House on Fire (火宅の人, Kinji Fukasaku, 1986)

In the closing scene of Kinji Fukasaku’s 1986 literary drama House on Fire (火宅の人, Kataku no hito), the hero plays a game he’s designed with his children titled “too heavy to bear” in which they each climb on his back waiting to see which if any of them can prove too much for the paternal shoulders. In recent years Fukasaku has become most closely associated with his late career international hit Battle Royale but prior to that his name had been almost synonymous with the genre he helped to consolidate, the jitsuroku gangster picture. Like the later A Chaos of Flowers, however, House on Fire is a subdued literary drama though one set largely in a more recent past revolving around conflicted author’s paternal anxiety and inspired by the autobiographical fiction of Kazuo Dan who might be best known outside of Japan for having penned the novel which inspired Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hanagatami

Like many similar literary endeavours of the time, House on Fire revolves around a conflicted writer’s affair with a much younger woman. Though set mainly in the 1950s, the film opens with a prologue set 40 years earlier in which the young Kazuo witnesses the breakdown of his parents’ marriage as his father abruptly leaves the family while his mother (played by Dan’s real life daughter Fumi Dan) later leaves him too after falling in love with a young student. As an older man (Ken Ogata) he feels he understands, though as a young boy all he felt was resentment. It’s this central conflict that consumes him as he contemplates embarking on an affair, knowing that he’s betraying his own wife and children in the same way that his father had him and his mother. He explains that this is partly because of a distance that has arisen in his relationship with his second wife Yoriko (Ayumi Ishida) following a family tragedy in which his second son Jiro was left with brain damage after contracting meningitis, Yoriko retreating grief-stricken into obsessive religious practice praying for a miracle he does not believe will come. 

Typical of the “I Novel” Kazuo funnels all of this inner conflict into a serialised novel including all the salacious details of his subsequent affairs. The first of these is with a young actress, Keiko (Mieko Harada), who came to him with a letter of recommendation hoping to get his support and advice on embarking on a career in Tokyo. It seems clear that what Kazuo is attracted to is youth while what he fears is an ending, an anxiety which overshadows his romance while he continues to neglect his responsibilities as a husband and father leaving Yoriko to cope alone looking after the other children while caring for their disabled son. Learning of the affair she temporally leaves the family in much the same way his mother had, yet rather than accept his responsibility for the children Kazuo promptly abandons them too retreating to a hotel to write while leaving Jiro’s nurse and the housekeeper in sole charge of the family home. 

It may be true in a sense that if he lived as a regular family man he’d have nothing to write about, but as much as Kazuo agonises over the possibilities of making Keiko mother to his children he knows he cannot marry these two desires as simply as swapping one woman for another. Just as he had, his eldest son Ichiro born to his first wife comes to resent him, breaking in to the flat he shares with Keiko and smashing the place up to make plain his sense of hurt and betrayal. Yet Kazuo seemingly cannot reconcile his passionate desires with his familial responsibilities while consumed by guilt in his failure to live up to an inner ideal. The only conclusion he comes to is that he is illequipt to understand the complicated relationships between men and women, looking back on his parents’ romance and reflecting that they run from love so great it makes you want to die to hate so strong it makes you want to kill. 

Meanwhile, he circles around three women from the capable if strangely mysterious Yoriko who insists that she knows everything he does, to the petulant Keiko and carefree Yoko (Keiko Matsuzaka), a melancholy bar hostess who accompanies him on a trip around Japan while trying to decide whether to accept an offer of marriage from a wealthy old man. In contrast with the maternal Yoriko, both Keiko and Yoko present a less complicated vision of typical femininity each lively and childlike but both ultimately wanting something Kazuo can’t give them because to him the relationships are transitory. Yoko understands this the best even if Kazuo’s assertion that he enjoys being with her because she never asks him difficult questions speaks volumes about his own insecurity, enjoying the journey while coming to her own realisations in ultimately opting for a kind of stability in a loveless marriage. An essentially passive figure, Kazuo is abandoned by all three women as they exercise a romantic freedom he didn’t really consider they had with Yoriko finally deciding to return but defiantly redefining the terms of their relationship as she does so. 

With this the family is in a sense repaired, Yoriko reminding him that she knows everything he does while he is forced to acknowledge that he is lucky his family will have him back even as he plays the “too heavy to bear” game with his children as pregnant as it is with his internal failures as a husband and father. A minor meditation on the changing social mores of the post-war society and the inner turmoil of a man caught between them, Fukasaku’s distanced approach undercuts the sense of melancholy in the otherwise conservative conclusion as Kazuo both resists his self-characterisation as a feckless and weak willed man and embraces it in his imperfect determination to reintegrate himself into a quietly smouldering home. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Crest of Betrayal (忠臣蔵外伝 四谷怪談, Kinji Fukasaku, 1994)

“I was trying to reform our times!” cries a man about to abandon his revolution at the moment of its inception. “The times have reformed us” his friend retorts, rejecting him for his self-interested cowardice before seconds later deciding to follow his example. Largely remembered for his contemporary jitsuroku gangster pictures, Kinji Fukasaku’s tale of rising individualism amid political turbulence and economic instability Crest of Betrayal (忠臣蔵外伝 四谷怪談, Chushingura Gaiden: Yotsuya Kaidan) hints at a perceived moral collapse in contemporary post-Bubble Japan defined by a sense of nihilistic impossibility in marrying the classic ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan with the noble tragedy of the 47 Ronin. 

The action opens the very concrete date of 14th March 1702 which as an early title card reminds us is at the close of the Genroku era which had been regarded as a “golden age” but its appearance of affluence had in fact been semi-engineered by the shogunate’s unwise decision to continue debasing the currency which later led to an inflation crisis (sounding familiar?). Meanwhile, in the samurai world Tsunayoshi, the fifth Tokugawa shogun, has deposed 38 Daimyo creating 40,000 masterless samurai each vying either for new positions as retainers in other clans or some other way to survive in a manner which befits their station. 

The 14th March, 1702 is a significant date in terms of the narrative in that it marks the first anniversary of the death of Lord Asano who was ordered to commit seppuku after offending another lord, Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka (Takahiro Tamura), leaving his house ruined and his retainers masterless. Samurai code dictates they seek revenge, but leader Oishi (Masahiko Tsugawa) suggests they bide their time leaving him and the clan open to accusations of cowardice or betrayal, mocked by peasants at the memorial service while Oishi decries their appetite for samurai drama. Enter Iemon Tamiya (Koichi Sato), antihero of the classic Yotsuya Kaidan, who had apparently joined the clan only two months before it was dissolved after years as a wandering ronin biwa player and alone has the courage to ask him if he truly has no appetite for vengeance moments after Oishi has scandalised his men by pointing out that it was Asano’s “short-temperedness” which destroyed their clan. His only answer is that it cannot be now, they must wait a year in order to prove their internal resolve. 

In marrying the two classic tales, Fukasaku directly contrasts the sublimation of the individual self into the samurai code as in the internecine nobility of the 47 ronin avenging the death of their lord knowing their own must shortly follow, and the self-serving individualism of (in this case) conflicted opportunist Iemon. Iemon has indeed been reformed by his times, becoming a thieving murderer out of desperation and misplaced filial piety after he and his father were forced into a life as itinerant biwa players on the dissolution of their clan. In most versions of the classic tale, Iemon is an ambitious sociopath who tricks his way into marrying up but loses interest in new wife Oiwa after she bears his child, later doing them both in to marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant who took a liking to him in a market square. Here, Oume (Keiko Oginome) is taken with him after he hacks the sword-bearing hand off an aggressor but unbeknownst to Iemon her father is a retainer of his sworn enemy leaving him with a double conflict, while Oiwa is a lowly bath house sex worker pregnant with a child he does not truly believe is his. 

The radical samurai had wanted to “reform our corrupt times”, but Iemon like his friend who drops out of the movement after being taken on as a successor to a hatamoto and becoming a direct retainer to the shogunate, comes to the conclusion that the times cannot be reformed and he must conform to them. If he chooses Oume, he betrays his loyalty to his lord by uniting with his rival to further his own prospects, a decision many will understand it is perhaps little more than leaving one firm for a better job at another, but it’s also an unforgivable subversion of the samurai code which drives him deeper even than the class conflict which sometimes informs his choices in Yotsuya Kaidan into a hellish spiral of greed and immorality. “The world hates your type” Oishi reminds him, “they’ll kill you, like a snake. Can you live fighting with the world for the rest of your life?” He asks, pitying Iemon for his self-destructive decision to turn away from “justice” for personal gain knowing that he will never reconcile himself to his choices nor will the world approve them. 

Yet as in Yotsuya Kaidan it’s not so much his latent sense of guilt that does for him as Oiwa’s curse, her ghost with its face ruined by his transgression taking its otherworldly revenge though interestingly only indirectly against him even as she provokes Iemon into destroying his chances for the secure, comfortable life he’d chosen for himself. The 47 ronin, meanwhile, continue with their righteous mission even if it’s a stretch to insist that their vengeance serves the cause of justice or is even intended to “reform these corrupt times”. Those corrupt times, Fukasaku seems to argue, forged a man like Iemon rather than the toxic masculinity, personal insecurity, or innate sociopathy which are generally ascribed to him to explain his dark deeds, and so these corrupt times of post-Bubble insecurity might create more like him. Finding the director in a noticeably expressionistic mood, opening with an ominous storm and climaxing in an unexpected, supernatural blizzard, Crest of Betrayal adopts a register of high theatricality and an etherial air of mystery culminating in a beautifully executed series of ghost effects overlaid with a watery filter but ends on a note of hopeful ambiguity in which Oiwa’s curse has perhaps been healed even if Iemon finds himself condemned, a wandering samurai for all eternity. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊, Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)

Toei’s stock in trade through the 1960s had been the ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters set before the war and implicitly in a less corrupt Japan in which jingi could still triumph over the giri/ninjo conflict if at great personal cost to the idealistic hero. By the end of the decade, however, audiences were growing tired of yakuza romanticism particularly in the wake of grittier youth dramas produced by Nikkatsu. Originally conceived as a kind of sequel to Japan Organised Crime Boss, Kinji Fukasaku’s Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊,  Bakuto Gaijin Butai) marks a shift towards the jitsuroku or “true account” trend of the 1970s which would come to dominate the genre following the success of his Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle two years later, employing many of the same techniques from onscreen text to shaky handheld photography but doing so within the confines of moody noir as the hero emerges from a 10-year prison sentence into a very different Japan. 

When Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) gets out, he steps into an empty, windswept street his incongruous zori sandals clashing with his smart suit and sunshades and marking him out as a relic of a bygone era. He’s met only two loyal underlings, his gang apparently now disbanded following the death of his boss who refused to take his advice as regards the big name gang from Tokyo attempting to muscle in to their Yokohama territory. Part of the missing post-war generation, Gunji has no illusions about going straight, wandering into their former HQ now a derelict building and calling the guys, who’ve since moved on to more legitimate occupations, back together. He knows he can’t take on Daitokai with his meagre forces and so settles for extracting from them some compensation money to get out of town, later teaming up with Kudo (Noboru Ando) a similarly orphaned former member of a rival Yokohama gang wiped out by Daitokai, and resolving to relocate to Okinawa where he is convinced the post-war gangster paradise is still very much in existence. 

Okinawa was only “returned” to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, having been governed by the Americans since the end of the war, and of course maintains a large American military presence up to the present day. As such to Gunji, and in a yakuza movie trope which persists right into Takeshi Kitano’s Boiling Point, it exists in a permanent post-war present in which the conditions of the occupation are still very much in play. Gunji knows that he and his guys are products of the post-war era, they cannot adapt to the “new” world of corporatising yakuza in which street brawls and petty thuggery have given way to more sophisticated kinds of organised crime, and so they retreat into an Okinawan time warp, determining to steal turf from under two rival gangs who control between them the ports and the red light district mediated by black market booze from the American military.  

Fukasaku was apparently inspired by Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, intending to make a comment on resistance to American imperialism on the mainland though it has to be said that this is extremely ironic given that Japan is itself a coloniser of the Okinawan islands where there has long been a demand for self-determination and recognition of a distinct identity which has often been subject to oppression in the face of conformist Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the film continues the persistent theme that the chaotic post-war era which has come to a close thanks to rising economic prosperity in the time Gunji was inside is inextricable from the American occupation, implying that Okinawa is in a sense the last frontier and the only viable territory for men like Gunji who, like the melancholy ronin of the Edo era, lack the skills to live in time of peace.  

Nevertheless, modernity is also on its way to Okinawa and where there’s money there are gangsters so as expected Daitokai eventually rear their heads on the island pushing Gunji towards the revenge he didn’t want to take. The Okinawa he inhabits is one of loss and nostalgia, taking up with a sex worker who reminds him of the Okinawan woman who left him when he went to prison and perhaps playing into the slightly complicated political dialogue which positions Gunji as an ironic “migrant worker” salmoning back to Okinawa as many Okinawan youngsters are forced to travel to the mainland for work while the islands themselves remain, it’s implied, mired in poverty and crime economically dependent on the American military. Indeed, the head of the dock gang brokers a deal with Daitokai predicated on the fact that there is plenty of cheap labour available at the harbour. “Good place for a long life” he ironically adds, shortly before all hell breaks loose. Shot with typical Fukasaku immediacy, Sympathy for the Underdog looks forward to jitsuroku nihilism but does so through the prism of film noir cool as its fatalistic hero submits himself to his inexorable destiny.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

“Like hell you’re free” the “hero” of Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Jingi no Hakaba) coolly snaps back in squaring off against a rival gang in a crowded marketplace. Perhaps a familiar scene in the jitsuroku eiga, a genre Fukasaku had helped usher into being and later solidified in the hugely influential Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. A reaction against the increasingly outdated ninkyo eiga and their tales of noble pre-war gangsterdom, the jitsuroku or “true account” movie claimed a higher level of authenticity, inspired by the real lives of notorious gangsters and depicting the chaotic post-war period as it really was, a Graveyard of Honor. 

Based on another true crime novel by Battles Without Honour and Humanity’s Goro Fujita, Graveyard of Honour charts the slow self-implosion of reckless gangster Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari). In keeping with the jitsuroku mould, Fukasaku opens in documentary mode, onscreen text giving us Rikio’s pregnant birthdate of 6th August, 1924 before giving way to the voices of, we assume, real people who actually knew him when he was child. They describe him alternately as shy, an oversensitive crybaby, and an evil genius in waiting who was always different from the others and had a lifelong ambition to become a yakuza. They wonder if it was the chaos of the post-war world which turned him into a “rabid dog” but note that he was in fact just as crazy before the war and after.

A cellmate during his time in juvenile detention recalls that Rikio would often liken himself to a balloon, intending to rise and rise until he burst but his trajectory will be quite the opposite. A mess of contradictions, he repeatedly tells his remarkably understanding boss Kawada (Hajime Hana) that whatever it is he’s done this time it was all for the gang but all he ever does is cause trouble, picking fights with the rival area gangs in an obsessive need for masculine dominance over his surroundings. His trip to juvie was apparently down to getting into a fight defending Kawada’s honour, implying that he was “the sort of kid who genuinely respected his godfather”, yet it’s in transgressing this most important of unwritten yakuza rules that he damns himself. Beaten up as punishment for setting fire to the car of a gang boss he felt slighted him, Rikio is asked for his finger but gets so drunk psyching himself up that he eventually turns on his own side and is exiled from the capital for a decade. 

