Mysteries of Edo (ふり袖捕物帖 若衆変化, Shoji Matsumura, 1956)

The voice of the post-war era, Hibari Misora was a major marquee star but in contrast to expectation, appears to have been fully in command of her contradictory brand, selling an image of herself not as docile and innocent in the manner of many a manufactured idol but feisty and true, refusing to backdown in the face of injustice. In her contemporary movies, she stood up to gangsters and corrupt corporations alike with salt of the earth charm, while her period roles saw her do much the same only against the inherently corrupt samurai order. An early outing for Toei, Mysteries of Edo (ふり袖捕物帖 若衆変化, Furisode Torimonocho: Wakashu Henge) sees her star in the first of a series of films as a princess in hiding turned feminist detective, investigating series of abductions in the rapidly changing bakumatsu society. 

A “newspaper” seller in the street informs us that 14 girls have recently gone missing in this area of town, and no one’s doing much about it. A dance teacher escorts her pupils home to be on the safe side while her apprentice, Oshichi (Hibari Misori), stays behind to teach cowardly samurai Kawashima (Hashizo Okawa) some moves. Local bobby Gorohachi (Shunji Sakai), himself a dance enthusiast, arrives to get some guidance from Oshichi but their lesson is interrupted by the news that the dance mistress and her daughter have become the latest two abduction victims. Oshichi springs into action but quickly falls under suspicion from a rival policeman, Gonroku (Haruhisa Kawada), who questions her background. All too soon, the body of a young woman is discovered at the local shrine and believed to be connected to the abduction cases. Gonroku accepts a bribe from a samurai to get rid of the body as quickly as possible, but Oshichi immediately notices the bruises on the woman’s neck and concludes it’s a murder. She and Gorohachi trace the samurai back to the red light district and discover some shady goings on in a “back house” behind a brothel belonging to a prominent merchant. 

During this era, Japan was still in its isolationist period during which consorting with foreigners was forbidden outside of a few explicitly designated trading spots. Oshichi figures out that the merchant, Nagasaki (Ryosuke Kagawa), is involved with smuggling and uses his second house as a place to entertain foreigners in collusion with local politicians. When he ran out of courtesans from the brothel next door, he started simply abducting random women off the street to entertain his guests with more authentic charms. Those who don’t comply are threatened with being sold off on slave ships, itself another evil of the age. 

Of course, a lowly dance teacher and a bumbling policeman aren’t much of a match for entrenched samurai corruption, but Oshichi has a trump card – she’s secretly a princess in hiding. Bored with the life of an upperclass noblewoman, she ran away from her brother’s home to live an independent life in Edo but can still rely on her class background when necessary. Stealing a pistol and a letter box, she rebrands herself as a man and gets a job in the ministry to try and spy on the corrupt lords while hoping to save her boss, keeping up the ruse well enough but eventually unmasked as a girl. 

As in many of her films, Misora plays on gender ambiguity. Rejecting the cosseted life of a lady, she takes to the streets and then takes charge. She’s technically Gorohachi’s subordinate, but in reality he follows her lead, and she gives as good as she gets in the frequent fight sequences. In the end, however, she’s “rescued” by a masked samurai dressed in white with whom she becomes instantly smitten. She dreams of meeting him in a deserted field where he mildly berates her for her lack of femininity, insisting that he liked “the Oshichi from before”, meanwhile she conjures up the figure of Kawashima who manfully wades in to save her. Previously, in refusing to help, Kawashima had told her that “a woman should know her place and act like a woman”. Oshichi tells him perhaps he should act like a man, practice kendo or something else more manly rather than prancing about learning to dance. His words have perhaps cut her because he tells her the same thing in her dream, insisting that he “could fall for the womanly Oshichi”.

Oshichi tries on womanliness for size, but it only seems to confuse the “real” Kawashima who describes her attempt at genial femininity as “creepy”. She quickly goes back to holding her own, pushing forward where the men hold back perhaps bashful in love but never in justice. Even if it’s true that the dashing samurai arrives to save the day, Oshichi is no damsel in distress watching passively from the sidelines but an active participant threatening bad guys with a gun cunningly smuggled in while she distracted them with a song, and grabbing a sword off the wall to wade into the fray. Rewarded for her good work and asked what she’d like in return, Oshichi chooses her freedom, intending to stay in the town a little longer, solving crimes in old Edo and ensuring that no one, even those who think they have a right to be, is truly above the law.


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)

Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Tadashi Sawashima, 1966)

actress vs greedy sharks soundtrack albumA studio director at Toei, Tadashi Sawashima is best remembered for his work in the studio’s ninkyo eiga genre – prewar tales of noble gangsters, and samurai movies but he also made the occasional foray into the world of musical drama, teaming up with top name singing star Hibari Misora on a few of her historical action musicals. In 1966’s Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Kobanzame Oyakusha Jingi) Hibari once again plays a dual role though this time her casting is entirely arbitrary and the visual similarity of the legit actress and the acrobatic outlaw is never explicitly remarked upon.

The action opens with Shichi (Hibari Misora), an acrobat and member of a Robin Hood style band of outlaws (they don’t so much give to the poor as “share” with the less fortunate) interrupting the plot of Yamitaro (Yoichi Hayashi) – a nobleman in disguise to pursue revenge against corrupt lord Doi (Eitaro Shindo) who exiled his father to Convict Island when he began to raise questions about judicial corruption. Meanwhile, Yuki (also played by Hibari) is a top stage actress who is plotting against Doi for sending her father to Convict Island 20 years previously on a trumped up charge. Just as the “tomboyish” Shichi is beginning to fall for the mysterious Yamitaro, he teams up with Yuki to pursue their mutual quests for revenge which has Shichi feeling (needlessly, as it turns out) betrayed and vengeful.

Once again, the samurai order is shown to be corrupt beyond redemption. Doi, a greedy lord, is planning to sell off his only daughter, Ran (Yumiko Nogawa), as a concubine to the shogun. Meanwhile, he is also engaging in a rice profiteering scheme in order to bolster his financial resources. He is also still misusing his influence, just as he did when he had Yuki’s father sent to prison and got rid of Yamitaro’s so he couldn’t expose him.

As in her other movies, Hibari cannot allow this corruption to continue and becomes a thorn in the side of authority. However, the situation this time around is further complicated by her double casting in which she plays two visually identical characters who are, nevertheless, entirely unrelated and the resemblance between them entirely unremarked upon. The “tomboyish” Shichi, apparently falling in love for the first time much to the confusion of herself and others who regarded her lack of traditional femininity as a barrier to romance, becomes awkwardly resentful of the graceful Yuki whose charms she assumes will sway the handsome Yamitaro. Shichi does not seem to consider a class barrier between herself and Yamitaro as a problem but fears his natural affinity with a woman she perceives as superior to herself in her refinement, yet Yuki proves herself as staunch a fighter as Shichi and just as feisty. She appears to have little romantic interest in Yamitaro even if she resents Shichi’s rather blunt instructions to back off, and aside from concentrating on her revenge, spends the rest of the film dealing with the rescue of Doi’s daughter Ran who has drawn inspiration from her stage performances to rebel against her cruel fate and father.

Ran is just another symptom of her father’s corruption in his obvious disregard for her feelings as he prepares to send her off as a concubine to buy himself influence with only the mild justification that her ascendence to the imperial court is an honour even if she will never be a wife, only one of many mistresses. Unlike Ran, Yuki and Shichi have managed to seize their own agency, living more or less independently and as freely as possible within the society they inhabit. Experiencing differing kinds of bad luck and betrayal, they find themselves at odds with each other yet on parallel paths despite their obvious dualities.

With less space for song, Hibari’s dual casting does at least offer twice the fight potential as the outlaw and the actress finally find themselves on the same side to tackle the persistent injustice of Edo era society as manifested in the corrupt Doi and his slimy cronies gearing up for the mass brawl finale in which the wronged take their revenge on the wicked lord by proving him a villain in the public square and earning themselves not a little social kudos in the process. All of which makes the strangely melancholy ending exiling one aspect of Hibari to the outer reaches somewhat uncomfortable but then it does provide an excuse for another song.


Hibari’s musical numbers

Ghost in the Well (怪談番町皿屋敷, Toshikazu Kono, 1957)

Ghost in the Well poster 2Love across the class divide threatens to overthrow the social order. Inspired by the classic folktale Bancho Sarayashiki, Ghost in the Well (怪談番町皿屋敷, Kaidan Bancho Sarayashiki) is indeed the story of a haunting though perhaps not altogether of the kind you might be expecting. This is a tale of romance, but also one of impossible love in which the only possible union is in death. The pure love of a servant girl is deemed incompatible with the oppressive world of samurai honour, and so she must die, but her lord cannot survive it. He cannot reconcile himself to having chosen to preserve his honour, his status, his lineage at the cost of her life and his love.

Rowdy samurai Harima (Chiyonosuke Azuma) loves making trouble in the streets. As the lord’s bannerman he knows he has a degree of status and likes to throw his weight around in the yoshiwara, much to the lord’s consternation. Harima has also taken a fancy to one of his maids, Okiku (Hibari Misora), who continues to reject his advances despite returning his affections because she knows the class difference makes a legitimate relationship between them impossible and a dalliance with her lord means losing the opportunity to marry anyone else. Harima tells her that there’s no such thing as status when it comes to love and that he doesn’t think of her as a passing infatuation. Eventually Okiku gives in and a kind of promise is made between them.

Nevertheless, it’s a promise which can’t be kept. The Aoyama family is in trouble and the obvious answer is to make a good match for Harima that will restore both status and wealth. When one of Harima’s friends is ordered to commit seppuku for the exact same petty punk antics Harima gets up to all the time matters come to a crunch. To keep him safe, Harima’s uncle arranges a marriage with an influential family. Harima tries to refuse but he too is more or less powerless even if he weren’t torn between the obligation to his samurai code and his illicit love for servant girl whom he would never be permitted to make his wife. To cement the match, Harima’s uncle has prepared 10 precious plates as a dowry, but Okiku, catching sight of Harima’s bride-to-be, drops one and breaks it in two. Her fate is sealed. Harima draws his sword on her and she backs away, eventually falling into the well and dying there.

The broken plate is, of course, a symbol of their broken covenant but also of Okiku’s shattered dreams as she watches a beautiful but haughty woman steal away her last hope of happiness solely through the accident of noble birth. As her friend tells her, a commoner cannot become the wife of a samurai and all Okiku can do is resign herself to her unhappy fate. Having broken the plate, however, all is lost. The men of the household admit their responsibility for entrusting the entirety of their future to a mere slip of a girl in the middle of intense heartbreak, but Okiku cannot go unpunished and Harima must claim his new life by destroying his past love.

Harima does what he’s supposed to do, if in passion and half by accident. Yet the marriage remains broken, the family in jeopardy, and Harima without hope of future. The ghost of Okiku, real or imagined, haunts him while he remains guilt ridden and filled with regrets. Despite his rowdiness and manly pride, he chose his samurai honour and condemned his one true love to a lonely death. Her love has, however, survived and resurrected her not as a demon of vengeance come to lead him to his doom but as a lovelorn woman keen to remind him of the promise he made and broke but which might be mended.

Harima pays for his transgressions, though more as a mischievous samurai who allowed his over inflated ego to convince him he had the right to oppress his fellow retainers than as a man who caused the death of an innocent woman, first by corrupting her and then by the same rigidity which has led to his present predicament. There can be no “love” in a such a society, let alone the love of a bannerman and a servant girl. Theirs is a blood wedding, uniting them in death, consumed by the impossibilities of the samurai era. At only 45 minutes, Ghost in the Well is perhaps a slight retelling of the tale and somewhat in imbalanced in its presentation of the fates of the two lovers but is nevertheless a refreshingly romantic take on an often dark story in which a scorned woman’s vengeance is reframed as a powerful condemnation of an oppressive society.


Hibari Ohako: Ojo Kichisa (ひばり十八番お嬢吉三, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Ojo Kichisa still 1Following Benten Kozo, Ojo Kichisa (ひばり十八番お嬢吉三, Hibari Obako Ojo Kichisa) is the second in a small series of movies starring Hibari Misora in a tale adapted from a well known kabuki play and featuring a cross dressing hero/heroine. This time around Misora plays a young woman dressing as a man for the purposes of revenge who eventually meets up with two men sharing the same “Kichisa” name – a lord (Obo), and a priest (Osho), to form a brotherhood of three including her “Ojo” as in “young lady”. Together they fight the injustices of the feudal world (which are myriad) whilst helping Ojo Kichisa get revenge on the men who murdered her parents forcing her into a precarious life of self preservation.

Beginning with Misora singing the title song of the three Kichisa, the action then switches to a small drinking house where a young woman gets herself into trouble with a bossy samurai who accuses her of spilling sake on him. Though the woman, Otose (Eiko Maruyama), apologises profusely, the samurai threatens to make her pay with her body. Fortunately Ojo Kichisa strides in and fights the samurai into submission, temporarily saving the day. Unfortunately, the samurai come back later brandishing a loan agreement Otose’s father had signed and demand immediate repayment or they will take Otose in its stead.

Once again the feudal world is one of intense unfairness and corruption in which the samurai class abuse their privilege to oppress the ordinary men and women of the Edo era. The samurai who takes such extreme offence at Otose’s possible slip-up has no real reason to do so other than expressing his superiority and once humiliated by Ojo Kichisa feels himself duty bound to double down. The samurai order looks after its own and so his underlings spring into motion to manipulate Otose’s family into giving her up. The two loan sharks gleefully celebrate their good luck, confessing that a major reason for lending money to the needy is for occasions such as this – not only for the interest but for the leverage in getting the desired outcome in ongoing schemes.

Meanwhile, there is a bigger game at play concerning the new finance minister and local governor. The governor accepts “gifts” from a shopkeeper hoping to be promoted onto the council whilst subtly hinting that more “gifts” might be an idea while he needs to be turning a blind eye to the smuggling that’s currently going on in town. Of course, the governor turns out to be involved in Ojo Kichisa’s mission too and is currently being blackmailed by an old acquaintance who once helped him steal a famous sword from its rightful owner.

Another of Misora’s frequent cross-dressing roles, Ojo Kichisa starts out as male but is later revealed to be female having adopted male dress to survive in male dominated Edo and pursue revenge on those who rendered her an orphan. After losing her parents, Ojo Kichisa and her young brother Sannosuke (Takehiko Kayama) were travelling in search of relatives when they were abducted by slave traders and separated. Presumably, both managed to escape at some point and have been living by their wits vowing revenge and reunification but apparently largely untouched by the darkness of feudal society.

The darkness is something which gets pushed into the background in this otherwise comedic tale of the little guy standing up to corrupt elites. The three Kichisas each represent various areas of society – the priest, the noble lord who hates the cruelty of his class, and the elegant lady, Ojo. Obo Kichisa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), the lord with a conscience, is committed to protecting the weak and fighting injustice everywhere he sees it, but it’s not long before pretty much everyone has decided the governor has to go thanks to his inherently corrupt approach to governing in which he’s all about take and never about give, neglecting the townspeople under his care and prioritising his personal gain.

Hibari Misora sings the title song twice – at the opening and closing, as well as another insert song but her brother Sannosuke also gets an opportunity to showcase his singing his voice in a mild departure from the star vehicle norm (actor Takehiko Kayama was also Misora’s real life brother). As in Benten Kozo, Wakayama takes on the bulk of the heroic fighting but Misora gives it her all in the many fight scenes in which she too gets to defeat injustice and rescue maidens to her heart’s content. A straightforward jidaigeki idol movie, Ojo Kichisa is unremarkable in many ways but nevertheless another entertaining example of Misora’s talent for playing ambiguous gender roles.


The Yakuza Papers Vol. 3: Proxy War (仁義なき戦い: 代理戦争, Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

3-Battles-Without-Honor-and-Humanity-3-Proxy-WarThree films into The Yakuza Papers or Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, Fukasaku slackens the place slightly and brings us a little more intrigue and behind the scenes machinations rather than the wholesale carnage of the first two films. In Proxy War we move on in terms of time period and region following Shozo Hirono into the ’60s where he’s still a petty yakuza, but his fortunes have improved slightly.

It’s now 1960 – almost 15 years since Hirono came home from the war. The young people who are just coming of age grew up in the turbulent post-war era but probably don’t remember much of the conflict itself. These days the problem is the ANPO treaty and the wider world’s pre-occupation with communism. Russia and America are engaged in various “proxy wars” across the world in what would come to be known as the cold war. This tactic of indirect warfare has also taken root in the yakuza world as gangs and gang members form covert alliances, hatch secret plots to take out rivals, or otherwise try to manipulate the situation to their advantage. When the head of the Muraoka crime syndicate is assassinated in broad daylight and his underling, Uchimoto, does nothing, it kickstarts a chain of petty vendettas as each of the ambitious crime bosses vie to fill the power vacuum with the snivelling Uchimoto not least among them.

Bunta Sugawara returns to centre stage again with Hirono at the forefront of the action. One of the few yakuza guys who’s pretty happy with his lot and not seeking a higher position he’s in the perfect spot to become a very important player when it comes to supporting other people’s bids for power. Having originally backed Uchimoto he’s at something of a disadvantage following Uchimoto’s cowardly flip-flopping. However, having found himself back under the aegis of former boss Yorimoto, it does afford Hirono the possibility of finally getting revenge against him. Gangs merge several times while fracturing on the inside as the lower bosses try to get their guys in line whlst picking sides as to whom they support in the leadership battles (some with more of an eye on their own futures) but this time the action is a little more cerebral than the audacious violence of the immediate post-war period.

Changing up his style slightly, Fukasaku keeps the overall documentary approach with the news reel voice over relating the salient political and historical details plus the initial captions explaining the names and allegiances of the major players but reduces the freeze frame death announcements. The action is still frenetic with ultra naturalistic handheld camera and occasional strange angles but this time he opts for a muted colour effect in the final shoot out which increases the shocking nature of the scene. Blow for blow there’s less overt violence here though there is a fairly graphic and unpleasant rape scene which feels a little out of place though it does add to Fukasaku’s argument about the nature of aggression.

Once again the ruined the dome looms large over everything, reminding us that this isn’t just a story of gang warfare but a critique of the senselessness of a violent life. As the film says, young men are the first to die when the battles begin but their deaths are never honoured. Like Hiroshima Death Match, Proxy War also leads to the death of a youngster in pointless gang violence – another young man who ended up in the criminal underworld through lack of other options. The futility of the cycle of violence is becoming wearing – as is perhaps the point. One gang boss falls, another rises – only the names have changed. There’s no rest for an honest yakuza like Hirono when the less scrupulous are willing switch allegiance without a second thought. The only victory is staying alive as long as you can.


Proxy War is available on blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity: The Complete Collection box set.