The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Kihachi Okamoto, 1967)

“Hey, what’s going on around here?” a sidekick asks directly to camera at the conclusion of Kihachi Okamoto’s characteristically anarchic conspiracy-thriller-cum-spy-spoof The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Satsujinkyo Jidai). Sparked by Bond mania, the late 1960s saw a marked trend in B-movie espionage parody though Okamoto’s take on the genre is darker than the norm even if embracing his trademark taste for absurdist humour leaving us wondering who our hero really is and which side, if any, he’s really on in the confusing geopolitical realities of 1967 Japan. 

As we first meet him, the hero is bumbling professor of criminal psychology Shinji Kikyo (Tatsuya Nakadai) who has extreme myopia and a persistent case of athlete’s foot not to mention a prominent mother complex. Unbeknownst to him, he’s one of three targets picked not quite at random by Rudolf von Bruckmayer (Bruno Lucique), former Gestapo chief, who is interested in hiring some assassins trained by the megalomaniac psychiatrist Mizorogi (Hideyo Amamoto) who’s been turning his mentally distressed patients into hyper-efficient killing machines (sometimes literally) under the rationale that all great men throughout history have been in a certain sense “crazy”. Mizorogi is also in charge of a eugenicist project titled “The Greater Japan Population Control Council” which believes that Japan is already overpopulated but they have to ensure that “the lives of people who might become useful in the future must not be destroyed before they’re born.” Therefore, “the people who will be useless should be asked to bow out”, the assassin calmly explains shortly before Shinji is saved by the divine energy of his late mother as her bust falls from a shelf and knocks the killer out. 

The central conceit plays into a real anxiety about the post-war baby boom expressed in earlier films such as Yuzo Kawashima’s Burden of Love while attacking the capitalistic philosophy that regards some people as more useful than others. By the late 1960s, Nazis had begun to make frequent appearances in these kinds spy spoofs as comedy villains usually crazed to the point of being little real threat. Mizorogi too is eventually exposed as exalting the “mad” interested more in the art of chaos and the impulse to murder than in any greater political goal. Indeed, the central MacGuffin turns out to be less to do with a grand conspiracy to create some kind of super society than the very B-movie-esque missing diamond known as Cleopatra’s Tear.

Okamoto piles each of these subplots one on top of the other as if he were making it up as he goes along suddenly undercutting what we thought we knew with an unexpected reversal. Shedding his glasses and shaving his scraggly beard, Shinji shifts from myopic professor to suave super agent using profiling and psychology to stay one step ahead while encountering plots by spiritualist cults, overly cheerful self defence force officers in the middle of training exercises, and eccentric assassins. From a modern standpoint, it might seem uncomfortable that each of the killers is manifesting disability in order to seem non-threatening, a female operative concealing a deadly weapon behind an eyepatch, while her poetry-obsessed colleague stores his in a fake crutch, but then again they are each pawns of a game being played by the crazed Mizorogi. Aided by female reporter Keiko (Reiko Dan) and car thief sidekick Otomo Bill (Hideo Sunazuka), Shinji seems to bumble from one bizarre episode to another but may actually be far more in charge of the situation than we might have assumed. 

Among the most visually striking of Okamoto’s late ‘60s pictures and once again making great use of animation, Age of Assassins features high concept production design, Mizorogi’s asylum lair a maddening corridor of Omega-shaped passages with ornate cell bars on either side behind which we can see a room full of men often engaged in what seems to be a military exercise regime while the plaster effigies of human form seem to be bursting from the walls. As in all of Okamoto’s films the central message lies in the absurdity of violence suggesting in a sense that the dog-eat-dog ethos of contemporary capitalist consumerism is in itself a kind of internecine madness countered only by Shinji’s rather childish mentality crafting his various gadgets out of household objects while attacking this elitist individualism with nothing more sophisticated than a vegetable peeler. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kill! (斬る, Kihachi Okamoto, 1968)

“Samurai aren’t as great as you might think” according to a jaded retainer in Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! (斬る, Kiru) but it’s a message that the ambitious farmer at the film’s centre struggles to take in. Having been a victim of samurai violence he resolves to become a samurai while a former samurai turned yakuza drifter attempts to show him the hypocritical realities of the samurai life as they find themselves swept into local intrigue when a band of young revolutionaries arrive to cut down a corrupt and oppressive lord. 

Corrupt and oppressive is perhaps the defining image of the samurai in post-war cinema, but like the film’s title that cuts both ways. Farmer Tabata (Etsushi Takahashi) sold his lands to buy a sword after witnessing peasants cut down during an uprising but he’s decided the best way out of oppression is to become an oppressor and is dead set on achieving samurai glory through the time-honoured method of distinguishing himself in battle. That may prove a little difficult given that his new boss, Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama), immediately mocks him for swinging his sword as if it were a scythe. Then again as former samurai Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) explains to him, if you don’t know what you’re doing you can always just stab people which at the end of the day does rather undermine the idea of samurai elegance in the art of killing. 

Genta keeps trying to tell Tabata that “samurai are no good” but Tabata still wants to be one anyway even after learning that Ayuzawa means to double cross them, hiring ronin to take out the young samurai whose sense of honour he manipulated to eliminate the admittedly corrupt (but aren’t they all?) lord for his own political gain while planning to send in his retainers to finish off the job to ensure there are no witnesses. Genta gave up his samurai status because he was “disgusted” by just this sort of duplicity along with the meaningless codes of loyalty that govern samurai society and caused him to betray a friend who was acting only in the interests of justice. Leader of the ronin Jurota (Shin Kishida) did something similar though in his case for love when his fiancée’s father was condemned on false charges and she and her mother exiled. He wants not land or status but only money in order to redeem the woman he loves from a geisha house and like Genta is under no illusions about the nature of samurai life having figured out most of what’s going on but hoping to emerge with the means to liberate both himself and his wife from samurai oppression. 

Even the elderly chamberlain later rescued by Genta tries to warn Tabata that the samurai life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, hinting at the ways they are also oppressed by their own code while clearly gleeful to have had the opportunity of stepping into a teahouse for the first time responding to Genta’s request to stay put that if he could he’d like to stay put for the rest of his days. Both former samurai, neither Genta nor Jurota are minded to draw their swords knowing that whatever the outcome it would be unhappy while the young who thought it was their duty to change the world by removing one who brought shame on their names are faced with the realisation that they have been used and their resistance will count for nothing. Even their bond as brothers banding together to achieve a common goal is eventually disrupted by alcohol and petty jealousy.

Genta acts as a kind of chorus, touched by the naivety of the seven samurai holed up in a mountain lodge because they believed in justice, while knowing that the society itself is innately unjust and already beyond redemption. Tabata eventually comes to a similar conclusion having gained samurai status but found it quite literally uncomfortable deciding to shake off his newfound nobility and rejoin Genta as a cynical yet pure hearted wanderer because the only way to escape samurai oppression is to actively live outside it. The final irony is that it’s the elderly chamberlain who eventually sets him, and all they women trapped in indentured servitude at the geisha house, free using samurai gold to enable them to escape a system he himself cannot escape but does not exactly support while Genta enlists the help of local peasants to hold a festival of rebellion to cover the final assault. Marked by Okamoto’s characteristically absurd humour and cartoonish composition along with the eerily gothic emptiness of the deserted ghost town where not even yakuza can survive the film takes on a quasi-spiritual dimension in which Genta and the gang eventually walk out of hell if only into a purgatorial freedom. 


Kill! screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 2 as part of the Monthly Classics series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Ishiro Honda, 1960)

The Human Vapour poster“The world is full of hysteria towards things they don’t understand” admits the strangely chatty “villain” at the centre of Ishiro Honda’s The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Gas Ningen dai Ichi-go). Third in a loose trilogy of “mutant” films put out by Toho beginning with The H-Man and followed by The Secret of the Telegian, The Human Vapor is at once the most futuristic and the most traditional in that it’s no longer wartime guilt or nuclear anxiety which has corrupted our increasingly amoral hero but unwise ambition in which desperation to win the space race has produced a new and dangerous threat we may not be able to contain.

Honda opens with an exciting bank heist which on later consideration might not make much sense, filled as it is with shots of a faceless man pointing a gun at terrified staff while the vault doors open seemingly on their own. Earnest policeman Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) is on the case, chasing a suspect car down a narrow country road only for it to crash and be discovered empty with no trace of the driver to be found. Okamoto’s feisty reporter girlfriend Kyoko (Keiko Sata) is dismayed to find out he has no leads, but later picks up on his mention of a buyo dancer, Fujichiyo (Kaoru Yachigusa), who lives near the scene and might have something to do with the case. 

Chasing Fujichiyo takes Okamoto to a library, where he becomes further convinced she is in contact with the mysterious bank robber. A strange and isolated woman, Fujichiyo is apparently from a noble, wealthy family but lives alone in a small cottage with only a single male servant where she devotes herself entirely to perfecting the art of traditional Japanese dance. We discover that Fujichiyo has been in poor health, which is why she hasn’t given a public performance in some time. Okamoto posits that the bank robber is bankrolling her comeback, though he never seems to have much of an explanation why she would need him when she has access to her own resources.

He is however correct, though it seems Fujichiyo was not aware that the money was stolen otherwise she might have been more careful in using it. In a contrast with genre norms, honest cop Okamoto never falls for Fujichiyo but does become oddly invested in her sad love story while sparking with his cheerful reporter girlfriend who ends up doing much the same. In fact, Kyoko is the only one doing much investigating but largely finds herself having to do it in spite of the (generally useless) men around her, including an unpleasant younger colleague who mocks all her ideas but does nothing much of anything on his own.

In any case, smirking villain Mizuno (Yoshio Tsuchiya) later makes himself known to the police in a selfless gesture of love in order to clear Fujichiyo’s name and get her released from police custody. He does this by taking the police to a bank and demonstrating how he was able to get in the vault without a key which involves his curious ability to turn himself into a gas. When Fujichiyo is not released, he takes matters into his own hands and frees all the prisoners in the cells, but Fujichiyo refuses to leave, insisting that she has no intention of running away and prefers to stay until the police affirm her innocence by releasing her.

Mizuno’s intention to bypass the law is one of the many signifiers of his increasing danger, that now believes himself “above” the rest of humanity and therefore no longer subject to their laws. He later tells the police exactly that, sitting them down for a mini audience to explain himself during which he recounts his history as an SDF pilot discharged on a diagnosis of lung cancer after which he took the boring job in the library and fell in love with Fujichiyo. A shady doctor, Sano (Fuyuki Murakami), later approached him claiming to be working for Japan’s space programme and suggested that his fighter pilot background made him a perfect fit for becoming an astronaut. Mizuno agreed to participate in his research to “change the existence of the human body” in preparation for life in space, but when Sano’s weird experiments turned him into a “gas man”, the doctor committed suicide in horror leaving Mizuno just another lonely victim of a mad scientist.

Like many other “mutant” heroes, the change in Mizuno’s body has also changed his soul though his love for Fujichiyo remains unchanged. It seems he’s only committing these crimes to fund her ambition of performing traditional buyo dance on the contemporary stage, while she though obviously devoted to her art finds it difficult to accept the man that he’s become. He promises to give her the world, sacrificing anyone that gets in his way. She remains conflicted, not wanting to accept his offer if it involves that kind of cost, and defending him to her colleagues only with the rationale that he is “different from what they are accustomed to”. While some advise caution, that perhaps Mizuno is not as dangerous as they think despite already having killed and should be given the chance to reform, others take a harder line eventually opting to use a different kind of gas to counter him.

Kyoko pleads with Fujichiyo as one woman in love to another, trying to protect Okamoto while advising her to pull Mizuno back from the brink by cancelling her performance, but precisely because of the understanding that exists between them she cannot. Sadly, as many point out, no one is really interested in buyo dance – the only audience members in attendance are there for the drama and the possibility of seeing the gas man in action. “You and I have finally won” Mizuno tells Fujichiyo on completion of her dance, as if this performance was all that ever mattered to either of them. But their victory leaves them with nowhere else to go, and the world unready to accept the latent threat a gas man represents. Fujichiyo makes her choice, one perhaps informed by her art and her love, while the authorities can only wait outside for the vapours to disperse.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Mothra (モスラ, Ishiro Honda, 1961)

mothra-poster.jpgJapan’s kaiju movies have an interesting relationship with their monstrous protagonists. Godzilla, while causing mass devastation and terror, can hardly be blamed for its actions. Humans polluted its world with all powerful nuclear weapons, woke it up, and then responded harshly to its attempts to complain. Godzilla is only ever Godzilla, acting naturally without malevolence, merely trying to live alongside destructive forces. No creature in the Toho canon embodies this theme better than Godzilla’s sometime foe, Mothra. Released in 1961, Mothra does not abandon the genre’s anti-nuclear stance, but steps away from it slightly to examine another great 20th century taboo – colonialism and the exploitation both of nature and of native peoples. Weighty themes aside, Mothra is also among the most family friendly of the Toho tokusatsu movies in its broadly comic approach starring well known comedian Frankie Sakai.

When a naval vessel is caught up in a typhoon and wrecked, the crew is thought lost but against the odds a small number of survivors is discovered in a radiation heavy area previously thought to be uninhabited. The rescued men claim they owe their existence to a strange new species of mini-humans living deep in the forest. This is an awkward discovery because the islands had recently been used for testing nuclear weapons and have been ruled permanently uninhabitable. The government of the country which conducted the tests, Rolisica, orders an investigation and teams up with a group of Japanese scientists to verify the claims.

Of course, the original story of the survivors was already a media sensation and so intrepid “snapping turtle” reporter Zen (Frankie Sakai) and his photographer Michi (Kyoko Kagawa) are hot on the trail. Zen is something of an embarrassment to his bosses but manages to bamboozle his way into the scientific expedition by stowing away on their boat and then putting on one of their hazmat suits to blend in before anyone notices him. Linguist Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) gets himself into trouble but is saved by two little people of the island who communicate in an oddly choral language. Unfortunately, the Rolisicans, led by Captain Nelson (Jerry Ito), decide the helpful little creatures are useful “samples” and intend to kidnap them to experiment on. Refusing to give up despite the protestations of the Japanese contingent, Nelson only agrees to release the pair when the male islanders surround them and start banging drums in an intimidating manner.

The colonial narrative is clear as the Rolisicans never stop to consider the islanders as living creatures but only as an exploitable resource. Nelson heads back later and scoops up the two little ladies (committing colonial genocide in the process) but on his return to Japan his intentions are less scientific than financial as he immediately begins putting his new conquests on show. The island ladies (played by the twins from the popular group The Peanuts, Yumi and Emi Ito) are installed in a floating mini carriage and dropped on stage where they are forced to sing and dance for an appreciative audience in attendance to gorp.

Zen and Michi may be members of the problematic press who’ve dubbed the kidnapped islanders the “Tiny Beauties” and helped Nelson achieve his goals but they stand squarely behind the pair and, along with linguist Chujo and his little brother Shinji (Masamitsu Tayama), continue to work on a way to rescue the Tiny Beauties and send them home. The Tiny Beauties, however, aren’t particularly worried because they know “Mothra” is coming to save them, though they feel a bit sad for Japan and especially for the nice people like Zen, Michi,  Chujo, and Shinji because Mothra doesn’t know right from wrong or have much thought process at all. 100% goal orientated, Mothra’s only concern is that two of its charges are in trouble and need rescuing. It will stop at nothing to retrieve them and bring them home no matter what obstacles may be standing in the way.

The island people worship Mothra like a god though with oddly Christian imagery of crosses and bells. Like many of Toho’s other “monsters” it is neither good or bad, in a sense, but simply exists as it is. Its purpose is to defend its people, which it does to the best of its ability. It has no desire to attack or destroy, but simply to protect and defend. The villain is humanity, or more precisely Rolisica whose colonial exploits have a dark and tyrannical quality as they try to insist the islands are uninhabited despite the evidence and then set about exploiting the resources with no thought to the islanders’ wellbeing. The Japanese are broadly the good guys who very much do not approve of the Rolisicans’ actions but they are also the people buying the tickets to see the Tiny Beauties and putting them on the front pages of the newspapers. Nevertheless, things can only conclude happily when people start respecting other nations on an equal footing and accepting the validity of their rights and beliefs even if they include giant marauding moth gods.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Battle in Outer Space (宇宙大戦争, Ishiro Honda, 1959)

battle in outer spaceIshiro Honda returns to outer space after The Mysterians with another dose of alien paranoia in the SFX heavy Battle in Outer Space (宇宙大戦争, Uchu Daisenso). Where many other films of the period had a much more ambivalent attitude to scientific endeavour, Battle in Outer Space paints the science guys as the thin white line that stands between us and annihilation by invading forces wielding superior technology. Far from the force which destroys us, science is our salvation and the skill we must improve in order to defend ourselves from hitherto unknown threats.

In 1965 Japan is a hit in space. Having launched their first space station, things are going well but after it is destroyed by flying saucers there is cause for concern. The problem intensifies as strange events occur across the Earth with bridges suddenly collapsing, boats being lifted from the sea and the waters of Venice conspiring to drown the town. World leaders gather in Tokyo to come up with a plan but one of the scientists’ key assets, Iranian professor Dr. Ahmed, is possessed by the Natalians via their high-tech remote control radio waves and procedeeds to do their dirty work for them. The Natalians will settle for nothing less than enslavement of the entire planet and have even set up a base on the moon to make it happen! Time to put those shiny new spaceships to good use!

Scientists may be the heroes of this particular story but the scientific basis for their actions is just as silly as your average B-movie. According to our top professor, the Natalians’ anti-gravity shenanigans can be put a stop to by means of a freeze ray – gravity is, of course, caused by the movement of atoms which is impeded by cold hence the freeze ray. A likely story, but it’s the best they’ve got. The other major problem is that the Natalians are able to possess various people and force them to do their bidding, apparently through “radio waves”. Less about the enemy within, the possibility of becoming a Natalian sleeper agent is more plot device than serious philosophical discussion.

Battle in Outer Space is, in this sense at least, one of the most straightforward of Toho’s B-movie leaning SFX extravaganzas. There is little hidden message here bar the importance of international collaboration as the whole world comes together to fight the alien threat – Middle Eastern and Indian scientists are at the forefront of research and Japan leads the charge flanked by Americans one side and Russians on the other.

Our intrepid band of scientists are the vanguard sent to see off the Natalian threat by jetting off into space and fighting them in their own territory. Honda and Tsuburaya outdo themselves with the special effects which are pretty astounding for 1959 making use of large scale models and matt painting. The scientists travel to the moon to look for the Natalians’ base only to encounter them in space and engage in exciting dogfight. Eventually landing they meet the Natalians face to face and discover they are very tiny and sort of cute but also hellbent on enslaving the Earth. Engaging them in a firefight using heat rays and laser guns, the scientists manage to escape but the Natalian threat follows them all the way back to Tokyo. In true Toho fashion, buildings are destroyed and people knocked flying as the Natalians take the city but our brainy scientists have thought of that and so the aliens have a whole barrage of heat ray guns to welcome them to Earth.

Battle in Outer Space might not have an awful lot going on in the background, but it makes up for it with sheer spectacle both in its effects and in production design. The Natalians are a scary bunch, until you actually meet them, but this time science is on our side as the good guys manage to figure out a way to save the Earth rather than destroy it through fear and angst. In the end it is determination and togetherness which finally lets the Natalians know humanity is not a good prospect for colonisation, only by coming together and making the best of their collective strengths is humanity able to triumph over a superior force – sadly a still timely lesson.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The H-Man (美女と液体人間, Ishiro Honda, 1958)

H-man
Toho produced a steady stream of science fiction movies in the ‘50s, each with some harsh words directed at irresponsible scientists whose discoveries place the whole world in peril. The H-man (美女と液体人間, Bijo to Ekitainingen), arriving in 1958, finds the genre at something of an interesting juncture but once again casts nuclear technology as the great evil, corrupting and eroding humanity with a barely understood power. Science may have conjured up the child which will one day destroy us, robbing mankind of its place as the dominant species. Still, we’ve never particularly needed science to destroy ourselves and so this particularly creepy mystery takes on a procedural bent infused with classic noir tropes and filled with the seedier elements of city life from gangsters and the drugs trade to put upon show girls with lousy boyfriends who land them in unexpected trouble.

Misaki (Hisaya Itou) is not a man who would likely have been remembered. A petty gangster on the fringes of the criminal underworld, just trying to get by in the gradually improving post-war economy, he’s one of many who might have found himself on the wrong side of a gangland battle and wound up just another name in a file. However, Misaki gets himself noticed by disappearing in the middle of a drugs heist leaving all of his clothes behind. The police immediatetely start hassling his cabaret singer girlfriend, Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa), who knows absolutely nothing but is deeply worried about what may have happened to her no good boyfriend. The police are still working on the assumption Misaki has skipped town, but a rogue professor, Masada (Kenji Sahara), thinks the disappearance may be linked to a strange nuclear incident…..

Perhaps lacking in hard science, the H-Man posits that radiation poisoning can fundamentally change the molecular structure of a living being, rendering it a kind of sentient sludge. This particular hypothesis is effectively demonstrated by doing some very unpleasant looking things to a frog but it seems humans too can be broken down into their component parts to become an all powerful liquid being. The original outbreak is thought to have occurred on a boat out at sea and the scientists still haven’t figured out why the creature has come back to Tokyo though their worst fear is that the H-man, as they’re calling him, retains some of his original memories and has tried to return “home” for whatever reason.

The sludge monster seeps and crawls, working its way in where it isn’t wanted but finally rematerialises in humanoid form to do its deadly business. Once again handled by Eiji Tsuburaya, the effects work is extraordinary as the genuinely creepy slime makes its slow motion assault before fire breaks out on water in an attempt to eradicate the flickering figures of the newly reformed H-men. The scientists think they’ve come up with a way to stop the monstrous threat, but they can’t guarantee there will never be another – think what might happen in a world covered in radioactivity! The H-man may just be another stop in human evolution.

Despite the scientists’ passionate attempts to convince them, the police remain reluctant to consider such an outlandish solution, preferring to work the gangland angle in the hopes of taking out the local drug dealers. The drug lord subplot is just that, but Misaki most definitely inhabited the seamier side of the post-war world with its seedy bars and petty crooks lurking in the shadows, pistols at the ready under their mud splattered macs. Chikako never quite becomes the generic “woman in peril” despite being directly referenced in the Japanese title, though she is eventually kidnapped by very human villains, finding herself at the mercy of violent criminality rather than rogue science. Science wants to save her, Masada has fallen in love, but their relationship is a subtle and mostly one sided one as Chikako remains preoccupied over the fate of the still missing Misaki.

Even amidst the fear and chaos, Honda finds room for a little song and dance with Chikako allowed to sing a few numbers at the bar while the other girls dance around in risqué outfits. The H-man may be another post-war anti-nuke picture from the studio which brought you Godzilla but its target is wider. Nuclear technology is not only dangerous and unpredictable, it has already changed us, corrupting body and soul. The H-men may very well be that which comes after us, but if that is the case it is we ourselves who have sown the seeds of our destruction in allowing our fiery children to break free of our control.


Original trailer (no subtitles)