Escape from Japan (日本脱出, Kiju Yoshida, 1964)

Like many directors of his generation, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida began his career at Shochiku working on the studio’s characteristically inoffensive fare before being promoted as one of their youth voices through which they hoped to capture a similar audience to that attracted by Nikkatsu’s Sun Tribe movies. Yoshida’s films may have spoken to youth but they were perhaps not quite what the studio was looking for nor the kinds of projects that he really wanted to work on, which is one reason why 1964’s Escape from Japan (日本脱出, Nihon Dasshutsu), an anarchic B-movie crime thriller of intense paranoia all maddening angles and claustrophobic composition, was his last for Shochiku, the final straw being their decision to change the ending without telling him and release the film while he was away on honeymoon. 

Set very much in the present, the film opens with a young man miming to American jazz which turns out to be part of the floor show being performed by the band on the stage below for whom he is a reluctant roadie. Tatsuo (Yasushi Suzuki) dreams of going to America to rediscover “real jazz” and subsequently bring it back to Japan. He has the strange idea that America is a true meritocracy where his talent will be recognised, unlike Japan where it is impossible for him to succeed because he is not particularly good looking or possessed of “star quality”. Feeling himself indebted to the band’s drug-addled drummer Takashi (Kyosuke Machida) for helping him get the roadie gig with the false promise of becoming a singer, Tatsuo agrees to help him commit an elaborate robbery of the “turkish bath” (low level sex services and precursor to the modern “soaplands”) where his girlfriend Yasue (Miyuki Kuwano) works. Only it all goes wrong. The guys kill a policeman during the escape, and the other hotheaded member of the gang becomes convinced that Yasue may talk now that they’ve got involved with murder so they should finish her off too by forcing her to take an overdose of sleeping pills. 

Absolutely everyone is desperate to escape Japan for various different reasons. Tatsuo because of his obsession with American jazz and the freedom it represents to him coupled with the sense of impotence he feels in an oppressive society which refuses to recognise his talent because he doesn’t look the part. He jokes with his next-door neighbour, a sex worker who has redecorated her apartment in anticipation of impressing the tourists arriving for the Olympics, that he envies women and wishes he could find a “sponsor” to take him to the States, but later can offer only the explanation that Japan doesn’t interest him when probed over why he was so desperate to leave. 

“Korea or anywhere else, it’s better than Japan” Yasue later adds, consoling Tatsuo as she informs him that their escape plan won’t work because all of the US military planes are being diverted to Korea to bring in extra help for the Olympics. Bundled into a van filled with chicken carcases as a potential stowaway, he discovers another escapee – a Korean trying to go “home”, or rather to the North (presumably having missed out on the post-war “repatriation” programs) where he claims there are lots of opportunities for young people only to lose his temper when Tatsuo explains that he wants to become a jazz singer. He doesn’t want decadent wastrels in his communist paradise and would rather Tatsuo not mess up his country. Yet they are each already dependent on the Americans even for their escape, making use of military corruption networks and getting Yasue’s friend’s GI squeeze into trouble through exposing his black-marketeering. 

Tatsuo and Yasue find they have more in common than they first thought, both “deceived” by those like Takashi who turned out to be a feckless married man and father-to-be risking not only his own future but that of his unborn child solely to fuel his escapist drug habit (which was perhaps the reason for the lengthy hospital stay from which he had just returned). Yasue was just trying to save up enough money to open a hairdresser’s in her hometown, but Takashi told her he was a “famous jazz drummer” and presumably sold her the same kind of empty dreams as he did Tatsuo. Giving up on her own future, realising that even in America the sex trade is all that’s waiting for her, Yasue tries to engineer Tatsuo’s escape but he, traumatised by his crimes, descends further into crazed paranoia, eventually finding himself right in the middle of the Olympics opening ceremony. This is event is supposed to put Japan back on the map as a rehabilitated modern nation, but perhaps all it’s doing is creating an elaborate smokescreen to disguise all the reasons a man like Tatsuo and a woman like Yasue might want to be just about anywhere else. Yoshida seems unimpressed with the modern nation and its awkward relationship with the Americans, perhaps a controversial point in the immediate run up to the games. Shochiku neutered his attempt to depict a man driven to madness by the impossibilities of his times, but a sense of that madness remains as Tatsuo finds himself on the run and eventually suspended neither here nor there, trapped in a perpetual limbo of frustration and futility.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Stakeout (張込み, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1958)

Most closely associated with the crime genre, Yoshitaro Nomura was, like his frequent source of inspiration Seicho Matsumoto, also an insightful chronicler of the lives of ordinary people in the complicated post-war society. Stakeout (張込み, Harikomi), once again inspired by a Matsumoto short story, is on the surface a police procedural but underneath it’s not so much about the fugitive criminal as a policeman on the run, vacillating in his choice of bride, torn between the woman he loves who is afraid to marry him because her family is poor, and the pressure to accept an arranged marriage with the perfectly nice daughter of a local bathhouse. The stakeout becomes, in his eyes, a kind of illustrated parable, going against the socially conventional grain to convince him that making the “sensible” choice may only lead to long years of regret, misery, and loneliness. 

The film opens, as so many of Nomura’s films do, with a journey as two dogged Tokyo cops board a long distance train from Yokohoma travelling all the way down to provincial Kyushu which might as well be a world away from the bustling metropolis. Posing as motor salesmen, they take a room at a local inn overlooking the home of a melancholy housewife, Sadako (Hideko Takamine), the former girlfriend of a man on the run, Ishii (Takahiro Tamura), suspected of being in possession of a gun used to kill the owner of a pawn shop during a robbery. The younger of the policemen, Yuki (Minoru Oki), declares himself faintly disappointed with Sadako, complaining that she looks older than her years and is in fact quite boring, “the epitome of ordinary”. 

