The Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1959)

“When all human beings acknowledge each other as human let the precious joy that results be universal. When this joy lives forever in the hearts of women and is handed down to daughters who become mothers then tomorrow will not just repeat today but be a new beginning” reads the opening title card/mission statement of Satsuo Yamamoto’s chronicle of early 20th century Japan. Told though the eyes of one very good woman wrestling against her baser instincts, Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Niguruma no Uta) is a gentle plea for a little more empathy and understanding in which the heroine suffers greatly but is finally rewarded in managing to keep the darkness at bay. 

In late Meiji, Seki (Yuko Mochizuki) develops a fondness for the most eligible young man in town – the postman, Moichi (Rentaro Mikuni), who can read and write and isn’t bad looking either. To her surprise, Moichi admires her too and eventually proposes marriage, intending to give up his job as a postman which doesn’t pay as much as it used to now costs are rising because of the recently concluded Sino-Japanese war to buy a handcart with the longterm goal of building a small handcart empire with a warehouse of his own that will allow him to build a fancy house to live in. Seki hesitates, she’s an illiterate maid perhaps she isn’t good enough for the great Moichi but he replies that he couldn’t care less about that and only wants to know if she wants him. She does, but has to check with her parents first. They object to the marriage on the grounds that Moichi is penniless and disown her when she tells them she’s marrying him anyway. Disowned by her parents, she also loses her job as a maid and is forced to head to Moichi’s ahead of schedule where his extremely cold mother (Teruko Kishi) makes no secret of her resentment of her new daughter-in-law but is eventually forced to relent. 

Unlike Moichi and his mother, the other residents of the village and particularly its women are bright and cheerful despite the harshness of their lives. Swept off her feet by Moichi’s seeming sophistication, Seki is in for a rude awakening in realising that his work ethic is extreme and in many ways he’s just as cruel as his heartless mother. On her arrival, Seki’s mother-in-law complains that she brings “only a small bundle” while simultaneously suggesting that she somehow looks down on them because they are only poor people, insisting that she work alongside Moichi pulling carts to make their dreams of riches come true. Seki jumps at the chance to prove her love, but finds her mother-in-law unchanged. 

Pulling the cart through the village, Moichi and Seki pass another woman who seems put out by Seki’s presence, complaining that Moichi never bothered to reply to her own proposal. Moichi dismisses her complaints, avowing that he didn’t marry her because she wasn’t a worker, implying that he was only interested in someone who would work alongside him in pursuit of his goal of becoming a homeowner. Seki is indeed a worker, and a strong woman who bears her hardships with grace, but finds it increasingly difficult to put up with her mother-in-law’s heartlessness and adherence to old-fashioned feudal customs by which she claims her authority over the household while Moichi, as the dutiful son, always defers to his mother. When the first child arrives, Moichi declares that a daughter brings him no joy, while the mother-in-law who is supposed to be watching her, just lets her cry all day long and doesn’t even change her nappies. Out on the road, Seki comes across another couple in a similar situation who’ve brought their little one with them, riding in a bucket on the back of the cart. Seki wonders why they can’t do the same, then she’d at least know her daughter was alright and not crying her heart out in a dirty nappy, but Moichi won’t hear of it lest his mother be offended that Seki is suggesting she’s not looking after her granddaughter properly. 

Moichi works every hour god sends, but not so much to provide for his family as to improve his own status in the hope of owning a sizeable home, perhaps to “regain” the kind of position his mother thinks is theirs as descendents of the Heike. He exists on a kind of political fault line in his rigid austerity, believing that you really can make it just by working hard while also becoming the de facto spokesman for the other cartmen because he is the only one able to read and write. Yet faced with constant and obvious oppression of the eerily feudal kind in persistent rice profiteering he does nothing much to resist it and gives only grudging approval to his son’s intention of forming a train driver’s union. 

