Detective Hibari 3: Hidden Coin (ひばり捕物帖 ふり袖小判, Kokichi Uchide, 1959)

Hibari Misora returns as Oshichi in another adventure for the Edo detective, this time becoming embroiled in a conspiracy against the Shogunate which she continues to serve. By this third instalment in the Detective Hibari series, Hidden Coin (ひばり捕物帖 ふり袖小判, Hibari Torimonocho: Furisode Koban), Oshichi is no longer hiding her noble birth as an esteemed princess, but is living as a singer/law enforcement officer under her “common” name, and upholding the interests of “common” people suffering under “corrupt” samurai oppression but, paradoxically, very much upholding the system which enables it.

The conspiracy in which Oshichi becomes involved this time around is concerned with the plot to overthrow the Shogunate. Rebel forces manage to ambush a convoy carrying tax money to the government, hoping to use the money to buy guns from the Dutch to aid their revolution. As only one of the retainers survives, he will be held responsible for the loss of the money and almost certainly asked to commit ritual suicide, but the Ota clan and most particularly retainer Kennoshin (Kotaro Satomi), are worried about the man’s daughter, Misuzu (Atsuko Nakazato), to whom he was very close. Oshichi becomes involved when she hears of an entire household being murdered and their funds stolen, while a lone pickpocket is found dead with a precious gold coin lying nearby. 

Before discovering the crime, Oshichi and her trusty sidekick Gorohachi (Takehiko Kayama) are talking to a kabuki actor who is about to undergo a succession ceremony which will cost a significant amount of money – 1000 Ryo. Gorohachi is mystified, wondering how many years he’d have to work in order to find that kind of money, while the two pickpockets outside wonder something much the same. The older of the two, Oshima (Keiko Yukishiro), wants to make sure the actor gets his money and has been desperately trying to get in touch with him but he is too snooty to see her. Oshichi starts connecting the dots between the pickpockets and the conspiracy to find a vital clue, but once again is keen to stress that “the law can be merciful too” as she both ensures that Oshima faces justice and allows her to find emotional fulfilment in revealing her true identity and finally seeing the show. 

Meanwhile, despite outwardly dressing in manly, action friendly outfits, this Oshichi is one more romantically inclined, fretting over the fate of her brother’s retainer Hyoma (Chiyonosuke Azuma) who, she thinks, has left his employ and become a drunkard. The drunken downward spiral of his life turns out to be a kind of undercover assignment, but provokes a little jealousy in Oshichi as she sees him “protecting” other women at a nearby restaurant, one of whom turns out to be Misuzu who holds a few more pieces of the puzzle. Vowing to save Misuzu and stop the conspiracy, Oshichi adopts a male persona complete with top knotted wig and takes on an entire boatload of sailors who stupidly tell her that they’re shipping out that very night. 

Oshichi rescues Misuzu and gets the money back, saving her father and “restoring” the status quo, but it’s difficult to see which side she should be on in this fight. As Gorohachi perhaps implies, it’s not exactly fair or responsible for the samurai class to be hoarding all these vast amounts of money, or for it to be necessary to spend the annual salaries of several ordinary people on an extravagant celebration for an actor’s promotion. We’re told that the rebels are “evil” and villainous, and they do indeed seem to be cruel and self-interested, willing to sacrifice anyone and everyone to achieve their goal, but it’s difficult to argue with the desire to stand up to this inherently oppressive system in which samurai corruption is the expected norm. 

Insisting that “the law can be merciful”, Oshichi serves a kind of moral justice, rescuing the innocent Misuzu and saving her wrongfully abused father while unmasking samurai corruption, but she remains a loyal servant of the Shogunate and a part of the system into which she was born. Oshichi has been permitted escape from her own oppression thanks to her “compassionate” brother who has allowed her to live freely in the city rather than pressuring her to marry and conform to the feminine norm, but living outside it herself seemingly has no sympathy for those who wish to reform the system and seeks only to preserve it. Having successfully solved the mystery, she reassumes her femininity and retreats into the cheerful festival atmosphere arm in arm with a clean shaven Hyoma finally embracing her romantic dream in an Edo freed from immediate strife. 


