Tokyo Knights (東京騎士隊, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Tokyo Knights posterUnlike those from elsewhere, Japanese teen movies can often exist inside their very own bubbles in which the central characters refuse their coming of age stories and either die senselessly or simply carry on from their zany adventures as if nothing had really happened. Tokyo Knights (東京騎士隊, Tokyo Knight) definitely falls into the comedy category as its teen heartthrob hero, played by the then up and coming matinee idol Koji Wada, pulls a Hamlet in being called back from overseas studies to become CEO in waiting to his late father’s company only to suspect there’s something rotten in the state of Matsubara Construction. Quirky high school antics quickly give way to conspiracy thriller, but Koji (Koji Wada) remains steadfast and unwavering in the face of adversity as he faces off against the forces of darkness with little more than Nikkatsu spirit.

The film opens with a rather strange ceremony in which high school student Koji is instated as the new CEO of his father’s company. Koji’s dad apparently died suddenly in a freak accident meaning Koji has had to come home early from studying abroad in the US. Despite apparently being an amazing student who is good at absolutely everything and has joined all the after school clubs on offer, Koji has chosen the Catholic Elizabeth Academy because it’s well known as a coasting school where you can graduate with average grades. Fairly low attainment goals might be just as well because Koji is about to have his hands full with another mission. He’s convinced his dad’s death wasn’t an “accident” and he suspects his deputy, Mishima (Nobuo Kaneko), who is also getting close to his mum, might know more about it than he’s letting on.

In the grand tradition of heroes in Japanese teen drama, Koji has just found himself at the centre of a huge and dark conspiracy involving dodgy yakuza construction deals, blackmail, and murder. He does not lose heart or look to the grown ups for help but decides to handle the problem himself, settling back into the Hamlet-esque role he’s been assigned in neatly setting traps for the treacherous Mishima only doing it with a little more cosmopolitan flair carried back from abroad. Swapping roles like one of his much loved Noh costumes, he then becomes a kind of Romeo to the high school darling Yuriko (Mayumi Shimizu) whose dad, unbeknownst to her, turns out to be a horrible gangster who might be involved in the nefarious plan to take over the family firm. Enjoying a minor romance with the melancholy Yuriko, Koji considers the best way to get revenge and expose evil while protecting his mother, surrogate little sister figure, and his newfound love (?) Yuriko who will undoubtedly suffer now that she knows what kind of man her father really is.

Suzuki apparently incited the wrath of studio bosses when he took a serious crime script and turned it into an anarchic teen comedy but then you have to wonder what they thought it was he would do with it. The impossibly cool Koji is certainly an unrealistic hero, presented unironically he’d be sure to irritate – guys like Koji are, after all, more usually the antagonist set up to make our imperfect everyman feel inferior while he progresses towards some kind of self actualisation as a result of the standard narrative. Koji is, however, heroic and easily likeable as he assumes complete control, handling every situation with practiced ease and remembering to remain kind and just while he does so. He even stops to listen to his mother’s problems, sympathising with her when she reveals her unhappiness with his father, and urging her to grasp happiness wherever she sees it without worrying whatever he or anyone else might think.

Perhaps because of the relative simplicity of the plot, and the opportunity to shoot in colour, Suzuki flexes his muscles a little more than usual in adding in a fair few post-modern techniques including on screen graphics such as a series of large question marks zooming out of the major players Koji suspects may be involved in his father’s death and making a joke out of the need to include the songs of the day with frequent cuts to a teen cabaret club. For all of the tale’s darkness and almost Shakespearean overtones, Suzuki keeps his tongue firmly in cheek with a cartoonish sense of fun and lightness, allowing our heroes to emerge from their ordeal fairly unscathed while honour and justice are preserved. Who knew Catholic school could be so much fun?


