The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

“Your kindness will harm you” a well-meaning retainer advises his charge, but in the end it is her kindness which saves her along with numerous others in Akira Kurosawa’s Sengoku-era epic, The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Kakushi Toride no San Akunin). Largely told from the point of view of two bumbling peasants trying to get rich quick by exploiting the hierarchal fluidity of a time of war, the film nevertheless cuts against the grain of the democratic era in advocating not so much the destruction of the class-bound feudal order as benevolent authority. 

This can quite clearly be seen in the dynamic figure of displaced princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the successor of her routed clan protected by a hidden fortress in the mountains which she must eventually leave. Her female servant laments that her father raised her as a boy which has given her a haughty and dominant manner at odds with the polite submissiveness usually expected of upperclass women. While often exerting her authority, she is otherwise uncomfortable with the uncritical servitude of her retainers, chief among them the talented general Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who sacrificed the life of his own sister, allowing her to be executed in Yuki’s place buying them some time. “Kofuyu was 16. I am 16. What difference is there in our souls?” she asks, yet even if she believes their souls are equal she is not quite so egalitarian as to forget her position or the power and privilege that comes with it. 

Nevertheless, hers is an authority that is tempered by compassion and in the end chosen. Her salvation comes in speaking her mind to an enemy retainer, Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who has been savagely beaten by his own lord for losing a duel with Makabe who, to the mind of some, humiliated him with kindness in refusing to take his life leaving him to live in defeat. Yuki says she doesn’t know who is stupider, Tadokoro or his lord, for never would she punish a man in such a way simply for losing to an enemy. She tells him that there is another way, and that he need not serve a lord who does not serve him leading Tadokoro to defect and choose to follow her instead. 

She also inspires confidence in a young woman she insists on redeeming after discovering that she is a former member of the Akizuka clan sold into sexual slavery after being taken prisoner by the Yamane. Kurosawa presents the girl with a dilemma on realising that the mysterious woman who saved her is the fugitive princess, knowing that she could betray her and pocket the gold, but finds her resolving to serve Yuki all the more. In a moment of irony, we learn that the girl was bought for five silver coins, the same amount of money a wealthy traveller offers for Makabe’s horse, but displeases her master in refusing to speak or serve customers. For Yuki he offers gold, though withdraws on being told that she is mute. Knowing that she would be unable to disguise her speech or accent which would instantly give her away as a haughty princess, Makabe convinces her to stay silent though as she tells him he cannot make her heart mute too. 

Even the peasants, oblivious to her true identity, view Yuki as part of the spoils insisting that they should be entitled to a third of her too and at one point preparing to rape her only to be fought off by the rescued girl. “We can rely on their greed” Makabe had said, knowing that their material desires make them easy to manipulate and that their loyalties are otherwise fickle. Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and his friend Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) sold their houses in their village to buy armour in the hope of achieving social mobility through distinguishing themselves in war, but have largely been humiliated, robbed of their armour, mistaken for captured members of the enemy, and forced to dig the graves of others. They pledge eternal friendship but their bond is continually disrupted by the promise of monetary gain. They fall out over a moral quandary, one willing to plunder the body of a fallen soldier and the other not, while even on reuniting squabbling about how to divide the money first deciding it should be equal and immediately disagreeing as soon as they get their hands on it. At the film’s conclusion it rests on Yuki to play mother, telling them that they must be good and share the boon she’s given them equally without complaint each then too only quick to be generous insisting that the other can keep it. 

The implication is still, however, that Matashichi and Tahei should return to their village to live as peasants while Yuki assumes her place in a castle no longer hidden as its ruler. Order has returned and the old system remains in place, all that changes is that this is now a compassionate autocracy ruled by a benevolent lord who views her subjects lives as equal to her own yet not perhaps their status. Where it might prompt Tadokoro to conclude that he need serve no lord at all for there should be no leaders only equals, the film concludes that a leader should be just and if they are not they should not be followed. Then again, the disagreement between firm friends Matashichi and Tahei is ended when they each have enough and no longer find themselves fighting for a bigger slice of the pie content in the validation of their equality. As Makabe puts it, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Yuki’s suffering is in the responsibility of rebuilding her clan though she does so with compassion and empathy ruling with respect rather than fear or austerity. Kurosawa utilises the novel scope format to hint at the wide open vistas that extend ahead of the peasants as they make their way towards the castle in search of gold only to leave with something that while more valuable may also shine so brightly as to blind them to the inherent inequalities of the feudal order. 