That gang boss, meanwhile, Nozu (Noboru Ando), is currently running for political office in Japan’s new push towards democracy. He eventually loses but only by a small margin, bearing out that in this extremely difficult post-war environment, the yakuza is still a respected, if perhaps also feared, force providing services which ordinary people are sometimes grateful for in that they provide a buffer against other kinds of threat. Meanwhile, the first of Rikio’s gang raids is undertaken against so called “third country nationals” a dogwhistle euphemism for Zainichi Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, and other citizens from nations colonised by Japan during in its imperialist expansion who entered the country as Japanese citizens but have now been “liberated” only to face further oppression while those like Rikio accuse them of looking down on and taking revenge against the Japanese for the abuse they suffered as imperial subjects. When both sides are arrested a racist policeman allows the yakuza to escape, thanking them for helping him round up all the Chinese businessmen who will now go to jail for illegal gambling allowing the local gangs to seize their turf. 

The greatest irony is, however, that the American occupation forces may be the biggest gang of all, willingly collaborating with Kawada in peddling blackmarket whiskey (amongst other things) from the local base. The yakuza is also in collaboration with the local sex workers who use their connections with American servicemen to facilitate yakuza business. When Rikio starts a fight with a rival gang in a local bar that threatens to spark a war, it’s the Americans who are called in as neutral third party mediator, Nozu being unable to fulfil that role in having an affiliation with Kawada. The Americans, however, merely issue a loudspeaker announcement for the gang members to disperse or face possible arrest, keeping the peace if somewhat hypocritically. 

Rikio, meanwhile, continues to flounder. Exiled from his gang, he becomes addicted to hard drugs and gets a problematic minion of his own, Ozaki (Kunie Tanaka), not to mention contracting tuberculosis. In a particularly morbid moment, he has his own gravestone carved, perhaps detecting that the end is near or at least that an ending is coming for him. In another somewhat inexplicable turn of his life, though a common trope in jitsuroku, he eventually marries the sex worker who fell in love with him after he raped her, presumably touched by his concern after he burned a hole in her tatami mat floor. Wearied by grief and already out of his mind, a final act of nihilistic craziness sees him approach his former boss for the turf and capital to form his own gang, crunching his late wife’s bones as hardened gang members look on in utter disbelief. 

Rikio’s desire for freedom, to be his own boss, is elusive as the red balloon we often see floating away away from him, free in a way he’ll never be. “Don’t these young people respect the code anymore?” Kawada exasperatedly asks on hearing that Rikio has broken the terms of his exile and returned only a year into his sentence. But Rikio’s tragedy may in a sense be that he understood the code too well. On the side of his tombstone he writes the word “jingi”, honour and humanity, full in the knowledge that such concepts in which he seems to have believed no longer exist in the cruel and chaotic post-war world which forces even true believers to betray themselves in a desperate bid for survival. “We all live by a code” his friend echoes, “there’s just no way around the rules”. 

A case of printing the legend, Fukasaku’s take on the life of Rikio Ishikawa may not quite be the “true account” it claims but is in its own strange way a tale of frustrated gangster nobility, a cry baby’s failure to become the man he wanted to be in the complicated post-war landscape. Capturing the confusion of the era through frantic, handheld camera Fukasaku nevertheless takes a turn for the melancholy and mediative in his shifts to sepia, the listless vacant look of a drugged up Rikio somehow standing in for the nihilistic emptiness of a life lived in honour’s graveyard. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Triple Cross (いつかギラギラする日, Kinji Fukasaku, 1992)

“It’s never over for men like me” laments the hero of Kinji Fukasaku’s infinitely zeitgeisty 1992 action thriller The Triple Cross (いつかギラギラする日,  Itsuka Giragira Suru Hi), though the director might as well be talking for himself. Fukasaku is most closely associated with the jitsuroku gangster genre which he helped to create at Toei in the mid-1970s with the hugely influential yakuza cycle Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Through the difficult ‘80s, he’d sustained his career with a series of commercial projects and critically acclaimed prestige pictures, which is perhaps why he felt secure enough to go all in with an absurdist take on the death spiral of the Bubble Era. 

As the film opens, a trio of veteran crooks commits a series of flawless armed robberies which makes them all very wealthy. In an age of excess, crime is perhaps for them more a way of life than a means of survival save for one, Imura (Renji Ishibashi), who has massive debts from loansharks and is living with a constant sense of anxiety that his failures as a man and as a father may result in his beloved wife (Kirin Kiki) and daughter leaving him (for which he wouldn’t blame them). Kanzaki (Kenichi Hagiwara), the veteran gangster, enlists his girlfriend Misato (Yumi Takigawa) along with Imura to scout a possible new job their “boss” Shiba (Sonny Chiba) is planning up in Hokkaido. When they get there it turns out that Shiba has taken up with an extraordinarily irritating much younger woman, Mai (Keiko Oginome), and through her has befriended a young guy, Kadomachi (Kazuya Kimura), who’s come up with a plan to rob the takings from a nearby resort which he has heard run to 200 million yen transported in cash by car via remote mountain road. 

Kadomachi, who later claims he was once a police officer, is an annoyingly entitled young punk with bleach blond hair who wants the money to open a live music venue in order to support real rock and roll. So manic he seems to be on something, it’s a surprise that the guys agree to work with him though after a quick hazing they apparently decide he’s OK only to bitterly regret their decision when it turns out he was mistaken about the amount being transported. As veteran pros, the trio know that it’s better to just be happy with what you can get and move on, but they had each hoped this job might be the last and the disappointment proves too much for Imura who flips out and points a gun at his friends intending to take the lot but is calmly talked down only for Kadomachi to grab a gun and start shooting, making off with the whole 50 million. 