While Moichi has pinned all his hopes on handcarts, the future is fast approaching. A funeral procession of cartmen is greeted by the horse-drawn variety coming the other way as if to signal their imminent obsolescence. But the horsemen aren’t much better off. If Moichi couldn’t afford a horse, he’ll never afford a motor car and the mechanised age is on the horizon. The only work he manages to find ironically involves transporting lumber for the new railway line, but it’s a gamble that pays off and makes Moichi a wealthy man once again. 

Material comforts aren’t everything, however, and Seki struggles to reconcile herself to life with her increasing cruel mother-in-law and emotionally distant husband. She worries that she’s becoming what she hates, finding it difficult to find sympathy for Moichi’s mother now she’s ill in feeling that perhaps she’s getting what she deserves. Her friend advises her that that’s just “bugs” eating away at her heart and what she really needs to do is fly in the opposite direction, finally make a friend of her mother-in-law in trying to understand her. She has, after all, had a very hard life, starved of affection all these years as a young widow raising a son alone on little more than charcoal money. 

Seki meanwhile suffers numerous humiliations and heartbreaks, notably Moichi’s extremely unreasonable decision to bring his 50-year-old sex worker mistress to live with them in their home, but does her best to be generous and forgiving. As she points out, this house is half hers, she built it alongside Moichi and she won’t just vacate it so Moichi can do what he always does which is as he pleases (once his mother’s not around to tell him not to). Moichi perhaps pays for his feudalist follies and selfish authoritarianism in a fairly direct way which aligns him with his chastened nation waking up to the emotional costs of his mistakes, while Seki is finally rewarded. Unlike her mother-in-law she becomes a beloved neighbourhood granny giving rides to all the local kids while pulling her cart onwards towards the future like a reverse Mother Courage embracing her long absent son finally returned to her in recognition of her goodness. 


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)

Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

The Sleeping Beast Within (けものの眠り, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

Sleeping Beast Within posterTo those of a “traditional” mindset, a woman’s career is her home and she never gets to retire. Men, by this same logic, are killed off at 60 and reborn into a second childhood where they get to indulge their love of fly fishing or suddenly discover an untapped talent for haiku. Seeing as a man often lives at the office, being excommunicated from his corporate family can seem like a heavy penalty for those who’ve devoted their entire existence to the salaryman ideal. So it is for the old timer at the centre of Seijun Suzuki’s 1960 mystery thriller, The Sleeping Beast Within (けものの眠り, Kemono no Nemuri) in which the sudden disappearance of a model employee sparks his daughter and her dogged reporter boyfriend to investigate, unwittingly discovering a vast drug smuggling conspiracy headed by a dodgy cult leader.

Veteran salaryman Junpei Ueki (Shinsuke Ashida) has been working in Hong Kong for two years and is finally coming home, to retire. His family have come to meet him but, as his daughter’s reporter boyfriend Kasai (Hiroyuki Nagato) points out, no one much else has turned up – so it is for those who don’t play office politics, claims one of the few colleagues who has arrived to greet the recently returned businessman. Ueki isn’t very happy about his retirement and believes he’ll be getting a part-time job at the same company only to be informed position has been “withdrawn”. When he doesn’t come home after his retirement party, something surely out of character for such a straight shooting family man, his wife and daughter become worried. Keiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) enlists Kasai to help figure out what’s happened to her dad only for him to suddenly turn up with a bad excuse and an almost total personality transplant. Kasai keeps digging, and the reporter in him loves what he finds even if the nice boyfriend wishes he didn’t.