The Hidden Fortress screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 20th & 27th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Lower Depths (どん底, Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

“How can you go to hell if you’re already there?” quips a stoical gangster, perhaps the only denizen of a rundown tenement block no longer looking for escape in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of the Gorky play The Lower Depths (どん底, Donzoko). In general, much of Kurosawa’s post-war work decries deliberate falsehood but paradoxically suggests that some degree of self-delusion is essential for surviving an otherwise hopeless world. The wandering pilgrim who arrives like some kind of emissary from the land above says as much as he offers what may turn out to be false promises of a better world to come, but as one of his charges points out he does so “out of pity for those beyond hope.”

Then again, perhaps spirituality won’t save you either. As the film opens, it’s two monks who are seen throwing leaves over a cliff describing the settlement below as “just an old rubbish dump”, which in a sense it is if that were not such a cruel thing to say. In any case, the people who live here are all those who have already fallen into desperation, exiled from mainstream society and caught between a fierce desire to claw their way back up and the despair of knowing that in all likelihood they never will. A man who claims to be a former samurai waxes on his illustrious past, while a melancholy sex worker meditates on the lost love that reduced her to current position, and a stage actor laments his failing memory his mind now fogged by years of alcohol abuse that he says have already poisoned his “bitol organs”. A tinker secretly thinks he’s better than those around him. He’s only been here six months and insists that he’s a skilled craftsman who can continue working, but blames his desperate circumstances on the sickly wife whose death he quietly awaits assuming it will free him of this burden and thereafter this place.

It doesn’t, of course. He sells his tools to pay for her funeral, and otherwise appears lost no longer a husband to a dying wife. In essence the film revolves around a confrontation between the pilgrim who offers what may well be an illusion of salvation and the thief Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune) who challenges him but begins to believe that it really may be possible for him to leave this place and take the woman he loves, Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa), with him or else fall further and remain trapped in this mortal hellscape. The problem there is that Sutekichi had previously been having an affair with the landlord’s wife Osugi (Isuzu Yamada) who is Okayo’s sister. Though Osugi, whose hope of escape through romance is dashed, first takes against her sister, she later offers to surrender her to Sutekichi if only he will assist her by killing her greedy husband Rokubei (Ganjiro Nakamura). 

In this cold and austere place which is in effect a living hell, there is a sense that many of the residents are already dead. Rokubei’s face is the palest of them all, suggesting that he is already too far gone ever to be saved and most likely doesn’t want to be anyway for in this terrible place he is in effect the king. Osugi is the queen, but often framed behind bars now a prisoner already too corrupt to leave the tenement behind. Her uncle, Deputy Shimazo (Kichijiro Ueda), has a largely illusionary sense of power in his position in a policeman which he prosecutes selectively and mostly at the service of the landlord. In the climactic closing scenes, his policeman’s baton is stolen by the drunkard Unokichi (Yu Fujiki) who dances through the streets with it demonstrating just how little authority he actually wields finally losing his position when the landlord is deposed and his familial connections become irrelevant. He inherits the landlord’s residence, but is reduced to the husband of the sweet seller Otaki (Nijiko Kiyokawa) whose status as a working woman is perhaps higher than his. 

Yet the pilgrim seems to think there is still time to save Sutekichi who at heart wants to go straight but is also resentful admitting that in a world where swindlers prosper perhaps it is foolish not to be a swindler. The pilgrim promises all of them a “better place”. “As long as you believe you’ll find it, you surely will”, he explains telling the actor about a temple that can help him cure his alcoholism while simultaneously urging the tinker’s suffering wife to give in to her fate and go to Buddha’s embrace as soon as possible. Perhaps he sincerely believes these things to be true, but also seems to have a sense that even if they weren’t these hopeless people could not go on if they knew there was no way out. They all say they’ll leave, but discover there are only two means of escape, to die or fall still further in banishment from this already banished place. Only Okayo whose final whereabouts remain unknown may finally have been able to free herself. Staying almost exclusively with the claustrophobic confines of the drafty tenement as wind the whistles through it, Kurosawa frames the space of one of existential purgatory but perhaps suggests that in the absence of salvation a comforting falsehood is the only means of survival.


