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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Clip (English subtitles)

Keiho (39 刑法第三十九条, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1999)

keihoArticle 39 of Japan’s Penal Code states that a person cannot be held responsible for a crime if they are found to be “insane” though a person who commits a crime during a period of “diminished responsibility” can be held accountable and will receive a reduced sentence. Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1999 courtroom drama/psychological thriller Keiho (39 刑法第三十九条, 39 Keiho Dai Sanjukyu Jo) puts this very aspect of the law on trial. During this period (and still in 2016) Japan does nominally have the death penalty (though rarely practiced) and it is only right in a fair and humane society that those people whom the state deems as incapable of understanding the law should receive its protection and, if necessary, assistance. However, the law itself is also open to abuse and as it’s largely left to the discretion of the psychologists and lawyers, the judgement of sane or insane might be a matter of interpretation.

The case at the centre of the film centres around a young actor, Masaki Shibata, who has confessed to the murder of a pregnant woman and her husband after he argued with the woman at her place of work. Shibata acts strangely and makes a point of asking for the death penalty before spouting off about angels and demons and later displays evidence of a split personality. Everyone seems convinced he’s suffering from MPD and committed the murders during a dissociative episode but the assistant psychologist is convinced he’s faking. At the same time, one of the lead policemen on the case also thinks there’s more to this. On investigating further, he discovers the strange irony that the murdered man himself escaped prosecution by reason of insanity after committing a horrifying crime that lead to the death of a six year old girl.

The film may be about a murder but what’s really on trial here is the law itself. The murdered man, Hatada, committed a heinous crime but was a child himself at the time so received only a brief sentence served in a hospital. He was released, went to university, got a good job and got married – a normal life. The family of the little girl he killed, by contrast, will never be able to return to normality and will continue to live in torment for the rest of their lives knowing the man who so brutally took their child from them is still out there living just like one of us. The film does not go into why Hatada committed the original crime or the reasons he was later declared fit to return to society, but the film wants to question the idea of releasing back into the world someone who has done something as horrifying as the rape, murder and dismemberment of a child.

The case at hand is a complicated one which has so many layers coupled with twists and turns that it becomes unavoidably confusing. Playing with several literary allusions from the frequent quotations from the “mad prince” Hamlet to naming the assistant psychologist “Kafuka”, Keiho also wants to delve deep into human psychology with its questions of identity and self realisation. Both the accused and the psychologist have deeply buried memories of trauma the suppression of which has cast a shadow through the rest of their lives. Both of them are, in a sense (even if not quite in the way it originally appears), haunted by a shadow of themselves.

When it comes to the procedural aspects, the final “twist” is a step too far and perhaps undermines the groundwork which has gone before it. Something which is presented as an elaborate revenge plot against both the state and the original instigator of a crime also appears to originate with a clumsy motion of self preservation. The state’s failure to properly deal with the criminal in the first case has resulted the death of another innocent bystander, all of which might have been avoided if Article 39 had not come into play.

Kafka-esque is, in fact, a good way to describe the circularity of the narrative as the notion of an insanity plea becomes a recurrent plot device. Backstories are constructed and discarded, identities are shed and adopted at will and the past becomes a thorn in the side of the future that has to be removed so everyone can comfortably move on. Morita relies heavily on dissolves to create a floating, dreamlike atmosphere as memories (imaginary or otherwise) segue in and out like tides but he also shows us images reflected in other surfaces such as the Strangers on a Train inspired sequence which literally shows us events through someone else’s eyes as we’re watching them reflected doubly on the lenses of a pair of sunglasses.

Difficult, complicated and ultimately flawed Keiho proves an elusive and intriguing piece that is put together with some truly beautiful cinematography and interesting editing choices. Fascinating and frustrating in equal points Keiho is another characteristically probing effort from the wry pen of Morita which continues to echo in the mind long after the credits have rolled.


Keiho is available with English subtitles via HK R3 DVD as part of Panorama’s 100 Years of Japanese Cinema Collection.

 

The Letter (手紙, Jiro Shono, 2006)

The Letter PosterWhen it comes to cinematic adaptations of popular novelists, Keigo Higashino seems to have received more attention than most. Perhaps this is because he works in so many different genres from detective fiction (including his all powerful Galileo franchise) to family melodrama but it has to be said that his work manages to home in on the kind of films which have the potential to become a box office smash. The Letter (手紙, Tegami) finds him in the familiar territory of sentimental drama as its put upon protagonist battles unfairness and discrimination based on a set of rigid social codes.

Nao (Takayuki Yamada) is a bright young man who had the chance to go to university and progress into a normal middle class life but is now slumming it as a blue collar worker at a factory. It transpires that his dismal circumstances began when he and his brother were orphaned meaning that his older brother Takashi (Tetsuji Tamayama) left school to get the money for Nao’s education. Working himself to the bone, Takashi was injured in a workplace accident and subsequently laid off. Desperate to provide for his brother, he turned to crime and unfortunately ended up killing an elderly woman during a burglary gone wrong and will spend the rest of his life in prison. The once close brothers now communicate through letters alone. With his university dreams shattered, Nao moves from place to place, forced out of employment and friendship groups each time someone finds out about his brother. Increasingly he comes to resent Takashi for the shadow his foolish actions continue cast over his life.

It is sadly true that this kind of social stigma towards the relatives of criminals is more prevalent in a society like Japan’s which prizes the overall harmony of the group (though I wouldn’t say it’s entirely absent here either). Every time Nao thinks he’s about to get somewhere, a background check throws up his imprisoned brother and it’s all over. Especially considering that his brother’s crime is a violent one perpetrated against an elderly lady, nobody is prepared to extend an understanding hand to Nao even though the crime itself has nothing to do with him (save being committed in his name) and its price should not be hanging on his shoulders.

It’s unsurprising then that Nao tries to conceal his brother’s existence, often claiming to be an only child with no living family. Though originally communicating warmly with Takashi in the letters, his growing resentment leads to a decline in their frequency and he rarely visits in person. The desire to hide his problematic past becomes a trigger in itself which leads to his having to give up on a dream of becoming a TV comedian just when it looked like his career was about to take off, and failure to tell a fiancée that he lied about being an only child also presents a serious crack in the couple’s relationship. Had he been more upfront and faced out the resulting reaction, he might have been able to work through it but once you’ve tried to lie sympathy dissipates entirely.

At the end of the day Nao is a young man with no one to guide him. He’s angry and he’s ambitious so he’s filled with resentment that he can’t have everything he thinks he deserves simply because of a series of things which happened to him none of which were his fault. Because of this, he makes a series of poor choices failing to see the things that are right in front of him. The dowdy girl next-door type from the factory is clearly in love with Nao but he isn’t interested – she doesn’t fit his slightly arrogant view of himself with her plainness and straightforward goodness. On the other hand, he’s immediately captivated by a beautiful and wealthy socialite who’s way out of his league. Of course, this is likely to end in tears – even if Nao didn’t already have skeletons in the closet the girl’s father has other plans for her which don’t include a marriage to a jumped up poor boy comedian.

The Letter suffers slightly in its focus on Nao and his troubles rather than being evenly split between the brothers. Takashi has paid a heavy price for his crime – he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life and the bright future he tried to buy for his brother has been ruined forever precisely because of the actions he was taking to ensure it. His only lifeline is the letters and the news he gets of Nao’s prospering in the outside world. Nao’s final decision to stop writing and not even tell his brother his new address so that the letters will no longer reach him is therefore a doubly cruel and selfish one. However, Takashi is only presented in relationship to his brother and his own pain and struggle becomes an undeveloped facet of the film.

As in all of Keigo Higashino’s work, secrets are the great enemy. The film only partially addresses the extreme unfairness of Nao’s plight as he’s continually persecuted for something that’s nothing to do with him. Guilty by association only, he is also in prison with no parole board to consider his case. The film even states that this kind of stigma is a perfectly natural thing which just has to be accepted – accept the truth, it says, and the world will open up to you. On balance this is a good message, but the idea that prejudice and social discrimination are things which just have to be endured is an uncomfortable one which sits at odds with the film’s otherwise positive messages of personal redemption and the importance of familial bonds. Uneven and occasionally tipping over into sentimentality, The Letter is something of a missed opportunity but nevertheless offers a thought provoking and emotionally satisfying melodrama in the best traditions of the genre.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.