Brutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1965)

brutal tales of chivalry posterBrutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Showa Zankyo-den) – a title which neatly sums up the “ninkyo eiga”. These old school gangsters still feel their traditional responsibilities deeply, acting as the protectors of ordinary people, obeying all of their arcane rules and abiding by the law of honour (if not the laws of the state the authority of which they refuse to fully recognise). Yet in the desperation of the post-war world, the old ways are losing ground to unscrupulous upstarts, prepared to jettison their long-held honour in favour of a dog eat dog mentality. This is the central battleground of Kiyoshi Saeki’s 1965 film which looks back at the immediate post-war period from a distance of only 15 years to ask the question where now? The city is in ruins, the people are starving, women are being forced into prostitution, but what is going to be done about it – should the good people of Asakusa accept the rule of violent punks in return for the possibility of investment in infrastructure, or continue to struggle through slowly with the old-fashioned patronage of “good yakuza” like the Kozu Family?

Here is where we find ourselves in the 21st year of the Showa Era (1947) – the small marketplace in Asakusa is rife with black marketeers and illegal goods, but it’s still the only mechanism by which people are able to survive. The market is overseen by the elderly patriarch of the Kozu Family, Gennosuke (Tomosaburo Ii), who does his best to ensure a kind of “fairness” in its operation, at least in as far as yakuza rules extend. His territory is currently under threat from a rival gang – the Shinsei (literally “new truth”) who obey no such rules and are growing ever more ruthless in their quest to control the local area. Their big idea is to build an entirely new marketplace with a roof to make it a permanent and pleasant place for traders to do business – they will finance this through a kind of crowdfunding paid for by the merchants themselves who will also be paying protection money and kickbacks to the Shinsei. Everyone approves of the covered market project, even the Kozu, but if it means letting the Shinsei assume control is it a price worth paying?

This is a question which faces prodigal son Seiji (Ken Takakura) who returns from the war to find his city in ruins, Gennosuke murdered by the Shinsei, that he is now the new head of the Kozu, and that the woman he loved has been given away in a dynastic marriage to man from another minor clan. Before he died, Gennosuke was able to dictate two important instructions – that Seiji was to take over, and that the gang should proceed on a note of peace, avoiding violence or aggression where possible, leading by example rather than attempting to crush their new rivals. Seiji, having just returned from one battlefield is intent on following Gennosuke’s orders but how far can he really survive on the moral high ground when his opponents are content to fight dirty from down below?

The “Showa” era spanned some 60 years of turbulent Japanese history but in 1965 it was just under 40 years old and already beginning to generate the complicated feelings of nostalgia which are still attached to it today. Showa is right there in the Japanese title as if it were an age already passed but it’s clear in 1965 that something has shifted, one age has or is beginning to give way to another. The desperation of the post-war world with its empty, rubble strewn vistas and population filled with hunger and despair has ebbed away now that Japan is back on the world stage following the 1964 Olympics and the economy has as last begun to pick up. The young no longer fixate on the rights and wrongs of empire building, war and surrender but have begun to turn their attention towards the American occupation, social justice, and foreign conflicts. The young of 1947 were middle-aged in 1965, no one would begrudge them romanticising their youth, and so even if the world of Brutal Tales of Chivalry is a bleak one it still contains a kind of nostalgia for the kind of honourable gangster inhabited by Takakura who embodies traditional values some may feel are under represented in modern society.

Yet, for all that, there’s something subtly subversive in the film’s eventual suggestion that pacifism will only go so far and that one side or another must be banished from the battlefield through violence if peace is ever to prosper. Still, the struggle is a noble one in which honour is defined by strength of character and the selfless desire to ensure the well-being of others as much as it is to a blind observation of arcane rules and obsolete, meaningless ritual. The first in a long running series, Brutal Tales of Chivalry helped established Takakura’s iconic presence which eventually became synonymous with the “ninkyo eiga” as a personification of idealised Japanese masculinity, tough but caring even if passion is often repressed or redirected into violence. Remnants may be all that’s left of “chivalry” in the new Showa era, but there’s a degree of beauty in this brutality that refuses to die even as its era passes.


Now available on Region A blu-ray from Twilight Time (limited to 3000 copies only)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Virus (復活の日, Kinji Fukasaku, 1980)

virusThe ‘70s. It was a bleak time when everyone was frightened of everything and desperately needed to be reminded why everything was so terrifying by sitting in a dark room and watching a disaster unfold on-screen. Thank goodness everything is so different now! Being the extraordinarily savvy guy he was, Hiroki Kadokawa decided he could harness this wave of cold war paranoia to make his move into international cinema with the still fledgling film arm he’d added to the publishing company inherited from his father.

Adapted from a pessimistic, post-plague novel in the vein of Andromeda Strain penned by Japan Sinks’ Sakyo Komatsu, Virus (復活の日, Fukkatsu no Hi) was, at that time, the most expensive Japanese movie ever made. Using an international cast with the bulk of the dialogue in English, Kadokawa’s hopes were high but his dream was ultimately dashed when the film bombed at the box office and ended up being unceremoniously sold off to cable TV in a re-edited international version which removed almost all of the Japanese scenes. Since its original release, the film has accrued something of a negative reputation and left a stain on the resume of its otherwise popular director Kinji Fukasaku  (whose other international effort, Tora! Tora! Tora! didn’t do him any favours either) but Virus is far from the disaster it’s often regarded to be, even if extremely flawed.

