The Whale God (鯨神, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1962)

“You’re all mad” the hero of Tokuzo Tanaka’s The Whale God (鯨神, Kujiragami) finally exclaims, perhaps in a sense cured of the overwhelming mania that has defined his life but only at the cost of it. Adapted from the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel by Koichiro Uno which owes a significant debt to Moby Dick, Tanaka’s tokusatsu-adjacent drama is part haunting morality tale cautioning against the destructive absurdity of obsessive vengeance, and a kind of treatise on life in traditional village at a moment of eclipse as the burgeoning modernity of early Meiji washes up on its shores. 

Tanaka opens with a brief prologue in which an elderly man is killed attempting to destroy the “Whale God” only for his son to swear vengeance before being killed himself. The man’s mother instructs his sons to vow revenge, 10 years passing before she sends the oldest one out against the whale. He is also killed, instantly. The last of his line, young Shaki (Kojiro Hongo) is burdened with this piece of filial responsibility, forced to bear the weight of his family’s vengeance while the village elder (Takashi Shimura), a samurai, wants to ensure the Whale God’s destruction and offers up his own daughter, Toyo (Kyoko Enami), along with his lands and title to any who can bring him the snout of the whale. Shaki throws himself forward though he has little desire for the prize obsessed only with vengeance, while another challenger soon appears, Kishu (Shintaro Katsu), a uncouth drifter deciding to hang around after confirming that the offer is open to all no matter their origins. 

Origins do, however, matter. The village elder instructs Kishu to step back lest he spear his “stinking guts” for failing to know his place, a commoner with the temerity to encroach on a samurai’s personal space. The two men, Shaki and Kishu, in a sense represent two halves one whole, one resigned and contemplative and the other rough and greedy. Kishu attempts to challenge Shaki directly but is rebuffed, later settling for besting him through raping his girlfriend, Ei (Shiho Fujimura), who conceives a child as a consequence of the attack but somehow manages to keep the pregnancy entirely secret. Both the woman and the whale become a surrogate battleground for a contest of masculinity, Kishu symbolically ahead in having violated Ei while Shaki remained too consumed with vengeance to have consummated their union. 

Toyo, meanwhile, the samurai’s daughter, insists that she won’t be “the prize for a fisherman’s ambition”, rejecting the idea of becoming the wife of a lowly villager which would of course mean for her great shame. Nevertheless, she is as powerless as Shaki in her inability to shake off patriarchal authority or refuse her duty to obey her father’s orders even as he tells her it’s all a cruel joke, he doesn’t believe that any fisherman could kill the Whale God and survive. Nevertheless she develops a fascination with Shaki and is intensely offended to discover that he wants no part of her father’s bargain and has in fact married Ei claiming her child as his own. He does this in part in order to ensure that someone will exist in order to avenge his own death which he is sure is coming at the fins of the Whale God, resigned with fatalistic nihilism to the ancestral curse which has haunted him for almost all his life living only for vengeance. 

Yet he does in fact manage to kill the Whale God and live, if only for a brief time but long enough to hear Toyo echo that she must marry the man who killed the god in accordance with her father’s promise despite knowing he is already married with a child. His curse lifted, he understands that the whole village is affected by a kind of madness no longer understanding why a samurai’s daughter would agree to marry a man she didn’t love who was not her social equal. In a beatific state, he reflects on his rivalry with Kishu whom he comes to believe deliberately sacrificed himself in order to assure Shaki a survival he does not appear to want in order to ensure his own child would have a father. Discomfortingly, he asks Ei to forgive Kishu because of this fact, little acknowledging her suffering and reducing her once again to a token traded between men in their now concluded battle for masculine dominance. 

An old man having escaped the village’s madness had encouraged Shaki not to die for nothing, to live his life in rejection of his mother’s fatalistic deathbed instruction only to live until you die. In achieving his vengeance he reaches a kind of apotheosis becoming a Christ-like figure sacrificed on behalf of the village which has been liberated of the tyranny of the Whale God even if the Whale God has been exposed as merely a larger than average sea creature. Meanwhile, we can also see that modernity is hovering on the outskirts, the whale’s arrival is signalled by telegraph while Shaki’s childhood friend Kasuke (Yosuke Takemura) alone is able to see through the village’s “madness” leaving to study medicine in Nagasaki. When he returns a year later, Shaki relents and asks him to take his sister with him away from the maddening village towards a more enlightened land. 

