Step on the Gas! (新宿アウトロー ぶっ飛ばせ, Toshiya Fujita, 1970)

A recently released former gangster and the bored son of a CEO look for new directions in early ‘70s Japan in Toshiya Fujita’s Step on the Gas! (新宿アウトロー ぶっ飛ばせ, Shinjuku Outlaw: Buttobase). Released between his two instalments in the Stray Cat Rock series, Fujita’s freewheeling underworld drama is high on irony and shot in a surprisingly warm colour palate replete with pastels seemingly eschewing the seriousness of Nikkatsu’s earlier youth dramas for sense of youthful ennui eventually granting its mismatched heroes if not the direction they seek then at least possibility in their forever floating existence. 

“Angel of Death” Yuji (Tetsuya Watari) waltzes out of prison to be met by no one, only for another man it later transpires he does not know to attempt to flag him down in his military jeep. Ignoring him, Yuji jumps in a taxi and asks to go to Shinjuku, presumably his old stomping ground, before changing his mind and travelling on to Yokohama instead. This would indeed be a fantastically expensive journey, Yuji ironically taking the cabbie for a ride only for the mysterious man to appear and pay his fare for him. Giving his name as Nao (Yoshio Harada), he eventually explains that he’s trying to recruit Yuji for a job hoping to make use of his fearsome reputation to help him recover some missing drugs and get a gang of bikers off his back. 

As we later discover, however, Nao is not some street punk but the son of a wealthy businessman if one obviously at odds with this conservative father. That might be why he seems so hopelessly out of his depth in his relationship with the delinquent bosozoku motorcycle gang led by Rikki (Masaya Oki) who is perhaps equally in over his head in his rather naive approach to criminal enterprise. Nao and his friend Shuhei were supposed to handle a shipment of marijuana for the gang, but the deal went south and the drugs went missing along with Shuhei so now Nao owes them big time. He wants to use Yuji’s “Angel of Death” skills to find out what happened to Shuhei and retrieve the drugs to settle things with Rikki. 

Inevitably, events have a connection to Yuji’s former Shinjuku life Nao employing a woman he used to know, Shoko (Meiko Kaji) who is also Shuhei’s sister, to run his bar, while the icy enforcer working for the big enemy, corporatised yakuza, also turns out to be someone he knew before in the aptly named and distinctly creepy “Scorpion” (Mikio Narita) a former policeman turned amoral gangster. “His power lies not in fearlessness or being a good shooter but in the fact he doesn’t care about anything” Yuji later explains, describing him as the kind of man willing to knock off anyone in his way without a second thought be it a woman or a partner. One might have thought the same of Yuji in his breezy insouciance, but he is at heart noble despite his fearsome nickname displaying compassion and empathy for those around him along with old-fashioned values like loyalty siding with Nao against the twin threats of Scorpion and the biker gang with whom he later proposes a mutually beneficial alliance. 

Skipping between strangely whimsical folk music and a melancholy jazz score, Fujita’s freewheeling crime drama hints at a kind of aimless ennui Yuji and Nao both in differing ways emerging from a obsolescent past into a new and confusing world, Yuji realising the kind of life he lived before is no longer viable while Nao rejects his wealthy upbringing for a life of unglamorous crime engaging in drug use which he at one point hints has left him impotent. Meanwhile, the fading grandeur of old school yakuza is very much apparent in the cowardliness of the gang’s corporatised boss who hires a man like Scorpion to protect him because he cannot defend himself, planning to make off with the stolen money in a helicopter he has waiting rather than honourably facing off against Nao and Yuji in their quest to retrieve what was stolen from them. Constant red and white imagery recalling the Japanese flag clues us in to the sense of futility in their violence, but even so Fujita closes on an ironic note cementing the friendship of the two men but leaving them free floating with no clue how to land floundering for direction above an increasingly confusing society. 


The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

(C) Toho 1979

man who stole the sun posterIn the post-Asama-Sanso world, Japanese society had shifted into period of intense calm in which improving economic prosperity was in the process of delivering comfort rather than the creeping acquisitive anxiousness that began to overshadow the bubble era. Nevertheless, in cinematic terms at least anxiety was everywhere and not least among the young who, swept along by this irresistible economic current, were quietly doubtful about their place in a changing society. Co-scripted by an American screenwriter, Leonard Schrader (brother of Taxi Driver’s Paul), The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Taiyo wo Nusunda Otoko) provides a satirical snapshot of this confusing moment as an oppressed, belittled high school science teacher builds an atomic bomb in his apartment just to show he can but then realises he has absolutely no idea what to do with it.

Technically speaking, the science teacher’s name is Makoto Kido (Kenji Sawada) but no one really calls him that. The kids at school refer to him as “Bubble-gum” because he always seems to be chewing on the rather childish confectionary. Not the most conscientious of teachers, he tailors the curriculum to his own interests, teaching the kids all about atomic energy and the bomb, but the kids aren’t interested. They only want to know what’s going to be on the test. To them Kido’s information is irrelevant and so they ignore him, talking amongst themselves while he carries on, preaching to a seemingly empty room.

Meanwhile, Kido is building the bomb at home, for real. As he tells the kids, anyone can build an atomic bomb – you only need the plutonium which is, admittedly, tightly controlled for just this reason. He acquires his through a daring heist on a nuclear plant. Kido never elaborates on what prompted him to begin his bizarre masterplan, but there is certainly a degree of pent up rage inside him born of resentment with his reduced circumstances. “Just” a high school science teacher, who would really think he’d have the capability to build an atomic bomb, alone, using only household equipment (plus the plutonium and a custom furnace purchased after nearly exploding his oven)?

Kido’s problems are the same as many middle-aged men in ‘70s Japan in that he feels intensely oppressed from above and below. What he’s trying to tell the kids is that they have access to this power already – anyone can build a bomb, if you bother to learn how. The only thing that’s being kept from him is the plutonium (and for good reason), which he manages to acquire anyway. A chance encounter with the madness of the age seems to kickstart his plan into gear when he meets his opposing number in police inspector Yamashita (Bunta Sugawara).

Kido, having halfheartedly escorted a group of students on a school trip, finds himself rendered powerless once again when the bus is hijacked by a distressed older gentleman (Yunosuke Ito) armed with a rifle and grenade and wearing a World War II soldier’s uniform. He demands to be driven to see the emperor from whom he intends to demand the return of his son, presumably killed in the war 30 years earlier. Yamashita, clean cut and authoritative, is the gung-ho cop who masterfully brings the hostage crisis to a close by lying to the man that the emperor has consented to see him. During the evacuation the old man is killed by police snipers (despite Yamashita’s too late cries of “don’t shoot” after having dispatched the grenade and disarmed the suspect).

Like Kido, the old man likely didn’t really know what he intended to do, only that he was lonely and desperate. The emperor couldn’t give him back his son (whose uniform he seems to be wearing) and his gesture is one of futile defiance coupled with a suicide bid that has no real goal save making an elaborate protest against the world in which he lives. Kido makes the bomb, lets the authorities know he has it, but then realises he has no demands. He asks them to fix something minor that annoys him, to stop the TV networks pulling the plug on late running baseball games to make way for the news, and finds himself rewarded. He has taken back the power, they believe he has the bomb and they fear him, but he has no further goals or notion of how his society should change. There is no idealised future he is fighting for, all there is is futility and indifference.

Meanwhile, ironically enough, Kido’s desperation provokes a mini revolution in others. A talkshow radio host (Kimiko Ikegami) named “Zero” (in contrast to Kido’s adoption of the codename “No. 9” as the 9th owner of a nuclear device and the only individual), broadcasts his on-air request for ideas, believing it to be a kind of thought experiment. The ideas she gets from the public are of the usual kind – lonely men who want to bathe with naked women, nationalists who want to start a war with America, dreamers who think it might be better not to want anything and just embrace the dream, while she muses that she wants the Rolling Stones concert that was cancelled a few years ago after a band member’s narcotics conviction to be reinstated. That being as good as anything is what Kido goes for in an overture that passes as an odd kind of romance and a suitably ironic kick back against strait-laced authority.

Kido’s war is, in a sense, a war with the fathers of the world as symbolised by men like Yamashita with their suits and neatly trimmed haircuts. Their button-down existence has never offered anything to men like Kido who feel trapped and angry within it. Yet Yamashita is also reacting against his own generation of fathers as symbolised by the old man on the bus, the last remnant of wartime resistance offering a defeated cry against a world which got away from them. Yamashita let the old man die when he prioritised his own sense of heroism, and that annoyed Kido. He can’t help sympathising with his plight which is in a way also his own in being relentlessly silenced and ignored by austere authority figures.

Turning down Yamashita’s clumsy attempt at a pickup, Zero affirms that Kido has given her a dream, which no small thing and she feels bound to him because of it. It’s an ironic statement because Kido has no dreams and not only that, he has no future either – he is slowly dying of radiation poisoning despite his precautions during the building of the bomb. In their final confrontation, Yamashita, adopting a paternal authority, neatly summarises Kido’s dilemma. The only life he has the right to take is his own, and his own death is the only thing he really wants, but he’s embarked on this elaborate plan to make his presence felt all the while aware that he will remain totally anonymous. No one will ever see him. He will die, like thousands of others, faceless. A lowly high school science teacher, no terrorist mastermind or bomb building genius. His revenge is as absurd as it is futile. Male inferiority complexes threaten to drown us all in a sea of violent resentment, and as the Earth dies screaming all we will have to reflect on is that we ourselves brought this world into being through our own incurable apathy.


Original trailer (no subtitles)