The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Ballad posterA year after his box office smash The Inugami Family, Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi with The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Akuma no Temari Uta). Like many a Kindaichi mystery, Devil’s Ballad finds him called upon to delve back into the past to satisfy an ageing detective’s anxiety about an old case, only to be faced with a series of new ones as a consequence. This time, however, the mystery leans less on buried secrets than deeply held grudges, betrayals, and lingering feudal feuds as the post-war society tries and fails to free itself from ancient oppressions.

The film opens with a tryst between two adolescent lovers in the ominously named “Devil’s Skull Village” in 1950. Yasu (Yoko Takahashi), the girl, is at pains to let her boyfriend, Kanao (Koji Kita), know that she is keen to take the relationship to the next level but he is old fashioned and wants to wait until their union is formalised. The pair are interrupted by some of their friends who are in the middle of planning a celebration for a visit from a girl who moved to the city, Chie (Akiko Nishina). Meanwhile, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) has arrived at the inn owned by Kanao’s mother Rika (Keiko Kishi) on invitation from a retired policeman, Isokawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who wants Kindaichi to look into the murder of Rika’s husband twenty years ago. Isokawa, then a young rookie, is convinced that Rika’s husband was not the victim but the murderer and the corpse actually belonged to another man entirely – Onda, a drifter who defrauded half the village with a wreath making scam.

Rika and her children – 20-year-old Kanao and his younger sister Satoko (Eiko Nagashima) who has prominent facial birthmarks and rarely leaves the house, came to the village with her husband and are therefore slightly divorced from the longstanding social rivalries. The village has two noble families – the Yuras and the Nires. Feeling the need to modernise, the Nires bet everything on vineyards and it paid off. The Yuras, by contrast, were defrauded by Onda’s wreath scam and lost their fortune and social standing. Yasu, Kanao’s girlfriend, is a daughter of the Yuras, but the Nire’s have been petitioning Rika for quite some time to have her son marry their daughter, Fumiko (Yukiko Nagano), who also has a crush on him (though this is largely irrelevant to her father’s dynastic ambitions). When the younger generation start getting bumped off in ways eerily similar to a local folk song, Kindaichi and Isokawa are on the case, wondering if these new murders have anything to do with their old one.

Despite its 1950 setting, Devil’s Ballad is unusual in resolutely making an irrelevance of the war which only receives a brief mention as an explanation for why some of the case files have been destroyed and for why marriage is such a hot button issue given the lack of men and abundance of women. Nevertheless, the crimes span a turbulent 20 years of Japanese history with the original murder taking place in the early ‘30s during a period of economic instability following the Manchurian Incident. In the socially conservative pre-war era, it seems Onda also got around and may have fathered several illegitimate children with women in the village, some of them noble, some not. These buried secrets seem primed to bubble to the surface now that the children are coming of age and marriage again becomes an issue as worried parents try to think of acceptable ways to block potentially “inappropriate” matches without sending their children off into ruinous elopements or tipping off the wrong people that their kids may not be their kids.

The crimes themselves, old fashioned as they are, are partly reactions to a changing society. We discover that the reason Rika and her husband were forced to come back to the village was that their showbiz careers were stalling – she was a vaudeville performer specialising in shamisen, and he a “benshi” (narrator of silent films) who became convinced his job was obsolete after witnessing a subtitled print of Morocco. Likewise, the two rival families cannot let go of their petty provincial privileges, and as Kanao angrily snaps back at his mother, Japan is now a democratic country and he is free to choose his own wife at a time of his own choosing with or without parental blessing. This remote village is perhaps isolated from the privations of the post-war world but it’s also stuck in the past, hung up on past transgressions and unable to move forward into the new era. However, the primary motivations for murder are as old as time – guilt, humiliation, and self preservation.

Ichikawa keeps things simple but splices in a few strange, avant-garde sequences of kokeshi dolls menacingly bouncing balls coupled with shifts to black and white, fast-paced reaction shots, and stuttering still frame sequences all while Kindaichi showers innocent passersby with his famous dandruff, the idiot police officer continues to offer ridiculous theories while his sergeant dutifully follows him around, and the local bobby perfects a line in hilarious pratfalls. Overlong at two and a half hours and falling prey to the curse of the prestige crime drama in spoiling its mystery through casting, the Devil’s Ballad may not be the best of the Kindaichi mysteries but offers enough of a satisfying twist to prove worthy of the Kindaichi name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ryuji (竜二, Toru Kawashima, 1983)

ryujiWhen you learn someone has died, suddenly everything they have ever done becomes tragic. No matter how old they were, this fact remains. Ryuji is a film which is always going to be overshadowed by the fact that its leading actor and screenwriter sadly passed away at the extremely young age of 33 from a terminal illness only days after the film’s release.  Well, in actuality, the film was only “released” in a very limited sense, perhaps no one really had the heart to go on with it. However, it left its mark on all who saw it and eventually became a cult hit and influential classic on VHS. On paper, its tale is conventional – an existential yakuza drama about a man torn between conflicting desires and his own nature but on film, it’s something else.

In fact, the film takes its time about setting its scene as Ryuji goes about his regular yakuza business of beatings and whoring but eventually things come to a crisis as he becomes a father and winds up in prison. His dutiful wife pulls some strings to get him out. However, when released, she explains that she only got the money from her father for a divorce as he wasn’t going to bail out a yakuza. After kicking up a fuss (literally) Ryuji realises his wife is just too good for a yakuza’s moll, so he sends her and their daughter back to his father-in-law. The fact is, Ryuji misses them. He’s tired. Of the life, of the violence, of the threat. He’s ready to try something more ordinary if it means he can go back to his wife and his child. Living honestly is hard too, though. Physically exhausting, and much less financially comfortable. Things are going well, for a time, before a familiar face from the past appears and the ghost of the old Ryuji begins to rise up again.

In many ways, Ryuji is caught in a confused cycle of frustration. He’s a violent man, a yakuza, but one who’s becoming bored with the constant threat and violence inherent in his world. He misses his wife and daughter but he doesn’t know of a path that leads back to them. Eventually he starts walking, unsure of where he’s headed and once he’s home he feels at peace, at last. However, such peace is not meant to last, the past will not let you rest. Old friends turn up one after the other, your decision to help them or not will carry more weight than you first realise. After these cracks appear, the old Ryuji, filled with rage and violence, bubbles to the surface. In the end, you can’t evade your nature, you’re either one thing or something else and however much you long to be the other thing, it can’t be done.

Shoji Kaneko was a talented stage actor who was looking for a cinematic epitaph. He wrote the script, played the leading role and brought the production together. He temporarily joined a real gang to learn just what it’s like to be a yakuza and brought some of his existential despair to his on screen persona. Ryuji is a hard man and a bruiser yet often tender with his wife and cute little girl (played by Kaneko’s real life daughter in another moment of filmic symmetry). He has to decide which side of himself is the one he values most and the film’s final scene is one of the most heartbreakingly moving in all of cinema. The sound disappears entirely, sentiment is conveyed by look alone and a man makes an irrevocable decision that is instantly understood even the absence of words.

If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. There is actually very little death in Ryuji considering it’s a yakuza picture (if an unconventional one) but the spectre of endings is hovering all around. Knowing what it’s impossible not to know, it’s hard not to read that ever present threat of eclipse into every scene. Ryuji’s decision is a permanent one, taken once it defines everything. Kaneko was also a father with a young daughter facing the end of his life, also weak but tender. Graceful yet robust, Ryuji’s story is one of a man who couldn’t reconcile the two sides of himself into something whole and so sacrificed the things he wanted most. Beautifully made and perfectly realised, Ryuji is a film that should have been more widely appreciated and now, perhaps, will finally be accorded the respect it deserves.