Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Makoto Sato, 1992)

Image ©️ Murai Osamu

With a crew of seven including himself, director Makoto Sato spent three years embedded within the small communities along the Agano River capturing a disappearing way of life but also the resilience of the elderly residents many of whom are unrecognised victims of Minamata disease caused by the chemical discharge from the Showa Denko chemical plant. 

“Kids don’t care about our rivers and our mountains” 80-year-old Miyae Hasegawa reminds her husband on the phone to their oldest daughter as she once again tries to convince him that he’s too old for the intensive labour of farming their rice paddies. Like many, the Hasegawas’ children have fled the rural village for more comfortable lives in the cities while their parents attempt to preserve their traditional way of life. “Gradually we realised that these rice paddies were their entire existence” the film crew later reflect, almost pitying them as they witness these quite elderly people bent over still harvesting the rice in their 80s while discovering on trying to help them that the work is far more difficult than they could have imagined not, presumably at least, very used to physical labour at least of this kind. 

Even so, “humans are cruel” Yoshio Hasegawa laments to his son having had too much to drink, somewhat ambivalent in having become proficient at catching salmon by hook. After all, the fish are only trying to live but humans keep pulling them out of the water. Later we watch him hook fishing at the river, the camera cutting to black as another man takes a fish he’s caught on a hook and bashes its brains in. Ironically, as the voiceover explains, Miyae had worked on the construction of the Kanose hydraulic dam in the 1920s which later powered the fertiliser plant which then became Showa Denko. After completion of the Yogawa dam in 1963, the fish ominously disappeared from the river and with them the traditional practice of fishing by hook.  

Many in the small communities along the water had welcomed the arrival of modernity that the Showa Denko plant had represented, some still remaining loyal to the company despite knowing what they know unable forget that they had benefitted economically from the factory’s existence. Ebana, meanwhile, who had worked for Showa Denko for 34 years now runs regular patrols of his local area monitoring for the possibility of landslides behind the plant. He was the only employee to sue Showa Denko as a victim of Minamata disease though the company’s attempt to transfer him out of the area when he did so put others off following his example, as did the degree of animosity towards him as others feared for their own economic stability or resented him for betraying his employers. Though the chemical emissions from the plant which flowed into the Agano have been acknowledged as the cause of the disease, the government introduced increasingly strict criteria for official recognition as a Minamata victim leaving many along the Agano unrecognised and therefore ineligible for support or compensation. Those involved in the ongoing legal case were required to make an arduous journey to Niigata once a month by bus or car, a heavy imposition on a community which is often elderly and suffering physical disabilities caused by the illness. As one elderly woman talks of her arched hand which she cannot straighten, a man shows her his burned foot after treading on the heated rail for his bath and being unable to feel it because of the loss of sensation caused by the Minamata disease. 

The fact that the river by which so many lived became actively harmful contributed to the rural exodus and decline of traditional ways of life along with skills which may then die out with no one to pass them on to. Boatmaker Endo had long since retired from making boats and had never taken on any apprentices but at an advanced age finally consented to teach a local carpenter how to make boats the traditional way, a special Shinto ceremony conducted as the next generation boat is completed. Meanwhile we also see a Shinto ceremony performed for the Mushi Jizo which protects people from disease born by insects such as the tsu-tsu living in the river which both gives and takes. Gently observational, Sato captures these disappearing ways of life with a poignant lyricality while equally addressing the politicisation of life along the river in a sense poisoned by modernity as the villagers must come together to fight for justice in a society which seems to have all but forgotten them. 


Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Aga ni Ikiru) streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free Jan. 17 – 24)

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Kihachi Okamoto, 1959)

By 1959, Japan was well on the way towards economic recovery but this transitionary period brought with it its own dilemmas and particularly for those whose main line of business had in a sense depended on instability and desperation. The first of Kihachi Okamoto’s early crime capers, The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Ankokugai no kaoyaku) finds the yakuza at just this moment of crisis, prescient in a sense in perhaps prematurely implying that post-war gangsterdom was already on its way out. 

The film opens, however, with a piece of yakuza thuggery as a mysterious man guns down an industrialist before barreling down the stairs and into a waiting car occupied by getaway driver Mineo (Akira Takarada) who is inconveniently spotted by a passerby, 16-year-old ramen restaurant waitress Kana (Rumiko Sasa). As we discover, Mineo is the younger brother of veteran gangster Ryuta (Koji Tsuruta), a middle-ranking member of the newly rebranded, rapidly corporatising yakuza outfit Yokomitsu Trading who seem to specialise in legal debt collection and running the entertainment district. Torn between their desire for a degree of legitimacy and their thuggish instincts, Yokomitsu have evidently knocked off a rival using an external hitman but now have a problem on their hands especially as Mineo has apparently embarked on a career as a singer in a teen jazz bar located in the same area as Kana’s restaurant which is at the very least unwise. 

Mineo is in many ways the “innocent” seen in many other similarly themed yakuza dramas, still too young to have been corrupted by the underworld and only an accomplice in the crime for which he is being asked to pay. He wants to get out of the yakuza life and sees singing as his escape route, adopting the persona of “Eddie Mineo” and styling himself as a teen idol in the vein of the rock ’n roll American pop culture which seems to be dominiating the late ‘50s youth scene. Yet Okamoto is also clearly evoking the world of Hollywood crime cinema, the environment open and dusty while everyone seems to drive massive Cadillacs and his gangsters behave much more like those in American movies than traditional yakuza even as the traditional yakuza is also changing. 

