Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Ishiro Honda, 1960)

The Human Vapour poster“The world is full of hysteria towards things they don’t understand” admits the strangely chatty “villain” at the centre of Ishiro Honda’s The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Gas Ningen dai Ichi-go). Third in a loose trilogy of “mutant” films put out by Toho beginning with The H-Man and followed by The Secret of the Telegian, The Human Vapor is at once the most futuristic and the most traditional in that it’s no longer wartime guilt or nuclear anxiety which has corrupted our increasingly amoral hero but unwise ambition in which desperation to win the space race has produced a new and dangerous threat we may not be able to contain.

Honda opens with an exciting bank heist which on later consideration might not make much sense, filled as it is with shots of a faceless man pointing a gun at terrified staff while the vault doors open seemingly on their own. Earnest policeman Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) is on the case, chasing a suspect car down a narrow country road only for it to crash and be discovered empty with no trace of the driver to be found. Okamoto’s feisty reporter girlfriend Kyoko (Keiko Sata) is dismayed to find out he has no leads, but later picks up on his mention of a buyo dancer, Fujichiyo (Kaoru Yachigusa), who lives near the scene and might have something to do with the case. 

Chasing Fujichiyo takes Okamoto to a library, where he becomes further convinced she is in contact with the mysterious bank robber. A strange and isolated woman, Fujichiyo is apparently from a noble, wealthy family but lives alone in a small cottage with only a single male servant where she devotes herself entirely to perfecting the art of traditional Japanese dance. We discover that Fujichiyo has been in poor health, which is why she hasn’t given a public performance in some time. Okamoto posits that the bank robber is bankrolling her comeback, though he never seems to have much of an explanation why she would need him when she has access to her own resources.

He is however correct, though it seems Fujichiyo was not aware that the money was stolen otherwise she might have been more careful in using it. In a contrast with genre norms, honest cop Okamoto never falls for Fujichiyo but does become oddly invested in her sad love story while sparking with his cheerful reporter girlfriend who ends up doing much the same. In fact, Kyoko is the only one doing much investigating but largely finds herself having to do it in spite of the (generally useless) men around her, including an unpleasant younger colleague who mocks all her ideas but does nothing much of anything on his own.

In any case, smirking villain Mizuno (Yoshio Tsuchiya) later makes himself known to the police in a selfless gesture of love in order to clear Fujichiyo’s name and get her released from police custody. He does this by taking the police to a bank and demonstrating how he was able to get in the vault without a key which involves his curious ability to turn himself into a gas. When Fujichiyo is not released, he takes matters into his own hands and frees all the prisoners in the cells, but Fujichiyo refuses to leave, insisting that she has no intention of running away and prefers to stay until the police affirm her innocence by releasing her.

Mizuno’s intention to bypass the law is one of the many signifiers of his increasing danger, that now believes himself “above” the rest of humanity and therefore no longer subject to their laws. He later tells the police exactly that, sitting them down for a mini audience to explain himself during which he recounts his history as an SDF pilot discharged on a diagnosis of lung cancer after which he took the boring job in the library and fell in love with Fujichiyo. A shady doctor, Sano (Fuyuki Murakami), later approached him claiming to be working for Japan’s space programme and suggested that his fighter pilot background made him a perfect fit for becoming an astronaut. Mizuno agreed to participate in his research to “change the existence of the human body” in preparation for life in space, but when Sano’s weird experiments turned him into a “gas man”, the doctor committed suicide in horror leaving Mizuno just another lonely victim of a mad scientist.

Like many other “mutant” heroes, the change in Mizuno’s body has also changed his soul though his love for Fujichiyo remains unchanged. It seems he’s only committing these crimes to fund her ambition of performing traditional buyo dance on the contemporary stage, while she though obviously devoted to her art finds it difficult to accept the man that he’s become. He promises to give her the world, sacrificing anyone that gets in his way. She remains conflicted, not wanting to accept his offer if it involves that kind of cost, and defending him to her colleagues only with the rationale that he is “different from what they are accustomed to”. While some advise caution, that perhaps Mizuno is not as dangerous as they think despite already having killed and should be given the chance to reform, others take a harder line eventually opting to use a different kind of gas to counter him.

Kyoko pleads with Fujichiyo as one woman in love to another, trying to protect Okamoto while advising her to pull Mizuno back from the brink by cancelling her performance, but precisely because of the understanding that exists between them she cannot. Sadly, as many point out, no one is really interested in buyo dance – the only audience members in attendance are there for the drama and the possibility of seeing the gas man in action. “You and I have finally won” Mizuno tells Fujichiyo on completion of her dance, as if this performance was all that ever mattered to either of them. But their victory leaves them with nowhere else to go, and the world unready to accept the latent threat a gas man represents. Fujichiyo makes her choice, one perhaps informed by her art and her love, while the authorities can only wait outside for the vapours to disperse.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Invisible Man (透明人間, Motoyoshi Oda, 1954)

invisible man 1954 posterThe Invisible Man is a frightening presence precisely because he isn’t there. The living manifestation of the fear of the unknown, he stalks and spies, lurking in our imaginations instilling terror of evil deeds we are powerless to stop. Daiei made Japan’s first Invisible Man movie back in 1949 – a fun crime romp with the underlying message that scientific research is important but not as important as ensuring knowledge is placed in the right hands. Toho brought Eiji Tsuburaya back for another go at the same material in 1954 as part of their burgeoning tokusaku industry fathered by Godzilla. The 1954 Invisible Man (透明人間, Toumei Ningen), directed by Motoyoshi Oda, is once again a criticism of Japan’s wartime past but also perhaps of its future. This Invisible Man is an invisible hero but one whose heroism is only recognised once the mask is removed.

Opening in grand style, the film gets off to a mysterious start when a speeding car hits “something” in the road. The “something” turns out to be a previously invisible man whose appearance is returned to him as blood leaks out from under the now stopped car. In his pocket, the man has a suicide note explaining that living life invisible is just too depressing and he can’t go on. Seeing as the note is addressed to a “friend” who is also apparently an Invisible Man that means there are more out there. Despite there being no real threat involved in any of this, the newscasters are alarmed and the public frightened.

This is quite useful for some – a shady gang quickly starts putting on Invisible Man suits including wrapping their heads in bandages just like in the movies, and robbing banks. Admittedly this makes no practical sense but adds to the ongoing fear of an “invisible” threat. An intrepid reporter, Komatsu (Yoshio Tsuchiya), links the crimes to a nightclub where the head of the gang is also trying to pressure the headline star, Michiyo (Miki Sanjo), into a career as a drug mule. Besides violence, their leverage is the little girl who lives across from Michiyo and is blind – the money they would be paying her could also be used to pay for the girl’s eye surgery. Mariko is waiting patiently for her grandfather to make the money, unaware that he has also fallen under the spell of the criminal gang.

The real “Invisible Man” is doing a good job of hiding in plain sight by proudly standing out in a traditional clown outfit complete with makeup and a fluffy nose. Nanjo (Seizaburo Kawazu) works as a promoter for the club and is also good friends with little Mariko who is unable to see him either with or without his clown suit. Unlike other Invisible Men, Nanjo is good and kind – the curse of his condition has not ruined soul.

He is, however, afraid of being exposed. Aside from social ostracism (perhaps someone who wears a clown suit 24/7 isn’t particularly bothered about that), Nanjo fears what his government would do to him if they discovered he was still alive. Like his friend who later committed suicide, Nanjo was a member of an experimental army squad recruited towards the end of the war as Japan sought to create the ultimate warriors to turn the tide in the battle against the Americans. The Invisible Men were born but the war lost, and it was assumed that they had all fallen. Nanjo, surviving, has been abandoned by the land that he fought for. His existence is a secret, an embarrassing relic of Japan’s attempt at scientific warfare, and something which no one wants to deal with. Nando’s friend could no longer cope with his non-existence. Unable to return home, unable to work, unable to marry, there was no “visible” future which presented itself to him.

In this sense, Nanjo represents a point of view many might have identified with in 1954. These men fought and risked their lives for a god they now say is only a man, to come home to a land ruled by the “enemy” in which they can neither criticise the occupation or the former authorities. These men may well feel “invisible” in the new post-war order in which the younger generation are beginning to break free while they suffer the continuing effects of their wartime service even if not quite as literally as Nanjo.

Yet there’s a kind of internalised resentment within Nanjo who describes himself as a “monster created by militarism”. Disguising himself as a clown he attempts to live a “normal” life though one segregated from mainstream society. A half-hearted romance with club girl Michiyo and a well meaning paternalism for the orphaned little blind girl point to Nanjo’s altruistic heroism but also to a reluctance to fully engage with either of them due to a lingering sense of guilt and shame.

