Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (新宿泥棒日記, Nagisa Oshima, 1969)

Shinjuku thief posterIn Sing a Song of Sex, Nagisa Oshima had lamented the depressing decline of political consciousness among the young who remained so preoccupied with their sexual desires that they’d forgotten all about the revolution. In Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (新宿泥棒日記, Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki), once again a story told through song, he examines the same problem from the other side – if repressed desires frustrate the battle for social change, then perhaps the sexual revolution must precede the political.

Our “hero” if you can call him that, is a man calling himself “Birdey Hilltop” (Tadanori Yokoo). Birdey gets off on shoplifting books from the huge Kunokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku. One day he is caught by a feisty young woman, Umeko (Rie Yokoyama), who we later discover is merely posing as an employee in one of the film’s many acts of role play. Umeko drags the shoplifting Birdey up to see her “boss”, Mr. Tanabe (the real life boss of Kunokuniya playing “himself”), who, to be honest, isn’t very interested in dealing with a petty thief but is quite interested in this strange pair of awkward young people and becomes something between invested audience member and accidental director in setting them off on a journey to explore the nature of their peculiar sexualities.

These largely seem to lean on the idea of anonymous theft, that neither Birdey nor Umeko are able to accept the reality of altruistic connection and value only that which is actively taken (preferably in secret). Umeko allows herself to be “stolen” in skipping out on already arranged date with a man who had threatened to take what he wanted by force to undergo an unfulfilling sexual experience with Birdey which nevertheless provokes in her a desire to shatter the realities of time and space. Given money to enjoy themselves, neither of the pair quite want to accept it – the idea of splitting it amicably isn’t appealing, or perhaps the magnanimity of insisting the other take it all more pleasurable, but neither of them want anything that isn’t in some way a transgressive transaction.

Yet perhaps what it is they long to steal is an identity. Neither Birdey nor Umeko has been entirely truthful with the other and they are each only too happy to inhabit various other roles as they act their way through life. The final apotheosis of the self occurs solely in the theatrical realm but apparently carries a level of essential truth which finally allows the pair to integrate their identities into a comfortable whole which liberates their bodies from sexual repression and perhaps becomes a kind of revolution of its own.

Nevertheless, their strange journey is massaged by a number of dubious guides from the sex therapist who reaches a series of bizarre conclusions based on little more than appearance and vague reactions to classic pornography to the gentle machinations of Tanabe who eventually declares himself too old for this particular game, and the entire legacy of world literature which crowds their heads with competing thoughts and leaves no room for originality. During their “therapy” session the pair are encouraged to get literally naked in front of the analyst who correctly points outs that they are each wearing masks (though his eagerness to see them disrobe does not seem entirely innocent) while also poking and prodding at their various dualities – Birdey is too “effeminate” and Umeko “too strong”, their gender atypicality apparently the root of all their problems. Birdey wonders if on some level he would rather be a woman, and if Umeko would rather be a man before deciding to search for himself on the stage.

Another of the dubious mentors, avant-garde stage performer and legendary figure of the Japanese underground theatre movement Juro Kara makes frequent appearances throughout the film strumming a guitar and singing a song about Alibaba while dressed in a deliberately gaudy modern take on traditional stage costuming. One of several real life figures Oshima cast in the film, Juro Kara more than any of the others is here to remind us that everything we see is affectation – something Oshima further rams home with his jarring transitions from elegant black and white photography to oversaturated colour filled with the deep red of passion and desire. Frequent title cards, surrealist imagery, rapid shifts in tone and style, and a free floating approach to narrative – Oshima out Godards Godard and even if his messages are obscure in the extreme, his images hold their power all the same.


Diary of a Shinjuku Thief was screened as part of the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival 2018.

Opening sequence (no subtitles)

Three Resurrected Drunkards (帰って来たヨッパライ, Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

Three Resurrected Drunkards posterThe pop star movie has a long and distinguished history in Japanese cinema, but one might not have expected it to include Nagisa Oshima – a legendary iconoclast and conscientious objector to this particular strain of pop culture frivolity. Then again, taking a much hated form and turning it in on itself as a multifaceted form of protest is exactly the sort of thing one might expect Oshima to do. Therefore we find him in 1968 teaming up with The Folk Crusaders – a folk rock band enjoying a sudden flash of popularity after pressing their own indie record and seeing it go gold when radio stations picked up their North Korean themed Imujingawa and turned it into a giant hit. The band’s best known hit remains Kanashikute Yarikirenai which was released the same year, but it was perhaps Imujingawa with its melancholy Korean theme which attracted Oshima’s attention. A Monkees-esque surreal pop-star vehicle, Three Resurrected Drunkards (帰って来たヨッパライ, Kaette Kita Yopparai) is the third and most direct (strangely) in a series of films critiquing Japan-Korea relations, pushing further into the contemporary era with additional questions to ask about American imperialism and the complicity of both nations in the ongoing conflict in Vietnam.