The village is also surprisingly enough Christian, though the new religion does not seem to have eclipsed their traditional beliefs or practices. The fishermen still perform a ritual dance before a whale hunt and continue to demand vengeance against the Whale God even when cautioned against it. Shooting in intense gloominess Tanaka emphasises the sense of spiritual dread that accompanies this “ludicrous” vendetta, the village seemingly always cloaked in darkness as if awaiting its own destruction eventually hastened by the elder’s transgressive offering which in itself represents a small revolution that would make a peasant a king and therefore implode a feudal order that is already on its way out. The elder wants vengeance for glory, Kishu wants vengeance for gold, but only Shaki desires vengeance for peace and later wins it only to have nothing left to live for, ominously telling Ei to raise their son to become “a proud whaler”. Making great use of miniatures, Tanaka’s parabolic drama may park itself in the realms of tokusatsu but is in its own way stranger, and darker, yet also poetic in its examination of destructive obsession, traditional masculinity, feudalistic patriarchy, and existential futility through the story of a young man born to die for a father’s transgressive failures. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Last Kamikaze (最後の特攻隊, Junya Sato, 1970)

Junya Sato’s The Last Kamikaze (最後の特攻隊, Saigo no Tokkotai) opens with a title card explaining that it has nothing to do with the life of Matome Ugaki, which seems disingenuous at best given that the narrative has tremendous similarities with his life. In any case, 25 years after the war in a very different Japan which is perhaps becoming more willing to reexamine its wartime history, Sato’s film nevertheless walks an ambivalent line clearly rejecting the idea of the kamikaze special attack squadrons as absurd and inhuman yet simultaneously glorifying the deaths of the men who willingly took part in them. 

For sympathetic Captain Munakata (Koji Tsuruta) the issue is one of consent and willingness more than it is of essential immorality. Placed in charge of the very first suicide attack, he elects to go himself rather than ask someone else but is first overruled before deciding to go anyway after appealing for volunteers and coming up one short. His general, Yashiro (Bontaro Miake), who had voiced his opposition to the policy in the opening sequence reminding his own commander than even when men were given impossible missions in previous wars they were always ordered to return home if possible, takes the unprecedented step of climbing into an aircraft himself in an act of protest insisting that this be the last and final time that men were ordered to their deaths. The mission, however, does not succeed. All of the pilots bar Yashiro are shot down before reaching their targets while Munakata, injured and having lost sight of the general, aborts his mission and returns to base only to face censure from his superior officers. 

Sent back to Japan, he wrestles with himself over whether his decision was one of cowardice and he turned back because he was afraid to die rather than, as he justifies, because he did not want to die in vain and did what he thought was right. Far from cowardice, it may have taken more courage for him to ignore his orders and choose to live yet there must also be a part of him that believes dying to be heroic if not to do so is to be a coward. As the situation continues to decline and suicide attacks become the only real strategy, Munakata is recalled for an ironic mission of heading the escort squad designed to protect the pilots from enemy attack so they can reach their targets. He first turns this down too not wanting to be an angel of death but is finally convinced to accept on the grounds that the men will die anyway and at least this way their deaths will have meaning. 

Munakata was greeted on his return to Japan by the sight of his father (Chishu Ryu) being carted off by the military police for expressing anti-war views, stopping only to tell him that people should be true to their own beliefs. Nevertheless, even if Munataka objects to the tokkotai strategy he does not oppose it only emphasise that the men should should be willing and resolved rather than forced or bullied. There is indeed a shade of toxic masculinity in the constant cries of cowardice along with a shaming culture that insists a man who refuses to give his life for his country is not a real man. Munakata comes to the rescue of a young recruit, Yoshikawa (Atsushi Watanabe), who twice returns from a tokkotai mission claiming engine trouble but does not try to save him only to petition his superiors that he be given ground duty until such time as he gets used to the idea of dying. Because of Munakata’s kindness in saving him from a suicide attempt after being rejected by the mother he worried for if he were to die, Yoshikawa is pushed towards a “hero’s death” that does at least help to change the mind of Yashiro’s zealot son (Ken Takakura) who knew nothing of the reasons behind his father’s suicide and believed wholeheartedly in the necessity of the special attack squadrons. 

