A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Tomu Uchida, 1965)

Fugitive from the past“There’s no way back” intones a spirit medium in the throws of a possession early on Tomu’s Uchida’s three hour police procedural, A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Kiga kaikyo, AKA Straits of Hunger). Her message will be repeated frequently throughout the journeys of our three protagonists – a guilty man seeking escape from himself, the hooker with a heart of gold who thinks of him as a “kind person”, and the obsessive policeman whose quest to find him threatens to destroy his own family and chance of ongoing happiness. Beginning in 1947, Uchida’s adaptation of the novel by Tsutomu Minakami is a cutting indictment of post-war inequalities but is also keen to remind us that the war was merely a symptom and intensifier of problems which existed long before and are likely to survive long after.

In 1947, three men in military uniforms attempt to escape from Hokkaido after committing a crime while the island is subject to a typhoon warning. Using a ferry disaster in which hundreds of people have been killed as cover, the men steal a boat and try their luck on the stormy seas. Only one of them makes it. Once all the bodies from the ferry are accounted for, two more are discovered and later identified as recent parolees from Abashiri prison. The dead convicts are then linked to a local robbery, murder, and arson case in which a large amount of money was stolen leaving the third man, described by witnesses as bearded, tall and imposing, the prime suspect in the deaths of the two prisoners as well as the original robbery.

Calling himself “Inugai” (Rentaro Mikuni), the “third man” takes off with all the money and ends up forging an unexpectedly genuine connection with a cheerful prostitute just on the way back from her mother’s funeral. Yae (Sachiko Hidari), claiming to have seen through to Inugai’s kindly soul, seems to reawaken something within him but the next morning he moves on leaving only a vast a mount of money and some nail clippings behind him. Meanwhile, Yumisaka (Junzaburo Ban), the dogged policeman who discovered the convicts’ bodies, tracks him at every turn.

The world of 1947 is a hellish one in which perpetual hunger is the norm and crushing impossibility all but a given. Inugai is starving. With rationing in place the black market is flourishing while the unscrupulous profiteer off the back of other people’s desperation. This is a land of defeat where to survive at all is both shame and victory, yet somehow you have to go on living. Inugai, like many a hero of golden age Japanese cinema, is engaged in an internal war to erase the dark past, drawing a veil over what it took to move from post-war privation to economic prosperity. He does however take his unseeing further than most in adopting a new, more respectable persona, remaking himself as self-made man and wealthy philanthropist keen to “pay back” the society which has been so supportive of his “success”.

Thus when Yae, whose attempt to remake herself in the capital has fared far less well, spots Inugai’s photo in the papers and decides she just must track him down, it’s not that Inugai fears blackmail or even really that she poses a threat but that she shatters the integrity of his carefully crafted post-war persona and reminds him who he really is. A climactic storm mirroring that which illuminated their first meeting also graces their last as “Inugai” finally resurfaces, committing an impulsive act of animal violence which tugs at the strings of his new life and sets the whole thing unravelling.

Yae used Inugai’s money to pay off her debts and get out of the brothel, but even if the Tokyo of 1947 was warmer than that of Hokkaido it was no more kind and her attempt to lead an “honest” life was quickly derailed by underworld crime and unforgiving law enforcement. Realising there’s nowhere left for her to go she resigns herself to life in the red light district but does at least manage to find a “nicer” establishment run by a kindly older couple where the girls are like one big family. Her meeting with Inugai has come to take on mythical proportions in her mind – she even worships a tiny relic of him in the form of one of his nail clippings. Hoping to repay his kindness she commits herself to hard work and barely spends any of her money on herself, dreaming of the day she will one day see him again.

Yumisaka, however, mirrors Yae’s devotion in his all encompassing “hate” for Inugai as his obsession consumes him, costs him his job, and threatens to ruin his family. Alerted by two more bodies washing up out of the sea, a young detective (Ken Takakura) puts two and two together and gives Yumisaka a chance to vindicate his long held convictions but what they discover through the shifting sands of invented truths and corrupted memories is a legacy of suffering and resentment which runs far further back than the recent wartime past. As Yumisaka later puts it, those who’ve never been poor or miserable cannot understand the desperation felt by those who have in the presence of money. Inugai, poor and trapped by circumstance, longed to escape the drudgery of Hokkaido life but couldn’t live with what he did to do it and so conjured up another history for himself.

