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)

Hit and Run (ひき逃げ, Mikio Naruse, 1966)

The contradictions of the contemporary society drive two women out of their minds in Mikio Naruse’s dark psychological drama, Hit and Run (ひき逃げ, Hikinige, AKA A Moment of Terror). Scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama and starring his wife Hideko Takamine in her final collaboration with the director, Naruse’s penultimate film takes aim at the persistent unfairness of a post-war society already corrupted by increasing corporatisation while caught at a moment of transition that leaves neither woman free to escape the outdated patriarchal social codes of the feudal era. 

The two women, both mothers to five-year-old boys, are mirror images of each other. Kuniko (Hideko Takamine), the heroine, is a widow working in a noodle bar and continually exasperated by her energetic son Takeshi who keeps escaping kindergarten to play pachinko which is not a suitable environment for a small child. Kinuko (Yoko Tsukasa), meanwhile, is mother to Kenichi and married to a high ranking executive at Yamano Motors, Kakinuma (Eitaro Ozawa). These two worlds quite literally collide when Kinuko, emotionally distressed and driving a little too fast, knocks over little Takeshi while he is out playing with some of the other neighbourhood boys. As she is with her lover, Susumu (Jin Nakayama), she decides to drive on abandoning Takeshi to his fate but discovers blood on the bumper of her shiny white convertible on returning home and thereafter decides to tell her husband everything aside from revealing her affair. Kakinuma covers the whole thing up by forcing their driver to take the rap to protect not his wife but the company along with his own status and success fearing that a scandal concerning his wife driving carelessly may have adverse consequences seeing as Yamano Motors is about to launch a new super fast engine that will make them worldwide industry leaders. 

Perhaps in a way the true villain, Kakinuma cares about nothing other than his corporate success. Kinuko states as much in complaining that he’s never once considered her feelings only his own and that their marriage was a failure from the start, little more than an act of exploitation in which she was traded by her father for money in return for political connections. For these reasons she seeks escape through her extra-marital affair but is unable to leave partly in the psychological conflict of breaking with tradition and partly because she has a son whom she would likely not be permitted to take with her even if it were practical to do so. Another woman says something similar in disparaging Kuniko, implying that her life is in some ways over as few men would be interested in marrying a widow with a child. 

Takeshi’s loss is therefore additionally devastating in severing Kuniko’s only lifeline. A brief flashback reveals that Kuniko was once a post-war sex worker, she and her yakuza brother Koji war orphans who lost their parents in the aerial bombing. When she married and had a child she thought the gods had smiled on her but in true Narusean fashion they gave only to take away leaving her a widow and finally robbing her even of her child. To add insult to injury, they try to put a price on her son’s life, a mere 500,000 yen for a boy of five hit by a car. When the driver stands in the dock, he gets off with only a 30,000 yen fine for the death of a child. Then again on visiting his home, there appears to be a boy of around five there too, perhaps you can’t blame him for taking the money having been robbed of his youth in wartime service. 

Still, on hearing from an eye witness that it was a woman who was driving, Kuniko quickly realises that Kinuko must have been responsible. Quitting her job she joins a maid agency in order to infiltrate the house and gain revenge later settling on the idea of killing little Kenichi, who takes an instant liking to her, to hurt his mother in the way she has been hurt only to be torn by her unexpected maternal connection with the boy. The conflict between the two women is emotional, but also tinged with class resentment that a wealthy woman like Kinuko should be allowed to escape justice with so little thought to those around her while Kuniko is tormented not only by her grief but the persistent injustice of the cover up. 

As in all things, it’s the lie that does the most damage in ironically exposing the truth of all it touches. Kinuko’s escape route is closed when her lover reveals that he’s lost faith in her, unable to trust a woman who’d run away from the scene of a crime and allow someone else to take the blame, while Kakinuma’s emotional abandonment of his social family for the corporate is thrown into stark relief by his immediate decision to further exploit their driver just as he will later their maid. Driven out of her mind, Kuniko has white hot flashes of lustful vengeance as she imagines herself engineering an accident for Kenichi, throwing him off a rollercoaster or coaxing him into traffic, only to regain her senses unable to go through with it so pushed to the brink of madness is she that no other action makes sense. 

Even so the conclusion is brutally ironic, Kuniko accused of a crime she did not commit but half believing that she must have done it because she wanted to so very much. Kakinuma gets a minor comeuppance, encouraged by his servant to make clear what actually happened and exonerate Kuniko thereby walking back his total commitment to the corporate (then again it seems his dream project was itself under threat from a potential plagiarism scandal) though the damage may already have been done. This societal violence of an unequal, increasingly corporatised and unfeeling society, eventually comes full circle bringing with it only death and madness as the two women seek escape from their internal torment. Naruse experiments with handheld camera and canted angles to emphasise the destabilisation of the women’s sense of reality along with blow out and solarisation in the visions that plague them, but curiously ends with a set of motor vehicle accident stats as if this had been a roundabout public information film to encourage careful driving. Then again perhaps in a way it is, a cautionary tale about the dangerous curves of untapped modernity and the cruelties of the nakedly consumerist era.  