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (峠を渡る若い風, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass posterSeijun Suzuki made his first colour film in 1960 – Fighting Delinquents starred young matinee idol Koji Wada as a noble hearted construction worker with a temper who suddenly learns that he is the heir to an aristocratic fortune. Suzuki would make another two youth dramas starring Wada before getting to 1961’s The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (峠を渡る若い風, Toge wo Wataru Wakai Kaze, AKA Breeze on the Ridge) – this slice of colourful anarchy is a world away from Nikkatsu’s usual action fare though it does make space for the odd pop song or two.

Naive and cheerful university student Shintaro (Koji Wada) loves to travel and has taken off to wander around alone during the summer break. Getting thrown off a regular city bus for not having the cash for a ticket (his request to defer payment is not looked on kindly), Shintaro catches a lift with a group of travelling performers heading into the summer festival in the next town. Once there Shintaro showcases his lack of forethought once again when he happily sets down to start selling some of the “merchandise” he was given as a salary when the last place he worked at went bust. Not having realised that one generally needs a permit to sell goods in a market, Shintaro gets into an argument about the evils of monopolies and freedom verses regulation with the guy on the next stand all of which brings him to the attention of the yakuza. Luckily for Shintaro, he’s run into the nice kind of yakuza who just think he’s funny and invite him to travel on with them for a bit. Being so essentially good hearted and innocent, Shintaro agrees without thinking about all the reasons travelling around with a bunch of shady yakuza might not be a good idea.

Connecting with both the yakuza and the travelling players, Shintaro becomes involved in a number of interconnected crises – the biggest being the fate of the performers when a local gangster type swipes their headline act. The head of the troupe, Kinyo Imai (Shin Morikawa), is a traditional magician who performs in exaggerated Chinese dress complete with Fu Manchu moustache, but it doesn’t really matter how good he is, the rural audience is only here for the strip show. No stripper means no bookings which Kinyo knew already but it’s still a huge blow to his self esteem to realise that his magic doesn’t do the business anymore, especially as he’d always been conflicted about the strippers anyway.

Shintaro is one of Nikkatsu’s wandering heroes but unlike most he’s a cheerful soul who wanders out of a sense of curiosity and adventure rather than a need to escape something or someone at home. He likes meeting new people, even if the relationships are transitory and necessarily shallow, and treats everyone he meets with kindness and an open mind. In return he meets only kind and open people – even the yakuza are a generally decent sort who treat him like a new friend and can be relied upon to come to his aid if called. The only note of sourness arrives in the form of shady gangster Akita (Hiroshi Kondo) who pinches the troupe’s stripper, and their sometime patron who makes an indecent proposal to Kinyo as a kind of bet to decide whether he continues to fund their moribund performing career.

This being a regular program picture there’s not a lot of scope for experimentation but as it’s also a slightly odd entry to the Nikkatsu catalogue Suzuki does have the freedom to spice things up in his own particular way. Making the best use of colour film, Suzuki has a ball capturing Japan’s unique summer festival culture with its giant floats and cheerful market atmosphere. Wandering around the festival in a lengthy POV shot manages to exoticise something which would be quite ordinary to many viewers (at least those not born in large cities) but Suzuki’s other innovations are mostly relegated to one extremely interesting sequence in which Shintaro has a paint fight with yakuza he’s fallen out with (don’t worry, they both end up laughing like school boys). Every time Shintaro gets hit with paint, the entire screen tints to match neatly intensifying the effect and marking an early example of Suzuki’s love of colour play. Warm and goodnatured, The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass is a gentle tale of youth finding its path but also one in which Suzuki takes advantage of the travelling motif to break from the regular programming and present an anarchic carnivale of music and song.


The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass is the second of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Junya Sato, 1977)

proof of the man posterOne could argue that Japanese cinema had been an intensely Japanese affair throughout the golden age even as the old school student system experienced its slow decline. During the ‘70s, something appears to shift – the canvases widen and mainstream blockbusters looking for a little something extra quite frequently ventured abroad to find it. Pioneering producer Haruki Kadokawa was particularly forward looking in this regard and made several attempts to crack the American market in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before settling on creating his own mini industry to place a stranglehold around Japanese pop culture. Sadly, his efforts mostly failed and faced the same sorry fate of being entirely recut and dubbed into English with new Amero-centric scenes inserted into the narrative. Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Ningen no Shomei) is one of Kadokawa’s earliest attempts at a Japanese/American co-production and, under the steady hands of Junya Sato, is a mostly successful one even if it did not succeed in terms of overseas impact.

Based on the hugely popular novel by Seiichi Morimura, Proof of the Man stars the then up and coming Yusaku Matsuda as an ace detective, Munesue, investigating the death by stabbing of a young American man in Japan. The body was discovered in a hotel lift on the same night as a high profile fashion event took place with top designer Kyoko Yasugi (Mariko Okada) in attendance. After the show, an adulterous couple give evidence to the police about finding the body, but the woman, Naomi (Bunjaku Han), insists on getting out of the taxi that’s taking them home a little early in case they’re seen together. On a night pouring with rain, she’s knocked down and killed by a young boy racer and his girlfriend who decide to dispose of the body to cover up the crime rather than face the consequences. Kyohei (Koichi Iwaki), the driver of the car, is none other than the son of the fashion designer at whose show the central murder has taken place.

Like many Japanese mysteries of the time, Proof of the Man touches on hot-button issues of the immediate post-war period from the mixed race children fathered by American GIs and their precarious position in Japanese society, to the brutality of occupation forces, and the desperation and cruelty which dominated lives in an era of chaos and confusion. The only clues the police have are that the victim, Johnny Hayward (Joe Yamanaka), said something which sounded like “straw hat” just before he died, and that he was carrying a book of poetry by Yaso Saiji published in 1947. Discovering that Hayward was a working-class man of African-American heritage from Harlem whose father took a significant risk in getting the money together for his son to go to Japan (hardly a headline holiday destination in 1977), the police are even more baffled and enlist the assistance of some regular New York cops to help them figure out just why he might have made such an unlikely journey.

The New York cops have their own wartime histories to battle and are not completely sympathetic towards the idea of helping the Japanese police. Munesue, of a younger generation, is also harbouring a degree of prejudice and resentment against Americans which stems back to a traumatic incident in a market square in which he witnessed the attempted gang rape of a young woman by a rabid group of GIs. Munesue’s father tried to intervene (the only person to do so) but was brutally beaten himself, passing away a short time later leaving Munesue an orphaned street kid. In an effort to appeal to US audiences, Proof of the Man was eventually recut with additional action scenes and greater emphasis placed on the stateside story. Doubtless, the ongoing scenes of brutality instigated by the American troops would not be particularly palatable to American audiences but they are central to the essential revelations which ultimately call for a kind of healing between the two nations as they each consider the ugliness of the immediate post-war era the burying of which is the true reason behind the original murder and a secondary cause of the events which led to the death of Naomi.

Naomi’s death speaks more towards a kind of growing ugliness in Japan’s ongoing economic recovery and rising international profile. Kyohei is the son not only of high profile fashion designer Kyoko, but can also count a high profile politician (Toshiro Mifune) as his father. Spoiled and useless, Kyohei is the very worst in entitled, privileged youth driving around in flashy cars and going to parties, living frivolously on inherited wealth whilst condemning the source of his funds as morally corrupt citing his mother’s acquiescence to his father’s frequent affairs. Yet aside from anything else, Kyohei is completely ill-equipped for independent living and is essentially still a child who cannot get by without the physical and moral support of his adoring mother. 

Johnny Hayward, by contrast, retains a kind of innocent purity and is apparently in Japan in the hope of restoring a long severed connection as echoed in Saiji’s poem about a straw hat lost by a small boy on a beautiful summer’s day. The words of the poem are later repeated in the title song by musician Joe Yamanaka who plays Johnny in the film and is of mixed race himself. As in most Japanese mystery stories, the root of all evil is a secret – in this case those of the immediate post-war period and things people did to survive it which they now regret and fear the “shame” of should they ever be revealed. Some of these secrets are not surmountable and cannot be forgiven or overcome, some atonements (poetic or otherwise) are necessary but the tone which Sato seems to strike encourages a kind of peacemaking, a laying to rest of the past which is only born of acceptance and openness. Despite the bleakness of its premiss on both sides of the ocean, Proof of the Man does manage to find a degree of hopefulness for the future in assuming this task of mutual forgiveness and understanding can be accomplished without further bloodshed.


Original trailer (no subtitles) – includes major plot spoilers!

Outlaw: Kill! (無頼 殺せ, Keiichi Ozawa, 1969)

outlaw killGoro, Goro, Goro – will you never learn? Maybe he will because this is the last film in the series! Appropriately titled Outlaw: Kill! (無頼 殺せ, Burai Barase), this sixth and final film in the Outlaw series sees Goro once again moving to a new town and trying to lead a more honest life but unfortunately he’s wandered in at just the wrong time because a local gang boss has just been sent to prison after defeating a group of assassins leaving a dangerous vacuum and leading, therefore, to the outbreak of a turf war.

Goro’s first fight is with a gang of thugs who were hassling an elevator girl in a department store – the girl being Yumiko, played by Chieko Matsubara, becoming Goro’s love interest once again. Luckily or unluckily, Goro runs into an old friend from his prison days who is also one of the gang bosses involved in the turf war. After his friend promises him that he will incur no debt from him and he won’t get in the way of Goro finding a proper job, Goro agrees to move in with him and his wife – who only turns out to be the sister of elevator girl Yumiko which is not even the most predictable coincidence in this whole saga.

Despite his protestations about not getting involved in local gang politics, Goro’s attachment to his friend and his growing family means he can’t altogether avoid getting pulled back into the messy gangster world of violence and betrayal. Things end up going just about as well as they ever do and Goro is only able to clean up some of the chaos in this disputed area by creating even more counter chaos.

The format is becoming tired by the time we reach Outlaw: Kill! and it’s true that the film revisits exactly the same narrative beats as all of the other films, though it does so in a fairly exciting fashion. That said, there’s much less nuance here – we get that Goro sees himself as a lonely drifter who doesn’t deserve happiness, a self hating yakuza who is engaged on a long and hopeless walk to the grave. Perhaps it’s just because everyone’s getting older, but now it’s less about never having had a home or a proper place to belong than it is about the (im)possibility of building your own family. Goro’s friend, Moriyama, is married and going to be a father which Goro thinks is a nice thing, broadly, but also worries about what is means for a yakuza who may be killed at any second to have a wife and a child dependent upon him. Goro, being the noble sort of fellow he is, has decided that romance is irresponsible if you’ve already pledged your heart to the outlaw’s creed.

Once again directed by Keiichi Ozawa, Kill! sticks to the formula of his other offerings in the Outlaw series but opens with stylish series of colour filter stills rather than the action filled title sequences of the previous films. The fight scenes are exciting and actually quite bloody but perhaps not as innovative as some of those seen earlier in the series. In an interesting mix of old and new, Ozawa stages his final fight in a club but this time it’s a very contemporary night spot filled with guys and girls dressed in stylish, colourful outfits whilst a hippyish rock band play a cover of a famous pre-war ballad. Swooping around, notably shooting one sequence through a transparent floor/ceiling, Ozawa seems to be pushing forward more, breaking with the traditional ‘50s aesthetic for a new and crazy, youth counter-culture inspired moment which looks forward to the Stray Cat Rock series much more than back to the now ancient ninkyo eiga or sun tribe films.

Maybe Goro’s had his day too as Kill! ends in pretty much the same way as all but one of the previous films with Goro staggering away from the destruction he has wrought into a barren and snow filled landscape. Doomed to be a wanderer forevermore, Goro is a relic of the cruel post-war world which never gave him a break but his story’s now old hat. A man without a home is left forever alone, marching onward to the next confrontation or the final relief of a lonely grave.


Outlaw: Kill! is the six and final ( 😦 ) film included in Arrow Films’ Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection box set (which is region free on DVD and blu-ray and available from both US and UK).

English subtitled original theatrical trailer:

Outlaw: Heartless (大幹部 無頼非情, Mio Ezaki, 1968)

heartlessThings take a slight detour in the third of the Outlaw series this time titled “Heartless” (大幹部 無頼非情, Daikanbu Burai Hijo). Rather than picking up where we left Goro – collapsed on a high school volleyball court, it’s now 1956 and we’re with a guy called “Goro the Assassin” but it’s not exactly clear is this is a side story or perhaps an entirely different continuity for the story of the noble hearted gangster we’ve been following so far. The only constant is actor Tetsuya Watari who once again plays Goro Fujikawa but in an even more confusing touch the supporting characters are played by many of the actors who featured in the first two films but are actually playing entirely different people….

So, it’s 1956 and this time Goro is out on a job to take out a rival gangster only he has a change of heart when the man’s wife pleads with him. Goro tells the pair to leave through the back door but one of the other gangsters turns up before they can escape and takes care of the husband whilst casting a watchful eye on the now treacherous Goro. Right before his lights go out, the murdered man tells Goro that he’s been framed as part of the boss’ gambling scam and tasks Goro with taking his sickly wife to Nagoya for medical treatment. After cleaning out the bad guys at the gambling den, Goro takes off with wife in tow and even runs into an old friend along the way but as usual nothing’s quite a simple as it seems.

If the problem with Gangster VIP 2 was staying too close to the formula established in the previous film, then Heartless perhaps attempts to overcorrect this flaw by doing something completely different. It’s really not clear how this film links in with the other two and the presence of most of the same actors playing entirely different characters is more than a little confusing to say the least, though it is a problem which occurs quite frequently with these kinds of films and is largely due to the way they were produced at studio level.

Once again the roots of restless gangsters lie post-war turmoil as the fellow ex-mobster Goro runs into is another childhood friend from the streets – Goro actually saved his life when he became dangerously ill by sneaking onto a US military base to “acquire” some penicillin (quite a canny move for a young boy, it has to be said). There’s less harking back to the theme of homes and hometowns than in the first two movies – yakuza wives take on a bigger role instead, becoming the symbol of a more normal life that is somewhat denied to both gangsters (ex or otherwise) and also burdening their husbands with the need to ensure their safety.

As in the first two films, Goro is referred to as being “different” from the regular yakuza. His potential love interest (again played by Chieko Matsubara but not as Yukiko from the other two movies) argues with her father who was also a yakuza but gave up the gangster life for love of her mother – he warns her off men of Goro’s ilk as they rarely do anything from the kindness of their hearts, but she remonstrates with him that Goro isn’t that kind of gangster. This time he’s also carrying around a bracelet that belonged to an old flamed called “Natsuko” that we haven’t heard of before but gives his pleas not to take a man like him to heart a little more weight.

Heartless is the only film in the series to be directed by Mio Ezaki (the first being directed by Toshio Masuda and the others by Keiichi Ozawa) and has little of the visual style of the first two movies though the title sequence of Goro single handedly raiding the gambling den proves a stylish early highlight. In keeping with the other two films we still have a large scale fight sequence nearing the finale which is played against the song of a cabaret singer and there’s even a little strange slapstick as the final fight ends up in some kind of decorators’ warehouse with everyone sliding around and getting covered in paint. After taking care business Goro tries to exile himself again, staggering off in an uncertain direction whilst the song playing extols the lonely fate of a “wandering man” which is perhaps the only heart he carries – the ruined heart of a “heartless” man with no roots or anchor to tie him home, a wanderer with no clansmen and no hope of salvation.


Outlaw: Heartless is the third of six films included in Arrow films’ Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection box set (which is region free on DVD and blu-ray and available from both US and UK).

English subtitled original trailer:

Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

nikutai_no_mon_2_film-1600x900-c-defaultWhat are you supposed to do when you’ve lost a war? Your former enemies all around you, refusing to help no matter what they say and there are only black-marketers and gangsters where there used to be merchants and craftsmen. Everyone is looking out for themselves, everyone is in the gutter. How are you supposed to build anything out of this chaos? Perhaps you aren’t, but you have to go one living, somehow. The picture of the immediate post-war world which Suzuki paints in Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Nikutai no Mon) is fairly hellish – crowded, smelly marketplaces thronging with desperate people. Based on a novel by Taijiro Tamura (who also provided the source material for Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute), Gate of Flesh has its lens firmly pointed at the bottom of the heap and resolutely refuses to avert its gaze.

A nervous young woman, clearly tired, starving and alone wanders through a marketplace in desperation before a yakuza offers to buy her something to eat. She is wary but has little choice. Soon after she meets toughened prostitute Sen who is the de-facto head of a small group of streetwalkers committed to supporting and protecting each other. They have few rules but the biggest one is no giving it away for free. Maya joins their “merry” band and things are going OK for them until they make the fateful decision to take in a wounded ex-soldier on the run from the American military police. Shin puts a great big wedge between the members of the group, deepening the cracks which were present all along. Sure enough, Maya starts to fall for this damaged man threatening to fall foul of the gang’s single taboo. When you’ve lived like this, without hope, without a future, can you ever go back to being a “real human being” ever again?

Make no mistake, this is a ruined world. Almost post-apocalyptic, it’s populated by the starving and the desperate. The sweet potato seller is king here – the working girls are depicted like packs of rabid animals, descending on any passing male ready to extract any amount of loose change which they immediately run out to thrust into the hands of anyone who has food. The great horror is hunger.

The other great horror is, of course, violence and particularly male violence against women. Maya is assaulted early on and a truck carrying two army officers and a priest tries to make a quick escape after noticing her lying wounded by the roadside. The Americans aren’t going to help her, she’s just another raped Japanese woman after all, but the priest stops and offers another kind of salvation shining from his dangling crucifix. He repeatedly turns up later and tries to convince Maya to come back to church but you can’t live on a communion wafer alone and eventually Maya puts a definite end to the idea of any kind of religious solution to her predicament.

Sex is business for the woman under Sen’s command. They sell their bodies, hence the prohibition on giving them away. Breaking the rules will get you cruelly beaten and humiliated before being thrown out of the group and it’s near impossible to survive alone. The other women have all been injured by the war, they’re all among those left behind. One of them, Machiko, stands a little to the side as a middle class war widow rigidly sticking to her kimono and dreaming of becoming someone’s wife again. Needless to say, she and Sen do not always see eye to eye as Machiko’s desire to return to a more innocent age conflicts with Sen’s hard nosed pragmatism.

This is Japan in defeat. The girls live in a warren of ruined buildings haunted by visions of the past. Shin has returned from the war to a land devoid of hope. He’s a broken man and, as the woman have been “reduced” to prostitution, he has been “forced” into crime. There aren’t any real people here anymore, just animals willing to do whatever it takes just to stay alive.

When Suzuki was given this assignment, they wanted him to make a soft-core exploitation pic full of the sleazy lives of the red light district. Suzuki doesn’t give them that, he gives them another round of beautifully composed, surrealist social commentary in which the downtrodden citizens of Japan are defeated for a second time by the corrupting influences of the American occupation. The final shot of the ascendant Stars and Stripes flapping in the wind while the Japanese flag lies drowned in the muddy river speaks for itself and though Suzuki shows us those defiantly trying to live his prognosis for them is not particularly hopeful. He uses multiple exposure here more than in any other film as the past continues to haunt the traumatised populace in quite a literal way where one scene of degradation leads on to another. Extended metaphor, surrealist examination of the post-war world and also the low level exploitation feature Suzuki was hired to direct (albeit in more ways than one) Gate of Flesh proves one of his most complicated and accomplished features even given his long and varied career.


Gate of Flesh is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from The Criterion Collection.