His older colleague, Shimooka (Seiji Miyaguchi), reminds him that most people are boring and ordinary, but as he watches her Yuki comes to feel a kind of sympathy for Sadako, seeing her less as a suspect than a fellow human being. Later we hear from Sadako that her marriage has left her feeling tired every day, aimless, and with nothing to live for, that her decision to marry was like a kind of suicide. “A married woman is miserable” Yuki laments on observing Sadako’s life as she earnestly tries to do her best as a model housewife, married to a miserly middle-aged banker who padlocks the rice, berates her for not starting the bath fire earlier to save on coal, and gives only 100 yen daily in housekeeping money while she cares for his three children from a previous marriage. Trying to coax him back towards the proper path, Shimooka admits that marriage is no picnic, but many are willing to endure hardship at the side of the right man. 

The “right man” gets Yuki thinking. Sadako has obviously not ended up with the right man which is why he sees no sign of life in her as if she simply sleepwalks through her existence. He is obviously keen that he wouldn’t want to make another woman feel like that, or perhaps that he would not like to be left feeling as she does at the side of the wrong woman. We discover that his dilemma is particularly acute because he finds himself at a crossroads dithering between two women, faced with a similar choice to the one he increasingly realises Sadako regrets. Shimooka’s wife is acting as a go-between, pressuring him to agree to an arranged marriage with a very nice girl whose family own the local bathhouse. She makes it clear that she’s not trying to force him into a marriage he doesn’t want, but would like an answer even if the answer is no so they can all move forward, but for some reason he hasn’t turned it down. Yuki is in love with Yumiko (Hizuru Takachiho), but Yumiko has turned him down once before because her family is desperately poor, so much so that they’re about to be evicted and all six of them will have to move into a tiny one room flat. She feels embarrassed to explain to her prospective husband that she will need to continue working after they marry but send almost all of her money to her parents rather than committing to their new family. 

Meditating on his romantic dilemma, Yuki begins to sympathise even more with Sadako, resenting their fugitive for having placed her in such a difficult position and repeatedly cautioning the other officers to make sure that the press don’t get hold of Sadako’s name and potentially mess up her comfortable middle class life with scandal when she is entirely blameless. The fugitive, Ishii, is not a bad man but a sorry and desperate one. He went to Tokyo to find work, but became one of many young men lost in the complicated post-war economy, shuffling from one poorly paid casual job to another. Now suffering with what seems to be incurable tuberculosis, he finds himself dreaming of his first love, the gentle tones of famous folksong Furusato wafting over the pair as they lament lost love at a picturesque hot springs while Yuki continues to spy on them from behind a nearby tree. 

They both bitterly regret their youthful decision to part, she not to go and he not to stay. The failure to fight for love is what has brought them here, to lives of desperate and incurable misery filled only with regret and lonliness. Sadako views her present life as a kind of punishment, finally resolving to leave her husband and runaway with Ishii who has told her that he plans to go to Okinawa to drive bulldozers for the next three years, though we can perhaps guess he has a different destination in mind. “That’s the way the world is, things don’t go the way you want” Ishii laments, but the truth is choices have already been made and your course is as set as a railway track. Sadako plots escape, but all Yuki can do is send her back to her husband with sympathy and train fare, leaving us worried that perhaps she won’t go back after all. Buying tickets for his own return journey, Yuki pauses to send a telegram. He’s made his choice. It’s not the same as Sadako’s, a lesson has been learnt. He goes back to Tokyo with marriage on his mind, but does so with lightness in his step in walking away from the socially rigid past towards a freer future, staking all on love as an anchor in an increasingly confusing world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Case of the Disjointed Murder (不連続殺人事件, Chusei Sone, 1977)

Case of the disjointed murders posterJapanese cinema of the 1970s fell hard for the prestige murder mystery. Following the success of The Inugami Family, an early and unexpected hit thanks to Kadokawa’s “innovative” marketing strategy, multi-cast detective dramas dominated the box office for the rest of the decade. Meanwhile, ATG had been known for serious and high-minded avant-garde cinema throughout the 1960s but its brand of left-leaning, politically conscious, arthouse-fare was tantamount to box office poison in the increasingly consumerist post-Asama-Sanso world. ATG’s Kindaichi-centric Death at an Old Mansion, updated to the present day, pre-dated Ichikawa’s series for Toho by a whole year and perhaps signalled their resignation to shifting into the mainstream. By 1977, that transition was perhaps complete with former Nikkatsu Roman Porno director Chusei Sone’s adaptation of a classic serial penned by Ango Sakaguchi, an author of the “Buraiha“ school well known for chronicling post-war aimlessness.

Set in the summer of 1947, Case of the Disjointed Murder (不連続殺人事件, Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken, AKA Unrelated Murder Cases) is a classic country house mystery in which a series of high profile writers are invited to a mansion owned by a wealthy family, the Utagawas. Only, as it turns out, many of the letters of invitation are forgeries or have been doctored so that several unexpected guests have arrived including dissolute artist Doi (Yuya Uchida) whose presence is particularly awkward because he is the former husband of the host Kazuma’s (Tetsuro Sagawa) new wife Ayaka (Junko Natsu). Soon enough, one of the guests is murdered, and then another, and still more, seemingly for no real reason. Amateur detective Kose (Kazuya Kosaka), one of the “unexpected” guests, tries to piece the crime together to prevent its expansion but finds himself outflanked by a lack of material evidence.

Sakaguchi’s original tale ran as a newspaper serial which promised a cash prize for anyone clever enough to identify the murderer(s) before the truth was revealed as it eventually is in true country house mystery fashion with the detective explaining everything in a lengthy monologue while all the interested parties sit around a dinner table. The gamified nature of the serial is perhaps the reason for the large cast of characters comprising of Utagawa family members, the literary house guests, and staff all of whom become mixed up in the ongoing crime drama which Kose comes increasingly to believe is engineered rather than random as it might originally seem.

