Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenji Misumi, 1965)

An orphaned son’s attempts to overcome his cursed destiny are poisoned by the duplicities of the samurai society in third part of Kenji Misumi’s loose “Sword Trilogy”, Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenki). Perhaps unfairly dismissed by some as a mere genre craftsmen, Misumi was also an intense visual stylist, a quality very much on show in this vibrant drama which pits the beauty of the natural world against the samurai order but eventually finds its hero succumbing to cruelties of his age unable to outrun himself or his destiny. 

In the prologue which opens the film, shot in an arty theatrical style, a young peasant woman formerly a maid to the late Lady Makino gives birth to a “stranger’s” child after having been promoted and given a place in the women’s quarters as a reward for her loyalty in continuing to serve her mistress in the depths of her “madness”. Lady Makino claims that Kin’s kindness brought her back to reality and is keen to ensure she continues to be taken care of after her death, but also asks her to take charge of her precious pooch hoping that she will treat it “as herself”. This is perhaps why it is rumoured that the child, given the name “Hanpei” which ironically is in part inspired by the dog-like “Spot” coupled with a suffix which implies a lowly rank, is in fact the product of a taboo union between the maid and the dog (rather than admit he is almost certainly the illegitimate son of Lord Masanobu). For some reason this bizarre rumour persists throughout the boy’s life, cast out as he is from the palace and raised in an ordinary village as the son of a low-ranking samurai who appears to be kind and loving, worried enough about Hanpei’s (Raizo Ichikawa) future to advise him to find a special skill that will allow him to support himself and perhaps overcome some of the persistent prejudice against him after the old man’s death. 

The skill he perfects, however, continues to set him apart from his fellow men in that he chooses the cultivation of flowers. A particularly snotty neighbour describes Hanpei’s art as “annoying”, though others are impressed enough by his skill to marvel that they have such a man in their clan while also pointing out that in these times of peace becoming a samurai florist might be much more useful than perfecting the art of the sword. Ironically, however, it drags him back towards the court and intrigue when he’s invited to craft a flower garden to cheer up the present young lord who seems to be succumbing to the same “madness” as his mother. The trouble starts when the garden is completed to the lord’s satisfaction but marred by the sudden and apparently unexpected arrival of a bumblebee which damages the lord’s tranquility and provokes a violent outburst in which he begins to hack at the flowers hoping to punish the one which “rudely” invited the bee to the garden. Hiding behind a tree, Hanpei perfectly aims a rock at the lord’s head to prevent him destroying his precious work and is spotted by his chief retainer, Kanbei (Kei Sato), who earmarks him for future use in his nascent conspiracy. 

Hanpei finds himself at the centre of intrigue, increasingly seduced by promises of advancement that he might be “titleless” no more and perhaps in fact escape his lowly position as the son of a dog. He ingratiates himself by, like his mother, being one of the few servants willing to bear the lord’s violent rages in volunteering to accompany his horse even though he has none of his own and has to run along behind thereby demonstrating his slightly supernatural athletic ability that gives further credence to his canine origins. In similar fashion he learns by observation, captivated rather than appalled on witnessing an old ronin practicing his sword technique by cutting in half a butterfly in the forest. Preoccupied by his lowly status and consequent lack of sword skills, Hanpei is reassured by the man’s explanation that there’s nothing more to it than draw, strike, and sheath but takes yet another step towards the samurai dark side in accepting the gift of a sword. Later he breaks it, meaning to break with the cruel path on which fate has set him, only to pick up another, supposedly cursed sword to which he was attracted because of its “evil spirit”.

Osaki (Michiko Sugata), a kind and innocent woman seemingly attracted to Hanpei because of his difference in his gentle sensitivity in contrast to the rough men around her, refuses to believe the rumours he has become an assassin working for Kanbei because no one who loves flowers like he does could be a coldblooded killer. This is in fact what he has become, sent, like a dog, after Kanbei’s enemies killing without even knowing who it is who must die only to be remorseful on discovering he has killed someone known to him. There is division and sedition within the court caused by the lord’s madness, Kanbei and his associates keen to rule in his stead while keeping his mania secret from the shogun while others, a small group of lower samurai rebels, prefer to depose him in favour of his adopted heir. Hanpei is once again a pawn, taking no side in this debate but unthinkingly doing Kanbei’s dirty work in the service of his sword. He hopes that by taking the “evil” instrument in his hands he might double his bad luck to overcome his unhappy destiny, gazing at his distorted face in its reflection, but discovers himself merely outcast once again as the villagers begin to realise he is an obstacle to their rebellion and responsible for the assassinations of their loved ones. 