Deliberately down with the kids with his pulsing club score, Fukasaku seems to be taking a swipe at the Bubble generation who want everything now and fully expect to get it. Shiba pays the price, essentially, for refusing to act his age, trying to be young and hip like Mai and Kadomachi, while Imura is perhaps the opposite unable to escape from the post-war era with its poverty and vicious loansharks while also facing discrimination as a zainichi Korean which further deepens his anxiety for his teenage daughter. Yet getting her hands on the money Mai confesses that she has absolutely no idea what to do with 50 million yen, spending 50,000 on a handkerchief just because while even Kadomachi is eventually struck by a sense of futility in realising the money has corrupted him though he knows that it will eventually slip through his fingers. “People, life, they pass us by” he muses sadly while Mai confesses all she wanted was for someone to “notice” her, which they eventually perhaps do only it’s in the context of a nationwide manhunt. 

The vacuous youngsters are finally slapped down by the calm and collected Kanzaki whose lack of ostentation serves him well in the ensuing war on two fronts as he goes up against not only Kadomachi but the loanshark he was in debt to in an attempt to get his hands on the money. Fukasaku takes the jitsuroku and turns it inside out for a tale of Bubble-era excess filled with increasingly elaborate action sequences culminating in a high octane car chase and a shoot out with the entire garrison of the Hokkaido police force, yet as before crime only yields futility, the money floating away in Hakodate harbour, while we end on a trademark note of irony that shows us banks on every street corner, money is literally everywhere. What does crime mean now, what is the point of such ceaseless acquisition in an age of plenty? For Kanzaki, perhaps it just spells opportunity and well you can’t argue with that. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Chaos of Flowers (華の乱, Kinji Fukasaku, 1988)

Kinji Fukasaku is best remembered for his work in the yakuza genre and most particularly the Battles Without Honour cycles which chronicled the darkness beneath Japan’s progress towards the economic miracle of the post-war era. He was, however, much more varied in output than it might at first seem. Set before the war, A Chaos of Flowers (華の乱, Hana no Ran) positions the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 as the day innocence died, Taisho-era liberalism crushed in a fundamental collapse of the old world which led only to the intensification of militaristic ideology and the subsequent corruption of Japanese imperialism. 

Our guide is legendary poet Akiko Yosano (Sayuri Yoshinaga) who tells the story of pre-war 20th century Japan by recounting her own which begins in 1901 when she fell in love with fellow poet and later husband, Tekkan (Hiroshi) Yosano (Ken Ogata). The situation is complicated firstly because Hiroshi is already married with an infant daughter, and secondly because Akiko’s friend Tomiko (Yoshiko Nakada), another poet who had worked with her on a feminist journal, was also in love with Hiroshi and perhaps her rival. Akiko tricks Hiroshi into seeing him alone on the pretext that Tomiko is coming too, confessing her feelings and discovering that he plans to divorce his wife because she is unsupportive of his work. Full in the knowledge that he is choosing poetry over his daughter, Hiroshi decides to enter a relationship with Akiko because she, as a fellow poet, is more appreciative though it proves harder than expected to separate from his first wife. In any case, Akiko is left with a sense of guilt which continues throughout her married life that she cheated Tomiko to claim Hiroshi. 

During this time, Akiko Yosano becomes one of the most celebrated yet controversial young poets in Japan well known for her explicit, erotic love poetry much of which was inspired by her husband. She has eclipsed him as an artist and is supporting the family while he has fallen into a deep depression. A mother of 13 children, Akiko has begun to feel lonely in her marriage and wonders if someone who has only known one man has the authority to continue writing tracts about love and sex. Meanwhile, thanks to the admiration her poetry has received among the young radicals, she has become an accidental figurehead for the Taisho radicals and finds herself swept up by the movement through her associations with such avant-garde figures as Sakae Osugi (Morio Kazama) and his wife Noe Ito (Eri Ishida), the actress Sumako Matsui (Keiko Matsuzaka) held responsible for a revolution in Japanese theatre, and finally tragic author Takeo Arishima (Yusaku Matsuda) who was also the father of golden age actor Masayuki Mori. 

Arishima is first struck by Akiko when knocks her out of a rickshaw during an anarchist publicity stunt driving a motorcycle and sidecar around outside the theatre where Sumako Matsui is performing one of her most famous roles in a play inspired by Tolstoy’s Resurrection. It turns out that Akiko bears a striking resemblance to his late wife, which is one reason he sends her an extravagant gift of a beautiful Western-style outfit which she first tries to return partly because she only wears kimono and partly because it’s an inappropriately expensive gesture. Arishima is from a wealthy, landed family and like many of his generation uncomfortable with his privilege but struggling to convince himself to abandon it. Drawn to him in the same way she was drawn to Hiroshi, Akiko accepts the dress and later wears it on a picnic she organises where her children and Arisihma’s two sons can play together. The Western clothing becomes a kind of signifier of Akiko’s drive towards the future and away from her husband as she too despite her feminist perspective struggles to free herself of the image of the good wife while inwardly burning with a desire for love and passion which her husband can no longer satisfy. 

That same dilemma is one which plagues her rival, journalist Akiko Hatano (Kimiko Ikegami) who is already involved with Arishima but married to a patriarchal man who sees her as nothing more than a “doll”, something which is supposed to look pretty and live in its box until he chooses to take it out. Akiko Hatano warns Akiko Yosano that Arishima is a man drawn to death and is merely looking for someone to die with in a lovers’ suicide, something of a fad at the time. In meeting Akiko Yosano, however, his desire for life seems to have been reinvigorated. He makes peace with himself by dissolving his estate in Hokkaido and surrendering control of it to a peasants’ committee, but is thrown again into suicidal despair when the secret police turn up to harass the peasants for undermining the social order. 

As Akiko Hatano puts it, Arishima is a man vacillating between life and death, claiming to be in love with Akiko Yosano soon after meeting her and actively rejecting Akiko Hatano as symbolic of his newfound desire to live. Arishima committed a love suicide with Akiko Hatano on 9th June, 1923 which is only a few months before the Great Kanto Earthquake which devastated the city of Tokyo and enabled a roundup of subversive forces such as socialists and anarchists along with Koreans many of whom were massacred by state sanctioned forces after a false rumour circulated that they had been poisoning the wells and preparing an insurrection for Korean independence (Sakae Osugi and Noe Ito along with their 6-year-old nephew were also victims of this pogrom). 

In her voice over, Akiko describes the earthquake as the death of Taisho which in real terms lasted a few more years until 1926, but was perhaps over as far as its liberalising ideals are concerned, the crisis giving the militarists further excuses to increase their powers. Yet like Arishima the Taisho intellectuals had also been obsessed with death and futility of which the love suicides were a part. Arishima, shortly before witnessing Sumako’s very public breakdown over the death of her lover Hogetsu Shimamura (Keizo Kanie) from Spanish Flu, describes her nothing more than a ham actress but also believes that the theatrical revolution of the Taisho era would not have been possible without her. Sumako also committed suicide for love a few months after Hogetsu’s death, unable to go on without him. Tomiko, Akiko’s old friend, contracted TB and painfully faded away with Hiroshi unexpectedly by her side. Catching sight of a couple of Osugi’s comrades being dragged away after the earthquake Akiko chases after them with rice balls, telling them they must survive. She’s watched many of her friends and the finest minds of her generation die, mostly through choice, and is making an active choice to live. 

In essence this choice may not be as positive as it first sounds. One of Japan’s first avowed pacifists, Akiko Yosano turned increasingly towards the right in the years following the earthquake, eventually becoming an enthusiastic supporter of the war in China and actively subverting the words of her previous poems in insisting it was glorious to die for the emperor after all. Her friends died out of a sense of futility, that the social changes they envisaged were not possible or that they were unable to continue living with themselves in such a society. Society changed, and Akiko changed with it, such was the path she found to continue living. Nevertheless, something did die with the earthquake and it was perhaps those youthful dreams of overwhelming romance crushed like Akiko’s hat in the rubble of a world which was already collapsing. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

“Are you a critic?” asks the proprietress of of a lively night club, “Why?” replies a lonely man sitting at the bar, “Beauty fails to intoxicate you” she explains before wandering off to find a prettier prize. Nevertheless, a connection has been forged as two masters of the craft confront their opposing number. Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Kurotokage), based on the 1934 story by Edogawa Rampo, had been brought to the screen by Umetsugu Inoue in 1962 in a version which flirted with transgression but was frothy and fun, adding a touch of overwrought melodrama and gothic theatricality to Inoue’s well honed musical style.

Inoue’s version had been co-scripted by Kaneto Shindo and Yukio Mishima who had also written the stage version. Once again crediting Mishima’s stage adaptation, Fukasaku’s 1968 take on the story is, as might be expected, far less interested in class connotations than it is in notions of love, beauty, and aestheticism. Consequently, we open in a much harsher world, dropped straight into Black Lizard’s edgy nightclub which Akechi (Isao Kimura), Edogawa Rampo’s famous detective, has visited on a friend’s recommendation. He is shocked to read in the paper the next day that a young man he saw in the club has apparently committed suicide, while another article also mentions the shocking disappearance of a corpse from the local morgue. 

Meanwhile, Akechi is brought in on a retainer to protect the daughter of a wealthy jeweller who has been receiving threatening letters informing him of a plot to kidnap her. Unlike Inoue’s version, Iwase (Jun Usami) is a sympathetic father, not particularly demonised for his wealth. Rather than drinking too much, he simply takes his sleeping pills and gets into bed without realising that his daughter is already missing. As transgressive as ever, however, Black Lizard (Akihiro Miwa) wastes no time sizing up Sanae (Kikko Matsuoka), running her eyes over the “splendid curve” of her breasts and lamenting that beautiful people make her sad because they’ll soon grow old. She’d like to preserve that beauty forever, convinced that people age because of “anxieties and spiritual weakness”. The reason she loves jewels is that they have no soul and are entirely transparent, their youth is eternal. Now Black Lizard has her eyes on the most beautiful jewel of all, the Egyptian Star, currently in the possession of Iwase which is why she’s planning to kidnap Sanae and ask for it as a ransom. 

Though the Black Lizard of Inoue’s adaptation had been equally as obsessed with youth and beauty, she was a much less threatening presence, never actually harming anyone in the course of her crime only later revealing her grotesque hobby of creating gruesome tableaux of eternal beauty from human taxidermy. This Black Lizard is doing something similar with her “dolls”, but she’s also cruel and sadistic, not particularly caring if people die in the course of her grand plan even running a sword firstly through a body she believes to be Akechi’s, and then through a minion completely by accident. She picks up Amamiya (Yusuke Kawazu) in the bar because of his deathlike aura, his hopelessness made him handsome, but once he fell in deep love with his “saviour” she no longer found him beautiful enough to kill. 