The Lower Depths screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th & 30th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

High and Low (天国と地獄, Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

A self-made man is landed with an unthinkable dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped in place of his own just at the moment he’s staked his entire fortune on a manoeuvre to outsmart cynical executives set on taking over his company in Kurosawa’s post-war crime film, High and Low (天国と地獄, Tengoku to Jigoku). The movie’s Japanese title, Heaven and Hell, might hint more strongly at the growing economic disparities in the era of the economic miracle but also at the dualities embodied in the hero’s choices. “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity” his wife tells him, but he still struggles with the validity of choosing his heart over his head knowing that to pay anyway even though it’s another man’s son means financial ruin, the final question being if he is really prepared to allow a child to die simply to maintain his own wealth and status. 

The problem is that Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) has attempted to mount a rebellion against the evils of consumerism, incurring the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground. Though Gondo appears sympathetic, hinting that he might be interested if there’s a good enough promotion in it, he later tells them where to go on seeing that their business plan is to start producing poor quality disposable footwear. Gondo started on the factory floor and he doesn’t want to put the company’s name on such shoddy produce nor does he think that their admittedly fair point that if the shoes are well made and last a long time no one will need to buy any is a good way to do business. He doesn’t think the boss is right either and wants to make shoes his own way which is why he’s remortgaged the sizeable mansion he owns on top of a hill overlooking the city and has pretty much run through his wife’s dowry to buy a majority stake in the company.

On top of a hill is a good place to live if you want a good vantage point to oversee the land below, but while you’re looking down others look up and not all of them kindly. Gondo is as he says a self-made man, but also out of touch with contemporary society and not so far from an ambitious courtier always after a little more. He says it isn’t about getting the top job but getting shoes made right, but it seems he too had been bitten by the consumerist bug and is otherwise unable to affirm his status without material proof. When he thinks it’s his own son that’s been kidnapped, he’d have given it all away but when it’s the driver’s boy it’s a different question. Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu) isn’t his responsibility and as he points out there are plenty of other wealthy men, why is he the only one to pay? While his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) tearfully urges him to do the right thing, his assistant (Tatsuya Mihashi) tries stop him, insisting he should take the sizeable cheque they’ve had drawn up to Osaka and the stakeholder he’s buying the shares from. 

While he vacillates, the driver, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), is humiliated and forced into servitude. Gondo seems to have the old-fashioned idea that the kidnappers would simply let Shinichi go on realising they’ve got the wrong boy and his father can’t pay, but Aoki knows there’s nothing he can do to save his son but throw himself on Gondo’s mercy. He falls to the ground and prostrates himself, but later retracts all telling Gondo it doesn’t matter, that he hadn’t realised what he was asking of him, and insisting that Shinichi is a bright boy who will look for a chance to escape on his own. Once the boy is returned he treats him harshly, interrogating him about anything he might have forgotten and later driving him around looking for the hideout where he was kept in an attempt to do something and repay the debt he now feels he owes to Gondo by helping the police retrieve the money Gondo eventually agreed to pay for him. 

In agreeing to give up the money, Gondo is in a sense unburdened knowing he has made the right choice and realising that he would never live a comfortable life in that house if cost a child’s life to keep it. Part of his rationale for not wanting to pay had been that though he had been poor before and might be again, his wife had not been and does not truly understand what it is to live in poverty much as she says her life of luxury means nothing to her. She has never wanted for anything, after all. As for the kidnapper, Ginjiro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), we know little of his motives save for his intense resentment living quite literally in the shadow of Gondo’s mansion and feeling as if it were mocking him. Then again, though his life is hard Ginjiro already had a path to success in that he would soon have completed his medical studies implying at least that he or someone else was able to cover his tuition and costs of living, that he was able to continue in education, and really had no need to take such drastic action in rebellion against the antagonistic capitalism of the post-war society. “Do you think we have to hate each other?” Gondo asks him, but Ginjiro has no answer only his intense resentment for everything he represents.

The “hell” that Gondo inhabits is a backstreet wasteland peopled by the hopeless. Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), the earnest policeman, follows him through thronging clubs and on into “dope alley” where Ginjiro picked up his accomplices so desperate to escape their suffering that they’d agree to help him kidnap a child. Though it costs him his job, Gondo decision to do the right thing makes him a national hero, the working class millionaire who mows his own lawn and can still knock up a pair of shoes should the occasion call while women across the country decide to boycott the company in protest at his treatment. Ginjiro can only howl like a caged animal while facing a death sentence for the coldblooded murder of his accomplices. The light bouncing off his mirrored sunshades gives him an eerie supernatural quality, a demon arising from depths of hell to wreak havoc in heaven but finding only infinite tragedy in the contradictions of the consumerist post-war society.


High and Low screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Violent Streets (暴力街, Hideo Gosha, 1974)

“Nothing’s like it used to be anymore” sighs a woman who’s had to betray herself but has tried to make break for it only to discover there is no way back. Hideo Gosha’s Violent Streets (暴力街, Boryoku Gai) is like many films of its era about the changing nature of the yakuza in an age of corporatised gangsterdom. Now “legitimate businessmen” who claim to no longer deal in thuggery, their crimes are of a more organised kind though a turf war’s still a turf war even if you’re fighting from the boardroom rather than simply getting petty street punks to fight it for you in the streets. 

In a touch of irony, former yakuza Noboru Ando stars as a man who’s tried to leave the life behind but is pulled back into underworld intrigue when his former foot soldiers mount an ill-advised bid for revenge against the clan they feel betrayed them. After serving eight years in prison for participating in the last turf war, Egawa was given flamenco bar Madrid on the condition that he dissolve his family and attempt to go straight as a legitimate businessman. The Togiku gang has since gone legit and distanced itself from most of its old school yakuza like Egawa. But now a yakuza conglomerate from Osaka is moving in on their old turf and the Togiku want the Madrid back as a bulwark against incursion from the west which is why they’ve been sending the boys round to cause trouble in the bar. 

Egawa is the classic ex-gangster who wants to turn himself around but is largely unable to adapt to life in a changing society. He is technically in a relationship with a bar hostess who has a severe drinking problem in part exacerbated by his inability to get over his former girlfriend who left him and married the boss, Gohara, while he was in prison. His former foot soldiers attempt to convince him to get the gang back together and take revenge, resentful of having been used and discarded, but he tells them to let it go, that they’ve all got “honest jobs” and that they should try to live as best they can. Like him, the guys are ill-equipped to make new lives in the consumerist society and cannot move on from the post-war past. Hoping to engineer a turf war between the Osaka guys and Togiku, they kidnap a popular TV personality/pop singer (Minami Nakatsugawa) attached to a station which Togiku controls and frame a rival affiliated with the Osakans for taking her. 

This just goes to show the various ways in which newly corporatised yakuza have expanded their business portfolio, heavily participating in the entertainment industry moving beyond bars, clubs, and the sex trade into mainstream television and idol stars. Egawa’s old friend Yazaki (Akira Kobayashi) is his opposing number, just as caged but trapped within the confines of the new gangsterdom, reprimanded by his boss for raiding the rival studio’s offices and undoing the gang’s attempt to rebrand themselves as legitimate businessmen rather than violent street thugs. “I can’t stand being humiliated” he explains as Gohara points out he’s stepped right into their trap now giving the Osakans an excuse for retaliation. “The Togiku group is a defanged, domesticated dog” Yazaki barks, “I can’t pretend to be an obedient company employee forever and do nothing”. 

Neither man is able to progress into the new era of rising prosperity, both little more than caged animals thrashing around trying to break free but continually crashing into the bars. Just as Egawa’s old guys had tried to engineer a turf war hoping that the two gangs would take each other out and leave a vacuum they could fill, arch boss Shimamura (Tetsuro Tanba) flies above the city in a helicopter as the “worms fight among themselves” and observes the chaos below as he completes his silent conquest of the contemporary economy like some modern day Nobunaga of corporatised gangsterdom. 

Taking over the Togiku through a process of corporate infiltration and gradually ridding themselves of all the old school yakuza ill-suited to the shady salaryman life, the contrast between the world of cabaret bars and back street dives and Shimamura’s smart suits and helicopters couldn’t be more stark. A slightly sour note is struck by the use of a transgender assassin (Madame Joy) who performs a lesbian floorshow by day and kills by night while working with a bald sidekick who carries a parrot on his shoulder, her coldness bearing out the tendency of yakuza movies to associate queerness with sadistic savagery. Gosha rams his point home with the otherwise surreal scene of a pile of abandoned mannequins by a swamp that becomes a popular yakuza kill site homing in on the emptiness of their eyes and the uncanniness of dismembered bodies, mere empty shells just like the men who die in this literal wasteland. Egawa perhaps feels himself to be a man already dead long before being pushed towards his act of futile rebellion, somewhere between sitting duck and caged dog fighting for his life between the chicken coops of a moribund small-town Japan. Marching to a frenetic flamenco beat of rising passions and barely contained rage, Violent Streets leaves its former foot soldiers with nowhere to go but down while their duplicitous masters continue to prosper riding the consumerist wave into a new and prosperous future.


Violent Streets opens at New York’s Metrograph on Dec. 16 as part of Hideo Gosha x 3

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Vampire Moth (吸血蛾, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1956)

“You’ve become an evil beast that sucks blood!” intones ace detective Kindaichi, though just as his later The Lady Vampire featured no lady vampires, there is no literal bloodsucker involved in Noburu Nakagawa’s Vampire Moth (吸血蛾, Kyuketsuga). Inspired by one of Seishi Yokomizo’s mysteries featuring his iconic detective here played by the rather suave Ryo Ikebe cutting a very noirish figure in contrast to the famously disheveled eccentric from the original novels, the film is for a time at least a werewolf movie though as usual the villain turns out to be post-war greed and amorality. 

This is perhaps rammed home in the open sequence as the camera pans around the neon-lit nighttime city before entering a small cabaret bar where a fashion competition is currently in progress. A note of discord is immediately introduced by a white-haired grumpy old man (Eijiro Tono) sitting in the front row who appears to be in an incredibly bad mood, later exclaiming that the winning design by rising star Fumiyo Asaji (Asami Kuji) does not seem very original to him. Some of the models later complain about the strange spectator who’s evidently come to several other shows and has begun to creep them out. Meanwhile, an aloof, conservatively dressed woman brushes past them. Fumiyo’s assistant Toru (Ichiro Arishima) explains that she is Tazuko Kusakata (Chieko Nakakita) who had been the previous number one before Fumiyo returned to Japan after an extended stay in France. The real drama begins however with the arrival of a masked man with a box for Fumiyo who reveals his wolf-like face to Toru in an effort to convince him to deliver it. After opening the box and finding an apple with a few distinctive bite marks on the outside, Fumiyo promptly collapses.  

From the introduction of the three loose “suspects” an ominous atmosphere takes hold in the certainty that something untoward is about to happen. Soon enough some of the models start getting bumped off in quite bizarre and unpleasant ways. The first girl’s body is shipped back to the studio in a mannequin box which later leaks blood, while the gang are then delivered a cake with the next victim’s name on it in pretty icing with a butterfly moth motif above. There may not be any vampires, but there are certainly moths. The old creepy guy is revealed to be a moth specialist living a giant gothic mansion with a butterfly room in the middle full of specimens nailed to boards. His front door even has a moth motif above it like a coat of arms, while a butterfly mural lies behind it in the hallway. The killer places a decorative moth on each of his victims to cover their modesty which would seem to indicate the grumpy professor but, once he finally arrives, Kindaichi isn’t quite so sure. 

Though this is technically a Kindaichi mystery and he does finally get to unmask the criminal, he is not actually in it very much and as previously mentioned is nothing like later incarnations of the famous detective such as that of Kon Ichikawa’s series of Kindaichi movies released throughout the 1970s. In a common B-movie motif, the main detective work falls to a male and female team in dogged reporter Kawase (Minoru Chiaki) and intrepid model Yumiko (Kyoko Anzai) who eventually succeed in digging up clues at the creepy mansion while simultaneously stumbling across a subplot involving plagiarism in the world of fashion with Tazuko implying that Fumiyo stole her winning outfit from another designer and then passed it off as her own thereby robbing Tazuko of her rightful place as the best designer in Japan. Partly because of all this stress and the vast amounts of money apparently needed to sustain a career in the fashion industry, Fumiyo’s well-meaning boyfriend wants her to abandon the profession but also admits that asking her to give up fashion would be like asking her to give up her life. 

Nakagawa ramps up the tension with a series of elegantly presented reversals, making us think we’re witnessing the killer stalking Fumiyo before pulling back to reveal it’s someone else or presenting the same scene of a masked man ominously peering out from behind a tree. The presence of the “wolf man” links back to a Japanese traveller who supposedly fell victim to a supernatural curse in France described as being akin to possession by a fox in Japanese mythology causing the infected person to gain wolf-like characteristics, become violent, and eventually be consumed by an overwhelming desire for human flesh, but perhaps also hints at the sense of voracious greed that has overtaken the killer and caused them to abandon their sense of of humanity in favour of material riches. Filled with a sense of the gothic along with noirish dread in Nakagawa’s foggy, kilted angles eventually giving way to an atmospheric chase sequence strongly recalling that of The Third Man, The Vampire Moth presents a banal evil with palpable anxiety yet suggests justice will be done to those who however briefly stray from the path. 


