Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

rusty knife posterPost-war Japan was in a precarious place but by the mid-1950s, things were beginning to pick up. Unfortunately, this involved picking up a few bad habits too – namely, crime. The yakuza, as far as the movies went, were largely a pre-war affair – noble gangsters who had inherited the codes of samurai honour and were (nominally) committed to protecting the little guy. The first of many collaborations between up and coming director Toshio Masuda and the poster boy for alienated youth, Yujiro Ishihara, Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Sabita Knife) shows us the other kind of movie mobster – the one that would stick for years to come. These petty thugs have no honour and are symptomatic parasites of Japan’s rapidly recovering economy, subverting the desperation of the immediate post-war era and turning it into a nihilistic struggle for total freedom from both laws and morals.

Public support is, largely, behind this new force of order as seen in the local uproar when top gangster Katsumata (Naoki Sugiura) is arrested in connection with an assault. Things being what they are, Katsumata is soon released to laugh at law enforcement from a safe distance but the past is coming for him. Some years ago Katsumata killed a local councillor, Nishida (Ikunosuke Koizumi), and made it look like suicide but three guys from a local gang saw him do it. He paid them to keep quiet, but now one of them feels like talking and thinks Katsumata might like to pay a little more to reseal the deal.

Chatty Tokyo thug Shima (Jo Shishido) gets pushed off a train for his pains but Katsumata is worried enough about the other two to send his guys out to make some enquires. He’s particularly worried about Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) – a “sleeping lion”, Tachibana is a hot head who’s now gone straight after coming out of jail for murdering a guy he thought was a direct cause of his girlfriend’s death. Luckily enough, Tachibana now runs a bar where he employs the other witness, Terada (Akira Kobayashi), to whom he acts as a stern big brother hoping to keep them both on the straight and narrow. Tachibana is unlikely to talk, he wants out of the gangster world for good, but Terada is young and ambitious with a girlfriend to impress. He takes more hush money from Katsumata, not realising what he’s getting himself into, and then lets it go to his head.

Tachibana is the rusty knife of the title. After letting his rage consume him in murdering a petty mobster in revenge for the rape of his girlfriend who later committed suicide, Tachibana has vowed to quell his anger and live a decent, peaceful life. Angry outbursts are, however, never far from the surface and following recent revelations, a rusty knife may find its cutting edge once again.

Keiko (Mie Kitahara), a customer at Tachibana’s bar, is making a documentary about violence in the city which coincidentally turns up a few clues as to Tachibana’s past, not to mention her own. The daughter of the murdered councilman, Nishida, and the niece of another powerful politician, Keiko is a figure of righteousness, charting her own course through the difficult post-war world and attempting to do so with dignity and elegance while refusing to abandon her sense of decency and compassion. Later a real life married couple, Kitahara and Ishihara were a frequent on screen romantic pairing though this time around the connection is more subtle as Keiko begins to sympathise with Tachibana’s plight and commits herself to saving him from destroying himself in becoming consumed by his barely suppressed rage.

Tachibana is indeed raging, though his rage is understandable. As someone later puts it “nothing in this city makes sense”. The systems are corrupt, the wartime generation continue to run the show and run it badly, or at least for their own ends, robbing youth of its rightful place at the forefront of economic recovery. Yet even if Ishihara is a symbol of youthful alienation, his rage is one which must be quelled. Even in this city where nothing makes sense, self control is one’s greatest weapon. If youth is to walk forward into the exciting post-war future, it will have to drop its rusty knives.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1957)

img_0Return to sender – address unknown. For the protagonists of I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Ore wa Matteru ze), the debut feature from Koreyoshi Kurahara, all that’s left to them is to wait for uncertain answers, trapped in the limbo land of the desolate post-war landscape. With nothing to hope for and no clear direction out of their various predicaments, the pair bide their time until something, good or bad, comes for them but luckily enough what finds them is each other and suddenly a path towards resolution of their troubles. Reuniting newly minted matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara and future real life wife Mie Kitahara fresh off the red hot success of the youth on fire drama Crazed Fruit, I Am Waiting is an altogether more melancholy affair set in the down and out depression town of the American film noir.

One fateful night, Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) steps out onto the Yokohama Harbour clutching a letter he nervously drops into a post-box, but is struck by the figure of a distressed young woman hanging around ominously close to the water’s edge. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Joji approaches the woman and convinces her to come back with him to the small cafe he runs right by the railway line. The girl, Saeko (Mie Kitahara), confesses to him that she thinks she may have killed a mobster who was making the moves on her and has no idea what to do now. Joji suggests she hide out with him, check the morning paper for news of a body, and then figure out the rest later. Left with no other options, Saeko agrees but it seems the past has a hold on them both which not even Joji’s powerful fists will be able to break.