The younger Yashiro’s rationale had been that to show compassion to a man like Yoshikawa was to shame the memories of the men who had already died, yet even in realising the futility of the gesture he still resolves to proceed towards his own death as do others like him such as a student who had been against the war and ironically consents to the suicide mission in order to end it more quickly. “There’s nowhere to run to” Yoshikawa’s mother (Shizuko Kasagi) had said on his attempted desertion, echoing the words of another that there was no escape from this war, while poignantly crying over her son’s ashes that she wishes she had raised him to be a coward. The human cost is brought fully home as the families storm the airfield fence in an attempt to wave goodbye to their loved ones as they prepare for their glorious deaths, another pilot reflecting on the fact that each of these men is someone’s precious son rendered little more than cannon fodder in an unwinnable war. Even with the escort squads, only 30% of the special attacks succeed. Most of the pilots are so young and inexperienced that even assuming they survive the anti-aircraft fire they are incapable of hitting their targets. 

To add insult to injury, Munakata returns from his final mission to an empty airfield where a drunken engineer (Tomisaburo Wakayama) explains to him that the war is over and the generals knew it 10 days earlier but still sent these men to their deaths anyway. Overcome with remorse, Munakata posits his own suicide mission but is instructed to live on behalf of all those who died only to take off and fly into a technicolor sunset as Sato switches from the period appropriate black and white to vibrant colour elegising Munakata’s death while lending it an otherwise uncomfortable heroism. Casting ninkyo eiga icons Koji Tsuruta and Ken Takakura as the infinitely noble yet conflicted pilots and employing jitsuroku-esque narratorial voice to offer historical context the majority of the audience probably does not strictly need, Sato rams home the righteousness of these men while casting them as victims of their times trying their best to be true to what they believe but finding little prospect of escape from the absurdity of war. 


Violent Streets (暴力街, Hideo Gosha, 1974)

“Nothing’s like it used to be anymore” sighs a woman who’s had to betray herself but has tried to make break for it only to discover there is no way back. Hideo Gosha’s Violent Streets (暴力街, Boryoku Gai) is like many films of its era about the changing nature of the yakuza in an age of corporatised gangsterdom. Now “legitimate businessmen” who claim to no longer deal in thuggery, their crimes are of a more organised kind though a turf war’s still a turf war even if you’re fighting from the boardroom rather than simply getting petty street punks to fight it for you in the streets. 

In a touch of irony, former yakuza Noboru Ando stars as a man who’s tried to leave the life behind but is pulled back into underworld intrigue when his former foot soldiers mount an ill-advised bid for revenge against the clan they feel betrayed them. After serving eight years in prison for participating in the last turf war, Egawa was given flamenco bar Madrid on the condition that he dissolve his family and attempt to go straight as a legitimate businessman. The Togiku gang has since gone legit and distanced itself from most of its old school yakuza like Egawa. But now a yakuza conglomerate from Osaka is moving in on their old turf and the Togiku want the Madrid back as a bulwark against incursion from the west which is why they’ve been sending the boys round to cause trouble in the bar. 

Egawa is the classic ex-gangster who wants to turn himself around but is largely unable to adapt to life in a changing society. He is technically in a relationship with a bar hostess who has a severe drinking problem in part exacerbated by his inability to get over his former girlfriend who left him and married the boss, Gohara, while he was in prison. His former foot soldiers attempt to convince him to get the gang back together and take revenge, resentful of having been used and discarded, but he tells them to let it go, that they’ve all got “honest jobs” and that they should try to live as best they can. Like him, the guys are ill-equipped to make new lives in the consumerist society and cannot move on from the post-war past. Hoping to engineer a turf war between the Osaka guys and Togiku, they kidnap a popular TV personality/pop singer (Minami Nakatsugawa) attached to a station which Togiku controls and frame a rival affiliated with the Osakans for taking her. 

This just goes to show the various ways in which newly corporatised yakuza have expanded their business portfolio, heavily participating in the entertainment industry moving beyond bars, clubs, and the sex trade into mainstream television and idol stars. Egawa’s old friend Yazaki (Akira Kobayashi) is his opposing number, just as caged but trapped within the confines of the new gangsterdom, reprimanded by his boss for raiding the rival studio’s offices and undoing the gang’s attempt to rebrand themselves as legitimate businessmen rather than violent street thugs. “I can’t stand being humiliated” he explains as Gohara points out he’s stepped right into their trap now giving the Osakans an excuse for retaliation. “The Togiku group is a defanged, domesticated dog” Yazaki barks, “I can’t pretend to be an obedient company employee forever and do nothing”. 

