Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Umetsugu Inoue, 1962)

“I want to live in a world where things kiss spontaneously, money divides society like it does you and me” says the Black Lizard (黒蜥蝪, Kurotokage) to her mark, affecting the role of an elegant older woman but failing to conceal herself within the disguise. Though the later 1968 version by Kinji Fukasaku may be better known, Umetsugu Inoue’s adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s 1934 short story, filtered through Yukio Mishima’s stage play and scripted by Kaneto Shindo, is a camp classic in its own right. Making full use of Inoue’s talent for musicals and the dance background of marquee star Machiko Kyo, Black Lizard is a full hearted crime melodrama in which the villain’s defeat is a perverse tragedy leaving the truly treacherous to ponder what it is they may have destroyed. 

Another outing for Edogawa Rampo’s master detective Akechi (Minoru Oki), the picture opens with “Japan’s best detective” offering a monologue to camera in which he explains that the world is a brutal place but crime too can be an art, it is after all a man-made creation. If only we had more artful crimes, he claims, the world might be a better place. That is perhaps why he seems to have fallen for the crafty Black Lizard, his Irene Adler talented at elaborate heists involving disguise and subterfuge. 

His present case, however, finds him on a retainer to boorish jewellery merchant Iwase (Masao Mishima) who has been receiving threatening letters claiming that someone “very evil” is planning to kidnap his 19-year-old daughter Sanae (Junko Kano) whom he is currently trying to marry off. The reason they’ve made this trip to Osaka (without her mother) is so that Sanae can meet another prospective husband. She doesn’t seem very happy about the idea, but is going along with it and it seems Iwase doesn’t intend to pressure her into a marriage she doesn’t want. In any case, she’s something of a sheltered young woman which might be why she doesn’t suspect anything of the over friendly Mrs. Midorikawa other than she seems to have designs on her father. Knowing that no young girl relishes the prospect of arranged marriage, “Mrs. Midorikawa” makes a point of introducing her to a “friend” of hers, Amamiya (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), whom she thinks might be more to her liking. Of course, Midorikawa is really Black Lizard and Amamiya is her henchman. They’ve come to kidnap Sanae in the hope of ransoming her for the precious jewel “Egyptian Star” that Iwase can’t stop boasting about. 

The thing about Black Lizard is that she’s not driven by monetary gain but by a lust for beauty. She loves everything that sparkles, but more than that the aesthetic pleasure of the human form. Black Lizard tells Sanae that she dreams of a world with no borders, in which people are free into wander into the homes of others, and the subway hangers will be made of diamonds and platinum – literally a sparkling world of peace and freedom where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. In a slightly transgressive moment, she casts her eyes over Sanae’s youthful body, admiring her “perfectly shaped breasts” before turning melancholy in admitting that she feels sad whenever she sees someone beautiful in knowing they will soon grow old. Later, we realise we should have taken her at her word, her objection to transience apparently having turned murderous. 

Even so, Sanae in rejecting the idea of arranged marraige, foolishly admits she’d rather be stolen than bought. In her eyes, a desire to be swept off her feet by a romantic hero saving her from a bourgeois existence, but she is indeed about to be “stolen” if only to be redeemed when her father agrees to give up the Egyptian Star to save her. Iwase, however, like the Black Lizard herself, was seduced by the allure of precious jewels after striking it lucky as a working class young man labouring in a quarry. He loves his daughter, but cannot bring himself to surrender this the most precious of all his jewels even to save her life. Akechi assures him that he has a plan which will save both Sanae and the diamond, but is left with only contempt for the way that Iwase has been corrupted not quite by greed but by a kind of misdirected lust for illusionary lustre. 

Black Lizard, for her part, is smitten by Akechi’s acumen, taken both by his handsome form and by his ability to challenge her. They chase each other while wondering who it is that is really being pursued and what they intend to do if ever they manage to catch their quarry, but vowing to emerge victorious all the same. Black Lizard guards her heart jealously, like the most precious jewel of all, while Akechi is continually captivated by the perfection of her criminal escapades. “What I hate most in this world is fakes” Black Lizard exclaims, confronted by Akechi’s complicated doubles game where no one is quite whom they first seemed to be, but it’s her own authenticity which eventually blinds her in realising she might have made a damning confession to the man who has “stolen” her heart. Grotesque as it eventually is, and it ends in a bizarre museum of human taxidermy crafted into “beautiful” tableaux, Akechi cannot help but admire the “beauty” in Black Lizard’s artistry, lamenting the loss of something precious while those like Iwase will continue to sell their glittering emptiness to an increasingly “brutal” world. 


Black Lizard dancing away from the scene of the crime (no subtitles)

Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Yuzo Kawashima, 1955)

Two decades into the new century, Japanese society finds itself gripped by a population crisis. Supposedly “sexless”, young people constrained by a stagnant economy and a series of outdated social conventions have increasingly turned away from marriage and children to the extent that the birth rate is currently at the lowest it’s ever been. How strange it is then to revisit Yuzo Kawashima’s baby boom paranoia comedy Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Ai no Onimotsu) in which the very same anxieties now expressed for the declining population are expressed for its reverse – that it will damage the economy, that it is the result of a moral decline, and that society as we know it is on the brink of destruction. 

All of these arguments are made by the Minister for Health, Araki (So Yamamura), as he tries to chair a committee meeting put together to find a solution to the baby boom crisis. The government policy he’s putting his name to is a birth control advocacy programme coupled with greater education to discourage couples from having so many children. Some object on the grounds that encouraging the use of birth control will inevitably lead to promiscuity and sexual abandon, which is why Araki’s government intends to limit its use only to married couples to be used for proper family planning. A feminist politician challenges him again, first citing the go forth and multiply bits from the bible to imply she objects to birth control on religious grounds only to trap Araki by reminding him that that is exactly what the government encouraged people to do during the wartime years. She thinks limiting birth control to married couples is little more than thinly veiled morality policing which will fail to help those really in need, suggesting that if this is the road they want to go down perhaps they should think about relaxing abortion laws so that those who become pregnant without the means to raise a child will have another option. Predictably, Araki is not quite in favour, but takes her point. In any case, events in his personal life are about to overtake him. 