Joji has been “waiting” for a letter from his older brother, supposedly in Brazil buying farmland. “Brazil” has become Joji’s main escape plan, but while he waits and waits his Japan life stagnates. A former prize fighter, Joji has been fighting his past self for the past couple of years ever since he lost his temper and killed a man in a bar brawl. Joji is afraid of his rage, convinced that he’s no good, a toxic influence to all around him, which explains why he’s so often abandoned by those he loves. When the letters he’d been sending to Brazil start coming back “no such person”, he fears the worst – that his brother has run off with their money and started a new life on his own without him.

In a noirish coincidence, Joji’s fate is bound up with that of melancholy nightclub singer Saeko. Once a respected opera singer, Saeko has been relegated to jazz cabaret in seedy harbour bars after losing her voice to illness and having her heart broken by her singing teacher whose affections were not as true as he claimed. “A canary that’s forgotten how to sing”, Saeko fears that her life is already over, there will be no escape from the gangsters who claim to own her and the only path left to her is the one she ruled out taking when she bopped the shady mobster on the head with a nearby vase. Saeko had no escape plan because she thought escape was impossible, but the unexpected nobility of a man like Joji has begun to change her mind, if only Joji’s heart weren’t already so battered and bruised.

Joji’s bar, the Reef Restaurant, is the gathering place for the battered and bruised. Located right on the railway line, it’s a literal waiting room through which pass all those who aren’t quite sure where they’re going. Everyone here is nursing the wounds of broken dreams – Joji’s chef used to be racing driver until he got injured, the doctor is a drunk, Joji’s an ex-boxer with anger issues, and Saeko’s a bird with a broken wing. This is not the departure lounge, it’s arrivals – the end of the line when there is no place else to go.

Still, a waiting room is a place you can choose to leave, no one has to wait forever. In meeting Saeko, Joji has already begun to move forward even if he doesn’t know it. Suddenly giving up on their melancholy passivity, the pair spur each other on towards a killer finale which offers them, if not exactly a way out, a possibility of a better life having resolved to leave the past in the past and reject its continuing hold over them. Kurahara co-opts the fatalism and lingering existential angst of the film noir with its rolling fog and permanent drizzle clouding the darkened horizons for our two pinned protagonists who relive their most fearful moments with the force of silent movie scored by the intense jazz soundtrack suddenly turned up to 11. An important missive to the post-war young, I Am Waiting offers the message that the past can be beaten, but only once one comes to believe in the existence of the future and makes a decision to walk towards it rather than waiting for it to arrive unbidden.   


Clip (English subtitles)

Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 (大幹部 無頼, Keiichi Ozawa, 1968)

Outlaw Gangster VIP 2So, as it turns out the end of Outlaw: Gangster VIP was not quite as final as it might have seemed. Outlaw Gangster VIP 2 (大幹部 無頼, Daikanbu Burai) picks up not long after the end of the first film when Goro (Tetsuya Watari), having recovered from his injuries, takes a train to go and find Yukiko (Chieko Matsubara) with the intention of starting an honest life with her away from the temptations of the big city. However, as often happens, his past follows him.

Like the first film, Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 also begins with a black and white flashback sequence reminding us of Goro’s childhood only this time with a voice over from Goro himself who goes on to include the first film’s events in his recap. Goro might have come to the country to get away from the gangster life but as soon as he steps off the train he gets himself into trouble with a local gang by interfering with a few tough guys who are trying to entrap a group of actresses and force them into their employ. One of the leading actresses is just as taken with Goro as Yukiko was in the first film and gives him her red scarf as a thank you. Goro is still very much with Yukiko though and trudges off through the snow to find her.

She and Yumeko, Sugimoto’s former girlfriend, are living in a small hut but Yumeko has fallen ill and is refusing to see a doctor out of fear of the expense. Goro gets a legitimate logging job but before long the company hits trouble and he’s let go. All the while Yumeko’s condition is weakening and the three are in desperate need of money. One of the local gangsters Goro runs into trouble with turns out to be an old friend who offers him a job. Goro was hoping to leave the Yakuza world behind forever but it seems it isn’t finished with him yet…

In many ways this second instalment in the Outlaw: Gangster VIP series is very much more of the same as noble outlaw Goro battles the ever more cruel and corrupt forces of the Yakuza underworld in defence of women folk and underdogs everywhere. Directed this time by Keiichi Ozawa the film is disappointing only where it begins to feel like a rehash by following the familiar story beats of the first film with its betrayed underlings and treacherous bosses yet still manages to feel fresh and exciting for most of the running time.

