy coffee shop/jazz parlour. He’s best friends with Yoshio (Hajime Sugiyama) – son of the carpenter working on the cafe, and is a typical scatterbrained teenage boy who enjoys fighting and has a “part-time job” taking illicit bets at the bicycle races. His problems start when he wins big on a bet but is hassled by a couple of punks dressed up like cowboys who deprive him of his winnings. Getting revenge, Jiro and Yoshio end up in a fight with the local gangsters in which Yoshio is stabbed in the leg and crippled for life and to make matters worse, his dad is killed in a traffic accident rushing to the scene of the crime. Filled with remorse, Yoshio turns to the dark side and falls out with Jiro while the petty punks start upping the ante and terrorising the town. The daughter of a local restaurant owner, Kazuko (Midori Tashiro), pulls Jiro in to frighten the punks off and convinces her dad to pay him for his time. Soon enough the other store owners are doing the same and Jiro is earning a pretty penny but what he thinks of as public service the store owners are beginning to think of as extortion – Jiro has become the yakuza he feared.

Like many a Nikkatsu hero, Jiro is a good kid misunderstood. He thought he was the lone voice standing up to the yakuza, the only sheriff in town and a shining beacon of justice. He didn’t see danger in taking the money because he genuinely thought it was a gift given freely out of gratitude, and perhaps to begin with it was. Danger rears its head when his sister’s fiancé suggests that Jiro’s illicit bodyguard business might cause problems for him at work and thereby endanger their marriage. When his mum talks sense into him, Jiro decides to try stopping the payments but it’s already too late. Thinking Jiro is after more money the store owners are scared, assuming Jiro will either remove his protection or turn on them as the yakuza they now believe him to be.

This sudden reversal of his self perception deeply wounds Jiro. He believed he was acting in the best interests of everyone and now has to accept he was corrupted by greed and status. He was acting like a yakuza, if accidentally, and has to accept his complicity in his present predicament. Rather than lashing out in rage and becoming the thing he’s been branded, Jiro (eventually) swings the opposite way, commits to ridding the town of yakuza but accepts that delinquency is not his best weapon.

Teenage Yakuza (ハイティーンやくざ, High Teen Yakuza) is no lone wolf story – lone wolves die at the end of Nikkatsu pictures, but Jiro and his ilk need to live to restore the peacefully innocent atmosphere that was broken by the random cowboys at the beginning. Jiro realises that saving the town is not his responsibility – at least not his alone, and he cannot do it all by himself. If the town is to be saved, it has to be because everyone chose to save it – Jiro’s job is not to fight the “yakuza”, but to make everyone else understand that the “yakuza”’s power is illusionary. Leading by example, he gradually wins them over (even the petty delinquents his original exploits helped to corrupt), ousting the growing influence of the shady gangsters through simple resistance.

A shorter, more disposable effort, Teenage Yakuza perhaps allows Suzuki wider scope for experimentation or at least allows him to express his trademark irony in a more direct way than your average programmer would. Filled with the youthful energy of the frequently echoed pop song, the twisters in the jazz bars, and the soba noodle delinquent with her cheerful ukulele, this is less youth on fire than youth breezing through. Teenage Yakuza neatly subverts the ideology of Nikkatsu’s action line, refusing the bad end for the angry lone wolf and gleefully restoring order with a hippyish plea for the solidarity of goodness. 


Teenage Yakuza is the third of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1957)

img_0Return to sender – address unknown. For the protagonists of I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Ore wa Matteru ze), the debut feature from Koreyoshi Kurahara, all that’s left to them is to wait for uncertain answers, trapped in the limbo land of the desolate post-war landscape. With nothing to hope for and no clear direction out of their various predicaments, the pair bide their time until something, good or bad, comes for them but luckily enough what finds them is each other and suddenly a path towards resolution of their troubles. Reuniting newly minted matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara and future real life wife Mie Kitahara fresh off the red hot success of the youth on fire drama Crazed Fruit, I Am Waiting is an altogether more melancholy affair set in the down and out depression town of the American film noir.

One fateful night, Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) steps out onto the Yokohama Harbour clutching a letter he nervously drops into a post-box, but is struck by the figure of a distressed young woman hanging around ominously close to the water’s edge. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Joji approaches the woman and convinces her to come back with him to the small cafe he runs right by the railway line. The girl, Saeko (Mie Kitahara), confesses to him that she thinks she may have killed a mobster who was making the moves on her and has no idea what to do now. Joji suggests she hide out with him, check the morning paper for news of a body, and then figure out the rest later. Left with no other options, Saeko agrees but it seems the past has a hold on them both which not even Joji’s powerful fists will be able to break.

Joji has been “waiting” for a letter from his older brother, supposedly in Brazil buying farmland. “Brazil” has become Joji’s main escape plan, but while he waits and waits his Japan life stagnates. A former prize fighter, Joji has been fighting his past self for the past couple of years ever since he lost his temper and killed a man in a bar brawl. Joji is afraid of his rage, convinced that he’s no good, a toxic influence to all around him, which explains why he’s so often abandoned by those he loves. When the letters he’d been sending to Brazil start coming back “no such person”, he fears the worst – that his brother has run off with their money and started a new life on his own without him.