Neither man is able to progress into the new era of rising prosperity, both little more than caged animals thrashing around trying to break free but continually crashing into the bars. Just as Egawa’s old guys had tried to engineer a turf war hoping that the two gangs would take each other out and leave a vacuum they could fill, arch boss Shimamura (Tetsuro Tanba) flies above the city in a helicopter as the “worms fight among themselves” and observes the chaos below as he completes his silent conquest of the contemporary economy like some modern day Nobunaga of corporatised gangsterdom. 

Taking over the Togiku through a process of corporate infiltration and gradually ridding themselves of all the old school yakuza ill-suited to the shady salaryman life, the contrast between the world of cabaret bars and back street dives and Shimamura’s smart suits and helicopters couldn’t be more stark. A slightly sour note is struck by the use of a transgender assassin (Madame Joy) who performs a lesbian floorshow by day and kills by night while working with a bald sidekick who carries a parrot on his shoulder, her coldness bearing out the tendency of yakuza movies to associate queerness with sadistic savagery. Gosha rams his point home with the otherwise surreal scene of a pile of abandoned mannequins by a swamp that becomes a popular yakuza kill site homing in on the emptiness of their eyes and the uncanniness of dismembered bodies, mere empty shells just like the men who die in this literal wasteland. Egawa perhaps feels himself to be a man already dead long before being pushed towards his act of futile rebellion, somewhere between sitting duck and caged dog fighting for his life between the chicken coops of a moribund small-town Japan. Marching to a frenetic flamenco beat of rising passions and barely contained rage, Violent Streets leaves its former foot soldiers with nowhere to go but down while their duplicitous masters continue to prosper riding the consumerist wave into a new and prosperous future.


Violent Streets opens at New York’s Metrograph on Dec. 16 as part of Hideo Gosha x 3

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)

Wolf Guy (ウルフガイ 燃えよ狼男, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)

Wolf Guy posterUniversal’s Monster series might have a lot to answer for in creating a cinematic canon of ambiguous “heroes” who are by turns both worthy of pity and the embodiment of somehow unnatural evil. Despite the enduring popularity of Dracula, Frankenstein (dropping his “monster” monicker and acceding to his master’s name even if not quite his identity), and even The Mummy, the Wolf Man has, appropriately enough, remained a shadowy figure relegated to a substratum of second-rate classics. Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Wolf Guy (ウルフガイ 燃えよ狼男, Wolf Guy: Moero Okami Otoko, AKA Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope) is no exception to this rule and in any case pays little more than lip service to werewolf lore. An adaptation of a popular manga, Wolf Guy is one among dozens of disposable B-movies starring action hero Sonny Chiba which have languished in obscurity save for the attentions of dedicated superfans, but sure as a full moon its time has come again.

Chiba plays Inugami (literally “dog god”, in Japanese folklore an Inugami is a vengeful dog spirit which can possess people in times of emotional extremity), a melancholy reporter with a reputation for getting himself into trouble who comes across a strange scene in the street in which a white suited man begins raving about a tiger before being gored to death by invisible forces. The police, dragging in Inugami for questioning, can’t come up with anything better than demons to explain such strange events but Inugami’s interest is piqued – more so when he runs into a shady paparazzo who tips him off to similar crimes all targeting a rock band run by a prominent talent agency.

Wolf Guy is not the most coherent of films, it explains itself piecemeal as it goes along and mostly through Inugami’s own world-weary voiceover. Despite this immediate access to Inugami’s psyche, he remains aloof, brooding, and distant. Literally a lone wolf, Inugami is the last of his kind – the little boy saved from a massacre in the black and white still frames of the opening sequence. Yamaguchi chooses not to engage with this theme on much more than a surface level though he maintains a low-level anger towards corrupt authority and those who attempt to wield power from the shadows, targeting the different or the weak.

