Kurutta Yaju (狂った野獣, Sadao Nakajima, 1976)

Kurutta Yaju dvd coverRobbing a bank is harder than it looks but if it does all go very wrong, escaping by bus is not an ideal solution. Sadao Nakajima is best known for his gritty yakuza movies but Kurutta Yaju ( 狂った野獣, Crazed Beast/Savage Beast Goes Mad) takes him in a slightly different direction with its strangely comic tale of bus hijacking, counter hijacking, inept police, and fretting mothers. If it can go wrong it will go wrong, and for a busload of people in Kyoto one sunny morning, it’s going to be a very strange day indeed.

A young woman receives a phone call at a cafe – the person she’s waiting for is on his way, but the girl seems surprised and irritated to hear he will be arriving via public transport. Meanwhile, ordinary people are seen cheerfully going about their everyday business and boarding a bus headed for Kyoto station while a cool looking man in mac and sunshades clutches a violin case in the back. Suddenly, two shady guys jump on after their bank robbery goes belly up. Trying to escape the police, they threaten the driver with a gun and take the passengers hostage.

This sounds like a serious situation, and it is, but the two bumbling bank robbers haven’t thought any of this through and have no plans other than somehow driving the bus onwards to a land without policemen. Eventually the authorities are made aware of the hijacking but there is another hidden problem – the driver has a heart condition and is supposed to be avoiding “stressful situations”. Neither the bus company or the police has any more idea what to do now than the increasingly panicked criminals and the situation quickly makes its way into the press whereupon the mothers of two little boys presumed to be onboard are forced to dash straight down to the police station to find out exactly what the police are up to as regards rescuing their sons from dangerous criminals.

The atmosphere on the bus is tense but also ripe for comedy as each of these captive passengers gradually reveals an unexpected side of themselves. The “hero”, Shin (Tsunehiko Watase) – the cool looking dude on his way to meet the girl waiting in the cafe, keeps a low profile in the back, hoping this will all blow over. Meanwhile, a woman desperately tries to get off the bus because she’s more worried about missing an appointment than being killed by hijackers, and an adulterous couple on their way back from an illicit visit to a love hotel begin bickering about what will happen if any of this gets into the papers. The two little boys start crying and are comforted by an old lady who takes the time to remind the hijackers that they’re bringing shame on their families as well as exhorting the man next to her who is so engrossed in the racing news that he hasn’t really noticed the hijacking that he ought to be doing something about it. He does, but only gets himself into more trouble whilst further revealing the depths of the highjackers’ ineptitude.

Soon enough the woman from the cafe, Miyoko (Jun Hoshino), jumps on her bike to chase the bus and find out what Shin is playing at. As might be expected, there’s more to Shin than his ice cold exterior, and more to that violin case than a priceless musical instrument. The bus careers onward while the police come up with ever more bizarre attempts to stop it including, at one point, trying to drive right into the side to damage the engine. Bizarre hilarity ensues as a troupe of traditional musicians trolls the hijackers with an impromptu show, a kid pees out the window, and the bus plows straight through a chicken barn like some old time cartoon. Shin becomes the unlikely hero of the hour as he ends up counter hijacking the bus to try and cover up the circumstances which led him to get on in the first place.

Playing out in real time and only 78 minutes in length, Kurutta Yaju is a brilliant mix of absurd comedy and gritty action movie. Shin attempts to ride the situation out, hoping he’ll be able to turn it to his advantage, and, though he plays everything beautifully, eventually becomes disillusioned with what his strange bus odyssey might have cost him. Action packed, hilarious, and ultimately a little bit sad Kurutta Yaju is a lost gem in Toei’s B-movie backlog and another exciting addition to Japan’s long history of bus-centric cinema.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道, Kenji Misumi, 1973)

baby-cart-land-demonsOgami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former Shogun executioner now a fugitive in search of justice after being framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan who are also responsible for the death of his wife, is still on the Demon’s Way with his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Five films into this six film cycle, the pair are edging closer to their goal as the evil Lord Retsudo continues to make shadowy appearances at the corners of their world. However, the Demon’s Way carries a heavy toll, littered with corpses of unlucky challengers, the road has, of late, begun to claim the lives of the virtuous along with the venal. Conflicted as he was in his execution of a contract to assassinate the tragic Oyuki in the previous instalment, Baby Cart in Peril, whose story was perhaps even sadder than his own, Ogami is about to descend further still as a commission to kill a living Buddha proves even more sordid than expected.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道,  Kozure Okami: Meifumado) starts as it means to go on as Ogami finds yet another coded way of touting for business when he notices the strange demonic drawing on the face mask of a resting man and correctly reads it as a message for the Lone Wolf and Cub. The Kuroda clan have despatched five of their best men wearing just such masks in order to test his skills and find out if he’s worthy of their job. Each time he defeats one, he’ll receive 100 ryou (a fifth of his fee) and part of the reasons and explanations he requires in deciding whether to take the job.

This time the assignment is to do with a mislaid yet incriminating letter from the Kuroda lord, Naritaka (Shingo Yamashiro), who has unwisely been deceiving the Shogun as to the identity of his children. Very much in love with his mistress, Naritaka has been passing off their daughter, Hamachiyo (Sumida Kazuyo), as his son Matsumaru. Meanwhile the real Matsumaru, his legitimate heir through his legal wife, has been imprisoned in the compound and kept away from prying eyes. A particularly stupid and pointless ruse, yet the lord has created even more problems for himself by allowing a letter outlining all of this to fall into the hands of a treacherous priest, Jikei (Hideji Otaki), who turns out to be the head of a ninja spy network. Ogami’s job is to kill Jikei and get the letter back but it comes with some additional spice – Jikei plans to hand the letter to Lord Retsudo, Ogami’s arch nemesis.

Ogami’s world is a feudal one where allegiance to one’s lord trumps almost everything. The lords are, however, often dishonest, selfish, and cruel. The hypocrisy of the samurai world is a phenomenon well known to all, and most particularly to Ogami who has found himself at the mercy of the ambitious Yagyu clan. Whatever else he may have become, Ogami is a man of honour to whom the way of samurai maintains a deep spiritual importance. Jikei’s attempt to unsettle Ogami by asking him what he thinks he’s going to achieve on the Demon’s Way and if killing a living Buddha is a fitting use of his talents, further pushes Ogami into a spiritual crisis regarding his quest for vengeance and ongoing career as a sword for hire.

Naritaka has, indeed, broken his code in lying to the Shogun but also in rejecting his position and creating an alternative family of his choosing by favouring the female child of his mistress over his legitimate male heir. In addition to his contract to kill Jikei and retake the letter, Ogami also receives a request to assassinate the lord himself alongside his concubine and even their daughter. This illegitimate line cannot be allowed to continue, the illicit family born of personal choice must be cut off before it begins to corrupt the future of the Kuroda clan. Actively plotting the death of one’s lord is an unthinkable concept, yet a retainer also has a responsibility to guard the honour of their house and so the lord must go, even if the retainer is bound to follow him.

The decision to execute the entire family recalls the series’ origins in which Ogami was seen to act as a second in the “harakiri” of a toddler shortly before seeing his own family fall under the sword of a Yagyu plot. Daigoro is growing older at an unnatural rate but shows a little more willingness to engage in acts of altruistic heroism than his father, such as in an episode where he decides to refuse to identify a local pickpocket even if it means he himself will be flogged in her place. Ogami looks on in inaction, yet there is the faintest flicker of pride in his otherwise impassive face as his fearless son opts to undergo a harsh punishment rather than allow someone else to suffer even as she tries to save him in turn. Daigoro also has an awkward moment of connection with the similarly aged unlucky princess but remains apparently unmoved by her fate at the end of their mission. The legitimate prince may have been liberated and the official line restored, but there has been a heavy price for all concerned and the Kuroda clan is far from saved.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons marks the return, albeit for the last time, of the series’ original director Kenji Misumi who gets rid of the heavily exploitation leaning approach brought by Buichi Saito in the previous film, Baby Cart in Peril. No voiceovers, no musical sequences, and an overall return to quiet contemplation mixed with impressively balletic fight sequences rather than the frenetic action and sudden trickery which defined Baby Cart in Peril send the series back to its spiritual roots after a brief foray into the contemporary jidaigeki. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is also the first in the series which contains no female nudity though it does make room for another skilled female warrior and also repeats the motif of Ogami leaving a melancholy woman behind him as he sets off into the sunset, yet this time it’s a woman who has chosen her own path in keeping with her own code and earned Ogami’s respect, and perhaps sorrow, in the process. Ogami is drawing closer to Retsudo, though his path leads him through a land of demons each more villainous than the last and justice seems like an unrealistic ideal where only men like Ogami stand at the gates of man and beast.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (子連れ狼 死に風に向う乳母車, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

lone-wolf-and-cub-baby-cart-to-hadesOgami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his (slightly less) young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) are going to hell in a baby cart in this third instalment of the six film series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (子連れ狼 死に風に向う乳母車, Kozure Okami: Shinikazeni Mukau Ubaguruma). The former shogun executioner, framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan intent on assuming his position, is still on the “Demon’s Way”, seeking vengeance and the restoration of his clan’s honour with his toddler son safely ensconced within a bamboo cart which also holds its fair share of secrets. In the previous chapter, Baby Cart at the River Styx, Ogami’s stoic personality came to the fore as he showed that sometimes there is more strategic value to be found in avoiding a fight rather than charging into one where it isn’t necessary. Baby Cart to Hades will further test this element of his life philosophy as he finds himself bound onwards, seeking his redemption.

Neatly attaching Daigoro’s cart for towing, Ogami boards a boat which appears to be being followed by underwater ninjas, if the reeds he notices whilst using his sword as a mirror are anything to go by. Also on the boat is a distressed young woman, apparently on her way to be sold to a brothel. Diagoro takes pity on the girl and catches her tiny bundle of belongings when the loquacious middle man knocks them overboard. Later they all end up at the same inn where the unfortunate woman kills her procurer when he attempts to rape her (bad business decision as that would be). Daigoro takes pity on the woman once again and Ogami decides to help her, especially after he notices the wooden memorial tablet among her belongings. Rather than fight off the brothel running samurai who come to find her, Ogami agrees to undergo the torture which is the alternative to entering a brothel on the girl’s behalf.

In addition to saving a life from fear and suffering, Ogami’s forbearance also earns him the respect of the madam in question, Torizo (Yuko Hama), who has another job for him. Her older sister was raped at the court of their lord and subsequently committed suicide, she and her father would like him dead and are willing to pay for it. Amusingly enough, the corrupt lord in question also tries to hire Ogami for another assassination for which he will pay double, but Ogami is an honest man. This latest mission brings him closer to his fated battle with the Yagyu but the Demon’s Way is long and Ogami is not yet approaching its end.

Directed once again by Kenji Misumi, this third instalment is much less psychedelic and action packed than the preceding film but seems keener to explore more of Ogami’s world which is often cruel and unforgiving. An early scene in the film features a discussion between four mercenaries, one a fine samurai who refuses to associate too much with the other three who are of a much more earthy character. Caring only for women and sake, the three men live a life of banditry by another name, fleeting from one clan to another participating in parades to bulk out an otherwise lacking show of force. Kanbei (Go Kato), by contrast, at least has a consciousness of the “true samurai” and a conflicted heart when it comes to his way of life. Having been a loyal retainer and later betrayed by the very lord he was seeking to protect over a matter of protocol, he has lost sight of his place in the world but knows himself to be superior to these venal, dishonest, empty scabbards for hire.

These same three men then attempt to have some sport with a well to do mother and daughter unwisely travelling with a single attendant. After despatching their escort, the three rape the two women before turning to Kanbei for help to clear up the giant mess they’ve just made. Kanbei does indeed clear it up by killing the two women in the gentlest and most elegant way he can before instructing the three culprits to draw lots – one of them will have to die and take the blame for everything to avoid getting entangled with the local police. Neither Kanbei or Ogami arrive in time to save the two women, whose deaths are both a solution to their “defilement” and the means to coverup a crime, leaving two thirds of the perpetrators free to commit the same crime again further along the road. Female life is both cheap and worth a lot of money to the right people, though there are precious few willing to defend it as a matter of honour – even Ogami’s decision to help the young woman about to be sold against her will has more to do with the cosmic coincidence of her memorial tablet than a desire to defend a vulnerable girl in trouble.

Where the dying monologue in Baby Cart at the River Styx was about the elegance and nobility of killing, Baby Cart to Hades focuses on the nature of the “true samurai” as the similarly disenfranchised Kanbei and Ogami discuss the “proper” way of life and death. Kanbei, like Ogami, is a brave man who served his lord in his own way, only to accomplish his mission and be cast out by those who disagreed with his methods. Is it really wrong to fight to live, rather than prepare to die? Both men say no, but the conclusion that is reached is that a samurai can only live by death. Meeting for the first time, Kanbei requests a dual from Ogami, promising to care for his son if only he survives. Ogami agrees but later sheaths his sword and declares the fight a draw. He would rather not fight a man who appears to be his equal in every way and has no quarrel with him, though the two will meet again for an unavoidable showdown.

Misumi is more straightforward his direction save for a few expressionist scenes of the bright sunset and a dramatic switch to POV as a head is severed from its body and rolls away. Nevertheless the ninja antics become ever more impressive, as do Ogami’s methods of detecting them. Once again Ogami attracts the attention of a grateful woman in the person of Torizo who, in keeping with the previous two chapters, watches him push his baby cart away with tears in her eyes (all accompanied by the first appearance of a closing ballad in the series). There are a lot more bodies behind him now as Ogami strides away from a battlefield littered with corpses, yet he’s seemingly no closer to achieving his goal despite his brush with the Yagyu. The price of vengeance is increasing, but the Demon Way is long, and Ogami must follow it to its end, no matter where it leads.


Original trailer (German subtitles for captions only, NSFW)

No Grave for Us (俺達に墓はない, Yukihiro Sawada, 1979)

No Grave for Us posterThough he might not exactly be a household name outside of Japan, the late Yusaku Matsuda was one of the most important mainstream stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Had he not died at the tragically young age of 40 after refusing chemotherapy for bladder cancer to star in what would become his final film, Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, he’d undoubtedly have continued to move on from the action genre in which he’d made his name. No Grave For Us (俺達に墓はない, Oretachi ni Haka wa Nai) is fairly typical of the kinds of films he was making in the late ‘70s as he once again plays a cool, streetwise hoodlum mixed up in a crazy crime world where no one can be trusted.

The film begins with a humorous incident in which a man sets fire to a small parcel in the ladies’ area of a department store and loudly starts shouting about a bomb before using the resulting panic and chaos to calmly extract the money from the nearby tills. His plan is going perfectly except for one cashier who’s rooted to the spot, confused by the rat who lives under the counter who isn’t perturbed by the presence of a “bomb”. Shima makes off with his money and starts planning a new job which he plans to carry out with his longtime friend and brother in arms Ishikawa. The pair carry out a robbery on a rival gang but an ex-yakuza, Takita, tries to make off with the loot. Shima and Takita bond and agree to split the money but Ishikawa gets captured and subjected to humiliating treatment by the gangsters. The intrusion of Takita and of the resurfacing problematic shopgirl, Michi, slowly drive a wedge between the previously inseparable Shima and Ishikawa.

No Grave for Us is, as the title suggests, a noir inflected B-movie in which the lowlife punk Shima contends with the various trials and tribulations associated with a life of petty crime. Child of an uncaring society, he’s been in and out of trouble since adolescence. He met Ishikawa when the pair were both in reform school together, Shima for assault and Ishikawa for drug related offences. Shima is not a drug user and seems to disapprove of his friend’s habit but makes no great protest against it. When Michi turns up at Ishikawa’s bar (just by coincidence) she’s lost her job at the department store after being accused of taking the money that Shima stole. It turns out that she too is a junkie and has been living a life of dissipation since being picked up for prostitution during middle school. She fits right in with Shima and Ishikawa but, predictably, begins to prefer the more assured Shima to the loose cannon Ishikawa which begins to present something of a problem for the pair.

Shima and Takita originally reach an understanding based on a gangster code of honour which they both understand. Ishikawa aside, the pair would make a good team but their growing comradeship only adds to Ishikawa’s sense of insecurity causing him to take matters into his own hands with fairly disastrous consequences. A misunderstanding makes Takita and Shima mortal enemies putting an end to any kind of alliance that might have been possible. There’s no comradeship here, no true friendship. Every relationship is a possible betrayal waiting to take place, every warmth a weakness.

Director Yukihiro Sawada had mostly worked in Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno line other than co-helming Sogo Ishii’s first feature, Panic High School, the previous year but No Grave for Us is refreshingly light on exploitative content. There is some brief nudity but nothing particularly out of keeping for a regular studio picture of the time. Likewise, the fights are of a more realistic nature and bloodshed kept to a minimum. The look of the film is also very typical of its era though Sawada only rarely uses the extreme zooms which are the hallmark of ‘70s cinema opting for a more straightforward, often static, approach. The film’s jazz inspired score also helps to bring out its noir undertones as these three guys who could have been allies find themselves turning on each other for the most trivial of reasons.

In many ways there’s nothing particularly special about No Grave for Us save for being an excellent example of mainstream action cinema in the late ‘70s. The film is full of knowing references to other recent genre hits as well as popular culture of the time including a lengthy tribute to top idol group Pink Lady whose song Zipangu also features on the soundtrack, and has an all round “cool” sensibility to it that was no doubt very popular at the time of its original release. An enjoyable enough genre effort, No Grave for Us is an impressively handled slice of late ‘70s noir inspired B-movie action but perhaps has little else to recommend it.


Unsubtitled trailer:

and a clip of Pink Lady performing Zipangu, just because

 

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 1: Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

Snapshot-2015-12-07 at 11_06_36 PM-930280086When it comes to the history of the yakuza movie, there are few titles as important or as influential both in Japan and the wider world than Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Jingi Naki Tatakai). The first in what would become a series of similarly themed movies later known as The Yakuza Papers, Battles without Honour is a radical rebooting of the Japanese gangster movie. The English title is, infact, a literal translation of the Japanese which accounts for the slightly unnatural “and” rather than “or” where the “honour and humanity” are collected in a single Japanese word, “jingi”. Jingi is the ancient moral code by which old-style yakuza had abided and up to now the big studio gangster pictures had all depicted their yakuza as being honourable criminals. However, in Fukasaku’s reimagining of the gangster world this adherence to any kind of conventional morality was yet another casualty of Japan’s wartime defeat.

The story begins with a black and white image of a mushroom cloud with the film’s bright red title card and now famous theme playing over the top. This is Hiroshima in 1946. Things are pretty desperate, the black market is rife and there are US troops everywhere. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) has just returned from the war (in fact he’s still in his uniform). He gets himself into trouble when he intervenes as an American soldier attempts to rape a Japanese woman in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded marketplace. He manages to cause enough of a commotion for the woman to escape but the Japanese cops just tell him not to mess with the GIs. Things don’t get much better as one of Hirono’s friends is assaulted by a yakuza. They get some rival yakuza to help them get revenge and in the commotion Hirono accidentally kills someone and is sent to prison for 12 years. In prison he meets another yakuza who wants to escape by pretending to commit harakiri and promises to get his yakuza buddies to bail Hirono out if he helps. From this point on Hirono has become embroiled in the new and dangerous world of the Hiroshima criminal underground.

Battles Without Honour and Humanity has a famously complicated plot entered around the various power shifts and machinations between different groups of yakuza immediately after the end of World War II. The film begins in 1946 and ends in 1956 though many of its cast of tough guys don’t last anywhere near as long. The picture Fukasaku paints of Japan immediately after the war is a bleak one. Even if some of these guys are happy to have survived and finally reached home, they’ve seen and done terrible things. Not only that, they’ve been defeated and now they’re surrounded by foreign troops everywhere who can pretty much do what they want when they want. They just don’t have a lot of options – if they don’t have connections to help them find work when there’s not enough to go around then it isn’t surprising if they eventually fall into to crime. Also, having spent time in the military, the yakuza brotherhood provides a similar kind of camaraderie and surrogate family that you might also find in an army corps.

It all gets ugly quite fast. Largely the yakuza are making their money profiting from the political instability, resenting the US occupation yet reaching deals with them to support their efforts in the Korean war and then selling new and untested drugs at home (with less than brilliant results). Betrayals, executions, assassinations in previously safe places like a bath house or the barbers – these are a long way from the supposedly honourable gangsters of old. One minute Hirono is offering to cut off his finger as a traditional sign of atonement (though no one knows exactly what you’re supposed to do in this situation and it all ends up seeming a little silly) and taking the rap for everyone else’s mistakes, but his friend faked harakiri to get out of jail and everyone is double crossing everyone else whichever way you look.

The whole thing is filmed in an almost documentary style with captions identifying the various characters and giving the exact time of their demise (if necessary) as well as a voice over giving background information about the historical period. The film is inspired by real life yakuza memoirs and there are parts which feel quite like a bunch of old guys sitting in a drinking establishment and recounting some of their exploits.

This new postwar world of heartless gangsters is a tough one and almost devoid of the old honour-bound nobility, however somehow Fukasaku has managed to make it all look very cool at the same time as being totally unappealing. You wouldn’t want to live this way and you definitely don’t want to get involved with any of these guys but somehow their self determined way of life becomes something to be admired. That said, there’s a sadness too – that even in the criminal underworld there used to be something noble that’s been obliterated by the intense trauma of the war. You can rebuild, you can move on from the destruction left by the war’s wake but there’s no going back to those days of “honour and humanity” – if they ever existed, they’re gone forever now.


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