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)

With Song in Her Heart (希望の乙女, Yasushi Sasaki, 1958)

song in her heartAnother vehicle for post-war singing star Hibari Misora, With a Song in her Heart (希望の乙女, Kibo no Otome) was created in celebration of the tenth anniversary of her showbiz debut. As such, it has a much higher song to drama ratio than some of her other efforts and mixes fantasy production numbers with band scenes as Hibari takes centre stage playing a young woman from the country who comes to the city in the hopes of becoming a singing star.

After beginning with a rural, almost cowboy-style number in which Hibari appears as the well dressed lady of the manor, Sayuri, riding her horse across the wide pastureland, the action quickly moves to the city when Sayuri’s mentor finally convinces her uncle that her future lies in showbiz and not an early marriage as he had envisioned. However, once she gets there she finds her potential tutor extremely unwilling to fulfil his promise to take her on. After winning him over, she quickly makes friends with the locals who also want the singing teacher to become the leader of a band they’ve formed in the hopes of raising some money to build a proper children’s playground to stop them playing in dirty ditch land nearby which is a well known health hazard. Soon enough the band takes off but there’s more trouble ahead for Hibari and co. as they are betrayed by those closest to them.

Working as a celebration of Hibari’s career so far With a Song on Her Heart is filled with excuses for Hibari to sing both as a music student and band vocalist as well as fantasy production numbers some of which are even bigger on dance than on song. The plot is quite simple but there is a lot of it, in contrast to other films of this kind, as Hibari sets about healing the grief stricken heart of her bandleader and fulfilling the hopes of the ordinary people turned musicians through the power of song. The romance element is a light one and not the focus of the film but bears mentioning as Hibari’s love interest is played by Ken Takakura – the archetypical star of the yakuza movie who was to marry fellow singing sensation (and frequent Hibari Misora co-star) Chiemi Eri the following year.

Despite its nature as a celebratory project, With a Song on Her Heart doesn’t quite meet the high production standards of other Misora starring films. Shot in colour and in 2.35:1, the majority of the film is studio bound (often very obviously so) with simple sets and a straightforward directing style. Nevertheless, even if it fails to impress on a technical level, With a Song in Her Heart knows what it’s about and so it makes sure to fill its relatively short duration with as many songs as possible, light romance and a cheerful atmosphere of people coming together to try and solve a social problem through spreading love and joy in the form of music. The musical styles are unusually varied embracing Hibari Misora’s regular ballads as well as mixing in world influences from mariachi to african drums with a strong big band jazz undercurrent.The overall feeling is one of goodnatured wholesomeness and even if low on impact With a Song on Her Heart is a decent showcase for Hibari Misora’s talents as she celebrates her tenth year in the business at the age of only 21.


 

Poppoya (鉄道員, Yasuo Furuhata, 1999)

img_0The late Ken Takakura is best remembered as cinema’s original hard man but when the occasion arose he could provoke the odd tear or two just the same. 1999’s Poppoya (鉄道員) directed by frequent collaborator Yasuo Furuhata sees him once again playing the tough guy with a battered heart only this time he’s an ageing station master of a small town in deepest snow country which was once a prosperous mining village but is now a rural backwater.

Otomatsu Sato has spent his life in service to the railway. Like his father before him who believed the key to the modernisation of Japan after its defeat in the second world war was in its transportation network, Sato started as an engineer before being promoted to station master. Morning and evening in the freezing cold he bid in and sent out each passenger and freight train travelling through his one track station. However, though he clearly loves his job Sato has experienced a great deal of personal tragedy in pursuit of his career. He wasn’t there when his baby daughter died, nor was he there when his wife lay dying in hospital. He was where he always is, on the platform until the last train goes out. Now, however, the mine has closed, the town is full of old people and there are no passengers on the train so the line will be closing. Having given his life to something which will be so unceremoniously erased, what is a man like Sato to do now?

In true Takakura fashion, Sato appears tough and fairly unapproachable on the outside but actually he’s quite well respected in the town and even if some of the other residents bemoan his rigid ways, they grudgingly respect him for being the way he is. He takes his duties seriously and would never countenance breaching them for something as trivial as personal concerns, even when those concerns are something as understandable as the death of a family member. The way he sees things, this is his duty and must be fulfilled, properly each day no matter what. This may seem a little obsequious in Western eyes, though many of the other (particularly female) characters also agree Sato takes things much further than he needs to, but dedication to one’s duty is, after all, an admirable trait.

However, now it’s all been for nowt. The railway line is to be closed, the land will engulf it once again erasing the years of Sato’s work just as if he were never there. He’s sacrificed final moments with his wife and child – not even that, just sacrificed moments. He’s given all to the railway and now there’s no place left there for him. His best friend, the father of a son also in the railway business, is to take another job at a hotel complex but Sato is a railwayman through and through – he’ll work on the tracks or not at all.

Around this time Sato also starts seeing some strange new children around. He assumes they’ve come to stay with grandparents in the village, this being the time of the New Year holiday. The little one has a strangely old fashioned looking doll that reminds Sato of one he bought for his infant daughter only she never really had the chance to enjoy it. Then he meets an older sister who’s kind of a live wire before meeting the oldest – a high school student dressed in an old fashioned looking uniform who really reminds him of someone he used to know. All these strange encounters force Sato to further re-examine his past, reliving old regrets and assessing a life lived in service to an ideal at the expense of the joy he might have felt as a happy family man.

Beautifully photographed with picturesque shots of trains against the deep snows of Northern Japan, Poppoya was Japan’s submission for the 1999 Oscars and does have all the trappings of a prestige melodrama. It unabashedly pulls at the hearts strings and even if the rather sentimental score takes things too far, Poppoya does nevertheless manage to draw the odd tear for Sato’s lonely, regretful old age. Sentimental yet genuinely affecting, Poppoya is an effectively crafted weepy which serves as a timely reminder to embrace the things which are most important to you while there’s still time.


The Hong Kong blu-ray release of Poppoya includes English subtitles (though they are a little “imperfect”).

Only trailer I can find has Korean subs:

 

The Yellow Handkerchief (幸福の黄色いハンカチ Yoji Yamada, 1977)

siawasenoWhen you hear the name Yoji Yamada, you pretty much know what you’re getting. A little laughter, a few tears and a reassuring if sometimes sad ending. You’ll get all that and more with the Yellow Handkerchief although, to allow a minor spoiler, the ending is anything other than sad even if it provokes a few tears. Yes it’s sort of syrupy and it’s not as if it breaks any new cinematic ground but once again Yamada has been able to work his magic to turn this romantic melodrama into a warm, funny and ultimately affecting tale.

Kin-chan, nursing the pain of unrequited love buys a garish red car and goes north where he attempts to pick up girls in fairly cack handed ways. Finally he hooks one outside of a station as she’s too shy and polite to tell him to buzz off. Things get decidedly awkward until the pair bond over a shared hatred of miso noodles at which point Akemi becomes a little more lively. A short way into their road trip, they meet the forlorn figure of Yusaku (Ken Takakura) who ends up joining them on their random road trip around Hokkaido. However, Yusaku’s brooding nature raises a few questions – where has he been, where is he going and why does he both very much want to go and not want to go at all?

Given that it’s Ken Takakura playing Yusaku, you might have a few ideas and you wouldn’t be *entirely* wrong but Takakura amply proves there’s more to his talents than playing a yakuza badass in series of extremely popular but by then out of fashion gangster movies. Suffering from an excess of nobility, Yusaku is a man who’s made a series of poor life choices and is slowing building up the courage to find out if a particular bridge he tried to burn is still salvageable.

Kin-chan and Akemi by contrast turn out to be a pair of live wire odd balls with Kin-chan desperately chasing Akemi and Akemi blithely ignoring him. Despite various attempts to shake Kin-chan off he generally ends up coming back (one time with a giant crab dinner) and getting himself into all kinds of hilarious trouble. They may be the film’s comic relief but in their story proves strangely moving too.

The Yellow Handkerchief won the very first Best Picture award at the Japanese Academy Prize ceremony back in 1978 as well as a host of other awards from Kinema Junpo and other critical bodies and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a prestige picture, and a pretty saccharine one at that, but Yamada makes it all work and comes out with a genuinely affecting piece of cinema. Filmed against the gorgeous backdrop of the island of Hokkaido, The Yellow Handkerchief is the ideal rainy day movie and though it may all end in tears they are far from tears of sadness.