The first crisis is that his son, Jotaro (Tatsuya Mihashi), is in a secret relationship with Araki’s secretary Saeko (Mie Kitahara), who has now become pregnant and is quite smug about it because Jotaro will finally have to sort things out with his family so they can marry. There are several reasons why he’s been dragging his feet: firstly, Saeko is a very good secretary and it’s customary for women to stop working when they marry (though as we later find out Jotaro is a progressive type who has no intention of stopping Saeko working if she wants to even after they marry and have children), secondly, his mother Ranko (Yukiko Todoroki) and younger sister Sakura (Tomoko Ko) are old fashioned and may feel marrying a secretary is beneath him, and thirdly he’s just a lackadaisical sort who doesn’t get round to things unless someone gives him a push. Sakura has an additional concern in that she’s engaged to an upperclass dandy from Kyoto (Frankie Sakai) and worries his family might object if they know that Jotaro has undergone a shotgun wedding to someone from the “servant class”. Araki’s oldest daughter, Kazuko (Emiko Azuma), is happily married to a gynaecologist (Yoshifumi Tajima) but ironically has been unable to conceive after six years of marriage. All of which is capped by the intense irony that his own wife at the age of 48 may be expecting a late baby of their own. 

The press is going to have a field day. Araki, for all his faults, is a surprisingly progressive guy, a moderate in the conservative party but one who, worryingly, doesn’t seem to believe in much of what he says as a minister of government, merely doing what it is he thinks he’s supposed to do. It’s perhaps this level of hypocrisy that Jotaro so roundly rejects, insisting he wants neither a career in the family’s pharmaceuticals company (which, it’s worth saying, also produces the birth control Araki’s policy seeks to promote), or a career in politics, and insists on being his own man. Tinkering with various bits of modern technology, he eventually gets a job in research and development of cheap TV sets, signalling his allegiance to the new all while dressing in kimono to visit kabuki clubs with Saeko. Saeko too is a modern woman – she speaks several languages and has a university degree, supporting herself independently even though she is “only” secretary albeit to a cabinet minister. Sakura, a more traditional sort, originally looks down her for being all those things, but later comes to a kind of admiration especially when she finds herself in need of advice from another modern woman. Jotaro’s mother, however, only comes around when she hires a detective who discovers Saeko might be posh after all. 

“Children have their own worlds to live in” one of Araki’s grownup kids later emphases, unwilling to rely their father for money or career advancement, they want to make their own way in the world. Jotaro, a kind man and something of a socialist, wonders if they shouldn’t be using some of this money the government has earmarked for defence on social welfare, suggesting perhaps that’s the best way to deal with the population crisis rather than pointlessly trying to police desire. Burden of Love was released in 1955, which is immediately before Japan instituted its anti-prostitution law doing away with the Akasen system that existed under the American occupation. Araki goes to visit an establishment in the red light district and declares himself horrified, but is unable to come up with a good solution when the women working there point out that they support entire families who will starve without their income. He may have a point that the pimp’s identification of himself as a social worker is disingenuous because he profits from the exploitation of women, but Araki’s later visit to a tavern staffed by geisha raises a series of questions about a continuing double standard. 

Araki exposes his own privilege when he tells Jotaro that he’d do anything for a single slice of bread before he’d ever do “that”, which is ignoring the fact that it’s very unlikely he’d ever have to consider it. Araki’s father, himself a retired politician, is also a fairly progressive sort who actively gets involved in the kids’ nefarious plans to get around their parents so they can marry the people the want when they want to marry them, while Araki remains largely preoccupied with his political position, even suggesting to his wife, despite what he said in the committee meeting, that she get an abortion to spare him the embarrassment caused by increasing the population while proposing a series of population control policies. Ranko is distraught because to her the child is the product of their love, even if to Araki it is also a “burden”, but being a traditional sort thinks first of her husband and is minded to do as he says. The younger generation think and feel differently. They want to make decisions for themselves, not just about what they do but who they love and how they live. The lesson is perhaps that this isn’t something to be overly worried about. Children are the “burden” of love, but we carry them together, and it’s a happier society that is content to figure it out rather than trying  to pointlessly police forces beyond its control. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies (ペン偽らず 暴力の街, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1950)

vlcsnap-2020-01-16-00h05m26s354The immediate post-war era was one marked by fear and anxiety. The world had turned upside down, food was scarce, and desperation had provoked a widespread moral decline which rendered compassion a luxury many thought they could ill afford. Yet, in hitting rock bottom there was also the opportunity to rebuild the world better than it had been before. Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies (ペン偽らず 暴力の街, Pen Itsuwarazu Boryoku no Machi), is one of many pro-democracy films arriving in the wake of Japan’s new constitution and makes an unlikely hero of the local newspaperman as the sole means of speaking truth to power in the fierce belief that the people have a right to know.

Tojo, a small town Northwest of Tokyo, was once the centre of the silk trade but as the industry declined, it gradually became home to gangs and a hub for wartime black market shenanigans. The sad truth is that the growing nouveau riche middle-classes profiting from post-war shadiness have more or less got the town sewn up. The corrupt police force is in cahoots with the gangsters who call themselves a “police support organisation” and make a point of wining and dining the local police chief, while also making sure the local paper is firmly in their pocket. The trouble starts when rookie reporter Kita (Yasumi Hara) is invited to a policeman’s ball and figures out the whole thing is sponsored by the silk traders’ union, which he thinks is not quite right. He takes what he’s learned back to his editor and is warned off the story but publishes something anyway, quickly becoming a target for prominent “politician” Onishi (Masao Mishima).

Street of Violence opens with onscreen text taken from the press code which emphasises that mass media has a duty to preserve the truth. Kita’s paper had been in league with the police and the gangsters enabling the atmosphere of casual violence which is gradually consuming the town. Kita, a new recruit, is not yet inured to the way things are and immediately thinks his duty is to blow a whistle, most obviously on the corrupt police force and judiciary. He is only allowed to do so because the previous editor stepped down and a similarly idealistic older gentleman (Takashi Shimura) from out of town has taken over. He decides to fight back, standing up to the crypto-fascist goons by continuing to publish the truth about the links between the police, black market silk traders, gangsters, and the rest of the local press who eventually gain the courage to join him.

Onishi continues to masquerade as a “legitimate businessman” and “respectable politician” claiming that he’s “striving for democracy” to help the “downtrodden”, but is also responsible for directly targeting Kita’s mother and sister in an attempt to intimidate him. The editor assigns another reporter, Kawasaki (Ryo Ikebe), to keep Kita safe and starts trying to find locals who will consent to be interviewed about gang intimidation while Kita’s friends from the Youth Association generate a kind of resistance movement holding protests and handing out flyers condemning the atmosphere of violence which has ordinary citizens turning off their lights and avoiding going out after dark to protect themselves from thuggery.

The silent cause of all this strife is of course post-war privation which has made the blackmarket the only means of survival for those otherwise starving but has also given free rein to selfish immorality. The Onishis of the world, the spineless police chief, and the cynical local press, have all abnegated their human responsibilities in wilfully taking advantage of a bad situation to further their own cause. When the press chooses not to turn a blind eye to entrenched corruption, it raises a flag that ordinary people can follow. Too intimidated to speak out, the townspeople had been living in fear but post-war youth has the courage to say no and demand a better future. A mass rally crying out “democracy” and insisting on an end to the cronyism and the corrupt systems of pre-war feudalism produces a people power revolution that can’t be ignored, forcing Onishi into submission, and a clean out of corrupt law enforcement. But, the earnest voice over reminds us, the victory is only partial – violence still exists and will rise again when it thinks no one’s looking. The press, most of all, cannot afford to look away if “democracy” is to be maintained.


The Girl in the Rumor (噂の娘, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

vlcsnap-2019-12-21-23h50m32s752The world was changing in 1935, but not everyone was swept away by the fickle tides of modernity. The heroine of Naruse’s 1935 drama The Girl in the Rumor (噂の娘, Uwasa no Musume) is like many of his leading ladies betrayed by the world in which she lives, yet she’s also an encapsulation of the conflicts of the age, at once fiercely traditional and personally progressive while her “modern girl” sister is as selfish and judgemental as any of the bright young things who serve as extreme examples of the risks of Western individualism.

Kunie (Sachiko Chiba), an unmarried young woman, works in her family’s sake shop which is currently struggling to make ends meet. While the guys in the barbers opposite complain that the place has gone downhill since grandpa’s days, the old man himself has begun to worry that there’s something not quite right about their produce. In order to keep the shop going, there’s some talk that Kunie may marry the son of a wealthy family, but her father Kenkichi (Ko Mihashi) is against the idea. He married into his wife’s family and the marriage was intensely unhappy so he is mindful that the same fate doesn’t befall his daughter. His wife now long dead, Kenkichi is free to be more open about his longstanding affair with a bar owner, Oyo (Toshiko Ito), which produced a daughter, Kimiko (Ryuko Umezono), who was raised by Kenkichi and his legal wife and has no idea her birth was illegitimate. Kimiko, unlike her sister, has become a “modern girl”, dressing in Western fashions, listening to jazz, and staying out late going to parties. The trouble starts when Kunie decides to take her sister with her to the omiai for moral support and it becomes obvious that Sato (Heihachiro Okawa) is a bit of a “modern boy” who has lots more in common with the vivacious Kimiko and decides to break protocol by telling the go-between that he’d rather have her instead.

This move comes as a total blindside to the girls’ uncle who arranged the meeting. “The marriage proposal’s turned into something really weird” he tells Kenkichi over the phone while the two men try to work out what the best course of action is. The uncle seems to think it might be a good move to carry on the negotiations with Kimiko instead, after all Kunie is basically running the store so it would be more convenient to keep her around. Kenkichi is unconvinced. He knows Kimiko doesn’t really approve of all this old fashioned arranged marriage business, and to be honest he doesn’t seem to like her much so isn’t keen on talking to her about it but can’t rely on his usual trick of getting Kunie to do it because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings by letting her know that Sato doesn’t fancy her and has asked her sister out instead.

Kimiko certainly is a “modern girl” and superficially proto-feminist. She mocks her sister’s traditionalism and criticises her for blaming “their” mother for the failure of their parents’ marriage, thinking that she is simply unable to move past the patriarchal mindset and used to blaming everything on the woman. Little knowing that Oyu is her mother, she rejects Kunie’s plan to have her come and live with them as new maternal presence, claiming that she has only contempt for mistresses and thereby exposing herself as being, ironically enough, more judgemental than her superficially conventional sister. Kunie may be “traditional” in her outlook, but she is also empathetic and understanding. It seems her mother may not have been an easy woman, and what she most wants is to repair her family by bringing Oyo into the fold in her “rightful” place at her father’s side. Despite her insistence on her own freedom, however, Kimiko is childishly moralistic, directing her anger with an oppressive system back on the people constrained by it. Yes Kenichi’s life is one of socially condoned hypocrisy, but there’s no point in blaming him or Oyo for trying to find happiness where they can.

