Flesh Pier (女体桟橋, Teruo Ishii, 1958)

Teruo Ishii may be most closely associated with his exploitation work for Toei in the late ‘60s and ‘70s but in actuality he began his career at Toho, later joining Shintoho where he served as an AD to among others Mikio Naruse whom he regarded as a lifelong mentor. After making his debut with boxing movie King of the Ring: The World of Glory in 1957, he worked mainly in children’s sci-fi tokusatsu serials before sliding into B-movie noir of which 1958’s Flesh Pier (女体桟橋, Nyotai sanbashi) is an early example. 

Set firmly in the contemporary era, Ishii opens with a documentary-style voiceover exoticising the seedy underbelly of the city’s entertainment district hidden away in otherwise sparkling Ginza. Shooting in a bold reportage style, he captures a sense of natural spontaneity reminiscent of early American independent cinema transitioning directly into nightclub Arizona where a woman is furiously dancing. Arizona is as we’ll see the nexus of the recent proliferation of “call girl” businesses which have arisen since sex work was criminalised and in this case at least dependent on an international sex trafficking network backed by an American gangster, Thompson (Harold Conway). Salaryman Keizo (Ken Utsui) is a new customer, double checking that the business is “safe” before being reassured that they don’t deal with anyone they don’t know and have already vetted his identity, but when he reaches the hotel room he’s been handed the key for, he discovers the body of a woman lying in the bathtub and is forced on the run. The twist is that Keizo isn’t a bored executive after all but an undercover policeman working on breaking the trafficking ring. 

Co-scripted by Akira Sagawa, Flesh Pier seems to draw frequent inspiration from Casablanca only with the roles slightly reversed as replacement hostess Rumi (Yoko Mihara) finds herself wondering why of all the gin joints in Ginza Keizo had to walk into hers while the bar’s musician, Teruo (Teruo Hata), quite clearly in love with her himself, completes the triangular relationship. The couple even enter a Moroccan-style room while echoing Rick and Ilsa’s painful rehash of their Paris break up as Rumi tries and fails to explain why she left him on some previous occasion, Keizo remembering that she wore a white sweater and a blue coat to mimic Rick’s “the Germans wore grey, you wore blue” while the film’s ending is also hugely reminiscent of Casablanca’s “beginning of a wonderful friendship” only with additional romance. 

Nevertheless, the crime here is bigger and darker than most contemporary noir with awkward echoes of Japan’s prewar sex trafficking industry embodied by the karayuki as it becomes clear the gang’s business model relies on finding young women and luring them abroad with promises of good jobs only to force them into them sex work. Meanwhile one of the regular policemen, Hayami (Hiroshi Asami), gets a shock when he sets up a meeting with one of the call girls and is met by his own fiancée who, unbeknownst to him, has resorted to sex work in order to fund her brother’s tuition. “What else could I do?” she tearfully asks him making plain that in the difficult if improving economic environment of late 50s Japan sex work is still the only viable option for many women needing to support their families in the absence of men given persistent societal sexism which often locks them out of other kinds of well-paying jobs. Hayami perhaps understands this, drowning his sorrows with his veteran partner insisting that he’s sick of being a policeman and plans to quit only for the older man to sympathetically tell him not to give up so easily. 

Then again, Keizo’s secondary love interest Haruko (Akemi Tsukushi) is an intrepid undercover reporter posing as a model in order to bait the trafficking ring. Even so the primary drama revolves around Keizo and Rumi’s unfinished business along with her musician’s jealousy, the implication being more that her feelings for Keizo have clouded her judgement rather than reawakened a sense of moral goodness. Like many femme-fatales in post-war B-movie noir she is made to pay the ultimate price for her transgressive femininity in having firstly climbed the in-gang ladder and then damned herself in her conflicted love for the earnest Keizo even while suspecting he may be an undercover cop despite his acting like an underworld thug. These are indeed a new breed gangster much more like those seen in European and American noir rather than traditional yakuza while the environment of the Arizona is also something of a liminal space as the opening voiceover puts it in but not of Japan. 

While nowhere near as lurid as some of Ishii’s later work, Flesh Pier is certainly daring for the time period in the griminess with which it depicts the successor to the red light districts along with its air of forbidden allure even while its club scenes are in keeping with those found in other contemporary gangster tales if lent a little more realism in the immediacy with which Ishii shoots them making full use of documentary-style handheld. Expressing a degree of anxiety as regards Japan’s increasingly global outlook along with that of increasing social change, Flesh Pier is formally daring from the young Ishii artfully playing with classic noir while fully embracing the transgressive thrills of B-movie crime. 


The Lady Vampire (女吸血鬼, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1959)

Three years after the Vampire Moth, Nobuo Nakagawa returns to the realms of bloodsucking adventure with the misleadingly titled The Lady Vampire (女吸血鬼, Onna Kyuketsuki). The only “vampire” on offer here is male, though his victim is indeed a “lady” in being the descendent of a noble family apparently the subject of a mysterious curse which, along with her resemblance to a beautiful ancestor, makes her so attractive to the sensitive, artistic bloodsucker at the tale’s centre. Heavily influenced both by Hammer Horror and Universal’s monster films from the ‘30s, Nakagawa plays fast and loose with his mythology while indulging in a common though problematic association between vampirism and Christianity.

Beginning in high style, the film opens with a driver escorting ace reporter Tamio (Takashi Wada) to the birthday party of his fiancée Itsuko (Junko Ikeuchi) for which he is already very late. The driver stops the car believing he has hit a woman pedestrian, but she seems to have vanished. Later, Tamio spots her wandering around near Itsuko’s home, while Itsuko brings darkness into her party by accidentally cutting her finger and getting a suspiciously large amount of blood on her cake. This alarms Itsuko’s father Shigekatsu (Akira Nakamura) because it reminds him of something that happened right before his wife, Miwako (Yoko Mihara), mysteriously disappeared 20 years previously. 

Of course, the mystery woman turns out to be none other than Itsuko’s long lost mother who is discovered in a long disused room by her extremely confused husband. To everyone’s consternation, Miwako looks exactly the same as she did 20 years ago and for the moment is more or less catatonic. The doctors can’t explain it, and no one is quite sure what to do about this miraculous development. Itsuko stops to make sure Tamio isn’t going to put any of this in his paper, fearful that people will think of her mother’s condition shamefully as a disease or a deformity. Paying a visit to a local art gallery, the pair are shocked to discover that the prizewinning work by a previously unknown artist seems to be a nude painting of Miwako and begin investigating to find out if it has some connection to her disappearance and present vacant state.

Meanwhile, a “fiend” is making trouble in the modern city. The artist behind the painting, using the name Shiro Sofue (Shigeru Amachi), is a brooding, dapper young man in a dark fedora and sunshades with a white scarf fashionably tied around his neck. We learn that he has an extreme aversion to moonlight because it makes him go crazy, feasting on the poor hotel maid who was only trying to make his stay as comfortable as possible. Aided by his dwarf minion Tiny (Tsutomu Wakui), Shiro (not his real name), puts the body neatly outside like a room service tray and pleads ignorance when the police, and crime reporter Tamio, arrive to investigate the heinous murder. The same thing happens again in a Ginza bar where, for reasons not quite obvious, Tiny starts making trouble and smashes a window letting the moonlight in sending Shiro into a murderous rage where he slashes six women with Tamio watching from the sidelines. 

Shiro steals the painting back and delivers it to Shigekatsu where Miwako eventually sees it and regains her memories. At this point, Shigekatsu enlightens us about the “Matsumura curse” which dates back to the 17th century and the rebellion of Shiro Amakusa who led Japan’s secret Christians in revolution against the Shogunate but was defeated. His troops were massacred and he himself was beheaded as a traitor. The Matsumuras are apparently direct descendents of the Amakusa clan and so have “cursed” blood. “Shiro Sofue” is not Amakusa Shiro but a lovelorn retainer, Takenaka, who coveted the princess Katsu but was unable to have her. When she asked him to take her life to save her from the Shogunate forces he complied, but then drank her blood out of love for her and apparently became an immortal being with the occasional urge to sustain himself with the blood of other young women. 

How this became a “Matsumura” curse or really what the curse supposedly refers to is unclear, especially as Takenaka isn’t even part of the family but a lesser retainer damned by love for an unattainable princess. Like subsequent Japanese vampires, the “curse” is directly linked to Christianity. Takenaka’s sales patter uses heavily ritualised language he likens to a “baptism” . “Accept my love, and you will live forever in eternal, unfailing youth” he tells his victims after drugging them with sweet smelling flowers and dragging them back to his underground castle which is built in the Western gothic style and, ironically, filled with crosses. This vampire makes good use of mirrors and has co-opted religious imagery for his own ends. Later we see that he has attempted to find an eternal mate several times before, turning his victims into fleshy statues by placing a gold cross on their heads in the same way a Taoist priest might stop a hopping vampire with a Buddhist sutra. The final of these is a direct echo of the archetypal Virgin Mary statue found at Christian churches all over the world. 

Through this, the “curse” is rendered a foreign import existing outside of and presenting a direct threat to traditional Japanese culture, again aligned somewhat problematically with Christianity by way of an overly literal interpretation of ritual. The  settings too are predominantly Western – the European-style mansion, hotels, bars, and galleries, while Takenaka dresses in a billowing white shirt and cape, living in a stone “castle” built in a cave, and eventually fighting with a fencer’s rapier rather than a katana. His minions, however, have a slightly more diverse flavour in addition to Tiny with a giant mute bald man providing security and a witchy old woman looking like she’s just walked out of Throne of Blood dispensing advice with a seemingly more “Japanese” context. As usual, Itsuko becomes mere bait hysterically running around the castle chased by Tiny while intrepid reporter Tamio heroically battles both the bald man and Takenaka himself until the police finally arrive and bring “order” to this orderless place. The young free themselves from an ancestral curse and prepare to move on, no longer burdened by “bad blood” as they watch the past dissolve while preparing to move into a freer future.