The Sand City in Manchuria (砂漠を渡る太陽, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1960)

A pure hearted doctor stands strong against the forces of imperialism if somewhat ambivalently in Kiyoshi Saeki’s wartime drama The Sand City in Manchuria (砂漠を渡る太陽, Sabaku wo Wataru Taiyo). “Why isn’t there just one country? I don’t want a country” a young Chinese woman exclaims towards the film’s conclusion in what is intended as an anti-war statement but also invites the inference that the one country should be Japan and that China is wrong to resist the kind of “co-existence” that the idealistic hero is fond of preaching. 

Dr. Soda (Koji Tsuruta), known as Soh, has been in Manchuria for two years running a poor clinic in a trading outpost on a smuggling route through the desert. He came, he later tells another Japanese transplant, after being talked into it by a pastor who told him about US missionaries who endured hardship in the Gobi desert and lamented that no Japanese people had been willing to take on such “thankless” work in the midst of the imperial expansion. There is a kind of awkwardness in Soda’s positioning as the good Japanese doctor which perhaps reflects the view from 1960 in that he objects to the way the Japanese military operates in Manchuria and most particularly to Japanese exceptionalism which causes them to look down on the local Chinese community as lesser beings, but within that all he preaches is equality and co-existence which suggests that he sees nothing particularly wrong in Japan being in Manchuria in the first place while implying that the Chinese are expected to simply co-exist with an occupying force to which they have in any case been given no choice but to consent. 

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the Japanese are in this case the bad guys. Soda is at one point accosted by a drunken soldier who takes against his choice to adopt Chinese dress while rudely refusing to pay his rickshaw driver. The animosity of some in the town is well justified as we hear that their mother was murdered by a Japanese soldier, or that they were raped by Japanese troops and now have nothing but hate for them to they extent that they would withhold vital medical treatment from a child rather than consider allowing Soda to treat them. Soda’s main paying job is working at an opium clinic hinting at the various ways imperialist powers have used the opium trade to bolster their control over the local population, while it later becomes clear that one of the Chinese doctors has been in cahoots with a corrupt Japanese intelligence officer to, ironically, syphon off opium meant for medical uses and sell it to addicts in a truly diabolical business plan. 

Though Soda is well respected in the town because he offers free medical treatment to those who could never otherwise afford it, he is sometimes naive about their real living conditions. Outraged that a young woman has been sold into sexual slavery, he marches off to the red light district to buy her back but is confused on his return realising her family aren’t all that happy about it because they cannot afford to feed her and were depending on the money she would send them because the father has become addicted to opium and can no longer work. The girl, Hoa (Yoshiko Sakuma), becomes somewhat attached to Soda but he is largely uninterested in her because she is only 17, while her affection for him causes tension with the daughter of an exiled Russian professor which is only repaired once they all start working together for the common good after the town after it comes under threat from infectious disease. 

In an echo of our present times, it seems not much has changed in the last 80 years or so, the townspeople quickly turn on Soda once it become clear that he’s putting the town on lockdown to prevent the spread of infectious meningitis after a Russian soldier stumbles in and dies of it. The disease firstly exposes the essential racism even among those Japanese people who have lived in Manchuria longterm such as the mysterious Ishida (So Yamamura) who remarks that diseases like that only affect the Manchurians and they’ll be fine because they are “more hygienic”, while simultaneously painting the infection as a symptom of foreign corruption delivered by the Russian incursion. Soda visits a larger hospital to get the samples confirmed but is told that the disease has not been seen in Manchuria before and so they have no vaccine stocks leaving him dependent on the smuggling network to get the supplies he needs. As the town is a trading outpost whose entire economy is dependent on the business of travellers just passing through, the townspeople are obviously opposed to the idea of keeping them out fearing that they will soon starve going so far as to tear down Soda’s quarantine signs while throwing stones at his house. 

In another irony, it’s Ishida’s pistol that wields ultimate control immediately silencing the mayor’s objections in a rude reminder of the local hierarchy. Many of the townspeople including inn owner Huang (Yunosuke Ito) and Hoa’s sister Shari (Naoko Kubo) are involved with the resistance to which Soda seems to remain quite oblivious and in any case adopts something of a neutral position but gains a grudging respect from Huang thanks to his humanitarianism that eventually saves him from brutal bandit Riyan (a rare villain role for a young Ken Takakura). In any case, as the corrupt Japanese officials pull out to escape the imminent Russian incursion, Soda decides to stay in part to atone for the sins of the Japanese in an acceptance of his responsibility as a Japanese person if one who has not (directly) participated in the imperialist project even if he was in a sense still underpinning it. Essentially a repurposed ninkyo eiga starring Koji Tsuruta as a morally upright man surrounded by corruption but trying to do the right thing to protect those who cannot protect themselves, there is an undeniable awkwardness in the film’s imperialist ambivalence but also a well intentioned desire to look back at the wartime past with clearer eyes and a humanitarian spirit. 


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. 


Devotion to Railway (大いなる驀進, Hideo Sekigawa, 1960)

In the early 1960s, Japan’s rail network might have felt a little uneasy with the Shinkansen already on the horizon. Hideo Sekigawa’s Devotion to Railway (大いなる驀進, Oinaru Bakushin) is in part a celebration of this essential service, the conductor and steward ever fond of reminding us that most passengers probably don’t realise that the Sakura sleeper service on which they are travelling from Tokyo all the way to Nagasaki is operated by only seven or eight people (though they don’t seem to be counting the staff from the dining car which hints at a minor source of division among the crew). While the Japanese title which means something more like “the great dash” might hint at a little more excitement, the film is less thriller than gentle ensemble drama in which the passengers and crew must come together to solve the improbable number of crises arising on this otherwise ordinary journey. 

Even so considering the film is directed by the left-leaning Sekigawa best known for his anti-war films such as Hiroshima and Listen to the Voices of the Sea, not to mention scripted by Kaneto Shindo, it is a little ironic that the central thrust of the drama revolves around junior steward Yajima’s (Katsuo Nakamura) rediscovery of his own devotion to the railway after at the beginning of the film declaring this will be his final journey. Mimicking the dilemma at the centre of Yoshitaro Nomura’s Stakeout, Yajima’s problem is that he has been engaged for two years and is sick of waiting to get married but his girlfriend Kimie (Yoshiko Sakuma) is the main breadwinner in her family and though his salary could support them as a couple it won’t stretch much further. Kimie, however, is dead against him taking the counter-productive decision to quit the railways even with the suggestion of going into business with a friend who owns a cafe, partly because it’s better to stick with a steady job than take a chance on something less certain, and partly because she knows he likes his work and all his experience will be wasted if he suddenly opts to switch careers. 

Despite its positive warmhearted message of people pulling together to overcome crisis, the film does skew a little conservative in essentially turning Kimie into a minor villain as if she were in a sense responsible for making Yajima doubt his devotion to the railway. After jumping aboard to make sure he doesn’t suddenly quit before the end of the line, she eventually has a heart to heart with the sympathetic conductor Matsuzaki (Rentaro Mikuni) that forces to her to admit that perhaps she’s just nervous about the nature of married life and has been making trouble where there needn’t be any, now certain that it’s better to just get married as soon as possible and let the rest figure itself out. 

Meanwhile, there’s additional tension seeing as a waitress from the diner car has an obvious crush on Yajima and is quite resentful on being presented with his fiancée, but even this is eventually solved with the two women becoming accidental friends during the climatic crisis, a landslide caused by a typhoon, that grants each of the passengers an epiphany about what it is they really want out of life. While waiting for the maintenance crew from the next station to arrive, Yajima, still in a bad mood, stands around doing not much of anything until coaxed into action by Kimie and Matsuzaki, Kimie too eventually jumping off the train to solve this literal roadblock in their relationship followed by the dining car girls and a young woman only on the train to transport blood to a hospital needed urgently by 2pm the next day. This sense of collective endeavour opening the way gives everyone on board a new sense of positivity, allowing Kimie and Yajima to repair their relationship and a man who tried to take his own life in the night to gain a new sense of hope for future. 

Several times Yajima is reminded that he has the lives of the passengers in his hands which is undoubtedly true given that there is always the chance of disaster yet also perhaps going a little far seeing as most of his job is checking tickets and providing travel information. Nevertheless, there is a lot going on on this train from eloping couples to yakuza assassins, not to mention the twin sights of a newly wed couple and a pompous politician momentarily disembarking at each stop to be feted either by workers at their factory or the local members of their political party. The snooty politician even gets a minor comeuppance from a famous pickpocket who steals his watch as a joke and then gives it back only to dismissively ignore his thank you message while eating a giant apple. 

Surprisingly handsome for a Toei programmer, Sekigawa’s deft direction lends a claustrophobic sense of dread to the interior of the train stalked by a vengeful assassin, while simultaneously making it an essentially safe space guarded by the ever solicitous crew keen to help an anxious young woman with a long journey ahead of her arrive on time to get home to her chronically ill mother. An effective piece of advertising for the Sakura sleeper service (which ran until 2005 albeit in slightly different forms), Devotion to Railway may surprise in its insistence that the hero rededicate himself to his employer but is nevertheless a charming ensemble drama which finds a new sense of positivity in the solidarity between friends and strangers coming together to overcome crisis through common endeavour. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)