The “supposed” random chaos of the the “unconnected” murders is a key part of Sakaguchi’s interrogation of post-war anxiety. For a time it seems as if these mostly quite unpleasant people have taken the opportunity of being trapped within a claustrophobic environment to air out their own grievances with each other in an atmosphere already tainted with violence and resentment. Meanwhile, the moral corruption of the Utagawa household continues to come back to haunt them in the sexual transgressions of the late grandfather who apparently fathered several illegitimate children in addition to those from multiple marriages. The half-siblings bring additional strife into the Utagawa home in Kazuma’s incestuous desire for his half-sister Kayoko (Hitomi Fukuhara) who returns his affections and even hopes to marry her brother, while he has also transgressed by “buying” Ayaka from her venal first husband Doi.

As in most Japanese mysteries, however, the motives for murder turn out to be banal – simply monetary greed and seemingly nothing more even if backed up by a peculiar kind of romanticism. Such unbound desire for riches is perhaps another symptom of the precariousness of the post-war world in which individual survival is all in a chaotic environment where financial security is more or less impossible for those not already born into wealth. Kose begins to solve the crimes through the “psychological traces” the killer(s) leave behind, the various ways in which “scenes” are calculated and contrived but fail to entirely mask the truth which lies behind them.

Which is to say that the mechanics behind the killings ultimately become secondary to their psychological import in which Kose analyses superficial relationships to uncover the depths which underpin them and their implications for a conspiracy of crime. This persistent amorality in which human relationships and connections are subverted for personal gain is yet another example of post-war inhumanity in which the corruption of the war has destroyed the “innocence” of pre-modern Japan and provoked nothing more than a moral decline born of a confused anxiety and a generation struggling to adjust itself to a new reality.

Death at an Old Mansion aside, the ‘70s mystery boom had a peculiar obsession with post-war crime in the comparative comfort of the economic miracle. 30 years on, society was perhaps ready to ask more questions about an intensely traumatic moment in time but equally keen to ask what they might say about another anxious moment of social change only opposite in nature. No longer quite so burdened by post-war regret or confusion, some began to wonder if consumerism was as dangerous as poverty for the health of the national soul, but nevertheless seem content to bask in the essential cosiness of a country house mystery in which the detective will always return at the end to offer a full and frank explanation to a roomful of compromised suspects. If only real life were so easy to explain.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Poem (哥, Akio Jissoji, 1972)

Poem dvd coverThere might be a temptation to view Akio Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy” as an intensely Japanese affair given its obvious preoccupation with Eastern religious thought and background dialogue with the political confusion of the day, but like fellow New Wave outsider Kiju Yoshida, Jissoji had studied French literature and there is something classically European about his nihilistic ennui in the midst of a decaying social order. Poem (, Uta), the trilogy’s final instalment, bears this out most of all as the servant boy of a noble house, secretly its spiritual heir, alone attempts to resist the march of time to save the natural essence of a culture about to eclipse itself in consumerist emptiness.

Jun (Saburo Shinoda), a strange young man, is a servant/legal clerk to a lawyer, Yasushi (Shin Kishida), who is the oldest son of the Moriyama family. Though he has inherited stewardship of the house and mountains, Yasushi and his wife Natsuko (Eiko Yanami) long to break free of its traditionalist constraints by ripping it apart and replacing tatami mat comfort with Western modernity. They can’t do that, however, because old Moriyama (Kanjuro Arashi), Yasushi’s father, is still alive and Yasushi doesn’t particularly want to have to talk to him. Meanwhile, the spacious mansion is also shared by a legal student, Wada (Ryo Tamura), who is kind of interning with Yasushi while repeatedly failing the bar exam, and the family’s maid Fujino (Hiroko Sakurai).   

Unlike Yasushi, Jun sees his life’s purpose as serving the Moriyama family. Intensely worried that a fire may engulf this fine house built with only the best Japanese cedar, Jun gets up every night at midnight and patrols with an electric torch, looking for loose sparks. One night he finds some, though not the kind he was expecting, on accidentally witnessing Wada make love to Fujino. Apparently uninterested, Jun looks it over and moves on while the lady of the house, Natsuko, starved of affection by her impotent husband, finds herself stirred by such unexpected eroticism.

Yasushi’s physical impotence is perhaps merely a manifestation emasculated powerlessness as the oldest son of a noble house who, nevertheless, wields no real power and is entirely unable to make decisions for himself. Yet his big case at work is thrown into confusion when his social climbing client suddenly tries to have his partner, Arita (Haruhiko Okamura), removed days before the court hearing because it might look nicer to have someone of Moriyama’s standing representing him. Even so, Yasushi is so clueless with the modern world that he needs Jun, a calligraphy enthusiast and advocate for the old, to operate the photocopier because he doesn’t know how (and neither does Wada). Only Jun, in another contradiction, insists on working to rule and leaving at 5pm because his “main job” is protecting the house and serving the Moriyama family, not Yasushi. Jun allows himself to be seduced by Natusko on the grounds that if she does not receive sexual satisfaction inside the house she will need to look for it outside which could bring shame on the Moriyama name. Finding out his wife is sleeping with another man, the weird servant boy no less, Yasushi doesn’t even care (besides being mildly turned on), as long as she doesn’t do anything which might arouse “rumours”.

The dirty secret that neither Yasushi or his debauched brother Toru (Eishin Tono) know is that Jun, whose name means “pure”, is their illegitimate half-brother that their father had with a maid. As we later discover, old Moriyama plans to divide his estate not in two but three, believing that it hardly matters anyway because division, in a break with the system of traditional succession by the oldest son, will be the end of the Moriyama family. He may well have a point as neither Yasushi, who eventually abandons the house to Toru and escapes to Kyoto, or his brother are interested in legacy. Once Moriyama passes, they plan to sell the entire plot, mountains and trees and all, to developers. In fact, the house already technically belongs to someone else because as soon as he moved in Toru started taking out exorbitant loans to fund his wastrel playboy lifestyle and has already figured out the jig is up and they’re all broke. Only Jun, who hears the voice of the mountains as if it were the voice of existence itself, is desperate to save the family name though he is at this point almost beyond saving himself.