Through this deeply held feeling of alienated otherness, Inugami comes to feel an intense kinship with the wronged woman at the centre of the curse. Miki (Etsuko Nami) is even more a victim of this intense authoritarianism than Inugami himself. A working class nightclub singer in love with a politician’s son, Miki becomes a problem for her potential father-in-law, one which he solves with gang rape and infection with syphilis. Dumped, alone, infected, and also hooked on drugs, Miki’s mental state is understandably volatile but her troubles are not yet over. The mysterious tiger and Inugami’s wolf man attributes bring the pair to the attentions of a shady group intent on harnessing these unique supernatural powers for themselves with no regard for the “human” cost involved.

Inugami sympathises with Miki out of a shared hatred for “humans” who can treat each other in such inhumane ways. Humans massacred his family and when he tries to go home, the sons of the men who did it seem to know who he is and want to finish the job. Lonely and afraid, Inugami starts to wonder if humans and his own kind will ever be able to live together in harmony. Though he does begin to form brief romantic relationships, none of them end well. It’s almost a running joke that he’s irresistible to every woman in the film, but as much as they run to him they run to death – his love is toxic and even the invulnerability conferred by the moon is unable to save the women in his life from the violence of mortal men. Yet for all his sadness and internalised rage, the Wolf Guy is a hippy hero, the kind who throws away his gun and chooses to retreat in peace rather than fight on in a pointless and internecine quest for vengeance.

Rather than a story of humanity overturned by overwhelming, irrational emotional forces, Wolf Guy presents a hero perfectly in tune with his emotional life even if imbued with Chiba’s iconic coolness. This is not a “werewolf” story, Chiba never transforms nor does he lose himself at the sight of a full moon – rather it strengthens, sustains, and protects him. This almost new age idea gels well with the generally psychedelic approach filled with groovy ‘70s guitar, whip pans, zooms and crazy action though the film certainly goes to some dark places including an extremely unsettling surgery scene followed by an equally disturbing one of healing body horror in which exposed intestines rearrange themselves neatly inside the stomach cavity which then begins to knit itself together again. An eccentric, essentially disposable offering, Wolf Guy makes no real attempt at coherence but is willing to embrace just about every kind of madcap idea which presents itself. Strange, absurd, and all the better for it Wolf Guy is one wild ride but also has its heart in the right place as its melancholy hero heads out into the mountains, a self-exile from a cruel and unforgiving world.


Wolf Guy is released on Dual Format DVD & Blu-ray in the US and UK on 22nd/23rd May 2017 courtesy of Arrow Video.

Arrow release EPK video

 

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1974)

lone-wolf-and-cub-white-heaven-in-hell-japanese Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) have been following the Demon Way for five films, chasing the elusive Lord Retsudo (Minoru Oki) of the villainous Yagyu clan who was responsible for the murder of Ogami’s wife and his subsequent framing for treason. The Demon Way is never easy, and Ogami has committed himself to following it to its conclusion, but recent encounters have broadened a conflict in his heart as innocents and seekers of justice have died alongside guilty men and cowards. Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Kozure Okami: Jigoku e Ikuzo! Daigoro) moves him closer to his target but also further deepens his descent into the underworld as he’s forced to confront the wake of his ongoing quest for vengeance.

Ogami and Daigoro have made it to Snow Country, meanwhile Lord Retsudo is receiving a dressing down from a superior over his total failure to eliminate the Lone Wolf or his Cub. It seems Ogami has already despatched all three of Retsudo’s sons, and so now Retsudo pledges his daughter, Kaori (Junko Hitomi), skilled in the use of daggers and every bit as fine a warrior as her defeated brothers, in the mission to end the Ogami threat.

Things do not go to plan and Retsudo is forced to approach his one remaining son. An illegitimate child born to a concubine, disavowed, and hidden away in the mountains, Hyoe (Isao Kimura) is not well disposed to his estranged father’s request to save the Yagyu clan to which he feels only rage and resentment. Sending his father away, Hyoe nevertheless decides to take on Ogami in the hope of embarrassing the Yagyu by taking him out first. Possibly having spent too much time alone, Hyoe’s plan involves a number of strange rituals beginning with resurrecting three of his men as emotionless (yet intelligent) zombies meant to terrify Ogami and his son into submission.

Throughout the series, we’ve seen Ogami’s world darken as the straightforward missions of eliminating corrupt lords eventually gave way to more morally dubious assignments with the tragic story of Oyuki and later the assassination of an entire family in order to preserve the legitimate arm of a historical clan. Along the way, Ogami has met “true samurai” and villainous cowards, but his encounters with honest men and women have only served to shake his heart as he guides his young son onwards bound for hell by way of death or violence.

The pair have never been afraid before, but Hyoe’s plan hinges on pushing Ogami’s mind into those dark places, preventing him from fighting back against his supernatural soldiers. Death has always surrounded them, but the price of Ogami’s vengeance is brought home to him when Hyoe’s forces unceremoniously wipe out the entire population of an inn where Ogami and Daigoro are staying whilst hovering in some nearby trees to remind them that this is all really their fault and the longer they keep on down this path, the more the innocent will suffer. The zombie trio threaten to destroy Ogami’s human emotions – joy, sorrow, pleasure, and anger, leaving him only with fear. Unbowed, Ogami faces Hyoe but the pair have more in common than they thought and so round one ends in a stalemate.

White Heaven in Hell, though not intended as a conclusion to the series, neatly brings things full circle as Ogami visits his wife’s grave, recalling his familial tragedy and reinforcing his bond with Daigoro. All of the films have, in some way, dealt with functional and dysfunctional family, each commenting on the unusual relationship between Ogami and his son. Finally meeting face to face, Retsudo takes Ogami to task for the loss of his children which Ogami throws right back at him – after all, all he did was defend himself against a threat Retsudo himself instigated. Ogami eventually tells him that he hopes Retsudo becomes so lonely that he goes completely mad. Retsudo’s pointless manoeuvring has cost him dearly in the loss of each of his legitimate children, eventually forcing the acknowledgement of his illegitimate son and daughter whose hatred of him also leads to their undoing. So great is Hyoe’s loathing of the Yagyu, that his last ditch attempt at revenge is in trying to convince his own sister, Azuma, to bear his child and create a new line to finish them off once and for all.

Kenji Misumi declined to return for this instalment, claiming the series had become too much like a Western which is a little ironic as White Heaven in Hell leaves the arid deserts behind for the frozen ice plains of the north. Yoshiyuki Kuroda, making his first and only contribution to the series, had a strong background in horror cinema which might explain the sudden appearance of the supernatural elements in what has been, up to now, a fairly grounded exercise even if somewhat outlandish. This is also the only script with which original creator Kazuo Koike was not not involved and bears the least relation to the then ongoing manga. Still, the action is undoubtedly innovative as the baby cart’s wheels are swapped for skis and Ogami faces off against an entire army of enemies on a snow covered hillside. Kuroda sticks more closely to Misumi’s aesthetic than Saito had done though steers away from the painterly cinematics in favour of showcasing the snow covered terrain, driving Ogami deeper into hell as his heart freezes over but denying him the vengeance that has become his life’s work. White Heaven in Hell is the last outing for Ogami yet refuses to close the circle, his quest may be a never ending one, plunging both himself and his son into an inescapable cycle of violence and regret as the Demon’s Way stretches on endlessly towards an uncertain destination.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道, Kenji Misumi, 1973)

baby-cart-land-demonsOgami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former Shogun executioner now a fugitive in search of justice after being framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan who are also responsible for the death of his wife, is still on the Demon’s Way with his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Five films into this six film cycle, the pair are edging closer to their goal as the evil Lord Retsudo continues to make shadowy appearances at the corners of their world. However, the Demon’s Way carries a heavy toll, littered with corpses of unlucky challengers, the road has, of late, begun to claim the lives of the virtuous along with the venal. Conflicted as he was in his execution of a contract to assassinate the tragic Oyuki in the previous instalment, Baby Cart in Peril, whose story was perhaps even sadder than his own, Ogami is about to descend further still as a commission to kill a living Buddha proves even more sordid than expected.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道,  Kozure Okami: Meifumado) starts as it means to go on as Ogami finds yet another coded way of touting for business when he notices the strange demonic drawing on the face mask of a resting man and correctly reads it as a message for the Lone Wolf and Cub. The Kuroda clan have despatched five of their best men wearing just such masks in order to test his skills and find out if he’s worthy of their job. Each time he defeats one, he’ll receive 100 ryou (a fifth of his fee) and part of the reasons and explanations he requires in deciding whether to take the job.

