Death Row Woman (女死刑囚の脱獄, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)

How far does freedom extend in the complicated post-war society? Best known for his eerie horror films, Nobuo Nakagawa takes a stab at B-movie crime in a tale of wronged femininity as a woman’s attempt to escape her father’s authority ends in a death sentence. Death Row Woman (女死刑囚の脱獄, Onna Shikeishu no Datsugoku) sends its wrongfully convicted heroine on the run, literally, from a cruelly patriarchal society, but there is something quite perverse in its ambivalent conclusion which at once frees and vindicates but also suggests that perhaps daddy knows best after all. 

As the film opens, patriarch Imai (Hiroshi Hayashi) is engaging in a bonding ritual with his prospective son-in-law, Aoki (Keinosuke Wada), teaching him how to hunt. Meanwhile, his daughter, Kyoko (Miyuki Takakura), has wandered off with another man, Soichi (Tatsuo Terashima), with whom she is in love. Soichi is obviously worried about Aoki, but she tells him that the marriage is her father’s idea and she’s no intention of going through with it, not least because she is pregnant with Soichi’s child. The pair embrace, engaging in a clinch in the woods, but are spotted by Kyoko’s step-sister, Minako (Yasuko Mita), who apparently doesn’t like someone else hunting what she’s got her eye on, pointing her shotgun right at the loved up couple before her mother (Fumiko Miyata) arrives and knocks it out of the way sending a shot into the air in the process. 

Soichi is a spineless sort of man, telling Kyoko that he “can’t talk to old people” and refusing to go with her to see her father. She’s confident Imai will have to give in seeing as her pregnancy makes this a fait accompli, but he tells her to get an abortion and if she doesn’t like it she can get out. Imai wanted her to marry Aoki because he picked him out as a son, an heir to leave his company to. As Kyoko points out, he never considered her feelings, only seeing her as a tool to be manipulated for his own ends in securing his business interests. Imai objects to Soichi not only because he resents having his authority undercut, but because Soichi is a “nobody” and he finds the idea of his daughter marrying someone from a different social class distasteful in the extreme. All of that is about to become moot, however, because seconds after Kyoko storms out vowing to marry Soichi even if it means severing ties with her family, Imai drops dead, not of an apparent heart attack as it first seems but of poison! As the last person to see him alive and with the entire household having heard their row, Kyoko is arrested for her father’s murder and sentenced to death. 

Jumping on over a year, Kyoko’s son is seven months old and apparently living in a children’s home rather than being cared for by any of her family while she languishes in prison still proclaiming her innocence. Nakagawa flirts with woman in prison tropes, putting Kyoko in a room of four women including a predatory lesbian, but eventually allows her to find female solidarity with a “habitual criminal” who helps her escape in order that she might prove her innocence and be reunited with her son. Kyoko’s decision to escape is prompted by an awkward visit from Soichi who has neglected to bring the picture of their baby he’d promised her while claiming to be working hard on her case. He tells her that he’s engaged a lawyer who has turned up evidence implicating Aoki who has made several attempts of his own to visit her all of which she has turned down. Unbeknownst to her, he’s even transferred to the town near the prison and is living in a company dorm not too far away. Coming to the conclusion that Aoki is the architect of all her misfortune, she determines to pay him a visit and either get a confession or take her own life. 

Aoki, however, turns out to be a good guy after all. He didn’t kill Imai and has been living near by because he’s sure Kyoko didn’t either and is determined to crack the case. Aoki helps her hide from the authorities and manages to get her on a train to Tokyo daringly defying the police dragnet, while the case’s original investigator begins to smell a rat in staking out the Imai home. Soichi seems to have become awful close with the two Imai ladies, so perhaps he really was the odious social climber old Imai feared him to be. So far, Kyoko’s attempts to take charge of her own future in rejecting her father’s authority have not gone well. She has ended up with a death sentence for daring to challenge the social order by advancing her own agency and has escaped from the literal prison, but is once again locked up for her own safety while Aoki does all the investigating on the outside. Her desire to reassume her role as a mother to a child technically born out of wedlock is what eventually gets her caught, leaving her at the mercy of the magnanimous police who, thankfully, decide that the duty of law enforcement is to act in the best interests of justice, admitting their mistakes rather than covering them up to save face. 