Looking for the “absolute” in tombstones, Jun is told that only darkness exists inside. Yet he is certain that as long as form survives, content can return. He sees the Moriyamas’ forests as the essence of an older Japan and their untouched natural beauty the rock on which their souls are anchored. Yet his half-brothers oppose him. For them, Japan, even the world, is already ruined and nothing worth protecting remains. Existence itself is nothing more than a dream, and suicide no different. They no longer feel they can live “in such an age”.

Yet Jun, his father’s spiritual heir even if he doesn’t know it, keeps reaching, perhaps not quite hoping but demanding even in his powerlessness which may, in a sense result in a kind of transcendence in its purity. Unlike the ambiguously hopeful ending of This Transient Life, or the urgent ominousness of that of Mandala, Poem ends in defeat and futility, suggesting that time cannot be stopped or progress arrested even by those who seek the eternity of enlightenment. And so Jissoji brings us full circle by showing us a world in entropy unsalvageable in the cruelty of its contradictions.


Poem is the third of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set which also features an introduction and selected scene commentaries by scholar of the Japanese New Wave David Desser plus a 60-page booklet with new writing by Tom Mes and Anton Bitel.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Smashing the 0-Line (密航0ライン, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

(C) Nikkatsu 1960

(C) Nikkatsu 1960Looking from the outside in, the Tokyo of 1960 seems to have been one of rising economic prosperity in which post-war anxiety was beginning to transition into a relentless surge towards modernity, but there also seems to have been a mild preoccupation with the various dangers that same modernity might present. Like The Sleeping Beast Within released just two months previously, Smashing the 0-Line (密航0ライン, Mikko Zero Line) centres on a mystery which leads straight back to Hong Kong and a dangerous, international smuggling ring – this time involving both drugs and people. Our heroes are both reporters, but at odds with each other despite being old friends in having diametrically opposed notions of professional ethics.

Katori (Hiroyuki Nagato), our anti-hero, is a man so desperate to get a scoop that he thinks little of engineering one. Thus we witness him making passionate love to a woman one minute before turning her into the police the next. The woman, Reiko (Sanae Nakahara), is also the little sister of one of his oldest friends, Saiko (Ryohei Uchida), whom he also decides to turn into the police in service of his story. Another old friend, Nishina (Yuji Kodaka), has also become a reporter but for a more respectable paper and is dating Katori’s little sister, Sumiko (Mayumi Shimizu), who is now the announcer at the local baseball stadium. Katori’s decision to turn on Reiko will have profoundly negative consequences for her former lover who is prepared to sacrifice all in pursuit of his goal.

Three men, once college friends, have chosen three radically different paths in the post-war world. Saiko has become a gangster while Katori has become an unscrupulous yet apparently publicly minded newshound and Nishina a pure hearted journalist who insists on doing everything by the book and abiding by conventional journalistic ethics. Yet despite himself, or possibly because of his love for Sumiko, Nishina tries to help Katori see the dangers of his extremely dangerous pattern of behaviour in which he has been content to use people like things to get what he wants.

Katori claims to be on the same side as Nishina – he thinks something is going sour in the city and that only he can stop it by exposing the various conspiracies in play. Katori’s chief fear is that Tokyo will become “another Hong Kong” – a crime ridden state of drug addled lawlessness (an extremely biased and seemingly inaccurate view of ‘60s Hong Kong but one that speaks of a certain fear of Japan’s new spot on the global scene). This particular conspiracy does indeed ping back to Hong Kong and the illegal traffic of drugs but also people heading in both directions. In the Japan of 1960, it was near impossible to get a passport and so smuggling yourself out might be the only way if you really need to get to Hong Kong which means you’ll need to pay a people trafficker to do it.

Katori, broadly, seems to think people trafficking is a bad thing he doesn’t want in Japan but is entirely blind to the same ways he himself uses people in pursuit of his goals. Not only does he bed Reiko (his friend’s little sister) only to make a speedy exit minutes before the police arrive, but he also palms off another mark on his informant only to turn them both in in hope of greater gain. He even manages to find time to seduce a doctor at the centre of the scandal who tries to pull a gun on him but later surrenders completely, only to fall victim to some proactive tidying up from the bad guys. Not content with sacrificing former lovers, Katori will not give in even for his sister, refusing to give up on his lead even when Sumiko is threatened with gang rape. When Nishina turns up and saves the day, Katori doesn’t even stop to ask how Sumiko is but walks off in the direction of the story with nary a second glance to his unconscious sister.

Yet Katori’s particular brand of nihilistic heroism consistently fails. His scoops are uninteresting and he only gets them by inserting himself into the story. Nishina, steadfast and honest – he even goes to the trouble of getting a proper passport to hide on his person in case he’s caught pretending to be a stowaway, is the one who gets there in the end, breaking the smuggling ring, rescuing Katori after he gets himself in trouble, and generally always being around to save the day. Mildly ironic themes of xenophobia aside, Smashing the 0-Line is a typically frenetic piece from Suzuki which offers only a few instances of unusual experimentation in his use of freeze frames and onscreen text but packs in plenty of punch in its amoral anti-hero and the dogged investigative reporter trailing along behind.


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set (also features incisive audio commentary from Jasper Sharp providing a wealth of background information not just about Suzuki’s career but the state of the Japanese film industry at the time)

Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

o0500070913581105946Nikkatsu’s main stock in trade during its 50s/60s heyday was the youth movie – films which captured the frustrations of being young (and usually male) in the scrappy post-war years. It’s a surprise then that the hero of Seijun Suzuki’s “action” movie Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Jusango Taihisen Yori: Sono Gososha wo Nerae) is a genial middle-aged man who’s more Cary Grant in North by Northwest than Japanese James Dean. A programme picture, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the movie on paper but it’s among the first in which Suzuki indulges his talent for the surreal including a number of fantastically choreographed action sequences.

The film opens with a warning as a sniper trains his sights on a set of road signs which state that many accidents have occurred in this area. The one which is about to befall unlucky prison warden Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) is however entirely man made. Momentarily confused by the figure of a woman watching the bus from the roadside, Tamon is blindsided when the sniper opens fire and kills several of the passengers while another, Goro (Shoichi Ozawa), cowers in the back. Tamon is suspended for six months but isn’t particularly upset about it. He’s not a detective and he knows he should leave it to the professionals, but he’s desperate to know why someone would bother attack such a lowly crew of petty criminals. Wondering who the woman was and how she fits into the case, who the snipers were aiming for and if they got them, and perhaps wanting to assuage his own feelings of powerlessness during the attack Tamon gets on the case.

Tamon is not your typical Nikkatsu action hero. He’s a little on the old side for starters – hardly the marquee face the studio was beginning to favour with its collection of “Diamond Guys”. He’s also not a policeman or a detective, he has no idea what he’s doing or what he’s getting himself into. What Tamon is is a righteous man. Almost immediately he’s sucked into the seedy underbelly of late ‘50s Tokyo with its strip clubs, trafficked women, and petty gangsters. This world is alien to him and he’s disgusted by it. Meeting the female manager of the “talent agency” which supplies in-room strippers to sleazy hotels where businessmen go when they’ve told their wives they’re at a conference, Tamon is horrified to hear her admit she thinks of the girls as “merchandise”. He pauses to explain to her that he always thought of the felons he looked after as “humans” rather than “criminals”, no matter what it was they’d done. Such naive humanitarianism is too much for Yuko (Misako Watanabe) – she’s instantly smitten, which is a problem because it means she needs to play both sides of her own game.

The pair end up in an uneasy alliance as Tamon’s goodness begins to work its magic. An unlikely white knight, Tamon finds himself wanting to save all the ladies threatened by “Akiba’s” dastardly plan from the icy charms of Yuko to Goro’s cabaret girl Tsunako (Mari Shiraki), and another young one, Shoko (Kyoko Natsu), about to get sucked into the Akiba web. What he discovers is a nasty trail of exploitation running from the bars and clubs of the city centre to the genial holiday spa towns where the moderately wealthy travel to pursue their discrete pleasures.

Tamon may be a little older than your average Nikkatsu action star, but he’s also a perfect fit for a film noir hero in wrong man mould. Tamon is not on the run, but he is out of place in this world, perhaps harking back to a presumably more innocent age where honesty and compassion still counted for something. He views his job as a prison warden as a public service, believing that there is goodness in everyone and it’s the job of people like him to find it and bring it to the surface. This he does at least seem to accomplish with Yuko who (despite her role in events so far) seems to have “reformed” and intends to follow Tamon’s lead in taking her “talent agency” in a more legitimate direction. 

Suzuki often claimed that Youth of the Beast was the first of his films where he was able to fully embrace his madcap desires, but Take Aim at the Police Van contains a fair few Suzuki touches of its own from the bold opening sequence shot through the sights of a sniper rifle, to the show girl killed by an arrow to her bare breast, bizarre murder by petrol tanker set piece, and exciting train station finale. Keeping the camera fluid, Suzuki captures a world in motion, seemingly running away from our noble hero until justice, in the form of an unstoppable steam train, finally arrives.


Attack on the police van clip (English subtitles)

Love in the Mud (泥だらけの純情, Sokichi Tomimoto, 1977)

Love in the Mud posterJapanese youth cinema was in a strange place by the late 1970s. Angsty seishun eiga had gone out with Nikkatsu’s move into Roman Porno and the artier, angry youth films coming out through ATG were probably not much for a teen audience. The Kadokawa idol movie was only a few years away but until then, films like Love in the Mud (泥だらけの純情, Dorodarake no Junjo) arrived to plug the gap. Based on a novella by Shinji Fujiwara which had been previously adapted by Ko Nakahira in 1963 in a version starring Sayuri Yoshinaga and Mitsuo Hamada, Love in the Mud is a classic tale of poor boy meets rich girl and ends in a predictably hopeless way but in deep contrast to the prevailing culture of the time, the film takes the “junjo” or “purity” in its title literally in its innocent chasteness.

As the camera pans over a rapidly developing city, it settles on a bright red, flashy sports car being driven by Mami (Momoe Yamaguchi), the daughter of the Japanese Ambassador to Spain, with her friend sitting cheerfully in the passenger seat. Disaster strikes when the pair are run off the road by a biker gang who taunt them from outside the car, threatening rape and robbery. Luckily for them another gangster turns up, beats up the bad guys and saves the girls but alarm bells should have been ringing when he asks Mami to step out of the car and “thank him properly”. Mami, stupidly, does what she’s told and the girls are hijacked by gangsters round two. When they reach the shady place the gangsters are planning to have their wicked way with them, a third wave of gangster appears, disapproves of the goon’s intentions and heroically fights them off. However, the girls’ saviour is stabbed in the stomach and then later stabs and kills the leader of the aggressors.

The noble gangster, Jiro (Tomokazu Miura), tells the girls to run – which they do, but somehow Mami can’t quite bring herself leave him. A thoroughly middle-class girl, Mami is at university studying English literature but her dream is to open a hat shop in Paris and she spends most of her spare time working with a hat designer. In the absence of her father, Mami’s uncle (Ko Nishimura) has been looking after her but is the classic upperclass male who thinks the hat stuff is just a hobby and what Mami needs is a good husband as soon as possible. Accordingly he’s set her up with a pleasant enough business contact he hopes will both support Mami in the manner to which she’s been accustomed and his business dealings too.

Your average teenage girl might not be in such an extreme situation as young Mami, but most can certainly sympathise with her lack of agency. The life her uncle has planned for her is not what she wants but more than that, she’s acutely aware of being denied a choice in her future. She may be rich, but she’s never been free. Jiro, by contrast, grew up poor in tragic family circumstances and enjoys his own kind of freedom even if he feels himself constrained by his social class and lack of opportunities following a life in care with no real education. Not actually a yakuza but a gambler and petty punk living on the fringes of the underworld, Jiro has been content to live a meaningless life of empty gains but as his rescuing of Mami and her friend shows, he has a kind heart which extends to delivering presents to the daughter of a melancholy bar hostess currently living in an orphanage.

Jiro’s nobility is of a true and pure kind. After Mami comes forward to testify in Jiro’s defence, she tries to strike up a friendship but Jiro rebuffs her. He’s too smart not to know posh girl and poor boy never ends well, but then they do have a real connection which proves hard to kill. Their social differences are made apparent when Mami makes the naive decision to invite Jiro to a party at her fancy mansion. He buys a nice suit and an expensive necklace as a present, but Mami’s nanny doesn’t want to let him in and when Mami introduces Jiro to her uncle he whips out a checkbook causing Jiro to leave enraged. Nevertheless Mami chases Jiro through the shadier parts of Shinjuku, taking her first taste of gyoza, frequenting underground nightclubs and mahjong parlours, and swapping her elegant outfits for the casual jeans and T-shirts of Jiro’s world.

While all of this is going on, Jiro is also embroiled in the gang trouble which started with the stabbing in the beginning. A “friend”, almost, of the local policeman, it’s not surprising suspicion falls on Jiro and he faces a bleak future if he chooses to remain in Shinjuku. The courtship of the pair is a stuttering, nervous affair in which the emboldened Mami chases Jiro whose sense of honour teaches him to try and avoid her all the while he too is smitten. This is, however, a chaste and innocent love. Jiro and Mami spend a night together gazing at the moon but all they do is talk and the climax of the romance is met firstly with an innocent hug, and then a troubling slap from Jiro which is designed to show the depth his love in his desire to push Mami away, rather than anything more explicit.

A tragic tale of love across the class divide, Love in the Mud indulges the worst aspects of its genre in the fetishisation of doomed romance and extreme dedication the idea of “pure” emotion. The force that keeps Jiro and Mami apart, rather than entrenched social mores and differing forms of oppression is a kind of fatalistic pessimism which says the only true love is death. Perhaps too innocent and too chaste, Love in the Mud never earns its melodramatic ending but does what it needs to in appealing to its teenage target audience, neatly anticipating the genial edginess of the idol movie but failing to move much beyond capturing its moment as a snapshot of late ’70s youth culture.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Hideo Gosha, 1982)

onimasaWhen AnimEigo decided to release Hideo Gosha’s Taisho/Showa era yakuza epic Onimasa (鬼龍院花子の生涯, Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai), they opted to give it a marketable but ill advised tagline – A Japanese Godfather. Misleading and problematic as this is, the Japanese title Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai also has its own mysterious quality in that it means “The Life of Hanako Kiryuin” even though this, admittedly hugely important, character barely appears in the film. We follow instead her adopted older sister, Matsue (Masako Natsume), and her complicated relationship with our title character, Onimasa, a gang boss who doesn’t see himself as a yakuza but as a chivalrous man whose heart and duty often become incompatible. Reteaming with frequent star Tatsuya Nakadai, director Hideo Gosha gives up the fight a little, showing us how sad the “manly way” can be on one who finds himself outplayed by his times. Here, anticipating Gosha’s subsequent direction, it’s the women who survive – in large part because they have to, by virtue of being the only ones to see where they’re headed and act accordingly.

Beginning with its end, Onimasa’s story finishes with the discovery of the body of his only biological child, Hanako (Kaori Tagasugi ), in 1940. Found bled out and alone in the red light district of Kyoto, the suspected cause of death is a miscarriage. Tragically, our heroine, Matsue, arrives only a couple of hours too late after having spent years searching for her younger sister. We then skip back to 1918 when Matsue was adopted by Onimasa and his rather cool wife, alongside another boy who later ran away. An intelligent girl, Matsue earns her adopted father’s respect but neither he nor his wife, Uta (Shima Iwashita), are particularly interested in the emotional side of raising children. Things change when one of Onimasa’s mistresses gives birth to his biological child who awakens a sense of paternal interest in the ageing gangster beyond rule and possession.

Onimasa’s behaviour is frequently strange and contradictory. Originally intending to adopt only a boy, he and his wife come away from a poor family with two of their children, only for the son to run away home. Having picked her out like a puppy in a pet store window, Onimasa views Matsue as an inalienable possession. When a man arrives and wants to marry her, he goes crazy assuming the man must have been sleeping with her behind his back (despite the fact that this man, Tanabe (Eitaro Ozawa), has only just been released from prison where Onimasa had himself dispatched Matsue to visit him). Exclaiming that Matsue is “his”, has always been “his”, and no one else’s, he forces Tanabe to cut off his finger yakuza style to swear Matsue’s honour is still intact. However, this need for total control manifests itself in a less than fatherly way when he later tries to rape Matsue and is only brought to his senses when she threatens to cut her own throat with a broken glass. Despite this act of madness which he tries to justify with it somehow being for her own good, Matsue remains a dutiful daughter to both of her adopted parents.

Matsue’s innate refinement and reserve contrast’s strongly with Onimasa’s loose cannon nature. Commenting on the long history of “honourable” cinematic yakuza, Onimasa embraces an odd combination of traditions in believing himself to be the embodiment of chivalry – standing up for the oppressed and acting in the interests of justice, yet also subservient to his lord and walking with a swagger far beyond his true reach. All of this contributes to his ongoing problems which begin with a petty clan dispute over a dogfight which sees a rival leaving town in a hurry only to return and raise hell years later. Similarly, when his boss sends him in to “discourage” strike action, the union leader’s reasonable objections which point out the conflicts with Onimasa’s doctrine of chivalry and imply he’s little more than a lapdog, have a profound effect on his life. Severing his ties with his clan and attempting to go it alone, Onimasa does so in a more “honourable” way – no longer will he engage in harmful practices such as forced prostitution no matter how profitable they may be, but old disagreements never die easy and it’s a stupid ancient argument which threatens to bring his old fashioned world crashing down.

Despite concessions to the bold new Taisho era which saw Western fashions flooding into traditional culture from Onimasa’s trademark hat to the record players and whiskey glasses clashing with his sliding doors and tatami mat floors, Onimasa’s world is a childishly innocent one where honour and justice rule. Despite this he often excludes his own behaviour – one minute turning down the offer of his rival’s woman to pay a debt with her body, but later attempting to rape a young woman who had been his daughter in a drunken bid for a kind of droit du seigneur. The times are changing, it’s just that Onimasa’s traditionalist mind can’t see it. Tragically trying to rescue his daughter from a situation it turns out she had no desire to be rescued from he eventually spies the writing on the wall and puts down his sword, defeated and demoralised. Tragically, it seems Hanako may have needed him still though her rescue arrives too late to be of use.

The Onimasa family line ends here, as does this particular strand of history under the darkening skies of 1940. Out goes Taisho era openness and optimism for the eventual darkness of the militarist defeat. Matsue, now a widow – her left wing intellectual husband another victim of her father’s mistakes rather than political stringency, remains the sole source of light in her shining white kimono and pretty parasol even as she’s forced to identify the body of the sister she failed to save. The life of Hanako was a sad one, trapped by her father’s ideology and finally destroyed by her own attempts to escape it. Fittingly, she barely features in her own tale, a peripheral figure in someone else’s story. Slightly lurid and occasionally sleazy, Onimasa is another workmanlike effort from Gosha but makes the most of his essential themes as its accidental “hero” is forced to confront the fact that his core ideology has robbed him of true happiness, caused nothing but pain to the women in his life, and eventually brought down not only his personal legacy but that of everything that he had tried to build. The “manly way” is a trap, only Matsue with her patience backed up by a newfound steel inspired by her cool mother, Uta, is left behind but is now free to pursue life on her own terms and, presumably, make more of a success of it.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)

Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky (この広い空のどこかに, Masaki Kobayashi, 1954)

somewhere-beneath-the-wide-skyOf the chroniclers of the history of post-war Japan, none was perhaps as unflinching as Masaki Kobayashi. However, everyone has to start somewhere and as a junior director at Shochiku where he began as an assistant to Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi was obliged to make his share of regular studio pictures. This was even truer following his attempt at a more personal project – Thick Walled Room, which dealt with the controversial subject of class C war criminals and was deemed so problematic that it lingered on the shelves for quite some time. Made the same year as the somewhat similar Three Loves, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky (この広い空のどこかに, Kono Hiroi Sora no Dokoka ni) is a fairly typical contemporary drama of ordinary people attempting to live in the new and ever changing post-war world, yet it also subtly hints at Kobayashi’s ongoing humanist preoccupations in its conflict between the idealistic young student Noboru and his practically minded (yet kind hearted) older brother.

The Moritas own the liquor store in this tiny corner of Ginza, where oldest brother Ryoichi (Keiji Sada) has recently married country girl Hiroko (Yoshiko Kuga). The household consists of mother-in-law Shige (Kumeko Urabe), step-mother to Ryoichi, unmarried sister Yasuko (Hideko Takamine), and student younger brother Noboru (Akira Ishihama). Things are actually going pretty well for the family, they aren’t rich but the store is prospering and they’re mostly happy enough – except when they aren’t. Ryoichi married for love, but his step-mother and sister aren’t always as convinced by his choice as he is, despite Hiroko’s friendly nature and constant attempts to fit in.

As if to signal the dividing wall between the generations, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky opens with a discussion between two older women, each complaining about their daughters-in-law and the fact that their sons married for love rather than agreeing to an arranged marriage as was common in their day. These love matches, they claim, have unbalanced the family dynamic, giving the new wife undue powers against the matriarchal figure of the mother-in-law. While the other woman’s main complaint is that her son’s wife is absent minded and bossy, Shige seems to have little to complain about bar Hiroko’s slow progress with becoming used to the runnings of the shop.

Despite this, both women appear somewhat hostile towards Ryoichi’s new wife, often making her new home an uncomfortable place for her to be. Though Hiroko is keen to pitch in with the shop and the housework, Shige often refuses her help and is preoccupied with trying to get the depressed Yasuko to do her fair share instead. At 28 years old, Yasuko has resigned herself to a life of single suffering, believing it will now be impossible for her to make a good a match. Yasuko had been engaged to a man she loved before the war but when he returned and discovered that she now walks with a pronounced limp following an injury during an air raid, he left her flat with a broken heart. Embittered and having internalised intense shame over her physical disability, Yasuko finds the figure of her new sister-in-law a difficult reminder of the life she will never have.

A crisis approaches when an old friend (and perhaps former flame) arrives from Hiroko’s hometown and raises the prospect of abandoning her young marriage to return home instead. No matter how her new relatives make her feel, Hiroko is very much in love with Ryoichi and has no desire to leave him. Thankfully, Ryoichi is a kind and understanding man who can see how difficult the other women in the house are making things for his new wife and is willing to be patient and trust Hiroko to make what she feels is the right decision.