“I can’t stand it anymore” Ryuta finally exclaims, “There’s neither righteousness nor rules among mobsters”, tipped over the edge by the gang’s plan to kill the teenage witness. He wants out too, but considers himself already too far gone while pulled in two directions in his desire to save both his brother and his young son who has a lame leg and is being cared for in a hospital. Ryuta wears his wedding ring throughout though there’s no mention of what happened to his wife, while he’s also pulled between two potential love interests in the sympathetic doctor who cares for his son, Sumiko (Yumi Shirakawa), and the brassy cabaret girl, Rie (Mitsuko Kusabue), who does her best to save him, but in the end is never very much interested in either of them. He’s constantly haunted by his crimes, knowing what happens to yakuza who fall from grace in his murder of a man who limped and walked with a crutch just like his son. 

The clan are also planning to off a former foot soldier, Ishiyama, who in fact commits suicide immediately after his release from prison realising the futility of his position. Ishiyama’s suicide note directly references that of notorious post-war gangster Rikio Ishikawa whose life inspired Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor 15 years later “I took too big a gamble. lt’s a big laugh. It’s been a thirty year long spree.“ Ryuta realises there’s no way out of his life of crime, but finds himself conflicted even in his desire to ensure his brother and son remain free of it. His sense of futility is however wider, witnessing the death and decline of the traditional yakuza in itself the film climaxing in a moment of yakuza apocalypse as those apparently sick and tired of violence and intimidation finally fight back making it clear that organised crime is no longer welcome in the increasingly prosperous society. 

Skewing darker in tone than Okamoto’s subsequent entries into the “ankokugai” or “underworld” series, The Big Boss is lighter on his characteristically absurdist sense of humour but does feature a little of the exaggerated, cartoonish violence otherwise his hallmark while adding a note of irony as in his use of a sign outlining the numbers for police and ambulance or the sight of a bunch of children playing with guns while a hitman has a go on the swings. There is perhaps a sense of resistance to the conventionality of the material or that his relative inexperience, this being only his third film (the first two both romantic comedy vehicles for Izumi Yukimura) prevented him from fully embracing his anarchic spirit but The Big Boss nevertheless sows the seeds of his later career in its insistence on the absurdity of violence. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Beast Shall Die (野獣死すべし, Eizo Sugawa, 1959)

“He’s not a beast. No, he’s a robot. A machine created by a modern, twisted society” according to a frustrated policeman acknowledging that a sociopathic killer is going to get away with his crimes because when it comes right down to it he’s just that good. Eizo Sugawa’s The Beast Shall Die (野獣死すべし, Yaju Shisubeshi) is the first of several adaptations of the hardboiled novel by Haruhiko Oyabu, Sugawa would himself direct a “sequel” 15 years later while a better-known version would prove a hit for Toru Murakawa in 1980 with action star Yusaku Matsuda in the leading role, and a two-part V-cinema adaptation would follow in 1997. The 1959 edition however is very much an expression of the anxiety of its times, a slightly reactionary take on the post-Sun Tribe phenomenon hinting at a generational divide between the nihilistic, hyper individualist post-war generation and their confused though morally compromised forbears. 

As the film opens, three policemen meet in a pub one of whom proudly shows off a Robby the Robot toy he’s picked up for his young son and is intending to give him on returning home from work. Sadly, however, Okada (Akira Sera) will never make it home because, for largely unexplained reasons, he is shot dead by nihilistic American literature student Date (Tatsuya Nakadai) who bundles the body into the boot of a car which he then simply abandons. Date never reveals much of a motive for this first murder, but he does later use Okada’s warrant card and service weapon to facilitate later crimes. 

The problem, at least for earnest policemen Kawashima (Eijiro Tono), a veteran cop and father of seven, and idealistic rookie Masugi (Hiroshi Koizumi) who is engaged to barmaid Yoko (Yumi Shirakawa) but drags his feet over the marriage because of his precarious life as a law enforcement officer, is an ideological divide within the contemporary police force. “Investigations are about science. And science is the best” according to their boss, reflecting a new faith in forensics prioritising physical evidence from the crime scene over a policeman’s intuition. From a modern perspective, this seems to be the right call though Kawashima and Masugi appear to find it both restrictive and mildly insulting as if their experience on the job now counts for nothing. They also worry that such rigid thinking prevents thorough investigation, and they might have a point in the boss’ continued insistence that the crimes must be down to “gang activity” even though the evidence clearly points at someone connected to the university or perhaps a disgruntled salaryman with access to the uni gun club. 

Kawashima and Masugi lament that they feel powerless to act because they don’t have the right to arrest someone on the basis of a “hunch”, and the film seems to agree with them as Date continues to commit his crimes unbothered by law enforcement though really who wants to live in such an authoritarian society that the police can haul you in solely because they think there’s something odd about you and “feel” you must be guilty of a crime even in the absence of conclusive evidence? Nevertheless it’s precisely these ideological divides that Date wilfully exploits while planning his hits, his second targets also reflecting the continuing Sinophobia of post-war cinema in impersonating a police officer to rob, but interestingly not kill, a pair of Chinese gangsters running an illegal gambling racket. 

Hearing Date’s back story, we realise that society has in a sense warped him in witnessing an injustice done to his father which later led to his suicide while his mother was apparently engaging in an affair with the man who framed him. He strongly argues that the only response to the “chaos, madness, and contradictions” of the modern society is to “show our beastly nature”, wilfully abandon humanistic morality and conventional civility in favour of an individualistic satisfaction of one’s personal desires above all other concerns. Date is certainly an amoral man who has no problem with sacrificing those he determines to be lesser beings for his own gain, but as even Masugi reveals his thinking may not be out of line with that of his generation. Many people are driven to murderous rage, he argues, but do not act on it because of a social taboo. 