Short clip (no subtitles)

Detective Hibari 1: Case of the Golden Hairpins (ひばり捕物帖 かんざし小判, Tadashi Sawashima, 1958)

Two years after Mysteries of Edo and a year after its sequel, Hibari Misora returns as Oshichi in a new series of films, still living undercover in Edo solving crimes and living her best life as a singer and performer. Like Mysteries, Detective Hibari 1: Case of the Golden Hairpins (ひばり捕物帖 かんざし小判, Hibari Torimonocho: Kanzashi Koban, AKA Edo Girl Detective / Here Comes the Girl Detective) sees Oshichi investigating murders of women, though this time the crime is far less involved and much more typical of Toei’s period films in its venal samurai and their insatiable appetites for wealth and status. Oshichi is, essentially, an agent of the state but a much less ambiguous one than she’d become in the following pictures, fighting bravely against corruption and standing proudly for justice in the face of implacable samurai arrogance. 

Having escaped the cage of her noble birth, Princess Tae/Oshichi (Hibari Misora) is still living as an “ordinary” woman in Edo and has just won a singing competition to be named as Queen Beauty. The competition is marred however when one of the other contestants is offed on the way home. Still working with her trusty sidekick Gorohachi (Shunji Sakai), Oshichi quickly realises the woman seems to have been murdered with an ornate hairpin and starts an investigation.

What she discovers is that an unscrupulous gang of samurai is attempting to recover a set of three hairpins which were stolen in a robbery some years previously. The lord claims he’s doing it to satisfy his clan’s honour, but more likely has a less honorable goal in in mind. To put the plan in action, he’s mobilised his conflicted daughter, Sumie (Eiko Maruyama), who thinks this is all a bit much for set of shiny hair ornaments, and her boyfriend Tamiya (Kotaro Satomi) whose family originally owned the jewels which is why he sees it as his duty to get them back, even if that means murdering innocent women and sending the entire city into a panic in the process. Of course, Oshichi agrees with Sumie, and as usual immediately sympathises with her romantic dilemma which earns her a few sarcastic comments from sometime love interest Hyoma (Chiyonosuke Azuma) who will recur throughout the rest of the series.

Hyoma, posing as a drunken ronin but in reality shadowing Oshichi as a protector, like Kawashima in Mysteries, expresses consternation with Oshichi’s atypical feminity, echoing Kawashima’s words that “a woman should be feminine” while claiming not to find Oshichi’s manly fortitude very effective. Kawashima’s words may have wounded her, but Hyoma’s only irritate. She fires back that as a talented samurai he’s wasting his potential drowning himself in drink and he should “stop fighting and do something for society”. Meanwhile, she doubles down – dressing as a man and even joining a kendo dojo to spy on the corrupt lords, scrapping with the best of them and holding her own in a fight. 

Swinging the other way, another of her investigative tactics sees her posing as a geisha and then later as a noble lady, even getting dressed up in her formal princess clothes to beg a favour from her extremely understanding brother. Sympathy for Sumie and a few romantic songs may be the sole concessions to conventional femininity, but Oshichi remains proudly defiant and intent on maintaining her freedoms. It may be true that the unusual degree of freedom she has is permitted her because of her progressively minded brother who ignores “advice” from an elderly servant to exercise more control because he can see being of use to society makes his sister happy and that she’ll probably come home when she wants to, but it’s also freedom that she has actively chosen for herself and chooses to maintain. 

Oshichi gets drunk with Hyoma (apparently for the first time), fights bad guys, and gives orders that stop seasoned samurai in their tracks but not so much for herself as to help those like Sumie who have become victims of corrupt samurai ethics. She does this, however, as someone who largely believes in the righteousness of the system, that the Shogunate is kind and forgiving while local lords may be avaricious or cruel. When her brother arrives to save the day, he announces that the hairpins will be sent to the Shogun who will return them to the people, sharing the treasure with everyone rather than keeping it for himself. Oshichi, meanwhile has found something greater – a worthy sparring partner in the dashingly romantic Hyoma, and the confirmation of herself not as Tae the caged princess but Oshichi who owns the very ground she walks upon and allows no other to tell her where she may be permitted to go. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yasushi Sasaki, 1961)

The post-war world was one of increasing globalisation which brought with it anxiety as well as hope as Japan readied itself to step back onto the world stage. The populist cinema of the early ‘60s is marked by ambivalent attitudes to international influences, not just towards creeping Americanisation and its perceived costs but perhaps somewhat uncomfortably towards the wider world and Asia in particular with the same old prejudices which had marked the previous 20 years rearing their heads once again. Voice of the post-war era, the films of Hibari Misora are, by contrast, about as forward looking and progressive as it was possible to be but Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yurei-jima no Okite) in which she plays a noticeably smaller part, is a bizarre exception in which a “lawless” melting pot outpost must be “civilised” by Japanese influences else the creeping rule of thuggish Asian gangs finally reach Japan “proper”.

We’re deep in the Bakumatsu. The Black Ships have already arrived and there is considerable political trouble brewing back in Japan. That’s not our immediate concern however because we’re on a creepy boat with slovenly ronin Yagi Hanzo (Hashizo Okawa) and a mysterious woman wearing a cheongsam (Hibari Misora). Fellow petty gangster and slave trafficker Bunji (Chiyonosuke Azuma) is suspicious of Hanzo, but decides he’s probably just an unlucky retainer on the run from something or other and might prove useful. Therefore, on arrival at Dragon Island, Bunji starts on trying to recruit Hanzo for his boss Chou Yang Po (Isao Yamagata), but Hanzo’s his own man and he hasn’t come here looking for a job. Fearing Hanzo is a government official here to bring the law down on all their heads, Chou tries to force him to harm a man they have in custody and believe to be working for the state. Hanzo gets round this by breaking a chair over the man’s back but leaving him otherwise unharmed, keeping his cover (if that’s what it is) firmly intact.

During his stay on Dragon Island, Hanzo will meet several other shady characters, many of them dressed in outfits more usually associated with the Chinese, Indians, nondescript “islanders”, and strange movie pirates, but what must be assumed is that though Japan “owns” this distant island it is unable to police it and as such it has become a den of scum and villainy in which various tribal gangs vie for hegemony and control over the lucrative smuggling hub which has unwittingly formed in direct response to Japan’s unwise policy of internal isolation which is itself at breaking point thanks to Perry’s Black Ships which we later hear are also on their way to Dragon Island.

Our key into this conflict is the crazed child of the leading gangster, Isakichi (Hiroki Matsukata), who dresses like a cowboy and likes to showoff his hard-won saloon credentials as sharpshooting libertine and all round party animal. Hanzo is not as impressed by this as Isakichi was hoping though an awkward sort of camaraderie eventually arises between them. Meanwhile, Isakichi has fallen in innocent love with the sister of his childhood best friend who is deep into a putative resistance movement hoping to end the stranglehold the smugglers have placed over the previously peaceful island.

Misora’s Madame Song, for some reason posing as a Chinese sex worker, hints at the various ways nothing is quite as it seems in her astute observations of the world around her, sensing that Hanzo is hiding something but also assuming that he is on the “right” side. There is conspiracy everywhere – the putative revolution at home is sending its shockwaves all the way out here as our unscrupulous gangsters try to procure guns to send to various sides on the mainland, while Madame Song ironically laments that what Dragon Island needs is to be more like Japan which is to say ruled less by law itself than an internalised acceptance of the proper order of things. Uncomfortably, it also probably means sending the people who aren’t wearing kimono somewhere else and trying to stop them tricking nice women from Kyushu into coming to tropical islands where they discover they’ve been trafficked into sex work and are unable to leave.

Among Toei’s lower budgeted efforts, Law in Ghost Island bills itself as a supernatural tale and does indeed open with a creepy scene of a misty boat but Hanzo doesn’t end up anywhere like the isle of the dead only a fantasy tropical “paradise” filled with zany movie pirates. Somewhere between pirate fantasy and western, Law in Ghost Island is closer to the kind of spy spoofs Toho would start producing in a few years’ time and even ends with a strangely comic scene in which just about everyone reveals themselves as spy for the same side during the climactic final shootout having been too busy playing spy games to figure any of it out before.

The final messages too are uncomfortable and ambivalent as Hanzo affirms that if there were more “good samurai” Japan would not become lawless like it is here while also claiming Dragon Island for the mainland in fear external forces may use it as a base to attack Japan. The smugglers pay heavily for their “treachery” in contributing to internal mainland chaos while the revolutionary islanders declare their intentions to make the island a better place, which mainly seems to mean making it more “Japanese” which is a fairly ambivalent message whichever way you look at it. Misora only sings two songs and is relegated to a minor mystery in the strange goings on of Ghost Island which features absolutely no ghosts or supernatural intrigue. It does however perhaps shine a light on a strange moment of cultural flux however how unflattering that mirror may turn out to be.


Brief clip of some of Hibari’s songs (no subtitles)

Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Benten Kozo dvd coverStarting out as a child actress, Hibari Misora was one of the biggest singing and acting stars of the post-war period whose songs are often pointed to as embodiments of the era’s melancholy yet determined spirit. Though it’s her singing career which has perhaps had the most historical impact, Misora made an immense number of films most of them in ’50s and ‘60s, many typical star vehicles of the time – silly comedies and softer musicals, usually finding an opportunity or two for a song even in straight drama. Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧), released in 1960 for Toei, is very much of this mould and showcases another somewhat interesting facet of Misora’s career in her readiness to play ambiguous gender roles.

Based on the well known kabuki play, Benten Kozo, which had also been adapted two years previously in a version starring male actor Raizo Ichikawa, Sasaki’s film stars Hibari Misora in the title role – a 13 year old boy who was given up at birth to be raised in a temple which specialises in performing Noh theatre. Kikunosuke (Hibari Misora) is their star, but there’s a dark side to temple performing companies in that they’re dependent on donations and it’s accepted practice to allow wealthy patrons to do whatever they like with the talent, no matter their age or gender. Kikunosuke knows this and isn’t having any of it. Pushed into a room with a lecherous, overly made-up older woman, Kikunosuke balks at the old monk’s attempts to pimp him out and tries to leave, much to the monk’s disappointment.

Unfortunately, just as Kikunosuke is leaving, a thief arrives to steal the money meant for the monk and kills the old woman in the process. Kikunosuke kills the thief but is accused of killing the old woman too and is forced on the run. Tracking down his birth mother, Ofuji (Mitsuko Miura), Kiku thinks he’s found a home but is betrayed, at which point he adopts the name “Benten Kozo” (lit. “Benten Kid” where Benten is the name of the goddess at the temple where he was raised) and joins a gang of Robin Hood-style outlaw thieves.

Like many period films of the time, Benten Kozo revolves around exposing the corruption of the samurai order. In this case, it’s a salt scam – the samurai elders have been stockpiling salt to push the price up, endangering the lives of ordinary people for their own financial gain and thinking nothing of it. The thieves, led by later Lone Wolf and Cub star Tomisaburo Wakayama, are dedicated to robbing the rich to feed the poor but they also aim to expose those in power for the reckless bullies they really are. Benten Kozo joins the “Shiranami Five Alliance” both out of self preservation and out of genuine sympathy with their cause, eventually encountering the same corrupt monk who turned a blind eye to his attempted molestation when he intervenes to save a woman forced into prostitution to pay her father’s debt whom the monk was attempting to rape.

Benten Kozo listens to the woman’s story and decides to give her his savings (which he no longer wants after being betrayed by his mother for whom he’d been saving the money) to pay off her family debt. In fact the pair met earlier when Benten Kozo was on the run and she helped him hide from the authorities. The woman, like several in the film, falls for Benten Kozo’s androgynous charms though he remains resolutely noble and indifferent. Benten Kozo would originally have been played by a male actor on the kabuki stage which did not allow female performers. The “onnagata” or actors who specialised in playing women were often effeminate younger men or boys much like Benten Kozo himself who plays these skills to the max throughout the film.

Hibari Misora, with her low, husky voice, effortlessly switches between the elegant upperclass women Benten Kozo impersonates on stage and in service of the gang’s scams, and the rough and ready dialect of a street ruffian. In a shocking display of bravado, Benten Kozo drops the top of his kimono to show his off his tattoos proving once and for all that he’s no lady but still his appeal lingers perhaps precisely because of his gender ambiguity.

Benten Kozo is not a musical but finds two occasions for Misora to sing – once as Benten Kozo takes off on the road, and the other at the end as he paddles a boat away back to his new found friends. The film ends with a giant mass brawl and also provides ample scope for Misora to escape across roof tops and fight off the unjust but it’s otherwise fairly straightforward fare and not exactly among the singer’s most memorable outings. It is however generally entertaining and interesting enough in its central theme of woman playing man playing woman to warrant attention from more than just diehard Misora fans.


Hibari Misora singing Benten Kozo in concert some years later.