This time the assignment is to do with a mislaid yet incriminating letter from the Kuroda lord, Naritaka (Shingo Yamashiro), who has unwisely been deceiving the Shogun as to the identity of his children. Very much in love with his mistress, Naritaka has been passing off their daughter, Hamachiyo (Sumida Kazuyo), as his son Matsumaru. Meanwhile the real Matsumaru, his legitimate heir through his legal wife, has been imprisoned in the compound and kept away from prying eyes. A particularly stupid and pointless ruse, yet the lord has created even more problems for himself by allowing a letter outlining all of this to fall into the hands of a treacherous priest, Jikei (Hideji Otaki), who turns out to be the head of a ninja spy network. Ogami’s job is to kill Jikei and get the letter back but it comes with some additional spice – Jikei plans to hand the letter to Lord Retsudo, Ogami’s arch nemesis.

Ogami’s world is a feudal one where allegiance to one’s lord trumps almost everything. The lords are, however, often dishonest, selfish, and cruel. The hypocrisy of the samurai world is a phenomenon well known to all, and most particularly to Ogami who has found himself at the mercy of the ambitious Yagyu clan. Whatever else he may have become, Ogami is a man of honour to whom the way of samurai maintains a deep spiritual importance. Jikei’s attempt to unsettle Ogami by asking him what he thinks he’s going to achieve on the Demon’s Way and if killing a living Buddha is a fitting use of his talents, further pushes Ogami into a spiritual crisis regarding his quest for vengeance and ongoing career as a sword for hire.

Naritaka has, indeed, broken his code in lying to the Shogun but also in rejecting his position and creating an alternative family of his choosing by favouring the female child of his mistress over his legitimate male heir. In addition to his contract to kill Jikei and retake the letter, Ogami also receives a request to assassinate the lord himself alongside his concubine and even their daughter. This illegitimate line cannot be allowed to continue, the illicit family born of personal choice must be cut off before it begins to corrupt the future of the Kuroda clan. Actively plotting the death of one’s lord is an unthinkable concept, yet a retainer also has a responsibility to guard the honour of their house and so the lord must go, even if the retainer is bound to follow him.

The decision to execute the entire family recalls the series’ origins in which Ogami was seen to act as a second in the “harakiri” of a toddler shortly before seeing his own family fall under the sword of a Yagyu plot. Daigoro is growing older at an unnatural rate but shows a little more willingness to engage in acts of altruistic heroism than his father, such as in an episode where he decides to refuse to identify a local pickpocket even if it means he himself will be flogged in her place. Ogami looks on in inaction, yet there is the faintest flicker of pride in his otherwise impassive face as his fearless son opts to undergo a harsh punishment rather than allow someone else to suffer even as she tries to save him in turn. Daigoro also has an awkward moment of connection with the similarly aged unlucky princess but remains apparently unmoved by her fate at the end of their mission. The legitimate prince may have been liberated and the official line restored, but there has been a heavy price for all concerned and the Kuroda clan is far from saved.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons marks the return, albeit for the last time, of the series’ original director Kenji Misumi who gets rid of the heavily exploitation leaning approach brought by Buichi Saito in the previous film, Baby Cart in Peril. No voiceovers, no musical sequences, and an overall return to quiet contemplation mixed with impressively balletic fight sequences rather than the frenetic action and sudden trickery which defined Baby Cart in Peril send the series back to its spiritual roots after a brief foray into the contemporary jidaigeki. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is also the first in the series which contains no female nudity though it does make room for another skilled female warrior and also repeats the motif of Ogami leaving a melancholy woman behind him as he sets off into the sunset, yet this time it’s a woman who has chosen her own path in keeping with her own code and earned Ogami’s respect, and perhaps sorrow, in the process. Ogami is drawing closer to Retsudo, though his path leads him through a land of demons each more villainous than the last and justice seems like an unrealistic ideal where only men like Ogami stand at the gates of man and beast.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

lone-wolf-and-cub-sword-of-vengeanceWhen it comes to period exploitation films of the 1970s, one name looms large – Kazuo Koike. A prolific mangaka, Koike also moved into writing screenplays for the various adaptations of his manga including the much loved Lady Snowblood and an original series in the form of Hanzo the Razor. Lone Wolf and Cub was one of his earliest successes, published between 1970 and 1976 the series spanned 28 volumes and was quickly turned into a movie franchise following the usual pattern of the time which saw six instalments released from 1972 to 1974. Martial arts specialist Tomisaburo Wakayama starred as the ill fated “Lone Wolf”, Ogami, in each of the theatrical movies as the former shogun executioner fights to clear his name and get revenge on the people who framed him for treason and murdered his wife, all with his adorable little son ensconced in a bamboo cart.

