Big Shots Die at Dawn (顔役暁に死す, Kihachi Okamoto, 1961)

“Assassins make the world an unfit place to live in” according to a random gas station attendant clueing our errant hero in to the fact his small-town home is now a “den of yakuza” and unlikely tourist hotspot. An early, delightfully absurdist yakuza romp from Kichachi Okamoto, Big Shots Die at Dawn (顔役暁に死す, Kaoyaku Akatsukini Shisu) is part Nikkatsu parody, part ironic western, and all cartoonish fun as a prodigal son returns to find his father murdered and his uncle on the throne. Sound familiar? 

Jiro (Yuzo Kayama) has been working for the forestry commission in Alaska and has not returned to his small-town home of Kuraoka in some time which is why he didn’t even know his father, the mayor, was dead let alone that he was apparently assassinated in a manner which strongly anticipates the Kennedy assassination though the film was released in 1961. He also had no idea his father, a widower, had remarried and his family home is now occupied by his stepmother Hisako (Yukiko Shimazaki), a former secretary who scandalously lounges around in her underwear all day. His uncle Imamura (Eijiro Yanagi) is now the mayor, and as he explains to him, the town is a hotbed of gangster activity apparently a consequence of his attempt to turn it into a tourist hotspot. In trying to find out who killed his father, Jiro finds himself quite literally in the middle of a petty yakuza gang war aided and abetted by corrupt police. 

Quite clearly influenced by American cinema, Big Shots Die at Dawn situates itself in the new frontier of small-town Japan in which a war is being fought over the spoils of the post-war era. Uncle Imamura’s legacy is apparently a children’s theme park with the distinctly pregnant name Dreamland. Apparently a man who just loves the children but was unable to have any of his own, he’s also opened a pre-school for the local kids. Meanwhile, in the yakuza-backed casino, obsessive gamblers brush their teeth at the tables while local kingpin Goto (Akihiko Hirata) attempts to fend off the incursion of the rival Handa gang. Jiro’s return puts the cat among the pigeons as both sides attempt to use him as a way to take out the other.

The dark heart of small-town Japan is however present in the greed and double dealing which extends even to the police, a corrupt officer offering to sell Jiro a key piece of evidence he had concealed in the hope of profit. Just about everyone tries to sell the evidence to someone else at one time or another, leveraging an idea of justice alongside greed and self-interest. Meanwhile, Yoshiko (Kumi Mizuno), a quasi-love interest and former girlfriend of a fallen foot soldier, reports that she gave the police valuable evidence that her fiancé’s death wasn’t a suicide but they ignored her.

Jiro’s come to clean up the town, but the showdown takes place incongruously in the children’s theme park complete with its cutesy mascot characters and adverts for chocolate in the background making plain that these venal gangsters are really just boys playing war, taking pot shots at each other from tiny trains. What could be a dark comment on a loss of innocence is more cartoonish irony from Okamoto who shoots in extreme closeup with intentionally humorous composition and slapstick choreography. Nevertheless the message is unmistakable as we piece together the connections between small-town government and organised crime underpinned with a rather creepy all for the kids justification. 

Then again, the world has its share of misogyny, everything coming down to the incursion of transgressive femininity as one duplicitous woman manipulating her feminine wiles becomes the common link between each of the warring factions, as if this is all her fault and Jiro’s return is a way of clearing up the pollution her arrival provoked. Nevertheless as even he says, his father, and implicitly his father’s generation, must share some of the blame. Filled with stylish action sequences, car chases, self-consciously cool dialogue, and scored with a mix of moody jazz and dreamy childlike melodies, Okamoto’s cartoonish takedown of the zeitgeisty youth movie is very much in keeping with Toho’s spoofier side but chock full of charm even if its hero’s particular brand of smugness occasionally borders on the insufferable. 


Blueprint of Murder (暗黒街の弾痕, Kihachi Okamoto, 1961)

Alongside its trademark tokusatsu Toho also had a sideline in genre-hopping B-movie comedy of which Kichachi Okamoto’s Blueprint of Murder (暗黒街の弾痕, Ankokugai no Dankon) is a prime example. Playing into a zeitgeisty anxiety about corporate corruption which led to several series of films revolving around industrial espionage such as Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants & Toys and the later Black Test Car, Okamoto’s ironic take on noir and globalisation anticipates the spy spoofs Toho would produce in the wake of Bond fever while quietly also perhaps poking fun at Nikkatsu’s crime melodramas.

