The Thief in Black (黒の盗賊, Umetsugu Inoue, 1964)

Best known as a master of the musical, Umetsugu Inoue had a long and varied filmography embracing almost every genre imaginable. He began his career at Shintoho and later joined Nikkatsu where he quickly became an in demand director often working with top star Yujiro Ishihara, but took the somewhat unusual step of going freelance in 1960 thereafter working at various studios including Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. 1964’s The Thief in Black (黒の盗賊, Kuro no Tozoku) is not a musical but is characteristically playful even within the confines of the lighter side of Toei’s jidaigeki adventures. 

Set between the Battle of Sekigahara and the Siege of Osaka, the samurai corruption in play is essentially the burgeoning Tokugawa dictatorship, the heroes eventually uncovering Ieyasu’s secret plan for making sure his line (well, more himself in essence) remains in power for perpetuity through an insidious plot to weaken the feudal lords and ensure their loyalty to him. Meanwhile, the still developing city of Edo is beginning to turn against the Tokugawa who seem to be intent on exploiting ordinary people to enrich themselves most obviously through forcing the local workforce to renovate Edo castle rather than cleaning up the town which is apparently rampant with crime. Faced with such lack of leadership, the townspeople have come to admire a Robin Hood-like vigilante known only as the Thief in Black who alone is resisting overreaching lords. 

Part of the problem is that Ieyasu’s rule is still insecure because of the potential threat of Hideyori Toyotomi in Osaka. Consequently, they are fearful that some of the men working on the castle may be Toyotomi spies or otherwise disclose information that might benefit him if he chose to attack which is why they’ve refused the workers permission to return home to their families during the pause before beginning the second phase of works leading to further unrest. Meanwhile, corrupt local lord Tadakatsu (Ryutaro Otomo) and his sleazy priest buddy Tenkai (Minoru Chiaki) have an even darker plan in mind, preparing to simply kill the five master craftsmen in charge to ensure they present no threat. Alerted to the situation on the ground by idealistic samurai Jiro (Hashizo Okawa), their boss instructs Tadakatsu in no uncertain terms that he must treat the workers fairly in order to prevent civil unrest and/or disillusionment with the Tokugawa regime but the pair are entirely unfazed and determined to go on with their nefarious plan getting rid of Jiro if the occasion arises. 

As we later discover and in a typical jidaigeki plot device, Jiro is one of a pair of twins with his brother Kotaro (also Hashizo Okawa) abandoned because of the superstitious belief that multiple births are inauspicious. Though both men unwittingly lay claim to the name, Kotaro turns out to be the masked vigilante, his primary cause to regain the lands of the family who raised him unfairly displaced from their estates on the Musashino plains because of Tokugawa greed. Though Jiro, raised as a member of the establishment, is originally loyal to the Tokugawa who have after all brought about an era of peace, he soon begins to see that their rule is no good for the people of Edo. In his more egalitarian worldview, only by enriching the poor can they secure their rule which means less castle building and more infrastructural development along with paying people fairly for their work and absolutely not killing them afterwards. Kotaro too claims that his rebellion is for the good of the common people though unlike Jiro is much more transgressive in his ideology prepared to shake off his samurai status to become a wandering outlaw rather than content himself with the restrictive life of the heir to a samurai clan. 

Such messages are perhaps common in Toei’s brand of jidaigeki but seem unusually pronounced as the peasant workers are often given voice to lament their fate and resist their oppression more directly, pointing the finger not just at a rogue rotten lord but at the entire system built on exploiting their labour. Nevertheless, Inoue injects a hearty dose of whimsical humour to the politically charged narrative even going so far as to include a bumbling ninja claiming to be the famous Hattori Hanzo along with a comic relief magistrate and former samurai brothel owner taking his own kind of ironic revenge in getting the cowardly lords hooked on modernity with a load of faulty rifles. Obviously, Ieyasu couldn’t be stopped, but perhaps they slowed him down and reminded him of the dangers of underestimating the people. Shot with Inoue’s characteristic flare if remaining largely within the Toei house style, Thief in Black is a surprisingly direct attack on corrupt and entitled government but also a righteous romp as its idealistic heroes shuffle themselves back into their ideal positions while fighting Tokugawa oppression all the way. 


Inferno of Torture (徳川いれずみ師:責め地獄, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

“There’s no hope for us anymore” cries the hero, redeeming himself with one last act of humanity before allowing himself to be consumed by the flames of Edo-era barbarity. Another tale of feudal exploitation, Teruo Ishii’s Inferno of Torture (徳川いれずみ師:責め地獄, Tokugawa Irezumi-shi: Seme Jigoku) opens with an otherwise unrelated scene of female crucifixion followed by an elaborate beheading, presenting both of these events with a degree of historical authenticity they do not perhaps possess. Nevertheless, his central tale which turns out to be less about two women than two men, turns on the exploitation of female bodies, subtly suggesting that the modern society is itself founded on female exploitation. 

Though dropping the portmanteau structure frequently employed in the Joys of Torture series, Ishii returns from the prologue with the end of the first arc in which the presumed heroine, Yumi (Yumiko Katayama), makes a stealthy visit to a ghostly cemetery in which she trashes the grave of a man named Genzo (Shinichiro Hayashi), digs him up and dismembers his body to retrieve a key we later see him swallow which she hopes will unlock her womanhood currently imprisoned by an ornate chastity belt, only the key doesn’t fit. 

Flashing back again, we see Yumi forced into sex work in payment of a debt and imprisoned in a labyrinthine brothel which specialises in bondage and torture under the guidance of lesbian madam Oryu* (Mieko Fujimoto) and her samurai fixer Samejima (Haruo Tanaka). The brothel’s USP is in its tattooed women which neatly leads us into the main narrative as Yumi’s body becomes a battleground contested by two men, top tattoo artists in search of the perfect canvas in order to win, ironically, the hand of their master’s pure and innocent daughter Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana). 

Horihide (Teruo Yoshida) and Osuzu are in love, but the dark and brooding Horitatsu (Asao Koike) is determined to frustrate his rival’s desires by becoming the successor to Osuzu’s dying father, the tattooist Horigoro. The “hori” which prefixes each of the men’s names relates to the process of tattooing and comes from the verb to chisel, hinting at the way they prick and channel their desires into the canvas which is human skin. Horihide is our “hero”, described by Horigoro as the light to Horitatsu’s dark, Horitatsu currently making more of an impact with his designs of violent intensity, but each of them is in a very real way content to use and exploit the bodies of women without their full consent in order to practice their art. It is essentially an act of violence if not of “torture”. 

Meanwhile, Oryu and Samejima are profiting off their “merchandise” more directly in participating in the trafficking of tattooed ladies to lecherous foreigners displaying an early fetishisation of Asian women. This being late Edo, Japan is still in its isolationist period in which fraternising with foreigners was illegal which is why the action eventually takes us to Nagasaki and the Dutch trading port of Dejima, here presented as a nexus of corruption, where Samejima and Oryu prove themselves very much in league with foreign powers dealing with powerful businessman Clayton (Yusuf Hoffman), despite his name apparently a Dutchman, and his Chinese associates. Like Nikkatsu’s borderless action films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Inferno of Torture indulges in an unpleasant Sinophobia which culminates in a chase through a crowded Chinese wet market in which we catch sight of dogs hanging bound ready for the slaughter in similar poses to those of the women in the brothel, not to mention thrusting snakes, before being confronted by a basket full of adorable puppies presumably headed for a dark destination, while we finally rediscover Hidetatsu collapsed in an opium den after being forcibly addicted by Oryu as a means of control. 

“This is a house of horrors” the Chinese gang leader tells a group of women bought by Samejima from a prison and promised a life of wealth and ease as geisha catering to high class clients. It’s difficult to tell if Ishii is critiquing Edo-era misogyny or that of the present day, or merely revelling in it with increasingly perverse scenes of sexual violence and degradation which continually imply that women have no role or value outside of reflecting the desires of men while those who try to claim their own agency are brutally put down by an inherently misogynistic, patriarchal society. After a Count of Monte Cristo-esque subplot in which Horihide is framed for murder but escapes to plot his revenge, the psychedelic final showdown returns us to the tattooists’ artistic face off as they again weaponise female bodies to embody their own ambitions, Horihide turning a blameless young woman into an iridescent peacock to get back at her father. Nevertheless, he finally reassumes his humanity in ending his mission of vengeance before it takes more innocent lives while accepting that he may now be too corrupted to return to his former life. Elegantly composed often unconsciously recalling the keyhole in Yumi’s chastity belt as it imprisons women within the peephole of the frame, Inferno of Torture ends exactly as it began, with a scene of grim and ironic punishment in which the female form is itself obliterated. 


Inferno of Torture is available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes an in-depth commentary from Tom Mes discussing the treatment of the various actresses involved with the series, Ishii, and Toei in general; Jasper Sharp’s Miskatonic lecture Erotic Grotesque Nonsense & the Foundations of Japan’s Cult Counterculture; and a booklet featuring new writing by Chris D.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

*This character’s name is rendered as “Oryu” in the subtitles but “Otatsu” (different ways of reading the same character which means “dragon”) in the accompanying booklet.

The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

After the war during the American occupation, the samurai film encountered a de facto ban with the authorities worried that historical epics may encourage outdated fuedal and fascistic ideology. The period films of the post-war era, however, are often fiercely critical of the samurai order even as it stands in for the hypocrisies of the contemporary society. Two years before Masaki Kobayashi launched a similar assault on the notion of samurai honour in Harakiri, Tomu Uchida’s The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Sake to Onna to Yari) finds a loyal retainer similarly troubled when he is ordered to die only to be ordered not to and then finally told that yes he must commit suicide to serve a kind of honour in which he no longer believes. 

Takasada (Ryutaro Otomo) is a battlefield veteran with the Tomita clan much revered for his skill with the spear. As a retainer to the current regent, Hidetsugu (Yataro Kurokawa), he finds himself in trouble when the ageing Hideyoshi (Eijiro Tono) stages a coup to solidify his power, accusing his nephew of treason on abruptly “discovering” a stash of illegally obtained rifles. Takasada is outraged not to have been ordered to die with his master, but later resents being “strongly encouraged” to do so by his brother, the head of their clan. Storming out, he temporarily retreats into a drunken haze during which he convinces his favourite actress, Umeme (Hiromi Hanazono), to stay with him (just serving drinks, no funny business), before committing himself to public seppuku on a date of his own choosing. When the day arrives, Takasada is greeted by parades of “well wishers” keen to congratulate him for being such a fine samurai. Encouraging those in line to step out of it and stand horizontally without account of rank or status, he agrees to drink with them all, with the consequence that he becomes extremely drunk and passes out. 

Just as he’s about to cut his belly, a messenger arrives from Hideyoshi himself ruling Takasada’s suicide illegal. He if goes ahead and does it anyway, his clan will be disgraced. Takasada’s brother changes his tune and begs him not to proceed for the sake of the Tomita honour. Thoroughly fed up, Takasada has a sudden epiphany about the hypocrisies of the samurai code and decides to renounce his status, dropping out of court life to live simply in the country where he is eventually joined by Umeme who has fallen in love with him. 

Meanwhile, court intrigue intensifies. These are the quiet years leading up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara which in itself decided the course of Japanese history. While the elderly Hideyoshi attempts to hold on to power by ruling as a regent on behalf of his sickly son Hideyori, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Eitaro Ozawa) plots on the sidelines. Hideyoshi is advised by his steward Mitsunari (Isao Yamagata) to take a hard line with treachery, executing all 36 “spies” planted in his household by Ieyasu, including a number of women and children. Mitsunari is himself working with the other side, and the executions are nothing short of a PR disaster for Hideyoshi, provoking fear and resentment in the general populace who can’t accept the inherent cruelty of putting women and children to the sword. Sakon (Chikage Awashima), a kabuki actress and fiercely protective friend of Umeme, comes to a similar conclusion to Takasada, hating the samurai order for its merciless savagery. 

That’s perhaps why she’s originally wary of Takasada’s interest in Umeme, uncertain he will keep his promise to keep his hands off her and so staying over one night herself to make sure Umeme is safe. Umeme, meanwhile, may not have wanted him to be quite so honourable, leaving in the morning visibly irritated and exclaiming that Takasada is drunk on himself and understands nothing of women. That may be quite true, but it’s his sense of honour which eventually tells him that he must reject the samurai ideal. First they tell him honour dictates he must die, then that he must not, then when Hideyoshi dies and the prohibition is lifted, that he must die after all because his entire clan is embarrassed by his continuing existence. By this point, Takasada has decided to accept his “cowardice”. Sickened by the spectacle of his ritual suicide and the humiliation of its cancelation, he came to the conclusion that “loyalty and honour for world fame, glorious exploits etc” is all a big joke. He loves food, and wine, and his wife, and if that means others call him coward so be it because he’s finally happy and perhaps free. 

His spear, however still hangs over his hearth. He hasn’t truly let go of it or of the code with which he was raised. Sakon, perhaps on one level jealous and guarding her own feelings as she accepts that Umeme has chosen to leave the stage to retreat into an individual world with Takasada, warns her that her happiness will end if Takasada is convinced to accept a commission from the Tokugawa. He surprises her by once again renouncing his status as a samurai, choosing to stay a “coward” living a simple life of love and happiness. But as soon as he puts his hand on the spear intending to break it for good something in him is reawakened. He can’t do it. He finds himself at Sekigahara, confronted not only by samurai hypocrisy but by his own as Sakon does what he could not do to show him what he has betrayed. His rage explodes and he raises his spear once again but not for the Tokugawa, against the samurai order itself piercing the very banners which define it in an ironic assault on an empty ideology.