Devotion to Railway (大いなる驀進, Hideo Sekigawa, 1960)

In the early 1960s, Japan’s rail network might have felt a little uneasy with the Shinkansen already on the horizon. Hideo Sekigawa’s Devotion to Railway (大いなる驀進, Oinaru Bakushin) is in part a celebration of this essential service, the conductor and steward ever fond of reminding us that most passengers probably don’t realise that the Sakura sleeper service on which they are travelling from Tokyo all the way to Nagasaki is operated by only seven or eight people (though they don’t seem to be counting the staff from the dining car which hints at a minor source of division among the crew). While the Japanese title which means something more like “the great dash” might hint at a little more excitement, the film is less thriller than gentle ensemble drama in which the passengers and crew must come together to solve the improbable number of crises arising on this otherwise ordinary journey. 

Even so considering the film is directed by the left-leaning Sekigawa best known for his anti-war films such as Hiroshima and Listen to the Voices of the Sea, not to mention scripted by Kaneto Shindo, it is a little ironic that the central thrust of the drama revolves around junior steward Yajima’s (Katsuo Nakamura) rediscovery of his own devotion to the railway after at the beginning of the film declaring this will be his final journey. Mimicking the dilemma at the centre of Yoshitaro Nomura’s Stakeout, Yajima’s problem is that he has been engaged for two years and is sick of waiting to get married but his girlfriend Kimie (Yoshiko Sakuma) is the main breadwinner in her family and though his salary could support them as a couple it won’t stretch much further. Kimie, however, is dead against him taking the counter-productive decision to quit the railways even with the suggestion of going into business with a friend who owns a cafe, partly because it’s better to stick with a steady job than take a chance on something less certain, and partly because she knows he likes his work and all his experience will be wasted if he suddenly opts to switch careers. 

Despite its positive warmhearted message of people pulling together to overcome crisis, the film does skew a little conservative in essentially turning Kimie into a minor villain as if she were in a sense responsible for making Yajima doubt his devotion to the railway. After jumping aboard to make sure he doesn’t suddenly quit before the end of the line, she eventually has a heart to heart with the sympathetic conductor Matsuzaki (Rentaro Mikuni) that forces to her to admit that perhaps she’s just nervous about the nature of married life and has been making trouble where there needn’t be any, now certain that it’s better to just get married as soon as possible and let the rest figure itself out. 

Meanwhile, there’s additional tension seeing as a waitress from the diner car has an obvious crush on Yajima and is quite resentful on being presented with his fiancée, but even this is eventually solved with the two women becoming accidental friends during the climatic crisis, a landslide caused by a typhoon, that grants each of the passengers an epiphany about what it is they really want out of life. While waiting for the maintenance crew from the next station to arrive, Yajima, still in a bad mood, stands around doing not much of anything until coaxed into action by Kimie and Matsuzaki, Kimie too eventually jumping off the train to solve this literal roadblock in their relationship followed by the dining car girls and a young woman only on the train to transport blood to a hospital needed urgently by 2pm the next day. This sense of collective endeavour opening the way gives everyone on board a new sense of positivity, allowing Kimie and Yajima to repair their relationship and a man who tried to take his own life in the night to gain a new sense of hope for future. 

Several times Yajima is reminded that he has the lives of the passengers in his hands which is undoubtedly true given that there is always the chance of disaster yet also perhaps going a little far seeing as most of his job is checking tickets and providing travel information. Nevertheless, there is a lot going on on this train from eloping couples to yakuza assassins, not to mention the twin sights of a newly wed couple and a pompous politician momentarily disembarking at each stop to be feted either by workers at their factory or the local members of their political party. The snooty politician even gets a minor comeuppance from a famous pickpocket who steals his watch as a joke and then gives it back only to dismissively ignore his thank you message while eating a giant apple. 

Surprisingly handsome for a Toei programmer, Sekigawa’s deft direction lends a claustrophobic sense of dread to the interior of the train stalked by a vengeful assassin, while simultaneously making it an essentially safe space guarded by the ever solicitous crew keen to help an anxious young woman with a long journey ahead of her arrive on time to get home to her chronically ill mother. An effective piece of advertising for the Sakura sleeper service (which ran until 2005 albeit in slightly different forms), Devotion to Railway may surprise in its insistence that the hero rededicate himself to his employer but is nevertheless a charming ensemble drama which finds a new sense of positivity in the solidarity between friends and strangers coming together to overcome crisis through common endeavour. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Bay (東京湾, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1962)

Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with the thriller and particularly with its lower end as a purveyor of B-movie noir, yet look a little closer and his films are perhaps not really about crime at all but about the complicated relationships between people in the ever changing post-war society. Just as Stakeout is really about a policeman’s marriage, Tokyo Bay (東京湾, Tokyowan) is less concerned with the radiating corruption of the smuggling ring at its centre than with frustrated male friendship and the wartime legacy.

Opening with an aerial pan over post-war Tokyo, a title card informs us that this is just one frame in the “intense struggle for existence” in a city of 10 million before we arrive at the titular bay and a boat which is presumably carrying drugs later passed from one hand to another. The fixer, Takeyama (Kei Sato), talks to a man in a car and instructs him to be in front of the Taiyo building before 10am to pick up a golf bag from his contact. Gazing up at a post-war construction site, however, the man, Saeki (Jun Hamamura), is shot in the head and killed by a bullet piercing the roof of his car, Nomura suddenly switching to a disorientating POV shot as he twists in a sudden death spiral. 

As it turns out, Saeki was a plant, an undercover cop with the drugs squad sent to expose the smuggling ring the shadowy owners of which will predictably turn out to have Chinese connections in another echo of post-war cinema’s continuing Sinophobia. Two officers are assigned to the case, the young and earnest Akine (Jiro Ishizaki), and the veteran Sumikawa (Ko Nishimura) who acts largely on a series of inexplicable policeman’s hunches. Their major lead, however, comes as a stroke either of dumb luck or dark fate as Sumikawa, dodging into a dodgy mahjong parlour while tailing Takeyama, runs into an old army buddy, Inoue (Isao Tamagawa), who just happens to be a left-handed sniper perfectly matching the profile of the man they’ve been looking for. 

While Sumikawa keeps tabs on his old friend, somehow feeling he has something to do with all this but ambivalent in his torn responsibilities, Akine travels to Inoue’s hometown of Onomichi and sympathetically concludes that he was merely “rather unfortunate”. His life derailed by the war, Inoue returned to discover the girl he hoped to marry had married someone else. Giving evidence at Inoue’s trial for pulling a knife on her husband, the young woman remarks that she never promised him anything and did not consider their relationship to be serious, merely treating him with the politeness due to someone about to leave for war. In any case, she asks, even if she had been in love and intended to wait for him, as an orphaned woman there were only two choices open to her to survive, marriage or sex work, what else could she have done?

Back in Tokyo, Sumikawa begins to catch up with his old friend, realising that his romantic disappointment set him on a dark course of bad relationships and a drift towards crime but that he seems to have turned himself around. He is now happily married to a woman he describes as “simple” who seems devoted to him and if he did this, he did it to start again. His one last job intended to take him back to Onomichi, a pleasant coastal town the bay of which he describes as far more beautiful than that of the grimy, industrial Tokyo and largely untouched by urban corruption. Sumikawa feels himself torn, not least on account of the debt that exists between the two men because Inoue once saved his life, but also knowing that he may have to arrest this man and destroy his attempt to return to a more innocent world leaving his wife alone. Disapproving of the nascent relationship between his younger sister Yukiko (Hiromi Sakaki) and his partner, Sumikawa worries Akine may be becoming the kind of man who cares more for making an arrest than friendship, a conflict presumably weighing on his mind, even as he agrees he’s a good man and a good police officer. Yukiko meanwhile fires back that Sumikawa’s wife left him not because he is a policeman but because he is selfish and arrogant, and more to the point incapable of understanding a woman’s feelings. 

Nevertheless, he’s acutely aware of the effect his actions or inactions may have on Inoue’s wife Yoshiko (Kyoko Aoi), especially as it’s suggested she may need a degree of looking after. Inoue, careful to admit nothing, reveals that the man who carried out the hit may not have known he was killing a police officer but may have assumed the target was fair game being, like themselves, a denizen of the underworld. Largely a MacGuffin, the smuggling ring is not as important as one might assume, the two men locked into a cycle of guilt and retribution each marked by wartime trauma and in a sense unable to claim their place in the post-war society. Twin betrayals lead to a fateful, train-bound showdown shot with fraught claustrophobia as each man engages in an intense struggle for his survival but also perhaps already defeated in a shared sense of fatalistic nihilism. Trekking through the half-constructed streets of the post-war city with shaky handheld Nomura hints at the radiating corruption exemplified by the growth of the trade in drugs, but perhaps one corruption is merely the result of another which may in turn be far less easy to cure. 


The Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1964)

Little known outside of Japan, Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with post-war noir and particularly with adaptations of Seicho Matsumoto’s detective novels, yet he had a wide and varied filmography directing in several genres including musicals and period dramas. The son of silent movie director Hotei Nomura, he spent the bulk of his career at Shochiku which had and to some degree still has a strong studio brand which leans towards the wholesome even if his own work was often in someway controversial such as in the shocking child abuse drama The Demon or foregrounding of leprosy in Castle of Sand. Part of the studio’s series of double-length epics, 1964’s Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Goben no Tsubaki) is nevertheless an unusual entry in Nomura’s filmography, adapting a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto essentially setting a policier in feudal Japan and perhaps consequently shot largely on stage sets rather than on location. 

Nomura opens with artifice as Shino (Shima Iwashita) stares daggers at an actor on the stage but later returns to his rooms every inch the giggling fan before finally offing him with her ornate silver hairpin leaving behind only the blood red camellia of the title. The first in a series of killings later branded the Camellia Murders, we later realise that the actor had to die because of his illicit relationship with Shino’s mother whom he brands a “nympho” and as we later discover had several extra-marital lovers. Extremely close to her father who, as we’re told, perished in a fire while resting in the country due to his terminal tuberculosis, Shino is apparently on a quest for revenge against the faithless men who humiliated him though her feelings towards her mother seem far more complex. 

