The Great White Tower (白い巨塔, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1966)

“It’s about the right thing to do, it’s about conscience, and Prof. Zaizen lacks conscience” according to a star witness at the conclusion of a medical malpractice trial in Satsuo Yamamoto’s adaptation of the novel by Toyoko Yamasaki, The Great White Tower (白い巨塔, Shiroi Kyoto). One of a series of films heavily critical of the medical system in the midst of rising economic prosperity, Yamamoto’s tense political drama presents the succession intrigue at a university hospital as an allegory for the nation as a whole implying that lingering feudalistic and authoritarian thinking has poisoned the contemporary society. 

This is in part reflected in the way in which major hospitals are often run as large family businesses where succession is a dynastic matter. In this case, however, the scene is a prominent university hospital in Osaka at which the head of the surgical department, Azuma (Eijiro Tono), is about to retire. Generally, one of his assistant professors would simply move up after being approved by a board comprised of other department heads but the problem is no one, and especially not Azuma, is particularly happy with the most likely candidate, Zaizen (Jiro Tamiya). The issue between them seems to be one of ambition and authority. Zaizen is regarded by all as an excellent doctor with a stellar track record but he is also cold and arrogant with no regard for departmental protocol all of which of course offends Azuma as does his background and person. The son of a country teacher, Zaizen prospered through the dedicated labour of his widowed mother along with family connections before marrying into the extraordinarily wealthy and influential Zaizen family who run a large obstetrics clinic. Consequently, he is free to pursue his interests and lacks the economic anxiety that might make another employee wary of pushing his luck. 

His humble background might have placed a chip on Zaizen’s shoulder but it’s also clear he’s part of a new generation that does things differently from the last, apparently keen to build a public media brand appearing in a glossy magazine which brands him “the magic scalpel” thanks to his success in treating pancreatic cancer. While they might not be able to argue with his track record, other doctors worry that Zaizen has developed a god complex and is slapdash with his practice often timing his operations and smugly pleased with himself when hitting a new record. Azuma first picks him up on this in the case of elderly patient, questioning his treatment decisions in accusing him of neglecting to fully consider the patient’s post-op wellbeing. This then becomes something of a recurring theme as good doctor Satomi (Takahiro Tamura) is minded to bring Zaizen in on the tricky case of a man, Sasaki (Nobuo Minamikata), he suspects may have pancreatic cancer but has been repeatedly diagnosed with chronic gastritis. 

Though it’s political intrigue that in some senses leads him to Zaizen, Satomi is otherwise depicted as the responsible physician who deeply cares for his patients’ wellbeing and not much at all for interoffice politics. Thus he continues to investigate Sasaki’s case even when other doctors tell him he’s wasting too much time on one patient and should just leave it at gastritis. Zaizen, meanwhile, is the exact opposite taking one look at the X-rays and deciding it is pancreatic cancer after all but thereafter ignoring Satomi’s advice after taking over the case refusing to run a CT scan to verify that the cancer hasn’t spread to the lungs as Satomi fears it might have. 

For Zaizen Sasaki ceases to matter, to him the human body is no different to a machine and he perhaps more engineer than doctor even as he proclaims medicine more art than science in insisting that he just knows the early signs of pancreatic cancer while others are unable to detect them. After the first operation we see him perform, a grateful wife stops to thank him profusely for saving her husband’s life though he treats her coldly and implies it’s all part of the job before going outside to celebrate his private glory in his record-breaking feat. It’s then a minor irony that he finds himself later slapped with a malpractice suit by Sasaki’s wife upset that he was unavailable as her husband was dying because he was preoccupied with the ongoing elections for Azuma’s successor.

The implication is that the dehumanisation of the health industry has reduced it to the status of any other company, the head doctors no better than ambitious salarymen whose lives are defined by their job titles. The various department heads eventually descend into factions with Azuma plumping for an external candidate, Kikukawa (Eiji Funakoshi), while others line up behind Zaizen or his internal rival Kasai (Koichi Ito). Influence is brokered largely by outright bribery or industry manipulation by external influential players including Zaizen’s wealthy father-in-law and a professor in Tokyo who can offer monetary perks, access to funding, and potential promotions to those willing to vote for their chosen candidate. The main argument against Zaizen is his bad character, yet the fact he has been carrying on an affair with a bar hostess is never used against him even as they prepare to smear a rival candidate with his mistress even suggesting they hire a hitman to take him out completely. Zaizen’s minions meanwhile make an ill-advised visit to Kikukawa to ask him to withdraw bizarrely stating the importance of maintaining “democracy” even as they themselves deliberately undermine it for their own gain.  

It’s this sense of feudalistic, fascistic authoritarian chumminess that Azuma’s daughter Saeko (Shiho Fujimura) later decries in asking her father why he did nothing to change such a destructive system while he himself had the power to do so the implication being that he saw no need because he continued benefit from it. Only she and Satomi present any kind of challenge to the hypocrisy that pervades the medical system but eventually discover that there is no place for integrity in the contemporary society. Zaizen miraculously falls upwards every time because his success is more expedient that his failure. Even the Tokyo professor brought in as an expert witness during the malpractice suit declares that Zaizen is unfit to be a physician because of his arrogance and total lack of human feeling but pulls back from testifying that he caused the death of his patient through negligence later explaining to a colleague that if a university professor were to be found guilty of malpractice it would undermine public faith in the medical system. 

If can’t they can’t have faith in the medical system, the very people who are supposed to care for them when they are most in need, how can they have faith in anything else? As the rather bleak conclusion makes clear, the entire system is rotten to the core and no longer has any place for idealists like Satomi who are continually pushed to the margins by those jockeying for power in this infinitely corrupt society defined by hierarchy and cronyism while ordinary people, like Sasaki, continue to pay the price. Just as in his opening sequence, Yamamoto takes a scalpel to the operations of the medical industry to expose the messy viscera below but ultimately can offer no real cure in the face of such an overwhelming systemic failure. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Until the Break of Dawn (ツナグ, Yuichiro Hirakawa, 2012)

If you had the opportunity to reunite with someone no longer here for a single night, would you take it? The young hero of Until the Break of Dawn (ツナグ, Tsunagu) is beginning to wonder whether or not it’s a good thing to be able to converse with the dead, if some people regret their choice to meet again, and if it’s better to just move on accepting that there will always be unanswered questions at the end of a life. Arriving shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Hirakawa’s moving drama is a meditation on grief and living with loss, but also on life and legacy and everything it means to be alive. 

High schooler Ayumi (Tori Matsuzaka) is being apprenticed by his grandmother Aiko (Kirin Kiki) to become a “connector” able to meet with spirits of the dead. As he explains to his potential clients, each person is allowed to meet only one other from the other side for one time only and should the deceased decline the invitation the petitioner will not be permitted to make another. If all goes to plan, Ayumi sets up a meeting at a fancy hotel where the pair can stay until dawn on the night of a full moon. Obviously this is not exactly a well publicised activity and the first customer Ayumi meets, Hatada (Kenichi Endo), is reluctant to trust him assuming it’s some kind of scam no better than an end of the pier clairvoyant despite repeated assurances that they accept no money and even the hotel expenses are covered.  

Tellingly, in the first reunions which we see the deceased does not tell the living anything they did not already know, Hatada claiming that he wanted to talk to his mother to find out where she put the deeds for their house only for her to tell him he already knows where they are and obviously had some other reason for wanting to see her. Even Aiko admits that she can’t be sure she’s really summoning the spirit of the deceased, Ayumi wondering if they really call someone back from the other side or if it’s more like the memories of a person who is no longer alive that have remained in the world are pulled back to together building a composite picture of someone as others saw and remembered them. He isn’t sure if what they’re doing is ethical, or if some people might wish they’d never chosen to meet again. The subject of another meeting, a young woman who died while presumed missing, is uncertain whether to meet her former boyfriend on hearing that he had spent the last few years waiting for her return realising that the her that had remained in him will die when he is forced to accept her death but deciding it’s worth it so that they both can achieve some closure and he can perhaps begin to move on. 

Moving on is something Ayumi is himself struggling to do, presented with the option of setting up a meeting of his own before he prepares to take over from his grandmother as the connector while meditating on the deaths of his parents wondering if he should meet one of them and simply ask why they left him behind. Meanwhile, he also finds himself proximate to death when a classmate is killed in a traffic accident, her guilt-stricken friend unknowingly asking for his services though for less than altruistic reasons worried her friend may use the service to tell others about their falling out. She’s fond of repeating the phrase that you regret more the things you didn’t do than the things you did though her reunion turns out to have a sting in the tail she may not have been expecting hinting at the bad outcomes Aiko had also warned were possible in such emotionally fraught situations. 

The conclusion that he comes to is to embrace the true nature of his calling as a connector hearing that Aiko only got the power from her brother (Tatsuya Nakadai) to keep her connected to the family while she later gave it to her son for the same reason only to harbour a sense of guilt that her imperfect instruction may have contributed to his death. Learning to see with his heart, Ayumi comes to understand that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there discovering a source of comfort in the feeling of someone gently watching over those below while accepting that perhaps it doesn’t matter if the reunions are real or illusionary because their true purpose is to comfort those left behind. A gentle meditation on grief and living with loss, Hirakawa’s quietly moving film eventually makes the case for growing old happily with no regrets living to the full until the break of dawn.


Until the Break of Dawn streamed as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Apart from Life (地の群れ, Kei Kumai, 1970)

By 1970, Japan had more or less cemented its economic miracle and in terms of cinema at least memories of the war were beginning to recede with the young keen to address other concerns such as dissatisfaction with increasing consumerism or resistance towards American foreign policy in Asia. Unjustly neglected by international scholars, Kei Kumai by contrast refused to turn away from issues others might have found taboo or at least unpleasant enough to avoid mentioning. Like A Chain of Islands, Apart of From Life (地の群れ, Chi no Mure) has an overt anti-American sentiment but in essence criticises a society in which people are dying of guilt and shame though essentially blameless while those marginalised continue to oppress each other and fight amongst themselves rather than unite to resist their marginalisation. 

Based on a novel by Mitsuharu Inoue, the film opens with a brief prologue set in 1941 before jumping forward to the mid-1960s in the naval port town of Sasebo, the naval facilities now operated by American forces. An ensemble drama, the tale revolves around a drunken doctor, Unan (Mizuho Suzuki), though this one is far from an angel merely another wounded and compromised soul of the post-war era wracked by guilt over his various moral failures which began with the incident in the prologue in which he attempted to weasel out of his responsibility after getting an ethnically Korean girl pregnant as a young teenager working in a coal mine. He is the first of many to insist “I know nothing” that he’s “responsible for nothing” firstly denying the child is his then trying to smooth it over with money before coldly telling the woman’s sister to take her to a hospital in nearby Sasebo where no one will know them in order to get an abortion and avoid the social stigma of unwed pregnancy. The sister can only look at him with contempt. Later he discovers that the young woman lost her life while trying to provoke a miscarriage. 

Hako died, in a sense, out of shame. Many of Unan’s patients face the possibility of something similar. One woman comes to him about her teenage daughter, Yoshiko, who is bleeding continuously as if constantly menstruating. Unan asks the mother if she was in Nagasaki at the time of the atomic bombing as the symptoms are similar to the effects of the radiation poisoning he observed while working as a doctor in the city. She continues to deny it, but flashbacks to conversations with her now absent husband and daughter suggest she may not be telling the truth at least in its entirety even though her daughter’s life is at stake. She doesn’t want to be associated with “those Kaito Shinden people”, referring to the industrial slumland where many refugees from Nagasaki have settled which is treated as a kind of plague town by the rest of the local area. If her daughter survives but is unmasked as a second generation A-bomb victim her mother fears she will never be able to marry and that she will have “no future”. 

Yet they are not the only ones facing marginalisation. A young woman, Tokuko, comes to Unan’s office wanting a certificate that proves she has been raped, but Unan doesn’t help her firstly for the understandable reason that she is, understandably, unable to explain the exact circumstances to him, and secondly because he just isn’t very invested in her wellbeing bizarrely suggesting she come back with a relative or the person responsible. As she later explains, the rapist threatened to expose the fact that her family are burakumin in order to keep her quiet while she clearly remembers that he wore a glove on his left hand which she believes probably hides a distinctive keloid skin lesion marking him as an A-bomb victim and probable resident of Kaito Shinden. Tokuko’s father had also been a victim of workplace discrimination presumably because of his burakumin heritage, his wife told that he had stabbed himself while confronting the workers who were harassing him advised to keep quiet rather than attract the attention of the authorities. Tokuko is originally shamed into silence not by her violation but by her marginalisation, later deciding to track down her assailant by herself after someone else reports the crime to the police who arrest a local Kaito Shinden troublemaker and attempt to frame him for the crime. 

The confrontation however leads to a small war between the Kaito Shinden A-bomb survivors and the burakumin community which results in the death of a burakimin woman after they tactlessly insist that Kaito Shinden is a buraku below the buraku and that their blood is “rotten” and will be for generations. Discussing the case, some had even suggested that the rape was itself a result of prejudice towards the A-bomb survivors seeing as they are unable to find wives. Yet Tokuko’s mother had asked if being burakumin means it’s OK to rape her daughter, in much the same way Hako’s sister might have asked if being ethnically Korean made it OK for Unan to so casually discard her. Explaining that the locals regard Kaito Shinden as a “sick village” Yoshiko’s mother says she doesn’t think the people there are any different from anyone else despite her determination not to be associated with the A-bomb “disease”. “If Kaito Shinden is sick, the whole of Japan is sick!” Unan fires back revealing that he himself was also in Nagasaki shortly after the bomb dropped, apparently objecting to these baseless prejudices but seemingly unwilling to cure them even while his patients quite literally die of shame. 

In his own case, however, it’s not prejudice or wartime trauma that have led to Unan’s alcoholism but his many moral failures and their resulting guilt. His wife (Noriko Matsumoto) wants to divorce him, partly because of the drinking, but also because of his longstanding guilt over the death of a friend who retreated to the mountains with the communists during the Red Purge of the early 1950s of whom he is also jealous in that he was previously his wife’s lover and he can’t get over wondering if he’d lived his wife would have chosen him. Guilt over Hako, perhaps mixed with the fears of his radiation exposure, have also led him to emotionally blackmail his wife into several abortions as if he thinks it improper to father a child. 

Meanwhile, we seem to see pregnant women everywhere. Nobuo (Mugihito), orphaned by the A-bomb, sees a pair of them walking ahead of a gaggle of nuns which he later decides to freak out by creepily staring at them before lunging wildly like a dog among geese. The film’s conclusion finds him on the run from a gang of burakumin boys looking for revenge, running far out of the slums into the suburbs and through one of those nice new danchi housing complexes where a row of pregnant housewives sits silently knitting, something almost creepy in the vacant way they smile at him as he runs past before tripping over a child’s toy car. Boys like Nobuo are it seems cast out from the newly consumerist society of the economic miracle while just about everyone is in some way marginalised and in some cases several times over: rape victim, burakumin, A-bomb survivor, troublemaker, orphan, divorcee, communist, Christian. Nobuo wonders why God chose Nagasaki for an A-bomb when it’s where all the Christians live while the head of a Virgin Mary statue is repeatedly smashed as if to imply there’s no more mercy to be found here. 

Kumai regularly cuts back to a disturbing visual motif of a cage filled with rats who kill a live chicken and fight over the scraps of rotting meat until ignited by a gust of fire, the survivors scrabbling over each other blindly looking for an exit. Meanwhile, US jet planes fly constantly overhead and all Unan can think to do is throw a rock at a flag flying on the base. “She was killed by everybody” Tokuko exclaims of the burakumin woman, suddenly seeing the webs of prejudice, oppression, and selfishness which created the circumstances which led to her death by stoning. Shot in a crisp black and white and academy ratio, Kumai’s steely drama lets no one off the hook implying that all of Japan is indeed “sick” wilfully leaving these marginalised people to fight amongst themselves for the scraps of a newly prosperous society. 


DVD release trailer (no subtitles)

The Demon (鬼畜, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1978)

By the late 1970s Japan had achieved its economic miracle, but it had yet perhaps to deal with the traumas of the immediate post-war era. Once again adapted from a story by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s shocking social drama The Demon (鬼畜, Kichiku) explores the radiating effects of orphanhood and economic privation on the family unit producing as a rather judgemental policeman eventually puts it a generation of parents who don’t know how to raise children and may even lack the inclination to do so even if thankfully not to the extent of the couple at the film’s centre.

Nomura opens with one of his trademark lengthy train sequences following a harried mother and her three children travelling in the sweltering heat from the countryside to the city as she makes a last, desperate attempt to remind the father, Sokichi Takeshita (Ken Ogata), of his responsibilities. Once a successful businessman, Sokichi has become financially ruined after a fire destroyed his print shop and no longer has the means to maintain a second household for his mistress and children at a discrete distance from the home he shares with his wife, Oume (Shima Iwashita). As Kikuyo (Mayumi Ogawa) points out to him, she is unable to support herself economically while caring for the children but he has little answer for her especially once the previously oblivious Oume overhears their conversation. After a series of heated arguments, Kikuyo makes the radical decision to simply abandon the children with their father and thereafter disappears having vacated her previous home and left no forwarding address. 

A part of the problem in the Takeshitas’ marriage had been that they have no children of their own, Sokichi remarking to Kikuyo, whom he met while she was working in a traditional teahouse where he used to take clients, that he had always wanted a child. Conventional gender roles have in a sense been reversed, Oume angrily insisting that her husband would never have made any money had not been for her while it appears that she is more or less in charge of their business affairs and he is the one largely looking after the children to the extent that they are “looked after”. To Oume, the siblings are partly a reminder that her husband betrayed her with another woman but also an attack on her femininity in reminding her that she was unable to become a mother while someone else has given birth to Sokichi’s children. For all of these reasons they are to her children which cannot continue to exist. She undermines Sokichi’s attachment to them by frequently questioning their paternity pointing out that they share little physical resemblance while reminding him that he met Kikuyo through her occupation on the fringes of the sex trade. 

Her mistreatment begins as neglect, refusing to feed or bathe “a stranger’s” child and then graduates to physical violence stuffing food into the mouth of Sokichi’s infant son Shoji after catching him playing with the dinner bowls. Yet when Sokichi finds her endangering the baby while moving heavy papers from a shelf he does nothing, suspecting his wife has become a threat to the children’s safety but also as she later implies wanting to be rid of them himself. The couple could, of course, have simply surrendered the children to an orphanage (it remains unclear how exactly their existence has been registered), but ultimately choose not to as if they wanted to obliterate the idea of them as if they had never been born. 

It may be tempting to view Sokichi as a helpless victim casting Oume as terrifying Lady Macbeth intimidating him into destroying the evidence of his indiscretion, but even if it was Sokichi “looking after” the children, it is finally he who must also “take care” of them. During his abandonment of his second child, 3-year-old daughter Yoshiko (Miyuki Yoshizawa), he takes her into a toy store where a group of boys are playing with remote control cars demonstrating that this is no longer an age of economic privation and that in the end the reason for the children’s second abandonment is not primarily financial even if Sokichi has been in a sense humbled, deluded into a false sense of security in his business success only to be robbed of the era’s increasing prosperity through a freak accident. “Everybody’s struggling” he eventually reflects as his assistant (Keizo Kanie) informs him that he is leaving, ironically to take better care of his ageing parents and small children presumably in a less toxic environment.

Yet as we discover the reasons for Sokichi’s sense of displacement stem back to his own post-war childhood, apparently born out of wedlock never knowing his father and then abandoned by his mother, bounced around between relatives all of them poor who viewed him as nothing more than a burden until effectively indentured to a print shop at ten years old by an uncle who stole his advance pay and once again abandoned him. These kinds of familial disruptions whether caused by a literal orphanhood or the economic constraints of the immediate post-war period have produced according to the moralising policeman at the film’s conclusion a generation of people who do not know how to parent because they were not effectively parented themselves many of whom go on to have children perhaps accidentally but have no idea how to relate to them, frightened of the responsibility or resentful of the “burden” as Sokichi eventually seems to have become. 

Nevertheless, Nomura ends on a note of ambiguity, the goodness in eldest son Riichi (Hiroki Iwase) emphasised as he refuses to name his father or reveal his abuse, an action interpreted by the police as an attempt to protect Sokichi but could equally be a trauma response owing to have been returned to him by the police once before. In any case the film asks if in being rescued from his toxic family circumstances, effectively orphaned, Riichi will simply end up continuing the cycle of displacement, another man unable to become a “father”. But then again, what of Kikuyo who branded Sokichi “inhuman” yet left her children with him and disappeared, perhaps as a neighbour implies with another man? A sympathetic policewoman (Shinobu Otake) reassures Riichi they’ll look for his mother, but as she too abandoned him would that actually help? The jury seems to be out on whether this sense of displacement, in essence the integrity of the traditional family, can ever effectively be repaired even as an increasingly consumerist society continues to erode its foundations. 


The Demon screens at the BFI on 12/19 December as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1965)

“Even the cops wouldn’t keep innocent people in prison” a prisoner ironically exclaims in Satsuo Yamamoto’s farcical crime drama Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Nippon Dorobo Monogatari), displaying a strange sense of faith in the system for one who’s already been caught out by it. It is in many ways the system at which Yamamoto takes aim, refusing to blame even the guilty for their crimes while condemning the society that forever tars not only them but their entire families with the criminal brush, similarly defaming the innocent while the mechanisms of the State actively abuse their power to ensure they continue to maintain it. 

Set in 1948, the action takes place as the opening voiceover explains in an exaggerated accent which at times lends itself to lowkey comedy, at a moment of societal collapse in which cash has become almost worthless and the only items of value are clothing and rice. Yet Gisuke (Rentaro Mikuni) it seems was living a life of crime even before the war, the youngest of five brothers left to look after his mother and sister after his father’s death. While operating as an amateur unlicensed dentist having picked up the basics from his dad, Gisuke makes his living peddling black market kimonos stolen from local warehouses. After bungling one particular job he finds himself spotting a strange site on the railway tracks, overwhelmed by shadowy figures of nine men he first fears have come to tackle him but in the end simply pass by even calmly returning his call of good evening as they discuss among themselves the best way to the local hot spring. Taking refuge in a haystack, it’s not until the next morning that Gisuke learns of a train derailment that took the lives of the engineer and two crew members. He realises that the men he saw must have been the ones who sabotaged the track but he’s not a snitch and it’s none of his business so he decides to keep quiet. 

That is until he gets arrested for the botched burglary and ends up incarcerated alongside a member of the accused, Kimura (Mizuho Suzuki), who quickly befriends him and in fact becomes something of a labour activist even inside the prison negotiating better conditions for prisoners. Indebted, Gisuke maintains his silence strangely certain that Kimura and the others will soon be released because they are innocent despite already knowing that the judicial system is infinitely corrupt. The case at hand takes inspiration from the Matsukawa Derailment, a real life incident which Yamamoto had already dramatised in 1961’s Matsukawa Incident, in which suspicion had fallen on the Railway Union who, in the film, are seen leading a protest agitating for better working conditions. Kimura, a prominent unioniser, is picked up along with other members of the rail workers union and left-wing activists on largely spurious grounds solely to discredit their movement at the behest of an overly authoritarian police force. 

The irony is that Gisuke ends up in prison for a crime that he technically is not quite guilty of in that he’s arrested after his wife, a geisha he redeemed with his ill-gotten gains, unwittingly sells some stolen kimonos which he was storing for a friend on the run. Kimura by contrast is in prison for something of which he is entirely innocent, in effect a political prisoner. Yet the force that imprisons both of them is not so much the law as social censure in the stigmatisation of crime. Gisuke feels acutely guilty knowing that his family members continue to suffer because of his criminality, his sister unable to marry as each of her engagements is eventually broken off when they find out her brother’s been in jail. After getting out and vowing to go straight, Gisuke marries again and has a child but is perpetually worried that someone will find out about his past and that his son will forever be stigmatised as a “burglar’s kid”. It’s for this reason that he finds himself torn, refusing to help Kimura by testifying as to what he saw that night even after hearing that he’s been sentenced to death, unwilling to risk his newfound happiness even at the expense of another man’s life. 

Strangely, it’s the injustice of the situation which later changes his mind though in an unexpected way when he realises that his own son has escaped being tainted with his father’s criminal legacy while Kimura’s is bullied at school because his dad’s in jail even though he’s innocent. Pursued by authoritarian police officer Ando (Yunosuke Ito) who attempts to blackmail him into changing his story to incriminate Kimura he eventually decides to free himself by telling the truth despite realising that another witness was most likely murdered for signalling an intention to do the same. “But how is it that the police who are charged to catch us are even bigger liars than the thieves?” Gisuke asks the judge during his improbably humorous testimony, earning rapturous applause from the court in a touch of the absurd with even his wife, hitherto stoney faced despite the laughter all around her, cracking a smile seemingly warming up to his decision to play the hero even if it has taken him rather a long time to decide to do the right thing. 

Yamamoto doesn’t hang around to hear the verdict, perhaps because it’s Gisuke who’s really on trial and the judge appears to be his wife whose forgiveness is the only acquittal necessary. His crimes are in a sense not really his fault, Yamamoto seems to argue, but the fault of an indifferent society which left him with no other choice in order to support himself, the same society which then frustrates his attempts to live an “honest” life by forever tainting him as a “burglar” and tarring his entire extended family with the same brush. Only by owning his stigmatisation can he free himself of it, rejecting the illusionary power corrupt authority has over him while refusing to be complicit in their constant battle to hang on to it by levelling his marginalisation against him. Extremely ironic in terms of tone, often employing archaic screen wipes for comic effect, Yamamoto’s strangely hopeful tale implies that justice can in fact prevail but only when imperfect men commit to it even at the expense of their personal happiness. 


Blood End (天狗党, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1969)

When the black ships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853, it provoked a moment of crisis which eventually led to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. Between those two events however lay a period of intense confusion as several groups and movements attempted to lay claim to the future direction of the nation. Many, such as the legendary figure Sakamoto Ryoma, held that above all else Japan needed to Westernise as quickly as possible in order to defend itself against foreign powers now far more technologically advanced than the Japan which had attempted to hold back time for over 200 years. Others felt quite the opposite, that what was needed was an end to the corrupt rule of the Shogunate and the restoration of power to the emperor while expelling foreign influence and going back into isolation. 

Satsuo Yamamoto’s Blood End (天狗党, Teng-to) dramatises this debate through the melancholy tale of the Mito Rebellion as a brutalised peasant farmer is sucked in by the idea of revolution but eventually betrayed by it in discovering that the samurai, even revolutionary samurai, will never change. They may claim they want an end to the feudal caste system and to live in a world where all men are equal, but continue to feel themselves entitled to more equality than others and insist on deference from those they still believe to be inferior. 

The action begins with a scene familiar from many a jidaigeki in that a small farming community is being pressed to provide the usual amount of rice despite the failure of the harvest. Revolutionary yakuza Jingoza (Kanemon Nakamura) and egalitarian samurai Kada (Go Gato) stumble on the scene of a “stubborn” peasant being subjected to 100 blows as punishment for the village’s raising the unfairness of their situation with the local lord. Surviving his ordeal, Sentaro (Tatsuya Nakadai) asks only for water but is denied by his cruel samurai tormentor. Jingoza intervenes and offers him his flask along with some money by way of an apology on behalf of these savage nobles, a gesture for which Sentaro remains grateful. While many of his friends are exiled and lose their lands, Sentaro disappears from the village and becomes a yakuza himself, learning the art of the sword in preparation for his mission of revenge. 

Meeting Jingoza by chance, he takes the opportunity to thank him and agrees to transport some money back to his family in a nearby village while he engages in urgent business in the mountains. While there, Sentaro ends up defending Jingoza’s steely daughter Tae (Yukiyo Toake) who is running something like an orphanage for children rendered fatherless by the ongoing chaos. It’s at Tae’s that he ends up running into Kada, who is a member of revolutionary movement “Tengu-to”, named for the mythical ogres with long noses and bright red faces. Sentaro ends up joining the movement, but gradually discovers that Tengo-to is not all he thought it to be. In the modern parlance, many of their actions are terrorist, they care little for human life and have no issue with looting wealthy houses as they prove after helping Sentaro assassinate the man who beat him, killing the man’s wife and servants and making off with his money as “military funds”. Sentaro is shocked, but only manages to get some of the money for himself to take back to Tae as a way of making amends. He continues to associate with Tengu-to despite his growing disillusionment with their philosophy. 

The Mito clan were perhaps outliers in the great Bakumatsu culture war, running under the “Sonno Joi” banner but doing so alone and forcefully advocating that the emperor’s instruction to expel all foreigners with immediate effect be enforced. At least as far as Yamamoto’s revolutionaries go, they advocate for this not so much because they reject foreign influence but because they resent the country’s elites maintaining a stranglehold on the riches to be gained by foreign trade. Kada, however, claims to have a more revolutionary spirit in that he wants to improve conditions for farmers like Sentaro, protecting them from the “corrupt system” but he’s still a product of his society and finds the programming increasingly hard to break. Having recruited vast numbers of peasants to their cause and witnessing the failure of their campaign, the other leaders want to go to Kyoto to talk to the emperor but are embarrassed to go there in the company of so many men who are not samurai. The solution is that they simply kill them, because peasants aren’t really people anyway. 

Sentaro thought they were “doing something good for peasants and the poor”, but samurai will always be “samurai” and eventually they will betray him. He wavers when Kada and the others ask him to assassinate Jingoza because he’s gone over to the Westernising cause, and is half talked round by his insistence that he’s acting blindly without thinking far enough ahead but himself finds it hard to break with the idea that samurai are honest and know what they’re doing. 

Yamamoto is perhaps making a direct allusion to the imminent failure of the student movement in Japan which finds itself in much the same place as the Tengu-to, torn apart by infighting and increasingly corrupted by duplicitous dogma. Kada has a lot of fine ideas but he doesn’t act on them, doubling down on ruthlessness in complaining that Sentaro is too sentimental, insisting that emotion is the enemy. Sentaro, however, has figured out that the enemy is the sword and everything it represents. Jingoza’s “Restoration” is the one he should have been fighting for if he wanted to see a classless Japan, but the Tengu-to have misused his idealism for their own ends and turned him into a defender of his own oppression. Still, the Tengu-to are the ones who pay the price, their entreaties to the emperor falling on deaf ears with 353 retainers beheaded as punishment. Sentaro lives on, vowing he will never die, as he walks towards the “Restoration” of the future and away from the Blood End of an inherently corrupt insurrection. 


Youth of the Beast (野獣の青春, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

youth of the beast posterSeijun Suzuki had been directing for seven years and had made almost 20 films by the time he got to 1963’s Youth of the Beast (野獣の青春, Yaju no Seishun). Despite his fairly well established career as a director, Youth of the Beast is often though to be Suzuki’s breakthrough – the first of many films displaying a recognisable style that would continue at least until the end of his days at Nikkatsu when that same style got him fired. Building on the frenetic, cartoonish noir of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Suzuki once again casts Jo Shishido in the the lead only this time as an even more ambiguous figure playing double agent to engineer a gang war between two rival hoodlums.

Suzuki opens in black and white as the bodies of a man and a woman are discovered by a small team of policemen. Finding a note from the deceased female which states that she settled on taking her own life because she loved her man and thought death was the only way to keep him, the police assume it’s an ordinary double suicide or perhaps murder/suicide but either way not worthy of much more attention, though discovering a policeman’s warrant card on the nightstand does give them pause for thought.

Meanwhile, across town, cool as ice petty thug Jo Mizuno (Jo Shishido) is making trouble at a hostess bar but when he’s taken to see the boss, it transpires he was really just making an audition. The Nomoto gang take him in, but Mizuno uses his new found gang member status to make another deal with a rival organisation, the Sanko gang, to inform on all the goings on at Nomoto. So, what is Mizuno really up to?

As might be expected, that all goes back to the first scene of crime and some suicides that weren’t really suicides. Mizuno had a connection with the deceased cop, Takeshita (Ichiro Kijima), and feels he owes him something. For that reason he’s poking around in the local gang scene which is, ordinarily, not the sort of world straight laced policeman Takeshita operated in which makes his death next to a supposed office worker also thought to be a high class call girl all the stranger.

Like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Youth of the Beast takes place in a thoroughly noirish world as Mizuno sinks ever deeper into the underbelly trying to find out what exactly happened to Takeshita. Also like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!, Youth of the Beast is based on a novel by Haruhiko Oyabu – a pioneer of Japanese hardboiled whose work provided fertile ground for many ‘70s action classics such as The Beast Must Die and Resurrection of the Golden Wolf, but Suzuki’s ideas of noir owe a considerable debt to the gangster movies of the ‘30s rather than the moody crime dramas of twenty years later.

Jo Shishido’s Mizuno is a fairly typical ‘40s conflicted investigator, well aware of his own flaws and those of the world he lives in but determined to find the truth and set things right. The bad guys are a collection of eccentrics who have more in common with tommy gun toting prohibition defiers than real life yakuza and behave like cartoon villains, throwing sticks of dynamite into moving cars and driving off in hilarious laughter. Top guy Nomoto (Akiji Kobayashi) wears nerdy horn-rimmed glasses that make him look like an irritated accountant and carries round a fluffy cat he likes to wipe his knives on while his brother Hideo (Tamio Kawaji), the fixer, is a gay guy with a razor fetish who likes to carve up anyone who says mean stuff about his mum. The Sanko gang, by contrast, operate out of a Nikkatsu cinema with a series of Japanese and American films playing on the large screen behind their office.

The narrative in play may be generic (at least in retrospect) but Suzuki does his best to disrupt it as Mizuno plays the two sides against each other and is often left hiding in corners to see which side he’s going to have to pretend to be on get out of this one alive. Experimenting with colour as well as with form, Suzuki progresses from the madcap world of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! to something weightier but maintains his essentially ironic world view for an absurd journey into the mild gloom of the nicer end of the Tokyo gangland scene.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Kei Kumai, 1965)

nihon retto posterKei Kumai made just 19 films films in his 40 year career, but even since his earliest days he ranked among the most fearless of directors, ready to confront the most unpleasant or taboo aspects of contemporary Japan. His first film, The Long Death, interrogated wartime guilt through drawing inspiration from a real life 1948 mass poisoning case in which materials manufactured in a Manchurian lab may have led to the deaths of post-war civilians. Having begun in this possibly controversial vein, Kumai pressed on with 1965’s A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Nihon Retto, AKA The Japanese Archipelago) which he set in 1959 as Japanese youth protested the renewal of the ANPO treaty which placed Japan under the military protection of the American Armed forces in return for allowing the presence of those forces on Japanese soil.

Despite the contemporary setting Kumai opens with a explanatory voice over detailing the depth of the American military presence and the function of the CID which exists solely to investigate crimes committed by American servicemen. The CID is staffed by both Americans and Japanese nationals who, the voiceover explains, often feel conflicted in stepping onto American soil each morning as prolonged exposure gradually erodes their sense of difference and finally of “Japaneseness”. Akiyama (Jukichi Uno) is a translator/investigator at CID and he’s about to be handed an unusual request from his boss – reopen a cold case from the previous summer in which an American Sergeant was found floating in Tokyo bay. Akiyama’s new boss was a friend of the late soldier and would like to know what happened.

Akiyama’s investigations lead him down a dark path of corruption, murder, conspiracy, and governmental complicity. Beginning to investigate the case, Akiyama discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. A couple of policeman from the original investigation arrive to help him and echo their frustrations with the way the case was handled. Despite the police investigation, the American authorities did their best to interfere – commandeering the body and claiming jurisdiction in contravention of Japan’s standing as a sovereign nation. The Americans are no longer occupying forces but honoured guests who should obey international protocol in cases like these, but they rarely do. Despite the existence of the CID, crimes by American servicemen are generally covered up as the military insists the matter will be dealt with internally only for suspects to be suddenly “transferred” overseas.

Sgt. Limit was, however, one of the good ones and Akiyama’s investigation seems to point towards a murder and cover up instigated because Limit had got too close to the truth in investigating a sudden flood of counterfeit cash. The Americans, to the surprise of all, are only the middle man in the grand conspiracy which leads right back to the dark heart of Japan and the vast spy networks operated during the militarist era. As might be expected, these valuable networks are left wide open with the collapse of Japanese fascism but are perfectly primed to facilitate widespread crime spanning the Asian world and all with the tacit approval of the American and Japanese states.

Kumai also implicates the spy ring in a series of “mysterious” rail incidents, but makes sure to reserve some of his ire more the more usual injustices. Akiyama is caring for his young nephew whose father was killed in mining explosion which has claimed the lives of nearly every young man in the village leaving his sister unable to cope with her children alone. He is also battling a personal tragedy which is intensely connected to his decision to join CID which is currently inundated with cases of rape and murder in which American servicemen are implicated. The “foreign” becomes suspect but mostly for its hypocrisy as in the Catholic priest who becomes a major suspect in subverting the legitimate devotion of a Godly woman who only sought to live under the Christian teachings of love and kindness, while the American forces claim to stand for honour and justice but actively facilitate organised crime at an interstate level to further the progress of Capitalism whilst also facilitating civil unrest in volatile nations for financial and political gains.

That all of this happens immediately before the renewal of the ANPO treaty is no coincidence and Kumai even includes aerial footage of the mass protests filling the streets around the Diet building as the youth of Japan question why their nation has seen fit to make itself so complicit in the questionable foreign policy of another country. The outcome looks bleak for our protagonists who discover themselves to be mere pawns at the mercy of greater forces which cannot be circumvented or denied, but just as it all looks hopeless a new hope arises. Pledging to fight harder and continue the work which has been started, those left behind dedicate themselves to equipping the young with the tools to build a happier, fairer world in contrast to the one they seem primed to inherit from those who should know better. The final sequence shows us a young woman walking gloomily past the Diet building which seems to be looming over her as a veritable symbol of oppression but then her face brightens, her step quickens and she leaves the Diet far behind to walk forward towards the work which awaits her. 


A comprehensive overview of the 1960 ANPO protests.

Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Junya Sato, 1977)

proof of the man posterOne could argue that Japanese cinema had been an intensely Japanese affair throughout the golden age even as the old school student system experienced its slow decline. During the ‘70s, something appears to shift – the canvases widen and mainstream blockbusters looking for a little something extra quite frequently ventured abroad to find it. Pioneering producer Haruki Kadokawa was particularly forward looking in this regard and made several attempts to crack the American market in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before settling on creating his own mini industry to place a stranglehold around Japanese pop culture. Sadly, his efforts mostly failed and faced the same sorry fate of being entirely recut and dubbed into English with new Amero-centric scenes inserted into the narrative. Proof of the Man (人間の証明, Ningen no Shomei) is one of Kadokawa’s earliest attempts at a Japanese/American co-production and, under the steady hands of Junya Sato, is a mostly successful one even if it did not succeed in terms of overseas impact.

Based on the hugely popular novel by Seiichi Morimura, Proof of the Man stars the then up and coming Yusaku Matsuda as an ace detective, Munesue, investigating the death by stabbing of a young American man in Japan. The body was discovered in a hotel lift on the same night as a high profile fashion event took place with top designer Kyoko Yasugi (Mariko Okada) in attendance. After the show, an adulterous couple give evidence to the police about finding the body, but the woman, Naomi (Bunjaku Han), insists on getting out of the taxi that’s taking them home a little early in case they’re seen together. On a night pouring with rain, she’s knocked down and killed by a young boy racer and his girlfriend who decide to dispose of the body to cover up the crime rather than face the consequences. Kyohei (Koichi Iwaki), the driver of the car, is none other than the son of the fashion designer at whose show the central murder has taken place.

Like many Japanese mysteries of the time, Proof of the Man touches on hot-button issues of the immediate post-war period from the mixed race children fathered by American GIs and their precarious position in Japanese society, to the brutality of occupation forces, and the desperation and cruelty which dominated lives in an era of chaos and confusion. The only clues the police have are that the victim, Johnny Hayward (Joe Yamanaka), said something which sounded like “straw hat” just before he died, and that he was carrying a book of poetry by Yaso Saiji published in 1947. Discovering that Hayward was a working-class man of African-American heritage from Harlem whose father took a significant risk in getting the money together for his son to go to Japan (hardly a headline holiday destination in 1977), the police are even more baffled and enlist the assistance of some regular New York cops to help them figure out just why he might have made such an unlikely journey.

The New York cops have their own wartime histories to battle and are not completely sympathetic towards the idea of helping the Japanese police. Munesue, of a younger generation, is also harbouring a degree of prejudice and resentment against Americans which stems back to a traumatic incident in a market square in which he witnessed the attempted gang rape of a young woman by a rabid group of GIs. Munesue’s father tried to intervene (the only person to do so) but was brutally beaten himself, passing away a short time later leaving Munesue an orphaned street kid. In an effort to appeal to US audiences, Proof of the Man was eventually recut with additional action scenes and greater emphasis placed on the stateside story. Doubtless, the ongoing scenes of brutality instigated by the American troops would not be particularly palatable to American audiences but they are central to the essential revelations which ultimately call for a kind of healing between the two nations as they each consider the ugliness of the immediate post-war era the burying of which is the true reason behind the original murder and a secondary cause of the events which led to the death of Naomi.

Naomi’s death speaks more towards a kind of growing ugliness in Japan’s ongoing economic recovery and rising international profile. Kyohei is the son not only of high profile fashion designer Kyoko, but can also count a high profile politician (Toshiro Mifune) as his father. Spoiled and useless, Kyohei is the very worst in entitled, privileged youth driving around in flashy cars and going to parties, living frivolously on inherited wealth whilst condemning the source of his funds as morally corrupt citing his mother’s acquiescence to his father’s frequent affairs. Yet aside from anything else, Kyohei is completely ill-equipped for independent living and is essentially still a child who cannot get by without the physical and moral support of his adoring mother. 

Johnny Hayward, by contrast, retains a kind of innocent purity and is apparently in Japan in the hope of restoring a long severed connection as echoed in Saiji’s poem about a straw hat lost by a small boy on a beautiful summer’s day. The words of the poem are later repeated in the title song by musician Joe Yamanaka who plays Johnny in the film and is of mixed race himself. As in most Japanese mystery stories, the root of all evil is a secret – in this case those of the immediate post-war period and things people did to survive it which they now regret and fear the “shame” of should they ever be revealed. Some of these secrets are not surmountable and cannot be forgiven or overcome, some atonements (poetic or otherwise) are necessary but the tone which Sato seems to strike encourages a kind of peacemaking, a laying to rest of the past which is only born of acceptance and openness. Despite the bleakness of its premiss on both sides of the ocean, Proof of the Man does manage to find a degree of hopefulness for the future in assuming this task of mutual forgiveness and understanding can be accomplished without further bloodshed.


Original trailer (no subtitles) – includes major plot spoilers!

Cops vs. Thugs (県警対組織暴力, Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

cops vs thugs J BDCops vs Thugs – a battle fraught with friendly fire. Arising from additional research conducted for the first Battles Without Honour and Humanity series and scripted by the author of the first four films, Kazuo Kasahara, Cops vs Thugs (県警対組織暴力, Kenkei tai Soshiki Boryoku) shifts the action west but otherwise remains firmly within the same universe. This is a world of cops and robbers, but like bored little boys everyone seems to forget which side it was they were on – if they truly were on any other side than their own. There are few winners, and losers hit the ground before feeling the humiliation, but the one thing which is clear is that the thin blue line is so thin as to almost be transparent and if you have to choose your defenders, a thug may do as well as a cop.

A dodgy looking guy in a dirty mac roughs up some equally dodgy looking kids. Given that the shady looking fella is played by Bunta Sugawara you’d peg him for a petty thug, but against the odds Kuno is a cop – just one with a taste for crumpled raincoats. The town he’s policing is one in the midst of ongoing gang strife following a series of breakaways and civil wars throughout the ‘50s. Things are coming to a head as rival bosses of the two breakaway factions, Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) and Kawade (Mikio Narita), vie for power while a former yakuza politician, Tomoyasu (Nobuo Kaneko), does his best to stir up trouble between them that Kuno is trying to keep from exploding into all out war.

Cops vs Thugs is as cynical as they come but slightly more sympathetic to its desperate, now middle aged men whose youth was wasted in the post-war wasteland. The central tenet of the film is neatly exposed by a drunken gangster who points out that at heart there’s little difference between a cop and a yakuza aside from their choice of uniform. Policemen, like gangsters, follow a code – the law, carry a gun, are fiercely loyal to their brotherhood, and at the mercy of their superiors. Good jobs were hard to come by in the devastation following the surrender, in fact one of the reasons company uniforms became so popular was that no one had decent clothes to wear and a providing a uniform was a small thing that a company could to do increase someone’s sense of wellbeing, community, and engender the feeling of family within a corporate context. The police uniform, even if it’s reduced to a badge and a gun, does something similar, as do a yakuza’s tattoos. They literally say someone has your back and will come running when you’re in trouble.

These drop outs with nowhere left to turn eventually found themselves one side of a line or on the other – the choice may have been arbitrary. Kuno says he became a cop because he wanted to carry a gun, something he could have done either way but for one reason or another he chose authority over misrule. Cops being friends with yakuza sounds counter intuitive, but many of these men grew up alongside each other, attended the same schools, perhaps even have relatives in common.

Both the police and the yakuza claim to be the defenders of honest, working people but neither of them quite means what they say. Police brutality is rife while yakuza battles reach new levels of violent chaos including, at one point, a beheading in the middle of a sunlit street. Yet the greatest threats to the population at large aren’t coming from such obvious sources, they’re hardwired into the system. Sleazy politico Tomoyasu spends his time in hostess bars and schmoozes with gangsters he uses to do his dirty work while the press look on gleefully at having something to report. Kuno may not be a candidate for police officer of the year, but he tells himself that his policy is one of appeasement, and that working with organised crime is the best way to protect the ordinary citizen. When you’re forced to work within a corrupt system, perhaps there is something to be said for flexibility.

For all of the nihilistic cynicism Fukasaku retains his ironic sense of humour, staging a violent, inefficient, and bloody murder in a tiny room where a sweet song about maternal love in which a woman sings of her hopes for the bright future of her son is playing a healthy volume. Corruption defines this world but more than that it’s the legacy of post-war desperation that says on the one hand that it’s every man for himself, but that it’s also necessary to pick a side. Cops, thugs – the distinction is often unimportant. There is sympathy for these men, and sadness for the world that built them, but there’s anger here too for those who play the system for their own ends and are content to see others pay the price for it.


Available now from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Originally published by UK Anime Network.