The action this time around takes place in the vast snowy expanses of Northern Japan and has a much more open feeling overall with greater use of location shooting rather than the studio bound atmosphere of the first film. Ozawa follows Masuda’s lead but angles for a few expressive sequences of his own such as attempting to cut a flamenco dance sequence (starring a young Meiko Kaji acting under her original name) with a potential stand off and less successfully by playing a high school girl volleyball game against the final fight to the death which is going on in the waterway below.

The concept of home and having a home town is once again emphasised as a recurring motif where the desire for a normal life and family can get a man killed – the recurrent message being that a yakuza is a man without ties to the normal world. Such relationships are now denied him by his bond to his gangster brothers and will not only place in danger those you most love, but will ultimately lead to your own downfall too. Once again Goro wrestles with his desire to build a more normal life with Yukiko and the self knowledge that his yakuza past will never let him rest and perhaps the best thing for her is to make her go.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 can’t quite match the power of the first film’s finale and often feels as if it’s retreading the same ground yet it is quite interesting ground to retread. Even if there weren’t another four films in the series, one gets the feeling that fate hasn’t finished toying with Goro yet and even if the yakuza world continues turning in the same ancient cycles of violence and revenge, Goro at least will be standing on the side of right, perpetually and ironically fighting in an attempt to put an end to it all for good.


Outlaw: Gangster VIP 2 is the second 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 theatrical trailer:

Outlaw: Gangster VIP (「無頼」より大幹部, Toshio Masuda, 1968)

outlaw gangster VIP 1 posterBy 1968 the fate of the gangster movie was somewhat in flux as the old ninkyo style was on its way out yet the jitsuroku approach, later to find its zenith in the Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, hadn’t quite taken hold. Outlaw: Gangster VIP provides an essential bridge as it takes its inspiration from the writings of one time yakuza Goro Fujita but at the same time brings together many of the themes that were dominating Nikkatsu’s output at the time from their star led, youth appeal billboard cool to their noir inflicted, nihilistic crime thrillers as a kind of culmination of everything they had been producing up to that point.

The first film in the series, Outlaw: Gangster VIP (無頼」より大幹部, Burai yori Daikanbu) begins with a black and white prologue seemingly set around the end of the war in which a young boy endures firstly the death of his mother and then the younger sister who has been left in his care – presumably through hunger or at least ill heath exacerbated by malnutrition. Eventually he himself is arrested after being caught trying to steal food and is sent to a reform school from which he escapes alongside another boy, Sugiyama.

Flash forward to a grown up version of Goro (Tetsuya Watari) lounging around in a dingy apartment and the film expands into glorious, if garish color. Goro is summoned to a local drinking establishment where his yakuza boss is under attack. On getting to the bar and coming to his boss’ defence he finds that the aggressor is none other than Sugiyama. Saving his boss by stabbing his friend he nevertheless ensures Sugiyama’s survival with a carefully placed blow though both are sent back to prison. Goro gets out three years later to discover his girlfriend has married someone else and the yakuza world is just as dog eat dog as it was when he left it.

As in many other films of this burgeoning genre, the yakuza is more or less a surrogate family of grown up orphaned street kids who’ve bound together for increased odds of survival. There maybe strong bonds between brothers, but the old ways of samurai style honourable conduct are long gone (if they ever really existed at all). Suigyama’s gang have failed to protect his girlfriend who has been reduced to prostitution despite his sacrifices for them – an unthinkable act in traditional terms, but Sugiyama’s boss is the new kind of uncaring, ambitious yakuza who cares nothing for traditional ethics.

The yakuza as a home for waifs and strays is a theme which continues throughout the series with the constant references to “hometowns” and a desire to get out of the city for a simpler, more honest life. People keep telling Goro that he’s not a real yakuza, that deep down he doesn’t have a gangster’s heart. This is true, to an extent, as Goro is the kind of noble criminal seen in the ninkyo genre who clings fast to the old ways – loyal to his friends and his clan, seeking to protect those who need it over choosing to further exploit the already vulnerable. He’s a gangster because life left him with no other options. For a street kid and reform school escapee, what possible other place could there be for him to survive than in the arms of his yakuza brothers?