The film opens with a young man, Kusaka (Ko Mishima), and his boss Komatsu (Ichiro Nakatani) testing an experimental car engine that would be ultra efficient and cheap to produce. The test goes well, but Kusaka is run off the road on the journey home, caught between a truck and a mysterious man on a motorcycle. Meanwhile, Kusaka’s brother Jiro (Yuzo Kayama), a whale hunter, is busy working on a new kind of harpoon when he gets a telegram from an old friend telling him to come home right away because his brother is dead. On meeting with Komatsu, Jiro starts to think perhaps his brother’s death wasn’t an accident. It seems there are a lot of people interested in this technology, some of whom would rather it not see the light because cheap, efficient engines are not good news for the oil industry. 

Hearing that Kusaka was recieving threatening letters, Jiro wonders why he wouldn’t go to the police, but Komatsu points out that it would have made no difference. Firstly, the police rarely get involved with cases of corporate espionage, and secondly if they did the blackmailers would win anyway because if there were a court case they would have to make full disclosure of their plans. Jiro tries going to the police himself and showing them that he has evidence, as well as the “instinct of a whale hunter”, which suggests that his brother was murdered, but nonchalant policeman Azuma (Tatsuya Mihashi) doesn’t seem very interested. Teaming up with an old uni friend, Sudo (Makoto Sato), who now runs some kind of scandal rag newspaper and is well connected around town, Jiro tries to investigate but soon becomes entangled in a complicated web of corporate intrigue.

Sudo, whose paper seems to be on the verge of bankruptcy, has some sort of game going with corrupt businessman Otori (Seizaburo Kawazu) who runs Goei Economic Reporting Agency which was one of three companies bidding for Komatsu’s engine. Later, Sudo’s main squeeze Tomiko (Kumi Mizuno) also tries to blackmail Otori by posing as the daughter of a man he drove to suicide after poaching technology from his company. Played at his own game, Otori is extremely disturbed to have this traumatic incident thrust in his face, and it quickly becomes clear that although he was onboard with various kinds of corporate duplicity, he had his lines and is worried to think someone might have crossed them on his behalf. 

Otori is right to worry, they are coming for him too. Eventually unmasked, it will come as no surprise to know that the big boss is from Hong Kong making this another quiet instance of Sinophobia betraying an essential anxiety about a newly global Japan. Meanwhile, Jiro’s problems are closer to home. He starts to doubt Sudo, warned off him as man only interested in money, and witnessing him play every angle to his own advantage. Sudo may be playing his own game but has his friend’s interest at heart and is simply trying to protect him from endangering himself in a world he does not understand. 

Rather than the fulfilment of a dangled romance, what we’re left with is the restoration of the friendship between the two men in which they ultimately re-inhabit their innocent student selves complete with a surreal game of air baseball while Tomiko and Komatsu’s sister Kyoko (Mie Hama) cheer excitedly from the sidelines. Okamoto throws in a killer punchline to an early whale hunting gag while piling on the absurdist humour in characteristic style with one unexpected pay off after another even as the guys find themselves in an increasingly murky world of corporate double cross, femme fatale nightclub singers with their own identical minions/backing bands, and rowdy gangsters while trying to ensure the little guy is still free to innovate outside of consumerist concerns.  


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.


 

I Want to Be a Shellfish (私は貝になりたい, Shinobu Hashimoto, 1959)

shellfishAfter Japan was defeated and later occupied by the Americans, there came the painstaking exercise of examining what exactly had happened during the conflict and assessing is who, if anyone, could be held accountable for any wrongdoing. The so called “war criminals” were divided into classes according to the severity of their crimes with Tojo himself at the top who eventually paid with his life. However, many of the men who were given the same Class A rating were just rank and file soldiers who had been “following orders”, often because they feared for their own lives if they refused. The debut directorial effort from writer Shinobu Hashimoto who provided scripts for some of Akira Kurosawa’s most famous works, I Want to be a Shellfish (私は貝になりたい, Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai), examines just one of these tragically absurd cases.

Barber Shimizu has finally started to make headway in his very own shop where he lives happily with his wife and son when he’s unexpectedly drafted into the army towards the end of the war. Unused to heavy physical labour and a fairly gentle man, he doesn’t take well to the soldier’s life and gets himself into trouble with his C/O. Stationed near Tokyo, Shimizu’s squad is charged with searching for a pair of US airmen thought to have bailed out after their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid over the city. When they eventually find the pilots, both have already died of their injuries.

At this point Shimizu’s captain makes a cruel and rash decision – rather than sending the bodies back to HQ or burying them there, he decides to use them as target practice for his raw recruits. When ordered to pick out the two weakest soldiers, the NCO picks Shimizu and another man, Takita, who are then ordered to bayonet the corpses to prove what fine soldiers they have become. Though they both fail the first time the captain berates them until they finally comply.

The war ends and Shimizu goes home to his family only to receive a knock on the door from the war crimes commission who drag him off to Tokyo for trial. The trial itself is a farce, Shimizu is charged with executing a prisoner of war – the fact the pilots were both dead when found and therefore were never executed and were never even prisoners is never revealed by anyone. Finally classified as a Class A War Criminal, Shimizu is sentenced to death for having stabbed a corpse.

It goes without saying that, yes, terrible crimes were committed during the war and some of them deliberately and wilfully. However, in Shimizu’s case his crime is an absurd one. Though the way in which his superiors have treated the fallen soldiers of their enemies is far from humane, Shimizu has committed no murder and was just following the orders of his superiors. Improper as it may have been, it hardly warrants the loss of his own life and that he’s being placed in the same category as members of execution squads and those who wilfully participated in crimes against civilians is more than a little disproportionate.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the film is that Shimizu seems to have been denied a fair trial. To those who can understand both languages, or even just from the subtitles provided for the translation of the American prosecutor’s questions, it’s obvious that the way in which his questioning is being conducted is far from ideal. The translation gap between the two languages is immense and leads to a series of misunderstandings which in no way aid Shimizu’s case.

It’s also clear that the panel in charge of the trial have very little understanding of how the Japanese military works and how this might differ from American military law. Shimizu is repeatedly questioned about how he feels about the order he was given – a strange question given that the idea of not following an order is not one which immediately presents itself. Shimizu repeats the credo he was taught that an order from his C/O is the same as one coming directly from the Emperor. However, when translated, the prosecutor infers that Shimizu thinks his order came from the Emperor himself and stupidly asks if Shimizu actually met the Emperor in person. Likewise, they ask why he didn’t simply refuse to follow the order and when he replies that he believed he would be shot, they ask why he didn’t ask to be referred to a military court which is just not something that would have been reasonably feasible for a Japanese soldier in this sort of situation.

The fact that the soldiers were already dead to begin with is never even mentioned, by anyone. The highest ranking officer who ordered the search is held responsible even though his orders were to bring the men in alive. Shimizu’s captain has since killed himself, conveniently, leaving everyone else to take the fall for his inhumane decision.

At the end of the film as Shimizu is faced with saying goodbye to a world which has dealt him nothing but hardship other than the wife and son he will be forced to leave behind, Shimizu utters the film’s title. He wishes he were a shellfish buried deep at the bottom of the ocean far from humans and their capacity for cruelty. No poverty, no draft, no war, no absurd trials – free from this world of torment. A lament for the little guy paying the price for world gone mad, I Want to be a Shellfish is a bleak and tragic tale which is filled with universal quality of melancholic absurdity which continues into its heartbreaking final moments.


Bonus trivia – Frankie Sakai (more usually seen as a singer or in comedic roles) also played Shimizu the previous year in an enormously successful TV drama. This story has in fact been filmed several times, most recently as a feature film in 2008 and was inspired by the book by Tetsutaro Kato who was sentenced to death as a war criminal though later had his sentence commuted and was released for “good behaviour” in 1952 (but may not have been quite as innocent as poor old Shimizu).