Espy (エスパイ, Jun Fukuda, 1974)

espy posterBy 1974 the Toho SFX movie was perhaps long past its heyday though Jun Fukuda’s Espy (エスパイ) was far from the last. Clearly influenced by popular spy franchises such as James Bond as well as more serious cold war spy dramas, Espy is a jet setting tale of superpowered assassins, international conspiracy, and love as an unexpected source of salvation, but as much as it embraces its hippyish message of total communication it also moves further into the realms of exploitation, skewing closer to Nikkatsu’s ’70s output than the more child friendly supernatural adventures of ages past.

The world is at breaking point. A small conflict in a tiny East European nation known as Baltonia threatens to spark a third world war. A UN delegation is currently en route to a conference in which they hope to settle the conflict in a peaceful way but all hope is lost when a sniper equipped with X-ray vision takes them all out with maximum precision.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, test driver Miki (Masao Kusakari) gets into trouble on the course when he swerves to avoid some pigeons. The car spins out of control but just at the last minute, Miki turns it around through his dormant psychic powers which brings him to the attention of the IPPG – the International Psychic Power Group. Following the assassination of the UN delegation, all eyes are on Japan where the prime minister of Baltonia is due to meet the US president in what is hoped will be a bold new development in international relations but the IPPG have reason to believe an attempt will be made on the prime minister’s life and only their ESP equipped team can stop it.

Espy takes the essential components of both the spy thriller in its international conspiracy set up, and the B-movie science fiction adventure in its presentation of the good and evil possibilities of advanced technologies or in this case innate superpowers. The Espy team are pitted against the Anti-Espy who have similar powers but are committed to using them to harm mankind. The leader of the Anti-Espy, Ulrov (Tomisaburo Wakayama), sees himself as a superior being to regular Earthlings and, believing that humans have overpopulated the planet which they continue to damage, is convinced the best solution is a mass cull. He plans to do this by helping the “lesser” humans destroy themselves by provoking a third world war or a hundred mini conflicts in which thousands will die.

Ulrov’s arguments tie in nicely with Toho’s trademark environmentalism and ambivalent attitude towards scientific development, but they go against the prevailing sense of humanism which is to be found in the studio’s genre output. In Ulrov’s fascistic view of the world, he and the other ESPers are a superior race whose existence is threatened by weaker humans and their reckless disregard for the planet as a whole. Due to a traumatic childhood incident, he believes that humans are cruel beasts who lust for blood and talk of peace with hearts filled with hate. He may have a point, but his message conflicts with the positive movement for peace which is advanced by the Baltonian PM who doesn’t want a world in which peace is brokered and balanced but one of true unity.

Espy is, however, of its time and fails to fully live out its peace and love ideals. Team member Maria (Kaoru Yumi) is kidnapped by Anti-Espy and taken to Ulrov’s lair where she is forced to dance lasciviously in front of fellow team member Tamura (Hiroshi Fujioka) with whom she shares an especially strong connection. Tamura’s arms and legs are cuffed as he communicates telepathically with Ulrov, semi-hypnotised by Maria’s strange dance. Maria is then approached by a large dark-skinned man wearing only a loincloth who proceeds to tear open her shirt at which point she snaps out of her trance, frees Tamura, and rips out the attacker’s tongue.

Meanwhile, new recruit Miki has failed in his mission and killed a man for the first time sending him into a kind of depression. Though Miki was introduced as the protagonist, he is in fact absent for most of the film though his journey is among the strangest as he reminisces about a foreign girl he was friends with as a child and enjoys an unusually strong bond with his intrepid dog, Caesar, who teaches the gang a few lessons about unconditional love. Maria is severely traumatised by her attack while Tamura reconsiders his sense of self worth having temporarily lost his powers, but eventually the team realise that their psychic abilities are nothing more than a manifestation of a great love. Ulrov later has the same epiphany but the team’s decision to consider him possessed by something “inhuman” is a worrying one. They don’t want to accept that it was humans who made him that way because it would be too sad, but not to do so is a failure to recognise humanity’s darkness as well as its light.

Espy bites off a little more than it can chew in failing to deal with some of the more interesting ideas it raises though it makes the most of its meagre budget to present an exciting spy thriller voyaging from Japan to Turkey and Switzerland. Skewing more towards Nikkatsu’s brand of exploitation action, Espy is definitely among the more adult orientated of Toho’s SFX adventures but its messages are broadly the same in its insistence on human interconnectedness as the ultimate superpower. 


 

One-Way Ticket to Love (恋の片道切符, Masahiro Shinoda, 1960)

vlcsnap-2017-04-14-00h33m57s991Although Masahiro Shinoda has long been admitted into the pantheon of Japanese New Wave masters, he is mostly remembered only for his 1969 adaptation of a Chikamatsu play, Double Suicide. Less overtly political than many of his contemporaries during the heady years of protest and rebellion, Shinoda was a consummate stylist whose films aimed to dazzle with visual flair or often to deliberately disorientate with their worlds of constant uncertainty. Like so many of the directors who would go on to form what would retrospectively become known as the Japanese New Wave, Shinoda also started out as a junior AD, in this case at Shochiku where he felt himself stifled by the studio’s famously safe, inoffensive approach to filmmaking.

By the late ‘60s that approach was itself failing and so the studio began to take a few chances on new young directors including Shinoda who was afforded the opportunity to script and direct his first feature – One-way Ticket to Love (恋の片道切符, Koi no katamichi kippu). Studio mandated programme picture as it was, Shinoda still had to play by some of the rules – notably that the title song which is a Japanese cover of the 1959 Neil Sedaka hit needed to feature prominently. Shinoda does indeed showcase the song throughout the film though he also paints a dark and unforgiving picture of the burgeoning talent management industry whilst sympathising with those trapped in the underworld to which the effects of growing economic prosperity have yet to trickle down.

Down on his luck 20 year old alto-sax player Kenji Shirai (Kazuya Kosaka) has resorted to hanging around stations in Tokyo alongside a host of other unemployed artists trying to get picked up for a job and having little success. His luck changes when a young female talent fixer, Miss Yoshinaga (Yachiyo Otori), finds herself in need of an alto sax player with immediate effect. Kenji is elated to find work but somewhat troubled when the club is abruptly raided, giving him a taste of the precariousness of the underground club scene. Nevertheless, Yoshinaga hands him a card and tells him to come to her office tomorrow in case she has any more work for him.

On his way home, Kenji comes across a distressed woman crying her heart out dangerously near a high bridge. Fearing she is about to commit suicide, Kenji comforts her and then takes her home for the night before introducing her to Yoshinaga the next day in the hope that she may also have work for a young woman – she does, but as a nudie dancer. Mitsuko (Noriko Maki) reluctantly takes the job leaving Kenji conflicted but there’s more drama in both of their lives to come in the form of “The Japanese Elvis” Ueno (Masaaki Hirao), Mitsuko’s married ex-boyfriend Tajima, and an errant pistol belonging to Kenji’s petty yakuza roommate.

Although Shinoda was less noticeably political than many of the other directors of the time, his sympathy remains with those who feels themselves to be oppressed or have in someway been cast aside by an unforgiving world. Kenji in particular feels himself to be just such a person, remarking that the world is a cruel place in which people look after their own interests and are prepared to use and discard those less fortunate in order to get what they want. Describing himself and Mitsuko as nothing more than offerings fit for burning on the altar that is the post-war economy, Kenji’s sense of hopelessness is palpable. Despite having acted to rescue Mitsuko from her suicidal contemplation, he feels powerless to help her in any other way and honestly tells her so each time she comes to him for comfort or assistance. Though his earnestness has an honest quality in its determination not to deceive, it also has an air of cowardice as he refuses to even discourage the woman he loves from doing something he knows she will regret because he has already decided that resistance is futile.

Mitsuko, by contrast, finds herself entirely without agency. Betrayed by the man she loved on discovering that he was already married and had been stringing her along, she finds it difficult to adjust to living life alone. Consequently she finds herself wooed by the big idol star of the day, Ueno, and then swept into a studio scam in which the pair are tricked into a sexual relationship with dire consequences for both. Ueno, who sings the all important title song at several points throughout the film, might be in a more comfortable position than Kenji but he is no more free. The studio’s prime cash cow, Ueno is pimped out to his hoards of screaming teenage girls and denied anything like a private life outside of studio control. As the latest dancer at the club, Mitsuko is assured that she’s going out there a rookie and coming back a star but her fate, along with Ueno’s, is entirely in the hands of the managers who can make or break a career at will.

If the interpersonal drama fails to convince, Shinoda makes up for it with unusually dynamic and interesting cinematography much more like the youth movies Nikkatsu were making at the time than the usual Shochiku stateliness. Looking much more like the European New Wave, Shinoda makes fantastic use of tracking shots and unusual framing to draw attention to the isolation of his protagonists. The club set finale featuring the title song is a masterclass in tension as Kenji roams around the audience, caught among the crowd of screaming girls before pausing for an up close contemplation of Ueno which leads him to his final decision. A programme picture, but one in which Shinoda declared his stylistic intentions if not his scripting prowess. One-way Ticket to Love dazzles with visual flair but never captivates on anything other than a superficial level as its story of love frustrated by social inequality and controlling authority fails to deliver on the melancholy promise of the title.


Final sequence featuring the title song by Masaaki Hirao (English subtitles)