The ironic conclusion finds the hero’s planned flower garden, a shared endeavour with love interest Osaki, rendered a bloody graveyard, men cut down like weeds as Hanpei’s quick draw philosophy makes a mockery of their fancy samurai fencing. The poisonous samurai legacy, infected with madnesses literal and figural, destroys everything, all beauty and grace falling under Hanpei’s “evil” sword as he finds himself, quite literally, chased out of town like a stray dog condemned to wander exiled from human society. 


A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

“Why are women in Japan so unhappy?” the carefree Casanova at the centre of Yasuzo Masumura’s 1961 sex romp A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Koshoku Ichidai Otoko) laments, never quite grasping the essential inequalities of the world in which he lives. Masumura is best known for extremity, a wilful iconoclast who flew in the face of golden age cinema’s genial classism, but shock was not his only weapon and he could also be surprisingly playful. Adapted from a well known novel by creator of the “floating world” Ihara Saikaku, A Lustful Man finds him indulging in ironic satire as his hero sets out to “make all the women in Japan happy” chiefly by satisfying their unfulfilled sexual desire while resolutely ignoring all of the entrenched patriarchal social codes which ensure that their lives will be miserable. 

Set in the Edo era, the film opens not with the hero Yonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa) but with his miserly father who berates a servant after discovering a single grain of rice on the hall floor. According to him, the central virtues necessary to become rich are endurance, diligence, and vitality. You must treasure each and every grain of rice in order to accumulate. A cruel and austere man who only thinks of money, Yonosuke’s father keeps his wife in earnest poverty despite their wealth, angrily grabbing an obviously worn kimono out of her hands and insisting that it’s still good for another year, apparently caring nothing for appearances in the otherwise class conscious Kyoto society. It’s this meanness that Yonosuke can’t seem to stand. He hates the way his father disrespects his mother, and her misery is a primary motivator in his lifelong quest to cheer up Japan’s melancholy women though the weapon he has chosen is sex, a convenient excuse to live as a genial libertine to whom money means essentially nothing. 

Yonosuke’s father has set him up with an arranged marriage into a much wealthier family, which is not something he’s very interested in despite the fact she seems to be quite pretty but on learning that she has transgressively found love with the family butler he determines to help her instead, ending the marriage meeting by chasing her round the garden like a dog in heat. Several similar stunts eventually get him sent away from his native Kyoto to Edo but he takes the opportunity to escape, travelling all over Japan making women “happy” as he goes. 

As the first example proves, Yonosuke genuinely hates to see women suffer. His own pleasure, though perhaps not far from his mind, is secondary and he never seeks to take advantage of a woman’s vulnerability only to ease her loneliness. Despite that, however, he remains essentially superficial opting for the transience of postcoital bliss while ignoring the very real societal factors which make an escape from misery all but impossible. During an early adventure, he spends all of the money he conned out of his new employer on redeeming a geisha (at more than three times the asking price) so that she can be with the man she loves, but he continues to visit sex workers without interrogating their existence as indentured servants, “merchandise” which is bought and sold, traded between men and entirely deprived of freedom. In fact, he proudly collects hair cuttings from the various geishas he has known as a kind of trophy only to later discover the grim truth, that the hair likely doesn’t belong to the geisha herself but is sold to them by middlemen who get it by digging up dead bodies. 

Yonosuke remains seemingly oblivious to the duplicitous hypocrisy of the yoshiwara, but is repeatedly confronted by the evils of Edo-era feudalism with its proto-capitalist cruelty where everything is status and transaction. He is often told that as he is not a samurai he would not understand, but seems to understand pretty well that “samurai are idiots” and that their heartless elitism is the leading cause of all the world’s misery. To some a feckless fool, Yonosuke refuses to give in to the false allure of worldly riches. As soon as he gets money he spends it, and does so in ways he believes enrich the lives of women (even if that only extends to paying them for sex), eventually getting himself into trouble once again reneging on his taxes after trying to prove a geisha is worth her weight in gold. 

Yogiri (Ayako Wakao) complains that women are but “merchandise”, valued only as toys for men. “Japan is not a good country for women” Yonosuke agrees, suggesting they run away together to find a place where women are respected, indifferent to Yogiri’s rebuttal “no, wherever you go, no one can change women’s sad fate”. Yonosuke’s naive attempts to rescue women from their misery often end in disaster, a runaway mistress is dragged back and hanged, the woman he was set to marry goes mad after her father and lover are beheaded for having the temerity to speak out about corrupt lords, Yogiri is killed by a samurai intent on arresting him for tax evasion, and his own mother dies seconds after his father only to be immediately praised as “the epitome of a Japanese wife”. Yet he remains undaunted, wandering around like an Edo-era Candide, setting off into exile to look for a supposed female paradise without ever really engaging with the systems which propagate misery or with his own accidental complicity with them. Nevertheless, he does perhaps enact his own resistance in refusing to conform to the rules of a society he knows to be cruel and unfair even if his resistance is essentially superficial, self-involved, and usually counterproductive which is, in its own way, perfectly in keeping with Masumura’s central philosophies on the impossibilities of individual freedom within an inherently oppressive social order.


