Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

rusty knife posterPost-war Japan was in a precarious place but by the mid-1950s, things were beginning to pick up. Unfortunately, this involved picking up a few bad habits too – namely, crime. The yakuza, as far as the movies went, were largely a pre-war affair – noble gangsters who had inherited the codes of samurai honour and were (nominally) committed to protecting the little guy. The first of many collaborations between up and coming director Toshio Masuda and the poster boy for alienated youth, Yujiro Ishihara, Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Sabita Knife) shows us the other kind of movie mobster – the one that would stick for years to come. These petty thugs have no honour and are symptomatic parasites of Japan’s rapidly recovering economy, subverting the desperation of the immediate post-war era and turning it into a nihilistic struggle for total freedom from both laws and morals.

Public support is, largely, behind this new force of order as seen in the local uproar when top gangster Katsumata (Naoki Sugiura) is arrested in connection with an assault. Things being what they are, Katsumata is soon released to laugh at law enforcement from a safe distance but the past is coming for him. Some years ago Katsumata killed a local councillor, Nishida (Ikunosuke Koizumi), and made it look like suicide but three guys from a local gang saw him do it. He paid them to keep quiet, but now one of them feels like talking and thinks Katsumata might like to pay a little more to reseal the deal.

Chatty Tokyo thug Shima (Jo Shishido) gets pushed off a train for his pains but Katsumata is worried enough about the other two to send his guys out to make some enquires. He’s particularly worried about Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) – a “sleeping lion”, Tachibana is a hot head who’s now gone straight after coming out of jail for murdering a guy he thought was a direct cause of his girlfriend’s death. Luckily enough, Tachibana now runs a bar where he employs the other witness, Terada (Akira Kobayashi), to whom he acts as a stern big brother hoping to keep them both on the straight and narrow. Tachibana is unlikely to talk, he wants out of the gangster world for good, but Terada is young and ambitious with a girlfriend to impress. He takes more hush money from Katsumata, not realising what he’s getting himself into, and then lets it go to his head.

Tachibana is the rusty knife of the title. After letting his rage consume him in murdering a petty mobster in revenge for the rape of his girlfriend who later committed suicide, Tachibana has vowed to quell his anger and live a decent, peaceful life. Angry outbursts are, however, never far from the surface and following recent revelations, a rusty knife may find its cutting edge once again.

Keiko (Mie Kitahara), a customer at Tachibana’s bar, is making a documentary about violence in the city which coincidentally turns up a few clues as to Tachibana’s past, not to mention her own. The daughter of the murdered councilman, Nishida, and the niece of another powerful politician, Keiko is a figure of righteousness, charting her own course through the difficult post-war world and attempting to do so with dignity and elegance while refusing to abandon her sense of decency and compassion. Later a real life married couple, Kitahara and Ishihara were a frequent on screen romantic pairing though this time around the connection is more subtle as Keiko begins to sympathise with Tachibana’s plight and commits herself to saving him from destroying himself in becoming consumed by his barely suppressed rage.

Tachibana is indeed raging, though his rage is understandable. As someone later puts it “nothing in this city makes sense”. The systems are corrupt, the wartime generation continue to run the show and run it badly, or at least for their own ends, robbing youth of its rightful place at the forefront of economic recovery. Yet even if Ishihara is a symbol of youthful alienation, his rage is one which must be quelled. Even in this city where nothing makes sense, self control is one’s greatest weapon. If youth is to walk forward into the exciting post-war future, it will have to drop its rusty knives.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1957)

img_0Return to sender – address unknown. For the protagonists of I Am Waiting (俺は待ってるぜ, Ore wa Matteru ze), the debut feature from Koreyoshi Kurahara, all that’s left to them is to wait for uncertain answers, trapped in the limbo land of the desolate post-war landscape. With nothing to hope for and no clear direction out of their various predicaments, the pair bide their time until something, good or bad, comes for them but luckily enough what finds them is each other and suddenly a path towards resolution of their troubles. Reuniting newly minted matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara and future real life wife Mie Kitahara fresh off the red hot success of the youth on fire drama Crazed Fruit, I Am Waiting is an altogether more melancholy affair set in the down and out depression town of the American film noir.

One fateful night, Joji Shimaki (Yujiro Ishihara) steps out onto the Yokohama Harbour clutching a letter he nervously drops into a post-box, but is struck by the figure of a distressed young woman hanging around ominously close to the water’s edge. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Joji approaches the woman and convinces her to come back with him to the small cafe he runs right by the railway line. The girl, Saeko (Mie Kitahara), confesses to him that she thinks she may have killed a mobster who was making the moves on her and has no idea what to do now. Joji suggests she hide out with him, check the morning paper for news of a body, and then figure out the rest later. Left with no other options, Saeko agrees but it seems the past has a hold on them both which not even Joji’s powerful fists will be able to break.

Joji has been “waiting” for a letter from his older brother, supposedly in Brazil buying farmland. “Brazil” has become Joji’s main escape plan, but while he waits and waits his Japan life stagnates. A former prize fighter, Joji has been fighting his past self for the past couple of years ever since he lost his temper and killed a man in a bar brawl. Joji is afraid of his rage, convinced that he’s no good, a toxic influence to all around him, which explains why he’s so often abandoned by those he loves. When the letters he’d been sending to Brazil start coming back “no such person”, he fears the worst – that his brother has run off with their money and started a new life on his own without him.

In a noirish coincidence, Joji’s fate is bound up with that of melancholy nightclub singer Saeko. Once a respected opera singer, Saeko has been relegated to jazz cabaret in seedy harbour bars after losing her voice to illness and having her heart broken by her singing teacher whose affections were not as true as he claimed. “A canary that’s forgotten how to sing”, Saeko fears that her life is already over, there will be no escape from the gangsters who claim to own her and the only path left to her is the one she ruled out taking when she bopped the shady mobster on the head with a nearby vase. Saeko had no escape plan because she thought escape was impossible, but the unexpected nobility of a man like Joji has begun to change her mind, if only Joji’s heart weren’t already so battered and bruised.

Joji’s bar, the Reef Restaurant, is the gathering place for the battered and bruised. Located right on the railway line, it’s a literal waiting room through which pass all those who aren’t quite sure where they’re going. Everyone here is nursing the wounds of broken dreams – Joji’s chef used to be racing driver until he got injured, the doctor is a drunk, Joji’s an ex-boxer with anger issues, and Saeko’s a bird with a broken wing. This is not the departure lounge, it’s arrivals – the end of the line when there is no place else to go.

Still, a waiting room is a place you can choose to leave, no one has to wait forever. In meeting Saeko, Joji has already begun to move forward even if he doesn’t know it. Suddenly giving up on their melancholy passivity, the pair spur each other on towards a killer finale which offers them, if not exactly a way out, a possibility of a better life having resolved to leave the past in the past and reject its continuing hold over them. Kurahara co-opts the fatalism and lingering existential angst of the film noir with its rolling fog and permanent drizzle clouding the darkened horizons for our two pinned protagonists who relive their most fearful moments with the force of silent movie scored by the intense jazz soundtrack suddenly turned up to 11. An important missive to the post-war young, I Am Waiting offers the message that the past can be beaten, but only once one comes to believe in the existence of the future and makes a decision to walk towards it rather than waiting for it to arrive unbidden.   


Clip (English subtitles)

A Slope in the Sun (陽のあたる坂道, Tomotaka Tasaka, 1958)

Slope in the sun posterYujiro Ishihara had become the face of the “Sun Tribe” movement thanks to roles inspired by his brother Shintaro’s novels including the seminal Crazed Fruit in which he starred opposite his later wife, Mie Kitahara. Tomotaka Tasaka’s A Slope in the Sun (陽のあたる坂道, Hi no Ataru Sakamichi), adapted from the novel by Yojiro Ishizaka, is a much less frenetic affair than Nakahira’s famously intense youth drama, but retains the Sun Tribe’s world of purposeless youth whose inherited wealth has driven them to a life of listless ennui. Like Crazed Fruit, Slope in the Sun is the story of two brothers chasing the same girl, only this time one looks bad and is really good, while the other looks good but is really no good at all.

