Sasuke and His Comedians (真田風雲録, Tai Kato, 1963)

Criminally unknown in the Anglophone world, where Tai Kato is remembered at all it’s for his contribution to Toei’s ninkyo eiga series though his best known piece is likely to be post-war take on High Noon made at Shochiku, By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him in which a jaded doctor finds himself caught in the middle of rising tensions between local Japanese gangsters and Zainichi Koreans. Kato’s distinctive visual style shooting from extreme low angles with a preference for long takes, closeups and deep focus already make him an unusual presence in the Toei roster, but there can be few more unusual entries in the studio’s back catalogue than the wilfully anarchic Sasuke and his Comedians (真田風雲録, Sanada Fuunroku), a bizarre mix of musical comedy, historical chanbara, and ninja movie, loosely satirising the present day student movement and the limits revolutionary idealism. 

An opening crawl introduces us to the scene at Sekigahara, a legendary battle of 1600 that brought an end to Japan’s warring states period and ushered in centuries of peace under the Tokugawa. Onscreen text explains that this is the story of the boys of who came of age in such a warlike era, giving way to a small gang of war orphans looting the bodies of fallen soldiers and later teaming up with a 19-year-old former samurai realising that the world as he knew it has come to an end. Soon the gang is introduced to the titular Sasuke who, as he explains, has special powers having been irradiated during a meteor strike as a baby. Recognising him as one of them, the war orphans offer to let Sasuke join their gang, but he declines because he’s convinced they’ll eventually reject him in fear of his awesome capabilities. Flashing forward 15 years, the kids are all grown up and the only girl, Okiri (Misako Watanabe), is still carrying a torch for Sasuke (Kinnosuke Nakamura) who dutifully reappears as the gang find themselves drawn into a revolutionary movement led by Sanada Yukimura (Minoru Chiaki) culminating in the Siege of Osaka in 1614. 

Don’t worry, this is not a history lesson though these are obviously extremely well known historical events the target audience will be well familiar with. A parallel is being drawn with the young people of early ‘60s Japan who too came of age in a warlike era and who are now also engaging in minor revolutionary thought most clearly expressed in the mass protests against the ANPO treaty in 1960 which in a sense failed because the treaty was indeed signed in spite of public opinion. Kato’s Sanada Yukimura is a slightly bumbling figure, first introduced banging his head on a low-hanging beam, wandering the land in search of talented ronin to join up with the Toyotomi rebellion against the already repressive Tokugawa regime. His underling sells this to the gang as they overlook a mile long parade of peasants headed to Osaka Castle as a means of bringing about a different future that they can’t quite define but imply will be less feudal and more egalitarian which is how they’ve caught the attention of so many exploited farmers. 

Of course, we all already know how the Siege of Osaka worked out (not particularly well for anyone other than the Tokugawa) so we know that this version of the 16th century better world did not come to pass the implication being that the 1960s one won’t either. The nobles are playing their own game, the Toyotomi trying to cut deals but ultimately being betrayed, while the gang fight bravely for their ideals naively believing in the possibility of victory. Sasuke, for his part, is a well known ahistorical figure popular in children’s literature and this post-modern adventure is in essence a kids’ serial aimed at a student audience, filled with humorous anachronisms and silliness while Kato actively mimics manga-style storytelling mixed with kabuki-esque effects. Boasting slightly higher production values than your average Toei programmer, location shooting gives way to obvious stage sets and fantastical set pieces of colour and light which are a far cry from the studio’s grittier fare with which Kato was most closely associated. That might be one reason that the studio was reportedly so unhappy with the film that it almost got Kato fired, but nevertheless its strange mix of musical satire and general craziness remain an enduring cult classic even in its ironic defeatism. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Snake Princess (新蛇姫様 お島千太郎, Tadashi Sawashima, 1965)

Hibari Misora fights Edo-era corruption once again in another jidaigeki musical adventure from Tadashi Sawashima. Snake Princess (新蛇姫様 お島千太郎, Shin Hebihimesama Oshima Sentaro) sees her doing double duty as a sake-loving stage performer in love with a reluctant revenger, and an austere princess mourning the murder of her confidant and only friend but, as in some of her other films, the resemblance is never remarked upon nor is it any kind of plot point. There isn’t even really a “snake princess”, though snakes and the supernatural do play their part and there is perhaps less space for the derring-do and swashbuckling musical numbers which typically characterise a Hibari picture. 

The film opens with stage performer Oshima (Hibari Misora) waking up from a drunken snooze on a riverbank and realising she’s been left behind by her acting troupe. Running into the mysterious Ittosai (Minoru Oki) on her way, she hurries on to the next town to catch them up while he heads in the opposite direction towards Karasuyama and the Princess Koto (also played by Hibari Misora). Meanwhile, in the town, a rowdy samurai starts a drunken fight in an inn, demanding to drink with the innkeeper’s pretty daughter Suga (Tomoko Ogawa). The innkeeper refuses, offering the excuse that his daughter is at the palace with the princess, but the samurai doesn’t take no for an answer and starts thrashing about with his sword eventually killing the innkeeper for the offence he feels has been caused to him. The innkeeper’s son Sentaro (Yoichi Hayashi), a former pupil of Ittosai, then kills the samurai in revenge and is forced on the run, taken in by the leader of Oshima’s acting troupe, Juzo (Takashi Shimura), who apparently knew his father well. 

What ensues is of course a tale of intrigue and revenge mixed with mild romantic melodrama. Oshima begins to fall for Sentaro, but is warned that he is from a prominent non-samurai family and as such is unlikely to marry a travelling actress, itinerant players then belonging to a kind of underclass which is in part one reason why it is so easy for Sentaro to hide among them. Even so he is also subjugated by the samurai who frequently object to being ordered around by “commoners”, insistent on their privilege the refusal of which is the reason Sentaro’s father had to die. 

Meanwhile,  the Princess Koto is herself oppressed within the feudal system as a female ruling a clan in the absence of her father who has placed her in charge while he remains in the city. While Oshima falls for Sentaro, the relationship between Koto and Suga is perhaps transgressively equally close, Koto describing Suga as the only one she can trust within her own court and plaintively asking her to stay by her side forever. Unfortunately however Suga is murdered by the male court conspirators attempting to wrest power from the princess on her way back with evidence of their smuggling plot after meeting Ittosai on Koto’s behalf. Misled into thinking that Koto had his sister killed, Sentaro plots revenge but on learning the truth asks her why she hasn’t dealt with the wrongdoing among her own retainers, only later realising that even as the leader of the clan she lacks the power to do so and remains in a precarious position. 

Arguably, Oshima has more freedom, fearlessly walking the roads alone, drinking and gambling with the men refusing to abide by traditional social codes though perhaps in some ways permitted to do so precisely because of her position within the entertainer underclass. A further gender reversal sees the fallen Sentaro temporarily resorting to sex work as a host at an inn drinking with a melancholy noblewoman who fully expects to bed him for her five Ryo only for Sentaro to become indignant and throw the money back in her face, much to Oshima’s approval though she later becomes jealous and irritated questioning him if he’s ever done this sort of work before as if it would actually change her feelings for him. While Sentaro is forced into but then rejects the subjugated female role, Oshima chooses the male solution of trying her luck at the gaming tables, occasionally charging into a fight wielding a nearby object such as a handy water bucket. 

The snake theme of the title links back to the supernatural appearances of Suga’s silent ghost, protecting the princess with a wall of serpents when Sentaro plans to attack under the false assumption that she was responsible for his sister’s death. Musical numbers are largely restricted to a lengthy stage performance featuring Oshima and Sentaro’s evolving act utilising several sets and elaborate design while Sawashima ups the game a little from the lower tier Toei norm with varying locations shifting from a set-bound snowscape as Oshima is carted off by local goons, to a shot-on-location set piece as the conspirators take down a spy in the rocky desert. Revenge is eventually taken not only for the murders of Sentaro’s father and sister, but for the samurai transgressions of the Edo era, restoring order by wiping out the bad apples but also allowing Sentaro to free himself from his class-bound destiny and pursue a life, and love, of his choosing regardless of contemporary social codes.


Musical sequences (no subtitles)

The Tale of Oiwa’s Ghost (怪談 お岩の亡霊, Tai Kato, 1961)

Yotsuya Kaidan is among the most well-known and enduringly popular of Japanese ghost stories. Originating as a kabuki play first staged in 1825, it has inspired countless film adaptations though Tai Kato’s The Tale of Oiwa’s Ghost (怪談 お岩の亡霊, Kaidan Oiwa no Borei) from 1961 is accounted among the most faithful despite the variation in its title. Usually regarded as a cautionary tale about a man whose ruthless ambition destroys his humanity earning him supernatural retribution, Yotsuya Kaidan is also a tale of female vengeance as Kato’s slight refocussing makes plain. In this version of the tale, all of Tamiya Iemon’s problems are, aside from the offscreen murder for which he has already been exiled from his family before the film begins, caused by female subjugation.

Having married into Oiwa’s (Yoshiko Fujishiro) family, Tamiya (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is in a rueful mood even as the film begins. After randomly killing a man in a fight some time previously, Oiwa has left him because, quite reasonably, she does not want to be in a relationship with a murderer nor do her family wish to be associated with someone stained with such a serious crime. Noticeably ragged, Tamiya swears he’s going to get Oiwa back because he’ll “never find another woman with such a beautiful body”. He wants her firstly because she has rejected him and his pride is wounded, secondly to regain his status, and thirdly because for the moment she is a glittering prize though he’ll later come to tire of her. 

Tamiya is hanging around because he wants to talk to his father-in-law about reinstatement but he is currently meeting with a “masseuse”, unbeknownst to Tamiya planning to sell his second daughter Osode (Hiroko Sakuramachi) to a brothel in order to pay a debt. He has been assured that his daughter will not be expected to participate in sex work but will be running a toothpick stall near the temple. Needless to say, both he and Osode are very much mistaken and once the money has changed hands Takuetsu (Atsushi Watanabe), doctor and owner of the brothel, can do whatever he likes. Tamiya doesn’t much care about Osode, encouraging his lusty friend elixir pedlar Naosuke (Jushiro Konoe) who declared her the more beautiful of the sisters to buy her body that very night. You wouldn’t think Naosuke could afford it but he decides to do just that, only to be gazumped by Osode’s conflicted fiancé Yomoshichi (Sawamura Sojuro) who is about to depart for Edo with the lord for a year the very next day. Rather than save her, Yomoshichi merely takes her virginity and asks her to wait for his return in a year’s time, leaving her in the brothel. 

Both Oiwa and Osode are essentially made to pay for their attempt to refuse male subjugation. Naosuke has “bought” Osode’s body and feels entitled to have it, attempting to rape her while she violently refuses him. His resentment leads him to plot Yomoshichi’s murder, but he mistakenly ends up killing his friend instead while Tamiya takes the opportunity to kill his father-in-law and reunite with his wife under the pretext of revenge for a crime he himself committed, essentially gifting Osode to Naosuke as a kind of reward. But Tamiya isn’t satisfied because he remains poor and lowly. His wife may be from a previously well respected samurai family, but he’s having to resort to making umbrellas to get by and now that Oiwa has given birth to their child he no longer finds her so “beautiful”. Bearing out the misogyny in their society, the men joke that Tamiya had been hoping his wife would die in childbirth so he’d be free of her at last. 

It’s at this point that he is offered an opportunity. Oume (Yumiko Mihara), the daughter of the wealthy Ito family of merchants fell in love with Tamiya when he returned her comb to her after a tussle in the square. Moving in nearby, the Itos are keen to persuade Tamiya to marry Oume but he has a wife and child already. The source of Tamiya’s heartlessness is it seems a kind of toxic masculinity, his intense sense of insecurity and a need to prove himself through promotion that fuels his obsession with advancing up the ranks to serve the shogun. As much as this is about inhumanity, it’s also about a society in flux. Unlike Naosuke, Tamiya is a samurai. The Itos are members of a new middle class whose increasing wealth is beginning to threaten the social order of the tightly regimented feudal society. Mr. Ito wants to make his daughter happy, or so he says, but marrying her to a samurai and therefore into the ruling class even if that ruling class is impoverished and possessed of only illusionary power is certainly advantageous. It is however somewhat irrational to encourage a man to murder his first wife so he can marry your lovestruck daughter, it does not bode well for her future safety. In any case, Tamiya is aware that “one’s reputation affects one’s promotion prospects” and so is unwilling to simply kill Oiwa without “a good reason”, later deciding to try and frame her for adultery which would make her death not only permissible but in fact socially mandated.  

In this age a woman’s life has no value, as Oiwa eventually sees. Tamiya gets the adultery idea after catching sight of the bodies of a samurai woman murdered for having an affair with a servant, marking her double transgression against the social order in both advancing her own agency over her body and her love for a man who was not of her own social class (assuming of course that there was any kind of relationship at all and they haven’t simply been killed on pretext by a man like Tamiya). Oiwa’s ruined face, caused by poison disguised as medicine, is symbolic of her social disfigurement, turning her into a “monstrous” woman who vows revenge on the man who has so maliciously wounded her. She asserts her own agency only in her death, choosing to pursue her vengeance from beyond the grave.

Yet it’s not only Tamiya who must pay, but the Itos too for their attempt to cheat the class system. Unlike other retellings, there is little suggestion that Tamiya’s torment is psychological, he is quite literally haunted, taunted into ruining his bright future by exorcising the demon of crime. Unusual for a Toei programmer of the time, Kato’s camera has New Wave verve, replete with handheld photography and swooping zooms while making use of his characteristic low angle composition but the final confrontation precipitated by a literal storm and earthquake which implodes the transgressive world Tamiya and the Itos are forging, is realised with expressionist ferocity. Tamiya tries to atone by taking refuge in a temple, but is undone not perhaps by guilt but by regret in realising he has destroyed his much hoped for chance of advancement and thereby rendered his existence meaningless. 

Returning the play to its roots, he dreams his relationship with Oiwa as kabuki dance until woken by the sight of her ruined face, demanding to be freed from his torment. Yet vengeance comes in realer terms and it is Osode who strikes the blow, striking back on behalf of her sister and herself as a representative of all wronged women, while Naosuke can only lament that “this life had nothing good in it” as he too pays for his transgressions. Osode reclaims her mother’s comb and with it restores the social order while simultaneously rejecting her subjugation at the hands of duplicitous men, laying Oiwa’s unquiet ghost to rest as she leaves the venal past behind for a (presumably) less inhuman world. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

yakuza law posterOne of the things that (supposedly) separates the “yakuza” from regular thugs is that they have a “code”. That code means many and various things, but in their grand mission to justify their existence it often means that they stand up for the little guy, all too often oppressed by the powers that be. Of course, a lot of people might feel themselves to be oppressed by yakuza thugs who like to throw their weight around and generally cause trouble for small business holders, but that’s beside the point. Teruo Ishii’s Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Yakuza Keibatsushi: Lynch!) goes one step further and asks if the yakuza are themselves “oppressed” by their own code, or at least the various ways it is used and subverted by all who subscribe to it.

Set in three distinct time periods, Yakuza Law is also fairly unique in that the vast majority of those on the receiving end of its violence are male. The yakuza is an extremely homosocial world after all. Each of the three tales presented is preceded by a title card featuring the particular “laws” the unhappy gangsters are about to break and what kind of punishment they might expect for doing so.

The first and earliest, set in the Edo era, is a typical giri/ninjo tale that places the ideal of the yakuza code against the need to preserve a personal vision of justice. The “rules” here are that a yakuza does not steal and he does not fool around with married women. Our hero, Tsune (Bunta Sugawara), takes the heat for a nervous underling, Shinkichi (Hiroshi Miyauchi), who crumbled in the heat of battle, but incurs the wrath of his boss while a devious footsoldier, Viper (Renji Ishibashi), hides in the bushes and then stabs a corpse numerous times to make it look as if he’s done good service. Viper, not content with his ill-gotten gains, sets up Tsune and his superior Tomozo (Ryutaro Otomo) by implicating them in a gambling scam while Tsune falls for the boss’ girl Oren (Yoshiko Fujita) who is also desperately trying to protect the feckless Shinkichi.

The problem with all of this, it would seem, is not so much that the yakuza “law” has been broken but that’s it’s being misused in all quarters and is clearly in conflict with basic humanity. The boss uses the code to manipulate his underlings and keep a firm grip on his power, while Viper bends it to his own nefarious ways and a third underling, Shohei (Shhinichiro Hayashi), rests on the sidelines playing a little each way but remaining loyal to his brothers even as the axe falls on his head. The punishments meted out are suitably gruesome, escalating from finger cutting to eye gauging and ear removal in a senseless and counterproductive lust for violence which does eventually blow back on the boss who pushes his authority too far over too small a cause.

In tale two, however, which takes place in 20th century pre-war Japan, the “crime” is causing trouble and the punishment exile, but again the problem is not the code but the men who subvert it. Thus, hotheaded foot soldier Ogata (Minoru Oki) sets the cat amongst the pigeons by starting a gang war on his own and is sent to prison for three years during which time his gang prospers because of the movement he started. Even so, they aren’t keen to have him back when he gets out and immediately exile him from their territory. He sticks around waiting for his girl, Sayo (Masumi Tachibana), but she gets picked up by the evil boss who wants her for himself and delays her departure so that Ogata can be captured. Believing he’s dead, she hooks up with another goodhearted yakuza, Amamiya (Toyozo Yamamoto), who saves her from the bad guys only to have a romantic crisis when Ogata suddenly resurfaces. Amamiya and Ogata are, however, both “good” yakuza which means they both really love Sayo and want the best for her, each respecting the other for the old love and the new as they team up to kick the corrupt yakuza out of town and make sure she’s permanently safe whoever it is she eventually ends up with.

By the third tale we’ve reached the contemporary era, but we’re no longer in a traditional “yakuza” world so much as one seemingly ripped from a spy spoof in which the cardinal rule is that if you undermine the organisation you will be eliminated. More thugs than yakuza, this kind have no code and will stoop to the lowest kind of cruelty solely for money. Debonair, 007-esque international hitman Hirose (Teruo Yoshida) accepts a job from shady gangster Shimazu (Takashi Fujiki) to assassinate his boss, only Shimazu offs him first and then frames Hirose (which he finds very irritating). Hirose spends the rest of the picture teaching him a lesson while Shimazu tries to eliminate his competition in increasingly inhuman ways (including having someone crushed into a cube while trapped inside a luxury car).

Bar the third episode which isn’t really even about “yakuza”, what Ishii seems to be saying is that the yakuza are also oppressed because they are forced to live with fragmented integrity, torn between giri and ninjo in their adherence to an arcane set of values which are often overly enforced at the cost of true “justice”. To be fair, that is the idea behind every other yakuza film, but Ishii does is add a more cynical edge in suggesting the issue isn’t the code and conflicting value systems but individualised corruption (which is itself perhaps a kind of “ninjo”) in those who deliberately misuse the “noble” idea of the code for their own ends – something which has intensified since the Edo era though is apparently not a result of post-Meiji internationalism. All of that aside, despite the brutality of the title, Yakuza Law is fairly tame outing for Ishii which tempers its lust for blood with cartoonish irony as its deluded heroes battle themselves in service of a code which has never and will never truly serve them.


Available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes a new audio commentary by Jasper Sharp and a vintage interview with Teruo Ishii, as well as a booklet featuring new writing by Tom Mes.

Original trailer (no subtitles)