Indeed, Shino regards her mother’s carrying on as “dirty” and seems particularly prudish even as she wields her sex appeal as a weapon in her quest for vengeance. Yet it’s not so much the free expression of sexuality which seems to be at fault but excess and irresponsibility. Shino resents her mother primarily for the ways in which she made her father suffer, off having fun with random men while he shouldered the burden of her family business which, Shino might assume, has contributed to his illness. Aoki (Go Kato), the Edo-era policeman to whose narrative perspective the second half turns, advances a similar philosophy in that there’s nothing wrong with having fun, he has fun at times too, but people have or at least should have responsibilities towards each other which the caddish targets of the Camellia Killer have resolutely ignored. He can’t say that he condones the killer’s actions, but neither can he condemn them because her motivations are in a sense morally justifiable. 

Realising the end is near, Shino indulges in a very modern serial killer trope in leaving a note for Aoki alongside one of her camellias in which she claims that she is exacting vengeance for “crimes not punishable by law”. There was nothing legally wrong in the way these men treated her mother or any other woman, but it is in a sense a moral crime. “You’re a woman and I’m a woman too” she later tells another scorned lover, a mistress thrown over by her patron with two small children after he tired of her, as she hands over a large sum of money and encourages her to return to her family in the country. Shino’s quest is essentially feminist, directed against a cruel and patriarchal society in which the use and abuse of women is entirely normalised, yet it is also slightly problematic in her characterisation of her mother as monstrous in her corrupted femininity for daring to embrace her sexuality in exactly the same way as her male counterparts though they, ironically, mainly seem to have been after her money rather than her body. 

Shino’s mother’s death is indeed regarded as “punishment from heaven” presumably for her sexual transgressions and neglect of her family, rejecting both the roles of wife and mother in a ceaseless quest for pleasure. Yet even in her resentment, Shino’s ire is directed firmly at the men taking the last of her targets to task when he justifies himself that women enjoy sex too and are therefore equally complicit by reminding him that he gets his moment of pleasure for free but the woman may pay for it for the rest of her life. Just as Shino’s mother neglected her family, the men harm not only their wives in their illicit affairs but cause concurrent damage to the mistresses they may later disown and the illegitimate children they leave behind. Abandoning the naturalism of his contemporary crime dramas for something much more akin to a ghost film with his eerie lighting transitions and grim tableaux of the skewered victims, Nomura crafts a melancholy morality tale in which the wronged heroine turns the symbol of constrained femininity back on the forces of oppression but is eventually undone by the unintended consequences of her quest for vengeance even as she condemns the architect of her misfortune to madness and ruin. 


Inferno of Torture (徳川いれずみ師:責め地獄, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

“There’s no hope for us anymore” cries the hero, redeeming himself with one last act of humanity before allowing himself to be consumed by the flames of Edo-era barbarity. Another tale of feudal exploitation, Teruo Ishii’s Inferno of Torture (徳川いれずみ師:責め地獄, Tokugawa Irezumi-shi: Seme Jigoku) opens with an otherwise unrelated scene of female crucifixion followed by an elaborate beheading, presenting both of these events with a degree of historical authenticity they do not perhaps possess. Nevertheless, his central tale which turns out to be less about two women than two men, turns on the exploitation of female bodies, subtly suggesting that the modern society is itself founded on female exploitation. 

Though dropping the portmanteau structure frequently employed in the Joys of Torture series, Ishii returns from the prologue with the end of the first arc in which the presumed heroine, Yumi (Yumiko Katayama), makes a stealthy visit to a ghostly cemetery in which she trashes the grave of a man named Genzo (Shinichiro Hayashi), digs him up and dismembers his body to retrieve a key we later see him swallow which she hopes will unlock her womanhood currently imprisoned by an ornate chastity belt, only the key doesn’t fit. 

Flashing back again, we see Yumi forced into sex work in payment of a debt and imprisoned in a labyrinthine brothel which specialises in bondage and torture under the guidance of lesbian madam Oryu* (Mieko Fujimoto) and her samurai fixer Samejima (Haruo Tanaka). The brothel’s USP is in its tattooed women which neatly leads us into the main narrative as Yumi’s body becomes a battleground contested by two men, top tattoo artists in search of the perfect canvas in order to win, ironically, the hand of their master’s pure and innocent daughter Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana). 

Horihide (Teruo Yoshida) and Osuzu are in love, but the dark and brooding Horitatsu (Asao Koike) is determined to frustrate his rival’s desires by becoming the successor to Osuzu’s dying father, the tattooist Horigoro. The “hori” which prefixes each of the men’s names relates to the process of tattooing and comes from the verb to chisel, hinting at the way they prick and channel their desires into the canvas which is human skin. Horihide is our “hero”, described by Horigoro as the light to Horitatsu’s dark, Horitatsu currently making more of an impact with his designs of violent intensity, but each of them is in a very real way content to use and exploit the bodies of women without their full consent in order to practice their art. It is essentially an act of violence if not of “torture”. 