The first instalment in the series, Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kozure Okami: Kowokashi Udekashi Tsukamatsuru), begins with Itto Ogami’s fall from grace when he’s framed by a rival clan, Yagyu, who have their eyes on his family’s historical position as the Shogun’s official “executioner”. In fact, when we first meet Ogami he’s in the middle of an unusual job – he’s to be the “second” in the seppuku of a noble lord, only this noble lord is a toddler whom Ogami must behead (the child will obviously be spared the horror of cutting his own stomach, but not excused the execution). Returning home after completing his grim task with seemingly no reaction at all, Ogami embraces his own young son, not so different in age from the boy whose head he just removed, and talks warmly with his wife who describes to him an ominous nightmare she’s been having in which some of the lords Ogami has been the second for come back for revenge.

Though Ogami decries his wife’s fears as ridiculous, his house is indeed raided, his wife killed and a tablet bearing the Shogun’s crest placed on his memorial altar neatly incriminating him for plotting against his master. Ogami manages to defeat the Yagyu clan members who’ve been sent to arrest him and sets off on a quest for vengeance, wandering the land as a swordsman for hire with his little son, Daigoro, also apparently for rent too.

Despite his cool exterior and lack of outward expression, Ogami is clearly attached to his son both as the head of his clan and as a father. In deciding what to do with the child, he gives Daigoro a simple test in which he positions a sword and a ball on the floor and instructs his infant son to choose one, even knowing that he can’t understand well enough to make anything other than an instinctual choice. Had he chosen the ball, Ogami would have sent him to meet his mother but Daigoro chooses the way of the sword and so the pair are forced onto the “Demon Way”, a path filled with blood and violence as they journey onward to avenge the death of a wife and mother, and restore the good name of their clan unfairly tarnished by a dark plot.

Though his quest is for bloody vengeance, Ogami is not a cruel man as evidenced by the first job the pair receive which is for little Daigoro who finds himself seized by a woman driven mad by grief following the death of her own infant son but seems to calm down a little after being allowed to breastfeed Ogami’s boy. Though the woman’s mother apologises and offers to pay for “borrowing” Daigoro as it says on the large sign attached to his cart, Ogami refuses to take the money seeing as Daigoro needed feeding anyway. Similarly, when the pair find themselves swordless and trapped among vicious bandits, Ogami saves the life of a prostitute who just attempted to stick up for him by giving in to the bandits’ demands and publicly sleeping with her.

This earns him the woman’s eternal admiration, not only for “degrading” himself by sleeping with such a lowly woman as herself and in such a public way, but apparently making quite a success of it for someone supposedly terrified into silence. No one, she says, could be so considerate and bring such satisfaction to a woman in a state of fear. Indeed, Ogami has been playing the long game, pretending to be just another terrified hostage of this tiny hot spring town but when the bandits suddenly declare it’s time to get rid of anyone who’s seen their faces, Ogami leaps into action with a series of cleverly hidden tools secreted about Daigoro’s cart.

That is to say, he’s there on a job, saving the townspeople is more of a happy byproduct than his ultimate intention. On his entrance into the town, Ogami comes across the scene of a local woman failing to escape the bandits’ clutches before being stripped, molested, raped and murdered in front of the father who has come to try and save her and is also murdered for his pains. Ogami, end game in mind, does nothing. The bandits eventually find their comeuppance on the edge of Ogami’s sword, but it’s too late for a poor young woman and her elderly father.

Inhabiting a similar cinematic world to the also Koike scripted Lady Snowblood, Sword of Vengeance is a Leone-esque, western-tinged tale of a mysterious wandering assassin, albeit one pushing a baby cart. Complete with the more expressionist aesthetics of the Japanese ‘70s exploitation film from the colourful ice and fire opening to the exaggerated blood spray in the genre’s characteristically thick, too bright red, Sword of Vengeance is a worthy start to the cycle which casts Ogami downwards from his elite samurai roots and onto the “Demon Way”, bound for hell by way of vengeance, and all with a smiley faced toddler peeking out from a constantly moving cart.


Original trailer (English subtitles)