Akechi, meanwhile, is captivated by her in the same way Holmes is captivated by Irene Adler. He admires her romanticism, and recognises her as someone who thinks that crime should come dressed in a beautiful ball gown. She, by turns is drawn to him but perhaps as to death, each of them wondering who is the pursuer and who the pursued but determined to be victorious. Casting Akihiro Miwa in the female role of Black Lizard adds an extra layer of poignancy to her eternal loneliness and intense fear of opening her heart, finally undone not by the failure of her crimes but by a sense of embarrassment that Akechi may have heard her true feelings that leaves her unable to go on living. 

Meanwhile, Amamiya attempts to rescue Sanae not because he has fallen in love with her, but because he too is drawn towards death. Showing the pair her monstrous gallery of taxidermy figures of beautiful humans, she pauses to kiss one on the lips (played by Yukio Mishima himself no less), leaving Amamiya with feelings of intense jealousy and a longing to be a cold and inanimate shell only to be touched by her. “Sanae”, meanwhile, who turns out to be a perfect mirror in having being picked up at rock bottom by Akechi for use in his plan, guides him back towards life. They did not love each other, yet their “fake” love was set to be immortalised forever as one of Black Lizard’s grim exhibitions. She wonders if the fake can in a sense be the real, that they may free themselves from their respective cages through love in accepting a romantic destiny. For Black Lizard, however, that seems to be impossible. Akechi has “stolen” her heart, but she cannot take hold of his, holding him to be a cold and austere man who has “trampled on the heart of a woman”. “Your heart was a genuine diamond” Akechi adds, lamenting that the true jewel is no more. Black Lizard meets her destiny in a kind of defeat, too afraid of love and the changes it may bring to survive it, but paradoxically grateful that her love is alive while taking her leave as a romanticist in love with the beauty of sadness. 


Opening and titles (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)

north sea dragon dvd cover.jpgAt the beginning of the 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity would put the ninkyo eiga firmly to bed, but in the mid-1960s, they were still his bread and butter. Fukasaku’s earlier career at Toei leant towards the studio’s preference for youthful rebellion but with a stronger trend towards standardised gangster tropes than the countercultural thrills to be found in similar offerings from Nikkatsu. For Fukasaku the rebellion is less cool affectation than it is a necessary revolt against increasing post-war inequality and a constraining society though, as the heroes of If You Were Young, Rage or Blackmail is My Life find out, escape can rarely be found by illicit means. Jiro, the prodigal son of North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Hokkai no Abare-Ryu), finds something similar even whilst conforming almost entirely to Toei’s standard “young upstart saves the village” narrative.

Jiro (Tatsuo Umemiya), dressed in white with jet black sunshades, nonchalantly walks into his childhood fishing village filled with a sense of nostalgia and the expectation of a warm welcome. The village, however, is much changed. There are fewer boats around now, and the fishermen are all ashore. Arriving at his family home he discovers they now live in the boat shed and his mother doesn’t even want to let him in. Jiro, as his outfit implies, has spent his time away as a yakuza, and his family want little to do with him, especially as his father has been murdered by the soulless gangsters who are currently strangling the local fishing industry.

The local fishermen are all proudly tattooed but they aren’t yakuza, unlike the tyrannical son of the local boss, Gen Ashida (Hideo Murota), who carries around a double barrelled shotgun and fearsome sense of authority. The Ashidas have placed a stranglehold around the local harbour, dictating who may fish when and extracting a good deal of the profits. An attempt to bypass them does not go well for Jiro’s mother who is the only one brave enough to speak out against their cruel treatment even if it does her no good.

When Jiro arrives home for unexplained reasons he does so happily, fully expecting to be reunited with his estranged family. Not knowing that his father had died during his absence, Jiro also carries the guilt of never having had the opportunity to explain himself and apologise for the argument that led to him running away. An early, hot headed attempt to take his complaint directly to the Ashidas ends in disaster when he is defeated, bound, and whipped with thick fisherman’s rope but it does perhaps teach him a lesson.

The other boys from the village – Jiro’s younger brother Shinkichi (Hayato Tani) and the brother of his childhood friend Reiko (Eiko Azusa), Toshi (Jiro Okazaki), are just as eager as he is both to avenge the death of Jiro’s father and rid the village of the evil Ashida tyranny. Jiro tries to put them off by the means of a good old fashioned fist fight which shows them how ill equipped they are in comparison with the older, stronger, and more experienced Jiro but their youth makes them bold and impatient. The plot of Toshi and Shinkichi will have disastrous consequences, but also acts as a galvanising force convincing the villagers that the Ashidas have to go.

Jiro takes his natural place as the hero of a Toei gangster film by formulating a plan to undermine the Ashidas’ authority. His major strategic decision is to bide his time but he also disrupts the local economy by attempting to evade the Ashida net through sending the fisherman to other local ports and undercutting the Ashida profit margin. As predicted the Ashidas don’t like it, but cost themselves a crucial ally by ignoring the intense bond between their best fighter and his adorable pet dog. Things do not quite go to plan but just as it looks as if Jiro is about to seal his victory, he stays his sword. The Ashidas’ power is broken and they have lost enough already.