In a noirish coincidence, Joji’s fate is bound up with that of melancholy nightclub singer Saeko. Once a respected opera singer, Saeko has been relegated to jazz cabaret in seedy harbour bars after losing her voice to illness and having her heart broken by her singing teacher whose affections were not as true as he claimed. “A canary that’s forgotten how to sing”, Saeko fears that her life is already over, there will be no escape from the gangsters who claim to own her and the only path left to her is the one she ruled out taking when she bopped the shady mobster on the head with a nearby vase. Saeko had no escape plan because she thought escape was impossible, but the unexpected nobility of a man like Joji has begun to change her mind, if only Joji’s heart weren’t already so battered and bruised.

Joji’s bar, the Reef Restaurant, is the gathering place for the battered and bruised. Located right on the railway line, it’s a literal waiting room through which pass all those who aren’t quite sure where they’re going. Everyone here is nursing the wounds of broken dreams – Joji’s chef used to be racing driver until he got injured, the doctor is a drunk, Joji’s an ex-boxer with anger issues, and Saeko’s a bird with a broken wing. This is not the departure lounge, it’s arrivals – the end of the line when there is no place else to go.

Still, a waiting room is a place you can choose to leave, no one has to wait forever. In meeting Saeko, Joji has already begun to move forward even if he doesn’t know it. Suddenly giving up on their melancholy passivity, the pair spur each other on towards a killer finale which offers them, if not exactly a way out, a possibility of a better life having resolved to leave the past in the past and reject its continuing hold over them. Kurahara co-opts the fatalism and lingering existential angst of the film noir with its rolling fog and permanent drizzle clouding the darkened horizons for our two pinned protagonists who relive their most fearful moments with the force of silent movie scored by the intense jazz soundtrack suddenly turned up to 11. An important missive to the post-war young, I Am Waiting offers the message that the past can be beaten, but only once one comes to believe in the existence of the future and makes a decision to walk towards it rather than waiting for it to arrive unbidden.   


Clip (English subtitles)

Tokyo Mighty Guy (東京の暴れん坊, Buichi Saito, 1960)

Tokyo Mighty GuyThe bright and shining post-war world – it’s a grand place to be young and fancy free! Or so movies like Tokyo Mighty Guy (東京の暴れん坊, Tokyo no Abarembo) would have you believe. Casting one of Nikkatsu’s tentpole stars, Akira Kobayshi, in the lead, Buichi Saito’s Tokyo Mighty Guy is, like previous Kobayashi/Saito collaboration The Rambling Guitarist, the start of a franchise featuring the much loved neighbourhood big dog, Jiro-cho.

In this first instalment, Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) has just returned from some overseas study in Paris where, rather than the intellectual pursuits that he planned, Jiro mostly wound up with a love of French cuisine. His parents have just opened a small French restaurant in fashionable Ginza and Jiro is now working there too despite the more lucrative paths that might be open for someone with a college education, language skills and overseas experience.

Jiro is also a hit with the ladies, and the daughter of the family that run a nearby bathhouse, Hideko (Ruriko Asaoka), has quite a crush on him though Jiro seems fairly oblivious to this fact despite her revealing to him that her family have received an offer of arranged marriage. After a high ranking official crashes his car into the family restaurant, Jiro becomes embroiled in a series of complicated local political and shady business plots which conflict strongly with his righteous and individual nature.

Tokyo Mighty Guy begins with a cute musical title sequence that would be much more at home in a glossy musical of the time than in a smalltime gangster flick which is what lurks around the edges of this feel good, youthful tale. Indeed, Kobayashi gets ample opportunity to show off those pipes as he sings to himself alone in the male side of the bathhouse and later repeats snatches of the song throughout the film. There’s a single being peddled here, but it’s being done in a fun, if unsubtle, way.

Jiro is very much a man of his age. He’s the big man in the neighbourhood – middle class, educated, studied abroad, likes the finer things such as foreign food and sharp suits, but he’s got the words social justice engraved on his heart so you know you can go to him with your troubles and he’ll help you figure them out. He doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone; he sends the yakuza protection mob packing and even convinces one of them to go straight with a trainee chef job in his restaurant. No wonder the animal loving former politician has taken such a liking to him – he’s the kind of man it’s hard not to like.

That’s not to say Jiro’s a saint, he’s out for himself just like everyone else. We can see how much distress there is for others when we venture into a rundown tenement filled with the genuine poor who have too many children and not enough resources. Actually, the film isn’t terribly kind about these people and treats them more or less as an embarrassing joke but it does demonstrate how the bigwigs have exploited the needs of the lower orders in more ways than one. Jiro, at least, won’t stand for this kind of deception and misuse of traditional social bonds but he will still use it as leverage to bring things to a fittingly ironic solution that is to the benefit of everyone aside from those that were originally in the wrong.

Cute and quirky is definitely the theme and even where there are darker elements, the cheerful atmosphere is tailor made to eclipse them. Saito doesn’t roll out any particularly impressive directorial tricks but allows the absurd humour of the script to do his work for him, highlighting it with surreal touches such as the face of an absent lover appearing in the moon or the celebratory feeling of hundreds of advertising leaflets dropping from the sky like confetti. Light and fluffy as it is, Tokyo Mighty Guy is time capsule from the socially mobile youth of Tokyo in 1960 who don’t want arranged marriages or to take over the family business. The world has opened up for them with a new vista of foreign culture and multicultural cool. The message is clear, the future belongs to guys like Jiro, and by extension to the Jiro wannabes lining up to watch him prosper from their cinema seats.


Tokyo Mighty Guy is the first of three films included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.