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)