An exile from the world of conventional society, Goro cuts a lonely path which ties into the nihilistic noir themes of the genre as he wanders around in very cool looking leather jacket. Mostly still studio bound, Masuda opts for a fairly straightforward approach yet with some noir-esque canted angles and a few interesting set pieces. The unusual finale in which Goro faces the treacherous yakuza kingpins against the background of a cabaret act serves as impressive highlight of the film, perfectly contrasting its garish technicolor world with the darkness underneath as Goro staggers off along a street dark with something more night and towards an eventual salvation of one kind or another.


Outlaw: Gangster VIP is the first of six films available as part of Arrow’s amazing new blu-ray and DVD box set which is released in UK and USA and is completely region free (hurrah!).

I’ve also written a full writeup of the box set as a whole over at UK Anime Network which you can read right now if you’re the sort of person who likes to skip to the end. Otherwise, get ready for five more tales of broken hearted tough guys….

English subbed version of the original theatrical trailer:

The Rambling Guitarist (ギターを持った渡り鳥, Buichi Saito, 1959)

60030340Sometimes, just like an aimless drifter wandering into town, you feel as if you’ve come in during the second reel and missed some vital piece of information leaving you feeling a little at odds with the current situation. So it is with Buichi Saito’s The Rambling Guitarist (ギターを持った渡り鳥, Guitar wo Motta Wataridori) which is, apparently, the first film in a series though feels a little more like the second.

The film begins with a scene straight out of a classic western as the titular guitar toting wanderer, Taki (played by rising Nikkatsu star of the time Akira Kobayashi looking very fresh faced indeed), is fast asleep on the back of a cart travelling through an arid landscape with a mountain looming in the background before being woken by the driver who points him towards the nearest town. Having left the dry expanses on foot, Taki hasn’t been in Hakodate for long before he’s wrecked a local drinking establishment in a two on one bar brawl with a couple of drunken foreign sailors who were hassling the other musicians. This brings him to the notice of the crime kingpin Akitsu who offers him a job but Taki doesn’t like to linger and this kind of work’s not his thing so he passes. That is until a chance encounter with Akitsu’s pretty young daughter leads to a change of heart…

Akira Kobayashi went on to become one of the studio’s biggest action stars but here he’s every inch the pretty boy in a Brando-esque leather jacket and with a cooler than cool devil may care approach to life. The very epitome of the kind of pin-up star these films were created to sell, Taki is a noble, broken hearted drifter mournfully strumming along on his ever present guitar whenever the opportunity presents itself. Appealing to the rebellious side of post-war youth but still possessing a moral centre which places him on the side of right, Taki is the kind of youth hero you can still take home to mama.

Post set-up, The Rambling Guitarist drops most of its western tropes pretty quickly and falls back into a standard youth crime drama mould as Taki ends up joining the Akitsu gang who have a plan to build an amusement park on the quiet edge of the island to pull in a bit more tourist money. The snag is, there’s a small house and fishing company based there that they need to take out – the owners have a loan and are already in debt so it shouldn’t be too hard but Akitsu has neglected to mention that the house belongs to his sister (and her husband whom he doesn’t like very much).

Just when you thought everything was about to settle down, an old “friend” emerges from underneath a raincoat in the form of “Killer George” played by fellow Nikkatsu rising star, Jo Shishido. It’s from here on that we start to piece together some of Taki’s previous life and the reason he’s on this seemingly endless path of wandering from to place to place with no clear aim in sight. Things start to take a more generic turn as Taki and George dance around each other a little bit with Akitsu fuelling the fire by plotting behind both of their backs from the shadows. It’s a conventional narrative but acquits itself well enough.

Like the other films of the period, The Rambling Guitarist is built of bright, colourful and above all youthful fun. Consequently it has an energetic, freewheeling atmosphere coupled with a mildly nihilistic bent designed to appeal to the youth of the time. Aside from having some of the least realistic fight choreography ever committed to celluloid (that first bar brawl scene has some real howlers), The Rambling Guitarist proves an enjoyable embodiment of its genre but ultimately fails to build up the kind of emotional investment that would earn it a higher place on the list. A little bit disposable, perhaps, but nevertheless fun The Rambling Guitarist does at least leave you wanting to wander off and find your way to The Rambling Guitarist 2.


The Rambling Guitarist is the third (and final 😦 ) film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.