Too Young to Die (死ぬにはまだ早い, Kiyoshi Nishimura, 1969)

Perhaps more or less forgotten for reasons we’ll come to later, Kiyoshi Nishimura was for a time a successful director associated with Toho’s line of noirish B-movie action dramas. When the Japanese cinema industry entered its decline in the 1970s, Nishimura shifted into similarly themed TV drama and was well respected for his ability to turn in on time and on budget. None of that mattered however when he was engulfed in scandal in 1987 after being caught operating spy cams in the female only area of a public bathhouse bringing his career to an abrupt end. Directing a few more projects under the name Yusai Ito, he sadly took his own life a few years later in 1993 at the age of 61. 

Nishimura’s 1969 debut Too Young to Die (死ぬにはまだ早い, Shinu ni wa Mada Hayai), however, is a masterclass in high tension filmed with shaky handheld set largely in a single location and imbued with a singular irony replete as it is with cosmic coincidences as a collection of customers at a roadside bar are taken hostage by a crazed criminal with a gun intent on finding the lover of the girlfriend he claims to have murdered for her infidelity. The heroes, however, are ennui-filled couple Matsuoka (Koji Takahashi) and Yumiko (Mako Midori) who are in fact not married, or at least not to each other, but carrying on an extra-marital affair which may be on the cusp of fizzling out. A former racing champ who claims he just got bored with the sport one day and now works for a company selling accessories for toy cars, Matsuoka is supposed to drive Yumiko home where she’s expecting a call from her controlling husband, away on a business trip, at 1am. These are all reasons they are unusually nervous about a police checkpoint searching for an armed fugitive, deciding to stop off at a roadside bar for a stiff drink and something to eat. Only, shortly after their arrival a young man (Toshio Kurosawa) in denim enters giving each of the other men intense side eye before shooting a policeman who comes in to make enquiries about the fugitive. 

The unnamed young tough takes the entire bar hostage intent on finding his lover’s lover, overcome with a sense of cosmic irony when Matsuoka calmly points out he may have arrived too early and the man he’s looking for had not yet arrived when he put the place in lockdown. Before the gunman’s arrival, Nishimura introduces us to each of the other customers via the handy device of two teenage girls apparently stranded and asking around for a lift back to the city. A middle-aged doctor (Chuzaburo Wakamiya), apparently a regular, eventually offers to take them but is dissuaded by the barman (Kazuya Oguri) who reminds him he’s been drinking too heavily to take passengers, while a taxi driver (Shigeki Ishida) who seems to be feeling unwell flat out refuses. The other customers are a suspicious looking man in a trenchcoat (Daigo Kusano) sitting in the corner piling matchsticks, and a newlywed couple who we later learn saved up for their wedding for three years, the wife (Nami Tamura) already going through her accounts book irritated by her friends’ decision to graffiti their car and wondering how much it’ll cost to get it cleaned up while the husband (Tatsuyoshi Ehara) disappoints her by wanting to rush home because he’s planning to return to work the next morning ahead of schedule. 

The relationships of the two couples are often directly contrasted, Matsuoka and Yumiko unsure of their connection as adulterous lovers while the newly married couple also seem be under strain even before the traumatic events about to take place. Apparently brokenhearted, the gunman collapses over the jukebox playing a series of melancholy songs about lost love, Matsuoka later darkly musing that perhaps he was only able to kill his lover because he loved her so much. Unlike the other customers, Matsuoka appears entirely unperturbed by their predicament calmly talking to the gunman and even ringing the police to ask them to temporarily stand back so they can evacuate a hostage in need of medical treatment. The gunman sends Matuoka and the newlywed husband to take the injured party out, taking Yumiko hostage as security while she fears Matsuoka does not value her enough to return though both men do in fact come back rather than abandon their respective women. The newlywed husband, however, later fails a test of manhood when the enraged gunman goes off on a misogynistic rant and tries to force the doctor to rape the newlywed wife to prove that all women faithless “whores”, the husband reduced to a gibbering wreck cowering in the corner unable to protect his new wife or challenge the gunman’s authority as Matsuoka later does when he orders Yumiko to remove her clothes in front of the other hostages. 

Though Yumiko had feared the affair was on its way out, ironically describing Matsuoka as not so different from her husband while lamenting that their connection seemed to have dwindled, the traumatic experience seems to reinforce the reality of their love as something more than a casual extra-marital fling even as Matsuoka forgives her for not trusting him because their relationship is not founded on the same idea of “commitment” as the married couple. The question for the other customers is how much the lives of others they’ve only just met really mean to them, the two teenage girls deciding to attempt escape while the gunman takes Yumiko hostage to use the bathroom, the doctor edging round the sides as Matsuoka tries to stop them to protect her while the newlyweds similarly waltz towards the door. All the while the TV crackles with an inane variety show complete with its cheerful advertisements while the police apparently have the place surrounded ironically convincing the gunman he has no way out and therefore nothing to lose. A tense meditation on interpersonal relationships, Too Young to Die is not without its share of ironies in strange number of coincidences and misapprehensions as the siege eventually draws to an unexpected close sending our conflicted lovers back into the night if perhaps a little more alive for their brush with death. 


Samurai Spy (異聞猿飛佐助, Masahiro Shinoda, 1965)

samurai-spyNothing is certain these days, so say the protagonists at the centre of Masahiro Shinoda’s whirlwind of intrigue, Samurai Spy (異聞猿飛佐助, Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke). Set 14 years after the battle of Sekigahara which ushered in a long period of peace under the banner of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Samurai Spy effectively imports its contemporary cold war atmosphere to feudal Japan in which warring states continue to vie for power through the use of covert spy networks run from Edo and Osaka respectively. Sides are switched, friends are betrayed, innocents are murdered. The peace is fragile, but is it worth preserving even at such mounting cost?

Our “hero” Sasuke (Koji Takahashi) is a wandering spy for the Sanada clan, nominally part of the Tokugawa though with no strong allegiance to either side. Everywhere he goes he feels hunted, watched by shadowy forces and unseen motivators. After bumping into Mitsuaki (Mutsuhiro Toura), an old comrade who fought alongside him at the Battle of Sekigahara, Sasuke is pulled into the ongoing intrigue as his friend is murdered and he assumed to be the culprit. Things are further complicated when a mysterious woman to whom he had become attached, Okiwa (Misako Watanabe),  is killed in a similar fashion. A political shift is taking place as a high ranking Tokugawa official, Tatewaki (Eiji Okada), is in the process of defecting to the Toyotomi with white cloaked ninja master Takatani (Tetsuro Tanba) (presumably) working against him. Sasuke is charged with trying to sort all of this out but constantly finds himself on shaky ground as everything around him is constantly changing and the air is filled with conspiracy.

Shinoda aims to disorientate. After beginning with a brief historical narration to set the scene including a bloody excerpt from the horrific Battle of Sekigahara (the historical context presumably much more apparent to a Japanese viewer than an overseas one), he jumps forward 14 years and proceeds to give a rundown of the current situation. Quick fire naming and a lack of external context intentionally make it difficult to pin down who is who and which side is which. The opening sequence takes place in darkness with only moonlight and lanterns to light the way, so our players are always cast in shadows, only half visible and unidentifiable. Nothing is as it seems, the world is murky and the people in shadier still.

Sasuke fought at Sekigahara when he was just 15. His true coming of age has been in an era of peace and he is committed to sustaining that peace at all costs rather than return to the bloody, internecine warfare of the past. This stands in contrast to his double dealing friend, Mitsuaki, whose own coming of age was forged by war and so now finds himself at a loose end as warriors are obsolete in an age without war. Nevertheless, Sasuke feels the peace is threatened – all conversations are eventually about conflict, no one thinks about the meaning of death or what it is to be alive. Men like Mitsuaki have decided to live purely for pleasure, wanting nothing more than women and sake, thinking of nothing beyond satisfying their needs, and rarely consider the moral or political dimension of their actions. Mitsuaki’s unexpected degree of self interest accidentally threatens to completely destabilise the status quo, setting off a series of betrayals and counter betrayals in its wake, but all Mitsuaki was thinking about was a how to get paid twice for doing one job.

Navigating this complex network of allegiances and betrayals, Sasuke comes to discover what it is he really wants out of life and what he needs to do to get it. No longer a neutral observer, he has to pick a side and the one he picks that of the wronged. Coming to the aid of the threatened and oppressed, Sasuke adds himself to the list of enemies of the state yet he sees it as his duty to fight against the forces of darkness for a better, fairer world. Of course, he has his personal reasons for revenge but even these are partly born out of a sense of outrage for the injustice done to people who mattered to him.

Yet for all of the real world intrigue and political allegory Samurai Spy is also imbued with an unsettling sense of the absurd. Sasuke is plagued, yet at times assisted, by the almost supernatural Takatani who, incongruously, dresses in a bright white outfit with the fabric of his hood tied up into horns on the front. Appearing as needed along with his more conventionally dressed ninja minions, Takatani seems to float through the air performing strange acts of ninjadom and acting with no firm course of action. Shinoda shoots the battle scenes from odd angles using slow motion to give them a strange kind of power, even in one instance allowing a severed limb to float to the ground. In a nod to the circularity of violence, he even allows the climactic fight to be interrupted and witnessed by a small boy, shocked by what he has seen. The fact that the situation is laid to rest by a forgotten deus ex machina is yet more evidence for the world’s essential leaning towards constructed narrative.

Filled with the fog of war (literally so in places), Samurai Spy dramatises the uncertainties of its environment through the extreme lack of visual clarity. The audience is as disorientated as Sasuke, continually wrong footed and left at a loss as to the true motivations of each of the major players. The atmosphere is palpably intense, as if sitting on a powder keg ready to explode at any spark of conflict. From this viewpoint, it’s impossible to see who is in the right and who the wrong or even if those two ideas are even appropriate ways of thinking about things. Peace stands on a knife edge and, ironically, only survives if robustly defended. Violence is shown up for all of its essential cruelty and senselessness yet it is the only thing which is certain. Sasuke, at least, seems to have made his own peace in one way or another but the world he leaves behind him is far from ready to do the same.