Suzuki sets up what a good guy Ueki is when he brings back a modest ring for Keiko only for her to mockingly ask if her dad couldn’t have brought something a bit flashier. Ueki points out that the customs people might not have liked that so she jokes that he should have just smuggled it in like everyone else. Kasai reminds her that her dad’s not that kind of man, but two years in Hong Kong have apparently changed him. Having spent two years away from his family and 30 years slaving away at a boring desk job, Ueki feels he’s owed something more than an unceremonious kiss off and a little more time for gardening. The reason he ended up entering the world of crime wasn’t the money, or that he was blackmailed – it started because of his sense of integrity. He felt he owed someone and he did them a favour. It went wrong and he ended up here. His decision to join the gang came after he tried to “pay back” the money for some missing drugs only to realise that his entire retirement plan was worth only a tiny fraction of his new debt. Ueki felt small and stupid, like a man who’d wasted his life playing the mugs game. He wanted some payback, but his life as criminal mastermind turned out not to be much of a success either.

Trying to explain her father’s actions to the wounded Keiko, Kasai explains that everyone has a sleeping beast in their heart which is capable doing terrible things when it awakens. Ueki’s sleeping beast was woken by his resentment and sense of betrayal in being so cruelly cast aside by the system to which he’d devoted his life while the guys who broke all the rules – drug dealers, gangsters, and corrupt businessmen, lived the high life. One could almost argue that a sleeping beast is stirring in Kasai’s heart as he pushes his investigation to the limit, occasionally forgetting about the harm it will do to Keiko even whilst acknowledging the greater good of breaking the smuggling ring once and for all. Keiko too finds herself torn, confused and heartbroken by the change in her father’s personality though her mother feels quite differently.  Claiming that “a woman has no say in her husband’s work”, Keiko’s mum tells her daughter that a wife’s duty is to do as her husband says and avoid asking questions. Keiko has asked a lot of questions already and shows no signs of stopping now, even once she realises she won’t like the answers.

Despite the grimness of the underlying tenet that it doesn’t take much for honest men to abandon their sense of morality, Suzuki maintains his trademark wryness as Kasai and Keiko go about their investigation like a pair of pesky kids chasing a cartoon villain. Though the tale is straightforward enough, he does throw in a decent amount of experimentation with two innovative flashback sequences in which the flashback itself is presented as a superimposition with the person narrating it hovering at edges as if referring to a slide. The beast is quelled with a shot to the heart, but not before it wreaks havoc on the lives of ordinary people – not least Ueki himself who is forced to confront what it is he’s become and who he was prepared to sacrifice to feed the hungry demon inside him.


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Bad Sleep Well posterThere’s something rotten in the state of Japan – The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), Akira Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet, unlike his previous two Shakespearean adaptations, is set firmly in the murky post-war society which, it becomes clear, is so mired in systems of corruption as to be entirely built on top of them. Our hero, like Hamlet himself, is a conflicted revenger. He intends to hold a mirror up to society, reflecting the ugly picture back to the yet unknowing world in the hope that something will really change. Change, however, comes slow – especially when it comes at the disadvantage of those who currently hold all the cards.

We open at a wedding. A small number of attendants lineup around a lift waiting for the arrival of the married couple only for a carriage full of reporters to pour out, apparently in hope of scandal though this is no gossip worthy society function but the wedding of a CEO’s daughter to his secretary. The press is in attendance because the police are – they believe there will be arrests today in connection with the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing the company in which a number of employees are suspected of engaging in kickbacks on government funded projects.

The rather strange wedding proceeds with the top brass sweating buckets while the bride’s brother (Tatsuya Mihashi), already drunk on champagne, takes to the mic with a bizarre speech “refuting” the claims that the groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), has only married the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), for financial gain before avowing that he will kill his new brother-in-law if he makes his little sister sad. Nishi, as we later discover, has indeed married with an ulterior motive which is anticipated by the arrival of a second wedding cake in the shape of a building at the centre of a previous corruption scandal with one black rose sticking out of the seventh floor window from which an employee, Furuya, committed suicide five years previously.

The police are keen to interview their suspects, the press are keen to report on scandal, but somehow or other the system of corruption perpetuates itself. The top guys cover for each other, and when they can’t they “commit suicide” rather than embarrass their “superiors” by submitting themselves to justice. The system of loyalty and reward, of misplaced “honour” mixed with personal greed, ensures its own survival through homosocial bonding with backroom deals done in hostess bars and the lingering threat of scandal and personal ruin for all should one rogue whistleblower dare to threaten the governing principle of an entire economy.