The Invisible Man is the hero here while the bad guys subvert and misuse his name to do their evil deeds, terrorising women and threatening to burn the city down rather than surrender to authority. Even more than others in Toho’s expanding universe of tokusatsu heroes, Invisible Man is a defence of the other as not only valid but morally good even in the face of extreme prejudice and violence. It is, however, also one of their less well considered efforts and Tsuburaya’s effects remain few and far between, rarely moving beyond his work on Daiei’s Invisible Man five years previously. Bulked out with musical numbers and dance sequences, Toho’s Invisible Man is a less satisfying affair than Daei’s puply sci-fi adventure but is nevertheless interesting in its defence of the sad clown who all alone has decided to shoulder the burdens of his world.


 

The H-Man (美女と液体人間, Ishiro Honda, 1958)

H-man
Toho produced a steady stream of science fiction movies in the ‘50s, each with some harsh words directed at irresponsible scientists whose discoveries place the whole world in peril. The H-man (美女と液体人間, Bijo to Ekitainingen), arriving in 1958, finds the genre at something of an interesting juncture but once again casts nuclear technology as the great evil, corrupting and eroding humanity with a barely understood power. Science may have conjured up the child which will one day destroy us, robbing mankind of its place as the dominant species. Still, we’ve never particularly needed science to destroy ourselves and so this particularly creepy mystery takes on a procedural bent infused with classic noir tropes and filled with the seedier elements of city life from gangsters and the drugs trade to put upon show girls with lousy boyfriends who land them in unexpected trouble.

Misaki (Hisaya Itou) is not a man who would likely have been remembered. A petty gangster on the fringes of the criminal underworld, just trying to get by in the gradually improving post-war economy, he’s one of many who might have found himself on the wrong side of a gangland battle and wound up just another name in a file. However, Misaki gets himself noticed by disappearing in the middle of a drugs heist leaving all of his clothes behind. The police immediatetely start hassling his cabaret singer girlfriend, Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa), who knows absolutely nothing but is deeply worried about what may have happened to her no good boyfriend. The police are still working on the assumption Misaki has skipped town, but a rogue professor, Masada (Kenji Sahara), thinks the disappearance may be linked to a strange nuclear incident…..

Perhaps lacking in hard science, the H-Man posits that radiation poisoning can fundamentally change the molecular structure of a living being, rendering it a kind of sentient sludge. This particular hypothesis is effectively demonstrated by doing some very unpleasant looking things to a frog but it seems humans too can be broken down into their component parts to become an all powerful liquid being. The original outbreak is thought to have occurred on a boat out at sea and the scientists still haven’t figured out why the creature has come back to Tokyo though their worst fear is that the H-man, as they’re calling him, retains some of his original memories and has tried to return “home” for whatever reason.

The sludge monster seeps and crawls, working its way in where it isn’t wanted but finally rematerialises in humanoid form to do its deadly business. Once again handled by Eiji Tsuburaya, the effects work is extraordinary as the genuinely creepy slime makes its slow motion assault before fire breaks out on water in an attempt to eradicate the flickering figures of the newly reformed H-men. The scientists think they’ve come up with a way to stop the monstrous threat, but they can’t guarantee there will never be another – think what might happen in a world covered in radioactivity! The H-man may just be another stop in human evolution.

Despite the scientists’ passionate attempts to convince them, the police remain reluctant to consider such an outlandish solution, preferring to work the gangland angle in the hopes of taking out the local drug dealers. The drug lord subplot is just that, but Misaki most definitely inhabited the seamier side of the post-war world with its seedy bars and petty crooks lurking in the shadows, pistols at the ready under their mud splattered macs. Chikako never quite becomes the generic “woman in peril” despite being directly referenced in the Japanese title, though she is eventually kidnapped by very human villains, finding herself at the mercy of violent criminality rather than rogue science. Science wants to save her, Masada has fallen in love, but their relationship is a subtle and mostly one sided one as Chikako remains preoccupied over the fate of the still missing Misaki.

Even amidst the fear and chaos, Honda finds room for a little song and dance with Chikako allowed to sing a few numbers at the bar while the other girls dance around in risqué outfits. The H-man may be another post-war anti-nuke picture from the studio which brought you Godzilla but its target is wider. Nuclear technology is not only dangerous and unpredictable, it has already changed us, corrupting body and soul. The H-men may very well be that which comes after us, but if that is the case it is we ourselves who have sown the seeds of our destruction in allowing our fiery children to break free of our control.


Original trailer (no subtitles)