Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

“No one can be happy without money” the villain of Seijun Suzuki’s Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Ankokugai no Bijo) claims, vainly trying to justify his actions. He may indeed have a point, but you can’t buy happiness through selfish immorality. A noirish tale of changing times, Underworld Beauty pits a noble hearted gangster on the road towards reform against his amoral bosses as he tries to ensure a better future for the sister of a friend whose life was irreparably changed through proximity to crime. 

Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima) has just been released from three years in prison. His first stop is the sewers where he locates a loose brick he’d been using as a dead drop and retrieves a handgun and a small bag containing three diamonds stolen in the heist which got him sent away. Paying a visit to his old gang, Miyamoto makes it plain that he intends to keep the diamonds for himself so that he can sell them and give the money to Mihara (Toru Abe), the man who was crippled during the job and now lives an “honest” life running a small oden stall. To Miyamoto’s surprise, his boss, Oyane (Shinsuke Ashida), says OK and offers to set him up with a foreigner in Yokohama who is interested in buying blackmarket jewels. Unfortunately, the whole thing goes south in predictable fashion when a gang of masked heavies turns up to disrupt the deal. Mihara, who had come along with Miyamoto, swallows the diamonds and promptly falls off a nearby wall. He survives just long enough to tell the police that he “slipped” thanks to his unsteady legs, which makes his death “accidental” meaning he won’t have to undergo an autopsy. That’s both good and bad for the crooks. The cops won’t find the diamonds, but getting them back before the body is burned is going to be difficult. 

Arita (Hiroshi Kondo), a sculptor of mannequins, finds himself perfectly primed to find a solution because he’s been dating Mihara’s little sister, Akiko (Mari Shiraki), who’d been working as a nude model. Mihara had talked to Miyamoto about his sister and his fears for her in the big city. Feeling his debt even more since his friend’s death, Miyamoto decides to save Akiko from the evils of city life, but finds himself fighting an uphill battle. Meanwhile, Akiko is smitten with the intellectual yet cold Arita, who may perhaps be more interested in her for access to her brother’s body than to her own. 

The diamonds themselves become a kind of MacGuffin and symbol of amoral post-war greed. Having been away for three years, Miyamoto is the classically conflicted film noir hero, a noble yet compromised figure forced to operate in a murky moral universe that is at odds with his own sense of justice. That is perhaps why he tries so hard to “save” Akiko even if she resents his sometimes patronising paternalism that, well-meaning as it is, denies her the agency that is a mark of the age. Mihara warned his sister about hanging out with Arita, suspecting he was a no good guy likely to drag her further into the underworld which he had now escaped, but she sees him as “different” from the men around her, mistaking his coolness for sophistication rather than a possibly sociopathic superiority complex. 

Yet it’s perhaps a sense of inferiority which sends him so crazy about the diamonds. A tortured artist slumming it in a mannequin factory, he resents the way he’s chosen to “sell” his art while superficially laughing at those who buy it. There is something quite perverse in the various ways he is “using” Akiko, literally commodifying her body and turning it into a lifeless object, a simulacrum of “real” womanhood sans voice or agency, all the while planning to use her in order to get his hands on the diamonds. Figuring out Arita may have mutilated her brother’s body in order to dig them out, she wonders if he ever really loved her at all. His sudden declarations of affection and an impromptu proposal only further convince her that what he wants is money. She hides the diamonds inside the breast of a half-baked mannequin, just about where the heart ought to be. Later we spot the poor thing dismembered and abandoned, a gaping hole in its chest as it floats ominously in the sewer, discarded in just the way a woman like Akiko might be if she’d let a man like Arita get his hands on the loot. 

Kidnapped as leverage to force Miyamoto to hand the diamonds over, Akiko loses her fascination with underworld darkness in learning what the “yakuza code” really means. “What do you mean, the yakuza way?” She barks at Oyane, “it’s wrong to kill, you idiot!”. Literally steamed clean and making an ironic escape up a coal shoot, she edges towards a new dawn. “What a beautiful day!” She exclaims, declaring herself not bored in the least, freed from the false promises of the underworld and released from the diamonds’ corruption into the bright sunshine of a wide open future.


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)