Blame them she does, however, and her sister with them. Kimiko meets Sato by chance and starts dating him in the non-serious manner of young people of the time only for the Satos to become worried and again push the idea of a marriage. Having been spotted with Sato in the street by Kunie, Kimiko’s confession is cruel and cutting, delivered almost with glee as she reveals that her uncle and father have been avoiding telling her that Sato turned her down because he liked her sister more. Kunie had professed that she wasn’t all that bothered about the marriage because she had become convinced that she “couldn’t have a happy marriage anyway”, but her tears suggest a deeper hurt than having her hopes for the business dashed and being wounded by her sister’s callousness. Nevertheless, she wants nothing but her sister’s happiness and so if she seriously wanted to marry Sato for the “right” reasons, she would of course support her.

Kimiko however remains selfish and implacable. Kenkichi, hoping to teach her a lesson, brings Oyo into the home and reveals to Kimiko that she is a mistress’ daughter. It does not go well. Kimiko refuses to engage with Oyo, while Kenkichi also asks for an apology on behalf of Kunie who has only ever tried to protect both Kimiko and Oyo by trying to reunite their family, but Kimiko leaves in a huff shouting that she has no need of mothers or fathers or families or anything else. A rapprochement is brokered between the women only when Kenikichi is made to pay for his failure as a patriarch. It turns out grandpa was right after all, he’d been tampering with the sake and now the police want a word with him. With the arrival of Oyo, tacitly accepted by Kimiko’s final return to the home, the family is in some senses restored but also broken. The gossips in the barbers across the way lament the end of the Nadaya Sake store, callously speculating on what will replace it, while all Kunie can do is look on in consternation and disappointment.


Avalanche (雪崩, Mikio Naruse, 1937)

Naruse Avalanche title cardDespite his broadly progressive outlook, it would perhaps be unfair to describe Mikio Naruse as a political filmmaker. Yet filmmaking in the late 1930s was an inherently political act if only by omission. 1937’s Avalanche (雪崩, Nadare), adapted in collaboration with left-wing intellectual Tomoyoshi Murayama from a serialised novel by the quietly anti-authoritarian Jiro Osaragi, seems to be almost in dialogue with its times as its hyper-individualist “hero” engages in a series of discussions with his humanist father about the new philosophies which for him at least spell the future.

Naruse opens, however, with the heroine – sweet and innocent bride Fukiko (Noboru Kiritachi ), dressed in kimono and sporting a traditional married woman’s haircut as she gazes lovingly on her wedding photo sighing softly that a year has gone by already. Flashing back, we realise that Fukiko eloped with wealthy scion of the Kusaka family, Goro (Hideo Saeki), who apparently forced the disapproving parents to accept the union by persuading Fukiko to accompany him to a hotel in Nagoya from which they were collected by Goro’s kindly father (Yo Shiomi). Though Fukiko remains deeply in love with Goro, it is obvious to everyone else that the marriage is not happy. Having reconnected with childhood sweetheart Yayoi (Ranko Edogawa), Goro wants a divorce, justifying his actions with the rationale that it will be better for Fukiko to end things now rather allow her to suffer years of a loveless marriage that is destined to end in separation.

Goro’s father, a little fed up with his wayward, increasingly psychopathic son, feels differently. He thinks that Goro has made his bed and must now accept his responsibility, committing to caring for Fukiko as a husband should regardless of whether or not he has romantic love for her. Goro, however, insists that this is a matter which only concerns himself and rejects any responsibility towards Fukiko, insisting that would be cowardly and dishonest to go on living with a woman he doesn’t love under the pretence that he does. Exasperatedly pointing out that one lives as a member of a society and cannot always be free to do as one pleases, Goro’s father tries to awaken him to social responsibility by reminding him that he only thinks he has the luxury of choice because he is the heir to the wealthy Kusaka family and would likely feel differently if he were just a regular salaryman. Goro doesn’t quite deny it, but (ironically) also condemns the hypocrisy of social propriety, avowing that he will not live a life of lies like those respectable married couples with lovers on the side.

Goro’s father asks if he’s not being overly literal, seeing as life is rarely as black and white as he’s painting it for the purposes of his argument but Goro counters that his father is “bound by old morality” of which he believes himself to be free. Later, trying to win back the heart of Yayoi, he reveals himself to be a hyper-individualist who believes that the only true path to happiness lies in indifference to the suffering of others. It seems that Goro’s decision to elope with Fukiko was part rebound, his ego bruised by a minor rejection by Yayoi who is also in love with him and had always believed that they would marry only to find herself disillusioned with the institution of marriage. Her sickly brother Keisuke (Akira Ubukata) worries that she turned down Goro because of him, knowing that should he die she would need to find someone to marry into their family and continue its name – something impossible for the oldest son of a noble family like the Kusakas.

That was not, however the reason. Yayoi resents her lack of options, that when a woman’s marriage is arranged people say “it’s settled” as if an unmarried woman is a problem in need of a solution. She resents that she is obliged to entrust her future to a stranger, wondering how it is she is supposed to trust one man for the rest of her life. It is this feeling that created distance between herself and Goro despite her obvious love for him. He accuses her of being “condescending” and hiding her true feelings, blaming her for the predicament they now find themselves in despite the fact that it appears to be entirely his own fault. Yayoi thinks it’s now too late for them, immediately sympathising with Fukiko who has been unfairly dragged into an awkward situation, but Goro scalds her again by insisting that she thinks too much about others when they need to be “strong” and think only of themselves.

Yayoi is half won over by Goro’s frighteningly fascist world view, but finds herself conflicted. She recognises her privilege and originally feels nothing but guilt because of it, that lack of purpose has left her with nothing but emptiness. Goro has her wondering if she’s got things backwards, that she ought to embrace the fact that she is allowed the luxury of life without worry. Putting it to Keisuke he partially agrees, affirming that happiness is only possible when one wilfully ignores the suffering of others. Yet Yayoi is dragged back towards humanism, remembering the “people left behind in the darkness” but fearful that Goro’s philosophy may win her over in the end.

