Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

The Sea and Poison (海と毒薬, Kei Kumai, 1986)

the sea and poison posterWhen thinking of wartime atrocity, it’s easy enough to ascribe the actions of the perpetrators to a kind of madness, to think that they have in some way moved away from us to become some kind of “other”. In thinking of those who transgress our notions of humanity as inhuman or “evil” we can absolve ourselves of their crimes, believing that they are not like us and we are not like them. The truth is never so simple and as long as we continue to other these dark parts of ourselves, we will not be able to overcome them. The Sea and Poison (海と毒薬, Umi to Dokuyaku), adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, shows this delusion of inhumanity for what it is in taking as its central concern the real life case of the doctors at a Kyushu university who committed heinous acts of experimentation on eight American prisoners of war in late 1945. Rather than focus of on those who took the decision that the experiments should take place, Endo and Kumai examine the motives of those on the fringes who merely went along with them finding that they did so for petty, essentially human motives.

Shot in a crisp black and white, the film opens in a caged cell where an American officer is interrogating a young man still in a student’s uniform. Suguro (Eiji Okuda) is the first of several witnesses to the deaths of eight American servicemen during alleged vivisection at the hospital at which Suguro had worked. Young and naive, Suguro is the most sympathetic of three witnesses we will encounter but his essentially compassionate nature puts him at odds with his colleagues who abhor “sentimentality” and regard his emotionality as a childish weakness. It is through Suguro that we discover that the hardness that has apparently led to these horrific betrayals of the physicians’ code are not born of the war, or of militarism, or of adherence to some ideal like god or country but are a natural extension of the hyper-rational attitude of the medical profession.

Suguro’s colleague, Toda (Ken Watanabe), is his polar opposite, viewing Suguro’s sense of compassion as a ridiculous but somewhat endearing character trait. A textbook nihilist, Toda takes the view that as death comes to us all, the when and why are essentially unimportant. When so many are dying in air raids or on the battlefields, what does it matter that some also die in hospitals. Yet Toda is, in someways, the most ruminative among the hospital staff. In the diary he keeps, Toda attempts to dissect himself and his ongoing lack of feeling. Telling the interrogators that he began the diary because he had begun to find himself “creepy”, Toda asks why it is he feels nothing in relation to his fellow men. Surely it must be right that one should feel some degree of empathy? Toda volunteers for the experiments in part to test his own hypothesis but discovering that he still feels no pity for these men, he wonders if these ideas of morality are a kind of affectation seeing as others too can commit such acts of extreme cruelty and think nothing of it.

In this, Toda earns our sympathy, seeming at least to want to feel something even if he does not. Nurse Ueda (Toshie Negishi), by contrast, is the most human and also the most repugnant of our three witnesses. Her concerns are petty and ordinary, born of jealousy and resentment. Returning again to the scene of a botched surgery, Kumai shows us Ueda calling the operating theatre and being told to give a patient a dose of morphine by a harried doctor still panicked by the ongoing OR drama. Following her instructions, Ueda fills a syringe but the vial is knocked out of her hand by the German wife of the head doctor, Hilda, who was once a nurse herself and likes to help out on the wards. Hilda is a severe woman but not a cold one, she cares for the patients but perhaps with a more rigorous adherence to the nurses’ code than the less experienced team at the hospital. Hilda tries to get Ueda fired for her “mistake”, scolding her by asking (in German) if she is not afraid of God, and expressing concern that she thought so little of giving a fatal dose of morphine to a suffering patient.

Ueda’s decision to attend the experiments is a form of backhanded revenge – Hilda, whom everyone regards as some kind of annoyingly saintly figure, has no idea her husband would be involved in something so against her deeply held ideals, but Ueda also offers another reason when she says that the doctors exist in another, more rarefied world to the rank and file ward staff. This idea is echoed again by the head nurse, Ohba (Kyoko Kishida), who states that nurses must do as the doctors tell them without asking questions. Ohba rounds out the just following orders contingent but the first half of the film has already shown us that the medical profession is corrupt and cannot be trusted.

The old Dean has had a stroke and there is a mini war of succession in play between the heads of surgery divisions one and two. Dr. Hashimoto (Takahiro Tamura) had been the favourite but his star is fading. In an effort to improve his chances, he decides to move up an operation on a friend of the Dean – a young woman with advanced TB. Meanwhile, Suguro’s patient, an old woman who also has TB has been earmarked for “experimental surgery”. The old woman has not been properly briefed on the risks of the operation in which she has only a five percent chance of survival and has only agreed to it because the doctor, whom she trusts implicitly, has told her it’s her only chance. The Dean’s friend is “Mrs. Tabe”, and she is “important”. The old woman is only “the welfare patient” and therefore not important at all.

Suguro, anxious to save the old woman to whom he has developed an attachment, wants the operation to be postponed, at least until she’s potentially strong enough to survive but Dr. Shibata (Mikio Narita) is only interested in using her as a potential candidate for experimentation which he claims will help future treatment of TB but also, of course, improve his career prospects. Mrs. Tabe’s mother asks the doctor if her operation carries any risk but the assistant laughs in her face, claiming the operation is so simple even a monkey could do it and pretending to be insulted that she has so little faith in her physicians. The operation goes wrong and Mrs. Tabe dies which is bad news for Dr. Hashimoto but rather than offer his apologies to the relatives, he tries to cover it up. So that it won’t look like she died on the table, they take the body back to her room and hook it up to a drip, insisting to Mrs. Tabe’s mother and sister that all is well while planning to announce that Mrs. Tabe died of complications from the operation early the following morning.

This level of callousness and self interest is echoed in Dr. Shibata’s justification that the old woman is going to die anyway and therefore the operation is worth a shot even though he believes it will kill her and is not in any way attempting to save her life (though it would be a nice bonus). Unlike Toda’s nihilism, Shibata’s practicality has no human dimension, he thinks in numbers and statistics, deciding who is a “real patient” and who is not. This same justification is used when recruiting doctors for the experiments. The US servicemen are downed aircrew from the bombers which have been making raids overhead for months. A court in Tokyo has ruled the random bombing contravenes international law and has sentenced the airmen to death. Seeing as the airmen will die anyway, might it not be “better” for their deaths to “benefit” medical science? The operations will be conducted under anaesthetic and so the men will not be in pain or know their fates which might, perhaps, be better than a firing squad.

The reality is not so convenient. Asked if his agreement was partly revenge, Suguro replies that, no, he felt no hate, he was just too mentally and physically exhausted to resist. Threatened by soldiers with guns he capitulates but refuses to assist in the room on the day, remaining a passive witness cowering at the edges. Before the operation, Dr. Gondo (Shigeru Koyama) makes small talk with the subject in English, asking about his hometown to which the airman, poignantly, says he’d like to return. The surgery is not like that conducted on Mrs. Tabe. The airman gets only ether and he struggles as the cloth is placed over his mouth, requiring four people – two doctors and two nurses, to hold him down until he stops kicking. This is no gentle death, this is murder.

A possible “justification” lies in the fact that the operating room is also filled with soldiers who laugh and jeer, snapping away on their brand new German-made camera. Tanaka, the officer in charge, asks for the airman’s liver after the operation, joking that he’d like to feed it to his men. The liver is indeed delivered to the horrified faces of the soldiers waiting for the party they’ve organised to begin, though it is not clear whether Tanaka really intends to feast on it or keep it as some sort of grim souvenir. Gondo, looking at the liver, remarks that they’ve all grown used to corpses but that “sentimentality” is never far away. Nevertheless, he appears to feel no real remorse for the heinous act of killing in which he has just been involved.