So, Aoki turns out to be good and Soichi bad. Kyoko is vindicated, proving herself innocent of the crime of patricide, but is punished fiercely for her attempt to escape her father’s control. It’s tempting to think that the message is that her father knew best after all and if she’d only done as she was told and married Aoki without making a fuss all of this could have been avoided. Amoral post-war ambition has been unmasked, everyone has been shuffled back into their original class boxes with order seemingly restored. Kyoko has “escaped” her imprisonment, but is she truly “free”? “That’s all in the past now”, Aoki reassures her, “but hang on tight anyway”. 


The Man Who Left His Will on Film (東京戰争戦後秘話, Nagisa Oshima, 1970)

man-who-left-his-will-on-filmEvery story is a ghost story in a sense. In every photograph there’s a presence which cannot be seen but is always felt. The filmmaker is a phantom and an enigma, but can we understand the spirit from what we see? Whose viewpoint are seeing, and can we ever separate that subjective vision from the one we create for ourselves within our own minds? The Man Who Left his Will on Film (東京戰争戦後秘話, Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa) is an oblique examination of identity but more specifically how that identity is repurposed through cinema as cinema is repurposed as a political weapon.

The film begins with an anarchic scene in which two men argue over use of an 8mm Bolex camera. The man whose voice we can hear is angry with the cameraman who he claims has stolen his camera only to use it for “trivial” street scenes and landscapes whereas he needs it to “capture the struggle” by filming a nearby student protest. Eventually we can verify that there are two men as the protagonist, Motoki (Kazuo Goto), briefly moves in front of the camera in order to try and snatch it away from the filmmaker. The man holding the camera then runs off as breathless, handheld camera takes over. Motoki follows him and we follow Motoki as the scene takes on an ominous quality. The cameraman reappears atop a nearby building before plunging to his death camera in hand. Stunned, Motoki approaches the bloody scene and, noticing the camera is still intact, tries to retrieve it only to be picked up by the police who confiscate the camera as evidence.

Motoki then wakes up back at his left wing commune with his friends eager to know what happened. Strangely, they do not seem to be aware that one of their number has died and are more worried about the police being in control of one of their “means of production”. Even the dead man’s girlfriend, Yasuko (Emiko Iwasaki), begins to doubt the fact that he ever existed at all. Motoki and Yasuko begin investigating the mysterious presence together, chasing their elusive filmmaker and each taking possession of his form on more than one occasion but the question who owns these images, whose identity defines the narrative, proves an elliptical and ethical dilemma.

Oshima, evidently, was no right wing stooge but even if The Man who left His Will on Film takes the world of the student protests as its milieu, it does so to undermine them. Motoki’s comrades view filmmaking as a revolutionary act. They claim to turn the camera into a weapon by using it confront reality, but as Yasuko later admits much of this is a rationalisation which allows them to continue a “bourgeois” art form without abandoning their left wing principles. The cadre members spout marxist dogma and argue about who has the highest political consciousness, but all they ever do is film the ongoing struggle. Their fight is empty, their vision blank.

Notably, the first of several arguments over dogma relates to “ownership” of the camera itself and whether Motoki and another comrade fought hard enough to retrieve it from the oppressive state. Did Motoki chase after “his” camera, meaning he condones the idea of “private” property which is contrary to the communal nature of the group, or “their” camera which is a revolutionary tool? The camera itself is singular, but the group is plural. This commune is intended to work as a hive mind, the people as one with one vision and one identity but Oshima exposes this as an impossibility. The group is a collective of individuals with different ideas and opinions which do not necessarily conform to a common point of view.

This is further brought out when the camera is retrieved and revealed to contain a collection of seemingly apolitical landscapes and street scenes. The group members are quickly bored with the static shots of everyday subjects, some berating the filmmaker for his “bankrupt” politics and lack of artistry while others vow they must honour their comrade’s struggle by watching the film to its conclusion in order to derive the meaning. The unseen filmmaker has indeed left his “will” on film, not as a testament or embodiment of future policy, but his literal “will”. His individual spirit and vision are contained within the seemingly innocuous shots in a political act of revolutionary individualism. He is the film, the film is him.  His vision dominates, we must accept it or remake it as our own.