Fukasaku’s approach tallies with the classic narrative as the oppressive forces are ousted by a patient people pushed too far finally deciding to fight back and doing so with strategic intelligence. It is, in one sense, a happy ending but not one without costs as Jiro looks at the restored village with the colourful flags of fishing boats enlivening the harbour and everyone going busily about their work. He knows a sacrifice must be made to solidify his mini revolution and he knows who must make it. Like many a Toei hero before him, he prepares to walk away, no longer welcome in the world his violence has saved but can no longer support.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Doberman Cop (ドーベルマン刑事, Kinji Fukasaku, 1977)

Doberman cop J DVD coverAll things considered, a live pig is a rather insensitive gift to present to your local police station, though any gift at all might be considered in appropriate even if offered by a well meaning colleague keen to help out when a horrific murder may be connected to his missing person case. By 1977 Kinji Fukasaku had made a name for himself through the wildly successful “jitsuroku” or “true record” genre of yakuza movies kickstarted by his own Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Doberman Cop (ドーベルマン刑事, Doberman Deka) is then quite an odd move as its brings him back to the looser, exploitation leaning B-movie action which featured heavily in the earlier part of his career and which the “jitsuroku” movement was set on displacing. Fittingly enough, Doberman Cop also sees Fukasaku reuniting with the frequent star of those early films – Sonny Chiba, now considerably older but still an impressive action star willing to put himself in danger to achieve the heart stopping stunts his fans had come to expect.

Chiba plays Okinawan “crazy cop” Kano, the stranger in town currently on a mission to find a childhood friend at the request of her sickly priestess mother. A body has been discovered, so horribly charred that visual identification is not possible but based on the clues found in the room the police are convinced the woman is Kano’s missing person, Yuna, who had been living as a prostitute under another name. Kano is not convinced, the priestess has conducted rituals which suggest her daughter is alive and there’s something not quite right about this case which the police have attributed to a spate of serial killings targeting prostitutes in the Tokyo area. An encounter with a shady yakuza turned music promoter brings Kano into contact with Miki (Janet Hatta) – an aspiring singer who bears a striking resemblance to the missing Yuna.

Doberman Cop is, loosely, based on the manga by Buronson. Part of the “gekiga” movement which prided itself on gritty, adult stories, Doberman Cop owed much to Dirty Harry with its sarcastic, tough as nails policeman armed with a .44 Magnum and a rock hard desire for justice. Fukasaku’s Kano is reimagined as a genial country bumpkin, a toughened farm boy in a straw hat displaced in the Tokyo jungle. Turning up like a strange relative, Kano has brought along a local delicacy in the form of a live pig he offers to the Tokyo police precinct with the promise that all they need to do is snap its neck and light the barbecue. Unsurprisingly, the city policemen decline his polite offer leaving him trailing the squealing piggy around with him like a burdensome sidekick.

Kano’s Yuna is not the only young woman of Okinawa fetching up in the mainland capital in search of a “better” life, but finding only failure and despair. The country detective alienates the city police with his arcane divinatory ritual which involves tipping out a large bag of small seashells and counting them to ascertain the answer to a binary question, but his methods convince him than Yuna is still alive while another Okinawan woman is dead. That a woman from his island has met such a grim end is of no small regret to Kano, be she Yuna or not, and his quest is one of vengeance for both women ruined by the false promise of city life, tempted from simple village existence by bright lights and urban sophistication.

Miki’s path has followed this pattern to the letter. City life turned her into a prostitute and drug addict, eventually running all the way to New York but failing to escape her ongoing despair. Running into a similarly depressed former yakuza, Hidemori (Hiroki Matsukata), who falls in love with her, reawakens her desire for life, and becomes determined to rescue both of their futures by turning her into a singing star, Miki is at a turning point as she prepares for TV stardom as the winner of a signing competition while Hidemori backtracks to his gangster days to make it happen.

Kano begins to piece things together and comes to realise his worst fears are true. Nevertheless, if he could he’d take Yuna home with him to the village to forget her city ordeal rather than hand her over to the Tokyo police to face justice whatever she might have done. Though the tone is largely a comic one, laced with Fukasaku’s characteristically bleak sense of humour, the conclusion is just as melancholy as any of his other sad stories of broken men as Kano is forced to conclude that whatever the facts, the Yuna who left the village is no longer in this world. Putting a lead on his piggy friend, he resigns himself to leaving the city to take care of itself while he returns home, his mission a failure.

Necessarily less serious than Fukasaku’s other work of the ‘70s, Doberman Cop is a return to the nonsensical B-movie action fests of the past which leaves ample room for Chiba to show off his still potent skills including the famous scene of him abseiling down a tall building to bust into a hotel room where Miki is being held captive by a crazed yakuza. The country bumpkin adapts to this part of city life well enough, karate kicking bad guys and loudly disapproving of drug peddling misogynists (not to mention “righteous” serial killers hellbent on “cleansing” the city of sleaziness). Bonding with the “salt of the earth” residents of the lower class neighbourhoods, including a stripper who takes a fancy to the pig during her routine, and a member a biker gang unfairly hauled in as a suspect, Kano concludes that city life is not all it’s cracked up to be much as he comes to admire these basically “good” people who have gone out of their way to help him for mostly altruistic reasons. Still, the world is a darker place for Kano following his city adventure, and all he can do in the end is return to the relative safety of a sunny Okinawan village, pig in tow.


Available now from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (no subtitles)