Three students, played by the three members of The Folk Crusaders, frolic on a beach recreating the famous Vietnam war photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a prisoner in the street, before stripping off to go swimming. While they’re enjoying the waters, a hand rises up from beneath the sand and exchanges their clothes for a set of Korean military uniforms and some cash. The boys put on the strangers’ clothes and try to go home, but run into trouble when they try to scam an old grandma running a tobacco stand by pretending to have forgotten the price of cigarettes has gone up by 10 yen, assuming a dotty old grandma out in the sticks might not know anyway. Instantly suspicious, and seeing as this is “crack down on stowaways week”, the grandma tips off the authorities. After all, no Japanese person could be unaware of the rise in the price of cigarettes, so our heroes must be the “them” everyone is looking for.

What transpires is a surreal adventure of mistaken identities and rampant xenophobia in which our three students become temporarily transposed with their Korean counterparts – a draft dodging corporal trying to escape being sent to die in Vietnam, and his friend who’s come with him in the hopes of getting into a Japanese university. The third student, “Beanpole”, gets to keep his “Japanese” identity as a kind of control, but finds himself punished alongside his “Korean” friends as they face the harshest of punishments in this increasingly cruel and arbitrary world.

The three “stowaways” are then chased by the “real” Koreans who want to kill them and fake their own deaths to become Japanese. Later the three turn the tables on their pursuers but find themselves unable to pull the trigger because “Koreans don’t kill other Koreans”. In a bold piece of narrative reframing, Oshima abruptly resets the narrative halfway through, literally “resurrecting” our three drunkards who are instantly aware of what’s going on and determine to do things differently this time around – offering the grandma the right money, not taking the Korean uniforms with them when they leave the bathhouse etc, but they still get caught by the “real” Koreans and manage to survive only by “becoming” Koreans themselves, owning their new identities and rejecting their Japaneseness whilst turning their captors’ questions back on them and accusing them of being Japanese.

Meanwhile, the students take to the streets for an extended voxpop session in which they ask the question “are you Japanese?” to which all of their interviewees reply “No.”, asked “so how’s that then?”, they all calmly state it’s because they’re Korean. Aside from a pointed shot at a Westerner, Oshima seems to be making the rather banal point that Japanese and Koreans cannot be distinguished visually despite what some rather ignorant people might think – hence the identity confusion resulting from putting on “Korean” clothes, but he goes a little further in muddying the waters with a comparison between ongoing American imperialism and that of the Japanese past. Koreans in Japan experience oppression and xenophobic racism, but their nation as a whole also suffers from external oppression born of their government’s reliance on America for military support in the event that their truce with the North will someday be broken. Hence they find themselves packed off to another controversial war killing other Asians at the behest of a foreign government and its intense cold-war paranoia. 

Japan of course is also subject to this same oppression in reliance on American military power and so is also complicit in the horrors of Vietnam. These twin threads meet not only in the melancholy folk song penned by The Folk Crusaders, but in the final image which sees the executed Vietnamese man replaced by a Korean “stowaway” and the soldier by a Japanese policeman. Concentric circles flash in and out but Korea is always left in the middle, suffering at the hands of external powers, though Oshima remains largely silent on that presented by the authoritarian government of the day save criticising its determination to cling to American military might. A pop star movie with a title named for one of the band’s biggest hits – the high pitched and cartoonish Kaette Kita Yopparai which is itself a nonsense adventure of silliness, Three Resurrected Drunkards is a psychedelic treatise against systemic prejudices, complicity, and the seemingly inescapable cycle of geopolitical manoeuvring such prejudices fuel and enable.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Imujingawa

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (無理心中日本の夏, Nagisa Oshima, 1967)

Japanese summer double suicide posterThe youth of Japan can’t get no satisfaction in Nagisa Oshima’s 1967 absurdist odyssey Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (無理心中日本の夏, Muri Shinju: Nihon no Natsu). A liberated woman craves sexual pleasure but can find no man willing to satisfy her, so obsessed are they with their solipsistic concerns of death, violence, and the search for self knowledge. The nymphomaniac and disillusioned warrior yearning for a death that will restore his sense of self meet on an empty highway only to wander on aimlessly until reaching their mutually “satisfying” yet inevitable conclusion.

