Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenji Misumi, 1965)

An orphaned son’s attempts to overcome his cursed destiny are poisoned by the duplicities of the samurai society in third part of Kenji Misumi’s loose “Sword Trilogy”, Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenki). Perhaps unfairly dismissed by some as a mere genre craftsmen, Misumi was also an intense visual stylist, a quality very much on show in this vibrant drama which pits the beauty of the natural world against the samurai order but eventually finds its hero succumbing to cruelties of his age unable to outrun himself or his destiny. 

In the prologue which opens the film, shot in an arty theatrical style, a young peasant woman formerly a maid to the late Lady Makino gives birth to a “stranger’s” child after having been promoted and given a place in the women’s quarters as a reward for her loyalty in continuing to serve her mistress in the depths of her “madness”. Lady Makino claims that Kin’s kindness brought her back to reality and is keen to ensure she continues to be taken care of after her death, but also asks her to take charge of her precious pooch hoping that she will treat it “as herself”. This is perhaps why it is rumoured that the child, given the name “Hanpei” which ironically is in part inspired by the dog-like “Spot” coupled with a suffix which implies a lowly rank, is in fact the product of a taboo union between the maid and the dog (rather than admit he is almost certainly the illegitimate son of Lord Masanobu). For some reason this bizarre rumour persists throughout the boy’s life, cast out as he is from the palace and raised in an ordinary village as the son of a low-ranking samurai who appears to be kind and loving, worried enough about Hanpei’s (Raizo Ichikawa) future to advise him to find a special skill that will allow him to support himself and perhaps overcome some of the persistent prejudice against him after the old man’s death. 

The skill he perfects, however, continues to set him apart from his fellow men in that he chooses the cultivation of flowers. A particularly snotty neighbour describes Hanpei’s art as “annoying”, though others are impressed enough by his skill to marvel that they have such a man in their clan while also pointing out that in these times of peace becoming a samurai florist might be much more useful than perfecting the art of the sword. Ironically, however, it drags him back towards the court and intrigue when he’s invited to craft a flower garden to cheer up the present young lord who seems to be succumbing to the same “madness” as his mother. The trouble starts when the garden is completed to the lord’s satisfaction but marred by the sudden and apparently unexpected arrival of a bumblebee which damages the lord’s tranquility and provokes a violent outburst in which he begins to hack at the flowers hoping to punish the one which “rudely” invited the bee to the garden. Hiding behind a tree, Hanpei perfectly aims a rock at the lord’s head to prevent him destroying his precious work and is spotted by his chief retainer, Kanbei (Kei Sato), who earmarks him for future use in his nascent conspiracy. 

Hanpei finds himself at the centre of intrigue, increasingly seduced by promises of advancement that he might be “titleless” no more and perhaps in fact escape his lowly position as the son of a dog. He ingratiates himself by, like his mother, being one of the few servants willing to bear the lord’s violent rages in volunteering to accompany his horse even though he has none of his own and has to run along behind thereby demonstrating his slightly supernatural athletic ability that gives further credence to his canine origins. In similar fashion he learns by observation, captivated rather than appalled on witnessing an old ronin practicing his sword technique by cutting in half a butterfly in the forest. Preoccupied by his lowly status and consequent lack of sword skills, Hanpei is reassured by the man’s explanation that there’s nothing more to it than draw, strike, and sheath but takes yet another step towards the samurai dark side in accepting the gift of a sword. Later he breaks it, meaning to break with the cruel path on which fate has set him, only to pick up another, supposedly cursed sword to which he was attracted because of its “evil spirit”.

Osaki (Michiko Sugata), a kind and innocent woman seemingly attracted to Hanpei because of his difference in his gentle sensitivity in contrast to the rough men around her, refuses to believe the rumours he has become an assassin working for Kanbei because no one who loves flowers like he does could be a coldblooded killer. This is in fact what he has become, sent, like a dog, after Kanbei’s enemies killing without even knowing who it is who must die only to be remorseful on discovering he has killed someone known to him. There is division and sedition within the court caused by the lord’s madness, Kanbei and his associates keen to rule in his stead while keeping his mania secret from the shogun while others, a small group of lower samurai rebels, prefer to depose him in favour of his adopted heir. Hanpei is once again a pawn, taking no side in this debate but unthinkingly doing Kanbei’s dirty work in the service of his sword. He hopes that by taking the “evil” instrument in his hands he might double his bad luck to overcome his unhappy destiny, gazing at his distorted face in its reflection, but discovers himself merely outcast once again as the villagers begin to realise he is an obstacle to their rebellion and responsible for the assassinations of their loved ones. 

The ironic conclusion finds the hero’s planned flower garden, a shared endeavour with love interest Osaki, rendered a bloody graveyard, men cut down like weeds as Hanpei’s quick draw philosophy makes a mockery of their fancy samurai fencing. The poisonous samurai legacy, infected with madnesses literal and figural, destroys everything, all beauty and grace falling under Hanpei’s “evil” sword as he finds himself, quite literally, chased out of town like a stray dog condemned to wander exiled from human society. 


Ken (剣, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

Most closely associated with jidaigeki, Kenji Misumi’s only film to be set in the contemporary era, Ken (剣), shifts his persistent concerns into the modern day in the clash of the warrior ideal and the emotional costs of living, but also takes a sideways look at conflicted post-war masculinity as two young men vicariously lock horns in a quest for mastery over their desires. Adapting a short story by Yukio Mishima, Misumi dials back on the tragic romance of militarism painting the hero’s ultimate acceptance of nihilistic futility less as a noble sacrifice than a humanist failure of the society that failed to save him from his absolutist fallacy. 

Obsessed with strength and honour, Kokubun (Raizo Ichikawa) has convinced himself that he can capture “this spark of pure life” he saw in the sun through perfecting the art of kendo. An aloof and austere figure, he has foregone all else and dedicated himself to his skill alone. For this reason he is appointed captain of his university kendo club over his jealous rival, Kagawa (Yusuke Kawazu), who loses out because his sword is “sentimental” and there is a concern that he draws his power from “arrogance”. There is indeed something in that, and it’s Kagawa’s sense of male pride that partly sets him on a quest for vengeance and vindication in a obsessive desire to dominate Kokubun but there’s also an unspoken attraction as he later admits to a female acquaintance in remarking that he finds Kokubun’s way of life “infuriating” but despite himself also “refreshing”. 

Literal sword play, Kagawa’s obsession with Kokubun results in a vicarious seduction in which he attempts to corrupt him by enlisting the help of a female student to expose him as a fraud by rupturing his asceticism and thereby destroying his source of strength if not his sense of self. The quasi-sadomasochistic relationship between the two men is further borne out by the implication that Kokubun is in fact finding his sexual release in the intense act of repression, satisfying himself through physical exhaustion in the company of other men, Misumi’s roving camera fully capturing the homoeroticism of this intensely homosocial society. Humiliated by Kokubun who forces him into a public act of contrition through physical endurance after disappointing the club by breaking the rules smoking on the job at their part-time gig at a supermarket, Kagawa goes to the chairman to complain that Kokubun’s leadership style is far too intense, “feudalistic” as another member puts it shortly before quitting, claiming that all he wants is for his rival to wake up from his militarist dream and live in the real world though his final act of mutiny will engender consequences unforeseen in his conviction that Kokubun’s ideology is largely performative self-delusion. 

The team manager perhaps thinks something similar, reminding Kagawa that he is merely “more grown up” as if Kokubun is in a sense maintaining his childlike innocence in refusing to enter an adult world he regards as “ugly” and “corrupt”. His ideal is simplicity and he finds it in the primacy of the sword. There is in this something of an uncomfortable militarist throwback that finds a disciple in the ever loyal Mibu (Akio Hasegawa) who dutifully parrots back the quasi-facist philosophy to his quietly horrified mother and sisters who probably don’t help the situation by mocking his lack of masculinity in his inability to grow a proper beard while insisting on shaving every day anyway. Attracted by Kokubun’s dynamism and energy, he longs for strength through self denial. “We must move away from those empty desires” Kokubun instructs him while discussing the suicide of a young man who was discovered next to a selection of half eaten fruit. Rather than sympathy the man is largely mocked by his male peers, Kokubun dismissing him as “weak in mind and body” for having taken his own life apparently in fear of failure, but also stressing that suicide is a choice taken by the very strong as well as the very weak. 

In this brief exchange he opens the door to a notion of nobility in the choice to take one’s own life which leads straight back into the death cult of militarism, perhaps something that only Mibu as a fellow devotee is able to see. Yet Misumi perhaps undercuts this sense of nobility with a return to collective shame, eulogising Kokubun’s determination to preserve his “uprightness and strength” as Kagawa admits defeat in the face of Kokubun’s unbreakable purity, while placing the burden of failed responsibility on the kendo troupe not for their inability to live up to his ideal but for their lack of understanding in failing to free him of his moral absolutism. The way of the sword once again leads only to death and while there may be an uncomfortable beauty in such moral purity, in the end all there is is futility. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Destiny’s Son (斬る, Kenji Misumi, 1962)

“Sad is his destiny” laments a seemingly omniscient lord in Kenji Misumi’s elliptical tale of death and the samurai, Destiny’s Son (斬る, Kiru). A chanbara specialist, Misumi is most closely associated with his work on long running franchises such as his contributions to the Zatoichi series and Lone Wolf and Cub cycle, and though sometimes dismissed as a “craftsman” as opposed to “auteur” is also known as a visual stylist capable both of the most poetic imagery and breathtaking action. 

Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Destiny’s Son follows cursed samurai Shingo (Raizo Ichikawa) who finds himself the victim of cruel fate and changing times during the turbulent years of the bakumatsu. His mother, Fujiko (Shiho Fujimura), a maid misused by a plotting courtier and talked into murdering the inconvenient mistress of a wayward lord, was executed for her crime by the man she loved, Shingo’s father who later renounced the world and became a monk. In a sense, it’s Shingo’s sense of displacement which later does for him, allowed the rare freedom of a three year pass from the apparently compassionate lord of the clan which took him in to go travelling during which he learns superior sword style something which came as a surprise to his old friends on his return who’d always thought him gentle and bookish. His talent makes him dangerous to an unexpected rival in his strangely mild-mannered neighbour who happens to have a crush on his sister Yoshio (Mayumi Nagisa) but is quite clearly under the thumb of his finagling father, Ikebe (Yoshio Inaba), who is convinced the family can “do better” as long as he triumphs in a contest of martial prowess with a passing master to whom the clan has given temporary shelter after he was cast out of his own. Of course, nothing goes to plan. The master easily defeats even the clan’s most talented warriors until Shingo is called up as a last resort only to best him with his signature move learned out on the road, a dangerous throat thrust. 

In a theme which will be repeated, Shingo finds himself in the middle of accidental intrigue through no fault of his own though the ill-conceived Ikebe revenge plot does at least allow him to discover the sad truth of his family history even as it deepens his sense of displacement. Slashing right into the mores of the chanbara, Misumi pares Shindo’s screenplay down to its poetic minimum as the hero sets off on his elliptical journey, achieving his revenge as the first stop before walking back into the past and then into an accidental future as a retainer to Lord Matsudaira (Eijiro Yanagi) himself at the centre of bakumatsu intrigue in trying to quell the divisions within the Mito clan some of whom have been involved in anti-shogunate terrorism setting fire to the British Legation shortly after the nation’s exit from centuries of isolation. An eternal wanderer, he resolves to have no wife and wanted no ties, haunted by the trio of women he couldn’t save from the mother who birthed him in part as a bid for mercy, to the sister who died a pointless and stupid death because of samurai pettiness, to another man’s sister whose name he never knew who stripped naked and threw her kimono at her assailants to save her brother’s life while they too were on the run after standing up to samurai corruption. He loses three women, and then three fathers, the first he never knew, the second taken from him in more ways than one, and the third betrayed by the complicated world in which they live. 

“I cannot be forgiven” Shingo exclaims, his end tied to that of his mother as a sword glints gently in the bright sunshine and blood drips, the only blood ever we see, on another woman’s breast. Elegantly composed and often set against the majestic Japanese landscape, Misumi’s ethereal camera with its dynamic tracking shots, controlled dolly movement, and frequent call backs to the setting sun lend Shingo’s journey an elegiac quality even in its evident nihilism as he finds himself consumed by the samurai legacy, discovering only futility in his rootlessness unable to protect himself or others from the vagaries of the times in which he lives. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Third Shadow Warrior (第三の影武者, Umetsugu Inoue, 1963)

“In this world the weak are playthings of the strong” according to the hidden villain concealing himself slightly to the side in Umetsugu Inoue’s dark identity drama The Third Shadow Warrior (第三の影武者, Daisan no Kagemusha). Adapting a novel by Norio Nanjo, Inoue, most closely associated with sophisticated musicals, shoots in the manner of a ghost story adapting the trappings of a minor parable on the consequences of selling one’s soul for advancement in complicity with an inherently broken feudal order. 

Opening in 1564, the film wastes no time reminding us that the samurai were cruel and duplicitous, a troop of them riding through the contested mountain territory of Hida bearing the severed heads of their enemies casually insulting peasants as they go. Young farmer Kyonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa), however, can’t help but think that they’re heroic and dashing, longing like many young men as the voiceover explains to make his fortune as a samurai in this the age of war. Kyonosuke gets his wish when retainer Shinomura (Nobuo Kaneko) turns up and offers him a job at the castle, only it’s not quite what he expected. Bearing a striking similarity to lord Yasutaka, he has been hired as his third “shadow”, a decoy intended to shield the lord from harm. 

Sitting down with his two new brothers, Kyonosuke remarks how ironic it is that he’s here to escape the land but Kuwano (Katsuhiko Kobayashi) is patiently saving up his pay with the intention of using it to buy a farm and settle down with a beautiful wife. His is the most dangerous of doubling roles as the lord’s battlefield stand-in, while Ishihara (Yuji Hamada), a former actor apparently not much good with the sword, takes his place behind closed walls. Kyonosuke is quite taken with the world of the samurai, but Ishihara cautions that he’ll soon tire of this “phoney life”. In accepting this devil’s bargain, Kyonosuke has in essence consented to his own murder. A shadow man, he can no longer call himself Kyonosuke, but nor can he say he is Yasutaka. He has no fixed identity and is merely in waiting for a veil. Worse still as Ishihara has begun to suspect, they no longer have bodily autonomy because their physicality must match that of the lord. When he is blinded in a battlefield mishap with an arrow, so must they be. Deciding he’d rather not lose an arm, Kyonosuke finds himself in an altercation with his other self which leads to his demise. He intends to make a life for himself under his own name with another clan, but is forced to permanently assume Yasutaka’s identity after being cornered by Shinomura intent on manipulating him for his own ends. 

“I’m no puppet, I no longer need a puppeteer” Kyonosuke exclaims drawing strength from embracing his new identity as a samurai lord, but perhaps overreaches himself in ambitious desire failing to see the various ways he is still merely a pawn in a bigger game as Yasutaka himself once was because the lord is only ever an empty vessel and far more expendable than might be assumed. Princess Teru (Hizuru Takachiho), Yasutaka’s conquest bride, declares that she is “just a doll, the strongest will win me” but is of course playing a role herself, one which she does not desire but has been thrust upon her while her cousin, Sadamitsu (Shigeru Amachi), is engaged in a much more active piece of long form role play. Only the lord’s concubine (Masayo Banri) sees through him, falling for the gentle peasant after the rough lord who toyed with her, but their complicated love eventually seals his fate even as he believes it offers him victory. Kyonosuke became a samurai to escape his lack of agency but is arguably much less free than he ever was, driven slowly out of his mind by his fractured sense of identity and realising that in killing the only man who knew who he “really” was, he also killed himself. 

Quite literally imprisoned, Kyonosuke finds himself a shadow once again neither one man nor another, denied an identity and forever a puppet of duplicitous game players better versed in the realities of the samurai existence. “How ugly fighting over this transient kingdom” the princess disdainfully remarks while herself engaging this apparently meaningless foolishness, reminded by her cousin that a princess may hold the keys to a castle or even a nation even if he implies she is little more than his tool, a puppet to be manipulated if knowingly. Shooting with deep, expressionist shadows, chiaroscuro lighting, and a melancholy voiceover Inoue frames his tale as a parabolic caution against selling one’s soul for gold but also a crushing indictment of the inequalities of the feudal order built on wilful hypocrisy and cynical exploitation. 


On the Road Forever (無宿者, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

“I take to the road whether or not I am alive” confesses the spiritually defeated hero of Kenji Misumi’s filiality drama, On the Road Forever (無宿者, Mushukumono). Two sons each seeking vengeance for a wronged father become first accidental friends, then almost enemies, and finally something more like brothers bound and ruined by the failures of the samurai code. The villain may not unfairly claim that the system of the world is one “dirty great monster”, but the implications of his revelations lead directly back into the infinite corruptions of the samurai order as mediated through the failures of fatherhood. 

“Drifting crow” Ipponmatsu (Raizo Ichikawa) temporarily teams up with fallen samurai Kuroki Yaichiro (Jun Fujimaki) who has become desperate enough to unwisely attempt robbing a gambling den. Nevertheless, we are clued in to the idea that these are the good guys when they’re helped by a young village woman, Haru (Mikiko Tsubouchi), who lends them her father’s horse instructing them to return it to him at a nearby village which the guys later do even attempting to hand the old man some of their ill-gotten gains as a thank you though he refuses and warns them not to hang around too long because “it’s a rough neighbourhood”. All too soon we discover what he means. A big wig former yakuza who suspiciously came into massive amounts of money two years previously has pressed the villagers into debt and is currently inducting them into indentured servitude on Sado island in order to recoup costs. Perhaps Ipponmatsu doesn’t approve, but he’s on a journey for a reason and would have carried on by had he not heard word that that shady yakuza Shima-ya Jubei (Toru Abe) may be connected to the death of his father during a high stakes robbery on a mountain pass. 

Ipponmatsu, whose name literally means “a single pine”, is the archetypal wandering son who ran away from his clan without permission in rebellion against his authoritarian father who raised him alone after his mother’s death and tried to instil in him the values typical of his class through the medium of violence. Having come across a decomposed body with his father’s distinctive sword at the scene of the robbery, Ipponmatsu has had a change of heart and dedicated his wandering to avenging his memory. Sticking around in the town, he comes to suspect that Yaichiro’s father Hanbei may have been behind the theft of the missing imperial gold only later realising that he too is on a quest to learn the truth in the hope of clearing his father’s name. The two men end up raising swords against each other but discovering they are indeed different, Yaichiro a gentle soul who apparently excelled in the dojo but has no “courage” in the field and Ipponmatsu a fiery hothead who thinks killing is less a matter of skill than “courage and explosiveness”. 

There is, it has to be said, a fairly obvious twist that neither man perhaps too bound up in their own sense of responsibility fully considers. Nevertheless, they are both faced with the decision of what to do should they discover the truth considering that raising a sword against one’s father is an unforgivable sin while knowing that such a heinous betrayal of their code cannot go unpunished. The villains boast of their well connected networks and supposed untouchability laying bare the essential corruption of the samurai order as they wilfully manipulate and exploit impoverished peasantry for their own ends while cruelly joking that all classes are alike in their greed when tempted with riches, entirely unrepentant even as they lament the hypocrisy of the samurai who have no money yet continue in their arrogance. 

Despite having been raised in a homosocial environment told that falling in love with women is a pointless waste of time, Ipponmatsu picks up the affections of two firstly earnest farm girl Haru and secondly misused mistress and sister of Shima-ya, Osei (Eiko Taki). This is however a manly drama concerned with the ways in which men interact with other men, firstly in the awkward fraternity of Ipponmatsu and Yaichiro and then in their mutual and continually changing relationships with their absent fathers living in the shadow of patricide and justice. Elegantly composed as always, Misumi frequently shoots through obstacles imprisoning the men within the broken beams of ruined buildings or spying in a POV shot from an upstairs balcony while making full use of his trademark love for the natural world in closing with a painful confrontation in which the nature of filiality is turned inside out as a corrupt father falls on his sword for his noble son amid the rocks surrounded by rolling waves. As the title suggests, the melancholy ending severs the hero from his ancestral “home” leaving him forever a wanderer untethered yet in a sense never free of his paternal legacy. 


A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

“Why are women in Japan so unhappy?” the carefree Casanova at the centre of Yasuzo Masumura’s 1961 sex romp A Lustful Man (好色一代男, Koshoku Ichidai Otoko) laments, never quite grasping the essential inequalities of the world in which he lives. Masumura is best known for extremity, a wilful iconoclast who flew in the face of golden age cinema’s genial classism, but shock was not his only weapon and he could also be surprisingly playful. Adapted from a well known novel by creator of the “floating world” Ihara Saikaku, A Lustful Man finds him indulging in ironic satire as his hero sets out to “make all the women in Japan happy” chiefly by satisfying their unfulfilled sexual desire while resolutely ignoring all of the entrenched patriarchal social codes which ensure that their lives will be miserable. 

Set in the Edo era, the film opens not with the hero Yonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa) but with his miserly father who berates a servant after discovering a single grain of rice on the hall floor. According to him, the central virtues necessary to become rich are endurance, diligence, and vitality. You must treasure each and every grain of rice in order to accumulate. A cruel and austere man who only thinks of money, Yonosuke’s father keeps his wife in earnest poverty despite their wealth, angrily grabbing an obviously worn kimono out of her hands and insisting that it’s still good for another year, apparently caring nothing for appearances in the otherwise class conscious Kyoto society. It’s this meanness that Yonosuke can’t seem to stand. He hates the way his father disrespects his mother, and her misery is a primary motivator in his lifelong quest to cheer up Japan’s melancholy women though the weapon he has chosen is sex, a convenient excuse to live as a genial libertine to whom money means essentially nothing. 

Yonosuke’s father has set him up with an arranged marriage into a much wealthier family, which is not something he’s very interested in despite the fact she seems to be quite pretty but on learning that she has transgressively found love with the family butler he determines to help her instead, ending the marriage meeting by chasing her round the garden like a dog in heat. Several similar stunts eventually get him sent away from his native Kyoto to Edo but he takes the opportunity to escape, travelling all over Japan making women “happy” as he goes. 

As the first example proves, Yonosuke genuinely hates to see women suffer. His own pleasure, though perhaps not far from his mind, is secondary and he never seeks to take advantage of a woman’s vulnerability only to ease her loneliness. Despite that, however, he remains essentially superficial opting for the transience of postcoital bliss while ignoring the very real societal factors which make an escape from misery all but impossible. During an early adventure, he spends all of the money he conned out of his new employer on redeeming a geisha (at more than three times the asking price) so that she can be with the man she loves, but he continues to visit sex workers without interrogating their existence as indentured servants, “merchandise” which is bought and sold, traded between men and entirely deprived of freedom. In fact, he proudly collects hair cuttings from the various geishas he has known as a kind of trophy only to later discover the grim truth, that the hair likely doesn’t belong to the geisha herself but is sold to them by middlemen who get it by digging up dead bodies. 

Yonosuke remains seemingly oblivious to the duplicitous hypocrisy of the yoshiwara, but is repeatedly confronted by the evils of Edo-era feudalism with its proto-capitalist cruelty where everything is status and transaction. He is often told that as he is not a samurai he would not understand, but seems to understand pretty well that “samurai are idiots” and that their heartless elitism is the leading cause of all the world’s misery. To some a feckless fool, Yonosuke refuses to give in to the false allure of worldly riches. As soon as he gets money he spends it, and does so in ways he believes enrich the lives of women (even if that only extends to paying them for sex), eventually getting himself into trouble once again reneging on his taxes after trying to prove a geisha is worth her weight in gold. 

Yogiri (Ayako Wakao) complains that women are but “merchandise”, valued only as toys for men. “Japan is not a good country for women” Yonosuke agrees, suggesting they run away together to find a place where women are respected, indifferent to Yogiri’s rebuttal “no, wherever you go, no one can change women’s sad fate”. Yonosuke’s naive attempts to rescue women from their misery often end in disaster, a runaway mistress is dragged back and hanged, the woman he was set to marry goes mad after her father and lover are beheaded for having the temerity to speak out about corrupt lords, Yogiri is killed by a samurai intent on arresting him for tax evasion, and his own mother dies seconds after his father only to be immediately praised as “the epitome of a Japanese wife”. Yet he remains undaunted, wandering around like an Edo-era Candide, setting off into exile to look for a supposed female paradise without ever really engaging with the systems which propagate misery or with his own accidental complicity with them. Nevertheless, he does perhaps enact his own resistance in refusing to conform to the rules of a society he knows to be cruel and unfair even if his resistance is essentially superficial, self-involved, and usually counterproductive which is, in its own way, perfectly in keeping with Masumura’s central philosophies on the impossibilities of individual freedom within an inherently oppressive social order.


A Killer’s Key (ある殺し屋の鍵, Kazuo Mori, 1967)

Raizo Ichikawa returns as the jaded ace assassin only this time a little less serious. Set some time after the events of A Certain Killer, A Killer’s Key (ある殺し屋の鍵, Aru Koroshiya no Kagi) finds Shiozawa (Raizo Ichikawa) having left the restaurant business to teach traditional dance under the name Fujigawa while known as killer for hire Nitta in the underworld. Like the previous film, however, he thinks of himself as a justifiable good, standing up against contemporary corruption while still burdened by his traumatic past as a former tokkotai pilot. 

Nitta’s troubles begin when a corruption scandal kicks off with a prominent businessman, or less generously loan shark, arrested for tax evasion. Asakura (Asao Uchida) knows too much and political kingpin Hojo (Isao Yamagata) is worried because he knows Asakura has hard evidence about a land scandal and might be persuaded to spill the beans, exposing a circle of corrupt elitists for their shady goings on. He wants Asakura knocked off on the quiet, as he heavily implies but does not explicitly state to his underling Endo (Ko Nishimura) who gets in touch with their yakuza support who in turn decide that Nitta is the only man for the job.

Petty yakuza Araki (Yoshio Kanauchi) sells the job to Nitta as a public service, pointing out how unfair it is that Asakura has been cheating on his taxes when other people have taken their own lives in shame because they weren’t able to pay. Conveniently, he doesn’t mention anything about petty vendettas or that he’s essentially being hired to silence a potential witness before he can talk so Nitta is minded to agree, for a fee of course (which, we can assume, he won’t be entering on his tax form). Unfortunately things get more complicated for everyone when the gangsters try to tie up loose ends by engineering an “accident” for Nitta which sends him on a path of revenge not only taking out the gangsters but the ones who hired them too. 

Nitta’s revenge is personal in focus, but also a reflection of his antipathy to modern society as a man himself corrupted by wartime folly who should have died but has survived only to become a nihilistic contract killer. He perhaps thinks that the world is better off without men like Asakura, the dim yakuza, spineless underling Endo, and corrupt elitist Hojo but only halfheartedly. His potential love interest, Hideko (Tomomi Sato), a geisha learning traditional dance, has fallen for him, she says because she can see he’s not a cold man though continually preoccupied and there is indeed something in his aloofness which suggests that he believes in a kind of justice or at least the idea of moral good in respect of the men that died fighting for a mistaken ideal. 

As Hideko puts it, Asakura made his money off the suffering of others, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he met a nasty end. She herself is a fairly cynical figure, aware as a geisha that she is in need of a sponsor and that it’s better to get the one with the most money though she too has her code and will be loyal to whoever’s paying the bills. Or so she claims, eventually willing to sell out Endo to protect Nitta but disappointed in his continued lack of reciprocation for her feelings. Echoing his parting words at the close of the first film but perhaps signalling a new conservatism he coldly tells Hideko that he doesn’t need a woman who stays with anyone who pays refusing to include her in the remainder of his mission.

Nitta is perhaps a man out of his times as a strange scene of him looking completely lost in a hip nightclub makes clear. He tries to play a circular game, stockpiling his winnings in different suitcases stored in a coin locker, but eventually finds that all his efforts have been pointless save perhaps taking out one particular strain of corruption in putting an end to Hojo’s nefarious schemes. More straightforwardly linear in execution than A Certain Killer, Killer’s Key is a less serious affair, resting squarely on an anticorruption message and easing back on the hero’s wartime trauma while allowing his needle-based hits to veer towards the ridiculous rather than the expertly planned assassination of the earlier film, but does perhaps spin an unusual crime doesn’t pay message in Nitta’s unexpected and ironic failure to secure the loot proving that sometimes not even top hit men can dodge cosmic bad luck. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Certain Killer (ある殺し屋, Kazuo Mori, 1967)

A nihilistic hitman safeguards the post-war future in Kazuo Mori’s chivalrous B-movie noir, A Certain Killer (ある殺し屋, Aru Koroshiya). Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War with US airplanes flying constantly overhead, Mori’s crime thriller situates itself in the barren wasteland of a rehabilitated city in which betrayal, exploitation and duplicity have become the norm while a former tokkotai pilot turned killer for hire takes his revenge on social hypocrisy as a product of his society, a man who did not die but knows only killing. 

Shiozawa (Raizo Ichikawa) runs a stylish restaurant by day and supplements his income by night as a killer for hire, apparently highly regarded by the local underworld. As such, he’s approached by a yakuza underling, Maeda (Mikio Narita), on behalf of the Kimura gang who want him to off another gangster, Oowada (Tatsuo Matsushita), who double crossed them in contravention of the yakuza codes of honour. Shiozawa is resolutely uninterested in yakuza drama and so turns the job down but changes his mind when he’s paid a visit by boss Kimura (Asao Koike) himself who sells him a different kind of mission. Kimura characterises Oowada as a “bad” yakuza, one has subverted the traditional gangster nobility by dealing in the “dirty” sides of organised crime, corrupting the modern society by trafficking in illegal prostitution, drugs, and extortion, where as he is a “good” yakuza mostly running construction scams and therefore building the post-war future. His crime is, literally, constructive, where Oowada’s is not. 

Shiozawa doesn’t quite buy his justifications, but men like Oowada represent everything he hates. “They’re not worthy of this world. They’re nothing but cockroaches” he laments, recalling the young men who served with him and gave their lives because they believed in a country which betrayed them. He agrees to take the job in rebellion against post-war venality, but only at a price, asking for four times the original fee. Kimura is willing to pay, because his true aim is profit more than revenge. He plans to take over Oowada’s remaining business concerns. 

Fully aware of this, Shiozawa seems almost uninterested in the money despite having asked for so much of it. He runs his shop as a front for his side business and otherwise lives a quiet, unostentatious life keeping mostly to himself. He is not, it would seem, a cold blooded killer, often making a point of leaving those who get in his way incapacitated but alive. Targeted by a street punk for supposedly messing with his girl he cooly disarms him and walks away, only for the girl to follow attracted partly by his icy manliness and partly by the thickness of his wallet as glimpsed when he made the fatal decision to offer to pay for her meal in order to save the chef from embarrassment over her attempts to pay with things other than money. Unable to get by on her own, Keiko (Yumiko Nogawa) attaches herself to various capable men beginning with the pimp, transferring her affections to Shiozawa whom she petitions to marry her, and then to Maeda, eventually vowing to find a new partner and make lots of money. 

Both Maeda and Keiko chase Shiozawa and are rebuffed. Impressed by his cool handling of the Oowada affair, not to mention the amount of money he now realises you can make in his line of business, Maeda asks to become his pupil in order to become a “real man”. Shiozawa doesn’t regard his work as something “real men” do, and in any case prefers to work to alone. Maeda repeatedly asks to be allowed to accompany him even after plotting betrayal, only to be rejected once again as Shiozawa tells him that he doesn’t like people who don’t know the difference between the job and romance, flagging up the homoerotic subtext for those not paying attention. Maeda parrots his words back to Keiko with whom he had begun a halfhearted affair as joint revenge against Shiozawa’s indifference. 

Following the successful offing of the mob boss, Shiozawa finds himself coopted into another job robbing a drug handoff between Oowada’s former associates, the illicit narcotics ironically packaged inside cartons intended for baby powder. Shiozawa apparently doesn’t object to profiting off the drug trade himself, but later abandons the loot in protest while the remainder is lost or squandered during the final battle with the remaining gang members, Shiozawa’s cartons left sitting ironically on top of a gravestone taken by no one. Cool as ice, Shiozawa places himself above petty criminality, always one step ahead, trusting no one and looking out for himself but reacting as a man created by his times, forged by a war he was a not intended to survive while looking on at another cruel and senseless conflict across the sea. Adapting the hardboiled novel by Shunji Fujiwara, Yasuzo Masumura’s jagged, non-linear script (co-written with Yoshihiro Ishimatsu) is imbued with his characteristic irony but also coloured with nihilistic despair for the post-Olympics society and its wholesale descent into soulless capitalistic consumerism.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

An Actor's Revenge blu-ray cover“Revenge is difficult even for an actor” our secret observer tells us, watching quietly from the rooftops like a spectator at a play. In celebration of his 300th screen appearance, Kazuo Hasegawa stars once again as vengeful onnagata Yukinojo in another version of An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Yukinojo Henge), this time directed by Kon Ichikawa with a script written by his wife, Natto Wada, which was itself based on the earlier film with minor adaptations. Recasting the scope frame for the Kabuki stage, Ichikawa shows us a maddening world of theatricality, defined by artifice and governed by the rules of narrative determinism.

Orphaned after his parents were driven to suicide, Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) was taken in by an actor at a young age and trained as an “onnagata” – an actor specialising in female roles on the kabuki stage where women were forbidden to tread. Years later Yukinojo is one of the most popular actors of the age and lives more or less as a woman on stage and off. Having brought his Osakan theatre company to the Edo capital he finally sees his chance for revenge against the trio of corrupt and ambitious merchants who conspired to ruin his father for personal gain. He is, however, conflicted – not in his desire for vengeance but in the strain it continues to place on his mental state as well as the moral corruption need for it provokes.

Despite his feminine appearance, Yukinojo is regarded as male and most assume that his (volitional) romantic attachments will be with women. His gender ambiguity is, however, a problem for some such as the spiky pickpocket Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) who describes him as “creepy” in being neither male nor female. Then again, Ohatsu’s gender presentation is also atypical in that though she dresses and acts as a woman, most regard her as inappropriately masculine in the independence and authority which make it possible for her to act as the leader of a gang of street thieves. Lamenting her tomboyishness, some of her minions make the suggestion common in these kinds of films that Ohatsu will rediscover her femininity on falling in love (with a man). Despite her supposed hatred of men, Ohatsu finds herself falling for Yukinojo possibly precisely because of his gender ambiguity in that she is in some sense permitted to fall in love with him as a woman because he is a man.

Meanwhile, Yumitaro (also played by Kazuo Hasegawa) – another street thief only a much more egalitarian one, has no desire for women and has also developed some kind of fascination with Yukinojo as man who presents as female. Yukinojo is remarkably uninterested in Ohatsu, but seems drawn both to the mysterious Yumitaro and to the pawn in his revenge plot, lady Namiji (Ayako Wakao). The daughter of Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), the ambitious lord who orchestrated the plot against Yukinojo’s father, who has sold her to the Shogun as a concubine in order to buy influence, Namiji develops a deep fascination with the feminine actor which is then manipulated both by Yukinojo who plans to break her heart solely to get at Dobe, and by Dobe who intends to indulge her fascination in order to persuade her to return to the Shogun. Namiji is entirely innocent and effectively powerless. Involving her in the plot weighs on Yukinojo’s conscience but he refuses to look back, preparing to sacrifice her solely in order to a strike blow towards her father.

Meanwhile, chaos reigns in Edo as the corruption of the ruling elite provokes a rebellion by the ordinary people fed up with their persistent profiteering. This too Yukinojo harnesses as a part of his plot, setting his greedy merchants one against the other as they weigh up the benefits of making themselves look good to the people and the Shogun through engineering a crash in the price of rice by dumping the stocks they’ve been hoarding. The theatrical world and the “real” begin to overlap as Yukinojo performs the ghosts of his parents to bring the merchants’ crimes home to them, but his revenge plot has devastating and unforeseen consequences which perhaps begin to eat away at his carefully crafted chameleonism. Possessing no true identity of his own, Yukinojo passes into legend, retreating back to his natural home of the stage the shadow of an avenger disappearing over the horizon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)