Ryoichi’s talent for tolerance is seemingly infinite in his desire to run a harmonious household. However, he, unlike younger brother Noboru, is of a slightly older generation with a practical mindset rather than an idealistic one. Ryoichi simply wants to prosper and ensure a happy and healthy life for himself and his family. This doesn’t mean he’s averse to helping others and is actually a very kind and decent person, but he is quick to point out that he needs to help himself first. Thus he comes into conflict with little brother Noburu from whom the film’s title comes.

Noburu is a dreamer, apt to look up at the wide sky as symbol of his boundless dreams. His fortunes are contrasted with the far less fortunate fellow student Mitsui (Masami Taura), who comes from a much less prosperous and harmonious family, finding himself working five different jobs just to eat twice a day and study when he can. Noburu wants to believe in a brighter world where things like his sister’s disability would be irrelevant and something could be done to help people like Mitsui who are struggling to get by when others have it so good. Ryoichi thinks this is all very well, but it’s pie in the sky thinking and when push comes to shove you have to respect “the natural order of things”. Ryoichi wants to work within the system and even prosper by it, where as Noburu, perhaps like Kobayashi himself, would prefer that the “natural order of things” became an obsolete way of thinking.

Nevertheless, it is the power of kindness which cures all. Gloomy Yasuko begins to live again after re-encountering an old school friend and being able to help her when she is most in of need of it. Being of use after all helps her put thoughts of her disability to the back of her mind and so, after hiding from a man who’d loved her in the past out of fearing his reaction to her current state (and overhearing his general indifference on hearing of it), she makes the bold decision to strike out for love and the chance of happiness in the beautiful, yet challenging, mountain environment.

Like many films of the era, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky is invested in demonstrating that life may be hard at times, but it will get better and the important thing is to find happiness wherever it presents itself. This is not quite the message Kobayashi was keen on delivering in his subsequent career which calls for a more circumspect examination of contemporary society along with a need for greater personal responsibility for creating a kinder, fairer and more honest one. A much more straightforward exercise, Somewhere Beneath the Wide Sky is Kobayashi channeling Kinoshita but minimising his sentimentality. Nevertheless, it does present a warm tale of a family finally coming together as its central couple prepares to pick up the reins and ride on into the sometimes difficult but also full of possibility post-war world.


 

Outlaw: Heartless (大幹部 無頼非情, Mio Ezaki, 1968)

heartlessThings take a slight detour in the third of the Outlaw series this time titled “Heartless” (大幹部 無頼非情, Daikanbu Burai Hijo). Rather than picking up where we left Goro – collapsed on a high school volleyball court, it’s now 1956 and we’re with a guy called “Goro the Assassin” but it’s not exactly clear is this is a side story or perhaps an entirely different continuity for the story of the noble hearted gangster we’ve been following so far. The only constant is actor Tetsuya Watari who once again plays Goro Fujikawa but in an even more confusing touch the supporting characters are played by many of the actors who featured in the first two films but are actually playing entirely different people….

So, it’s 1956 and this time Goro is out on a job to take out a rival gangster only he has a change of heart when the man’s wife pleads with him. Goro tells the pair to leave through the back door but one of the other gangsters turns up before they can escape and takes care of the husband whilst casting a watchful eye on the now treacherous Goro. Right before his lights go out, the murdered man tells Goro that he’s been framed as part of the boss’ gambling scam and tasks Goro with taking his sickly wife to Nagoya for medical treatment. After cleaning out the bad guys at the gambling den, Goro takes off with wife in tow and even runs into an old friend along the way but as usual nothing’s quite a simple as it seems.

If the problem with Gangster VIP 2 was staying too close to the formula established in the previous film, then Heartless perhaps attempts to overcorrect this flaw by doing something completely different. It’s really not clear how this film links in with the other two and the presence of most of the same actors playing entirely different characters is more than a little confusing to say the least, though it is a problem which occurs quite frequently with these kinds of films and is largely due to the way they were produced at studio level.

Once again the roots of restless gangsters lie post-war turmoil as the fellow ex-mobster Goro runs into is another childhood friend from the streets – Goro actually saved his life when he became dangerously ill by sneaking onto a US military base to “acquire” some penicillin (quite a canny move for a young boy, it has to be said). There’s less harking back to the theme of homes and hometowns than in the first two movies – yakuza wives take on a bigger role instead, becoming the symbol of a more normal life that is somewhat denied to both gangsters (ex or otherwise) and also burdening their husbands with the need to ensure their safety.

As in the first two films, Goro is referred to as being “different” from the regular yakuza. His potential love interest (again played by Chieko Matsubara but not as Yukiko from the other two movies) argues with her father who was also a yakuza but gave up the gangster life for love of her mother – he warns her off men of Goro’s ilk as they rarely do anything from the kindness of their hearts, but she remonstrates with him that Goro isn’t that kind of gangster. This time he’s also carrying around a bracelet that belonged to an old flamed called “Natsuko” that we haven’t heard of before but gives his pleas not to take a man like him to heart a little more weight.

Heartless is the only film in the series to be directed by Mio Ezaki (the first being directed by Toshio Masuda and the others by Keiichi Ozawa) and has little of the visual style of the first two movies though the title sequence of Goro single handedly raiding the gambling den proves a stylish early highlight. In keeping with the other two films we still have a large scale fight sequence nearing the finale which is played against the song of a cabaret singer and there’s even a little strange slapstick as the final fight ends up in some kind of decorators’ warehouse with everyone sliding around and getting covered in paint. After taking care business Goro tries to exile himself again, staggering off in an uncertain direction whilst the song playing extols the lonely fate of a “wandering man” which is perhaps the only heart he carries – the ruined heart of a “heartless” man with no roots or anchor to tie him home, a wanderer with no clansmen and no hope of salvation.


Outlaw: Heartless is the third of six films included in Arrow films’ Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection box set (which is region free on DVD and blu-ray and available from both US and UK).

English subtitled original trailer: