The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Tai Kato, 1973)

After joining the studio in the mid-1950s, Tai Kato quickly made a reputation for himself with Toei’s key brand of ninkyo eiga yakuza movies set in the chivalrous world of pre-war gangsterdom. By the early 70s, however, the genre was already played out and Kato began to work more frequently with other studios and in various genres but 1973’s The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Nihon kyoka den), produced for Toho the studio which he had first joined at the beginning of his career in 1937, takes him back to his ninkyo roots if less directly in a politicised tale revolving around the 1918 rice riots

The film opens, however, a few years earlier with the heroine, Mine (Hiroko Maki), attempting to sell children’s educational picture books aboard a train (an activity strictly prohibited). As she explains, they are in the middle of a recession and times are hard for everyone though as we discover the reason for Mine’s journey is that she is in the process of eloping with the mild-mannered Minoru (Kunio Murai), the son of a wealthy family with literary dreams, who is prevented from marrying her because of the class difference between them. The couple are doing well enough evading detection, but are caught out when accidentally implicated in the murder of a treacherous politician by left-wing agitator/noble gangster Seijiro (Tetsuya Watari) who fatefully locks eyes with Mine while trying to escape forever binding their fates together. 

Epic in length the film was originally released in two parts with an interval in-between, this first half focussing on Mine’s doomed romance which is thwarted in part by the outdated social codes of the early Taisho society and the moral cowardice of her lover who finds himself unable to resist them. The pair are thrown in prison as possible co-conspirators and beaten by the police, Mine striking up a friendship with a woman, Tsuru (Junko Toda), imprisoned for distributing pamphlets as a labour activist who later helps her to get a waitressing job and teaches her rudimentary writing while Minoru lounges around in their home sort of writing a novel. Tsuru seems to be touched by their cross-class romance, “where love is concerned to hell with social status!” she insists berating Minoru for giving in so easily when the pair are finally tracked down by his austere mother. Her socialist activism may not directly rub off on Mine but does perhaps inform her later actions after discovering the depths of Minoru’s spinelessness, rescued after a failed bid at double suicide by a truly good man, Kinzo (Meicho Soganoya), who also happens to be a traditional yakuza heading a harbour gang in Kobe. 

After becoming his wife, Mine comes to witness the persistent unfairness and exploitation all around her as mediated by the outcry surrounding the fluctuation of rice prices in the late 1910s caused by attempts at profiteering and the necessity of supplying the military forces then participating in the war in Europe. Meanwhile, would be local dictator and amoral yakuza Kishimoto (Toru Abe) is intent on squeezing the Osada gang out of the harbour further pushing up rice prices while in cahoots with corrupt local authorities. Seijiro re-enters her life when dispatched to assassinate Kinzo on the orders of Kishimoto but stabbing him as carefully as possible to make sure he doesn’t die, thereafter switching sides to fight for the rights of the poor who he warns face even greater oppression should a man like Kishimoto be allowed to dominate the harbour. 

With Kinzo out of action, Mine assumes her natural destiny as a local leader doing her best to stand up to Kishimoto and the corrupt authorities but still faces difficulty getting her voice heard without a man standing next to her. On taking Kinzo’s place at a meeting of local bosses, she is dismissed as “just a woman” before a sympathetic naval officer decides to hand her a lucrative job shifting rice intended for sailors overseas because of her knowledge of current affairs undercutting Kishimoto’s attempts to game the system. It’s the trust the navy have in her that later saves her again when she is arrested and brutally tortured by corrupt policemen working with Kishimoto intent on tracking down Seijiro for the murder on the train all those years previously. Mine’s rise is also in a sense Seijiro’s redemption as he atones for the attack on Kinzo, rejects his association with Kishimoto to re-embrace his socialist beliefs, and fulfils the romantic destiny sparked when their eyes met on the train. 

Drawing a direct line between burgeoning militarism and gangsterdom along with the amoral exploitations of an increasingly capitalist society, Kato makes his intentions clear by dropping a ninkyo eiga hero into a world of infinite corruptions in which he eventually becomes a defender of the poor. Kato’s striking composition and use of colour along with expressionistic imagery lend the air of legend implied by the title as Mine fights her way through the oppressions of her era as a figurehead for justice in an increasingly unjust society.