Nishi chooses to threaten it, partly as an act of revolution but mainly as an act of filial piety in avenging the wrongful death of his father who had, in a sense, cast him aside for financial gain and societal success. Wanting to get on, Nishi’s father refused to marry his mother and instead married the woman his “superiors” told him to. Later, his father threw himself out of a seventh floor window because his “superiors” made him understand this was what was expected of him. Furuya wasn’t the last, each time a man’s transgressions progress too far his “superiors” sacrifice him to ensure the survival of the system. Strangely no one seems to rebel, the men go to their deaths willingly, accepting their fate without question rather than submitting themselves to the law and taking their co-conspirators down with them though should someone refuse to do the “decent” thing, there are other ways to ensure their continuing silence.

Reinforcing the post-war message, Nishi chooses a disused munitions factory for his secret base. Both he and his co-conspirator, a war orphan, had been high school conscripts until the factory was destroyed by firebombing and thereafter were forced to live by their wits alone on the streets. Nishi swears that he wants to take revenge on those who manipulate the vulnerable, but finds himself becoming ever more like his prey and worse, hardly caring, wanting only to steel himself for the difficult task ahead.

In any revolution there will be casualties, but these casualties will often be those whom Nishi claims to represent. Chief among them his new wife, Yoshiko, who has been largely cushioned from the harshness of the outside world thanks to her father’s wealth and seeming care. She loves her husband and wants to believe in her father or more particularly that the moral arc of her society points towards goodness. Nishi, tragically falling for his mark, married his wife to destroy her family but ironically finds himself torn between genuine love for Yoshiko, a desire for revenge, and a mission of social justice. Can he, and should he, be prepared to “sacrifice” an innocent in the same way the “superiors” of the world sacrifice their underlings in order to end a system of oppression or should he abandon his plan and save his wife the pain of learning the truth about her husband, her father, and the world in which she lives?

In the end, Nishi will waver. Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), will not. Goodness becomes a weakness – Iwabuchi turns his daughter’s love and faith against her, subverting her innocence for his own evil. He makes a sacrifice of her in service of his own “superiors” who may be about to declare that they “have complete faith” in him at any given moment. The only thing that remains clear is that Iwabuchi will not be forgiven, the wronged children of the post-war era will not be so quick to bow to injustice. Let the great axe fall? One can only hope.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Intimidation (ある脅迫, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960)

Intimidation still 1Social class as a means of social control is rarely dealt with overtly in Japanese cinema, but it’s been there all along from the feudal concerns of the jidaigeki to the inherent unfairness of the post-war world which made so many false promises to ambitious young go-getters, misselling dreams of social mobility in a newly meritocratic society. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Intimidation (ある脅迫, Aru Kyohaku) is a noirish tale of blackmail and inexorable fall, but the title refers not just to the act literal act but to the oppression of a society in which the unscrupulous prosper and friendship, even love, is willingly sacrificed for the superficial comforts of wealth and status.

Bank manager Takita (Nobuo Kaneko) is riding high. He’s just been awarded an important new promotion but his success is less down to his innate talents, than to the fact he’s married the chairman’s daughter, Kumiko (Yoko Kosono). While Takita went to university and catapulted himself into the upper middle-classes, his childhood friend Nakaike (Ko Nishimura) only graduated middle school and has been working hard as a clerk in the same bank ever since. To make matters worse, Kumiko was once Nakaike’s sweetheart and Takita the lover of Nakaike’s sister, Yukie (Mari Shiraki). Where Nakaike is meek and earnest, Takita has abused every privilege he’s been given – illegal loans, backhanders, dodgy business deals and even an affair or two have left him wide open to blackmail. Takita’s party is about to end – Kumaki (Kojiro Kusanagi), a Tokyo hood, has proof of Takita’s improprieties and he threatens to expose all if he doesn’t get a sizeable amount of cash. It’s money that Takita doesn’t have, but Kumaki has a plan – Takita needs to rob his own bank. After all, who would expect the bank manager to raid his own vault?