Seismologist Yoshizumi (Masao Kusakari) witnesses the ruined state of his homeland in December 1983 from the comfort of a British submarine. Reminiscing about the woman who left him because of his scientific obsessions, Yoshizumi becomes our catalyst for a flashback to learn exactly how the world was destroyed in just a couple of years. Genetic experiments to create new viruses were banned in 1981 but in the following February a dodgy deal goes down in East Germany and the most dangerous biological weapon ever created is accidentally unleashed when the plane it was travelling on crashes into the Alps. It’s not long before “Italian flu” is laying waste to half of Europe before reaching Asia and the Americas. The virus is all powerful and no serious attempts to combat it are possible given the lack of time, but, the virus is dormant at below zero temperatures so the antarctic polar research station becomes humanity’s last hope for survival.

Though the film is funded and produced by Japan, it clearly positions America as its global leader. This is, however, countered by the fact that the weapon itself was being developed in America as a “credible deterrent” against Russian aggression now that Russia and the US are about even on Nukes. The bad guys are the American intelligence officials who have been continuing the research illegally without the President’s knowledge. In a touch of ironic Soviet-style manoeuvring, a research scientist trying to blow the whistle on this frighteningly destructive project is thrown into a mental hospital.

Rather than the struggle to find a cure, Virus prefers to focus on the immediate effects of the epidemic as the civilised world crumbles with alarming speed. Zipping around the major world capitals with death tolls placed against picturesque landmarks, Fukasaku mixes in stock footage of real rioting and civil unrest (of which he had a lot to choose from by 1980) as people take to the streets in desperation. Hospitals overflow with the infected, and the bodies pile up unceasingly.

The situation in Antartica is calmer if concerned. Some researchers opt for suicide whilst others club together to discuss possible plans for the survival of the human race. Unfortunately, this being a scientific community in the 1980s, there are 800 men and just 8 women, which leads to a number of obvious social problems. The remaining women are quickly convinced to become a kind of comfort team “accommodating” the needs of the attendant men. If the need really was to repopulate as quickly as possible, such an extreme re-imagining of current social mores would hardly be necessary, but strangely the women seem to accept their sudden conversion to forced prostitution with stoic pragmatism. Civility is maintained, and the outpost colony survives without too many problems but another threat arrives when Yoshizumi predicts a major earthquake event set to hit Washington that may activate its secret nuclear weapons which are trained on Moscow. That hardly matters now except that Moscow’s nukes are pointed at their research base owing to a slight political misunderstanding.

The research base is a testament to international cooperation with representatives from all continents, all working together peacefully (well, mostly – Lopez (Edward James Olmos) is…a passionate man) for the betterment of science. When it comes down to it, Yoshizumi and the American soldier Carter (Bo Svenson) are the lone duo heading back into plague infested Washington in an attempt to shut down the nuclear weapons systems before it’s too late.

Where Virus differs from many of the similarly themed films of the time is in its generally benevolent view of humanity. Despite the fact that the virus was man made, constructed to perpetuate an ongoing arms race, and was released due to bad luck and avarice, the majority of people are good, progressive sorts who want to work together to figure all of this out. Where the re-edited US version opts for a bleaker than bleak ending, the Japanese version does at least demonstrate the strength of human endurance as Yoshizumi trudges south in search of the survivors. The world is not restored, but there is still a kind of life possible if only those left behind can choose to live it.

Fukasaku opts for a more straightforward approach than some of his more frenetic work, but introduces an interesting device when the exhausted, hungry, and lonely Yoshizumi passes through a church. A mental dialogue with Christ on the cross is offered entirely in subtitles, as is the later “conversation” with a skeleton lying next to it who asks Yoshizumi some tough questions about his relationships and intentions.

These more spiritual enquiries play into the secondary theme of Yoshizumi’s ongoing guilt over abandoning his pregnant girlfriend to head off to Antarctica. Though adding to Yoshizumi’s backstory, his lost love in Japan occupies slightly more of the running time than is comfortable only to end on an ambiguous, if bleak, note which has little to do with anything else going on at the time. It does, however, feed into the mirroring developments at the research station when Yoshizumi is charged with looking after a pregnant woman and then becomes attached both to her and to the baby. It’s Yoshizumi’s love for another man’s wife and child coupled with the failure to save his own which drive him onward, but the romantic subplot often feels like an after thought and never achieves the kind of impact it hopes for.

Though a meandering, unwieldy beast, Virus is undoubtedly ambitious and often successful even if its production values don’t always live up to its famously high budget. Despite odd casting decisions which find Americans commanding British submarines and Brits playing Norwegians with English accents the largely international cast acquits itself well. Virus’ world is an oddly rational one where those left behind are willing to put aside their differences to work together rather than selfishly try to save themselves (though the film offers no ideas on how anyone is going to survive on Antartica when the supplies run out). As such, its vision is as bleak as many ‘70s dystopias but it also offers a brief glimmer of hope in allowing Yoshizumi to trudge to a kind of home, even if it’s one of ongoing uncertainty and primitive survival.


This review refers to the full 156 minute cut rather than the 108 minute US version.

Original trailer (no subtitles)