Lake of Dracula (呪いの館 血を吸う眼, Michio Yamamoto, 1971)

Lake of Dracula posterThe Vampire Doll, the first in a loose trilogy of films along vampiric themes released by Toho in the 1970s, had done its best to relocate Hammer-style horror to contemporary Japan. Adopting the best of the gothic from thundery skies to creepy mansions in the middle of nowhere, Vampire Doll successfully merged the Japanese longhaired grudge bearing ghost with the “romantic” bloodsucking tragedy of a young woman corrupted by illicit desires (though in this case for revenge). Returning to the theme a year later, Michio Yamamoto steps away from Japanese folklore altogether and positions his “foreign” Dracula as a “living” embodiment of repressed trauma, sucking the life out of his unwitting enemy until she finally learns to remember him, burning him away in the bright sunlight of his own eye.

Unlike Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula (呪いの館 血を吸う眼, Noroi no Yakata: Chi wo Su Me) begins with a short prologue in which some children play on a rocky outcrop underneath a strangely ominous pink sky. When little Akiko’s pet dog Leo uncharacteristically runs off, she follows him and he leads her straight into the path of danger. Finding herself in a creepy mansion complete with stained glass windows and a dead body posed at a piano, the last thing that Akiko remembers is the pale face of a strange man with golden eyes and blood staining his chin.

Flashforward 20 years and Akiko (Midori Fujita) is a school teacher still living with her younger sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi) in their childhood home. She is convinced her traumatic childhood incident must have been a dream though it continues to haunt her enough to be a frequent subject in her artwork including a striking canvas she has just completed featuring a frightening golden eye looming over a tiny girl and her dog. Akiko has nice boyfriend, Takashi (Choei Takahashi), who is a doctor in the city, and all things considered a pretty nice life. Sadly it is not to last.

The trouble begins when someone randomly delivers a coffin to the local boathouse. First Akiko’s dog goes missing, then her trusted uncle figure tries to attack her before running off never to be seen again. Meanwhile, at Takashi’s hospital, a young “runaway” has been brought in in a catatonic state though no one can find much wrong with her until Takashi spots two suspicious bite marks on her neck. In case you’d forgotten about Natsuko, she has also begun behaving strangely – offering snide comments to her sister, going out alone in the middle of the night, and most alarmingly she has begun to grow pale.

Like Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula is also an experimental vampire movie hybrid – a B-movie stalker picture in which Dracula is the creepy guy who can’t seem to take no for an answer. Yamamoto films the “naturalistic” action in standard Toho fashion but shifts into a higher register for his conception of heightened vampiric romanticism as Akiko’s “dream” erupts under a blood red sky and eventually leads her to an artfully appointed gothic cottage in which even the dead bodies are tastefully arranged.

Yet what Dracula comes to represent is the soul sucking power of the repressed past. Akiko has largely been able to move past her traumatic childhood adventure, convincing herself it was nothing more than a dream, and seems to be living a pleasant enough life even if her paintings betray her continuing anxiety. As we later find out, it is not quite so much the episode itself as the refusal to accept it which has caused Akiko so many problems – not least a buried rift with her treasured sister resulting from unfortunate sibling rivalry never fully dealt with both because of the incident and the early death of their parents. Akiko, resentful of having a new sister who had “displaced” her in her parents’ affections, sought to win back her rightful place by being the ideal child – good and obedient. Hence when no one believed her about the creepy house and strange man, she backed down, let them tell her it was only a dream to avoid being thought argumentative. Now she wonders if Natsuko harboured ill will towards her too for “stealing” back her parents’ love through her crazy story and perhaps relegating her to second place when she had become used to first.

Familial love becomes an odd kind of theme as we discover Dracula had a father of his own – a descendent of non-Japanese immigrants who had purposefully built a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere in order to limit the possibility of his “bad blood” wreaking havoc in the world. The bad blood apparently skips a generation here and there and so Dracula, the third generation, is the first to be affected by it. His father tried to sacrifice himself to control his son, but now the demon is loose and is after Akiko who, creepily enough, seems to have caught his eye all those years ago (when she was five!) and he is determined to make her his “wife”. Vampirising someone’s sister is probably not a good way to win their heart, but Dracula, oddly, has never been very good at conventional romance.

Dracula’s “foreign” origins are perhaps an uncomfortable nod back to the xenophobic nature of the vampire myth. Despite being 3/4 Japanese and born and raised in Japan, Dracula’s late in the game exposure as not properly “Japanese” enough unfortunately reinforces the idea that “mixed” blood is somehow “impure”, even dangerous, and that even those who’ve spent their lives in Japan are not the same as those who are descended from long lines fully recorded 100% Japanese ancestors. Thus the danger becomes a “foreign object” which must be expelled to restore the integrity of the whole.

Restoring integrity is Akiko’s quest as she, along with her doctor boyfriend, attempts to solve the mystery through revisiting her traumatic childhood incident and finally learns to put it behind her. Yamamoto’s direction shifts between standard B-movie naturalism and florid avant-garde compositions but perhaps fails to capitalise on their inherent theatricality. Picking up the pace for the final set piece, Yamamoto also allows himself to go grim in taking a leaf directly out of the Hammer book by lifting the final death scene from the Christopher Lee starring Hammer Horror from 1958 in his crumbling, melting vampire, not to mention the other decomposing corpse resting in the house whose skin slides sickeningly from his body. A strange, hybrid adventure, Lake of Dracula makes an early attempt to pair the vampire chiller with serial killer thriller and does so moderately successfully even if its psychology remains firmly within the realms of the B-movie.


Lake of Dracula is the second of three films included in Arrow’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy box set which also includes extensive liner notes by Jasper Sharp detailing the history of vampires and horror cinema in Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)