Beginning on the titular sun beaten slope, the film opens with a young woman, Takako (Mie Kitahara), entering the frame as she searches for an address on a piece of paper she is carrying. She finds the house – a large Western-style mansion, but is prevented from entering by a young man who mistakes her for a saleswoman and instructs her to use the tradesman’s entrance. The young man, Shinji (Yujiro Ishihara), continues to taunt her with lewd language before poking at her breast. Takako tries to leave but is persuaded to come inside to meet the lady of the house and the young woman, Kumiko (Izumi Ashikawa), whom she has come to tutor.

The Tashiro household is a strange one. There are three almost grown up children – oldest brother Yukichi (Yuji Odaka) who is a medical student, middle brother Shinji who is a painter, and the youngest daughter Kumiko who is approaching the end of high school and is a little over sensitive about a mild limp which is the consequence of a childhood accident. Takako nearly turns the job down when she realises that the family want less a teacher to help with Kumiko’s studies, than a kind of big sister to help her navigate her way into the adult world, but eventually warms to the Tashiros and decides to give it a go. A college student in need of money, Takako is currently living in a boarding house where she is friends with the older lady next door, Tomiko Takagi (Hisako Yamane), and her 18 year old musician son Tamio (Tamio Kawachi).

In contrast to the earlier Sun Tribe films, A Slope in the Sun is much more subdued though it does maintain an upperclass atmosphere filled with bored young people who struggle to find purpose in their lives through having no particular economic or social worries thanks to the protective cushioning of their wealth. The central issue is a common one to the familial melodrama – middle child Shinji has always felt disconnected from his family and has discovered that the woman who raised him is not his birth mother. He wants to know the truth of his family history but is also a kinder soul than his outward behaviour may suggest and does not want to hurt anyone or risk destroying the otherwise pleasant enough family life he enjoys as a Tashiro.

As expected coincidences abound though the truth is obvious seconds after Takako tells someone the name of her new employer causing them to gasp and draw pale with shock. It seems that everyone in the family already knew that Shinji is only a half brother except Shinji himself – their overcompensation in treating him kindly was the initial tipoff for his suspicions, but this question of blood relation turns out to have a surprising dimension. Oldest brother Yukichi is, outwardly, the model son – handsome, clever, gentlemanly, but on closer inspection his veneer of respectability turns out to be just that. The boys’ mother, Midori (Yukiko Todoroki), knows this well and partly blames herself for allowing Shinji to take the blame for a childhood accident rather than forcing her own son to confess. For all his seeming goodness, Yukichi is an amoral coward, womaniser, and habitual liar whereas there’s a kind of honesty in Shinji’s lewd speech and even in his own lies which he indulges partly out of a sense of smug superiority, as Midori puts it, but also because of the inferiority complex which has marred his life as he feels himself somehow lesser than either of his siblings.

Takako vacillates between the two brothers, taken in by the manipulative Yukichi but strangely drawn to the provocative Shinji. Unlike Nikkatsu’s other youth films, Slope in the Sun ends on a note of happy resolution rather than nihilistic suffering as each member of the family is encouraged to embrace their true natures, putting secrets to one side, and becoming closer in the process. Tanaka’s approach is a more classical one than Nikkatu’s usual fare, making use of silent cinema-style closeups and dissolves but veers towards the avant-garde in a brief flashback sequence offered in dreamlike widescreen. Despite the jazz clubs and subplots about misused geishas, this is a more innocent world than the post-war melodrama would usually allow, finding space for happiness and forgiveness in each of the conflicted protagonists once they each agree to submit themselves to the truth and meet the world with openness and positivity.