The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Kihachi Okamoto, 1967)

“Hey, what’s going on around here?” a sidekick asks directly to camera at the conclusion of Kihachi Okamoto’s characteristically anarchic conspiracy-thriller-cum-spy-spoof The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Satsujinkyo Jidai). Sparked by Bond mania, the late 1960s saw a marked trend in B-movie espionage parody though Okamoto’s take on the genre is darker than the norm even if embracing his trademark taste for absurdist humour leaving us wondering who our hero really is and which side, if any, he’s really on in the confusing geopolitical realities of 1967 Japan. 

As we first meet him, the hero is bumbling professor of criminal psychology Shinji Kikyo (Tatsuya Nakadai) who has extreme myopia and a persistent case of athlete’s foot not to mention a prominent mother complex. Unbeknownst to him, he’s one of three targets picked not quite at random by Rudolf von Bruckmayer (Bruno Lucique), former Gestapo chief, who is interested in hiring some assassins trained by the megalomaniac psychiatrist Mizorogi (Hideyo Amamoto) who’s been turning his mentally distressed patients into hyper-efficient killing machines (sometimes literally) under the rationale that all great men throughout history have been in a certain sense “crazy”. Mizorogi is also in charge of a eugenicist project titled “The Greater Japan Population Control Council” which believes that Japan is already overpopulated but they have to ensure that “the lives of people who might become useful in the future must not be destroyed before they’re born.” Therefore, “the people who will be useless should be asked to bow out”, the assassin calmly explains shortly before Shinji is saved by the divine energy of his late mother as her bust falls from a shelf and knocks the killer out. 

The central conceit plays into a real anxiety about the post-war baby boom expressed in earlier films such as Yuzo Kawashima’s Burden of Love while attacking the capitalistic philosophy that regards some people as more useful than others. By the late 1960s, Nazis had begun to make frequent appearances in these kinds spy spoofs as comedy villains usually crazed to the point of being little real threat. Mizorogi too is eventually exposed as exalting the “mad” interested more in the art of chaos and the impulse to murder than in any greater political goal. Indeed, the central MacGuffin turns out to be less to do with a grand conspiracy to create some kind of super society than the very B-movie-esque missing diamond known as Cleopatra’s Tear.

Okamoto piles each of these subplots one on top of the other as if he were making it up as he goes along suddenly undercutting what we thought we knew with an unexpected reversal. Shedding his glasses and shaving his scraggly beard, Shinji shifts from myopic professor to suave super agent using profiling and psychology to stay one step ahead while encountering plots by spiritualist cults, overly cheerful self defence force officers in the middle of training exercises, and eccentric assassins. From a modern standpoint, it might seem uncomfortable that each of the killers is manifesting disability in order to seem non-threatening, a female operative concealing a deadly weapon behind an eyepatch, while her poetry-obsessed colleague stores his in a fake crutch, but then again they are each pawns of a game being played by the crazed Mizorogi. Aided by female reporter Keiko (Reiko Dan) and car thief sidekick Otomo Bill (Hideo Sunazuka), Shinji seems to bumble from one bizarre episode to another but may actually be far more in charge of the situation than we might have assumed. 

Among the most visually striking of Okamoto’s late ‘60s pictures and once again making great use of animation, Age of Assassins features high concept production design, Mizorogi’s asylum lair a maddening corridor of Omega-shaped passages with ornate cell bars on either side behind which we can see a room full of men often engaged in what seems to be a military exercise regime while the plaster effigies of human form seem to be bursting from the walls. As in all of Okamoto’s films the central message lies in the absurdity of violence suggesting in a sense that the dog-eat-dog ethos of contemporary capitalist consumerism is in itself a kind of internecine madness countered only by Shinji’s rather childish mentality crafting his various gadgets out of household objects while attacking this elitist individualism with nothing more sophisticated than a vegetable peeler. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kill! (斬る, Kihachi Okamoto, 1968)

“Samurai aren’t as great as you might think” according to a jaded retainer in Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! (斬る, Kiru) but it’s a message that the ambitious farmer at the film’s centre struggles to take in. Having been a victim of samurai violence he resolves to become a samurai while a former samurai turned yakuza drifter attempts to show him the hypocritical realities of the samurai life as they find themselves swept into local intrigue when a band of young revolutionaries arrive to cut down a corrupt and oppressive lord. 

Corrupt and oppressive is perhaps the defining image of the samurai in post-war cinema, but like the film’s title that cuts both ways. Farmer Tabata (Etsushi Takahashi) sold his lands to buy a sword after witnessing peasants cut down during an uprising but he’s decided the best way out of oppression is to become an oppressor and is dead set on achieving samurai glory through the time-honoured method of distinguishing himself in battle. That may prove a little difficult given that his new boss, Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama), immediately mocks him for swinging his sword as if it were a scythe. Then again as former samurai Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) explains to him, if you don’t know what you’re doing you can always just stab people which at the end of the day does rather undermine the idea of samurai elegance in the art of killing. 

Genta keeps trying to tell Tabata that “samurai are no good” but Tabata still wants to be one anyway even after learning that Ayuzawa means to double cross them, hiring ronin to take out the young samurai whose sense of honour he manipulated to eliminate the admittedly corrupt (but aren’t they all?) lord for his own political gain while planning to send in his retainers to finish off the job to ensure there are no witnesses. Genta gave up his samurai status because he was “disgusted” by just this sort of duplicity along with the meaningless codes of loyalty that govern samurai society and caused him to betray a friend who was acting only in the interests of justice. Leader of the ronin Jurota (Shin Kishida) did something similar though in his case for love when his fiancée’s father was condemned on false charges and she and her mother exiled. He wants not land or status but only money in order to redeem the woman he loves from a geisha house and like Genta is under no illusions about the nature of samurai life having figured out most of what’s going on but hoping to emerge with the means to liberate both himself and his wife from samurai oppression. 

Even the elderly chamberlain later rescued by Genta tries to warn Tabata that the samurai life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, hinting at the ways they are also oppressed by their own code while clearly gleeful to have had the opportunity of stepping into a teahouse for the first time responding to Genta’s request to stay put that if he could he’d like to stay put for the rest of his days. Both former samurai, neither Genta nor Jurota are minded to draw their swords knowing that whatever the outcome it would be unhappy while the young who thought it was their duty to change the world by removing one who brought shame on their names are faced with the realisation that they have been used and their resistance will count for nothing. Even their bond as brothers banding together to achieve a common goal is eventually disrupted by alcohol and petty jealousy.

Genta acts as a kind of chorus, touched by the naivety of the seven samurai holed up in a mountain lodge because they believed in justice, while knowing that the society itself is innately unjust and already beyond redemption. Tabata eventually comes to a similar conclusion having gained samurai status but found it quite literally uncomfortable deciding to shake off his newfound nobility and rejoin Genta as a cynical yet pure hearted wanderer because the only way to escape samurai oppression is to actively live outside it. The final irony is that it’s the elderly chamberlain who eventually sets him, and all they women trapped in indentured servitude at the geisha house, free using samurai gold to enable them to escape a system he himself cannot escape but does not exactly support while Genta enlists the help of local peasants to hold a festival of rebellion to cover the final assault. Marked by Okamoto’s characteristically absurd humour and cartoonish composition along with the eerily gothic emptiness of the deserted ghost town where not even yakuza can survive the film takes on a quasi-spiritual dimension in which Genta and the gang eventually walk out of hell if only into a purgatorial freedom. 


Kill! screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 2 as part of the Monthly Classics series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hit and Run (ひき逃げ, Mikio Naruse, 1966)

The contradictions of the contemporary society drive two women out of their minds in Mikio Naruse’s dark psychological drama, Hit and Run (ひき逃げ, Hikinige, AKA A Moment of Terror). Scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama and starring his wife Hideko Takamine in her final collaboration with the director, Naruse’s penultimate film takes aim at the persistent unfairness of a post-war society already corrupted by increasing corporatisation while caught at a moment of transition that leaves neither woman free to escape the outdated patriarchal social codes of the feudal era. 

The two women, both mothers to five-year-old boys, are mirror images of each other. Kuniko (Hideko Takamine), the heroine, is a widow working in a noodle bar and continually exasperated by her energetic son Takeshi who keeps escaping kindergarten to play pachinko which is not a suitable environment for a small child. Kinuko (Yoko Tsukasa), meanwhile, is mother to Kenichi and married to a high ranking executive at Yamano Motors, Kakinuma (Eitaro Ozawa). These two worlds quite literally collide when Kinuko, emotionally distressed and driving a little too fast, knocks over little Takeshi while he is out playing with some of the other neighbourhood boys. As she is with her lover, Susumu (Jin Nakayama), she decides to drive on abandoning Takeshi to his fate but discovers blood on the bumper of her shiny white convertible on returning home and thereafter decides to tell her husband everything aside from revealing her affair. Kakinuma covers the whole thing up by forcing their driver to take the rap to protect not his wife but the company along with his own status and success fearing that a scandal concerning his wife driving carelessly may have adverse consequences seeing as Yamano Motors is about to launch a new super fast engine that will make them worldwide industry leaders. 

Perhaps in a way the true villain, Kakinuma cares about nothing other than his corporate success. Kinuko states as much in complaining that he’s never once considered her feelings only his own and that their marriage was a failure from the start, little more than an act of exploitation in which she was traded by her father for money in return for political connections. For these reasons she seeks escape through her extra-marital affair but is unable to leave partly in the psychological conflict of breaking with tradition and partly because she has a son whom she would likely not be permitted to take with her even if it were practical to do so. Another woman says something similar in disparaging Kuniko, implying that her life is in some ways over as few men would be interested in marrying a widow with a child. 

Takeshi’s loss is therefore additionally devastating in severing Kuniko’s only lifeline. A brief flashback reveals that Kuniko was once a post-war sex worker, she and her yakuza brother Koji war orphans who lost their parents in the aerial bombing. When she married and had a child she thought the gods had smiled on her but in true Narusean fashion they gave only to take away leaving her a widow and finally robbing her even of her child. To add insult to injury, they try to put a price on her son’s life, a mere 500,000 yen for a boy of five hit by a car. When the driver stands in the dock, he gets off with only a 30,000 yen fine for the death of a child. Then again on visiting his home, there appears to be a boy of around five there too, perhaps you can’t blame him for taking the money having been robbed of his youth in wartime service. 

Still, on hearing from an eye witness that it was a woman who was driving, Kuniko quickly realises that Kinuko must have been responsible. Quitting her job she joins a maid agency in order to infiltrate the house and gain revenge later settling on the idea of killing little Kenichi, who takes an instant liking to her, to hurt his mother in the way she has been hurt only to be torn by her unexpected maternal connection with the boy. The conflict between the two women is emotional, but also tinged with class resentment that a wealthy woman like Kinuko should be allowed to escape justice with so little thought to those around her while Kuniko is tormented not only by her grief but the persistent injustice of the cover up. 

As in all things, it’s the lie that does the most damage in ironically exposing the truth of all it touches. Kinuko’s escape route is closed when her lover reveals that he’s lost faith in her, unable to trust a woman who’d run away from the scene of a crime and allow someone else to take the blame, while Kakinuma’s emotional abandonment of his social family for the corporate is thrown into stark relief by his immediate decision to further exploit their driver just as he will later their maid. Driven out of her mind, Kuniko has white hot flashes of lustful vengeance as she imagines herself engineering an accident for Kenichi, throwing him off a rollercoaster or coaxing him into traffic, only to regain her senses unable to go through with it so pushed to the brink of madness is she that no other action makes sense. 

Even so the conclusion is brutally ironic, Kuniko accused of a crime she did not commit but half believing that she must have done it because she wanted to so very much. Kakinuma gets a minor comeuppance, encouraged by his servant to make clear what actually happened and exonerate Kuniko thereby walking back his total commitment to the corporate (then again it seems his dream project was itself under threat from a potential plagiarism scandal) though the damage may already have been done. This societal violence of an unequal, increasingly corporatised and unfeeling society, eventually comes full circle bringing with it only death and madness as the two women seek escape from their internal torment. Naruse experiments with handheld camera and canted angles to emphasise the destabilisation of the women’s sense of reality along with blow out and solarisation in the visions that plague them, but curiously ends with a set of motor vehicle accident stats as if this had been a roundabout public information film to encourage careful driving. Then again perhaps in a way it is, a cautionary tale about the dangerous curves of untapped modernity and the cruelties of the nakedly consumerist era.  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (no subtitles)