The Hunter’s Diary (猟人日記, Ko Nakahira, 1964)

Ko Nakahira is most closely associated with the seminal Nikkatsu Sun Tribe film Crazed Fruit which sent Yujiro Ishihara to stardom though he began his career at Shochiku in 1948 alongside Seijun Suzuki who like Nakahira would transfer to the newly re-established Nikkatsu when it resumed production in 1954. Suzuki was rather famously let go in 1968 due to creative differences with Nakahira also leaving the studio that year in similar circumstances having decamped to Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong in 1967 where he remade some of his previous hits including 1964’s Hunter’s Diary (猟人日記, Ryojin Nikki). 

Based on a mystery novel by Masako Togawa who in fact stars in her only film role as the hero’s little seen wife, Hunter’s Diary is one of a string of films in the mid-1960s critical of the functioning of the legal system in the post-war society. Nakahira opens with a lengthy sequence introducing new forensic technologies which anticipate the use of DNA as an investigative tool in the use of blood type analysis to place a suspect at a crime scene. This science will however be undercut by the sympathetic lawyer Hatanaka (Kazuo Kitamura) who reminds us that the presence of such evidence is not proof in and of itself in much the same way that DNA has since become the new smoking gun and is as susceptible to misuse as any other kind of forensic technique. 

It’s a problem for the hero, Honda (Noboru Nakaya), because his blood type is incredibly rare. In fact he was once in the paper for saving a baby by coming to the rescue with a donation just in time which as we later discover is ironic because much of his behaviour is shaped by the loss of his own child who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta and did not survive. The traumatic circumstances of the birth left his wife, Taneko, with a fear of pregnancy that eventually destroyed their marriage. The couple now live largely apart, she in her family’s country mansion painting disturbing pictures and he in the city “hunting” women for one night stands adopting the persona of a man who is foreign or part-Japanese. There is something of the fear of foreignness seen in other similarly themed films of the era in the fact that Honda’s child is born in Mexico while the couple had met and married in the US, Taneko convinced that had they returned to Japan earlier her baby may have survived while Honda claims that “intellectual” women are drawn to foreign men as he assumes his rather creepy “Monsieur Soubra” alter-ego complete with a funny accent and slightly broken Japanese. 

He positions his “hunting” as a way of dealing with the collapse of his marriage and his guilt over the death of his child overcoming his sense of impotence through transgressive sexuality though many of the women Hatanaka later interviews describe him as disappointingly vanilla and as we discover his games might have begun long before. Meanwhile the women are themselves judged for their sexuality, the discovery of a male muscle magazine in the home of a mousy spinster somewhat amusing to Honda while the unintended darkness of his sport is brought home by the film’s opening sequence in which a 19-year-old woman who became pregnant after he seduced and abandoned her takes her own life in shame and desperation only to be branded an “idiot” by her grieving sister for having slept with a man she had only just met. When a previous conquest of his is murdered in her apartment, Honda is momentarily worried but assumes it’s a grim coincidence. When her death is followed by that of a woman who could have provided him with an alibi he comes to the conclusion that someone is trying to frame him. 

Hatanaka’s conviction is that “the law is everything in court” and that Honda should not be judged on his moral character for his sleazy philandering only on the basis of the evidence presented which he believes may have been deliberately planted to incriminate him. His investigations take him to unlikely places discovering the potentially unethical practices of blood donation programs along with the illegal sale of blood and other bodily fluids such as semen while seeing the tables turned on visiting a gay bar where a male sex worker reports a weird encounter with a suspicious client, and salesman continues to frequent a Turkish bath hoping to run into a woman who seduced him but may only have been interested in his blood type. Honda soon forgets the name of the woman who took her own life, but is haunted by the visions of the women he has harmed while simultaneously rejecting the labels placed on him as a pervert or a predator and believing that his child’s death is punishment for his “abnormal sexuality” as some may brand it. 

This sense of guilt is also reflected in his worry that he is a “spreader of death”, as if though he did not kill them directly he were the carrier of a disease or else some kind of grim reaper beckoning these women towards their demise though he evidently thinks little of them outside of their status as trophies and does not stop to consider the consequences of his actions on others. Above his bed in his city hideout (officially he lives in a hotel) there is a picture of a fox hunt making plain that his satisfaction lies in the chase rather than its conclusion yet otherwise his motives are rather banal. He cannot leave his wife because he married into her prominent family and his social standing depends on his connection to them, likewise he decides against alerting the police or the building’s caretaker on discovering one of the women’s bodies because his reputation would be ruined if were to become involved in a murder and his secret life exposed. Ironically his salvation comes precisely because of this social standing when his wealthy father-in-law hires Hatanaka to handle his appeal and save him from the death penalty. 

Hatanaka had resigned from a previous position in opposition to the system, disappointed on meeting the lawyer who defended Honda at trial and realising they did not attempt to mount a defence nor investigate his case simply try to mitigate it in the hope of working it down to a custodial sentence. He instructs his naive young assistant who wonders if Honda is the sort of man they should be saving that she should approach every case on its merits as if the defendant is innocent without bringing in external moral judgements on his character. As he tells him, Honda may be legally vindicated but his moral judgement would depend on how he lives his life from then on later offering him a kind of absolution in telling him that one of his conquests, who does not want to be identified, gave birth to a son who is healthy and happy signalling that his is not an original sin and he does not bear that kind of responsibility for the death of his child. Veering towards the avant-garde Nakahira makes frequent use of superimposition and dissolves to reflect Honda’s fracturing mental state along with the persistence of his guilt while shifting into the purely documentarian in his lengthy explanation of forensic techniques and the science behind blood types but always returns to the Hitchcockian interplay of sex, death, and remorse which is true source of Honda’s trial. 


DVD remaster trailer (no subtitles)

The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1956)

Crime does not pay for a series of conspirators at the centre of Nobuo Nakagawa’s supernaturally-inflected historical tale, The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Kaii Utsunomiya Tsuritenjo). As the title implies, Nakagawa’s ominous jidaigeki is inspired by a historical legend in which a retainer supposedly attempted to assassinate the shogun through the rather elaborate device of a mechanical ceiling designed to crush him as he slept. In actuality no such thing took place, the shogun changed his route and subsequent investigations of Utsunomiya Castle found no sign of a false ceiling, yet the story took on a life of its own as local folklore. 

In this version of the tale, conspirators Councillor Kawamura (Ureo Egawa) and local yakuza Kagiya (Masao Mishima) are conspiring to depose Tokugawa Iemitsu (Yoichi Numata) in favour of his brother, manipulating Lord Honda (Shuntaro Emi) of Utsunomiya Castle by convincing him that his clan will prosper when the other retainers fall in behind the new shogun. The pair have arranged for nine talented craftsmen to be shut up in the castle to install “the mechanism” in time for the arrival of the shogun who is due to stay at the castle on his way to Nikko. Meanwhile, Kawamura is also intent on sleeping with the daughter of head carpenter Toemon (Yoji Misaki), Ofuji (Konomi Fuji), whom chief minion Tenzen (Tetsuro Tamba) is supposed to kidnap once the workmen have gone into isolation in the castle. Righteous samurai Ryutaro (Hiroshi Ogasawara) however, an undercover shogunate bodyguard, begins to disrupt their plan saving Ofuji while bonding with a friendly bar hostess, Onobu (Sachiko Toyama), and secret princess forest woman Oshino (Akemi Tsukushi). 

The plot represents in itself a malfunctioning of the feudal order in the essential weakness of Lord Honda, the ambition of his underling Kawamura, and the cruel greed of Kagiya. As the two men conspire, Kagiya jokingly laments that he isn’t a samurai while Kawamura reminds him that if the plan comes off he’ll be fantastically rich. Kagiya, a yakuza who sends his thugs to extort protection money from the local market, is representation of the threat of the rising merchant class whose financial power presents a challenge to the authority of the samurai. Toemon, meanwhile, a master craftsman, is manipulated into participating in the plan because he is in debt to Kagiya, later promised that he too will be “promoted” in being given permission to carry a sword little knowing that Kawamura and Kagiya not only plan to kidnap and rape his daughter but never intend to allow any of the craftsmen to live because they simply know too much. 

The Ceiling at Utsunomiya is not a ghost story in the manner for which Nakagawa is best known but it certainly plays like one, Kagiya eventually haunted by the figure of a betrayed Toemon which in turn leads him to a self-destructive attack on Tenzen and his eventual demise collapsed over his ill-gotten gains, a koban falling from his hand. Greed and violence will only repay in the same, the weak-willed Lord getting his comeuppance from the ever confident shogun even if he himself coolly stands back while others risk their lives to protect him. Even so, the eventual operation of “the mechanism” is intensely startling, the ceiling abruptly collapsing with alarming ferocity though one wonders what the advantage is in such an expensive, elaborate contraption aside from its ironic symbolism when the point of a sword will do. 

Then again, the heroic Ryutaro is almost assassinated while crossing a river via zip wire later fished out of the river by sullen forest woman Oshino, first encountered hunting birds with darts but later revealed to be the illegitimate child of samurai parents who fell foul of political intrigue. In a sense this revelation emphasises the restoration of the political order, Ryutaro permitted to fall in love with Oshino because they are of the same social class, while the romance between Ofuji and craftsman Yoshichi (Kotaro Sugiyama) also comes to fruition eliding the minor class difference between them in allowing the boss’ protege to marry the now orphaned daughter. Onobu meanwhile pays heavy price for her misplaced love for Ryutaro, denied romantic fulfilment in her liminal existence as a bar hostess. In any case, the corruption is exorcised and the normal order resumes reinforcing the hierarchical shogunate society with each of the players back in their rightful positions and possessing new hope for the future as Ryutaro and the shogun continue their tour while their former comrades kneel at the roadside. 


Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Takumi Furukawa, 1964)

cruel-gun-story-poster.jpgIn the history of Japanese noir, the name Haruhiko Oyabu looms large. Oyabu’s gritty, pulp infused tales of tough guy heroes found their clearest expression in the hardline ‘70s with Toru Murakawa’s unique brand of macho action as seen in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf or The Beast Must Die, but a decade earlier they were also finding fertile ground in Nikkatsu’s harder B-movie noir. Based on a novel by Oyabu, Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Kenju Zankoku Monogatari) seems to owe more than a little to Kubrick’s The Killing in its crime never pays tale of honest crooks undercut by their unscrupulous comrades but the central message is that the gun is a cruel master and those living under its control will pay a heavy price.

Togawa (Jo Shishido) has just been (unexpectedly) given early release from a prison sentence incurred when he took revenge on the truck driver who knocked down his little sister (Chieko Matsubara) and confined her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Middle rank gangster Ito – formerly a crooked lawyer with a pencil mustache a supercilious air, has a job for him the gang thinks only he can do. The payout is 120 million yen – not to be sniffed at, but Togawa has reasons to be suspicious. He takes some convincing but finally relents when he finds out an old and trusted friend, Shirai (Yuji Kodaka), has already agreed. The gang have another three guys lined up but Togawa rules the third one out when he tests him and confirms he’s an untrustworthy blabbermouth. The other two are a former boxer with mild brain damage whose girlfriend has just left him, and an unscrupulous but clever chancer named Teramoto (Kojiro Kusanagi).

Following the general pattern, Furukawa walks us through the heist as it’s supposed to go if everything goes to plan complete with a 3D diagram and plastic toy cars but, of course, not everything goes to plan. The job is to steal the ticket money from the Japan Derby (much like the race course robbery in The Killing). The gang will set up fake road signs and station a “policeman” to divert the armoured car onto a small country lane where they will kill the police motorcycle escort, get rid of the guards, and load the truck onto a bigger lorry that they will then take to a disused US airbase they’ll use as their lair.

Disused American airbase could easily apply to the entirety of the surrounding area. Jets fly ominously overhead while the world Togawa and his guys inhabit is one of noirish jazz bars filled with foreigners, grimy boxing clubs, signs in English and the relics of destruction everywhere. This is a place for those who’ve already fallen through the cracks, even the gangsters are only really small fry – not yakuza but hoodlums ripped straight from the Edward G. Robinson playbook. This giant heist is the most audacious in living memory, pulling it off would be the finest achievement any of them would ever make, taking them out of their dead end environments and catapulting them into the criminal high life.

Togawa knows there’s something not right about this – he almost turns it down because he wants to be around to take care of his sister, but he also wants the money to pay for an operation he hopes will restore her mobility to assuage his guilt over having sent her out on the fateful day she was injured. Rie now lives in the care of kindly nuns and is a goodhearted, religious woman hoping for her big brother’s reformation. Togawa and his sister are also victims of war having lost their parents during the evacuation from Manchuria and have been essentially on their own ever since. Rie has become a living symbol of Togawa’s failures – his inability to protect her, to keep them both safe and together, and to free them of the ruined post-war landscape within which they both remain trapped. Rie pins her hopes on God, but Togawa says to hell with that – where has He been so far?

Having pinned his hopes on the gun, Togawa intends this to be the heist to end all heists. After this, he’ll be free to give his sister the life she deserves away from crime and the rundown town strewn with mementos of a distant, dethroned occupying power. The gun, however, is a divisive weapon and engenders nothing but mistrust among men. Resentful of Togawa’s solid friendships, the other guys turn on him as do his shady employers sending Togawa even further along the dark path to moral ruination than he already was. All that’s waiting for Togawa is a hollow victory and the intense disappointment of those whose faith in him was ultimately misplaced.