Still, the truth will out and there really is “no way back”, not for Inugai or for his nation which seems determined to continue unseeing the darkness of the previous 30 years as it begins to find a degree of comfort once again. Incorporating strong spiritual overtones from the sutras Yumisaka is so strangely adept at reciting to the gloomy intoning of the spirit medium, Uchida imbues all with a heavy sense of dread as a man attempts to outrun his fate by running from himself only to be tripped up by sudden moment of panic born of a lack of faith in his only true believer. A chronicle of the post-war era, A Fugitive From the Past makes poverty its ultimate villain but attempts to paper over spiritual corruption with the pretty trappings of conventional success will only end in ruin as the unresolved past eats away at the foundations of a brave new world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Juzo Itami, 1988)

Taxing Woman 2 posterA Taxing Woman introduced us to Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto) – an oddball detective working as an insurance inspector who met her Irene Adler in a tax dodging corporate gangster with a limp. A year later she’s back, still the only woman working with the tax inspectorate and apparently still a dogged pursuer of those who would seek to defraud the Japanese government of its rightful earnings. Ryoko may have been a stickler for the rules who applied the same dog with a bone approach to a mom and pop store chowing down on its own supplies as to a dodgy yakuza led conspiracy, but she also believed in justice – something which stands her in good stead when she rubs up against a dodgy cult which, again, is a yakuza front but adds insult to injury by deliberately manipulating the vulnerable.

The action opens with some kids poking at the dead body of a “landshark” floating in a pond before flashing to a meeting of officials sucking crab meat from the shell and wondering what they’re going to do about this land they need cleared now their heavy is out of the picture. The corrupt politician from the first film, Urushibara (Takeya Nakamura), is apparently still involved in semi-legal land deals but palms the assignment off on a colleague. The big wigs need to empty a dated housing complex on some valuable land so they can build a vanity skyscraper – office space apparently being scarce in mid bubble Tokyo.

To do this they enlist the services of dodgy cult leader Onizawa (Rentaro Mikuni) and his troop of yakuza goons. Most of the tenants have already signed but they have three key holdouts – a diner owner clinging on to the family legacy, a stubborn paparazzo, and an intellectual professor who heads up the housing association. Unlike the yakuza of Taxing Woman, these guys have not reformed – they are the new/old style of lawless thugs who are perfectly prepared to threaten women and children to get their own way. Making it impossible for the tenants to stay through intimidation and noise torture, they stoop to blackmail to seal the deal.

Despite arriving only a year after A Taxing Woman, Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Marusa no Onna 2) takes place in a much darker, though more obviously comedic, world. Whereas the earlier film adopted a noticeably ambivalent attitude to the tax inspectors and the enterprising gangsters, the villains of A Taxing Woman’s Return are so heinous and morally bankrupt as to be entirely indefensible even if the inspectorate takes a turn for the bumbling to compensate. The “cult” is, of course, merely a convenient money laundering front and tax dodge for the yakuza – religious organisations are exempt from taxation in the vast majority of cases which may be why the local tax office records hundreds of registered “religious bodies” in its jurisdiction alone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its loyal followers, often vulnerable people looking for spiritual fulfilment but being bled dry by the money hungry cultists while the leader’s wife swans around in sables costing more than the average annual salary. A desperate devotee in need of a loan puts his own teenage daughter up as collateral only to see her raped by Onizawa, eventually becoming pregnant by him at only 16 years of age and thereafter becoming his devoted concubine in a bizarre instance of Stockholm Syndrome.

Yet for all the background darkness of weird cultists and nasty yakuza backed up by corrupt and venial politicians, Itami ups the cartoonish sense of the absurd with our hero Ryoko clambering over rooftops to listen in to the bad guys while her boss throws himself down flights of stairs and has to battle piercing sirens to get into the villains’ secret vault. It is however a dark humour as the opening makes plain with its troupe of little children staring at the strange shape floating in the water – a motif later repeated when a yakuza is gunned down in the street only for another group of children to pour over him as he expires, a single tear rolling down his cheek. The original spongy white body gives way to the businessmen sucking spongy white crab out its shell while insensitively discussing the late land shark, and the yakuza are unafraid to deploy a maggot infested severed hand (thankfully a fake picked up from a friend who makes horror movies) to convince the tenants they mean business.

At the end of A Taxing Woman, the gangster and the inspector reached something of a truce but one which came down, broadly, on the side of right. This time things aren’t quite so simple. The conspiracy is bigger and deeper, stretching all the way into the Diet and about more than just office space in still developing Tokyo. Onizawa, regarding himself as public servant, tries to say he did it all for his country, that if someone didn’t get their hands dirty Tokyo would be eclipsed by Hong Kong or Seoul. A post-war justification for a bubble era problem, but one that takes us straight back to the first film in Onizawa’s second proposition that only through money does he truly feel “immortal”. He may be a liar and a cheat, but he’s only a symptom of rapidly spreading infection, one which Ryoko and her team are powerless to cure, trapped on the wrong side of the fence while the bad guys build monuments to economic hubris, indulging in vanity in an era of bad faith which is about to be brought to a rather abrupt close.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Eternal Cause (海軍特別年少兵, Tadashi Imai, 1972)

Marines cadets posterOften regarded as a “left-wing” filmmaker, even later pledging allegiance to the Communist Party of Japan, Tadashi Imai began his career making propaganda films under the militarist regime. Describing this unfortunate period as the biggest mistake of his life, Imai’s later career was dedicated to socially conscious filmmaking often focusing on those oppressed by Japan’s conservative social structure including the disenfranchised poor and the continued unfairness that often marks the life of women. 1972’s Eternal Cause (海軍特別年少兵, Kaigun Tokubetsu Nensho-hei, AKA Marines Cadets/ Special Boy Soldiers of the Navy) sends him back to those early propaganda days but with the opposite spin. Painting Japan’s tendency towards authoritarianism and its headlong descent into the folly of warfare as a direct result of social inequalities and the hierarchical society, Imai tells the dark story of the “special cadets”, children from military academies who eventually found themselves on the battlefield as members of the last, desperate defence of an already lost empire.

Imai opens at the grim conclusion – February 1945, Iwo Jima. A squad of young men catch sight of their “Instructor” just as he falls and are shortly all killed themselves by approaching American forces. The Americans, sympathetically portrayed, wander the corpse laden battlefield and lift the arm of one particular body lamenting that the fallen soldier is “just a boy”, and that Japan must be in a very bad state indeed if it has come to this. One of the soldiers, not quite dead as it turns out, manages to get to his feet. The Americans are wary but give him time in case he wants to surrender but the boy tries to charge them, crying out that he is a “Marine Cadet”. They have no choice but to shoot him dead.

Moving back around 18 months to June 1943, the “Marine Cadets” are new students at a military academy. On arrival they are instructed that everything they brought with them, including the clothes they are wearing, must be sent home. They are now at war and must forget civilian life. This dividing line neatly marks out the central contradiction in the Marine Cadets’ existence – they are children, but also marines.

Enrolment in the school is voluntary rather than conscription based and the young men have many reasons for having decided to enter the military, most of them having little to do with dying bravely for the Emperor. There is, however, a persistent strain of patriotism which brought them to this point as they find the sacrifice they offer to make all too readily accepted by their nation. The education on offer is wide-ranging and of high quality – the boys will learn English as well as geography, history, science and maths, all of which will hopefully turn them into well educated, efficient military officers, but there is profound disagreement between the teaching staff and “instructors” as to how that education should be delivered.

Sympathethetic teacher Yoshinaga (Katsuhiko Sasaki) believes in education and wants to contribute to raising these children in love seeing as he is in loco parentis. Kudo (Takeo Chii) the military instructor, however, disagrees. He believes in harsh discipline in which progress is encouraged through physical punishment and a strong shame culture. Yoshinaga reminds Kudo that the boys are just children and that such punishment based motivational techniques place the boys at each other’s throats and will undermine the spirit of comradeship and togetherness which is essential for the well functioning of any military unit. Kudo counters that the boys became men when they enlisted, that he was raised this way himself, and that a culture of violence binds the men together into a kind of hive mind which moves and thinks as one. Kudo does not waver in this belief even after his tactics have tragic consequences, but does come to love the children in his care, entrusting them to Yoshinaga as he prepares to face the battlefield himself.

As Kudo leaves, he stops to admit that the boys are children but also wants Yoshinaga to understand something he thinks may not have occurred to him. The boys are mostly poor children, who, he says, have only themselves to rely on unlike the officers who are by and large from middle-class families with extended safety nets of privilege. Kudo’s doctrine of progress through strength is born of being born at the bottom of the heap and needing to struggle to survive. They have made themselves strong in order to resist the consistent oppression of their economic circumstances which often prize nothing other than their physical capabilities.

Poverty is indeed a major motivator. The most sympathetic of the boys, Hayashi (Michiko Araki), has enlisted alongside another boy from his village, Enami (Taketoshi Naito), whose teacher father has fallen headlong for the militarist folly and is even allowing military representatives into his classroom to offer recruitment talks to the boys. He recommends Hayashi join the Marine Cadets as a matter of practically – Hayashi’s family is dirt poor and his father is a drunkard. Joining the academy means reducing the burden on the family who have many other children and also that he will eventually be able to send money home as well as being well provided for himself. Despite a lack of aptitude for soldiering, Hayashi is eventually grateful – in the academy he gets a taste of comfort he never knew at home as well as a sense of comradeship and brotherhood away from the hostile home environment dominated by the violence of a drunken father. Another boy makes a similar decision to escape his indifferent foster family after being orphaned. Despite the fact that his sister has embarked on a life of prostitution to support him, his relatives offer him only scant comfort and keep most of her money for themselves.

Yoshinaga’s complaints about the nature of the education the boys receive is quite naturally countered with a question as to why he is at the school at all given that these boys are destined only to become cannon fodder in a war which clearly all but over. His pleas for kindness and compassion largely fall on deaf ears. The boys are still children – our narrator is 14 when he enlists at the academy, but they have been encouraged to think of themselves as men. Their halfling status embarrasses them and they’re keen to prove themselves as brave soldiers of Japan. Yoshinaga, true to his word, tries to save the boys – ordering them to hide during final attack sure that the Americans will take pity on these child soldiers and prevent their lives from becoming meaningless sacrifices laid on the altar of an uncaring nation. He is unsuccessful because the boys’ heads are already filled with the idea of glorious sacrifice. Ashamed to be thought of anything other than Marine Cadets, they launch their own attack and sacrifice their lives willingly.

Imai is at great pains to remind us that this society cares nothing for the boys, 5,020 of whom fall on the battlefield, or for the poor in general who bear the brunt of a war that is waged against their interests. The approach is distinctly old fashioned for 1972 and the message at times unsubtle, but given that the film appears less than thirty years later than the events it depicts when those who survived would themselves still be young, perhaps fathers of teenage sons themselves, it serves as a timely reminder of past madness and a pointed warning for the consumerist future.


Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Farewell Rabaul dvd coverReleased in 1954, Farewell Rabaul (さらばラバウル, Saraba Rabaul) was the last in a string of war films directed by Ishiro Honda for Toho immediately before the mega hit Godzilla redefined his career and turned him into a director of science fiction and special effects movies. Like the later tokusatsu classics, Honda worked alongside Eiji Tsuburaya to craft the film’s effects which are largely used to recreate the epic dogfights taking place over the island as the airmen and ground crew come to terms with the imminent arrival of American forces. Though he takes care to show the bravery and determination of the Japanese pilots, Honda’s attitudes to the war and the government who waged it are not so kind.

Late into the conflict, at an outpost in the Papa New Guinean city of Rabaul, ace pilot Captain Wakabayashi (Ryo Ikebe) leads a rapidly depleting squad of airmen trying to defend Japanese forces from American air attacks. Known as “Devil” Wakabayashi, he rules with an iron fist – taking issue with men who spend their time in local bars and pointedly refusing to send rescue craft for crashed pilots. Ruthless and cold as he seems, the war is starting to get to Wakabayashi and his resolve crumbles when faced with a gracious American POW and the attentions of a kindly nurse, Komatsu (Mariko Okada).

Honda keeps the action to a minimum, preferring to focus on the life within the military base. Though the effects on the local population are not much addressed, the opening scenes take place in a bar in which Papa New Guinean women dance to tribal drums while Japanese military personnel drink and watch. The waitresses are largely Japanese women dressed in kimono, though it seems the exoticism of local girl Kim (Akemi Negishi), dancing barefoot with flowers in her hair, is the main draw. Eventually Kim falls in love with a Japanese soldier and the two plan to flee but fate always gets in the way.

Wakabayashi, rechristened the “Devil” by Kim – a nickname which seems to stick, objects to his men blowing off steam in the bar for purely practical reasons – he needs them at top form for an upcoming mission and a hungover pilot could be a risk to the entire squad. Walking around looking sullen and refusing to explain himself, it’s no wonder Wakabayashi is unpopular with some of the men even if his skills are widely recognised. Asked to send a rescue squad for a lost pilot, Wakabayashi’s reply is a flat no with no further details offered. Only when a junior officer interjects during a briefing does he offer his reasoning – the crash site is in enemy territory and it’s too risky to send more men in to fetch one pilot who is probably already dead. His reasoning is sound and probably the correct command decision but the cutting coldness with which he delivers his judgement does little to assuage his reputation as a heartless misanthrope.

This is, however, not quite the case. When an extremely young member of his squad is shot down Wakabayashi shouts out to him, trying to advise the rookie on ways to control the aircraft but all to no avail. The pilot cannot bail out as Japanese pilots, particularly those flying the featherweight 0 fighters, are not equipped with parachutes. This is brought up again when a downed American pilot is brought in as a POW. The journalist attached to the unit is able to speak fluent English and interprets for Wakabayashi and the others as the American gives them an improbably frank analysis of Japanese airborne warfare. He tells them that the Americans were once afraid of the 0s and their high speed manoeuvring but have figured out their weaknesses. In the hands of a skilled pilot, the 0 is a powerful weapon but in unskilled hands it’s a liability – its lightweight form makes it easy pickings when the pilot does not know how to fly defensively. If it weren’t for this fighter they call “Devil” they’d be picking them off with ease. The lack of parachutes came as a surprise to the Americans. The 0s need to be as light as possible, but no one could believe that the Japanese government valued life so cheaply that they’d send a man up there with no way down. That’s why, the American says, they will win – no government so unwilling to look after its own could ever expect to.

The senselessness of it all eventually gets to Wakabayshi, even leading him to reverse his original stance and proceed into enemy territory to rescue a fallen comrade himself. He is, however, wounded, his plane damaged, and his friend doesn’t make it. Rabaul falls, and its hero falls with it in a turn which is both melancholy and defiant. Honda refuses to glorify the destruction but ends on a note of sadness, reprising the titular song sung by the women aboard a boat they hope will take them home but that, like everything else, remains so hopelessly uncertain.


The Outcast (破戒, AKA The Broken Commandment, Kon Ichikawa, 1962)

Kon Ichikawa’s approach to critiquing his society was often laced with a delicious slice of biting irony but he puts sarcasm to one side for this all too rare attempt to address the uncomfortable subject of Japan’s hidden underclass – the burakumin. The term itself simply means “people who live in hamlets” but from feudal times onwards it came to denote the kinds of people with whom others did not want to associate – notably those whose occupations dealt in some way with death from executioners and undertakers, to butchers and leatherworkers. Though outright discrimination against such people was outlawed during the Meiji restoration, social stigma and informal harassment remained common with some lingering tendency remaining even today.

The Outcast (破戒, Hakai), adapted from the book by Toson Shimazaki (known as The Broken Commandment in English) is the story of a young man of burakumin lineage who has to hide his true identity in order to live a normal life in the Japan of 1904. Segawa’s father, formerly a village elder, sent his son away to live with his brother and his wife in a distant town where they could better hide their burakumin status to enjoy a better standard of life. Sadly, Segawa’s father dies after being trampled by a recalcitrant bull never seeing his son again and leaving him with the solemn commandment to live as a regular person, never revealing his connection with the burakumin world.

This debt to his father’s sacrifice creates a conflict in the heart of the young and idealistic Segawa (Raizo Ichikawa). Forced to listen to the casual racism all around him and unable to offer any kind of resistance, Segawa has become interested in the writings of a polemical political figure, Rentaro Inoko (Rentaro Mikuni), who has begun to write passionate political treatises advocating for burakumin rights. When Inoko turns up in Segawa’s town, he finds himself a new father figure and political mentor but continues to feel constrained by the debt of honour to his father’s sacrifice and is unable to confess his own burakumin heritage even to Inoko.

The world Segawa lives in is a conservative and stratified one in which old superstitions hold true even whilst hypocritical authorities use and abuse the trust placed in them. Inoko falls foul of local politics after he discovers a politician has married a wealthy burakumin woman solely for her money and is planning to expose him at a political rally. This same politician has already threatened to blackmail Segawa who continues to deny all knowledge of any burakumin related activities whilst failing to quell the eventual gossip surrounding Segawa’s lineage. The gossip causes problems at the school where Segawa had held a prestigious teaching position as the headmaster and school board fear the reaction of the parents. Though the people at the temple where Segawa takes refuge after growing tired of the racist inn owners in town are broadly supportive of the burakumin, the priest there has his own problems after having made a clumsy pass at his adopted daughter, Shio (Shiho Fujimura) – the daughter of a drunken teacher sacked by the school in order to avoid paying him a proper pension. At every turn the forces of authority are universally corrupt, selfish and venal, leaving no safe direction for a possible revolution of social justice to begin.

This is Segawa’s central conflict. After his experiences with Inoko, Segawa begins to want to follow in his footsteps, living out and proud as a burakumin and full time activist for burakumin rights. However, this would be undoing everything for which his father sacrificed so much. Talking things over with Inoko’s non-burakumin wife, Segawa is also presented with a third way – reveal his burakumin heritage and attempt to live honestly as an ordinary person, changing hearts and minds simply through leading a life among many other lives. This option seems attractive, especially as Segawa has fallen in love and would like to lead an ordinary life with a wife and family, but his youthful idealism is hungry for a greater, faster change than the one which will be born through simple integration. Despite the warnings of Inoko’s wife who believes change will occur not through activism but through the passage of time, Segawa decides his future lies in advancing the burakumin cause in the wider world.

When Segawa does choose to reveal himself, he finds that there is far more sympathy and support than he would ever have expected. A woman he has come to love wants to stay by his side, his previously hostile friend rethinks his entire approach to life and apologises, and even the children in his class convince their parents that their teacher is a good and a kind man regardless of whatever arbitrary social distinction may have been passed to him through an accident of birth. Segawa’s conflicted soul speaks not only for the burakumin but for all hidden and oppressed peoples who have been forced to keep a side of themselves entirely secret, faced with either living a lie in the mainstream world or being confined to life within their own community. His choice is one of either capitulation and collaboration, or resistance which amounts to a sacrifice of his own potential happiness in the hope that it will bring about liberation for other similarly oppressed people.

Scripted again by Natto Wada, The Outcast takes a slightly clumsy, didactic approach filled with long, theatrical speeches but does ultimately prove moving and inspiring in advocating for the fair treatment of these long maligned people as well as others facing similar discrimination in an unforgiving world. As a treatise on identity and rigid social attitudes, the film has lost none of its power or urgency even forty years later in a world in which progress has undoubtedly been made even if there are still distances to go.


 

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Tadashi Imai, 1958)

night-drumThe works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon continue to have a large influence over Japanese drama even if not as frequently and directly adapted as they were in the immediate post-war period. Famous for tales of tragic love suicides and romantic heroes who risk all in the service of deep emotion, Chikamatsu’s works perhaps found even greater resonance in the turbulent years in which individual freedom and adherence to tradition found themselves in even greater conflict than ever before. Tadashi Imai makes the most of Chikamatsu’s melancholy fatalism to take a sword to the samurai order itself with all of its arcane rules and the essential hypocrisy which underlines its cruelty.

Hikokuro Ogura (Rentaro Mikuni) has been in Edo for a year with the shogun and is now on his way home. Stopping at an inn, he has a low level argument with his brother-in-law who warns him the men are getting restless and need to blow off some steam – preferably with some sake. Hikokuro is in charge of the purse strings and knows all of this pageantry costs money the clan do not quite have – hence, he’s reluctant to fritter it away on alcohol no matter how much the men might resent him for it.

That’s not to say Hikokuro is a particularly officious person, he’s kind and cheerful by nature but also tired and eager to get home after such a long time away. His wife, Otane (Ineko Arima), is very happy to see him but something seems different about her and there’s a tension in the air among some of the other women. It seems, there are rumours about Otane and a travelling musician (Masayuki Mori) who frequented the house during the summer while Hikokuro was away. Rumours are often just that, especially in these petty circles of nobility, but female adultery is punishable by death and so is not something to be gossiped about idly.

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Yoru no Tsuzumi) begins with the ominous sound of the drum itself, beating out the inevitably tragic fate of all concerned with a melancholy fatality. The tale proceeds in a procedural fashion as the authorities become involved, hearing witness testimonies and trying to discover if there could be any truth at all in these unpleasant rumours. Matters are further complicated by the pecuniary difficulties the clan currently finds itself in – the elders are half hoping it is true because it would be a good excuse to expel the Ogura household and thereby save the money which goes on its upkeep. They are aware, however, that they’re talking about the life of a previously unblemished woman as well as the ruin of her extended family.

The life of a retainer is not as easy as it sounds and we’re constantly reminded of just how much money is necessary to keep up appearances. The clan authorities are dismayed when they hear of Otane earning money on the side through needlework though other retainers are quick to confess their wives also help out – they just can’t survive on such meagre stipends. Each lord is required to hire servants as befits their status but they aren’t given the money to do so. Hikokuro is also required to serve the shogun in Edo every other year for at least twelve months meaning Otane is left alone at home with almost nothing other than her needlework to do except wait patiently for her husband’s return.

Given these circumstances, it’s easy to understand how such pernicious rumours might begin. The sole basis of the evidence seems to rest on a tip off that Otane is thought to have been alone in a room with a man who is not her husband. That she may be put to death solely for the crime of sharing the same space as someone of the opposite sex seems extreme, but this is the feudal world where rules and propriety are all. The men can cavort with geishas to their heart’s content, but Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

The action unfolds piecemeal as each of the various witnesses offers their testimony of events. Given the gravity of the situation, few are eager to recount their suspicions – especially the other women who fear the rumour may be true but are also unwilling to believe it. Hikokuro does not want to believe it either but faced with such convincing, if circumstantial, evidence doubt creeps into his mind and finds an anchor in Otane’s guilt ridden behaviour. Ironically, this entire situation developed only because of Otane’s attempts to avoid it – remaining at an inn rather than travelling with a man on the road only for one of her husband’s friends to attempt to rape and blackmail her. Having had far too much to drink in an attempt to steel her nerves and cover up the embarrassing assault, Otane finds herself at the mercy of man who should have known better than to take advantage of another man’s wife in such a moment of weakness.

One stupid mistake born of alcohol, loneliness, and a series of male betrayals is enough to bring down the social order all on its own. Rentaro Mikuni plays the part of the previously affable wounded spouse with an exceptional level of nuance as he accepts his part in his wife’s downfall thanks to the the circumstances of their lives which have kept them apart and left her at the mercy of untrustworthy lords. There is anger here, and shame, but there is still love too which only makes the inevitable outcome all the more painful for everyone concerned. Hikokuro plays the part he’s expected to play, but it pains him and you can’t wipe a slate clean with blood. Imai has his eyes firmly on the civilised society with all of its rigid yet often cruel and unfair rules for living. Shot with a kind of hypnotic dreaminess in which each of our unfortunate players is swept along by events they are powerless to influence, Night Drum beats out the death knell of those who allow their individual desires to overwhelm their “civilised” conformity but it does so with a rhythm that is filled with anger rather than sorrow, for those who are forced to leave half their lives unlived in maintenance of the very system which oppresses them.


 

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Shinji Somai, 1981)

sailor-suit-and-machine-gunFor good or ill, Haruki Kadokawa’s entry into the film industry was to have a profound effect both culturally and commercially. Rising from the ashes of the studio system, Kadokawa’s stable of cute and perky idols presented him with the opportunity to build a multimedia empire formed of a union between cinema, books, and music in which each could be used to sell the other.

1981’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Sailor-fuku to kikanju) was one of his earliest successes and helped to solidify his approach. Featuring one of the biggest idol stars of the 1980s, Hiroko Yakushimaru, in her most iconic role, the film adapts a Kadokawa teen novel as its source material and includes an end credits song with the same title sung by the film’s star. It was a winning formula, but then Sailor Suit and Machine is not just another idol movie. Directed Shinji Somai whose work is much more well known in Japan than it is abroad, this strange story of a high school girl and her unlikely role as a yakuza boss is both a surreal coming of age tale and an arthouse influenced character piece which came to become the defining youth movie for a generation of female cinema goers.

Izumi Hoshi (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is now an orphan. Her mother died some time ago and today is her father’s funeral. Thinking herself all alone in the world, Izumi is surprised when an older woman, Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri), suddenly appears with a letter from her father claiming he asked her to look after his daughter if anything should happen to him. More surprises follow when her school is surrounded by black suited yakuza. Prophetically, the other students are terrified but Izumi marches straight up them to find out what’s going on. As it turns out, they’ve come for her – an uncle of Izumi’s father was the head of a yakuza clan and now that he’s dead they need a blood relative to succeed him. Izumi’s father out of thte picture, the position falls to his daughter, teenage high school girl or not. At first she refuses but realising that with no boss the guys will all have to die, Izumi relents and orders them to live. So begins her long, strange, not altogether successful career as the head of moribund clan of dejected yakuza.

In many ways, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is a parody of a standard yakuza flick in which rival groups vie for power in the crowded backstreets of a busy city. The idea of a tiny 17 year old girl heading up an organised crime syndicate and going toe-to-toe with grizzled fifty year old veterans is an inherently absurd one as exemplified by Izumi’s courtesy visit to the area’s most powerful gang boss in which he he more or less laughs her out of the office.

Despite the incongruity, Izumi is a tough kid and more than holds her own in the very male underground world. In her father’s letter to Mayumi, he describes his daughter as tough but naive – an analysis which proves true in her tenure as a yakuza boss. There is a degree of silliness in her actions, playing the role assigned for her as if acting a part in a movie but as her guys start getting knifed it suddenly doesn’t seem so funny after all. The film revolves around a mcguffin of some missing heroin which belongs to a gangster named Fatso but is also sought by rival gangs. Out of her depth, Izumi has no knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing drugs or even the reason why anyone would want them. This is a situation that can’t be blustered through and Izumi does not have the ability to navigate it.

The idea of an ordinary high school girl plunged into the criminal underworld is as ridiculous as it’s intended to be. However, Izumi is not quite the ordinary high school girl she first appears. Gangly and boyish, she is supported by three male friends who often flank her as entourage but always recede into the background, bowing to her leadership. Already dominant and possessing obvious leadership potential, Izumi’s bold decision to approach the yakuza at the school gates also hints at her curious and fearless personality, even if it also speaks to her youthful recklessness.

These more masculine qualities of forcefulness and dynamism as opposed the stereotypical image of the cute and submissive school girl are perfectly suited to her new life as a crime boss but for all of that her leadership takes on an oddly maternal quality. A wounded foot soldier remarks that Izumi smells like his mother as she’s awkwardly winding bandages around his torso, and the guys flock around her like they would the family matriarch. Tellingly Izumi later tells Mayumi that part of the reason she rejected her was because of her extreme femininity – something the adolescent Izumi did not quite know what to do with, especially given the maleness of her new environment.

Izumi’s short lived career in the yakuza cannot be termed a success in the normal manner of things, she acts honourably and may win a final victory but it comes at great cost. When Izumi finally picks up the machine gun of the film’s title for the intense finale, she finds herself enjoying it a little too much as the word “fantastic” escapes her lips seconds after letting rip intro a rival gang boss’ office. Rather than the romantic awakening which is the climax of many female centred teen movies, Izumi’s major consummatory event is with her machine gun. As she puts it at the end, Izumi’s first kiss goes to a (deceased) middle aged man and she looks set to become a “foolish” woman, her path into womanhood has been an unusually transgressive and as yet unresolved one.

Somai’s camera is is both slippery and precise as he casts us as voyeur in Izumi’s world, shooting through exterior windows and even at one point from behind the shrubbery. Preferring long takes and often at extreme distances, Somai mixes static camera with unusual fluidity for an effect that’s far more arthouse influenced than your usual teen idol picture. As with many of Kadokawa’s ‘80s movies, the film is steeped in the naivety of the teenage world view as Izumi goes about her new life with a kind of fearless determination despite the inherent violence and unexpected adult sexuality. A deserved classic, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is the archetypal Kadokawa movie, creating a vehicle for its idol star in the fascinating, iconic presence of its central heroine whilst simultaneously generating an enduring pop culture phenomenon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s star Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 35th anniversary celebration concert in 2013: