Crazy Thunder Road (狂い咲きサンダーロード, Sogo Ishii, 1980)

If you’re pushed out of the only group you’ve ever belonged to, where is it that you’re supposed to go? Produced as a graduation film, Sogo (now Gakuryu) Ishii’s second feature, Crazy Thunder Road (狂い咲きサンダーロード, Kuruizaki Thunder Road) captures a sense of youthful alienation in an age of prosperity in following in essence two men who choose to leave a group to which they have devoted their lives each for different reasons but both discovering that their new paths lead them nowhere but nihilistic despair. 

After a brief opening sequence foreshadowing the conclusion in which a ruined motorcycle lies abandoned amid the smoke of a volcanic explosion, the main action begins with the abdication of the previous leader of the Maboroshi biker gang, Ken (Koji Nanjo), who feels he’s aged out of the bosozoku lifestyle and hopes to settle down with his barmaid girlfriend Noriko (Michiko Kitahara). The Maboroshi gang is about to join an alliance with two other local outfits, Dokuro and Gaya, to put an end to the internecine street violence. Young hothead Jin (Tatsuo Yamada) decides he wants no part of this soft and cuddly version of the biker life and abruptly leaves with three of his friends to start his own gang, Maboroshi Kamikazes, declaring that his old outfit should now consider him an enemy.  

The problem is that system doesn’t like it if you step out of place and so the Elbou Alliance doesn’t really like it that Jin wouldn’t join, capturing and killing one of his friends to make a point. The more he tries to claim his independence, the more he is forced to realise that he is an ineffectual leader and being outside the group makes him vulnerable. His four guys are no match for the combined forces of three gangs which is one reason he later finds himself joining a new outfit, an ultra-nationalist militarist biker gang operated by former Maboroshi founder Takeshi (Nenji Kobayashi) who turns up in full infantry gear singing an imperial song, only to again become disillusioned because a life of order and austerity is the very opposite of everything he wanted which would be control and agency over his own life. 

In another way, that might what Ken wanted too but he doesn’t find it either and in the film’s hyper masculine worldview he appears weakened in his choice. An entirely passive figure, he is even seen wearing a pretty pinny while helping Noriko out at the bar otherwise usually looking blank or sullen like a man half alive who’s already given up on life. To ram the point home we discover at the film’s conclusion that Noriko eventually leaves him essentially for not being manly enough now that he’s left the biker subculture though her new squeeze is clearly a yuppie salaryman which itself points to a paradigm shift in contemporary visions of masculinity. 

Meanwhile, we’re suddenly presented with a new challenger, Shigeru (Masashi Kojima), who began as a shy foot soldier lead away by Jin but later finding a home with the nationalists, becoming Takeshi’s lover after Jin rejects the rigidity of militarism. Shigeru promises to protect both the town and Takeshi in an expression of the archetypal vision of masculinity as a protector, but love is it seems incompatible with this way of life in which strength is the only thing that matters. Ken loses Noriko because his desire to escape a life of violence renders him unmanly, while love doesn’t save Shigeru either because in the hyper masculine world in which he lives attachment is never anything other than weakness. 

Literally maimed by his failed attempt at dominance, Jin is cast out further into the post-war industrial wasteland where he encounters a teenage boy selling drugs and an old man weapons implying that the mediation of death has shifted with the generations only to be undercut with another piece of shocking and random violence that reminds us of the arbitrary meaninglessness of these petty struggles for dominance. True freedom, the film implies lies only in death, Jin the ultimate outsider a man who cannot be part of any group and must always remain outside of the pack while it remains impossible to survive alone. Set in the near future inches closer to an apocalypse, Ishii’s proto-cyberpunk aesthetic owes as much to The Warriors as it does to Mad Max painting pre-bubble provincial Japan as a post-war wasteland inhabited only by the hopeless perpetually fighting over the scraps of an increasingly prosperous but oppressively conformist society. 


Crazy Thunder Road is released on UK blu-ray on Feb. 21 courtesy of Third Window Films in an edition which includes an audio commentary by Tom Mes and video essay on jishu eiga by Jasper Sharp.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Fire Festival (火まつり, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985)

By 1985 the Japanese economy was approaching its zenith yet along with increasing economic prosperity had come social change of which small-town Japan was either casualty or sacrificial victim. “Nigishima will stay as it is” declares the last holdout of an increasingly obsolete way of life in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s intense modernity drama, Fire Festival (火まつり, Himatsuri), a manly mountain man and animalistic force of nature by several metrics unsuited to life in the contemporary society into which he is ultimately unable to progress. 

There are many things which it seems have not changed in Nigishima for generations, one being the animosity between the cohorts of its bifurcated community, those who live by land and those who live by sea. Rural depopulation may have forced them to come closer but it has also increased their sense of mistrust while both industries continue to suffer in an economy which no longer prizes their humble rural output. Despite being catapulted into a promised modernity by the advent of the railway to great fanfare in 1959, it now seems that Nigishima cannot survive without a new road which could be paid for by the development of a marine park only mountain man Tatsuo (Kinya Kitaoji) owns the property right in the middle of the earmarked area and has hitherto refused to sell further increasing the tension between the two communities. 

Tatsuo is thought of, and thinks of himself, as a big man in the area quite literally it seems as part of the reason he enjoys this status is down to his being unusually well-endowed. He believes himself to have a special relationship with the mountain goddess, often joking to the other men about having a sexual relationship with her while sometimes describing her as his girlfriend. Several times he is mistaken for an animal, firstly by the boatman bringing his childhood sweetheart and sometime mistress Kimiko (Kiwako Taichi) back to the island who assumed he was a monkey crawling along the cliff edge thoughtlessly throwing rocks at them, while he often gambols through the forest whooping like some kind of Tarzan. Entirely unreconstructed, his worldview is patriarchal and misogynistic. All of his banter with the other men is sexual, constantly referring to his penis while greeting his friends with lewd hand gestures thrusting his fist into his pocket as if waving with an erection. The cure for offending the goddess he tells his young protege Ryota (Ryota Nakamoto) is to drop his trousers and display his manhood, Tatsuo strangely believing this would appease her for taking wood from a sacred tree or killing without permission. 

Smearing the blood of a sacrificial animal over his chest and forearms he dedicates the death to the goddess, a gesture he will repeat in the film’s violent and tragic conclusion yet there is also arrogance in his conduct as if he believes himself above natural law, protected as the goddess’ favourite even as he describes himself as “suffocated” by the women in his life from his mother and five older sisters all of whom indulge him to his wife, kids, and mistresses. He has trained his dogs to hunt wild boar without the use of guns in a method he admits even other hunters describe as “cruel” while breaking a local taboo shooting monkeys in the forest well aware of nature red in tooth and claw. As such, there is little nobility to be seen in his determination to preserve this already obsolete way of life. His virility maybe contrasted with that of the ageing land broker Yamakawa (Norihei Miki) and his failed attempts to bed sex worker Kimiko who tricks him into paying off her debts, but he at least knows the way the wind is blowing explaining to her that towns such as Nigishima survive only through things like marine parks or hotels or even nuclear power plants. Without the road, the town will die. 

Yet in 1959 they were told the railway would save them and it seems it did not. Tatsuo’s love making with Kimiko in a boat borrowed from a treacherous fisherman who later agrees to sail it transgressively into sacred waters is intercut with memories of the rail line’s opening ceremony, two teenagers who might have been them or at least of around the same age ride an elephant on the jetty while the townspeople arrange themselves into the formation of the character for “celebration” captured by the aerial photographer above. For Tatsuo as a boy, was this a rebirth of Nigishima or the beginning of its demise as the coming modernity began to eat away at its foundations? 

The fire festival is “for men”, according to Tatsuo, “to drive out evil spirits”, his manliness getting the better of him as he disrupts the proceedings to attack a man he accuses of having brought “false fire”. These are the lessons he teaches to surrogate son Ryota whose devotion to him borders on the homoerotic, Tatsuo cradling him during the climactic rain storm and he seeming to develop a fascination for Kimiko as a kind of indirect fixation. Ryota has learned Tatsuo’s chauvinism mimicking his lewd hand gestures and swaggering walk, his cruelty in sacrificing 1000 yen to trick Yamakawa into injuring his hand in a bear trap, and his arrogance ensuring that his problematic masculinity will survive into another generation presumably no more capable of halting the march of modernity than he has been. Tatsuo poisons the waters with fuel oil which as one of the greek chorus of fish wives points out does not catch fire, Tatsuo himself smouldering until an inevitable explosion. Receiving some kind of epiphany during a mystical congress with the goddess in the middle of a storm, he knows what he must do and accepts that he cannot progress into the modern society. Smoulderingly intense in its small-town animosity and primeval sensibilities, Yanagimachi’s poetic tragedy of futility and the broken promises of a badly distributed modernity may accept the the sacrifice but mourns it all the same. 


Fire Festival screens at the BFI on 20/27 December as part of BFI Japan.

Clip (English subtitles)

Choji Snack Bar (居酒屋兆治, Yasuo Furuhata, 1983)

Beginning his career at Toei, Yasuo Furuhata is most closely associated with tough guy action films forging a strong and enduring relationship with the genre’s key star Ken Takakura through their work on the New Abashiri Prison series. From the late ‘70s however he began to transition further towards the realms of manly melodrama with a series of films which often starred Takakura as a man struggling to adapt to life in modern Japan such as the guilt-ridden policeman of Station or the conflicted former yakuza of Yasha. Arriving between the two and adapted from a novel by Hitomi Yamaguchi, Choji Snack Bar (居酒屋兆治, Izakaya Choji) is in someways much the same casting a typically stoic Takakura as an intensely noble man whose values are increasingly at odds with the world in which he lives while shifting away from the realms of manly action towards a more somber contemplation of the broken dreams of post-war youth. 

Eiji (Ken Takakura), known to all as “Choji”, is a happily married father of two who gave up his job in shipping to open a bar selling small eats in a Hakodate. He and his wife Shigeko (Tokiko Kato) have been planning to expand the business by opening a larger location near the docks but Eiji is dragging his feet largely it seems because the place found for him by childhood friend Kawahara (Juzo Itami) is too close to another bar run by an old man who helped him when he first started out so he’s loathe to risk infringing on his livelihood. Meanwhile, the central drama in town in the mysterious disappearance of Choji’s childhood sweetheart, Sayo (Reiko Ohara), who married a wealthy ranch owner but has long been trapped in an unhappy marriage she has several times failed to escape. Sayo’s disappearance coincided with a fire at the ranch which is suspected to have been started deliberately the assumption being that Sayo is responsible. 

The ironic disappearance of Sayo forces Choji into a reconsideration of his life choices, something his middle-aged friends also find themselves experiencing if for various different reasons. Choji was once a high school baseball star dreaming of turning pro but his hopes were dashed after an injury forced him to leave the sport thereafter working in an office at the docks but later resigning rather than accept a promotion that would mean he’d suddenly be the boss to his former friends. The bar is his way of being his own man, no one’s boss but his own, though his decision was not universally respected among his friends and in fact came as something of a shock to Shigeko who consented to an arranged marriage partly in search of the typical salaryman life. Most of the other men in town, however, struggle to keep their youthful dreams alive or to find accommodation with the way their lives are now. Inoue (Eiji Misato), for example, is obsessed with cabaret singing, spending all his time in karaoke bars often wearing elaborate costumes and makeup. Childhood friend Iwashita (Kunie Tanaka) even wonders if he’s gone “mad” after taking him to task for neglecting his family on discovering that he’s converted a docked boat into a tiny private cabaret space complete with a sound system and lighting as well as a small seating area for spectators who presumably have not yet materialised. 

This is perhaps in a way a symbol in itself of Japan’s new economic prosperity, later thrown into stark contrast by Choji’s explanation that he and Sayo broke up because of their mutual poverty he nobly pushing her to marry a wealthy man so at least one of them could be happy. Happy is however something Sayo has never been, later paying a short visit to Choji during which she blames him for his “cowardice” suggesting that he is largely responsible for the misery of her life in failing to fight for their love, giving up too easily on a distant happiness which is something he later cautions a young baseball player not to do. The police meanwhile accuse him of complicity, implying the pair knew Sayo’s husband had TB and thought he’d die soon enough after which they’d inherit his money and stay together, consequently assuming the “arson” was an attempted murder. 

The irony is that Choji is far too noble to have ever considered such a thing, something demonstrated by his continuing righteousness in refusing to take up Kawahara’s offer of cheap and lucrative new premises because it would mean betraying his former mentor, refusing to condemn his former teacher’s shock marriage to a woman 30 years his junior, and eventually taking Kawahara to task for his callous comments over the death of friend’s wife. Rival cabbie Akimoto (Masao Komatsu) was forever joking that his wife would die before him and sleazily flirting with young women, but went into debt in order to buy her an elaborate funeral altar and is completely devastated by her loss while living with his three children in a noticeably rundown apartment. As Choji puts it, Kawahara’s broken dream is in no longer being the big boss among the boys as he was in their high school days, fuelling his sense of middle-aged male frustration into embittered drunken violence. Yet everyone is always telling Choji he is being unnecessarily “good”, that he should stop thinking about doing the right thing and put himself first by accepting the offer to relocate the bar because business is business. 

Sayo too is trapped in the past unable to accommodate herself with the way her life turned out, an ironic casualty of Choji’s goodness clinging to her broken dream of youth. These now middle-aged teens of the post-war era are in a sense victims of their age, denied the sense of possibility the youth of today might enjoy but equally unable to step fully into the contemporary era of economic prosperity which some feel has become increasingly amoral and unkind. Nevertheless, as Shigeko puts it “no one can take away what a person carries in their heart”, Choji manfully retaining his nobility while literally burning the image of the past but perhaps carrying it with him as the other men carry the shards of their broken dreams some with more nobility than others.  


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Kosaku Yamashita, 1984)

The ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters standing up for the little guy with decency and honour, had been Toei’s mainstay throughout the 1960s but a decade later the image of righteous yakuza had been well and truly imploded by the advent of the jitsuroku or “true account” movie which drew inspiration from real life tales of post-war gangsterdom using voiceover narration and onscreen text for added authenticity as it proved once and for all that there was no “honour and humanity” to be found in the gangster life only nihilism and futility. Still, the ninkyo, like many of its heroes, proved hard to kill as 1984’s Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Shura no Mure) perhaps proves. A throwback to an earlier era with its infinitely noble hero and unexpectedly if not quite happy then defiantly positive ending, Kosaku Yamashita’s manly drama nevertheless adopts some of the trappings of the jitsuroku in its infrequent use of voiceover and emphasis on concrete historical events. 

The hero, Ryuji Inahara (Hiroki Matsukata), is like many heroes of post-war gangsterdom an orphan though his story begins in the mid-1930s as he’s recruited by a friendly yakuza at a karate dojo. As his teacher explains, Ryuji has already been offered a job with the police but given the chance to join the other side instead immediately agrees, explaining that his life’s ambition has been to gain revenge against the force that ruined his father and destroyed his family, gambling. He chooses to do this, however, not by destroying gambling dens everywhere but by becoming a gambler himself determined to be a winner which is, it seems, a textbook example of having learned the wrong lesson. Still, his noble gangster cool stands him in good stead in the yakuza world where he quickly earns the loyalty of other men, rapidly advancing up the ranks to head his own gang by the crime heyday of the mid-1950s. 

As the title implies, this is a story of a man, a very manly man, among other men. The gangster world is intensely homosocial and founded on ideas of brotherhood and loyalty. Thus, Ryuji finds a surrogate father figure in fellow gangster Yokoyama (Koji Tsuruta) who constantly gives him advice on what it is to be a proper man. “Don’t be a fool, don’t be too smart, and most of all don’t be half-hearted” he advises, later adding “you can’t be a man if you’re dirty about money”, and “taking action isn’t the only way to be a man. It takes a man to have patience.” (this last one as Ryuji hotheadedly discharges himself from hospital to get revenge on a punk who got the jump on him outside a shrine). To be a man, Ryuji intervenes when he sees some less than honourable young toughs hassling an old couple running a dango stand at the beach and the young woman from the caramel stall next-door, throwing his entire wallet on their counter to make up for the damage in what will become something of a repeated motif. His manliness earns him the eternal devotion of the young woman, Yukiko (Wakako Sakai), who eventually becomes his devoted wife against the will of her concerned mother who is nevertheless brought round on realising the love she has for him because of his intense nobility. 

Indeed, Ryuji lives in a noble world. He’s a gambler by trade but only because he hates gambling and is trying to best it. He doesn’t participate in the seedier sides of the yakuza life such as drugs or prostitution and is also in contrast to jitsuroku norms a humanist who defiantly stands up against racism and xenophobia, taking another gambler to task for using a racial slur against a Korean opponent while opting to befriend the “foreign” gangs of Atami when eventually put in charge of the lucrative area rather than divide and conquer. This is apparently a lesson he learned from his flawed but goodhearted father who hid a Korean man and his daughter from the pogroms after the 1923 earthquake because “we’re all the same human beings”. Spared the war because of an injury to his trigger finger, Ryuji kicks off against an entitled son of a gang boss for acting like a slavedriver while working at a quarry but earns only the respect of his superiors further enhancing his underworld ties because of his reputation as a standup guy willing to stand up to oppression. 

Such an intense sense of uncomplicated righteousness had perhaps been unseen since the ninkyo eiga days, and Ryuji’s rise and rise does in that sense seem improbable as his goodness only aids his success earning him the respect of over 1000 foot soldiers even as he finds himself in the awkward position of having to exile one of his most trusted associates for getting too big for his boots and disrespecting the yakuza code. His children also suffer for their connection to the gangster underworld, but are reassured that their father is a good man if with the subtle implication that he has damned them as his father did him. Shot with occasional expressionist flourishes such as crashing waves or a midnight sky, A Story of a Man among Men is not free from manly sadness and indeed ends on the sense of a baton passing from one era to another but does so with an unexpected sense of moral victory for its righteous hero who vows to bring his manly ideas with him into a new age of gangsterdom. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A True Story of the Private Ginza Police (実録・私設銀座警察, Junya Sato, 1973)

By the early 1970s the ninkyo eiga (pre-war tales of noble yakuza) had begun to fall from favour. Modern audiences were perhaps unconvinced by the romanticism of the honourable gangster caught between personal loyalty and his inner humanity, real life thugs are rarely so high minded after all. The cinema industry may have been in decline, but the consumerist revolution was well underway, the economic miracle was nearing completion, and there was perhaps a readiness to reckon with the recent past from a position of relative safety. The jitsuroku eiga did just that, providing a more “realistic” depiction of the yakuza life based on the recollections of real life gangsters and incorporating the aesthetics of reportage with the use of stock footage, newspaper montage, narratorial voiceover, and high impact text recording the names of characters along with the times of their deaths. 

Released in the same year as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity which has perhaps become the jitsuroku archetype, Junya Sato’s A True Story of The Private Ginza Police (実録・私設銀座警察, Jitsuroku: Shisetsu Ginza Keisatsu) paints an even bleaker picture of the immediate post-war era as one in which chaos and inhumanity rule. The pre-credits sequence follows demobbed soldier Watarai (Tsunehiko Watase) who finds himself in a bombed out warehouse where a woman is drinking around an open fire with a US serviceman. Standing motionless he stares at an upper balcony where another woman is having sex with a black GI. It seems this woman is known to him, perhaps his wife or in any case a woman he thought he was coming back to. She is not overjoyed to see him, breaking down in tears while he spots a baby girl crying in the corner who also happens to be black. Unthinkably he takes the child and throws her into a flooded area of the floor below, chasing the mother when she goes after the baby, strangling and then bludgeoning her to death with a rock. 

All of this has happened in the first five minutes. There will be no heroism here, no noble act of resistance only shame and desperation. These are men brutalised by war who’ve come home to a land in ruins where the enemy is now in charge, ruling their streets and sleeping with their women. They are humiliated and resentful, many of them still in uniform likely because they simply have no other clothes. Sato introduces us to the later gang members in turn beginning with a scene which echoes those of the Battles Without Honour series as Iketani (Noboru Ando) is chased and beaten by an angry mob in the chaos of the marketplace after being accused of stealing. Masaru (Tatsuo Umemiya) meanwhile is beaten by GIs who come to the rescue of a sex worker he tries to rape, offended when she tells him she doesn’t go with Japanese customers dismissing him as “just another defeated soldier”. Iwashita (Hideo Murota) uses his service revolver to commit an armed robbery to get money to gamble. Only the gang’s later leader, Usami (Ryoji Hayama), is introduced without a wartime record, named only as a pre-war gangster. The gang is forged when they meet by chance in a gambling den and bond over a grenade, mounting a military operation against the Korean street gang who hassled Iketani by bombing their HQ. 

A few months later they’ve become the “Private Ginza Police Force” of the title, now all in smart suits, loud shirts, and sunshades. They have their eyes set on ruling the area, taking down rival gangsters the Nakane brothers through cunning and trickery, turning an underling by threatening his family. But there is no honour among thieves and the gang is only a temporary arrangement intended to last only as long it’s useful. Iketani goes his own way, starting a small business running black market goods from China, bribing the police to turn a blind eye while Usami runs a conventional protection scam targeting the Chinese owner of a cabaret bar, Fukuyama (Asao Uchida), run as a front for black market smuggling. The problems start when Iketani learns that Fukuyama has been colluding with a government accountant to misappropriate money intended to be used for subsidies. 

This world is infinitely corrupt, from the easily bribed policemen to the civil servants out for all they can get and those who merely make use of them like Fukuyama and Iketani. While the guys get rich opening gambling clubs in Ginza, a wide scale famine creates a shantytown of starving poor at Ueno station where six die per day from hunger. Iketani is in someways the “noble” thug, he looks after his guys and pays attention to their lives, perhaps even claiming that his black market activities are a public service but it’s still every man for himself and if he’s assuming post-war chaos is on its way out he is sadly mistaken. Having got him hopped up on heroine and used him as a ghostly assassin, the gang jokingly refer to Watarai as a zombie, somehow surviving every bizarre death experience that comes his way including being buried alive, but they are walking dead too, soulless men who left their humanity on the battlefield. Fearing the game may be up, Masaru suggests one last hurrah blowing their ill-gotten gains on sake and women. “I’ll show you how rape is done,” Usami deliriously exclaims”, “how we used to do it on the continental front.” Meanwhile, Masaru throws notes all around the room screaming “Rejoice! There will be no tomorrow” sending all into a Bacchanalian frenzy as they cram as much cash as they can grab inside what little clothing they still have on.

All moody, anarchic jazz score and canted angles, Sato’s post-war Tokyo is a world of constant anxiety, a maddening no man’s land of fire and rubble inhabited by ghosts of men who died long ago for whom the war never ended. In true jitsuroku fashion, the picture ends on a note of fatalistic nihilism, the screen filled with red as the narrator cooly informs us what became of our heroes as they find themselves consumed by the futility of their lives of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Prison Boss (獄中の顔役, Yasuo Furuhata, 1968)

“Both you and I must do what a man must do and live this life to the very end” according to the melancholy theme song of Yasuo Furuhata’s fatalistic tale of gangster nobility, Prison Boss (獄中の顔役, Gokuchu no Kaoyaku). Another vehicle for tough guy star Ken Takakura, this post-war drama despite the name spends less time in a cell than one might imagine but casts its melancholy hero as a man imprisoned by the times in which he lives, too good to survive in an ignoble society and eventually brought down by his self-destructive need for retributive justice. 

As the film opens, Hayami (Ken Takakura) is goaded into a knife fight with a foot soldier from the evil Honma gang, Tetsu the Viper, and eventually kills him. Stumbling into a nearby bar, his only intention is to do the right thing and turn himself in filled with remorse as he is that he’s offed Tetsu in territory which belongs to “good” mob boss Tajima (Ichiro Ryuzaki). Tajima lives up to his name when some of his guys rescue Hayami and take him to their HQ where the old man insists that he rest and recover from his wounds. Whilst there, Hayami is cared for by Tajima’s teenage daughter Toshiko (Junko Fuji) who falls in love with him and vows to wait while he honours his word and spends seven years in jail for the killing of Tetsu. 

Meanwhile, awkward small-town politics is destabilising the precarious post-war environment as the Honma, embodiments of the new, venal and violent yakuza who care nothing for honour or humanity, are intent on squeezing Tajima’s influence mostly through muscling in on the running of the local bike races for which Tajima currently runs security. Though the Tajima gang is presented as an unambiguous good, the old style noble yakuza who live by a code and care about protecting the little guy, you can’t deny the levels of nepotistic corruption on display at the local council meetings given that the mayor and Tajima are apparently childhood friends while his rival shouts about allowing yakuza too much sway in politics while in the pay of Honma. 

Nevertheless, the central drama exists solely in the soul of Hayami who emerges from seven years in prison into this already destabilised environment owing a debt of honour to Tajima. Not quite a yakuza, he feels himself a perpetual other forever tainted by his crime having lost the right to live as other men live. Thus he struggles with discovering that Toshiko has also remained true to her word, having waited for him all this time running a small coffee bar rather than getting married. Even so, he finds himself dragged back into yakuza drama avenging the death of a Tajima man gunned down by Honma and thereby ending up back inside where he’s reunited with another childhood friend, Kurosaki (Ryo Ikebe), who’s been far less fortunate and is now affiliated with Honma.  

Kurosaki and veteran prisoner Pops (Shogo Shimada) are perhaps both mirrors of Hayami’s internal conflict, Kurosaki like him bound by a code but forced to act in ways which betray his own sense of honour and humanity and eventually paying a heavy price for doing so. Pops meanwhile as a man nearing the end of his life tries to talk him down from the road of destructive nobility, reminding him that he has a choice and ought to choose himself rather continuing to suffer for an outdated ideal. Hayami’s selflessness, his oft remarked tendency to disregard his own interest to protect others (the true mark of the noble gangster), is his weakness and fatal flaw. A yakuza’s daughter, Toshiko understands the code of manliness well enough and even she eventually tells him to run, to abandon his revenge and live free rather than becoming just another sacrifice on the altar of yakuza honour, but of course a man has to do what a man has to do. 

Though Hayami himself becomes a big man in prison, it’s Honma to whom the film’s title primarily refers hinting at the corruption involved in a society in which it is perfectly possible (and in some ways advantageous) to continue running a yakuza gang from behind bars, while the central crisis also turns on post-war desperation in betting all on controlling the lucrative bicycle races. In such a world as this, there’s precious little room for the noble gangster who must in the end damn himself if only to redeem it. 


Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Yoji Yamada, 2019)

From 1969 to 1996, travelling salesman Tora-san appeared in 48 films, a 49th movie special appearing after star Kiyoshi Atsumi’s death brought an unavoidable end to the series. Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Otoko wa Ysurai yo 50: Okaeri Tora-san) arrives to mark the 50th anniversary of the first film’s release, and as the series had done in its later stages, revolves around Tora’s neurotic nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), who is now a middle-aged widower and father to a teenage daughter. Feeling somewhat wistful, Mitsuo’s thoughts turn to his now absent uncle, wishing he were still around to offer some of his trademark advice along with the gentle warmth and empathy which proved in such stark contrast with his otherwise anarchic and unpredictable personality.  

Yamada, who directed all but two of the series in its entirety, opens with another dream sequence this time of Mitsuo as he finds himself overcome with memories of his first love, Izumi (Kumiko Goto), who is now married with children and living abroad working for the UNCHR. Mitsuo’s wife passed away from an illness six years previously and he’s so far resisted prompts from his relatives to consider remarriage though it seems fairly obvious that his editor, Setsuko (Chizuru Ikewaki), has a bit of a crush on him. Having taken a gamble giving up the secure life of a salaryman to become a novelist, Mitsuo’s first book is about to be published and it’s at a signing that he serendipitously re-encounters Izumi who just happened to be in the store that day on a rare trip to Japan and spotted the poster. 

Like many Tora-san films, Wish You Were Here is about the bittersweet qualities of life, the roads not taken, the misdirections and misconnections, and the romanticisation of a past which can no longer be present. At a crossroads, Mitsuo ponders what might have been recalling the shattered dreams of his first love which seems to have ended without resolution because of the unfairness of life. He wishes that his crazy uncle was still around to make everything better, offering more of his often poetic advice but most of all a shoulder to cry on as he’d been for so many women throughout the series. But Mitsuo himself has always been more like Tora than he’d care to admit, if tempered by his father Hiroshi’s shyness. He too is a kind man whose bighearted gestures could sometimes cause unexpected trouble. What he’s learning is in a sense to find his inner Tora, embracing his free spirit through his art if not the road, but also coming to a poetic understanding that sometimes the moment passes and there’s nothing you can do to take it back, only treasure the memory as you continue moving forward. 

That’s a sentiment echoed by Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), one of Tora’s old flames, who now runs a stylish bar in Tokyo. The beauty of the Tora-san series was that it aged in real time. The actor playing Mitsuo played him as a child and we saw him grow up on screen just as we saw Shibamata change from post-war scrappiness to bubble-era prosperity and beyond. The family’s dango-shop has had an upscale refit and there is now a modern apartment complex behind it where the print shop once stood. Seamlessly splicing in clips from previous instalments as Mitsuo remembers another anecdote about his uncle, Yamada shows us how past and present co-exist in the way memory hangs over a landscape. Once or twice, the ghost of Tora even reappears hovering gently behind Mitsuo only to fade when he turns around to look while there’s an unavoidable sadness as we notice the Suwas’ living room is now much less full than it once was. 

Aside from his uncle, it’s the warm family atmosphere that Mitsuo recalls from his childhood, something which, like Tora, he might not have always fully appreciated. Driving Izumi to a potentially difficult reunion with her terminally ill estranged father (Isao Hashizume), he refers to his own parents as “annoying” in the “pushy” quality of their kindness, something which irritates Izumi who points out that she’d have loved to have such a warm and supportive family and if she had she might never have gone to Europe, implying perhaps that their fated romance would been fulfilled. The Shibamata house was Tora’s port, he could wander freely because he had somewhere to go back to where they’d always let him in no matter what kind of trouble he caused.

A fitting tribute to the Tora-san legacy, Wish You Were Here is also a joyful celebration of the Shitamachi spirit. Tora might be gone, but the anarchic kindness and empathy he embodied lives on, not least in the mild-mannered Mitsuo and his cheerful daughter who seems to be continuing the family tradition of meddling in her loved ones’ love lives as her lovelorn father prepares to move on in memory of Tora, the free spirited fool.


Tora-san, Wish You Were Here streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Yasha (夜叉, Yasuo Furuhata, 1985)

In melancholy gangster movies, the hero often dreams of leaving the city for an idealised rural paradise to start again as a righteous man redeeming himself through hard work with a good woman by his side. Usually, they don’t make it, their goodness is nothing but a weakness in the harsh post-war environment, but even if they did could they really lay their violent souls to rest and live as the rest of us do? Once again played by a manfully stoic Ken Takakura, the hero of Yasuo Furuhata’s Yasha (夜叉, AKA Demon) tries to find out, but discovers that sooner or later the past will always catch up with you. 

15 years ago, fisherman Shuji (Ken Takakura) was the notorious Osaka yakuza known as “Yasha”. A war orphan given refuge by a gangster brotherhood, two things happened to change his way of life, the first being innocent country girl Fuyuko (Ayumi Ishida) whom he met by chance and rescued on the dangerous streets of the city. The second is the death of his younger sister who had become addicted to heroin. Fiercely resistant to the traffic of drugs, Shuji quit the clan, married Fuyuko, and retreated to her fishing village home to take over her late father’s fishing business. Well respected in the community as a steady hand, he now has three children and a settled happy life though one tinged with anxiety in the need to keep his back covered lest anyone find out about his violent past. 

The violent past is brought home to him when a young woman, Keiko (Yuko Tanaka), arrives in kimono with her young son in tow to take over the local bar. Keiko is a bar hostess from Osaka hoping to make a new start far away from the city, not so much for herself it seems as her no-good boyfriend Yajima (Takeshi Kitano) who is a drug-addled thug and openly hostile to her little boy. It’s Yajima who threatens to disrupt the gentle rhythms of the town, firstly getting the fishermen hooked on all night games of mahjong which damage their daytime productivity, and then selling them heroin to keep them propped up. Unused to such urban vices as hard drugs and serious gambling, the fishermen are lambs to the slaughter, handing over their hard earned savings to the thuggish Yajima to keep their heads above the water. 

Shuji wants to keep the town clean, but he can’t exactly admit just how familiar he is with things like drink and drugs which are, as his friend Keita (Kunie Tanaka) points out, not things “normal” people should know about. After realising an old friend is the middle-man, Shuji has a quiet word with Yajima as one thug to another but it only makes the situation worse. He tries talking to Keiko instead, but her decision to get rid of the drugs has disastrous consequences for all when Yajima goes on a crazed, knife-wielding rampage through the town which only Shuji can end. During the fight Yajima slashes Shuji’s fisherman’s jumper right through to the expose the demon beneath, leaving his colourful tattoos on show for all to see. 

You’d think that Yajima’s rampage would have taught the town a lesson, shown them that they were in over their heads and Yajima was not the sort of person it was good to be associated with, but their animosity overwhelmingly turns to the demon Shuji whom they unfairly begin to blame for their many misfortunes. The fishwives begin to avoid Fuyuko, telling their kids not to hang out with her kids and suggesting that it must have been Shuji who got the guys playing mahjong. Shuji meanwhile doubts himself, drawn to Keiko as to Osaka and the sleeping demon within. Yasha reawakens and he wonders if he has the right to live here after all. 

Fuyuko’s mother tells her that it’s a good wife’s job to quell the demon, but she struggles to maintain hold on Shuji while Yasha is pulled towards the city. He makes a manly choice, attempting to redeem Yajima in redeeming himself by returning to his point of origin. The widow of his old boss warns him off, reminds him that he’s a fisherman now, and that should he move against her she will have to act in accordance with the rules of the underworld, but privately mutters to herself that he hasn’t changed at all, “stupid man”. In the end, Yasha’s manly gesture ends in futility. He cannot escape himself but neither can he solve his problems through violence as he might have before, not least because the code is no longer secure motivating those he thought he could trust towards betrayal. He still has a choice, leave with Keiko to be Yasha once again accepting the futilities of a violent life (and its inevitable end), or stay to be a peaceful fisherman with the “good wife” Fuyuko. One man cannot possess two souls, but the given the chance the demon can be subdued if there is the will to subdue it and the belief that the man himself is good enough for the world in which he wants to live.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Station (駅, Yasuo Furuhata, 1981)

The thing about trains is, you can get off and wander round for a bit, but sooner or later you’ll have to go where the rails take you. You never have as much control as you think you have. The hero of Yasuo Furuhata’s Station (駅, Eki) is beginning to come to that conclusion himself, addressing the various stations of his life, the choices he made and didn’t make that have led him into a dejected middle-age, defeated, and finding finally that any illusion he may have entertained of living differently will not come to pass. 

In 1968, police detective Eiji Mikami (Ken Takakura) sends his wife (Ayumi Ishida) and son away for reasons which aren’t entirely clear. At this point in his life, he’s an aspiring marksman on Japan’s shooting team intensively training for the Mexico Olympics, which is perhaps why he felt he could no longer be a husband and a father, or at least not while also being a policeman. All that changes, however, when his friend and mentor is gunned down during a routine job, shot in the chest at point blank range by a man in a white Corolla while operating a check point to catch a killer on the run. In 1976, he goes to see his sister (Yuko Kotegawa) marry a man she might not love to escape a violent boyfriend and investigates a serial killer of women who rapes and murders girls in red skirts. In 1979, he’s haunted by the serial killing case coupled with his cool execution of hostage takers during a siege. Holing up in a small fishing village waiting for a boat home for New Year, he strikes up a relationship with a barmaid who is just as sad, lonely, and defeated as he is. 

When Mikami’s friend is shot, his wife tells the reporters that she thinks shooting at targets, which her husband had been training others to do, is a different thing than shooting at living beings. “One shouldn’t shoot at people” she tearfully insists, accidentally forcing Mikami into a double dilemma, knowing that his marksmanship skills were on one level useless in that they couldn’t save his friend while paradoxically told that they shouldn’t be used for that purpose anyway. But what really is the point in shooting holes in paper targets just to test your skill? Wandering into the hostage situation while posing as a ramen deliveryman, he cooly shoots the two bad guys without even really thinking about it, as if they were nothing more than paper. 

The Olympics overshadow his life. He gave up his wife and son for them, but no matter how hard you train, the Olympics eventually pass. Mikami is told he’s supposed to bring honour to Japan, representing not only the nation but the police force. He’s not allowed to investigate his friend’s death because they want him to concentrate on his shooting, but he is and was a policeman who wants to serve justice. While he’s waiting for the funeral, he sees a report on the news about a former Olympic marathon runner who’s taken his own life because he got injured and fell into a depression feeling as if he’d let down an entire nation. Mikami perhaps feels something the same, drained by responsibility, by the feeling of inadequacy, and by the potential for disappointment. After the Olympics he feels deflated and useless, wondering what the point of police work is while quietly rueful in suspecting the committee is about to replace him on the team after all. 

When he wanders into the only bar open on a snowy December evening, that is perhaps why he bonds so immediately with its melancholy proprietress, Kiriko (Chieko Baisho). The conversation turns dark. Kiriko tells him that a friend of hers who worked in a bar in the red light district killed herself last New Year, that it’s the most dangerous time for those who do this sort of work, not for any poetical reason but simply because it’s when their men come home. She tells him that she’s a lone woman, no virginal spinster but weighed down by the failure of old love. Swept up in the New Year spirit, Mikami starts to fall for her, but is also called back to the past by an old colleague who passes him his wife’s phone number and tells him she’s now a bar hostess in Ikebukuro. He starts to think about leaving the police and getting a local job, but fate will not allow it. Kiriko too sees her dream of love destroyed precisely by her desire to escape the pull of toxic romance. Back in 1976, Mikami had been party to a similar dilemma as the sister of his suspect kept her brother’s secret but secretly longed to escape its burden. Suzuko (Setsuko Karasuma) too lost love in trying to claim it and now works as a waitress in a small cafe in this tiny town, only latterly making an impulsive decision to try to leave and make a new future somewhere else. 

Mikami tears up the letter of resignation that declared him too tired of life to be a good policeman, once again boarding a train back to his rightful destination, knowing that a policeman’s what he is and will always be. He watched his wife wave goodbye from a station platform, saw a man betrayed on the tracks, and finally boarded the train himself, letting go of any idea he might have had about going somewhere else. Stations are after all transitory places, you can’t stay there forever. 


Original trailers (no subtitles)

Aki Yashiro’s Funauta which plays frequently throughout the film

Suspicion (疑惑, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1982)

Suspicion posterBy the early ‘80s, Japan had successfully shaken off post-war desperation for burgeoning consumerism, but even as the nation rocketed into a more comfortable future, social equality proved slow to arrive. Once again adapting a novel by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s Suspicion (疑惑, Giwaku) makes allies of two very different women who are each in one way or another rejected by the conservative, infinitely rigid society in which they live.

Former bar hostess Kumako (Kaori Momoi) falls under suspicion when she alone survives the car accident that takes her husband’s life. A brassy, aloof woman, Kumako does not behave in the way the police might expect a recently bereaved spouse to behave which instantly turns them against her. This becomes a real problem once they discover that her husband, Shirakawa (Noboru Nakaya), was an extraordinarily wealthy man on whom she had recently taken out a number of life insurance polices. Shirakawa’s public profile ensures that the potentially salacious case is taken up by the newspapers who waste no time proclaiming Kumako a gold digging murderess while openly baying for her blood. Intimidated by the public outcry, the police are determined to charge Kumako with her husband’s murder despite the only existing evidence being extremely circumstantial.

After a prominent lawyer declines to take her case, her legal council stands down citing his poor health leaving Kumako entirely undefended. The court eventually appoints her a new lawyer, a woman – Ritsuko Sahara (Shima Iwashita), more practiced in civil than criminal law and just as much of an outcast as Kumako though in very different ways. Ritsuko has divorced her husband and he has custody of their young daughter whom Ritsuko makes a point of seeing once a month. Though the arrangement seems to suit her well enough, her status as a career woman who has “rejected” the roles of wife and mother also makes her one viewed with “suspicion” by those around her.

The central issue is indeed Kumako’s character. A former bar hostess with a traumatic childhood, Kamako has four previous convictions including assault and blackmail as well as an abrasive personality and a tendency to rub people up the wrong way. She doesn’t do herself any favours, but no kind of justice would be served if she were sentenced to death not for her husband’s murder but for the crime of being an “unpleasant” woman in a society which expects women to be docile and polite.

The papers, however, are very invested in the story of the coldblooded, gold digging murderess. Akitani (Akira Emoto), a local reporter, cosies up to the police for insider information, and does his best to root out Kumako’s sordid past including a sometime boyfriend who might have been her “pimp”. Ritsuko makes “trial by media” a key part of her defence strategy, arguing that her client’s case has been unfairly prejudiced by the image the press has sought to construct of her, but is unaware of the extent to which the police investigation has been distorted by the desire to appease the media or the various ways in which a venal press has gently perverted the course of justice in search of a better story.

Cool and efficient, Ritsuko isn’t really sure whether Kumako did it or not but is determined to ensure she is tried by the codes of law and not of conventional morality. A disgraced Akitani later barks at her that he sees no need to defend “a woman like that” in the papers, but Ritsuko’s having none of it – the purpose of the law is precisely to ensure guilt or innocence is assessed rationally on the basis of the evidence presented, as free of personal prejudice as it’s possible to be. An idealistic claim, given Japan’s famously implacable legal system, but one that sits well with a functioning democracy.

Ritsuko’s defence of Kumako is not particularly a feminist exercise, though a grudging kind of mutual respect eventually arises between the two women who have each in one sense or another rejected socially defined gender roles. While Ritsuko proclaims herself happy enough to be a mother once a month on Sundays, her husband’s new wife is a more territorial sort, eventually asking her to stop seeing her own daughter because she would rather raise her believing that she is hers alone. Kumako, however, is entirely unrepentant, even emboldened, vowing that she will continue using men until the day she dies. The two women remain mirror images of each other, both rejected, viewed with “suspicion” for the choices they have made, and forever at odds with a society which has already found them each “guilty” in the court of public opinion.


Original trailer (no subtitles)