The Moon Has Risen (月は上りぬ, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955)

the moon has risen bookletOne of the most celebrated actresses of the 1930s, Kinuyo Tanaka’s post-war career took a couple of unexpected turns. In 1949, she was one of a small number of performers sent to tour America as a cultural ambassador but the reception upon her return was anything but welcoming as her old fans openly criticised her “Americanised” ways. In the same year, she ended her long standing contract with Shochiku to go freelance which meant she could pick and choose her projects from across a wider field of directors and actors she wanted to work with. What she wanted, however, was somewhat unheard of – she wanted to direct. The second woman to ever helm a feature film in Japan, Kinuyo Tanaka made her behind the camera debut in 1953 with the extremely impressive melodrama Love Letter which was penned by the ever supportive Keisuke Kinoshita. Tanaka’s directing career was almost derailed by her good friend and long time collaborator Kenji Mizoguchi who, for reasons which remain unclear, attempted to block her acceptance into the directors guild of Japan (ending their working relationship in the process), but after eventually joining Nikkatsu as a director she was able to begin work on her second film – The Moon Has Risen (月は上りぬ, Tsuki wa Noborinu), ironically enough scripted buy Shochiku stalwart Yasujiro Ozu.

In the classic Ozu mould, The Moon Has Risen is a family drama but Tanaka pulls the focus a little to home in on the central three sisters. Cared for by widowed patriarch Mokichi (Chishu Ryu), the Asai family consists of widowed oldest sister Chizuru (Hisako Yamane), reserved middle sister Ayako (Yoko Sugi), and the exuberant youngest sister Setsuko (Mie Kitahara) who is in a kind of relationship with the currently out of work intellectual, Shoji (Shoji Yasui). When an old school friend of Shoji’s, Amamiya (Ko Mishima), pays a surprise visit whilst he’s in the area to take a look at a broadcast tower, Setsuko sees it as an opportunity to set him up with her shy sister Ayako once Amamiya makes a few wistful remarks about remembering her from their school days.

The first part of the film stays firmly in the realms of comedy as Setsuko sets her plan in motion. She and Shoji do everything they can to find out whether there is any romantic possibility between the pair – baiting Amamiya to come to a non-existent clandestine meeting and then timing him to see how long he’ll wait before giving up, and convincing each of them that the other has something very important to say which can only be said under the romantic light of a full moon. Youthful as she is Setsuko’s plans largely backfire but then the moonlight gets inside them and something shifts.

The courtship of Ayako and Amamiya is quiet and restrained. They keep their romance a secret, communicating with each other through secret codes leading to poignant passages from the Manyoshu – the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, which everyone in the family is desperate to figure out but can’t quite get to grips with. Chizuru can’t decide if this painfully innocent path to romantic connection is very old fashioned or very modern but it certainly captures something of the cultural shift of post-war society – the marriage is “arranged” in a sense with Setsuko as a matchmaker but it’s also self determined as Ayako and Amamiya come to recognise their mutual feelings for each other, embrace their love match, and make their own independent decisions to marry.

Modern girl Setsuko has also made a proactive decision in her attachment to Shoji but their shared matchmaking quest eventually drives a wedge between them. As she later puts it, they spent so long worrying about Ayako that they forgot all about worrying about themselves. Shoji’s problem is a common one in being both out of work and soft hearted as he proves when he finds a job but decides to recommend a needier friend for it instead. A blazing row nearly threatens to end things but, again, the pair rely on gentle, well meaning advice from their elders and eventually realise they’re about to make themselves miserable in a fit of pigheadedness.

Though Tanaka mimics the veteran director with iconic Ozu-inspired compositions and frequent use of pillow shots, her emotional canvas is more direct than her mentor’s stoical resignation. Steering clear of Ozu’s trademark tatami mat view and preference for direct to camera speech, Tanaka’s lensing is shier and avoids faces altogether to focus on the physical. She lingers on clasped hands, or on uncertain feet, as they hug the ground unwilling to stay or go. Having ignored her for most of the film, Tanaka turns back to Chizuru whose lonely widowhood seems like a forgone conclusion, as her eyes brim with tears on hearing her perceptive father’s acknowledgement of a possible new suitor.

Mokichi’s inevitable loneliness is background rather than foreground as his daughters take centerstage, leaving him to wonder why young people prefer the “dusty, dirty Tokyo”, to his peaceful Nara but in any case he remains perfectly content for each of them to find their own path to wherever it is they’re supposed to be. In her attempt to film Ozu’s script with Ozu’s camera, The Moon has Risen may seem like a step backwards for Tanaka following the more inventive Love Letter but even while working within such constraints she manages outdo the master in her essential emotional immediacy and well observed depiction of lives and loves post-war women.


Red Pier (赤い波止場, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

Snapshot-2016-01-24 at 11_01_43 PM-1747507265Loosely inspired by Julian Duvivier’s 1937 gangster movie Pépé le Moko, Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier (赤い波止場, Akai Hatoba) was designed as a vehicle for Nikkatsu’s rising star of the time, Yujiro Ishihara – later to become the icon of the Sun Tribe generation. On paper it sounds like a fairly conventional plot – young turk of a gangster comes to town to off a guy, sees said guy killed in an “accident”, and shrugs it off as one of life’s little ironies only to accidentally become acquainted with and fall head over heals for the dead guy’s sister. So far, so film noir yet Masuda adds enough of his own characteristic touches to keep things interesting.

“Jiro the Lefty” (Yujiro Ishihara) is a sharp looking petty yakuza type in a bright white suit and sunglasses. Another of Japan’s post-war abandoned street kids, he found a home in a gang and has never known anything one could call a “normal” way of life. Other than his obvious talent with a gun, he has a cheerful and ironic personality that has him even almost respected by the police and is generally well liked in the area.

Early on Jiro rescues a little boy from almost being hit by a car and later when playing the harmonica for him gets hit by a thunderbolt of love when catching sight of the boy’s aunt, Keiko (Mie Kitahara). This causes him several problems at once: to begin with, she’s the sister of the guy he saw get hit by a crane and she doesn’t seem to know her brother was a gangster, two – Keiko is obviously of a much higher social class and a little out of his reach even if he managed to go straight, three – he can’t go straight, he doesn’t know how to do anything else, four – Mami, his current nightclub dancer “girlfriend” who’s invested a little more in the relationship than he has. Actually this is only the start of a long list of problems Jiro has to deal with, he just doesn’t know about them yet.

The story is set around the docks of Kobe where the living is hard and life is cheap. The local policeman is a fairly laid-back, ironic chap who’s made an odd sort of friendship with Jiro wherein he doesn’t really want to see anything too bad happen to him. He can see this thing with Keiko is not a very good idea and is constantly lurking in the shadows trying to control the situation as much as he can. Jiro, doesn’t know it yet but his own guys are out to get him too and after one of his sworn brothers ends up paying the price for Jiro’s rising profile in the yakuza world, he finds himself on the run from pretty much everyone.

This sounds like quite a complicated set up but Masuda manages to martial everything into a coherent order and even adds a hearty dose of realistic emotion too. As far as the aesthetic goes, Masuda takes his cues from American film noir with harsh lighting and canted angles all employed to show us the crookedness of this underground world but he also makes sure to add occasional touches of artistic flair such as the light bouncing off Jiro’s sunglasses during a night time cab ride or the sheer shock on Ishihara’s face as he first sees Keiko framed against the bright sunshine of Kobe’s harbour.

The too noble for his own good gangster who wants to go straight but knows he has a crooked heart – it’s an old story, but a good one. Red Pier pushes a lot of these ideas to the max but handles them well and adds a traditional “crime doesn’t pay” ending which is both endlessly sad and completely appropriate at the same time. You can’t help feel for Jiro and his small scale existential crisis in which the reluctant gangster wants to jump ship for more peaceful climes but can’t for both personal and societal reasons. Red Pier may not be the best Masuda/Ishihara collaboration but it is certainly an excellent example of everything its genre has to offer.


Red Pier is the Second film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.