Adopting Endo’s Christianising viewpoint, the interrogations take place in a ruined church, a statue of the Virgin Mary directly above Ueda as she gives vent to her impure thoughts. The trio are being judged, not only by God but by us – or “society” as Suguro later puts it. The central proposition is that prolonged exposure to death on a mass scale – firstly as members of the medical profession, and later as victims of war, has led to an inhuman, nihilistic viewpoint in which we are all already dead and that, therefore, nothing really matters anymore. It isn’t clear who suggested this be done or why, but it is clear that Hashimoto collaborated in an effort to save his career by allying himself with the military – something he misses out on anyway when Shibata steals his thunder. Suguro is powerless to resist, Toda a melancholy sociopath, Ueda a vengeful woman, and Ohba a willing disciple of a beloved doctor, but none is a zealot to a regime or true believer in militarism. This is the dark heart of humanity – selfishness and cowardice, petty jealousies and ambitions. Kumai paints this scene of desolation with intense beauty, which only makes it all the more painful.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Getting Any? (みんな~やってるか!, Takeshi Kitano, 1995)

getting any? posterDespite his reputation for violent gangster dramas and melancholy arthouse pieces, Takeshi Kitano is one of Japan’s most successful comedians and began his career as half of an irreverent and anarchic “manzai” comedy double act. 1995’s Getting Any? (みんな~やってるか!Minna – yatteruka!) is his first big screen comedy and loosely takes the form of a series of variety-style skits in which a lonely, hapless middle-aged man tries on various different personas in the pursuit of his goal but remains an isolated bystander in the surreal events which eventually engulf him. Part bawdy, sleazy sex comedy and satire on the death of materialism in the post-bubble world, Getting Any? is a cineliterate journey through Showa era pop culture peppered with gratuitous nudity and absurd running jokes.

After watching a very 1980s “aspirational” movie in which a good looking, wealthy young salaryman type gives a young lady a lift in his flashy convertible in which they later end up having sex, Asao (Dankan), watching at home in his pants with his grandpa sitting behind him, decides the reason he hasn’t got any luck with women is that he doesn’t have a car. So, he goes and gets one from a very strange salesman but as he doesn’t have much money the car he gets is, well, it’s unlikely to get stolen, and he still isn’t getting anywhere. He tries a convertible too but that’s no good. Then he starts fantasising about air hostesses, decides to become an actor, gets mistaken for a top yakuza hitman, and comes into contact with a pair of mad scientists who want to turn him invisible.

Asao has only one goal – to have sex with a lady (preferably in a car), but he never stops to think of his potential partners as anything more than a receptacle for his desires. Consequently, he refuses to look at himself or consider the ways he might be getting in the way of his own needs, but constantly chases a quick fix thinking that the reason women don’t want him is because of something material that he lacks. He thinks the path to sexual success lies in cars, money, status, and finally technology, but none of these things really matter while Asao remains Asao.

As part of his journey, passive as it is, Asao does not always remain Asao, or at least the Asao he was for very long. Having failed to be the sort of man who can woo with car, he tries acting – literally playing a part, at which he seems quite good except for going “overboard”. An incident on an aeroplane sees him mistaken for a top yakuza which he is less good at but every mistake only ever works out in his favour. Thanks to his involvement with the mad scientists whom he allows to experiment on him so that he can go peeping in the women’s baths, Asao will finally become another kind of creature entirely, literally reduced to feeding off the excrement his nation has recently produced.

Kitano works in just about every element of almost “retro” pop-culture he can think of from the amusing soundtrack of Showa era hits and references to famous unsolved crimes to a hitman named “Joe Shishido” (star of Branded to Kill), the Zatoichi series, a Lone Wolf and Cub ventriloquist dummy duo, the Invisible Man, Ghostbusters, The Fly, and finally Toho’s tokusatsu classics culminating a lengthy skit inspired by Mothra including the iconic Mothra song given new lyrics and the same old dance performed by two full-sized ladies. Though most viewers will be able to spot the joke even without quite understanding it, some knowledge of Japanese pop-culture from the ‘70s and ‘80s will undoubtedly help.

The central joke revolves around Asao’s fecklessness as he repeatedly fails at each of his schemes, only occasionally succeeding and then by accident, and not for very long. A charmless literalist who lacks the imagination to achieve his goals in a more natural way, Asao fails to learn anything at all, engulfed by one surreal situation after another. It does however give Kitano the excuse to indulge Asao’s flights of fancy as his sexual frustration sends him off into a series of bizarre reveries involving topless women desperate to make love to the suave male stand-in Asao has imagined. Filled with silly slapstick humour and frequent nudity, Kitano’s subtle satire may get lost but even if the joke begins to wear thin just as “flyman” finally lands on his object of desire, there is plenty of amusement on offer for fans of lowbrow humour.


Getting Any? is released on blu-ray by Third Window Films on 16th October, 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Latitude Zero (緯度0大作戦, Ishiro Honda, 1969)

latitude zero1969. Man lands on the moon, the cold war is in full swing, and Star Trek is cancelled prompting a mass write-in campaign from devoted sci-fi enthusiasts across America. The tide was also turning politically as the aforementioned TV series’ utopianism came to gain ground among liberal thinking people who rose up to oppose war, racial discrimination and sexism. It was in this year that Godzilla creators Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya brought their talents to America with a very contemporary take on science fiction in Latitude Zero (緯度0大作戦, Ido Zero Daisakusen). Starring Hollywood legend Joseph Cotten, Latitude Zero gives Jules Verne a new look for the ‘60s filled with solid gold hotpants and bulletproof spray tan.

International scientists Dr. Ken Tashiro (Akira Takarada) and Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada) are in the middle of a bathysphere alongside American reporter Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckel) when a volcano suddenly erupts. Rescued by a passing sub, the team soon notice there’s something very strange about this serendipitous crew. To begin with, the doctor treating their injuries is a svelte young blonde woman in a skimpy outfit, and then there’s that plaque on the bridge which says the boat was launched in 1805, and why won’t Captain McKenzie (Joseph Cotten) tell them which country this very expensive looking rig belongs to?

All these questions will be answered in due course but the major revelation concerns the futuristic city of Latitude Zero – a secret underwater world where top scientists and other skilled people who have been “disappeared” from the surface conduct important research free of political constraints. Despite the peace and love atmosphere, Latitude Zero is not without its villains as proved by exile Malec (Cesar Romero), McKenzie’s arch nemesis who has set out to kidnap a prominent Japanese scientist before he can make his way to the city. Malec is hellbent on taking McKenzie down and has drifted over to the scientific dark side by conducting brain transplant experiments to create his own army of bizarre creatures to do his bidding.

There may be a cold war going on but Latitude Zero is more or less neutral when it comes to its position on science and scientists though when push comes to shove it leans towards negative. Malec, played by Batman’s Ceasar Romero, is a moustache twirling villain of the highest order who will even stoop to transplanting the brain of his own lieutenant into a lion as well as making other strange creatures like giant rats and weird bats to try and destroy McKenzie’s enterprises yet those enterprises are the entire reason for the existence of Latitude Zero. Towards the end of the adventure, Lawton points out to McKenzie that his world is essentially selfish, stealing all the best minds for his underwater paradise and secreting their discoveries away rather than sharing them with the the surface. McKenzie sympathises but deflects his criticism with the justification that mankind is currently too volatile and divided to take part in his project, though they do try to drip feed the essentials all in the name of making the world a better place.

Lawton further shows himself up by trying to loot Latitude Zero which has an abundant supply of diamonds it barely knows what to do with. What is does with them is experiment – jewels are worthless baubles here, the value of the diamonds is purely practical. Similarly, they have a taste for solid gold clothing which might explain the skimpiness of their outfits were it not for the fact the precious metal holds no other value than being stylish.

Unlike other subsequent US co-productions such as Fukasaku’s Virus, Latitude Zero was filmed in English with the Japanese cast providing their own English language dialogue (with various degrees of success). A second cut running fifteen minutes shorter was later prepared for the Japanese market with the entire cast dubbed back into Japanese and dropping McKenzie’s often unnecessary voice over. Given a relatively high budget, Honda and Tsuburaya once again bring their unique production design to life with intricate model shots and analogue effects complete with a selection of furry monsters even if they’re operating on a level that owes much more to Star Trek than Godzilla. It’s all very silly and extremely camp but good clean fun with a slight layer of political subversiveness which displays a noted ambivalence to the neutrality of utopia even whilst hoping for the day when the world will finally be mature enough to pursue its scientific destiny without polarised politics getting in the way.


Original trailer (English version)

Sannin Yoreba (三人よれば, Toshio Sugie, 1964)

vlcsnap-2016-06-02-01h37m01s384Hibari, Chiemi and Izumi reunite in 1964 for another tale of musical comedy and romantic turmoil in Sannin Yoreba (三人よれば). Beginning as teenagers in So Young, So Bright and Romantic Daughters before progressing to the beginning of their adult lives in On Wings of Love, the girls are all grown up now so the plot of Sannin Yoreba centres around the eternal conflict in the youth of every young woman in ‘60s Japanese cinema – marriage!

At the beginning of the film the three girls are intrigued and excited to receive a call from their old high school teacher who has recently retired. Meeting up to go visit her, the girls relive some old memories with the help of a few repurposed scenes from So Young, So Bright spliced in plus a few additional bits so that it looks like Izumi was also a classmate with them (in the movie she played an apprentice geisha Chiemi and Hibari met in Kyoto) as well as replacing the actress who played the teacher with the woman we’re about to meet. The trio even sing the title song to the first film, Janken Musume, as they drive over to their teacher’s house.

However, once they get there the nostalgic mood begins to dissipate as they realise their teacher has ulterior motives for inviting them. It seems, now that she’s retired, she’s opened a dating agency and wants to introduce our still single ladies to a few “eligible bachelors”. Horrified, the girls each quickly claim to have serious boyfriends already even though Hibari is the only one actually in a relationship. The teacher seems satisfied but invites them all back beaus in tow to give her final verdict. Thus begins the complicated road to true love for our musically inclined heroines.

It’s been seven years since the last Sannin Musume movie and truth to tell things have moved on the meantime leaving the Hollywood inspired musical glamour looking a little old fashioned. Much of Sannin Yoreba is a nostalgia fest despite the fact that it hasn’t really been all that long. Harking back to the first film by singing the title song and reusing the high school era footage seems primed to pull the similarly aged ladies of the audience back to screens across the country.

Sannin Yoreba has the fewest musical sequences and steers clear of large scale production numbers in favour of smaller solo showcases for the leading ladies. There’s more of a blur here into what are really fantasy sequences again taking place as the girls daydream or worry about various things – Chiemi at her place of work (in the production booth of a TV studio), Izumi in her salon, and Hibari at a bar after having a serious argument with her fiancee (once again played by Akira Takarada). That said, the girls end up at a theatre again as they did in the first two movies where they watch themselves perform a tripartite musical set piece which splits off into individual numbers for each one of them. A kind of Chaplin meets Marx Brothers meets Easter Parade theme, the girls dress up as tramps wandering through Times Square where they spot adverts for various shows which inspire their routines including Madame Butterfly where Chiemi plays both the captain and the geisha, and a bullfighting bolero number with Hibari giving it her full on Zorro.

Once again its an elegantly put together fluff fest intended to showcase the entertaining personalities of the three leading ladies who are now some of the biggest performing stars in post-war Japan. As usual the girls have great chemistry together and make a convincing group of lifelong friends whose relationship transcends that of any potential romance on offer. The movie ends with a wedding and another musical finale which incorporates three all three singers so, as expected, everything works out OK in the end which is mostly what people what from a cosy musical comedy starring three giants of the entertainment world. It may be a little sluggish in places and lacks the absurd comedic touch of the earlier movies, but Sannin Yoreba is a welcome return for the idol supergroup even if this kind of movie was evidently on its way out by the mid 1960s.


This is the last of the Sannin Musume movies  😦

Nothing from the film but here’s a video of the three girls some years later singing one of the songs which crops up throughout the movies: