Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Nikkatsu’s brand of youth cinema could often have a nasty edge, its damaged heroes caught up in complicated rebellion but necessarily outsiders in a changing world which they feared held no real place for them. For each of those, however, there are others filled with life and possibility, not to mention a cartoonish sense of fun and infinite safety which perhaps largely disappeared from the films of the 1960s only to be found again in Kadokawa’s similarly aspirational teen movies of the bubble era. 

Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Muteppo Daisho, AKA Reckless Boss / A Hell of a Guy) once again stars Koji Wada as an earnest young man kicking back against the corrupt wartime generation. Still in high school, Eiji has a part-time job at an ice rink which he doesn’t treat quite as seriously as he ought to but his boss lets him get away with it because his handsome face is a hit with the local ladies. Eiji and two of his friends are keen members of a karate club and have decided to use their skills to fight for justice in their lawless town by going on “patrol”, clearing up the kinds of crimes the police might not make it to in time. Their plan backfires, however, when they come across the body of a recently deceased union leader and are arrested by a local bobby after getting caught with a joke knife one of the boys made for fun at his job on the family scrap yard. 

It comes as no surprise that Eiji’s arch enemy, sleazy mob boss Shinkai (Nakajiro Tomita), is behind the murder, apparently hired by a corrupt corporate CEO trying to stop his workforce exercising their legal rights. Eiji hates Shinkai because he bankrolled his widowed mother’s (Kotoe Hatsui) bar business but did so perhaps in return for being able to control her and by extension him by wielding his economic power against them. His loathing intensifies once he realises that the slightly older young woman he’s carrying a torch for, Yukiyo (Izumi Ashikawa), has fallen for one of Shinkai’s men, Goro (Ryoji Hayama). 

Goro is the classically “good” gangster who feels indebted to Shinkai because he took him in after the war, but wants to leave the underworld behind, going straight in Kobe where he intends to live a settled married life with Yukiyo. The modern yakuza is in many ways a Showa era phenomenon, a mechanism for men without families to protect themselves in the desperate post-war environment. By 1961, however, its existence was perhaps becoming harder to justify. The war orphans had grown up and had families of their own, the economy had significantly improved, and there was no need anymore to live a life of crime and heartlessness – a conclusion Goro has come to on his own after meeting the earnest Yukiyo who has similar problems with her goodhearted yet permanently drunk doctor father. 

Knowing he might have messed things up for his mother in interfering with her relationship with Shinkai, Eiji confesses that doesn’t “know what to do with the grownup world”. For him, everything is still very black and white. He hates yakuza because they prey on the vulnerable and Shinkai in particular because he does it so insidiously, forcing desperate people to accept loans on bad terms so that he can in fact “own” them and use them as he wishes. Eiji and his peer group kick back against what they see as the selfish corruption of the wartime generation, agitating for a fairer, more just world. The wealthy daughter of a corrupt CEO (Mayumi Shimizu) who has a crush on Eiji though he only has eyes for Yukiyo comes up with the idea of selling her fancy car to get money to help Eiji’s mother escape Shinkai’s control, but her father snaps at her that other people aren’t her responsibility and that she doesn’t understand how the real world works. 

Somewhat chastened by the youngsters’ pure hearted love of justice, he eventually comes up with a compromise in buying the car off her himself, but before that Eiji and his friends have to think carefully about the form they want their revolution to take. Taking him to task, Yukiyo points out that if all you do is fight with yakuza then maybe you’re a yakuza yourself, which shifts Eiji’s perspective towards ensuring that his rebellion is fully legal and involves the justice systems already in place. He comes to recognise that Goro is much like himself, and if he’s going to take down a sleazy brute like Shinkai it will take more than some fancy karate. Their resistance starts at home, giving others courage to stand up to yakuza oppression while living right themselves in the hope of creating a better, fairer world free of heartless organised crime.


Tokyo Knights (東京騎士隊, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Tokyo Knights posterUnlike those from elsewhere, Japanese teen movies can often exist inside their very own bubbles in which the central characters refuse their coming of age stories and either die senselessly or simply carry on from their zany adventures as if nothing had really happened. Tokyo Knights (東京騎士隊, Tokyo Knight) definitely falls into the comedy category as its teen heartthrob hero, played by the then up and coming matinee idol Koji Wada, pulls a Hamlet in being called back from overseas studies to become CEO in waiting to his late father’s company only to suspect there’s something rotten in the state of Matsubara Construction. Quirky high school antics quickly give way to conspiracy thriller, but Koji (Koji Wada) remains steadfast and unwavering in the face of adversity as he faces off against the forces of darkness with little more than Nikkatsu spirit.

The film opens with a rather strange ceremony in which high school student Koji is instated as the new CEO of his father’s company. Koji’s dad apparently died suddenly in a freak accident meaning Koji has had to come home early from studying abroad in the US. Despite apparently being an amazing student who is good at absolutely everything and has joined all the after school clubs on offer, Koji has chosen the Catholic Elizabeth Academy because it’s well known as a coasting school where you can graduate with average grades. Fairly low attainment goals might be just as well because Koji is about to have his hands full with another mission. He’s convinced his dad’s death wasn’t an “accident” and he suspects his deputy, Mishima (Nobuo Kaneko), who is also getting close to his mum, might know more about it than he’s letting on.

In the grand tradition of heroes in Japanese teen drama, Koji has just found himself at the centre of a huge and dark conspiracy involving dodgy yakuza construction deals, blackmail, and murder. He does not lose heart or look to the grown ups for help but decides to handle the problem himself, settling back into the Hamlet-esque role he’s been assigned in neatly setting traps for the treacherous Mishima only doing it with a little more cosmopolitan flair carried back from abroad. Swapping roles like one of his much loved Noh costumes, he then becomes a kind of Romeo to the high school darling Yuriko (Mayumi Shimizu) whose dad, unbeknownst to her, turns out to be a horrible gangster who might be involved in the nefarious plan to take over the family firm. Enjoying a minor romance with the melancholy Yuriko, Koji considers the best way to get revenge and expose evil while protecting his mother, surrogate little sister figure, and his newfound love (?) Yuriko who will undoubtedly suffer now that she knows what kind of man her father really is.

Suzuki apparently incited the wrath of studio bosses when he took a serious crime script and turned it into an anarchic teen comedy but then you have to wonder what they thought it was he would do with it. The impossibly cool Koji is certainly an unrealistic hero, presented unironically he’d be sure to irritate – guys like Koji are, after all, more usually the antagonist set up to make our imperfect everyman feel inferior while he progresses towards some kind of self actualisation as a result of the standard narrative. Koji is, however, heroic and easily likeable as he assumes complete control, handling every situation with practiced ease and remembering to remain kind and just while he does so. He even stops to listen to his mother’s problems, sympathising with her when she reveals her unhappiness with his father, and urging her to grasp happiness wherever she sees it without worrying whatever he or anyone else might think.

Perhaps because of the relative simplicity of the plot, and the opportunity to shoot in colour, Suzuki flexes his muscles a little more than usual in adding in a fair few post-modern techniques including on screen graphics such as a series of large question marks zooming out of the major players Koji suspects may be involved in his father’s death and making a joke out of the need to include the songs of the day with frequent cuts to a teen cabaret club. For all of the tale’s darkness and almost Shakespearean overtones, Suzuki keeps his tongue firmly in cheek with a cartoonish sense of fun and lightness, allowing our heroes to emerge from their ordeal fairly unscathed while honour and justice are preserved. Who knew Catholic school could be so much fun?


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Smashing the 0-Line (密航0ライン, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

(C) Nikkatsu 1960

(C) Nikkatsu 1960Looking from the outside in, the Tokyo of 1960 seems to have been one of rising economic prosperity in which post-war anxiety was beginning to transition into a relentless surge towards modernity, but there also seems to have been a mild preoccupation with the various dangers that same modernity might present. Like The Sleeping Beast Within released just two months previously, Smashing the 0-Line (密航0ライン, Mikko Zero Line) centres on a mystery which leads straight back to Hong Kong and a dangerous, international smuggling ring – this time involving both drugs and people. Our heroes are both reporters, but at odds with each other despite being old friends in having diametrically opposed notions of professional ethics.

Katori (Hiroyuki Nagato), our anti-hero, is a man so desperate to get a scoop that he thinks little of engineering one. Thus we witness him making passionate love to a woman one minute before turning her into the police the next. The woman, Reiko (Sanae Nakahara), is also the little sister of one of his oldest friends, Saiko (Ryohei Uchida), whom he also decides to turn into the police in service of his story. Another old friend, Nishina (Yuji Kodaka), has also become a reporter but for a more respectable paper and is dating Katori’s little sister, Sumiko (Mayumi Shimizu), who is now the announcer at the local baseball stadium. Katori’s decision to turn on Reiko will have profoundly negative consequences for her former lover who is prepared to sacrifice all in pursuit of his goal.

Three men, once college friends, have chosen three radically different paths in the post-war world. Saiko has become a gangster while Katori has become an unscrupulous yet apparently publicly minded newshound and Nishina a pure hearted journalist who insists on doing everything by the book and abiding by conventional journalistic ethics. Yet despite himself, or possibly because of his love for Sumiko, Nishina tries to help Katori see the dangers of his extremely dangerous pattern of behaviour in which he has been content to use people like things to get what he wants.

Katori claims to be on the same side as Nishina – he thinks something is going sour in the city and that only he can stop it by exposing the various conspiracies in play. Katori’s chief fear is that Tokyo will become “another Hong Kong” – a crime ridden state of drug addled lawlessness (an extremely biased and seemingly inaccurate view of ‘60s Hong Kong but one that speaks of a certain fear of Japan’s new spot on the global scene). This particular conspiracy does indeed ping back to Hong Kong and the illegal traffic of drugs but also people heading in both directions. In the Japan of 1960, it was near impossible to get a passport and so smuggling yourself out might be the only way if you really need to get to Hong Kong which means you’ll need to pay a people trafficker to do it.

Katori, broadly, seems to think people trafficking is a bad thing he doesn’t want in Japan but is entirely blind to the same ways he himself uses people in pursuit of his goals. Not only does he bed Reiko (his friend’s little sister) only to make a speedy exit minutes before the police arrive, but he also palms off another mark on his informant only to turn them both in in hope of greater gain. He even manages to find time to seduce a doctor at the centre of the scandal who tries to pull a gun on him but later surrenders completely, only to fall victim to some proactive tidying up from the bad guys. Not content with sacrificing former lovers, Katori will not give in even for his sister, refusing to give up on his lead even when Sumiko is threatened with gang rape. When Nishina turns up and saves the day, Katori doesn’t even stop to ask how Sumiko is but walks off in the direction of the story with nary a second glance to his unconscious sister.

Yet Katori’s particular brand of nihilistic heroism consistently fails. His scoops are uninteresting and he only gets them by inserting himself into the story. Nishina, steadfast and honest – he even goes to the trouble of getting a proper passport to hide on his person in case he’s caught pretending to be a stowaway, is the one who gets there in the end, breaking the smuggling ring, rescuing Katori after he gets himself in trouble, and generally always being around to save the day. Mildly ironic themes of xenophobia aside, Smashing the 0-Line is a typically frenetic piece from Suzuki which offers only a few instances of unusual experimentation in his use of freeze frames and onscreen text but packs in plenty of punch in its amoral anti-hero and the dogged investigative reporter trailing along behind.


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set (also features incisive audio commentary from Jasper Sharp providing a wealth of background information not just about Suzuki’s career but the state of the Japanese film industry at the time)

The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (峠を渡る若い風, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass posterSeijun Suzuki made his first colour film in 1960 – Fighting Delinquents starred young matinee idol Koji Wada as a noble hearted construction worker with a temper who suddenly learns that he is the heir to an aristocratic fortune. Suzuki would make another two youth dramas starring Wada before getting to 1961’s The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (峠を渡る若い風, Toge wo Wataru Wakai Kaze, AKA Breeze on the Ridge) – this slice of colourful anarchy is a world away from Nikkatsu’s usual action fare though it does make space for the odd pop song or two.

Naive and cheerful university student Shintaro (Koji Wada) loves to travel and has taken off to wander around alone during the summer break. Getting thrown off a regular city bus for not having the cash for a ticket (his request to defer payment is not looked on kindly), Shintaro catches a lift with a group of travelling performers heading into the summer festival in the next town. Once there Shintaro showcases his lack of forethought once again when he happily sets down to start selling some of the “merchandise” he was given as a salary when the last place he worked at went bust. Not having realised that one generally needs a permit to sell goods in a market, Shintaro gets into an argument about the evils of monopolies and freedom verses regulation with the guy on the next stand all of which brings him to the attention of the yakuza. Luckily for Shintaro, he’s run into the nice kind of yakuza who just think he’s funny and invite him to travel on with them for a bit. Being so essentially good hearted and innocent, Shintaro agrees without thinking about all the reasons travelling around with a bunch of shady yakuza might not be a good idea.

Connecting with both the yakuza and the travelling players, Shintaro becomes involved in a number of interconnected crises – the biggest being the fate of the performers when a local gangster type swipes their headline act. The head of the troupe, Kinyo Imai (Shin Morikawa), is a traditional magician who performs in exaggerated Chinese dress complete with Fu Manchu moustache, but it doesn’t really matter how good he is, the rural audience is only here for the strip show. No stripper means no bookings which Kinyo knew already but it’s still a huge blow to his self esteem to realise that his magic doesn’t do the business anymore, especially as he’d always been conflicted about the strippers anyway.

Shintaro is one of Nikkatsu’s wandering heroes but unlike most he’s a cheerful soul who wanders out of a sense of curiosity and adventure rather than a need to escape something or someone at home. He likes meeting new people, even if the relationships are transitory and necessarily shallow, and treats everyone he meets with kindness and an open mind. In return he meets only kind and open people – even the yakuza are a generally decent sort who treat him like a new friend and can be relied upon to come to his aid if called. The only note of sourness arrives in the form of shady gangster Akita (Hiroshi Kondo) who pinches the troupe’s stripper, and their sometime patron who makes an indecent proposal to Kinyo as a kind of bet to decide whether he continues to fund their moribund performing career.

This being a regular program picture there’s not a lot of scope for experimentation but as it’s also a slightly odd entry to the Nikkatsu catalogue Suzuki does have the freedom to spice things up in his own particular way. Making the best use of colour film, Suzuki has a ball capturing Japan’s unique summer festival culture with its giant floats and cheerful market atmosphere. Wandering around the festival in a lengthy POV shot manages to exoticise something which would be quite ordinary to many viewers (at least those not born in large cities) but Suzuki’s other innovations are mostly relegated to one extremely interesting sequence in which Shintaro has a paint fight with yakuza he’s fallen out with (don’t worry, they both end up laughing like school boys). Every time Shintaro gets hit with paint, the entire screen tints to match neatly intensifying the effect and marking an early example of Suzuki’s love of colour play. Warm and goodnatured, The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass is a gentle tale of youth finding its path but also one in which Suzuki takes advantage of the travelling motif to break from the regular programming and present an anarchic carnivale of music and song.


The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass is the second of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)