Irezumi (刺青, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

91HAEic7eNL._SL1500_Irezumi (刺青) is one of three films completed by the always prolific Yasuzo Masumura in 1966 alone and, though it stars frequent collaborator Ayako Wakao, couldn’t be more different than the actresses’ other performance for the director that year, the wartime drama Red Angel. Based on a novel by Tanizaki and scripted by Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Kuroneko), Irezumi is a supernaturally tinged tale of vengeance and betrayal.

The film begins in the middle as Otsuya, having been abducted and sold to a geisha house, is tied, bound and chloroformed so that a tattooist can mark her skin with the eery portrait of a spider with a human face. Skipping back awhile, it seems this came about as a consequence of Otsuya convincing the mild mannered assistant of her father, Shinsuke, to run away with her. The pair take refuge at the home of a family friend, Gonji, but after his advances towards Otsuya are rebuffed he arranges to have Shinsuke killed and Otsuya sold as a geisha. Shinsuke manages to get away after a bloody fight but he’s a gentle man and the violence of the encounter marks him. Otsuya, by contrast, finds she quite enjoys her new life and gets along OK with her pimp, Tokubei, who urges her to “feed on men”. Otsuya’s lusts become ever more violent with the spectre of the tattoo artist hovering in the background. Is the tattoo itself enacting these scenes of terrifying vitality or merely an excuse for releasing Otsuya’s true nature?

Shot in vibrant colour in contrast to Red Angel and many of Masumura’s other efforts from around the same time, Irezumi makes fantastic use of its lurid atmosphere. Sex and death and violence – hardly unusual themes for Japanese cinema though Irezumi feels like an early precursor to the exploitative pinky violence cycle of the following decade. In keeping with those films, Otsuya is another conflicted avenger, wreaking havoc on venial men who think they can buy and sell a woman’s soul as well as her body. As the violence mounts, Otsuya falls into a kind of mania and at one point exclaims that this isn’t really her at all, it’s all the fault of the spider on her back – trapping men in its silky web only to suck them dry and throw away the husk.

Whether Otsuya is herself an avenging warrior for the female sex or merely a demonic vision of the ultimate male fear is somewhat up for debate. Her transgressions are intentionally destabilising – she breaks with convention by “betraying” her father when she runs of with Shinsuke and not only that, she does so at her own insistence. Shinsuke himself is far too meek and mild mannered to have ever done such a thing entirely of his own will and is largely swept along by Otsuya for the entire course of the film. Only when he fears she may betray him does he decide to take action. Otsuya’s sexuality in itself is also transgressive, actively pursuing Shinsuke before a formal marriage and then even expressing her enjoyment of her new life in the pleasure quarters – neither attitude is one that is expected of the demure daughter of a noble house. Is she an emancipated woman, or fallen one? The film offers no clear judgement here but presents her both in terms of vengeful heroine and of terrifying villainess.

Along with its rather complicated structure beginning in a media res opening followed by a lengthy flashback sequence, Irezumi is never quite as successful as Masumura’s other mid ‘60s offerings. Though boasting a script by maestro Kaneto Shindo, a noted director in his own right and frequent visitor to the realms of horror, something about Irezumi fails to coalesce. That said, it does offer a visually arresting, generally interesting supernaturally tinged tale and yet another fantastic performance from its talented leading lady.


Irezumi is available with English subtitles on UK R2 DVD from Yume Pictures

Tattoo sequence from the film:

 

The Crucified Lovers (近松物語, Chikamatsu Monogatari, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

E8BF91E69DBEE789A9E8AA9EB2Bunraku playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon had a bit of a thing about double suicides which feature in a number of his plays. Though these legends of lovers driven into the arms of death by a cruel and unforgiving society are common across the world, they seem to have taken a particularly romantic route in Japanese drama. Brought to the screen by the great (if sometimes conflicted) champion of women’s cinema Kenji Mizoguchi, The Crucified Lovers (近松物語, Chikamatsu Monogatari) takes its queue from  one such bunraku play and tells the sorry tale of Osan and Mohei who find themselves thrown together by a set of huge misunderstandings and subsequently falling headlong into a forbidden romance.

Set in 17th century Kyoto, the story begins with a reminder that adultery is currently illegal and that the penalty is crucifixion of both parties. A samurai woman and a man servant are being paraded through the streets for having committed the double transgression of an extra-martial affair which also crosses class borders. We set our tale at the top printing house in the city where the most promising employee, Mohei, is being pulled from his sickbed to complete a particularly important order. At the same time, mistress of the house Osan receives an unwelcome visit from her brother who is once again in pecuniary difficulty. He wants her to ask her wealthy husband, Ishun, to lend him some more money to meet the latest mortgage payment on their family home. However, Ishun is a stingy old man and outright refuses. Mohei overhears the brother’s visit and offers to help but his idea to temporarily embezzle some of the money backfires when he’s caught.

To make matters worse, Ishun now has it in for Mohei as Ishun has been after the servant girl Otama who has been refusing his advances and finally lied to him by claiming that she and Mohei are secretly engaged. After Otama reveals Ishun’s true nature to Osan, they hatch a plan to confront him by swapping rooms so that when Ishun makes his nightly visit to Otama he’ll find his wife waiting for him instead and have to backdown for awhile. This backfires too when Mohei decides to escape and stops by Otama’s room to say goodbye only for another servant to find Mohei and Osan together there. Mohei flees but a rumour starts about his friendship with Osan and it’s not long before she’s stormed out too. Accidentally running in to each other the pair find themselves on the run and eventually falling in love, but this isn’t the sort of place where two people can just move to another town and disappear. The police and Ishun’s men are hot on their tail determined to try and prevent the impending scandal…

Life was pretty harsh in feudal Japan. In some ways Osan might be thought lucky – married off at a young age to a well connected and prosperous husband. Indeed, at the beginning of the film she doesn’t seem too unhappy though is obviously nervous to talk to her husband about her brother’s predicament. Ishun is not a good man though he is perhaps sadly typical of his petty samurai merchant class. He swaggers around complaining about having to pay for everything and won’t even lend any of his vast wealth to his own sister let alone his wife’s family. Though outwardly miserly he’s no problem promising fancy kimonos and even a house to Otama if she’d only consent to becoming his mistress. Something of a double standard then when his wife is accused of having affair with a servant merely by having been found in a compromising position alone in a room with another man.

Mohei, by contrast, is the archetypal loyal retainer. When ever a problem comes up he reminds himself that one needs to be a “good servant” – a sentiment he utters to Otama when she asks for his help to fend off Ishun. He doesn’t approve of the idea of her simply giving in, but thinks she ought to grin and bear it. Similarly when some of the female members of staff are sympathising with the samurai lady about to be crucified for love, Mohei agrees that he feels sorry for her but also that she’s broken a law and what is happening is simply a natural consequence. He’s the last sort of person you would expect this sort of thing to happen to, and yet, it does.

The irony is that nothing existed between the pair other than the loose friendship and loyalty of a mistress and a member of staff before this whole thing started. Their union is quite literally unthinkable, not only a relationship between a married woman and another man, but love across the class divides. Even if Osan were free, a marriage with Mohei would be considered a disgrace. When the pair face the hopelessness of their situation and decide on suicide, Mohei confesses his love which immediately changes Osan’s mind about dying. She’s fallen in love with him too, and now she wants to live. For her now there can be no life without Mohei. Though Mohei entertains the noble idea of handing himself in to the police and sending Osan back to Ishun who would doubtless be glad to cover up the affair and avoid a bigger scandal, he later finds himself unable to give her up. The pair cannot, and will not, deny their love even if it costs their lives. In this unforgiving world of harsh social justice, the only freedom left to Osan and Mohei is to ride proudly to their agonising deaths hand in hand and with beatific smiles on their faces.

In the end, two grand houses fall because of a series of coincidental misunderstandings and lapses of protocol. Envious of his position, another petty samurai is perfectly happy to manipulate the situation to take down Ishun fully knowing that it will mean the deaths of two people. In ordinary circumstances this passionate, romantic love would never be permitted to exist (or at least among this social class). Its blossoming is an impossible miracle that threatens the very foundation of the extraordinarily regimented society of the two people at its centre. Parents betray their children to protect these archaic laws and preserve their family “honour” but what honour could their possibly be in the denial of love and society that places standing above basic compassion?

Though not perhaps Mizoguchi’s most impressive effort, The Crucified Lovers is an impassioned attack on needlessly repressive social systems and the self centred shenanigans which perpetuate them. Unashamedly melodramatic and filled with a melancholy though passionate resilience, The Crucified Lovers is a tragic tale of true love torn asunder by a cruel and unforgiving world. It would be so easy to say this would never happen today, and yet…


The Crucified Lovers is available on blu-ray in the UK as part of Eureka’s Late Mizoguchi box set.

No trailer but here is a particularly beautiful scene from the film

And an introduction from Tony Rayns