The Glamorous Ghost (散歩する霊柩車, Hajime Sato, 1964)

Best known for Shochiku horror Goke the Body Snatcher from Hell, Hajime Sato spent the majority of his career at Toei which he joined in 1952 after graduating with an economics degree from Keio University. After directing his first film in 1960 he mainly worked on monster movies, sci-fi, and action while transitioning into television from the late ‘60s. 1964’s The Glamorous Ghost (散歩する霊柩車, Sanpo Suru Reikyusha), however, features no special effects at all and in fact no actual “ghost”, instead painting a dark satire of the increasingly greedy and consumerist post-war society in a nihilistic tale of crime and futility. 

As the film opens, taxi driver Asami (Ko Nishimura) is ostentatiously shadowing his wife, Sugie (Masumi Harukawa), whom he suspects of having numerous affairs, through a busy department store. He later confronts her, suggesting that she’s the mysterious adulterous woman pictured in the paper but she denies everything before suggesting that if he’s so suspicious perhaps they should split up. He doesn’t appear to like that suggestion and becomes violent. A fight breaks out during which we see Asami strangle Sugie before an abrupt cut places him in the cab of a hearse sitting next to the driver, Mouri (Kiyoshi Atsumi), dressed in his best suit. Strangely, however, they don’t go to a funeral, but to a wedding where Asami confronts the father of the bride, Kitamura (Meicho Soganoya), showing him Sugie’s body with a prominent scar around her neck he says from her suicide producing a note that says she took her own life out of shame in having betrayed the husband who loved her so very much. The letter is dedicated to a KY, and Asami wants to know who it was his wife was sleeping with though Kitamura is careful not to admit anything while subtly promising him money if he goes away. Asami and the driver then make a second stop at a hospital where he tries the same thing with dodgy surgeon Yamagoshi (Nobuo Kaneko) who admits that he slept with Sugie but says it was only one time a while ago and he’s not sure why he’d be in her suicide note. 

As expected, not everything is quite as it seems. Sugie is not really dead, they’re just running a scam to blackmail her former lovers in order to get money to make a fresh start, possibly with a pig farm in the country which is why they didn’t bother with gigalo Tamio (Jiro Okazaki), the apparently penniless yet sportscar-driving young man Sugie was canoodling with in the park. “5 million yen would turn anyone into a murderer” one of their marks later admits after the scam goes south in several different ways, laying bare their sense of desperation in their otherwise perfectly fine if unsatisfying lives.

Yamagoshi, a doctor so compromised his admin staff assume the unexpected arrival of a hearse means he’s made another mistake, is desperate for money because he wants to open his own clinic. Sugie, meanwhile, gives a series of contradictory explanations for having come up with the scam, telling her marks she wants the money in order to get away from Asami and telling him that it’s for their future so they can live a happily married life. Asami’s male pride had indeed been wounded by Tamio in several different ways, firstly by his youth and vitality, but later by his assertion that a “shorty like him” couldn’t satisfy his wife which is why she puts it about at the club where she has to work because Asami’s cabbing job evidently doesn’t make enough to support them both. 

Sugie’s “death”, leaving aside fact that he “killed” her which is never brought up again, apparently helps him remember what she means to him, that if she really had died he’d be “lifeless” like the empty shell of a cicada. Scamming Sugie’s lovers probably does help rehabilitate his masculine pride and even though she is the one running the show it also suggests that she’s in a sense chosen him and wants to escape their disappointing urban life for something more wholesome as a happily married couple unburdened by financial anxiety. Meanwhile, we see her embarrassingly continue to chase the vacuous Tamio, an overgrown man child with expensive tastes and a room full of toy cars who lusts after a Porsche and appears to have a more age appropriate girlfriend he’d rather hang out in it with. Money corrupts human relationships whichever way you see it, and in the peculiarly toxic marriage of Sugie and Asami we can never quite be sure who’s playing whom. 

Then again in a fairly ironic touch, it may be the blissfully ignorant Tamio who is the only real “winner” seemingly continuing to live his life of empty consumerist pleasures without ever noticing the corruption of the world all around him. Gleefully cynical and accompanied by a playfully ironic, horror-inflected score, The Glamorous Ghost is a pitch black farce shot in the half light with crazy film noir framing and extreme depth of field in which it’s less money everyone wants than a less disappointing future and it seems they’re literally prepared to “die” to get it.


Title sequence (no subtitles)

Female Ninja Magic (くノ一忍法, Sadao Nakajima, 1964)

female ninja magic posterSadao Nakajima, a veteran director and respected film scholar, is most often associated with his gritty gangster epics but he made his debut with a noticeably theatrical fantasy tale of female ninjas and their idiosyncratic witchcraft. Adapted from a novel by Futaro Yamada, Female Ninja Magic (くノ一忍法, Kunoichi Ninpo) is an atypically romantic take on the ninja genre, infused with ironic humour and making the most of its embedded eroticism as a collection of wronged women attempt to change the course of history and mostly pay with their lives.

The night before the fall of Osaka castle in 1615, Sanada Yukimura (Eizo Kitamura) comes up with a cunning plan to ensure the survival of the Toyotomi clan. Following the death of Hideyoshi, his son Hideyori had inherited the title but he was sickly and had no children of his own. His wife, Princess Sen (Yumiko Nogawa), was not able to bear an heir and so Sanada has hit on an idea. He wants to send five women of Iga to Hideyori’s bed chamber in the hope that one of them will become pregnant and ensure the survival of the Toyotomi line. Princess Sen is very much in on the plan and hopes to raise the child herself. However, she is by birth a member of the Tokugawa which is where she is eventually sent following fall of Osaka. Refusing to return to her birth clan, Sen rejects her father and insists on remaining true to the memory of her (now departed) husband and his unborn child. Tokugawa Ieyasu (Meicho Soganoya), however, has learned of the Toyotomi heir and is determined to see it killed…

Nakajima opens in grand fashion with a ghostly sequence in which Sanada outlines his plan. The ninjas sit silently before magically fading from the frame and being replaced by Sasuke, Sanada’s messenger. Soon enough, both Sanada and Sasuke are cut down by a rogue assassin but rather than going straight to heaven they decide to hang around and see how well the plan works out, becoming our narrators of sorts, hovering around in the background and occasionally offering the odd ironic comment from beyond the frame.

The ghostly effects don’t stop with the two undead commentators but comprise a key part of Nakajima’s deliberately theatrical aesthetic. Like many ninja films, Female Ninja Magic is filmed almost entirely on studio sets but never pretends otherwise. Its world is unrealistic and deliberately over the top, filled with with visual motifs both from traditional Japanese and classical European art. The female ninjas dance, topless, beckoning and seducing but they do it against a stark black background moving firmly into the film’s magical space in which all things are possible.

Meanwhile, Tokugawa Ieyasu has sent five male ninjas to take care of our five female witches, making use of their own, devious, ninja magic to combat that of our heroines. The first nefarious male ninja technique involves the murder and identity theft of a trusted maid, while another tries a similar trick by “projecting” himself into the consciousness of a handmaiden he has figured out is pregnant by listening for additional heartbeats, and convincing her to commit harakiri. His villainy is eventually turned back on him as the female ninjas make use of the most important of their spells – the “Changing Rooms” technique which effectively shifts the foetus from one womb to another.

Deliciously named – Rainbow Monsoon, Dancing Snow, Robe of Wings etc, the spells run from the sublime to the ridiculous with the self explanatory Eternal Gas which sends noxious purple smoke billowing from under the skirts of an elegant princess. Each has its own erotic component, even if it doesn’t necessitate a shift into the film’s elegantly designed dreamscape, but by and large the female ninja fight with supernatural rather than earthly powers. Facing such extreme threat, the women form a tight group of mutual support in order to ensure the survival of the child which Princess Sen will raise but not birth. Though her quest originated as a fierce declaration of her loyalty to the Toyotomi, she later recants on her tribal zealotry. Shocked by her father’s cruelty and sick of a persistent suitor, she admits that she has come to loathe the world of men and prefers to think of the baby as belonging to her band of women alone. Nevertheless, male violence eventually saves her as her aggressor, ironically enough, is moved by her devotion to the new life in her arms – he is “defeated by her strength as a woman”, and turns on his own kind. Female Ninja Magic eventually achieves the revenge it sought, allowing a princess to survive in triumph while the male order quakes in its boots.