As the film opens, a group of left-wing students is holding a rally in support of the anti-ANPO protests ahead of the treaty’s imminent renewal, though the professors mock them from inside insisting that their politics is not genuine only a reflection of the despair they feel in their society knowing that even if they graduate all that awaits them are low-level salaryman jobs with little promise of advancement. Those who can’t even manage that, they joke, turn to academia. Date’s professor (Nobuo Nakamura) affects sympathy with his poverty but also wilfully exploits him, getting him to do translations of novels which will later be published under his own name while it seems to be an open secret that he owes much of his success to the fact that he married into a prominent family which allowed him to spend five years studying abroad in America. 

Meanwhile, his students philosophise on the psychology of crime insisting that a “robotic, truly ruthless personality” can only come from a “mechanistic society like the US” while Japanese criminals are generally “emotional” in that crimes are committed because of “love affairs, resentment, finances”, “petty humanistic motives” which society can easily understand if not exactly condone. Date, admittedly a student of American literature with his eyes firmly set on going abroad, entirely disproves this theory. His crimes appear to be dispassionate and committed largely for practical reasons, the later ones at least with money as the motive even if he also derives a thrill from his amoral rebellion against the system. His poverty is offered as a justification yet we also see him abuse and manipulate those weaker than himself, humiliating an old lady trying to sell flowers in the bar where Yoko works while later talking a fellow student suffering with TB and unable to pay his tuition into helping him commit a robbery. 

Perhaps in someways uncomfortably in continuing a motif associating homosexuality with sadistic criminality, it’s also heavily implied that Date is bisexual, encountering an effeminate young man on the street with whom it is clear from their conversation he has previously been intimate to later use him as cannon fodder when engaging in a firefight with Chinese gangsters, while there is also an obvious homoerotic charge to his relationship to the student who later becomes a temporary accomplice. His relations with women are somewhat caddish and perfunctory, his sometime girlfriend Tae (Reiko Dan) telling the police that Date is a player who only sleeps with the same woman three times before becoming bored with her. Date’s attitude, though interestingly enough not his crimes, may reflect a societal misogyny, impoverished medical student Tae later refused access to the morgue because it’s not something a woman should see, though Tae herself later claims that it’s Date’s coldness and cruelty that draw her to him. Seemingly unable to feel genuine emotion for others, it nevertheless appears that Date is in a sense moved enough by Tae’s ability to embrace his inner darkness to eventually decide to alleviate her poverty on realising he no longer needs his ill-gotten gains because he’s secured his passage to America through more legitimate means. 

A reaction to the post-Sun Tribe sense of moral panic about disillusioned post-war youth, The Beast Shall Die suggests that for the moment at least those like Date are in an unassailable position thanks to an overly liberal justice system as the two policemen lament their inability to prevent his escape through judicial means while turning their attention to Tae though there’s no real way they can know that Date gave the stolen money to her rather than taking it with him or depositing it in some other location even if she’s walking around with an ugly handbag that might be full of cash. Alternating between an acceptance of Date’s nihilistic, crypto-fascist philosophy in implying that those who obey the rules of civility are doing so solely because they are too weak to break them, and advocating for a more authoritarian society in which policemen are free to act on their “hunches”, Sugawa’s take on Oyabu’s hard boiled tale of societal corruption and warped post-war morality has its reactionary qualities even as it ends on a note of ambiguity that implies order will eventually triumph though not, it seems, today. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Amagi Pass (天城越え, Haruhiko Mimura, 1983)

There’s no statute of limitations on guilt an ageing policeman laments in Haruhiko Mimura’s adaptation of the Seicho Matsumoto mystery, Amagi Pass (天城越え, Amagi-Goe). Co-produced by Yoshitaro Nomura and co-scripted by Tai Kato, Amagi Pass arrives at the tail end of the box office dominance of the prestige whodunnit and like many of its kind hinges on events which took place during the war though in this case the effects are more psychological than literal, hinging on the implications of an age of violence and hyper masculinity coupled with sexual repression and a conservative culture. 

In a voiceover which doesn’t quite open the film, the hero, Kenzo (Mikijiro Hira / Yoichi Ito), as we will later realise him to be, likens himself to that of Kawabata’s Izu Dancer though as he explains he was not a student but the 14-year-old son of a blacksmith with worn out zori on his feet as he attempted to run away from home in the summer of 1940 only to turn back half-way through. In the present day, meanwhile, an elderly detective, Tajima (Tsunehiko Watase), now with a prominent limp, slowly makes his way through the modern world towards a print shop where he orders 300 copies of the case report on the murder of an itinerant labourer in Amagi Pass in June, 1940. A wandering geisha was later charged with the crime but as Tajima explains he does not believe that she was guilty and harbours regrets over his original investigation recognising his own inexperience in overseeing his first big case. 

As so often, the detective’s arrival is a call from the past, forcing Kenzo, now a middle-aged man, to reckon with the traumatic events of his youth. Earlier we had seen him in a doctor’s office where it is implied that something is poisoning him and needs to come out, his illness just as much of a reflection of his trauma as the policeman’s limp. Flashing back to 1940 we find him a young man confused, fatherless but perhaps looking for fatherly guidance from older men such as a strange pedlar he meets on the road who cheekily shows him illustrated pornography, or the wise uncle who eventually tricks him into buying dinner and then leaves. His problems are perhaps confounded by the fact that he lives in an age of hyper masculinity, the zenith of militarism in which other young men are feted with parades as they prepare to fight and die for their country in faraway lands. Yet Kenzo is only 14 in 1940 which means he will most likely be spared but also in a sense emasculated as a lonely boy remaining behind at home. 

He tells the wise man who later tricks him that he’s run away to find his brother who owns a print shop in the city because he hates his provincial life as a blacksmith, but later we realise that the cause is more his difficult relationship with his widowed mother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) whom, he has recently discovered, is carrying on an affair with his uncle (Ichiro Ogura). Returning home after his roadside betrayal he watches them together from behind a screen, a scene echoed in his voyeuristic observation of the geisha, Hana (Yuko Tanaka), with the labourer plying her trade in order to survive. Described as odd and seemingly mute, the labourer is a figure of conflicted masculinity resented by the other men on the road but also now a symbolic father and object of sexual jealously for the increasingly Oedipal Kenzo whose youthful attraction to the beautiful geisha continues to mirror his complicated relationship with his mother as she tenderly tears up her headscarf to bandage his foot, sore from his ill-fitting zori, while alternately flirting with him. 

Yet his guilt towards her isn’t only in his attraction but in its role in what happened to her next even as she, we can see, protects him, their final parting glance a mix of frustrated maternity and longing that has apparently informed the rest of Kenzo’s life in ways we can never quite grasp. Amagi Pass for him is a barrier between youth and age, one which he has long since crossed while also in a sense forever trapped in the tunnel looking back over his shoulder towards Hana and the labourer now on another side of an unbreachable divide. The policeman comes like messenger from another time, incongruously wandering through a very different Japan just as the bikers in the film’s post-credit sequence speed through the pass, looking to provide closure and perhaps a healing while assuaging his own guilt but finding only accommodation with rather than a cure for the traumatic past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Neither Seicho Matsumoto’s original novel or the film adaptation are directly related to the well-known Sayuri Ishikawa song of the same name released three years later though the lyrics are strangely apt.

The Last Gunfight (暗黒街の対決, Kihachi Okamoto, 1960)

“Times may change but there’s always a bunch of greed-blinded old men to rip you off” according to the sidelined noble yakuza pushed into the shadows of Kihachi Okamoto’s anarchic gangster romp The Last Gunfight (暗黒街の対決, Ankokugai no Taiketsu). Another of Okamoto’s early crime movies, Last Gunfight, adapted from the novel by hardboiled king Haruhiko Oyabu, as its name implies finds a stranger in town arriving at the tail end of a gang war in which the wrong side seems to have won hoping to offer a course correction for the post-war future. 

Branded a “dirty cop” and demoted to small-town Kojin, Fujioka (Toshiro Mifune) is a maverick officer exploring the local landscape by getting into fights with foot solders from differing outfits, quickly finding out that the Ooka gang are currently in the ascendent while old school Kozuka flounders. Improbably enough, the local flashpoint is over control of the gravel dredging business currently operated by Kozuka but contested by Ooka. Fujioka meanwhile is caught in a complex web at the nexus of which is Tetsu (Koji Tsuruta), a former Kozuka man who now runs a bar while he plots revenge for the death of his wife in a traffic accident he suspects may have been foul play possibly at the hands of Ooka man Niki, brother of brassy bar girl Sally (Yoko Tsukasa). 

Arriving on the same train as dodgy lawyer Tendo (Akihiko Hirata) and an exotic dancer destined for the club, Fujioka keeps his cards close to his chest leaving his loyalties all but clear. The station are less than thrilled to have him, especially as he spends his first night in town in one of their cells after starting a bar fight, waking up right under a sign which reads “stop violent crime”, while another earnest young officer reminds him that “policemen should never be involved in violence”. Fujioka continues to play both sides, cosying up to both Ooka and Tetsu, walking the line between cop and thug while seemingly scoping out the terrain on either side of the tracks. 

Meanwhile, the town is mired in a battle for its soul as the amoral Ooka gang slowly take over. As Kozuka foot soldier Yata (Makoto Sato) puts it, his boss is the sort who won’t have anything to do with yakuza who don’t obey the code which is why he won’t simply cut a deal with Ooka. According to Kozuka (Jun Tazaki), others might lump him in with “fools and trash” but he’s the old school kind of yakuza providing a genuine service to the community. He dredged the river to stop it flooding and was given the gravel business as a thank you so he resents having it stolen out from under him by the likes of Ooka who makes his money primarily through the drugs trade trafficking “China White” and has seemingly corrupted the entire city council. 

Then again, as Kozuka points out ties based on greed are the most fragile of all and it appears Ooka has secrets he’d rather weren’t exposed. Living in a Western-style mansion complete with open fireplaces and hunting trophies on the walls Ooka is laying claim to a fiefdom as the new inheritor of the feudal legacy. Tetsu’s bar, meanwhile, seems to have a Wild West theme which perhaps speaks of his love of freedom and independence as opposed to Ooka’s elitist authoritarianism. As a representative of legitimate authority Fujioka walks a tightrope between the two but eventually shuns a potential love interest in bargirl Sally, currently Ooka’s squeeze but playing her own game hoping to find out what happened to her brother, in favour of a bromance with the wounded Tetsu.  

Like Okamoto’s other gangster movies from this era however and in contrast to the heaviness of the title, Last Gunfight is imbued with a strong sense of irony and the director’s characteristically cartoonish sense of humour with its ridiculous fight scenes, elaborate production design, and playful subversion of gangster movie tropes right down to the frequent musical numbers starring a trio of minions clad in black suits and lip-syncing to songs about killing the moon. Ending as it began, Okamoto’s elliptical narrative sees the strangers leaving town, job done, but laying themselves bare as they go now shorn of their cover identities and headed back into the heart of corruption in search of new destinations.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Tai Kato, 1968)

Nephew of Sadao Yamanaka, Tai Kato joined Toho as an apprentice in 1937, returning after the war training under Daisuke Ito and Akira Kurosawa, but later moved to Toei where he became closely associated with ninkyo eiga yakuza movies and jidaigeki. From the mid-1960s, however, he made several movies at Shochiku which had, it has to be said, a house style that was almost the polar opposite with a clear focus on polite, family-friendly melodrama. 1968’s I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Minagoroshi no Reika) meanwhile is a surprisingly dark affair even among the grittier examples of Shochiku’s similarly themed B-movie thrillers, an avant-garde noir and proto-giallo in which the fugitive, serial killer antihero sees himself as an agent of divine justice in a hellish and immoral post-war landscape. 

Kato opens with a shocking scene of sexualised violence in which a woman is knocked unconscious, stripped, bound with telephone cord, and finally revived, forced to write down the names of four other women before being brutally raped and murdered by a killer whose voice we have not yet heard nor face seen. The police are mystified, attributing the woman’s death to the fact that she had worked as a bar hostess and maybe things like this are an occupational hazard for women who are surrounded by too many men. Her landlord, however, laments that hers is the second death to occur recently after a laundry boy threw himself off the roof. All things considered, he wishes the boy had picked somewhere else. 

The police have no reason to connect the two unfortunate events and so remain largely clueless, but we gradually become aware that the killer, Kawashima (Makoto Sato), is targeting the women because he holds them directly responsible for the boy’s death. He is the inspector that calls, avenging the death of this young man who, he has learned, like him hailed from Hokkaido and had come to the city at only 16 years old to earn money to support his family, saving almost all of his wages in the hope of opening a shop. Kato shows us scenes of a city under construction, a land of girders casting shadows on the ground like prison bars trapping men like these who are building the new Japan but will be discarded as soon the job is done and their labour no longer so much in demand. Kawashima has another reason for living like this, but he perhaps admires something pure and innocent in the desire of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune so that he might take care of those he loves and that this world betrayed that desire is something he finds impossible to forgive.

The five women have apparently done quite well for themselves, despite the fact that more than one of them has worked on the fringes of the sex trade. Their treatment of the boy is attributed to their boredom in the relative ease of their lives as monied women with little to occupy their time other than getting their kicks abusing the less powerful. It’s an uncomfortable role reversal that places women in a position of power and then sees them abuse it in the exact same way that men do, slinging back the same pithy justifications that men offer for sexual violence while the police meditate on the relative connotations of rape when the word is applied to a man at the hands of women rather than the other way around. If it were their sister, they could understand the desire to kill the men who had done it but a part of them struggles to see that a teenage boy may still find unwanted sexual contact a traumatic enough experience to push him towards suicide. 

Yet Kawshima appears to have no real connection to the boy, and his “revenge” is also a product of his misogyny in that as we later learn he also has reason to feel betrayed by womanhood and is already on the run from previous crime. Nevertheless, he is drawn to the innocent Haruko (Chieko Baisho), a girl-next-door type who works in his favourite ramen restaurant, only to discover that she too has a dark and violent past which may be why she seems to be drawn to him. He struggles with himself, but believes that he is taking revenge on a brutalising society defined by violence and abuse while sublimating his sense of emasculation in the face of women’s growing social and sexual freedoms in the post-war era. It is perhaps the post-war era which is cast as the major villain, one of the women later escaping her protective custody to dance furiously a hip nightclub only to return to the scene of her crime while refusing to see that she has done anything so “wrong” as to merit this kind of persecution. 

“The cycle of divine punishment must be fulfilled” Kawashima finally laments, acknowledging his grim place within this series of post-war tragedies. Surprisingly avant-garde, Kato experiments with blown out negatives, extreme close up, and deep focus mixed with his characteristic low angle composition to add to the sense of noirish dread which paints the modern city as an inescapable hellscape while even the romantic place of refuge shared by Kawashima and Haruko is a gothic moorland lit by moonlight and filled with eerie mist. Lurid and sweaty, the film has a grim sense of humour even in its oppressive atmosphere with a running gag devoted to the lead investigator’s painful case of piles, but its overriding fatalism nevertheless offers the hero a sense of redemption if only in acceptance of his narrative destiny. 


Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1982)

Until fairly recently, the work of Nobuhiko Obayashi had been largely unappreciated in the Anglosphere where he is associated most closely with his debut film House which was itself somewhat grudgingly respected as a “crazy” midnight movie. He was however surprisingly prolific and especially so for a director working through the difficult 1980s in a 60-year career which ended only with his death after a protracted illness itself ironically announced on the day his final film, Labyrinth of Cinema, should have opened in Japanese cinemas had it not been postponed in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Produced for television in the same year as I am You You Are Me, Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Kawaii Akuma) is among those which Obayashi did not script for himself but is penned by Machiko Nasu and apparently inspired by The Bad Seed though Obayashi later revised the script to remove traces of the original work unwilling to create a simple homage. 

Similar in tone to Obayashi’s later The Deserted City, Lovely Devils is at heart a twisted gothic romance cautioning against the dangers of an excessive thirst for love. In ‘70s Japan, a wedding takes place at small church during which 5-year-old Alice, niece to Koji (Hiroyuki Watanabe) the groom, becomes overly attached to the veil of the bride, Fuyuko (Nao Asuka), and in the manner of entitled small children everywhere demands to be given it. Fuyuko tries to explain that she plans to hang on to the veil for the rest of her life as a keepsake and is sure that Alice will have an even prettier one of her own someday, but Alice creepily asks if that means she can have it when Fuyuko dies and, wanting to bring an end to the matter, she unwisely agrees. While everyone is busy assembling for the wedding photos in the garden, Fuyuko violently tumbles out of an upstairs window, her broken body landing on the patio below only to be met by Alice excited about collecting her veil. 

Meanwhile, at the same time in Vienna, Fuyuko’s exchange student sister Ryoko (Kumiko Akiyoshi) is in the middle of a difficult breakup with her local boyfriend Johann in which she, perhaps understandably, tells him to go die only to see him get hit by a car on his way out of her apartment. Overcome with guilt and grief in believing that she somehow killed Johann by wishing for his death, Ryoko goes quietly mad until her landlady contacts Koji who comes to bring her home and places her into a mental institution run by a convent in which the resident psychologist, Dr. Tsukahara (Toru Minegishi), is also a priest. After three years, Ryoko seems to be sufficiently recovered and so Koji asks his sister Keiko (Miyoko Akaza) to take her in as a governess to the now eight-year-old Alice (Tina Jackson). 

The central irony is that Ryoko is almost certainly not guilty of psychically killing Johann just someone who bitterly regrets saying something unkind in anger and having fate ironically follow through, where as Alice is definitely “demonic” and, as is later pointed out, a child who cannot discern right from wrong. In the liner notes for a later release for the film, Obayashi likened the figure of Alice who commits a series of murders with no conceptual understanding that it’s morally wrong to kill to that of himself as a thoroughly militarist boy in wartime who thought that Japan was just and everything outside Japan “bad”. Alice sees something she wants and has to have it. If someone else has it and won’t give it to her, they have to go (sometimes in quite elaborate ways). Ryoko’s battle is against the commonly held belief that eight-year-old girls are innocent angels, no one in their right mind (Ryoko has just been released from a psychiatric institution following a breakdown after all) would believe Alice capable of violent murder and especially not on the grounds that she simply wanted something trivial like a veil or a doll and was unable to accept that she could not have it. 

Later, Alice’s fragile, chain-smoking, dipsomaniac mother Keiko who always suspected there was something not quite right with her little girl attributes this extreme possessiveness to having discovered the body of her father after he unexpectedly hanged himself in their family home (it does not seem to occur to Keiko that perhaps he is merely the first victim, his ornate quill pen one of Alice’s favourite trophies). She thinks that lack of paternal love has made her seek attachment and permanence in objects but also dangerously in her uncle Koji whom she sees both as a surrogate paternal figure and as an incestuous love interest. It is also somewhat unfortunate that the actress playing Alice and the character herself is half-Japanese playing into an uncomfortable stereotype in gothic horror that posits these demonic qualities and romantic perversions as essentially an extension of foreignness, but in any case Obayashi leans in deep with the wedding imagery as Koji returns to rescue Ryoko in the white suit from his wedding firstly on her release from the hospital on which she too wears a white lace dress, and then subsequently with the still eight-year-old Alice who is dressed much the same only with the addition of an Edwardian-style sun hat to complete the look.  

It’s this final juxtaposition which pushes Ryoko towards accepting her imprisonment as a “criminal of love”, seeing herself and Alice as two of the same as if she really had caused Johann’s death through an excessive desire for a love he had but refused to give her in the same way Alice kills “out of a longing and thirst for love” sublimated into the acquisition of objects. Conjuring an intense and heady atmosphere of gothic unease with the remote country mansion and wandering ghostly brides, Obayashi once again plays with psychedelic surrealism with his romantic painted backdrops and characteristic use of colourplay particularly in flashback as Keiko recalls a sepia-tinged memory of the time they were “almost too happy”. Boasting high production values despite its TV movie genesis, Lovely Devils is defiantly an Obayashi production filled with his wistful sense of loss and nostalgia but also a deep darkness in its mildly disturbing, unconventional conclusion. 


Blueprint of Murder (暗黒街の弾痕, Kihachi Okamoto, 1961)

Alongside its trademark tokusatsu Toho also had a sideline in genre-hopping B-movie comedy of which Kichachi Okamoto’s Blueprint of Murder (暗黒街の弾痕, Ankokugai no Dankon) is a prime example. Playing into a zeitgeisty anxiety about corporate corruption which led to several series of films revolving around industrial espionage such as Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants & Toys and the later Black Test Car, Okamoto’s ironic take on noir and globalisation anticipates the spy spoofs Toho would produce in the wake of Bond fever while quietly also perhaps poking fun at Nikkatsu’s crime melodramas.

The film opens with a young man, Kusaka (Ko Mishima), and his boss Komatsu (Ichiro Nakatani) testing an experimental car engine that would be ultra efficient and cheap to produce. The test goes well, but Kusaka is run off the road on the journey home, caught between a truck and a mysterious man on a motorcycle. Meanwhile, Kusaka’s brother Jiro (Yuzo Kayama), a whale hunter, is busy working on a new kind of harpoon when he gets a telegram from an old friend telling him to come home right away because his brother is dead. On meeting with Komatsu, Jiro starts to think perhaps his brother’s death wasn’t an accident. It seems there are a lot of people interested in this technology, some of whom would rather it not see the light because cheap, efficient engines are not good news for the oil industry. 

Hearing that Kusaka was recieving threatening letters, Jiro wonders why he wouldn’t go to the police, but Komatsu points out that it would have made no difference. Firstly, the police rarely get involved with cases of corporate espionage, and secondly if they did the blackmailers would win anyway because if there were a court case they would have to make full disclosure of their plans. Jiro tries going to the police himself and showing them that he has evidence, as well as the “instinct of a whale hunter”, which suggests that his brother was murdered, but nonchalant policeman Azuma (Tatsuya Mihashi) doesn’t seem very interested. Teaming up with an old uni friend, Sudo (Makoto Sato), who now runs some kind of scandal rag newspaper and is well connected around town, Jiro tries to investigate but soon becomes entangled in a complicated web of corporate intrigue.

Sudo, whose paper seems to be on the verge of bankruptcy, has some sort of game going with corrupt businessman Otori (Seizaburo Kawazu) who runs Goei Economic Reporting Agency which was one of three companies bidding for Komatsu’s engine. Later, Sudo’s main squeeze Tomiko (Kumi Mizuno) also tries to blackmail Otori by posing as the daughter of a man he drove to suicide after poaching technology from his company. Played at his own game, Otori is extremely disturbed to have this traumatic incident thrust in his face, and it quickly becomes clear that although he was onboard with various kinds of corporate duplicity, he had his lines and is worried to think someone might have crossed them on his behalf. 

Otori is right to worry, they are coming for him too. Eventually unmasked, it will come as no surprise to know that the big boss is from Hong Kong making this another quiet instance of Sinophobia betraying an essential anxiety about a newly global Japan. Meanwhile, Jiro’s problems are closer to home. He starts to doubt Sudo, warned off him as man only interested in money, and witnessing him play every angle to his own advantage. Sudo may be playing his own game but has his friend’s interest at heart and is simply trying to protect him from endangering himself in a world he does not understand. 

Rather than the fulfilment of a dangled romance, what we’re left with is the restoration of the friendship between the two men in which they ultimately re-inhabit their innocent student selves complete with a surreal game of air baseball while Tomiko and Komatsu’s sister Kyoko (Mie Hama) cheer excitedly from the sidelines. Okamoto throws in a killer punchline to an early whale hunting gag while piling on the absurdist humour in characteristic style with one unexpected pay off after another even as the guys find themselves in an increasingly murky world of corporate double cross, femme fatale nightclub singers with their own identical minions/backing bands, and rowdy gangsters while trying to ensure the little guy is still free to innovate outside of consumerist concerns.  


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The H-Man (美女と液体人間, Ishiro Honda, 1958)

H-man
Toho produced a steady stream of science fiction movies in the ‘50s, each with some harsh words directed at irresponsible scientists whose discoveries place the whole world in peril. The H-man (美女と液体人間, Bijo to Ekitainingen), arriving in 1958, finds the genre at something of an interesting juncture but once again casts nuclear technology as the great evil, corrupting and eroding humanity with a barely understood power. Science may have conjured up the child which will one day destroy us, robbing mankind of its place as the dominant species. Still, we’ve never particularly needed science to destroy ourselves and so this particularly creepy mystery takes on a procedural bent infused with classic noir tropes and filled with the seedier elements of city life from gangsters and the drugs trade to put upon show girls with lousy boyfriends who land them in unexpected trouble.

Misaki (Hisaya Itou) is not a man who would likely have been remembered. A petty gangster on the fringes of the criminal underworld, just trying to get by in the gradually improving post-war economy, he’s one of many who might have found himself on the wrong side of a gangland battle and wound up just another name in a file. However, Misaki gets himself noticed by disappearing in the middle of a drugs heist leaving all of his clothes behind. The police immediatetely start hassling his cabaret singer girlfriend, Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa), who knows absolutely nothing but is deeply worried about what may have happened to her no good boyfriend. The police are still working on the assumption Misaki has skipped town, but a rogue professor, Masada (Kenji Sahara), thinks the disappearance may be linked to a strange nuclear incident…..

Perhaps lacking in hard science, the H-Man posits that radiation poisoning can fundamentally change the molecular structure of a living being, rendering it a kind of sentient sludge. This particular hypothesis is effectively demonstrated by doing some very unpleasant looking things to a frog but it seems humans too can be broken down into their component parts to become an all powerful liquid being. The original outbreak is thought to have occurred on a boat out at sea and the scientists still haven’t figured out why the creature has come back to Tokyo though their worst fear is that the H-man, as they’re calling him, retains some of his original memories and has tried to return “home” for whatever reason.

The sludge monster seeps and crawls, working its way in where it isn’t wanted but finally rematerialises in humanoid form to do its deadly business. Once again handled by Eiji Tsuburaya, the effects work is extraordinary as the genuinely creepy slime makes its slow motion assault before fire breaks out on water in an attempt to eradicate the flickering figures of the newly reformed H-men. The scientists think they’ve come up with a way to stop the monstrous threat, but they can’t guarantee there will never be another – think what might happen in a world covered in radioactivity! The H-man may just be another stop in human evolution.

Despite the scientists’ passionate attempts to convince them, the police remain reluctant to consider such an outlandish solution, preferring to work the gangland angle in the hopes of taking out the local drug dealers. The drug lord subplot is just that, but Misaki most definitely inhabited the seamier side of the post-war world with its seedy bars and petty crooks lurking in the shadows, pistols at the ready under their mud splattered macs. Chikako never quite becomes the generic “woman in peril” despite being directly referenced in the Japanese title, though she is eventually kidnapped by very human villains, finding herself at the mercy of violent criminality rather than rogue science. Science wants to save her, Masada has fallen in love, but their relationship is a subtle and mostly one sided one as Chikako remains preoccupied over the fate of the still missing Misaki.

Even amidst the fear and chaos, Honda finds room for a little song and dance with Chikako allowed to sing a few numbers at the bar while the other girls dance around in risqué outfits. The H-man may be another post-war anti-nuke picture from the studio which brought you Godzilla but its target is wider. Nuclear technology is not only dangerous and unpredictable, it has already changed us, corrupting body and soul. The H-men may very well be that which comes after us, but if that is the case it is we ourselves who have sown the seeds of our destruction in allowing our fiery children to break free of our control.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Shinji Somai, 1981)

sailor-suit-and-machine-gunFor good or ill, Haruki Kadokawa’s entry into the film industry was to have a profound effect both culturally and commercially. Rising from the ashes of the studio system, Kadokawa’s stable of cute and perky idols presented him with the opportunity to build a multimedia empire formed of a union between cinema, books, and music in which each could be used to sell the other.

1981’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Sailor-fuku to kikanju) was one of his earliest successes and helped to solidify his approach. Featuring one of the biggest idol stars of the 1980s, Hiroko Yakushimaru, in her most iconic role, the film adapts a Kadokawa teen novel as its source material and includes an end credits song with the same title sung by the film’s star. It was a winning formula, but then Sailor Suit and Machine is not just another idol movie. Directed Shinji Somai whose work is much more well known in Japan than it is abroad, this strange story of a high school girl and her unlikely role as a yakuza boss is both a surreal coming of age tale and an arthouse influenced character piece which came to become the defining youth movie for a generation of female cinema goers.

Izumi Hoshi (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is now an orphan. Her mother died some time ago and today is her father’s funeral. Thinking herself all alone in the world, Izumi is surprised when an older woman, Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri), suddenly appears with a letter from her father claiming he asked her to look after his daughter if anything should happen to him. More surprises follow when her school is surrounded by black suited yakuza. Prophetically, the other students are terrified but Izumi marches straight up them to find out what’s going on. As it turns out, they’ve come for her – an uncle of Izumi’s father was the head of a yakuza clan and now that he’s dead they need a blood relative to succeed him. Izumi’s father out of thte picture, the position falls to his daughter, teenage high school girl or not. At first she refuses but realising that with no boss the guys will all have to die, Izumi relents and orders them to live. So begins her long, strange, not altogether successful career as the head of moribund clan of dejected yakuza.

In many ways, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is a parody of a standard yakuza flick in which rival groups vie for power in the crowded backstreets of a busy city. The idea of a tiny 17 year old girl heading up an organised crime syndicate and going toe-to-toe with grizzled fifty year old veterans is an inherently absurd one as exemplified by Izumi’s courtesy visit to the area’s most powerful gang boss in which he he more or less laughs her out of the office.

Despite the incongruity, Izumi is a tough kid and more than holds her own in the very male underground world. In her father’s letter to Mayumi, he describes his daughter as tough but naive – an analysis which proves true in her tenure as a yakuza boss. There is a degree of silliness in her actions, playing the role assigned for her as if acting a part in a movie but as her guys start getting knifed it suddenly doesn’t seem so funny after all. The film revolves around a mcguffin of some missing heroin which belongs to a gangster named Fatso but is also sought by rival gangs. Out of her depth, Izumi has no knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing drugs or even the reason why anyone would want them. This is a situation that can’t be blustered through and Izumi does not have the ability to navigate it.

The idea of an ordinary high school girl plunged into the criminal underworld is as ridiculous as it’s intended to be. However, Izumi is not quite the ordinary high school girl she first appears. Gangly and boyish, she is supported by three male friends who often flank her as entourage but always recede into the background, bowing to her leadership. Already dominant and possessing obvious leadership potential, Izumi’s bold decision to approach the yakuza at the school gates also hints at her curious and fearless personality, even if it also speaks to her youthful recklessness.

These more masculine qualities of forcefulness and dynamism as opposed the stereotypical image of the cute and submissive school girl are perfectly suited to her new life as a crime boss but for all of that her leadership takes on an oddly maternal quality. A wounded foot soldier remarks that Izumi smells like his mother as she’s awkwardly winding bandages around his torso, and the guys flock around her like they would the family matriarch. Tellingly Izumi later tells Mayumi that part of the reason she rejected her was because of her extreme femininity – something the adolescent Izumi did not quite know what to do with, especially given the maleness of her new environment.

Izumi’s short lived career in the yakuza cannot be termed a success in the normal manner of things, she acts honourably and may win a final victory but it comes at great cost. When Izumi finally picks up the machine gun of the film’s title for the intense finale, she finds herself enjoying it a little too much as the word “fantastic” escapes her lips seconds after letting rip intro a rival gang boss’ office. Rather than the romantic awakening which is the climax of many female centred teen movies, Izumi’s major consummatory event is with her machine gun. As she puts it at the end, Izumi’s first kiss goes to a (deceased) middle aged man and she looks set to become a “foolish” woman, her path into womanhood has been an unusually transgressive and as yet unresolved one.

Somai’s camera is is both slippery and precise as he casts us as voyeur in Izumi’s world, shooting through exterior windows and even at one point from behind the shrubbery. Preferring long takes and often at extreme distances, Somai mixes static camera with unusual fluidity for an effect that’s far more arthouse influenced than your usual teen idol picture. As with many of Kadokawa’s ‘80s movies, the film is steeped in the naivety of the teenage world view as Izumi goes about her new life with a kind of fearless determination despite the inherent violence and unexpected adult sexuality. A deserved classic, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is the archetypal Kadokawa movie, creating a vehicle for its idol star in the fascinating, iconic presence of its central heroine whilst simultaneously generating an enduring pop culture phenomenon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s star Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 35th anniversary celebration concert in 2013: