The Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1979)

The ensemble crime drama was at its zenith in the 1970s which saw a series of starry mysteries dominate the box office for most of the decade. Director Yoshitaro Nomura had long associated himself with the noirish thriller, frequently adapting the work of Seicho Matsumoto and perhaps skewing a little darker than your average drawing room mystery would usually dare. Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, 1979’s Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Haitatsu Sarenai Santsu no Tegami), meanwhile, is adapted not from Matsumoto but from a novel by American crime powerhouse Ellery Queen, Calamity Town, and as such avoids the central topic of wartime corruption which is at the centre of many similarly themed crime dramas. Nevertheless, it paints a complex picture of Japan in the increasingly prosperous late ‘70s in which class distinctions, it seems, prove hard to kill. 

Nomura begins, as he so often does, with a lengthy train journey this time undertaken by the quasi-protagonist, Japanese-American student Bob (Ryo Hikime) who has come to Japan on a research trip for his East Asian studies degree and is travelling from Tokyo where he stayed with a friend to provincial Hagi where he’s to stay with distant relatives, the Karasawas. As we begin to realise, the Karasawas are fabulously wealthy, members of an entrenched upperclass living out in the country. Grumpy patriarch Mitsumasa (Shin Saburi) is the CEO of a bank, and actually not all that welcoming of his visitor though they agree to put him up in an entirely separate house they had built for the impending marriage of daughter Noriko (Komaki Kurihara). Unfortunately, three years previously once the house had been built and the marriage agreed, Noriko’s fiancé Toshiyuki (Takao Kataoka) simply vanished without trace. Heartbroken, Noriko suffered a breakdown and has been living in a depressive state ever since. 

The trouble begins when already disowned oldest daughter Reiko (Mayumi Ogawa) rings her sister to let her know that Toshiyuki has resurfaced, apparently having been living quietly as a fisherman in Hokkaido. Perhaps surprisingly, their reconciliation is speedy. Noriko brings Toshiyuki home, explains the reason for the breakup was that Toshiyuki was uncomfortable with the constraints of her upperclass life, and states that the wedding is back on. Mitsumasa is understandably irate, but agrees to the marriage on the same terms as before. Toshiyuki must join his bank and they have to live in the house he built for them. Despite his earlier aversion, Toshiyuki agrees and the pair are married but on moving his belongings into the house Noriko discovers three disturbing letters hidden in a book each bearing a future date and addressed to Toshiyuki’s younger sister, the first explaining that his wife has been taken ill, the second that her condition continues to deteriorate, and the third that she has passed away. 

All things considered, it is odd that the marriage was agreed so quickly, the family perhaps feeling that Toshiyuki has had a humbling and is willing to submit himself to the feudalistic, patriarchal world of the upper classes in order to escape hardship while knowing that refusing may be the most dangerous thing for Noriko’s precarious mental health. Entirely absent are the usual background checks such families usually run on a prospective son-in-law, and no one seems keen to ask for much detail as to Toshiyuki’s life over the past three years. The class conflicts are however brought to the fore when a brassy young woman turns up and claims to be Toshiyuki’s previously unseen younger sister who for mysterious reasons did not attend the wedding ceremony and has never been introduced to the family. The contrast between the two women could not be more plain, Noriko often appearing in kimono or elegantly attired in the latest fashions, while Tomoko (Keiko Matsuzaka) is a full on modern girl who finds the house stuffy and the company dull but shows no signs of leaving. 

As so often in Japanese mysteries the focus is very much on the how, or in this case the “if”, rather than the who or the why which are in themselves fairly predictable at least to those familiar with the genre. Bob and middle sister Keiko (Ai Kanzaki) who is being pressured into an arranged marriage with a public prosecutor she doesn’t seem to even like but also has not rejected, are perturbed enough by the letters to start investigating but their biggest obstacle it seems is Noriko herself who is at great pains to exonerate her husband from suspicion believing the letters are some kind of dark joke rather than genuine evidence of an imminent attempt on her life even as Toshiyuki’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic and suspicious. 

“Everyone should live the way they like” Bob avows in laughing off a request for life advice, apparently wisdom handed down from his Japanese grandma. That sense of restricted freedoms does indeed seem to be at the heart of the issue, hinting at the changing nature of Japanese society even as it struggles to free itself from the feudal past. Keiko resents being pushed towards the prosector but only ever comes up with excuses, never actively resisting her parents’ attempt to marry her off. Oldest daughter Reiko, meanwhile, was kicked out of the family after eloping with an actor who eventually left her flat and now runs a bar. Keiko may feel she has only these two choices, a marriage such as Noriko’s on her father’s terms only, or a dubious independence which might not suit her in the same way as her infinitely competent sister. Toshiyuki resented placing himself under the patriarchal authority of his father-in-law, a job in his bank, living in a house he built on the property he owns, with no real control over his life. Reiko may well have a point when she eventually tells Mitsumasa that this is all his own fault, a consequence his rigid authoritarianism that insisted on maintaining an outdated ideal of patriarchal control. 

For his part, Mitsumasa is forever keen to emphasise that there are no crimes in his house, resolutely refusing to admit that there are problems within the Karasawa family even while perhaps knowing where the fault may lie. The one mystery which is never solved is why exactly so many women are so in love with Toshiyuki who all things considered is no great catch, a coward who makes a point of disappearing on people rather than deal with unpleasantness only to resent it when his moral cowardice returns to haunt him. He resents the emasculation of being a wealthy man’s son-in-law with its concurrent loss of personal autonomy, but simultaneously refuses to take responsibility for his actions or reject a life of comfort as someone assured both of continued financial security and of a certain place in society. Love destabilises the social order, but seemingly cannot change it leaving only the lovers bruised by their attempts to free themselves from the latent feudalism of the post-war world which continues to promise more than it has to offer. 


Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Junya Sato, 1977)

proof of the man posterOne could argue that Japanese cinema had been an intensely Japanese affair throughout the golden age even as the old school student system experienced its slow decline. During the ‘70s, something appears to shift – the canvases widen and mainstream blockbusters looking for a little something extra quite frequently ventured abroad to find it. Pioneering producer Haruki Kadokawa was particularly forward looking in this regard and made several attempts to crack the American market in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before settling on creating his own mini industry to place a stranglehold around Japanese pop culture. Sadly, his efforts mostly failed and faced the same sorry fate of being entirely recut and dubbed into English with new Amero-centric scenes inserted into the narrative. Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Ningen no Shomei) is one of Kadokawa’s earliest attempts at a Japanese/American co-production and, under the steady hands of Junya Sato, is a mostly successful one even if it did not succeed in terms of overseas impact.

Based on the hugely popular novel by Seiichi Morimura, Proof of the Man stars the then up and coming Yusaku Matsuda as an ace detective, Munesue, investigating the death by stabbing of a young American man in Japan. The body was discovered in a hotel lift on the same night as a high profile fashion event took place with top designer Kyoko Yasugi (Mariko Okada) in attendance. After the show, an adulterous couple give evidence to the police about finding the body, but the woman, Naomi (Bunjaku Han), insists on getting out of the taxi that’s taking them home a little early in case they’re seen together. On a night pouring with rain, she’s knocked down and killed by a young boy racer and his girlfriend who decide to dispose of the body to cover up the crime rather than face the consequences. Kyohei (Koichi Iwaki), the driver of the car, is none other than the son of the fashion designer at whose show the central murder has taken place.

Like many Japanese mysteries of the time, Proof of the Man touches on hot-button issues of the immediate post-war period from the mixed race children fathered by American GIs and their precarious position in Japanese society, to the brutality of occupation forces, and the desperation and cruelty which dominated lives in an era of chaos and confusion. The only clues the police have are that the victim, Johnny Hayward (Joe Yamanaka), said something which sounded like “straw hat” just before he died, and that he was carrying a book of poetry by Yaso Saiji published in 1947. Discovering that Hayward was a working-class man of African-American heritage from Harlem whose father took a significant risk in getting the money together for his son to go to Japan (hardly a headline holiday destination in 1977), the police are even more baffled and enlist the assistance of some regular New York cops to help them figure out just why he might have made such an unlikely journey.

The New York cops have their own wartime histories to battle and are not completely sympathetic towards the idea of helping the Japanese police. Munesue, of a younger generation, is also harbouring a degree of prejudice and resentment against Americans which stems back to a traumatic incident in a market square in which he witnessed the attempted gang rape of a young woman by a rabid group of GIs. Munesue’s father tried to intervene (the only person to do so) but was brutally beaten himself, passing away a short time later leaving Munesue an orphaned street kid. In an effort to appeal to US audiences, Proof of the Man was eventually recut with additional action scenes and greater emphasis placed on the stateside story. Doubtless, the ongoing scenes of brutality instigated by the American troops would not be particularly palatable to American audiences but they are central to the essential revelations which ultimately call for a kind of healing between the two nations as they each consider the ugliness of the immediate post-war era the burying of which is the true reason behind the original murder and a secondary cause of the events which led to the death of Naomi.

Naomi’s death speaks more towards a kind of growing ugliness in Japan’s ongoing economic recovery and rising international profile. Kyohei is the son not only of high profile fashion designer Kyoko, but can also count a high profile politician (Toshiro Mifune) as his father. Spoiled and useless, Kyohei is the very worst in entitled, privileged youth driving around in flashy cars and going to parties, living frivolously on inherited wealth whilst condemning the source of his funds as morally corrupt citing his mother’s acquiescence to his father’s frequent affairs. Yet aside from anything else, Kyohei is completely ill-equipped for independent living and is essentially still a child who cannot get by without the physical and moral support of his adoring mother. 

Johnny Hayward, by contrast, retains a kind of innocent purity and is apparently in Japan in the hope of restoring a long severed connection as echoed in Saiji’s poem about a straw hat lost by a small boy on a beautiful summer’s day. The words of the poem are later repeated in the title song by musician Joe Yamanaka who plays Johnny in the film and is of mixed race himself. As in most Japanese mystery stories, the root of all evil is a secret – in this case those of the immediate post-war period and things people did to survive it which they now regret and fear the “shame” of should they ever be revealed. Some of these secrets are not surmountable and cannot be forgiven or overcome, some atonements (poetic or otherwise) are necessary but the tone which Sato seems to strike encourages a kind of peacemaking, a laying to rest of the past which is only born of acceptance and openness. Despite the bleakness of its premiss on both sides of the ocean, Proof of the Man does manage to find a degree of hopefulness for the future in assuming this task of mutual forgiveness and understanding can be accomplished without further bloodshed.


Original trailer (no subtitles) – includes major plot spoilers!

Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow (聖の青春, Yoshitaka Mori, 2016)

satoshiThere’s a slight irony in the English title of Yoshitaka Mori’s tragic shogi star biopic, Satoshi: A Move For Tomorrow (聖の青春, Satoshi no Seishun). The Japanese title does something similar with the simple “Satoshi’s Youth” but both undercut the fact that Satoshi (Kenichi Matsuyama) was a man who only ever had his youth and knew there was no future for him to consider. The fact that he devoted his short life to a game that’s all about thinking ahead is another wry irony but one it seems the man himself may have enjoyed. Satoshi Murayama, a household name in Japan, died at only 29 years old after denying chemotherapy treatment for bladder cancer in fear that it would interfere with his thought process and set him back on his quest to conquer the world of shogi. Less a story of triumph over adversity than of noble perseverance, Satoshi lacks the classic underdog beats the odds narrative so central to the sports drama but never quite manages to replace it with something deeper.

Diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome as a child, the young Satoshi spent a lot of time alone in hospitals. To ease his boredom his father gave him a shogi set and the boy was hooked. Immersing himself in the world of the game, Satoshi read everything he could about tactics, practiced till his fingers bled and came up with his own unorthodox technique for playing that would eventually take him from his Osaka home to the bright lights of Tokyo. Determined to become the “Meijin”, beat top shogi player Habu (Masahiro Higashide), and get into the coveted 9th Dan ranking Satoshi cares for nothing other than the game, his only other hobbies being drink, junk food, and shojo manga.

Undoubtedly brilliant yet difficult, Satoshi is not an easy man to get along with. Years of medical treatment for nephrosis have left him pudgy and bloated, and an aversion to cutting his hair and nails (poignantly insisting that they have a right to live and grow) already makes him an unusual presence at the edge of a shogi board. He’s not exactly charming either with his overwhelming intensity, aloofness, and fits of angry frustration. Yet the shogi world fell in love with him for his encyclopaedic yet totally original approach to the game. His friends, of which there many, were willing to overlook his eccentricities because of his immense skill and because they knew that his anger and impatience came from forever knowing that his time was limited and much of life was already denied to him.

This insistent devotion to the game and desire to scale its heights before it’s too late is what gives Satoshi its essential drive even if the road does not take us along the usual route. Reckless with his health despite, or perhaps because of, his knowledge of his weakness, Satoshi operates on a self destructive level of excessive drink and poor diet though when he starts experiencing more serious problems which require urgent medical intervention, it’s easy to see why he would be reluctant to get involved with even more doctors. Eventually diagnosed with bladder cancer, Satoshi at first refuses and then delays treatment in fear that it will muddy his mind but the doctors tell him something worse – he should stay away from shogi and the inevitable stress and strain it places both on body and mind. For Satoshi, life without shogi is not so different from death.

Satoshi has his sights set on taking down popular rival Habu whose fame has catapulted him into the Japanese celebrity pantheon, even marrying a one of the most beloved idols of the day. Habu is the exact opposite of Satoshi – well groomed, nervous, and introverted but the two eventually develop a touching friendship based on mutual admiration and love of the game. On realising he may be about to beat Satoshi and crush his lifelong dreams, Habu is visibly pained but it would be a disservice both to the game and to Satoshi not to follow through. Outside of shogi the pair have nothing in common as an attempt to bond over dinner makes clear but Habu becomes the one person Satoshi can really talk to about his sadness in the knowledge that he’ll never marry or have children. As different as they are, Satoshi and Habu are two men who see the world in a similar way and each have an instinctual recognition of the other which gives their rivalry a poignant, affectionate quality.

Despite the game’s stateliness, Mori manages to keep the tension high as elegantly dressed men face each other across tiny tables slapping down little pieces of wood featuring unfamiliar symbols. Japanese viewers will of course be familiar with the game though overseas audiences may struggle with some its nuances even if not strictly necessary to enjoy the ongoing action. Matsuyama gives a standout performance as the tortured, tragic lead even gaining a huge amount of weight to reflect Satoshi’s famously pudgy appearance. Rather than the story of a man beating the odds, Satoshi’s is one of a man who fought a hard battle with improbable chances of success but never gave up, sacrificing all of himself in service of his goal. Genuinely affecting yet perhaps gently melancholy, Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow is a tribute to those who are prepared to give all of themselves yet also a reminder that there is always a price for such reckless disregard of self.


Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English 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)