Goro seems to be a perfect encapsulation of the growing evils of the age in his hyper-individualist desire to disregard the thoughts and feelings of others. The opening text, taken from Jiro Osaragi’s novel, paints Goro as the “hero” as it over-explains the film’s title by insisting that the “avalanche” we are talking about is “some sudden unknown force” present in this “precarious world” which can knock even the strong willed off their feet. The “hero” of Naruse’s film, by contrast, is clearly Goro’s kind hearted father who finds an unexpected fan in Fukiko’s dad (Sadao Maruyama) who claims to hate rich people and had no intention of marrying his daughter to one but thinks Goro’s father is one of the good ones and proves that there were some good things in the old feudal system.

Strangely reactionary as it may be, he has a point. Goro’s father is the soul of benevolent paternalism. He worries for his “desperate” son, and laments that the misfortune of the younger generation is “knowing things without understanding them”. He baits Goro, making him a mild ultimatum that if he wants to go on with his “immoral” philosophy then he’ll have to do it on someone else’s dime. Cowardly, Goro relents and chooses his wealth over his freedom but his psychopathy only deepens. To get back at his dad, he decides on a double suicide with Fukiko, before realising that there is no need for him to actually die so long as it looks like he meant to and he makes sure Fukiko goes first. This is the avalanche the film has been building to, but it’s not the one the titles teased in that it drags Goro back from an abyss towards something more human. He gives up on his plan when Fukiko, innocent as she is, is overcome with emotion on realising that she has been “wrong” about his feelings for Yayoi seeing as he has chosen to die with her. Is it love, or perhaps innocence, or just pure communication that is that “sudden unexplained force” which knocks Goro off his feet and drowns him in human feeling?

It’s a strangely “upbeat” ending for a Naruse film considering Avalanche’s overriding darkness, providing an awkward resolution as Yayoi, in an abrupt closing scene, claims something like independence in stating that she intends to remain with her brother rather than waiting for Goro or looking for a marriage. As such it reads as a rebuke of the fascistic ideology which played into, if not quite aligning with, militarist austerity as its various heroes find themselves once more returned to more responsible philosophies and authentic human connections. Cutting against the grain of the times, Avalanche is nevertheless a strange piece which seems entirely at odds with the opening statement, allowing the hero to find salvation rather than destruction in the sudden onrush of emotion.


The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Actress and the Poet title cardAmong the directors most closely associated with the golden age of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse is not usually remembered for his sense of humour but his pre-war work often saw him making uncomfortable forays into the shomin-geki comedy. The Actress and the Poet (女優と詩人, Joyu to shijin), Naruse’s second film after leaving Shochiku for P.C.L, is among the more successful but also tinged with characteristic irony that says this is funny because it’s not funny at all.

The generic shomin-geki setup finds us in a small community of suburban houses where mild-mannered poet Geppu (Hiroshi Uruki) lives with his successful actress wife Chieko (Sachiko Chiba). Amusingly enough, and in a motif which will be repeated, the film opens with an high impact scene of a woman screaming after being threatened with a knife, but thankfully it turns out that Chieko and her friends are simply rehearsing for a play. The actors dispatch Geppu to fetch them some cigarettes, which brings him into contact with his no good “friend” Nose (Kamatari Fujiwara), a struggling writer who is absolutely sure his latest work is going to win a big prize which is why it’s not a big problem that he’s so behind on his rent that he’s been coming and going through the upstairs window so he doesn’t attract the attention of his landlady.

When we first meet Geppu he’s wearing a pinny and cheerfully hanging up the washing. A young man passes by on a bicycle and seems surprised, asking if he himself really did all that laundry to which Geppu somewhat improbably replies that it’s all second nature when you’ve been in the army. Even though this is obviously a very “normal” day for Geppu, the questions keep coming. Ohama (Haruko Toda), the nosy woman from next-door, remarks that everyone in the neighbourhood loves Geppu because he’s just so nice but he’s also become a hot topic with the ladies at the bathhouse because no one’s quite sure what it is he “does”. In the modern parlance, Geppu is a basically househusband who dabbles in “poetry”, or as Ohama later explains “songs for children”.

In this fiercely modern environment, it’s Chieko who wields the financial power while her husband appears not to mind trailing behind. She wears kimono but often with luxurious furs which might lead to us ask why they live in this modest suburban house rather than in the bright lights of the city, but even so the marriage appears to be a happy and progressively equal one. In fact, as we later discover, there’s never been a cross word between Geppu and his wife, which is a problem because Chieko’s latest role involves a marital tiff and she’s struggling to get to grips with it because she doesn’t know what it’s like to fall out with your spouse. To figure it out she gets Geppu to read lines with her in a situation which eventually repeats in their real life when Nose bamboozles Geppu into letting him stay in the upstairs room rent free, leading to an almost identical fight watched calmly by Nose and Ohama who think they’ve got ringside seats to a play they could never afford to see.

Nose’s intervention unbalances the couple’s relationship in that it forces Geppu to reassert his masculinity. “A promise between men is a serious thing”, Geppu affirms “I can’t just go back on it because my wife says no”. Chieko reminds him, however, that this is technically her house – she pays all the bills, while his “writing” career is good only for the odd box of sponge cake. She doesn’t like it, perhaps understandably, that he’s “invited” a ne’er do well to come and live with them without even bothering to talk to her about it. She tries to put her foot down, but Geppu remains as irritatingly passive as ever only slightly putout to have his subjugated status suddenly used against him.

Naruse ends the picture with a comic sequence in which Chieko sees the light. Thanks to her real life argument with her husband, she’s figured out how to perfect her performance but she’s apparently so method that she also begins to embrace her role as a conventional wife off stage too. Rather than Geppu letting her sleep in and cooking the breakfast himself, this time it’s Geppu wrapped up in a futon while Chieko chops veg downstairs. Nevertheless, there is a minor irony in this moment of domestic bliss in that it directly follows the news that the nice young couple who just moved in across the road have committed double suicide because of his embezzlement and subsequent debts. Neatly underlining the consumerist trends of the age, the couple wanted to die in their own home even if it was only “theirs” for a few moments. Meanwhile, Ohama and her insurance salesman husband are busy having a blazing row next-door which just goes to show that old-fashioned marriages aren’t so happy either.

Chieko superficially plays the conventional wife, engaging in a little role-play with her husband while Nose listens on from the stairwell, but theirs remains a very modern marriage in which she is free to fulfil herself outside the home and her husband is seemingly unbothered (to a point at least) by the mild censure of the local ladies who both love him for his niceness and perhaps dislike him for it too. Naruse undercuts the conventionally “happy” ending in which traditional gender roles are restored and the family rebalanced by ending on a note of irony as the home of Ohama, a traditional wife dominating her henpecked husband in a comic yet socially accepted fashion, is thrown into violent discord while all is peaceful in the decidedly modern house of Geppu.


Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, Mikio Naruse, 1936)

Tochuzen KazoemonIt’s an age old question, but does being a great artist give you the right to treat other people terribly? Hopefully, most people would say no, it does not. Most “great artists”, however, may have a different opinion. The hero of Mikio Naruse’s 1936 biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (桃中軒雲右衛門, AKA Man of the House) is very much of the opinion that inflicting suffering on others, and thereby vicariously suffering himself (but not really because who cares about them), is the source of all his supposedly “great art”.

Tochuken Kumoemon was in fact a real person who died twenty years before the film’s release and had his heyday as a renowned yet scandal ridden performer of “rokyoku” in late Meiji. To brings things full circle and explain why perhaps his life was fit for cinematic exploration in the politically fraught atmosphere of 1936, it’s helpful to remember that Tochuken Kumoemon’s performances of such patriotic fare as the 47 Ronin helped to rouse nationalist sentiment during the Russo-Japanese conflict. “Rokyoku”, also known as “naniwabushi”, is a traditional art of narrative singing accompanied by shamisen which found favour with the militarists for its essential Japaneseness and hearty rustic vulgarity.

In any case, we meet Tochuken Kumoemon (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) on a train drawing closer to his planned return to Tokyo after having been forced to flee it eight years previously because of a sex scandal which led him to separate from his first wife, leaving a son, Sentaro (Kaoru Ito), behind, and marry Otsuma (Chikako Hosokawa) – his shamisen player with whom he is currently travelling. The troupe are supposed to be breaking their journey at Kozu, but for reasons unexplained, Tochuken Kumoemon decides to get off the train at Shizuoka and promptly disappears without a word to anyone. 

The disappearance is problematic on several levels, the first being that the stop was only engineered to allow Tochuken Kumoemon to visit his estranged son Sentaro. Some in the group posit that Tochuken Kumoemon has come down with a rare case of stage fright seeing as this Tokyo show will be his biggest to date, while others assume he is embarrassed to go back to the city because of the scandals which previously engulfed him there, and some believe he is simply conflicted about visiting the son he abandoned to run off with another woman.

Anyone who knows him, however, might be better placed to realise that the great Tochuken Kumoemon rarely has a reason for doing anything save that it pleased him to do so at the time. Nevertheless, what we discover about him as he tours the inns of Kozu throwing his money about like some crazed libertine, is that he apparently liked his life better when he was poor but is bravely suffering under the burdens of wealth “for his art”. In fact everything in Tochuken Kumoemon’s life is “for his art”, including the thoughts and feelings of those closest to him.

Tochuken Kumoemon’s story may be intended as a kind of militarist parable about a man who devoted everything of himself to a particular ideal, in his case art but for the militarists perhaps country. The major problem here is that Tochuken Kumoemon never particularly suffers himself, grinning broadly throughout, but forces others to suffer on his behalf while he extracts from them qualities he can use to enhance his performance. Pain may be good for art, but it’s rarely good for life, and most would find themselves questioning why it is those around him remain contented to suffer solely to facilitate Tochuken Kumoemon’s artistic fulfilment.

Loyal wife Otsuma begins to reconsider, bravely challenging Tochuken Kumoemon on the inauthenticity of his performances which, though growing in popularity, she feels to be increasingly hollow. She remembers the early days of their courtship which were apparently marked by a fierce competitive rivalry which proved artistically beneficial to them both before spilling over into other kinds of offstage passion which now appears to have cooled. Otsuma, now weakened as she finds herself succumbing to the later stages of consumption, something Tochuken Kumoemon refuses to acknowledge, fears that she is now unable to inspire him with her playing which is why he’s been up to his old tricks consorting with geishas. Claiming that Otsuma wouldn’t care about his affairs because she’s an artist too and will therefore “understand”, Tochuken Kumoemon has taken up with a pretty little thing, Chidori (Sachiko Chiba), from whom he intends to steal “youth and innocence” for his performances, little caring what he might leave behind.

For Tochuken Kumoemon everything is simply fuel for art and so he’s excused himself from the need to treat others with respect or kindness. Sentaro, his rejected son, rejects this aspect of his father’s philosophy, immediately bonding with his kindly step-mother and resenting his absent father’s treatment of her. In “raising” his son, Tochuken Kumoemon bangs on about traditionally “militarist” values of manliness, explaining that he is imperfect because he is a “great artist” and that his life has been full of problems but that he has overcome them with strength and perseverance. He tells his son that “weakness is the worst thing in a man”, but appears primed to hit the roof on learning that Sentaro may be expelled from school for fighting with his schoolmates because they mocked his unconventional family setup. Worst of all he casts his son away as one of the many who unfairly demand “perfection” from him even though he is an artist and cannot be expected to abide by the rules of “normal people”.

Meanwhile, Otsuma lies dying in a hospital. Tochuken Kumoemon won’t see her because he refuses to view her as “just a woman”, preferring to remember her as “a woman who lived only for art”. The subtext being for “his” art, rather than her own. He betrays himself when he admits that he “doesn’t want to be any more sad” than he is now, simply refusing to deal with the unpleasantness and personal suffering of facing the fact that someone important to you is in pain and will soon be gone. Yet despite a brief rebellion after an ill-advised gift from Chidori, Otsuma eventually agrees to sacrifice herself for Tochuken Kumoemon’s art, to die “quietly” as an artist and not as a woman. 

It’s only at this point that Tochuken Kumoemon decides to embrace the romance of the moment, finally travelling to her deathbed in order to sing a song. If Tochuken Kumoemon is a militarist hero, he’s not a particularly sympathetic one. He remains monstrously self-involved, hypocritical, an emotional coward who uses the suffering of others for his own ends with only the justification of the primacy of his art. Naruse undercuts the propaganda potential of the piece by painting his patriotic singer as a ridiculous prig who embodies the militarists’ coldness towards the thoughts and feelings of their fellow humans but displays none of their supposedly romantic heroism in his empty swagger and well worn platitudes. Is naniwabushi really worth all this pain? No. Someone needs to tell Tochuken Kumoemon he’s not as important as he thinks he is. And while they’re at it, they could have a word with the militarists, too.


The real Tochuken Kumoemon

Real TOCHUKEN KUMOEMON

Good-for-Nothing (ろくでなし, Kiju Yoshida, 1960)

Good for nothing dvd coverIn the mid-1950s, Nikkatsu had accidentally provoked social outrage with a series of films later known as “taiyozoku” or Sun Tribe movies which revolved around aimless post-war youth who largely rejected the strident ambition of their parents for lives of dissipated abandonment. While the original author of the book that kickstarted it all fully intended to create moral panic, Nikkatsu perhaps hoped to capitalise on the inherent cool of adolescent rebellion and did it seems find an audience they hoped to continue courting with their youth movies even after the forced end of the taiyozoku movement. Shochiku, the home of polite melodrama, was a world away from Nikkatsu’s brand of angry young man but declining receipts encouraged them to get in on the action and so they began giving some of their younger ADs a chance to direct features in the hope of finding bold new voices who could speak to youth (a demographic their usual fare was not perhaps reaching).

Among these directors, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida would go on to greater heights of avant-garde cinema but his Shochiku debut is perhaps more or less the kind of thing the studio was looking for. Released in the same year as Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones, Good-for-Nothing (ろくでなし, Rokudenashi) is another tale of youth gone wild only one with a much deeper sense of self pitying futility which casts its ill-fated hero as a noble soul left without purpose in the rapidly stratifying society of post-war Japan.

Against a heady yet whimsical jazz score (composed by Shochiku stalwart Chuji Kinoshita, brother of Keisuke), the action opens with a gang of petty delinquents kidnapping the secretary of one of their fathers, Hisako (Kakuko Chino), as she leaves the local bank. Toshio (Yusuke Kawazu) is in many ways the typical taiyozoku hero in that he is extremely rich and therefore filled with ennui because his life has no real purpose. He is not, however, the hero of Yoshida’s film. Gradually, our focus shifts to the intense figure of university student Jun (Masahiko Tsugawa) who, unlike the other members of the gang, remains internally conflicted as to the forward direction of his life and his complicated relationship with Toshio.

Whereas the taiyozoku films most often focussed on the bright young things of the new era – the children of those who had become rich in the post-war economy but had few values and were content to bury themselves in imported hedonistic pleasures, the “heroes” of Good-For-Nothing are the collaborators. If the taiyozoku were despised by the older generation as parasites living off inherited wealth and contributing nothing to society, then the guys like Jun are the parasites on the parasites. This is perhaps a view Jun holds of himself, wilfully embracing the “rokudenashi” label as expression of his intense self-loathing and acting in accordance with its values as an act almost of self-harm.

Toshio rebels against his sense of powerlessness in the darkest of ways – by setting his sights on taking his father’s “haughty” secretary down a peg or two. He may not like her confidence, self possession, and earnest determination towards honest industry but it is exactly these qualities which begin to attract Jun as representative of the society he has rejected but secretly longs to belong to. A poor student, he’s tried doing things the “right” way – part-time jobs, hard work etc, but has little interest in the student movement and views himself as “weak” for allowing himself to be swayed by the easy life of those like Toshio even in the full knowledge that he cannot live that way forever and his time at the beach will be as short as a summer vacation.

Hisako sees the conflict in Jun and tries to pull him towards a more positive path but is also attracted to him because of his darkness and nihilistic ennui. She too is unhappy with the status quo, living with her brother and his wife who quarrel about money and the disappointments of the salaryman dream while the office playboy hassles her at work and is only spurred on by her constant rejections. Hisako knows getting involved with Jun is playing with fire, especially if it keeps her in the orbit of the continually declining Toshio whose worrying behaviour is perhaps enabled by his well meaning liberal (though arch capitalist) father who is hoping his son will find his own way through hitting rock bottom, but salvation is a temptation it’s difficult to resist.

The heroes of the taiyozoku movies are aimless because they have no economic imperatives towards individual progress, but those like Jun or indeed like those of The Warped Ones are aimless because they see no sense of purpose in an intensely class bound society in which, paradoxically, all the cards are held by men like Toshio. Some, like Jun’s gang mate, decide the best way forward is to become a willing underling living off Toshio’s largesse who is, in his own way, intensely lonely and filling the friendship void with minions. Others, like Hisako, decide to plug on anyway despite the disappointments of socially conservative success. For men like Jun, however, the prognosis is as grim as in much of Yoshida’s later work, suggesting his nihilism is justified because there is no hope for men without means lost in the widening gulf of post-war inequality where any attempt at moral righteousness is likely to be rewarded only with further suffering.


Original trailer (Japanese with French/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

Killing Yoshiwara posterHaving led a somewhat floating life, Tomu Uchida returned to Japan in only in 1953 after a sustained period with the Manchurian Film Cooperative followed by a brief flirtation with Maoism. Before the war Uchida had been closely identified with the Keiko Eiga movement of broadly left-wing filmmaking but later fell hard for the inherent romanticism of militarist ideology during his time in Manchuria. Nevertheless it was apparently the Maoist doctrines of progress through contradiction that influenced his later dramatic philosophy in which he came to think of narrative as a series of conflicts which culminate in an explosive act designed to resolve them (or not, as we will see). 1960’s Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri, AKA Hero of the Red Light District) is perhaps a prime example as it takes a seemingly generic story inspired by a kabuki play and uses it to tell a melancholy tale of parallel yet mutually thwarted desires for vengeance against a cruel and oppressive society.

Ostensibly, our “hero” is Jiro (Chiezo Kataoka) – a successful silk merchant. A good and kind man, Jiro is beloved of all his staff for his careful consideration of them as people as well as employees. This concern is, however, perhaps not as wholly “good” as it seems. Jiro’s major problem in life is that he is an adopted child, taken in by his parents who auspiciously discovered him abandoned on the anniversary of their own child’s death. Jiro, apparently of noble birth, was abandoned because he has a prominent grey birthmark “staining” his face. This is the reason he has so far been unable to find a wife despite his good character and relative wealth. Desperately grateful to the couple who took him in “despite” his “imperfection”, Jiro feels this failure heavily in his current inability to provide them with a male heir to take over the family business.

Being good and earnest, Jiro has never dared to fritter money away in the red light district but is tempted when invited by a valued client whom he would not want to offend by refusing. Nevertheless, his first visit to the Yoshiwara is not an altogether pleasant experience as even the seasoned courtesans find it difficult to bear the sight of his “monstrous” face. Embarrassed, the innkeepers finally decide to employ a lowly servant, Otsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), who is not a trained courtesan but a woman convicted for illegal prostitution, to minister solely to Jiro. Otsuru does her work and is relatively unbothered by Jiro’s facial abnormality – something which endears her to Jiro’s heart and has the desired effect of hooking him through his weakness.

Otsuru, later “Tamarazu” the courtesan, is in many ways our villainess but she is also Jiro’s mirror and merely another outsider trying to escape oppression through any means possible. Uchida is careful to frame Otsuru not as a cruel and amoral adventurer, but someone who has decided to survive and can at least be honest about her intentions. We see her caged, imprisoned inside the Yoshiwara to do inside it what was declared “illegal” outside and acknowledging that she may well die here to met by a lonely funeral and rest unnamed in a communal grave. Otsuru decides that if she has to stay in the Yoshiwara then she will be its queen and then use that success to catapult herself into a more comfortable life even if she knows that it will be little more than a nicer kind of cage.

Jiro and Otsuru are each victims of the oppressive society in which they live as symbolised by the cruelly hypocritical worldview of the brothel owners who set out to exploit them both. Otsuru, worldly wise, is fully aware of the ways in which she is and will continue to be exploited but has chosen to be complicit within them as a means of effecting her escape. Jiro, meanwhile, is obviously aware that the “stain” across his face is the reason for his unhappy destiny but has only ever sought to minimise the distress his appearance causes to others. Thus he overcompensates by being relentlessly nice and infinitely humble, grateful for each and every concession which is extended to him as a fully human being rather than the “monster” which he is later branded by the innkeepers in a rare moment of candour which exposes their venial desires. 

This extreme desire for acceptance is in itself a symptom of his self loathing and internalised shame regarding his appearance which is after all merely an accident of birth over which he had no control. Abandoned by his birthparents who left him with a “cursed” destiny in the form of an unlucky sword, Jiro has been working overtime to overcome social prejudice but finding his path continually blocked. He latches on to Otsuru simply because she was nice to him without understanding the peculiar rules of interactions within the Yoshiwara, or as she later puts it “no money, no love”. Jiro ruins himself out of frustrated loneliness and a forlorn hope of repaying the debt he owes the couple who took him in by being able to provide them with a male heir to inherit the family business.

It is these mutual conflicts which eventually lead to the explosive finale hinted at by the violence of the title. Otsuru’s star rises while Jiro’s falls – not only is he fleeced by the innkeepers and an unrepentant Otsuru, his business also fails thanks to an act of God while his reputation lies in tatters once his associates get to know of his “frivolous” behaviour in the Yoshiwara. This in itself is doubly hypocritical as it was this same major client who introduced Jiro to the “pleasure” quarters in the first place only to remind him that business is a matter of trust and that they no longer trust him because he has broken his promise of keeping away from the Yoshiwara.

Pushed to the brink by successive humiliations, Jiro’s rage erupts in a singular act of violence which takes the sword not only to the Yoshiwara but the entrenched systems of oppression and exploitation which it represents. Otsuru, now an oiran, is literally trapped by her ostentatious outfit (in reality the very purpose it is designed to serve) as she struggles to escape male violence, her hand on the gate of the Yoshiwara which refuses to release her. Their parallel quests for revenge eventually converge only to defeat each other in a staggering act of futility which remains unresolved as the curtain falls on a moment of unanswerable rage.


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