Takita’s rise is as much down to societal corruption as it is his own lack of moral integrity. He’s got on by the traditionally “corrupt” ways that society condones – i.e. a dynastic marriage. He may have worked hard to get into university and get a good job that would enable him to be the kind of match a middle-class father would seek to arrange for his daughter, but everything after that is as straightforward and inevitable as a pair of train tracks. Takita has made it – his father-in-law will take care of everything else, all he has to do is sit back and avoid making any catastrophic mistakes. Perhaps because of the oppressive simplicity of his life, Takita has a lot going on the side – the “playing with fire” that he jokes about in his affairs and illicit backdoor deals are perhaps his ways of bucking the system, laughing at if not quite biting the hand that feeds. 

Meanwhile, mild-mannered Nakaike has been patiently muddling through waiting for a break that society just does not want to give him. Leaving school early (for circumstances which are never revealed but probably easy to guess) has defined his life prospects. Takita went to university, married Nakaike’s teenage sweetheart, and then became his boss – it isn’t fair, but it’s how things work. Not content with swiping Nakaike’s prospects, Takita continues to lord it over him, pretending to be “friends” like old times but belittling Nakaike behind his back and even continuing to carry on with his sister Yukie who has never given up on the childhood sweetheart who threw her over for career opportunity. Nakaike is bound by the superficial rules of society and men like Takita laugh at him for it, they think he’s a fool who doesn’t understand how the system works and only exists as a mechanism for them to exploit.

When Takita gets Nakaike roaring drunk as a part of his nefarious plan, Nakaike admits that he always found Kumiko intimidating – he has a natural deference to and mild fear of her upper-class elegance. Takita has no such qualms – he wants into that club, and he doesn’t care what he has to do or who he has to step on to get there. Yukie blames her brother for their present situation. She thinks his meekness makes him an obvious doormat, that if he had any kind of spine he wouldn’t have let Takita walk all over him and marry Kumiko which would mean she wouldn’t be trapped in the never-ending torment that is being Takita’s mistress rather than his wife. Playing lady Macbeth she needles and provokes her brother, though even if he should snap there’s not a lot that he could do.

Kurahara begins with the passage of a train and later ends on the same image. Our two protagonists are each railroaded towards their fates even if they think they can make a break for pursuing their own destinies. They both think they’ve won, got ahead of the other and the various things which chased them, beaten the intimidation of the society in which they live which attempts to “railroad” them onto a set of pre-ordained courses, but all each of them do is lose. The train rolls silently onward, there is no point of disembarkation save that which it allows, and its conductors are everywhere.


Robbery scene (dialogue free)

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

Manhunt (君よ憤怒の河を渉れ, Junya Sato, 1976)

manhunt 1976 posterMost people, when faced with being framed for a crime they did not commit, become indignant, loudly shouting their innocence to the rooftops and decrying injustice. Prosecutor Morioka (Ken Takakura) reacts differently – could he really be a master criminal and have forgotten all about it? Does he have an evil twin? Is he committing crimes in his sleep? The answer to all of these questions is “no”, but Morioka will have to go on a long, perilous journey in which he pilots his first solo aeroplane flight, fights bears, and escapes a citywide police net via horse, in order to find out. Junya Sato’s adaptation of the Juko Nishimura novel Manhunt (君よ憤怒の河を渉れ, Kimi yo Fundo no Kawa o Watare, AKA Dangerous Chase, Hot Pursuit) is a classic wrong man thriller though it has to be said thrills are a little thin on the ground.

Morioka’s very bad day begins with a woman (Hiroko Isayama) pointing at him and screaming, clutching the arm of a policeman and insisting that Morioka is the man who burgled her a few nights ago and stole her diamond engagement ring. Morioka is very confused but goes calmly to the police station before asking to see an officer he knows, Yamura (Yoshio Harada). Unfortunately, at the police station things only get worse as they dig up another witness (Kunie Tanaka) who says Morioka mugged him in the street for his camera. Beginning to doubt his sanity Morioka is sure things will be sorted out when they search his apartment, only when they get there they do indeed find a camera, the ring hidden in his fish tank, and a whole lot of dodgy money. Realising the game is up and that his prosecutor buddies aren’t interested in helping him, Morioka takes to the road to clear his name, finding himself increasingly compromised every step of the way.

This being Japan Morioka’s options for disappearing are limited – it’s not as if he can dye his hair or radically change his appearance, he’ll have to make do with sunshades and burying his face in the collar of his mac. Looking askance at policemen and trying to avoid people reading newspapers, he tries to investigate his case beginning with his accusers who, predictably, are not quite who they seemed to be. When one of them ends up dead Morioka can add murder suspect to his wanted card but at least he correctly figures out that this all goes back to one particular case his boss was very keen to rule suicide but Morioka was pretty sure wasn’t.

During his quest Morioka picks up an ally – Mayumi (Ryoko Nakano), the daughter of a wealthy horse trader with political ambitions whom he saves during a random bear attack. Mayumi falls instantly in love with him and despite the best efforts of one of her father’s underlings determines to help him clear his name. Morioka is an honest sort of guy but does also pick up another girl in the city (a cameo appearance by Mitsuko Baisho) who rescues him and takes him home to recuperate from an illness. Much to her disappointment he only has eyes for Mayumi who unexpectedly saves the day thanks to her herd of horses, not to mention her father’s “kind offer” of a light aircraft which Morioka will have to learn to pilot “on the fly”.

Eventually Morioka gets himself confined to a dodgy mental hospital to find the final clue during which time he uncovers a corporate conspiracy to manufacture drugs which turn people into living zombies, all their will power removed and compliance to authority upped. Rather than a dig at corporate cultism, enforced conformity, and conspiratorial manipulation, the Big Pharma angle is a just a plot device which provides the catalyst for Morioka’s final realisations – that having experienced life on the run he can never return to the side of authority. For him, the law is now an irrelevance which fails to protect its people and the “hunted” are in a much stronger position than the “hunters”. Accepting his own complicity in the adventure he’s just had, he willingly submits himself to “justice” for the rules he broke as a man on the run but it looks like those sunshades, the anonymous mac, and the beautiful and loyal Mayumi are about to become permanent fixtures in his impermanent life.


Hanzo the Razor: Who’s Got the Gold? (御用牙 鬼の半蔵やわ肌小判, Yoshio Inoue, 1974)

Hanzo the razor who's got the gold posterAll things must come to an end, and so the third instalment in the Hanzo the Razor series, Who’s Got the Gold? (御用牙 鬼の半蔵やわ肌小判, Goyokiba: Oni no Hanzo yawahada koban) is the last. To be frank the central tenet is wearing a bit thin (not least because Hanzo’s been bashing away at it with a mallet for the last two movies), and though scripted by the previous film’s director, Yasuzo Masumura, direction has been handed to the less experienced studio director Yoshio Inoue. Consequently, Who’s Got the Gold? is the most obviously parodic entry in the series, camping it up in grand style as Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) goes after a more obvious kind of vice in the form of greedy, entitled lords, corrupt priesthood, and a nation too obsessed with its past to survive in a rapidly modernising era.

Inoue opts for a purely theatrical opening as Hanzo’s two ex-con underlings, Devil and Viper, enjoy a spot of night fishing whilst dreaming about having enough money to head to the red light district. They get the fright of their lives when they think they see a creepy ghost woman emerging from the lake. Being Devil and Viper they panic and run home screaming to report this terrifying incident to their brave protector Hanzo. Hanzo is in the middle of his usual “tool polishing” routine but fancies paying a visit this mysterious lake because, well, it might be fun to try having sex with a ghost for once. Devil and Viper are very confused by this idea, but it’s par for the course with Hanzo and so off they go.

Of course, the ghost lady is not a real ghost so only part of Hanzo’s lusts are satisfied as he performs his normal sort of “special torture” on her and finds out that she’s part of an ongoing scam in which treasury officials have been skimming off some of the gold they’re supposed to be protecting. Sadly, Hanzo’s investigations hit a snag when the woman’s husband turns up and kills her for having been raped by Hanzo before promptly getting killed himself.

Hanzo does not approve of any of these goings on and fully intended to arrest the treasury officers if only they hadn’t gone and died first. Accordingly he reports all of this to his superiors but advises against prosecutions because he sympathises with the difficult position these men found themselves in. Being a samurai is not cheap and these lowly jobs are very badly paid – how are you supposed to maintain your house to the manner required without resorting to extreme measures when your lord is snaffling all the money and not paying his retainers what they’re owed. It will not come as a surprise that the lord didn’t want to hear this, and so Hanzo marks his card. It didn’t really help that Hanzo’s walk into the castle involved running a gauntlet of unfortunate samurai forced to kneel along the path all day just hoping that the lord would show them some favour. Among them was a old friend of Hanzo’s who receives a tactless offer of fixed employment if only he will give up a family heirloom that the lord has been admiring.

The gold smuggling subplot runs in parallel with another problem – a doctor whom the lord has ordered Hanzo to arrest because he was advocating the adoption of Western technologies, fearing that the nation was leaving itself dangerously vulnerable if it refused to modernise. The doctor, like the girl’s father in the first film, is dying of a terminal illness and so Hanzo thinks the sentence can wait. Hiding the doctor in his house he listens to his ideas and then comes to the same conclusion, allowing him to finish building a cannon to prove to the lord just how destructive these new weapons really are and just how dangerous it would be to fight them with only katanas and samurai spirit. Hanzo lives in interesting times, but this dilemma says something both about the precarious position of the samurai order in the face of increasing modernisation and about the 1970s background in which a small war was currently being waged against American imperialism.

As usual Hanzo refuses to bow. He will not give in to bullies or those who abuse their authority to add additional oppression onto an already oppressed populace which he has pledged his life to protecting. The contradiction of being a rapist so well endowed that afterwards no one seems to mind has still not been solved, but by this third instalment in the series the “joke” is so well worn as to receive little attention. Who’s Got the Gold? is weakest of the three adventures for Hanzo and his well conditioned razor but it has its charms, if only in the troublingly easy way that its central conceit has become so essentially normalised as to be barely noticed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanzo the Razor: The Snare (御用牙 かみそり半蔵地獄責め, Yasuzo Masumura, 1973)

Hanzo the Razor the Snare posterYasuzo Masumura had spent the majority of his career at Daiei, but following the studio’s bankruptcy, he found himself out on his own as a freelance director for hire. That is perhaps how he came to direct this improbable entry in his filmography on the second of a trilogy of exploitation leading jidaigeki films for Toho. Essentially a vanity project for former Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu who both produces and stars in the series, Hanzo the Razor: The Snare (御用牙 かみそり半蔵地獄責め , Goyokiba: Kamisori Hanzo Jigoku Zeme) is another tale of the well endowed hero of the Edo era protecting ordinary people from elite corruption, but Masumura, providing the script himself, bends it to his own will whilst maintaining the essential house style.

Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) chases a pair of crooks right into the path of treasury officer Okubo. As expected, the lord and his retainers kick off but Hanzo won’t back down, shouting loudly about honour and justice much to his lord’s displeasure. Eventually Hanzo takes the two crooks into custody and they tell him exactly what’s happened to them this evening – they snuck over from the next village to steal some rice from the watermill but they found a dead girl in there and so they were running away in terror. Hanzo investigates and finds the partially clothed body still lying in the mill untouched but when he takes a closer look it seems the girl wasn’t exactly murdered but has died all alone after a botched abortion. Realising she smells of the incense from a local temple, Hanzo gets on the case but once again ends up uncovering a large scale government conspiracy.

Though it might not immediately seem so, Masumura’s key themes are a perfect fit for the world of Hanzo. In his early contemporary films such as Giants & Toys and Black Test Car, Masumura had painted a grim view of post-war society in which systemic corruption, personal greed, and selfishness had destroyed any possibility of well functioning human relationships. It was Masumura’s belief that true freedom and individuality was not possible within a conformist society such as Japan’s but this need for personal expression was possible through sexuality. Sex is both a need and a trap as Masumura’s (often) heroines chase their freedom through what essentially amounts to an illicit secret, using and manipulating the men around them in order to improve their otherwise dire lack of agency.

Hanzo’s investigation takes him into an oddly female world of intrigue in which a buddhist nun has been duped into becoming a middle-woman in a government backed scheme pimping innocent local girls to the highest bidder among a gang of wealthy local merchants. Hanzo berates the parents of the murdered girl for not having kept a better eye on her, but these misused women are left with no other recourse than the shady protection of others inhabiting the same world of corrupt transactions such as the local shamaness who has developed a “new method of abortion” just as Hanzo has developed a “new method of torture” which involves a bizarrely sexualised ritual in which both parties must be fully naked before she enacts penetration with her various instruments. Hanzo first tries more usual torture methods on the nun before indulging in his trademark tactic of trapping her in a net to be raised and lowered onto his oversize penis which he keeps in top notch by beating it with a stick and ramming it into a bag of rough uncooked rice.

Unlike the first film, the women are less ready to fall for Hanzo’s giant member. The nun complains loudly that her Buddhist vows of chastity are being violated while Hanzo’s later rape of the woman who runs the local mint is a much more violent affair. Hanzo grapples with her legs as she struggles, gasping as he opens his loincloth and reveals his surprisingly large appendage, once again playing into the fallacy that all women harbour some kind of rape fantasy. Hanzo has done this, he claims, to “calm her down”, because he could sense her sexual frustration and desperate need for male contact. To be fair to Hanzo, he does appear to be correct in his reading of the woman’s behaviour as she sheds her anxiety and becomes a firm devotee of the cult of Hanzo.

Meanwhile, political concerns bubble in the background as the main conspiracy revolves around consistent currency devaluations which are placing a stranglehold on the fortunes of the poor while their overlords, who are supposed to be protecting them, spend vast sums on claiming the virginity of innocent young girls. Hanzo may be a rapist himself (though he makes it clear that he derives no pleasure from his actions and only gives pleasure to the women involved), but he draws the line at the misuse of innocents, saving a little girl about to be violated by the master criminal Hamajima (Kei Sato) in a daring confrontation in which he boldly brings his own coffin, just in case.

Masumura broadly sticks to the Toho house style, but gone is the camp comedy of the first instalment with its giggly gossipers and humorous shots of Hanzo’s permanently erect penis. Instead he opts for an increase in sleazy voyeurism, filling the screen with female nudity whilst neatly implicating the male audience who enjoy such objectification by shooting from secretive angles as his collection of dirty old men crowd round a two way mirror to watch the lucky winner torture and abuse the soft young flesh they’ve just been bidding on. Like Sword of Justice, The Snare also ends with a slightly extraneous coda in which Hanzo settles a dispute with another official by means of a duel he would rather not have fought. Walking off bravely into the darkness, Hanzo utters only the word “idiot” for a man who wasted his life on petty samurai pride. Hanzo has better things to do, protecting the common man from just such men who place hypocritical ideas of pride and honour above general human decency in their need for domination through fear and violence over his own tenet of unrestrained pleasure.


Original trailer (no subtitles)