Meanwhile, Oryu and Samejima are profiting off their “merchandise” more directly in participating in the trafficking of tattooed ladies to lecherous foreigners displaying an early fetishisation of Asian women. This being late Edo, Japan is still in its isolationist period in which fraternising with foreigners was illegal which is why the action eventually takes us to Nagasaki and the Dutch trading port of Dejima, here presented as a nexus of corruption, where Samejima and Oryu prove themselves very much in league with foreign powers dealing with powerful businessman Clayton (Yusuf Hoffman), despite his name apparently a Dutchman, and his Chinese associates. Like Nikkatsu’s borderless action films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Inferno of Torture indulges in an unpleasant Sinophobia which culminates in a chase through a crowded Chinese wet market in which we catch sight of dogs hanging bound ready for the slaughter in similar poses to those of the women in the brothel, not to mention thrusting snakes, before being confronted by a basket full of adorable puppies presumably headed for a dark destination, while we finally rediscover Hidetatsu collapsed in an opium den after being forcibly addicted by Oryu as a means of control. 

“This is a house of horrors” the Chinese gang leader tells a group of women bought by Samejima from a prison and promised a life of wealth and ease as geisha catering to high class clients. It’s difficult to tell if Ishii is critiquing Edo-era misogyny or that of the present day, or merely revelling in it with increasingly perverse scenes of sexual violence and degradation which continually imply that women have no role or value outside of reflecting the desires of men while those who try to claim their own agency are brutally put down by an inherently misogynistic, patriarchal society. After a Count of Monte Cristo-esque subplot in which Horihide is framed for murder but escapes to plot his revenge, the psychedelic final showdown returns us to the tattooists’ artistic face off as they again weaponise female bodies to embody their own ambitions, Horihide turning a blameless young woman into an iridescent peacock to get back at her father. Nevertheless, he finally reassumes his humanity in ending his mission of vengeance before it takes more innocent lives while accepting that he may now be too corrupted to return to his former life. Elegantly composed often unconsciously recalling the keyhole in Yumi’s chastity belt as it imprisons women within the peephole of the frame, Inferno of Torture ends exactly as it began, with a scene of grim and ironic punishment in which the female form is itself obliterated. 


Inferno of Torture is available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes an in-depth commentary from Tom Mes discussing the treatment of the various actresses involved with the series, Ishii, and Toei in general; Jasper Sharp’s Miskatonic lecture Erotic Grotesque Nonsense & the Foundations of Japan’s Cult Counterculture; and a booklet featuring new writing by Chris D.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

*This character’s name is rendered as “Oryu” in the subtitles but “Otatsu” (different ways of reading the same character which means “dragon”) in the accompanying booklet.

The Rickshaw Man (無法松の一生, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1958)

Japanese cinema has a special affinity with loveable rogues. We forgive their mischief and inconvenient troublemaking because deep down we know they’re kindhearted and even when they act impulsively it’s only out of an abundance of misplaced emotion. The wild Matsu is a case in point, brought to life by the great Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s remake of a story he first adapted 15 years previously but was apparently unhappy with because of the censorship demands of the time. What is surprising, therefore, is that despite his otherwise liberal outlook Inagaki largely echoes those problematic pre-war views, opting to focus on the tragic comic figure of Matsugoro rather than engage with the destructive visions of toxic masculinity that his well-meaning paternalism represents or with the latent feudalism which continues to inform the later course of his life. 

Beginning in 1897, Inakagaki introduces us to “The Wild Matsu” (Toshiro Mifune) on his “illegal” return to Kokura from which he had apparently been “banished” because of an “incident” the previous year. This time, Matsugoro has crawled back home apparently ill in bed and nursing his head after getting into an argument with a man who turned out to be the kendo instructor for the local police. Unafraid to embarrass himself, Matsugoro later relates the tale as a funny anecdote, admitting that the kendo master put an end to their fight in record time by striking him on the head and knocking him out. Typical Matsugoro, seems to be the reaction from all around him. Later he takes offence with a ticket seller who refuses him a comp to the show when free tickets are usually available to rickshaw drivers (publicity tools haven’t changed as much as you’d think), returning later in the evening and buying a ticket with a friend but setting up a mini stove to bake garlic and stink the place out as his revenge. A calm and rational mediator later explains to him that though he can understand why he was upset because it causes confusion when people refuse to abide by longstanding traditions, his stunt has ruined the evening of a lot of people who weren’t really involved in his vendetta. Immediately seeing the error of his ways, Matsugoro determines to make a full and complete apology to the spectators whom he’d so thoughtlessly inconvenienced. 

This incident demonstrates Matsugoro’s essential goodness. He may be impulsive and easily offended, but he means no harm and even his “revenge” is an amusing, petty affair rather than something dark or violent. The main thrust of the narrative, however, kicks in when he spots a lonely little boy being made fun of by his friends because he’s too scared to climb a tree. Matsugoro pauses to tell him that he needs to man up, but on his way back finds the other kids running away and the boy on the floor crying after having fallen and broken a leg. Finding out where he lives, Matsugoro picks the boy up and takes him home to his mother (Hideko Takamine) who further enlists him to take the child to a doctor. 

The boy, Toshio, lives in the old “samurai district” and is the son of army officer Kotaro Yoshioka (Hiroshi Akutagawa), a cheerful man who though holding similar views on manliness to Matsugoro, finds the incident faintly amusing. In fact, Kotaro had heard of “The Wild Matsu” because he was once very rude to an army general he was charged with conveying from place to place during a series of official events. He decides to invite Matsugoro to dinner and the two men hit it off, but Kotaro suddenly dies of a fever leaving his wife Yoshiko alone with their son, worrying that she won’t be able to cure his sensitivity and turn him into a “strong” young man now that he lacks a male role model. 

Matsugoro is perfectly happy to fill that role, bonding with the little boy but always encouraging him to be “manly” which, in this age, largely means strong and athletic, rational and obedient while manfully repressing his feelings, and finally a willingness and ability to fight. While all of this is going on, we see the tides of militarism rising even in the early years of the century. The Russo-Japanese war giving way to the taking of Qingdao while flags go up everywhere and patriotic celebrations of martial glory become ever more frequent, but the problematic quality of this age of hypermasculinty is never questioned even as it leads the nation towards a decidedly dark destiny. 

Meanwhile, Matsugoro seems to have fallen in deep yet impossible love with Yoshiko but is prevented from voicing his feelings because of a deep seated sense of social inferiority. Matsugoro’s life has been limited not only because he was born poor, but because of a traumatic childhood with a cruel step-mother. Denied a proper education, he is largely illiterate and rickshaw driving, which depends only on his physical strength and stamina (the most highly praised qualities of the age), is all that he can expect out of life. We never have any inkling of how Yoshiko views Matsugoro, if there are any romantic feelings on her part or she simply admires him as a robust and good hearted friend, but the futility of Matsugoro’s unresolvable longing eventually drives him to drink which he had previously given up, along with his “wild” nature, in the need to provide a more respectable example to the young Toshio. 

Similarly, we aren’t privy to the parallel tragedy which will inevitably leave Yoshiko lonely as comparatively young widow whose only son will naturally become distant from his mother, grow-up, and find a wife to start a family of his own. Her anxiety over her son’s participation in a group fight is dismissed as hysterical womanliness, destructive maternity that may prevent Toshio from becoming a “proper” man. Something which is perhaps borne out when Matsugoro, who’d gone to watch over him just in case, has to wade in to defend Toshio who is too frightened to participate.

Nevertheless, Matsugoro is a big hearted man despite his intense masculinity, always acting with selfless kindness but also meekly accepting the fate his cards have dealt him rather than railing against the systems which have caged him all his life from his poverty to the perceived class differences which demand he keep his distance from the beautiful Yoshiko. The wheels of his rickshaw turn on ceaselessly as if relentlessly pulling him on towards his inescapable destiny, but shouldn’t we be asking more for men like Matsugoro whose hearts are good than being resigned to loneliness because of a few outdated social codes?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

A studio director at Toho, Shiro Toyoda was most closely associated with adaptations of well respected works of literature, often with an earthy, humanist touch. He might then be an odd fit for a tale of high romance co-produced with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers and inspired by a classic Chinese legend. Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Byaku Fujin no Yoren) effectively drops some of Toho’s top talent, including “pan-Asian” star Shirley (Yoshiko) Yamaguchi (AKA Li Xianglan / Ri Koran), into a contemporary Hong Kong ghost movie with Toyoda doing his best to mimic the house style. 

As in the classic legend, fate is set in motion when herbalist Xu-xian (Ryo Ikebe) allows “noblewoman” Bai-niang (Shirley Yamaguchi) and her maid Xiao-qing (Kaoru Yachigusa) to board a boat he is riding to escape a storm. The pair bond because they are both orphans out in the rain to pay their filial respects to their late parents on tomb sweeping day. Disembarking, Xu-xian lends the ladies his umbrella, vowing to visit their house the next day after his rounds to reclaim it. When he arrives, Xu-xian is greeted by a near hysterical and extremely romantic Bai-niang who has apparently fallen deeply in love with him because of his pure heart. She proposes marriage, but Xu-xian is wary. He is after all just a poor boy, a herbalist living with his older sister and her husband. He has no money to get married and Bai-niang is a noble woman from a good family, society simply wouldn’t allow it. Xu-xian tries to escape, but his gentle words of refusal only wound Bia-niang’s heart. 

Hoping to smooth the situation, Xiao-qing decides to give Xu-xian a small fortune in silver taels so the money issue will be solved. Strangely, the plan appears to work. Xu-xian quickly gets over his reluctance to accept money from a wealthy woman who wants to marry him and returns to being in love and excited, selling his newfound hope for the future to his sister by showing her the taels. It is, however, not quite that simple. The silver turns out to be stolen as evidenced by a mark of fire on its surface. Xu-xian falls under suspicion as a thief and comes to resent Bai-niang for placing him in such a difficult and embarrassing position. 