Nejiko (Keiko Sakurai), a sexually frustrated teenage woman, watches some municipal workers scrub at the word Japan graffitied on a bathroom wall but takes off when she realises no one here is going to give her what she wants. Throwing her underwear off a bridge in a symbolic act of abandon she catches sight of naked swimmers trailing a Japanese flag before running into collections of marching soldiers and chanting monks. She takes up with a deserter, Otoko (Kei Sato), who is on a quest for death though his desire is not so much for the act of non-existence as it is for self knowledge. He does not want to kill himself, but to be killed by another person in whose eyes he will see himself reflected and, in his final moments, reach a realisation of everything he is.

After wandering arid, sunbaked deserts the pair are picked up by a mysterious paramilitary group who keep them prisoner in a kind of bunker where they eventually meet a gun crazed teen who just wants to kill, a middle-aged man who gets his kicks through the penetrative act of stabbing, and a wise old gangster who knows what it is to carry the weight of a weapon of death. Meanwhile, once a vengeful guy with a TV turns up, they become aware of a crisis in the outside world involving a rampaging foreigner loose with a rifle on a random shooting spree.

Guns and knives are persistent obsessions. These men are obsessed with phallic objects but indifferent to their phalluses. Nejiko pleads with each of them to satisfy her sexual frustrations but none of them is interested. Her need is for pleasure and relief, seemingly free of social or cultural taboos and born of naturally given freedom. The male urge is, by contrast, destructive – they chase death and violence without pretence or justification. When questioned, one of the bunker henchmen retorts that the situation outside is not war but only killing. All there is is violence without cause or explanation, existing solely because of male destructive impulses.

The situation outside is eerie in the extreme. This is a Japan of silence and emptiness where monks chant on the motorway and shadows people the landscape. Nejiko and Otoko find themselves frequently trying to fit in to human shapes cut into the Earth, finding them far too big or in someway constraining. Yet they also become these shadow figures, birthing new shades of themselves to leave behind as they shed evermore aspects of their essential selves. What caused this situation is not revealed, but everyone seems to be carrying on as normal. There is a crazed killer on the loose and the police have asked civilians to remain in their homes but civilians have ignored them for the most characteristic reasons for uncharacteristic insubordination – they all went to work.

Eventually Nejiko manages to convince some of the men to make love to her, but she remains unsatisfied. Likewise, the teenage “gang member” who wandered into the bunker looking for a gun gets one and succeeds in an act of random killing but discovers that it was not “exciting” after all. Desire is misplaced or its satisfaction unattainable. In this world of pure nihilism there is no pleasure and no relief, no need can be met and no peace brokered. All there is is senseless violence, devoid of meaning or purpose and born of nothing more than a desperation to quell a need which can never be fulfilled.

Death and Eros approach the same end – the “double suicide” of the title though even this is essentially passive and desperate. Youth wanders blindly towards its inevitable conclusion, lacking the will or the strength to fight back. There is no self, there is no higher purpose. All there is is a great expanse of emptiness peopled by shadows, fading slowly from a world gradually falling apart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Violence at Noon (白昼の通り魔, Nagisa Oshima, 1966)

Violence at Noon posterFor Nagisa Oshima, the personal is always political and urges for destruction and creation always inextricably linked. Violence at Noon (白昼の通り魔, Hakuchu no Torima), a noticeable shift towards the avant-garde, is a true crime story but the murder here is of idealism, the wilful death of innocence as manifested in the rampage of a disaffected sociopath whose corrupted heart ties together two women who find themselves bound to him in both love and hate. Each feeling responsible yet also that the responsibility for action belongs to someone else, they protect and defend the symbol of their failures, continuing on in despair and self loathing knowing that to turn him in is to accept the death of their idealism in its failure to reform the “demon” that won’t let them go.

