The Eternal Breasts (乳房よ永遠なれ, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955)

(c) Nikkatsu 1955

(c) Nikkatsu 1955Having made her directorial debut for Shin Toho with the beautifully drawn post-war romantic melodrama Love Letter scripted by Keisuke Kinoshita, and then moving on to her second film after being accepted as a career director at Nikkatsu – the Ozu scripted humorous romantic family drama The Moon Has Risen, Tanaka chose to work with female script writer Sumie Tanaka (no relation) for a tale of female resilience and resistance in the face of extreme suffering. Fumiko Nakajo was a real life figure who had died of breast cancer at the age of 31 in 1954. The Eternal Breasts (乳房よ永遠なれ, Chibusa yo Eien Nare) , a biopic of sorts, was released in 1955, barely a year later but makes no concession to the recency of Nakajo’s passing in examining both the still taboo subject of breast cancer and the effects of the disease and its treatment on the heroine who, arguably, finally learns to become herself through battling her illness.

Fumiko Shimojo, née Nakajo, (Yumeji Tsukioka) is the wife of a grumpy, resentful stock broker and the mother of their two children, Noboru and Aiko. It’s clear that things in the Shimojo household are far from peaceful with the discord between husband and wife a talking point throughout the local community. Despite her husband’s claims to the contrary, Fumiko is the dutiful “good wife” of the period, trying hard to make her marriage work even in the face of her husband’s ongoing resentment and thinly veiled inferiority complex given Fumiko’s slightly elevated class credentials and education. To get away from her disappointing home life Fumiko has joined a local poetry circle specialising in tanka and is well known for the gritty realism of her poems in which she expresses all of her suffering and unhappiness in regards to life with her husband. When she comes home early one day and finds a woman dressed in kimono entertaining her man, she decides it’s time for a divorce, reverts to her maiden name of Nakajo, and goes back to live with her mother and soon-to-be-married brother, regretting only that her husband insists on custody of their son, Noboru.

The early part of the film deals with the equally taboo subjects of divorce and family breakdown as Fumiko struggles to adjust to her life as a single mother as well as coming to terms with being separated from her son. Though she is often approached by matchmakers and encouraged to remarry, her experience of married life has left her reluctant to commit to a second round of matrimonial subjugation. Her mother, whom she partly blames for pushing her into a marriage she never wanted in the first place, and her brother are fully on her side as are her friends, the Horis – a Christian couple who champion her poetry and act almost as a set of second parents despite being only a little older than she is.

Released from matrimonial shackles, Fumiko is free to embrace her life as a poetess even if she never dreams of any kind of literary success. As the tactless women at the poetry circle put it, pain is good for art and it’s certainly true that each advance in Fumiko’s fortunes is accompanied by emotional suffering. Struggling to cope with the divorce and the children, Fumiko neglects chest pains and a strange feeling in her breast only to keel over when an unpleasant woman arrives to reclaim Noboru with whom she thought she’d finally been reunited.

Diagnosed with late stage breast cancer, Fumiko undergoes a double mastectomy. Refusing to shy away from the medical consequences, Tanaka films the surgery as a kind of fever dream as the bright surgery lights loom over Fumiko whose breasts appear in full view as the surgeons prepare to do their work. The loss of Fumiko’s breasts results in one of her most famous poems, published in a national newspaper, but the physical and emotional consequences are not so easily defined. Before her illness we’re constantly told that young Fumiko was a “tom boy”, and at times it appears as if she has been unsexed after being shorn of her femininity. According to her brother, however, Fumiko has become more like a child – something that rings true as she gaily sings in the bath and almost delights in shocking her friend by flashing her surgery scars unannounced. Mrs. Hori, Kinuko (Yoko Sugi), generally a kind and progressive sort, can hardly bear to look and is unwilling to engage with the physical reality of Fumiko’s condition as much as she would like to help her.

Despite proclaiming that at least she won’t be bothered with marriage proposals anymore, Fumiko’s “unsexing” appears to have the opposite effect in reawakening and intensifying her sense of desire. Earlier on, post-divorce and hiding out from her brother’s wedding at which she feels an awkward guest, Fumiko visits Hori (Masayuki Mori) and confesses her love for him though she knows nothing will come of it. Her love is, however, pure – she also loves and respects Hori’s wife Kinuko safe in the knowledge that Kinuko makes Hori happy. After her operation she returns to the Hori’s home and asks Kinuko to run her a bath so that she can bathe in the same water as her beloved – confessing to her friend that she had been in love with her husband. Kinuko seems to know already and is sympathetic, if a little embarrassed. This same boldness later manifests itself in Fumiko’s last great act of passion in which she embarks on a brief yet intense affair with the journalist (Ryoji Hayama) who is covering her career for a paper in Tokyo.

Fumiko’s relationship with the reporter is originally compromised by his overly gloomy copy which proclaims that her death is only a matter of time (then again, for whom is that not true?). Fearing that her death is being fetishised, that no one would be giving her a second glance if she were not dying, Fumiko refuses to write or have visitors. Just as she was “imprisoned” within her marriage, she is now “imprisoned’ by death. As she puts it in one of her poems, the hospital ward is a gloomy place in which she’s often framed by bars – through the windows, through the footboard of her bed, even the hospital kimono she is wearing is patterned with tiny railings. In an eerie, dream-like sequence she wanders out of her room and follows a parade of wailing relatives as a body is wheeled away but just as she is about to leave the metal gate slides shut in front of her, trapping Fumiko like a ghost in the purgatorial world of the hospital ward as she realises that that same gate will be her only exit route.

The same image is repeated at the end of the film as Fumiko’s own bed is wheeled through the mortuary gates which slam shut across the eyes of her confused children who have been left entirely on their own and without a proper explanation of where their mum is going. Fumiko’s final poem is crushing in its anger and ambivalence as it instructs her children to accept her death as the only thing she has to bequeath them. This terrible legacy seems too cruel, condemning her children to a life of grief and mourning even as she instructs them to “accept” her passing. Yet it also speaks of the final contradictions of her character – loving mother and passionate woman, fierce poet and shy genius. Unlike the sickly heroines of melodrama, Fumiko does not always bear her suffering with saintly stoicism but rages, finally embracing the “true self” she only dared to express through her poetry, learning to live only in the knowledge that she must die.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Motomu Ida, 1967)

three-minutes-before-explosionIf Nikkatsu Action movies had a ringtone it would probably just be “BANG!” but nevertheless you’ll have to wait more than three rings for the Kaboom! in the admittedly cartoonish slice of typically frivolous B-movie thrills that is 3 Seconds Before Explosion (爆破3秒前, Bakuha 3-byo Mae). Once again based on a novel by Japan’s master of the hard boiled Haruhiko Oyabu, 3 Seconds Before Explosion is among his sillier works though lesser known director Motomu Ida never takes as much delight in making mischief as his studio mate Seijun Suzuki. What he does do is make use of Diamond Guy Akira Kobayashi’s boyish earnestness to keep things running along nicely even if he’s out of the picture for much of the action.

Like most of the more outlandish Nikkatsu action fests, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has a complicated relationship with narrative but we begin with former boxer Yabuki (Akira Kobayashi) in the middle of being brainwashed with flashing lights and high pitched noises until he agrees to become a shady government (?) assassin. Perhaps in an effort to save our sanities too, he relents and his first job is ensuring some jewels which were stolen during in the war don’t get into the hands of an evil nazi who will presumably be wanting them for evil nazi business. Anyway, Yabuki does his ninja stuff and thinks he’s tracked the jewels down but runs into a former colleague, Yamawaki (Hideki Takahashi), who is working for a businessman who already has the jewels and wants to keep them. Yamawaki quit being a super spy because he fell in love, which Yabuki thinks is a bit lame but still knows his friend has right stuff and would rather not have to kill him or anything.

Somewhere between the less serious yakuza/gang movies Nikkatsu were making in the late ’60s and a spy spoof, 3 Seconds Before Explosion has its fair share of oddness from strangled dogs to the mini Chinese theme in which one of the henchmen, Yang, wanders around in traditional Chinese garb while another girl at the club enjoys flirting in Mandarin for no apparent reason. It also goes without saying that the evil Nazi is played by an American spouting unconvincing German whilst chewing the scenery to a pulp. Realism is not where we are, but there’s something a little old fashioned about the way Ida chooses to stage his weirdness even if the film is filled with crazy contemporary youth touches such as in the achingly hip Club Casba.

The interpersonal drama comes as Yabuki and Yamawaki face off about their life choices much more than the case at hand. Yamawaki grew tired of the spy life and decided to leave it behind for his lady love, only to get mixed up in all of these petty gangster shenanigans. Still, if he can keep Yabuki away from the jewels until the time limit he’ll be free forever. Nothing is really said about Yabuki’s brainwashing at the beginning of the film, but Yamawaki’s choice does seem to prompt him into a consideration of his own lifestyle. That said, life as a government assassin doesn’t seem so bad – Yabuki doesn’t even really kill people much, just spends his life sneaking into places and leaping heroically between rooftops whilst making use of clever gadgets to evade his foes. The gangsters, however, are pretty evil and keep killing people after claiming to let them go which offends Yabuki’s sense of honour.

Yabuki may not kill, but the film does seem to make a point of killing off all the female characters in case they get in the way of the manly stuff like fighting and making bombs. An innocent kidnapped secretary who had nothing to do with anything is machine gunned down, another girl is murdered by the evil Nazi, and a final one gets marched into a mine field by her boyfriend before returning for revenge and getting unceremoniously taken down anyway. To lose one woman is careless but to kill off (all) three in a short time seems a step too far or perhaps too “realistic” for this otherwise cartoonish approach to violence.

Lacking the visual flair of other Nikkatsu efforts, 3 Seconds to Explosion is never as exciting as its title promises. Despite the athletic displays of the slightly bulkier Kobayashi, there’s a kind of clumsiness to the action and a straightforwardness in approach which does not gel with the ridiculousness of the premise. On lower end of Nikkatsu’s B-movie output, 3 Seconds to Explosion does not stint on the silliness but could do with enjoying itself a little more rather than trying to corral its non-sensical plot into something with serious intent.


 

Outlaw: Black Dagger (無頼 黒ヒ首, Keiichi Ozawa, 1968)

outlaw black daggerGoro (Tetsuya Watari) just can’t catch a break. He sends his one true love off on a train to safety only to see her dramatically return because she can’t bear to leave his side. Her devotion costs her her life as she places herself between Goro’s manly chest and an assassin’s knife. Heartbroken, Goro gets out of town only to run into another old flame who is now a mama-san and has apparently married another yakuza (despite the fact that Goro parted with her because of his chaotic yakuza lifestyle). As usual, the past won’t let him go – this time in a more literal sense as Goro encounters another woman who looks exactly like the girlfriend who died in his arms….

This time for the fifth instalment in the Outlaw series, Black Dagger (無頼 黒ヒ首, Burai Kurodosu), it’s not so much family as romance which takes centre stage as we witness just how dangerous it can be to fall in love with a yakuza. Yuri (Chieko Matsubara), the girlfriend Goro couldn’t save, died because she loved him too much.  Saeko loved him too – he succeeded in getting rid of her but she ended up rebound married to another guy who kind of looks like him but isn’t as good, and now there’s Shizuko (Chieko Matsubara again) – a warmhearted nurse who’s once again fallen for Goro’s noble tough guy act. Goro knows the price of love and he thinks he’s no good so he tries to avoid letting himself fall, both for his own safety and for his prospective love, but in the end the one fight he can never win is the one against his own heart.

Oddly Goro gets on quite well with Saeko’s husband, though he’s not keen to get involved with his troubles. He warns him that it might be better to let Saeko go as in the end yakuza only cause suffering for their women and soon enough Goro is proved right when the local gang become intent on pimping Saeko out leaving her husband pretty much powerless to resist.

Apparently this cuts both ways as a sad song from a band of street musicians recounts that a good wife can be a man’s weakness. Again it isn’t really clear how this instalment fits with the others but Yuri’s story is certainly very similar to Yukiko’s as seen in the first two movies and Goro’s guilt over not being able to protect her comes to colour the rest of his life. Once again Goro tries to say goodbye to love, advising Shizuko of the folly of falling for a man like him – she should just find someone nice and be happy. Full of nobleness and conviction, Goro strides out to clean up the town for good, knowing he may not return to see the fruits of his labours.

Black Dagger is once again directed by Keiichi Ozawa and is more or less in keeping with his other efforts in the series, mixing studio bound action with occasional forays into wider outdoor expanses. The film opens with an impressive montage title sequence and fight scene, but other than that the only set piece we get is the street singer sequence towards the end though the final fight is once again action packed and impressively filmed. Black Dagger perhaps doesn’t bring anything too new to the franchise, but it does improve on its already familiar narrative with another doomed love story and a series of shattered dreams for poor old Goro. Unlike the more hopeful ending of the last film, Black Dagger ends on exactly the same note as the other Outlaw movies as Goro staggers away from the crime scene, knife in hand and ready for the next crisis to come his way.


Outlaw: Black Dagger is the fifth 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 theatrical trailer:

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: