Ken (剣, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

Most closely associated with jidaigeki, Kenji Misumi’s only film to be set in the contemporary era, Ken (剣), shifts his persistent concerns into the modern day in the clash of the warrior ideal and the emotional costs of living, but also takes a sideways look at conflicted post-war masculinity as two young men vicariously lock horns in a quest for mastery over their desires. Adapting a short story by Yukio Mishima, Misumi dials back on the tragic romance of militarism painting the hero’s ultimate acceptance of nihilistic futility less as a noble sacrifice than a humanist failure of the society that failed to save him from his absolutist fallacy. 

Obsessed with strength and honour, Kokubun (Raizo Ichikawa) has convinced himself that he can capture “this spark of pure life” he saw in the sun through perfecting the art of kendo. An aloof and austere figure, he has foregone all else and dedicated himself to his skill alone. For this reason he is appointed captain of his university kendo club over his jealous rival, Kagawa (Yusuke Kawazu), who loses out because his sword is “sentimental” and there is a concern that he draws his power from “arrogance”. There is indeed something in that, and it’s Kagawa’s sense of male pride that partly sets him on a quest for vengeance and vindication in a obsessive desire to dominate Kokubun but there’s also an unspoken attraction as he later admits to a female acquaintance in remarking that he finds Kokubun’s way of life “infuriating” but despite himself also “refreshing”. 

Literal sword play, Kagawa’s obsession with Kokubun results in a vicarious seduction in which he attempts to corrupt him by enlisting the help of a female student to expose him as a fraud by rupturing his asceticism and thereby destroying his source of strength if not his sense of self. The quasi-sadomasochistic relationship between the two men is further borne out by the implication that Kokubun is in fact finding his sexual release in the intense act of repression, satisfying himself through physical exhaustion in the company of other men, Misumi’s roving camera fully capturing the homoeroticism of this intensely homosocial society. Humiliated by Kokubun who forces him into a public act of contrition through physical endurance after disappointing the club by breaking the rules smoking on the job at their part-time gig at a supermarket, Kagawa goes to the chairman to complain that Kokubun’s leadership style is far too intense, “feudalistic” as another member puts it shortly before quitting, claiming that all he wants is for his rival to wake up from his militarist dream and live in the real world though his final act of mutiny will engender consequences unforeseen in his conviction that Kokubun’s ideology is largely performative self-delusion. 

The team manager perhaps thinks something similar, reminding Kagawa that he is merely “more grown up” as if Kokubun is in a sense maintaining his childlike innocence in refusing to enter an adult world he regards as “ugly” and “corrupt”. His ideal is simplicity and he finds it in the primacy of the sword. There is in this something of an uncomfortable militarist throwback that finds a disciple in the ever loyal Mibu (Akio Hasegawa) who dutifully parrots back the quasi-facist philosophy to his quietly horrified mother and sisters who probably don’t help the situation by mocking his lack of masculinity in his inability to grow a proper beard while insisting on shaving every day anyway. Attracted by Kokubun’s dynamism and energy, he longs for strength through self denial. “We must move away from those empty desires” Kokubun instructs him while discussing the suicide of a young man who was discovered next to a selection of half eaten fruit. Rather than sympathy the man is largely mocked by his male peers, Kokubun dismissing him as “weak in mind and body” for having taken his own life apparently in fear of failure, but also stressing that suicide is a choice taken by the very strong as well as the very weak. 

In this brief exchange he opens the door to a notion of nobility in the choice to take one’s own life which leads straight back into the death cult of militarism, perhaps something that only Mibu as a fellow devotee is able to see. Yet Misumi perhaps undercuts this sense of nobility with a return to collective shame, eulogising Kokubun’s determination to preserve his “uprightness and strength” as Kagawa admits defeat in the face of Kokubun’s unbreakable purity, while placing the burden of failed responsibility on the kendo troupe not for their inability to live up to his ideal but for their lack of understanding in failing to free him of his moral absolutism. The way of the sword once again leads only to death and while there may be an uncomfortable beauty in such moral purity, in the end all there is is futility. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Third Shadow Warrior (第三の影武者, Umetsugu Inoue, 1963)

“In this world the weak are playthings of the strong” according to the hidden villain concealing himself slightly to the side in Umetsugu Inoue’s dark identity drama The Third Shadow Warrior (第三の影武者, Daisan no Kagemusha). Adapting a novel by Norio Nanjo, Inoue, most closely associated with sophisticated musicals, shoots in the manner of a ghost story adapting the trappings of a minor parable on the consequences of selling one’s soul for advancement in complicity with an inherently broken feudal order. 

Opening in 1564, the film wastes no time reminding us that the samurai were cruel and duplicitous, a troop of them riding through the contested mountain territory of Hida bearing the severed heads of their enemies casually insulting peasants as they go. Young farmer Kyonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa), however, can’t help but think that they’re heroic and dashing, longing like many young men as the voiceover explains to make his fortune as a samurai in this the age of war. Kyonosuke gets his wish when retainer Shinomura (Nobuo Kaneko) turns up and offers him a job at the castle, only it’s not quite what he expected. Bearing a striking similarity to lord Yasutaka, he has been hired as his third “shadow”, a decoy intended to shield the lord from harm. 

Sitting down with his two new brothers, Kyonosuke remarks how ironic it is that he’s here to escape the land but Kuwano (Katsuhiko Kobayashi) is patiently saving up his pay with the intention of using it to buy a farm and settle down with a beautiful wife. His is the most dangerous of doubling roles as the lord’s battlefield stand-in, while Ishihara (Yuji Hamada), a former actor apparently not much good with the sword, takes his place behind closed walls. Kyonosuke is quite taken with the world of the samurai, but Ishihara cautions that he’ll soon tire of this “phoney life”. In accepting this devil’s bargain, Kyonosuke has in essence consented to his own murder. A shadow man, he can no longer call himself Kyonosuke, but nor can he say he is Yasutaka. He has no fixed identity and is merely in waiting for a veil. Worse still as Ishihara has begun to suspect, they no longer have bodily autonomy because their physicality must match that of the lord. When he is blinded in a battlefield mishap with an arrow, so must they be. Deciding he’d rather not lose an arm, Kyonosuke finds himself in an altercation with his other self which leads to his demise. He intends to make a life for himself under his own name with another clan, but is forced to permanently assume Yasutaka’s identity after being cornered by Shinomura intent on manipulating him for his own ends. 

“I’m no puppet, I no longer need a puppeteer” Kyonosuke exclaims drawing strength from embracing his new identity as a samurai lord, but perhaps overreaches himself in ambitious desire failing to see the various ways he is still merely a pawn in a bigger game as Yasutaka himself once was because the lord is only ever an empty vessel and far more expendable than might be assumed. Princess Teru (Hizuru Takachiho), Yasutaka’s conquest bride, declares that she is “just a doll, the strongest will win me” but is of course playing a role herself, one which she does not desire but has been thrust upon her while her cousin, Sadamitsu (Shigeru Amachi), is engaged in a much more active piece of long form role play. Only the lord’s concubine (Masayo Banri) sees through him, falling for the gentle peasant after the rough lord who toyed with her, but their complicated love eventually seals his fate even as he believes it offers him victory. Kyonosuke became a samurai to escape his lack of agency but is arguably much less free than he ever was, driven slowly out of his mind by his fractured sense of identity and realising that in killing the only man who knew who he “really” was, he also killed himself. 

Quite literally imprisoned, Kyonosuke finds himself a shadow once again neither one man nor another, denied an identity and forever a puppet of duplicitous game players better versed in the realities of the samurai existence. “How ugly fighting over this transient kingdom” the princess disdainfully remarks while herself engaging this apparently meaningless foolishness, reminded by her cousin that a princess may hold the keys to a castle or even a nation even if he implies she is little more than his tool, a puppet to be manipulated if knowingly. Shooting with deep, expressionist shadows, chiaroscuro lighting, and a melancholy voiceover Inoue frames his tale as a parabolic caution against selling one’s soul for gold but also a crushing indictment of the inequalities of the feudal order built on wilful hypocrisy and cynical exploitation. 


A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

“Why are women in Japan so unhappy?” the carefree Casanova at the centre of Yasuzo Masumura’s 1961 sex romp A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Koshoku Ichidai Otoko) laments, never quite grasping the essential inequalities of the world in which he lives. Masumura is best known for extremity, a wilful iconoclast who flew in the face of golden age cinema’s genial classism, but shock was not his only weapon and he could also be surprisingly playful. Adapted from a well known novel by creator of the “floating world” Ihara Saikaku, A Lustful Man finds him indulging in ironic satire as his hero sets out to “make all the women in Japan happy” chiefly by satisfying their unfulfilled sexual desire while resolutely ignoring all of the entrenched patriarchal social codes which ensure that their lives will be miserable. 

Set in the Edo era, the film opens not with the hero Yonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa) but with his miserly father who berates a servant after discovering a single grain of rice on the hall floor. According to him, the central virtues necessary to become rich are endurance, diligence, and vitality. You must treasure each and every grain of rice in order to accumulate. A cruel and austere man who only thinks of money, Yonosuke’s father keeps his wife in earnest poverty despite their wealth, angrily grabbing an obviously worn kimono out of her hands and insisting that it’s still good for another year, apparently caring nothing for appearances in the otherwise class conscious Kyoto society. It’s this meanness that Yonosuke can’t seem to stand. He hates the way his father disrespects his mother, and her misery is a primary motivator in his lifelong quest to cheer up Japan’s melancholy women though the weapon he has chosen is sex, a convenient excuse to live as a genial libertine to whom money means essentially nothing. 

Yonosuke’s father has set him up with an arranged marriage into a much wealthier family, which is not something he’s very interested in despite the fact she seems to be quite pretty but on learning that she has transgressively found love with the family butler he determines to help her instead, ending the marriage meeting by chasing her round the garden like a dog in heat. Several similar stunts eventually get him sent away from his native Kyoto to Edo but he takes the opportunity to escape, travelling all over Japan making women “happy” as he goes. 

As the first example proves, Yonosuke genuinely hates to see women suffer. His own pleasure, though perhaps not far from his mind, is secondary and he never seeks to take advantage of a woman’s vulnerability only to ease her loneliness. Despite that, however, he remains essentially superficial opting for the transience of postcoital bliss while ignoring the very real societal factors which make an escape from misery all but impossible. During an early adventure, he spends all of the money he conned out of his new employer on redeeming a geisha (at more than three times the asking price) so that she can be with the man she loves, but he continues to visit sex workers without interrogating their existence as indentured servants, “merchandise” which is bought and sold, traded between men and entirely deprived of freedom. In fact, he proudly collects hair cuttings from the various geishas he has known as a kind of trophy only to later discover the grim truth, that the hair likely doesn’t belong to the geisha herself but is sold to them by middlemen who get it by digging up dead bodies. 

Yonosuke remains seemingly oblivious to the duplicitous hypocrisy of the yoshiwara, but is repeatedly confronted by the evils of Edo-era feudalism with its proto-capitalist cruelty where everything is status and transaction. He is often told that as he is not a samurai he would not understand, but seems to understand pretty well that “samurai are idiots” and that their heartless elitism is the leading cause of all the world’s misery. To some a feckless fool, Yonosuke refuses to give in to the false allure of worldly riches. As soon as he gets money he spends it, and does so in ways he believes enrich the lives of women (even if that only extends to paying them for sex), eventually getting himself into trouble once again reneging on his taxes after trying to prove a geisha is worth her weight in gold. 

Yogiri (Ayako Wakao) complains that women are but “merchandise”, valued only as toys for men. “Japan is not a good country for women” Yonosuke agrees, suggesting they run away together to find a place where women are respected, indifferent to Yogiri’s rebuttal “no, wherever you go, no one can change women’s sad fate”. Yonosuke’s naive attempts to rescue women from their misery often end in disaster, a runaway mistress is dragged back and hanged, the woman he was set to marry goes mad after her father and lover are beheaded for having the temerity to speak out about corrupt lords, Yogiri is killed by a samurai intent on arresting him for tax evasion, and his own mother dies seconds after his father only to be immediately praised as “the epitome of a Japanese wife”. Yet he remains undaunted, wandering around like an Edo-era Candide, setting off into exile to look for a supposed female paradise without ever really engaging with the systems which propagate misery or with his own accidental complicity with them. Nevertheless, he does perhaps enact his own resistance in refusing to conform to the rules of a society he knows to be cruel and unfair even if his resistance is essentially superficial, self-involved, and usually counterproductive which is, in its own way, perfectly in keeping with Masumura’s central philosophies on the impossibilities of individual freedom within an inherently oppressive social order.