Nevertheless, despite all the strange goings on such as the suddenly “abandoned” house, the green smoke, and vanishing women, Xu-xian does not seem to suspect that Bai-niang is not fully human, and is only angry with her for misusing him. In a motif which will be repeated, however, he is eventually won over. After taking a job in his sleazy uncle’s inn, he re-encounters Bai-niang and realises she really is the one for him. But as they begin to build their life together, launched with an unwise loan from the sleazy uncle who can’t seem to keep his eyes (and occasionally hands) off Bai-niang, doubt begins to creep in. Those small cracks are deepened when Xu-xian is accosted by a man who announces himself as a Taoist from Mount Ji and tells him that he has an evil aura over his head, encouraging him to believe that an evil spirit is slowly capturing his heart which why he’s a little bit afraid to go home. The priest gives him some useful talismans, which are of course quite bad news for Bai-niang who now knows that her husband secretly doubts her. 

Meanwhile, prepared to do “anything” to make the man she loves happy, Bai-niang has come to the strange conclusion that Xu-xian’s moodiness is down to the fact that their medicine shop isn’t doing so well. Unfortunately, her big idea is poisoning the local well to make everyone think there’s a plague so they’ll have to buy more of her potions. It’s a fairly nefarious plan, but apparently all for love. As in the original tale, however, the real crisis once again comes with the randy uncle who uses the pretext of a local festival to try and get Bai-niang drunk on special wine that is known to unmask spirits. Realising that his wife is a little bit otherworldly sends Xu-xian into a coma, while Bai-niang goes to ask the gods for help, only to be undercut by the annoying Taoist priest who wakes Xu-xian up by convincing him his wife’s “evil”. 

If you don’t want people to think you’re “evil”, trying to drown the entire town might not be the best move. Bai-niang’s refusal to give up on Xu-xian even when he constantly tries to reject her places her at odds with loyal servant Xiao-qing who is equal parts enraged on her behalf and exasperated that she can’t see sense. Bai-niang tells the gods that the only witchcraft she used was the witchcraft of love even if that love caused her to try and poison the entire town, but now regards herself as nothing more than Xu-xian’s wife and is willing to renounce her powers in order to save him. Once again, Xu-xian has a sudden change of heart, avowing that there are human women with the heart of a snake, and Bai-niang is a woman to him even if she’s a snake spirit which is, apparently, the only thing that matters. Still, theirs is a love this world doesn’t understand, and so only in a better one can they ever be together.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Orgies of Edo (残酷異常虐待物語 元禄女系図, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

Orgies of Edo poster“Pinky Violence” is a strangely contrary genre, often held up both as intensely misogynistic but also proto-feminist in its vast selection of vengeful heroines who seemed to embody the rage of several centuries of inescapable oppression. Teruo Ishii, at the very forefront of Toei’s attempts to graft pink film sensibilities onto its house style of manly yakuza drama, had a definite love for the perverse but, perhaps unusually, a consciousness of the implications of his world of surrealist violence. The Japanese title of Orgies of Edo (残酷異常虐待物語 元禄女系図, Zankoku Ijo Gyakutai Monogatari: Genroku Onna Keizu) translates as something like “a genealogy of the women of the Genroku Era” and concerns itself with three tales of misused women each of whom meets a grim end at the hands of faithless men who seem to embody the decadence of their prosperous times.

Ishii’s three tales of increasing madness and brutality travel from the streets to the palace in locating each scene of mounting debauchery within the shifting circles of prosperous Genroku era Edo. Our guide, positioned to the side of each of the tales, is a conservative doctor (Teruo Yoshida) who diagnoses his society as morally sick and hovering on the edge of a decadent abyss. Tellingly, each of episodes with which he becomes involved is presaged by his inability to access foreign knowledge in the wilfully isolated nation, slowly stagnating even in the midst of unprecedented prosperity.

His first patient is a young woman in the middle of a painful miscarriage caused by a beating intended to end her pregnancy. Abroad they know of an operation to avoid this sort of misery, the doctor muses, but he has no way of helping her. The young woman, Oito (Masumi Tachibana), like many in the tales of old Edo, got into debt and then was seduced by a handsome young man who posed as a saviour but only ever meant to misuse her. Hanji (Toyozo Yamamoto), a gangster, presses her into prostitution and eventually betrays her by taking up with another woman but neither of them are free of their respective captors be they the Yoshiwara or the gangster underworld.

The doctor’s second case is more extreme and calls upon him to make use of his knowledge of the Western notion of psychiatry in trying to cure a young noblewoman of her perverse fetish for the physically deformed. Ochise’s (Mitsuko Aoi) tastes stem back to a traumatic teenage incident during which she was abducted, held prisoner, and repeatedly raped by a man with a ruined face. Her loyal servant, Chokichi (Akira Ishihama), has long been in love with her but the pair remain locked in a one sided sadomasochistic relationship in which he knows that she can never return his love not because of their class difference, but because of his “perfection”. Pinching an ending from Tanizaki’s Shunkinsho, Ishii sends the frustrated lovers in a less positive direction in which a woman’s defiant insistence on pursuing her own desires is met only by the violence of a male need for possession which eventually leads to mutual destruction.

Mutual destruction is a final destination of sorts. The doctor’s third unrealisable request is for an untimely caesarian section – another piece of Western medical knowledge he has only vague awareness of. This unusual situation unfolds at the court of a lascivious lord whose perverse proclivities are quickly becoming the talk of the town. Drawn to a young woman, Omitsu (Miki Obana), who greets his attempt to fire his arrows at her while angry bulls with flaming horns charge at his other concubines with excitement, the lord is dismayed to hear of another of his ladies, Okon (Yukie Kagawa), enjoying the attentions of her pet dog and therefore somehow sullying his own bedroom reputation. The lord has Okon painted gold and thrown in a hall of mirrors for a slow and painful death of multiplied suffocations but she wins a temporary reprieve by promising to introduce him to untold pleasure if only he lets her live. This will all end in flames and ashes, but the lord hardly cares because it is only the natural end for his hedonistic endeavours.

The doctor performs his miracle and emerges with a child in whom lies the legacy of this immoral time. Yet the doctor wants to “save” it. Even if it’s a “beast” the child is innocent, he intones, insisting that he must live despite this burden in order to resist the madness. Like the strange butoh inspired performance art which opens the film, these are times of madness and confusion in which women, most of all, suffer at the hands of men who care only for their own pleasure. The doctor tries to cure the “sickness of the soul” that he sees before him, but knows that cannot be excised so much as tempered. Still he walks forward, away from the wreckage, with the future in his arms and resolves to live whatever the cost may be.


Orgies of Edo is available on blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Horrors of Malformed Men (江戸川乱歩全集 恐怖奇形人間, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

Horrors of Malformed Men poster

The line between madness and sanity is often a thin one, entirely dependent on a series of social perceptions themselves dictated by a vague concept of time and morality. Horrors of Malformed Men (江戸川乱歩全集 恐怖奇形人間, Edogawa Rampo Zenshu: Kyofu Kikei Ningen), loosely inspired by an Edogawa Rampo short story The Strange Tale of Panorama Island as well as a series of similarly themed tales from East and West, is set in 1925 – the end of “Taisho” which is to say immediately before the problematic “Showa” era marked by its own kind of madness and defeat if also by a gradual rebirth. Nevertheless, madness reigns in here though it’s madness of a very particular kind as those excluded from a fiercely conformist society seek to remake the world in their own image and take a horrifyingly poetic revenge on the rest of humanity for their failure to embrace difference.

The tale begins with amnesiac medical student Hirosuke (Teruo Yoshida) who finds himself inside a cage at a mental institution surrounded by screaming, half naked women one of whom attacks him with a knife. Luckily, the knife turns out to be a stage prop with a retractible blade presumably given to the unfortunate woman wielding it as a kind of calming device. Eventually rescued by the warden who attacks the mad with whips as if they were mere cattle, Hirosuke retreats to his cell to ponder on his current circumstances, if he is really “mad” or the only sane man in an insane world. Meanwhile, he is plagued by the memories of a long forgotten lullaby and the vision of a woman’s face suddenly contorting, transformed into a horrifying monstrosity.

Managing to escape, Hirosuke gets a lead on the lullaby that takes him to a coastal village where he discovers that a man who looks eerily like himself has recently passed away. Hoping to solve a series of mysteries, he fakes his own death and manages to convince the other villagers that he is the recently deceased Genzaburo somehow resurrected and risen from the grave. Where all this takes him is to a mysterious island where Genzaburo’s father Jogoro (Tatsumi Hijikata) – a hideously deformed man with webbed fingers, has been trying to create his own bizarre society.

Horrors of Malformed Men was technically “banned”, or perhaps it’s better to say suppressed in an act of self censorship by a nervous studio, but not so much for its gleefully surreal grotesquery as for the “malformed” in the Japanese title which is in fact an extraordinarily offensive word. In any case it adopts a typically difficult position towards those it calls “malformed” as warped both in body and mind. Our mad scientist, Jogoro is a man driven insane by his society’s consistent rejection of him. When the beautiful wife he has somehow managed to win displays only disgust towards his twisted body and finally betrays him by sleeping with her handsome, sensitive cousin, Jogoro’s mental stability is forever fractured leading to his dark desire to take revenge on the “perfect” world by creating his own “malformed” creatures mirroring his own spiritual decline.

Jogoro’s island is a place of “madness” where spiritual corruption leads only to a kind of devolution in which animalistic desires exist only to be sated. Here there is no love or community, only a cold and individual progress towards oblivion. Hirosuke enters a nightmare of a waking sort in which he must confront himself, his family legacy, and a potential conflict between his own desires and the rules of society. Yet he is also haunted by the image of an as yet unseen future of where such ugliness may lead. Jogoro’s otherworldliness and deformities, his singleminded to desire to remake the world with himself on top and others all below, speak of a madness yet to come and the terrible retribution which would be exacted for it.

As if to reinforce his own message, Hirosuke declares himself not of this kind – he chooses to remove himself from a world with which his personal desires are incompatible, maintaining their purity in refusing to live on indulging in a practice most would regard as so taboo as to constitute a kind of “madness” all on its own rather than honouring civilisation by living on in denial. Something tells him, this is where he’s been heading all along. Deeply strange, surreal, and perhaps questionable in its final moment of capitulation which lays the blame for the entire sad and sorry escapade at the feet of a scornful woman rather than the society which both forced her to marry a man she didn’t like and encouraged her to reject him on the grounds of his “ugliness”, Horrors of Malformed Men is not a story about madmen and weird islands but of the evil that men do and the pain it leaves behind.


Horrors of Malformed Men is available on blu-ray from Arrow Films. The set includes two audio commentaries – one featuring film critic Mark Schilling ported from a previous release, and the other a new commentary by film scholar Tom Mes, as well as interviews with Shinya Tsukamoto and Minoru Kawasaki on Ishii’s career, and footage of Ishii visiting the Udine Far East Film Festival. The first pressing also comes with a booklet featuring a wide ranging essay by Jasper Sharp plus shorter essays by Tom Mes on Ishii’s career and Grady Hendrix on Edogawa Rampo.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Marital Relations (夫婦善哉, AKA Meoto Zenzai, Shiro Toyoda, 1955)

Marriage is not always simple, but when you aren’t actually married (and one of you is technically still married to someone else) the difficulties can be all the more pronounced. Often neglected in comparison with some of his contemporaries, Shiro Toyoda is best remembered for his often humorous literary adaptations. Marital Relations (夫婦善哉 Meoto Zenzai), based on a 1940 novel by Sakunosuke Oda and runner up to Naruse’s Floating Clouds in Kinema Junpo’s top ten for 1955, is a prime example of his style as it examines the unconventional relationship between a spoilt younger son of a wealthy family and a feisty geisha who nevertheless remains devoted to him despite his often insensitive treatment.

In the early 1930s, the oldest son of a wealthy family has scandalised his conservative father by continuing to consort with a local geisha. Irritated, Ryukichi (Hisaya Morishige) elopes with Choko (Chikage Awashima) assuming that he will eventually get his own way only to find his father is just as stubborn as he is. Ryukichi is already married though living apart from his wife who has a serious illness and has returned to her family with their only child, Mitsuko. Nevertheless, Choko and Ryukichi manage to live together as man and wife even without the official paperwork, installing themselves at her parents’ tempura shop. Though the couple are happy enough, Ryukichi is unused to living without his family money and Choko soon has to go back to work.

Even in early Showa things were changing. Ryukichi, spoilt and made useless by access to his family fortune and previously secure path to succession, pouts and whines about his arranged marriage and the wife he’s abandoned, emphatically demanding a free choice of mate even if she happens to have been a geisha. Choko, a working class daughter of shopkeepers, seems to have been sold to the geisha house to fund her parents’ store – in fact, Choko’s abrupt decision to leave the geisha house will also have financial consequences which Ryukichi claims he will take up with his father. Even if Choko were not a geisha, she would likely not have been accepted by the traditional upper middle class family and her constant battle is always for recognition as Ryukichi’s significant other (or perhaps primary carer). Geisha she was though, and will be again thanks to Ryukichi’s recklessness and mistaken assumption that he will regain his former status simply by being his father’s son.

Not having had the luxury of a wealthy upbringing, Choko is (financially, at least) a realist and prepared to work hard for what she wants. Heading back into the geisha world as a hostess and entertainer, Choko is the sole breadwinner of their technically illegitimate union though Ryukichi cannot entirely break with his former habits, casually burning Choko’s carefully balanced housekeeping accounts book, and eventually spending all her savings on a night of debauchery. Nevertheless, it’s Choko who eventually takes the initiative and goes into business with a friend opening a successful night spot which cleverly caters to her internationalist clientele with a “traditionally Japanese” theme. Like many of Toyoda’s women, Choko is a hardworking, practical lady determined to make a success of everything she does even if she’s had the misfortune to find herself shackled to the inconvenient man child that is Ryukichi.

Eventually it all gets too much and Choko takes a drastic decision after receiving a cruel and thoughtless slight from Ryukichi’s brother-in-law who has been adopted as the heir to the family. This shocking incident aside, the tone is largely one of comic knowingness as Ryukichi continues with his various schemes to wheedle his way back into his elite social circle while Choko spends her time working hard to create something new. Ryukichi is the worst of the old world – lazy, entitled, often selfish and thoughtless (if well meaning and resolutely devoted to Choko), whereas Choko is the best of the new – resilient, hardworking, honest and kind. Towards the end, having settled some of their differences, Choko and Ryukichi appear to have cemented their coupledom for good but are suddenly confronted with another ugly aspect of class legacy when a former servant (and sort of friend) of Ryukichi’s passes them in the street now obviously raised in status, and blanks them even as they call out to him.

Ryukichi’s sister comments at one point that her brother’s personality has been warped by his strict upbringing and the pressure to conform to social conventions has meant that he doesn’t quite know himself, though at heart he is good and kind. She may indeed have a point, honest in his love, at least, both for his daughter and for Choko, Ryukichi finds he lacks the moral compass which comes with needing to live in an interconnected society rather than the deference associated with being “the young master”. Subtle political commentary aside, Marital Relations is a wry, humorous look at an unconventional family life as its put upon heroine does her best to rescue her consistently disappointing (if often amusing) unofficial spouse.