Motoki, constantly chasing shadows, attempts to remake the film in the mould of the original filmmaker but unexpectedly encounters aspects of his own life already existing within it. Yasuko’s approach is more proactive. She inserts herself into the film, makes her presence known and refuses to be invisible. She picks up the camera and fights for her place within the frame. Hers is the struggle of the true revolutionary filmmaker, imprinting herself and her vision onto the film.

Where does this leave us? We’re in the film too. We see the film and, in a sense, recreate it in our own minds, recasting ourselves as director and protagonist. We see the film subjectively yet we cannot divorce ourselves from the original vision. Motoki’s venture fails because he only sees the landscapes, whereas Yasuko takes the same images but repossesses them, remaking them in her own image in a true act of cinematic revolution. Yasuko has seized the means of production and overthrown the tyranny of anonymous images in refusing to be constrained by someone else’s will. The camera is a weapon, but it is we who choose what it sees, and in turn what it sees in us.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Murder in the Doll House (乱れからくり, Susumu Kodama, 1979)

murder in the doll houseYusaku Matsuda was to adopt arguably his most famous role in 1979 – that of the unconventional private detective Shunsaku Kudo in the iconic television series Detective Story (unconnected with the film of the same name he made in 1983), but Murder in the Doll House (乱れからくり, Midare Karakuri) made the same year also sees him stepping into the shoes of a more conventional, literature inspired P.I.

Toshio Katsu has had a bad day at the bicycle races, almost losing his entire salary before thinking better of it and retuning his last betting slips to buy himself some ramen. Originally hoping to write detective thrillers, Toshio had studied literature at university but later dropped out fearing he had no real talent as a writer. Spotting an ad for jobs at a P.I. firm he thinks it’s worth a shot. When he arrives at the Udai detective agency he finds it’s just one tiny office led by former police woman Maiko Udai. Being short on help, she hires Toshio right away and puts him to work on her number one case – investigating some interfamilial conflict at a top toy company. However, when their target is killed during a car chase, Maiko and Toshio find themselves trapped inside a maze of complicated tricks and devious puzzles.

Matsuda plays it a little straighter here as an, admittedly laid back, master detective with a knack for always being in the right place at the right time. The case at hand concerns an elderly toy magnate and his factory which is run by his son Soji as the president and his nephew Tomohiro as the manager of production. As might be expected there’s a fair amount of conflict between the two men which is exacerbated by an incident in which a series of racing cars the company was due launch had to be pulled following safety concerns leading Soji and Tomohiro to hold each other responsible for the failure. The old man wants the detectives to keep an eye on Tomohiro in case he decides to launch some sort of coup but just about everyone is acting suspiciously in this weird mansion which was built as some kind of folly with hundreds of built in tricks like a lakeside woodland labyrinth and secret underground passages. Oh, and there might even be some hidden Edo era treasure too. Before long people start dropping dead in increasingly bizarre ways.

In the best traditions of Japanese mystery stories which place fiendishly elaborate plots at their centre, Murder at the Doll House more than succeeds as a classic detective story. We’re presented with a set of strange occurrences which our master sleuth will explain to us in a long lecture at the end and even if one or two twists are a little obvious, the satisfaction involved in having figured them out ahead of time outweighs any kind of disappointment. Toshio may say he wants to be like Philip Marlowe but in actuality his detective is a little more in the European mould – almost like a more active Poirot or a slightly less obtuse Sherlock Holmes. Still, donning a trench coat with a turned up collar yet eschewing the classic hat which would have obscured his giant ‘70s perm, Matsuda once again turns in a very “cool” performance as super smart private eye.

Welcome to the Doll House isn’t quite as action packed as some of Matsuda’s other roles from this era even if it does have a genuinely thrilling finale. Making up for physical excitement with a more cerebral approach which mixes in a few horror tropes with the creepiness of the old house and “murder by doll” scenario, Murder at the Doll House makes for an enjoyably strange mystery adventure which also adds in a little quirky humour along the way for good measure.


Based on the novel by Tsumao Awasaka (not currently available in English).

Matsuda does some detecting (unsubtitled)