Bright white gives way to the shadow of a man lurking behind bars. He opens a door and gazes at a woman doing the washing, lingering on her neck before he forces himself in. The woman, Shino (Saeda Kawaguchi) – the maid in this fancy household, knows the man – Eisuke (Kei Sato), a drifter from her home town, but her attempts at kindness are eventually rebuffed when she tells him to go back to his wife and he violently assaults her causing her to pass out at which he point he decides to spare her and murders her employer instead. Rather than explain to the police who Eisuke is, Shino offers only cryptic clues while writing to Eisuke’s wife, Matsuko (Akiko Koyama) – an idealistic schoolteacher, to ask for permission to turn him in and end the reign of terror her husband is currently wreaking as a notorious serial rapist and murderer.

Eisuke, Shino, and Matsuko are all inextricably linked by an incident which occurred in a failing farming collective the previous year. Matsuko, a kind of spiritual leader for the farming community as well as its schoolteacher, preaches a philosophy of absolute love, proclaiming that those who love expect no reward and that through the eyes of love all are equal. Meanwhile, Shino – daughter of a poor family, contemplates suicide along with her father after their lands are ruined by a flash flood and they are left without the means to support themselves. She enters into a loose arrangement with the former son of a village elder, Genji (Rokko Toura), exchanging a loan for sexual favours, later beginning develop something like a relationship with him but one which is essentially empty. Nevertheless when Genji suggested a double suicide she felt compelled to accompany him, only to survive and be “saved” by Eisuke who, believing her to be dead, raped what he assumed was her corpse before planning to dump her body in a nearby river.

It is this original act of transgression that underpins all else. Shino believes herself in someway responsible for Eisuke’s depravity, that his rape of her “corpse” was the trigger for the death of his humanity. Matsuko, meanwhile, sees herself as the embodiment of love – she “loved” Eisuke and thought her love could cure his savage nature and bring him back towards the light and the community. Matsuko was wrong, “love” is not enough and perhaps what she has come to feel for the man who later became her husband on a whim is closer to hate and thereby a total negation of her core philosophy. To admit this fact to herself, to consider that perhaps love and hate are in effect the same thing, is tantamount to a death of the self and so she will not do it. She and Shino are locked in a spiral of inertia and despair. They each feel responsible for Eisuke’s depraved existence, but each also powerless to stop him. Shino in not wishing to overstep another woman’s domain, and Matsuko in being unwilling to admit she has given up on the idea of forgiving the man who has dealt her nothing but cruelty.

Literally seduced by nihilism, Eisuke finally rejects both women. He claims they are responsible – that if Shino had married him instead of attempting double suicide with Genji he might not have “gone astray”, going on to characterise his crimes as “revenge” against his wife’s “hypocrisy”, but then he calmly states that he is the man he is and would always have done these terrible things no matter where and when he was born. Passivity has failed, blind faith in goodness has allowed a monster to arise and those who birthed him remain too mired in solipsistic soul-searching to do their civic duty. Too afraid to let go of their ideals and take decisive action, Shino and Matsuko choose to watch their society burn rather than destroy themselves in an act of personal revolution – Oshima’s thesis is clear and obscure at the same time, “Sometimes cruelty is unavoidable”.


Original trailer (no subtitles, incorrect aspect ratio)

Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Nagisa Oshima, 1965)

Pleasures of the Flesh posterHaving joined Shochiku apparently on a whim, Nagisa Oshima dramatically walked out on his home studio when they abruptly shelved his incendiary film Night and Fog in Japan citing political concerns following the assassination of the Socialist Party president by a right wing agitator. Oshima’s decision to abandon the studio system and form his own independent production company would eventually develop into a small movement, leading into that which would retrospectively be termed the “Japanese New Wave”. The first film produced by Sozo-sha, Pleasures of the Flesh (悦楽, Etsuraku), was perhaps a shift towards “pink film” aesthetics though, as in much of Oshima’s work, eroticism is more tool and trap than it is a mechanism for liberation. Ironically titled, Pleasures of the Flesh is a tale of desire frustrated by an oppressive society provoking nothing more than nihilistic need for psychological abandon.

Wakizaka (Katsuo Nakamura), an unsuccessful young man, pines for his first love – a young girl he tutored when he was a college student and she a precocious high schooler. Shoko (Mariko Kaga) has, however, married – her new husband someone more in keeping with her class and social standing. Wakizaka sees himself attend Shoko’s wedding, dreaming of her running away from the altar in her wedding dress to return to him but, no, he remains little more than a pleasant memory for the woman who has come to define his life. So devoted to Shoko was Wakizaka that when he learned from her family that a man who had molested her when she was just a child had returned to cause yet more harm by attempting to blackmail them, Wakizaka wanted to help. Seeing the man and paying him off convinced Wakizaka that the man would never give up and there would be no final payment or assurance of silence. Following him onto his train home Wakizaka took drastic action for justice, or perhaps it was revenge, or even out of a strange kind of jealousy, but nevertheless he transgressed by pushing the man from a moving train and thereby ending the threat posed to his beloved.

Wakizaka’s problems, however, are far from over. As ever in Japanese cinema, someone is always watching – in this case, a corrupt government official looking for a likely stooge with whom to stash a large amount of embezzled cash. Irony, a minor theme of the picture, rears its head as Wakizaka finds himself blackmailed over the murder of a blackmailer. The official makes a deal with him – Wakizaka must keep living in his same old horrible apartment and hang on to the suitcase full of money without opening it until he gets out of jail which is where he assumes he will shortly be headed now that his scam is reaching the tipping point. Wakizaka has little choice but to agree but when Shoko marries someone else he comes to believe his original transgression has been in vain, his life is now meaningless, and all that remains for him is a lonely death. Hence, he might as well go in style by spending all of that stolen doe, committing a bizarre act of revenge against Shoko and an unkind society by enjoying a year of debauchery followed by suicide before the official gets out of jail and turns him in as another act of retaliation.

Rejected in love, Wakizaka’s quest becomes one of continual search for conquest as he attempts to force himself on various women he wants to pretend are Shoko though of course knows are not. His approaches are many and various but begin with the obvious – he rents a fancy apartment and convinces a bar girl who looks a little like Shoko to live with him as his wife in return for a generous salary and the promise that the arrangement will only last a year. Hitomi (Yumiko Nogawa) is willing enough to submit herself to Wakizaka’s demands but he is dissatisfied by the inescapable hollowness of the relationship, uncertain who is using whom in this complicated series of transactions. His second choice is a married woman whose ongoing misery arouses in him a taste for sadism, convinced that the only way to make her “happy” is to plunge her into pain and suffering. The third woman, Keiko (Hiroko Shimizu), proves his biggest challenge – a feminist doctor afraid of men, she keeps him at arms length until he finally attempts to rape her, though this too she manages to frustrate insisting that he marry her even if they divorce a month later when Wakizaka’s time limit rolls around. Sick of Keiko’s resistance, Wakizaka opts for a mute prostitute who literally cannot talk back to him but finally makes her own defiant act of self actualisation despite Wakizaka’s attempt to assert total dominance over her existence.

Wakizaka uses the money for a life of “pleasure” but finds only despair and emptiness in each of his manufactured relationships. Having failed to “earn” it, he tries to buy love, but what he really chases is death and oblivion along with a way out of his ruined life and the humiliation he feels in his perceived failure to win Shoko’s heart. An idealised figure of elegance and purity, Shoko is an unattainable prize – the parents gentle pressing of an envelope into his hands following his “handling” of the blackmail case a subtle reminder that he is a servant, and now one perhaps cast out as tainted with a scandal they all wish to forget. Money, another recurrent motif, brings with it only sorrow and resentment. The embezzled cash didn’t do anyone any good, and neither of the blackmailers manages to make their scheme work out for them. Wakizaka is a haunted man, not so much by his crime which he sees as morally justified and feels no particular guilt over, but by his unresolvable desires as surfacing in his frequent hallucinations of Shoko who echoes in and round each and every woman in a form created entirely by her adoring suitor. In the end, reality betrays where the simulacrum remains true, but it is Wakizaka who betrays himself in allowing his pure love to become perverse revenge in the ultimate individualist act of self harm.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanzo the Razor: Who’s Got the Gold? (御用牙 鬼の半蔵やわ肌小判, Yoshio Inoue, 1974)

Hanzo the razor who's got the gold posterAll things must come to an end, and so the third instalment in the Hanzo the Razor series, Who’s Got the Gold? (御用牙 鬼の半蔵やわ肌小判, Goyokiba: Oni no Hanzo yawahada koban) is the last. To be frank the central tenet is wearing a bit thin (not least because Hanzo’s been bashing away at it with a mallet for the last two movies), and though scripted by the previous film’s director, Yasuzo Masumura, direction has been handed to the less experienced studio director Yoshio Inoue. Consequently, Who’s Got the Gold? is the most obviously parodic entry in the series, camping it up in grand style as Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) goes after a more obvious kind of vice in the form of greedy, entitled lords, corrupt priesthood, and a nation too obsessed with its past to survive in a rapidly modernising era.

Inoue opts for a purely theatrical opening as Hanzo’s two ex-con underlings, Devil and Viper, enjoy a spot of night fishing whilst dreaming about having enough money to head to the red light district. They get the fright of their lives when they think they see a creepy ghost woman emerging from the lake. Being Devil and Viper they panic and run home screaming to report this terrifying incident to their brave protector Hanzo. Hanzo is in the middle of his usual “tool polishing” routine but fancies paying a visit this mysterious lake because, well, it might be fun to try having sex with a ghost for once. Devil and Viper are very confused by this idea, but it’s par for the course with Hanzo and so off they go.

Of course, the ghost lady is not a real ghost so only part of Hanzo’s lusts are satisfied as he performs his normal sort of “special torture” on her and finds out that she’s part of an ongoing scam in which treasury officials have been skimming off some of the gold they’re supposed to be protecting. Sadly, Hanzo’s investigations hit a snag when the woman’s husband turns up and kills her for having been raped by Hanzo before promptly getting killed himself.

Hanzo does not approve of any of these goings on and fully intended to arrest the treasury officers if only they hadn’t gone and died first. Accordingly he reports all of this to his superiors but advises against prosecutions because he sympathises with the difficult position these men found themselves in. Being a samurai is not cheap and these lowly jobs are very badly paid – how are you supposed to maintain your house to the manner required without resorting to extreme measures when your lord is snaffling all the money and not paying his retainers what they’re owed. It will not come as a surprise that the lord didn’t want to hear this, and so Hanzo marks his card. It didn’t really help that Hanzo’s walk into the castle involved running a gauntlet of unfortunate samurai forced to kneel along the path all day just hoping that the lord would show them some favour. Among them was a old friend of Hanzo’s who receives a tactless offer of fixed employment if only he will give up a family heirloom that the lord has been admiring.

The gold smuggling subplot runs in parallel with another problem – a doctor whom the lord has ordered Hanzo to arrest because he was advocating the adoption of Western technologies, fearing that the nation was leaving itself dangerously vulnerable if it refused to modernise. The doctor, like the girl’s father in the first film, is dying of a terminal illness and so Hanzo thinks the sentence can wait. Hiding the doctor in his house he listens to his ideas and then comes to the same conclusion, allowing him to finish building a cannon to prove to the lord just how destructive these new weapons really are and just how dangerous it would be to fight them with only katanas and samurai spirit. Hanzo lives in interesting times, but this dilemma says something both about the precarious position of the samurai order in the face of increasing modernisation and about the 1970s background in which a small war was currently being waged against American imperialism.

As usual Hanzo refuses to bow. He will not give in to bullies or those who abuse their authority to add additional oppression onto an already oppressed populace which he has pledged his life to protecting. The contradiction of being a rapist so well endowed that afterwards no one seems to mind has still not been solved, but by this third instalment in the series the “joke” is so well worn as to receive little attention. Who’s Got the Gold? is weakest of the three adventures for Hanzo and his well conditioned razor but it has its charms, if only in the troublingly easy way that its central conceit has become so essentially normalised as to be barely noticed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道, Kenji Misumi, 1973)

baby-cart-land-demonsOgami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former Shogun executioner now a fugitive in search of justice after being framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan who are also responsible for the death of his wife, is still on the Demon’s Way with his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Five films into this six film cycle, the pair are edging closer to their goal as the evil Lord Retsudo continues to make shadowy appearances at the corners of their world. However, the Demon’s Way carries a heavy toll, littered with corpses of unlucky challengers, the road has, of late, begun to claim the lives of the virtuous along with the venal. Conflicted as he was in his execution of a contract to assassinate the tragic Oyuki in the previous instalment, Baby Cart in Peril, whose story was perhaps even sadder than his own, Ogami is about to descend further still as a commission to kill a living Buddha proves even more sordid than expected.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道,  Kozure Okami: Meifumado) starts as it means to go on as Ogami finds yet another coded way of touting for business when he notices the strange demonic drawing on the face mask of a resting man and correctly reads it as a message for the Lone Wolf and Cub. The Kuroda clan have despatched five of their best men wearing just such masks in order to test his skills and find out if he’s worthy of their job. Each time he defeats one, he’ll receive 100 ryou (a fifth of his fee) and part of the reasons and explanations he requires in deciding whether to take the job.

This time the assignment is to do with a mislaid yet incriminating letter from the Kuroda lord, Naritaka (Shingo Yamashiro), who has unwisely been deceiving the Shogun as to the identity of his children. Very much in love with his mistress, Naritaka has been passing off their daughter, Hamachiyo (Sumida Kazuyo), as his son Matsumaru. Meanwhile the real Matsumaru, his legitimate heir through his legal wife, has been imprisoned in the compound and kept away from prying eyes. A particularly stupid and pointless ruse, yet the lord has created even more problems for himself by allowing a letter outlining all of this to fall into the hands of a treacherous priest, Jikei (Hideji Otaki), who turns out to be the head of a ninja spy network. Ogami’s job is to kill Jikei and get the letter back but it comes with some additional spice – Jikei plans to hand the letter to Lord Retsudo, Ogami’s arch nemesis.

Ogami’s world is a feudal one where allegiance to one’s lord trumps almost everything. The lords are, however, often dishonest, selfish, and cruel. The hypocrisy of the samurai world is a phenomenon well known to all, and most particularly to Ogami who has found himself at the mercy of the ambitious Yagyu clan. Whatever else he may have become, Ogami is a man of honour to whom the way of samurai maintains a deep spiritual importance. Jikei’s attempt to unsettle Ogami by asking him what he thinks he’s going to achieve on the Demon’s Way and if killing a living Buddha is a fitting use of his talents, further pushes Ogami into a spiritual crisis regarding his quest for vengeance and ongoing career as a sword for hire.

Naritaka has, indeed, broken his code in lying to the Shogun but also in rejecting his position and creating an alternative family of his choosing by favouring the female child of his mistress over his legitimate male heir. In addition to his contract to kill Jikei and retake the letter, Ogami also receives a request to assassinate the lord himself alongside his concubine and even their daughter. This illegitimate line cannot be allowed to continue, the illicit family born of personal choice must be cut off before it begins to corrupt the future of the Kuroda clan. Actively plotting the death of one’s lord is an unthinkable concept, yet a retainer also has a responsibility to guard the honour of their house and so the lord must go, even if the retainer is bound to follow him.

The decision to execute the entire family recalls the series’ origins in which Ogami was seen to act as a second in the “harakiri” of a toddler shortly before seeing his own family fall under the sword of a Yagyu plot. Daigoro is growing older at an unnatural rate but shows a little more willingness to engage in acts of altruistic heroism than his father, such as in an episode where he decides to refuse to identify a local pickpocket even if it means he himself will be flogged in her place. Ogami looks on in inaction, yet there is the faintest flicker of pride in his otherwise impassive face as his fearless son opts to undergo a harsh punishment rather than allow someone else to suffer even as she tries to save him in turn. Daigoro also has an awkward moment of connection with the similarly aged unlucky princess but remains apparently unmoved by her fate at the end of their mission. The legitimate prince may have been liberated and the official line restored, but there has been a heavy price for all concerned and the Kuroda clan is far from saved.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons marks the return, albeit for the last time, of the series’ original director Kenji Misumi who gets rid of the heavily exploitation leaning approach brought by Buichi Saito in the previous film, Baby Cart in Peril. No voiceovers, no musical sequences, and an overall return to quiet contemplation mixed with impressively balletic fight sequences rather than the frenetic action and sudden trickery which defined Baby Cart in Peril send the series back to its spiritual roots after a brief foray into the contemporary jidaigeki. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is also the first in the series which contains no female nudity though it does make room for another skilled female warrior and also repeats the motif of Ogami leaving a melancholy woman behind him as he sets off into the sunset, yet this time it’s a woman who has chosen her own path in keeping with her own code and earned Ogami’s respect, and perhaps sorrow, in the process. Ogami is drawing closer to Retsudo, though his path leads him through a land of demons each more villainous than the last and justice seems like an unrealistic ideal where only men like Ogami stand at the gates of man and beast.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)