Oar (櫂, Hideo Gosha, 1985)

oar posterUntil the later part of his career, Hideo Gosha had mostly been known for his violent action films centring on self destructive men who bore their sadnesses with macho restraint. During the 1980s, however, he began to explore a new side to his filmmaking with a string of female centred dramas focussing on the suffering of women which is largely caused by men walking the “manly way” of his earlier movies. Partly a response to his regular troupe of action stars ageing, Gosha’s new focus was also inspired by his failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter which convinced him that women can be just as devious and calculating as men. 1985’s Oar (櫂, Kai) is adapted from the novel by Tomiko Miyao – a writer Gosha particularly liked and identified with whose books also inspired Onimasa and The Geisha. Like Onimasa, Oar also bridges around twenty years of pre-war history and centres around a once proud man discovering his era is passing, though it finds more space for his long suffering wife and the children who pay the price for his emotional volatility.

Kochi, 1914 (early Taisho), Iwago (Ken Ogata) is a kind hearted man living beyond his means. Previously a champion wrestler, he now earns his living as a kind of procurer for a nearby geisha house, chasing down poor girls and selling them into prostitution, justifying himself with the excuse that he’s “helping” the less fortunate who might starve if it were not for the existence of the red light district. He dislikes this work and finds it distasteful, but shows no signs of stopping. At home he has a wife and two sons whom he surprises one day by returning home with a little girl he “rescued” at the harbour after seeing her beaten by man who, it seemed, was trying to sell her to Chinese brokers who are notorious for child organ trafficking.

Iwago names the girl “Kiku” thanks to the chrysanthemums on her kimono and entrusts her to his irritated wife, Kiwa (Yukiyo Toake), who tries her best but Kiku is obviously traumatised by her experiences, does not speak, and takes a long time to become used to her new family circumstances. Parallel to his adoption of Kiku, Iwago is also working on a sale of a girl of a similar age who ends up staying in the house for a few days before moving to the red light district. Toyo captures Kiwa’s heart as she bears her sorry fate stoically, pausing only to remark on her guilt at eating good white rice three times a day at Iwago’s knowing that her siblings are stuck at home with nothing.

Iwago’s intentions are generally good, but his “manly” need for control and his repressed emotionality proceed to ruin his family’s life. He may say that poverty corrupts a person’s heart and his efforts are intended to help prevent the birth of more dysfunctional families, but deep down he finds it hard to reconcile his distasteful occupation with his traditional ideas of masculine chivalry. Apparently “bored” with the long suffering Kiwa he fathers a child with another woman which he then expects her to raise despite the fact that she has already left the family home after discovering the affair. Predictably her love for him and for the children brings her home, but Iwago continues to behave in a domineering, masterly fashion which is unlikely to repair his once happy household.

Kiwa is the classic long suffering wife, bearing all of Iwago’s mistreatments with stoic perseverance until his blatant adultery sends her running from marriage to refuge at the home of her brother. Despite the pain and humilation, Kiwa still loves, respects, and supports her husband, remembering him as he once was rather than the angry, frustrated brute which he has become. Despite her original hesitance, Kiwa’s maternal warmth makes a true daughter of Kiku and keeps her bonded to the eldest and more sensitive of her two sons, Ryutaro, even if the loose cannon that is Kentaro follows in his step-father’s footsteps as an unpredictable punk. Her goodheartedness later extends to Iwago’s illegitimate daughter Ayako whom she raises as her own until Iwago cruelly decides to separate them. For all of Iwago’s bluster and womanising, ironically enough Kiwa truly is the only woman for him as he realises only when she determines to leave. Smashing the relics of his “manly” past – his wrestling photos and trophies, Iwago is forced to confront the fact that his own macho posturing has cost him the only thing he ever valued.

Gosha tones down the more outlandish elements which contributed to his reputation as a “vulgar” director but still finds space for female nudity and frank sexuality as Iwago uses and misuses the various women who come to him for help or shelter. More conventional in shooting style than some of Gosha’s other work from the period and lacking any large scale or dramatic fight scenes save for one climactic ambush, Oar acts more as a summation of Gosha’s themes up until the mid-80s – men destroy themselves through their need to be men but also through destroying the women who have little choice but to stand back and watch them do it. Unless, like Kiwa, they realise they have finally had enough.


Short clip from near the beginning of the film (no subtitles)

Doberman Cop (ドーベルマン刑事, Kinji Fukasaku, 1977)

Doberman cop J DVD coverAll things considered, a live pig is a rather insensitive gift to present to your local police station, though any gift at all might be considered in appropriate even if offered by a well meaning colleague keen to help out when a horrific murder may be connected to his missing person case. By 1977 Kinji Fukasaku had made a name for himself through the wildly successful “jitsuroku” or “true record” genre of yakuza movies kickstarted by his own Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Doberman Cop (ドーベルマン刑事, Doberman Deka) is then quite an odd move as its brings him back to the looser, exploitation leaning B-movie action which featured heavily in the earlier part of his career and which the “jitsuroku” movement was set on displacing. Fittingly enough, Doberman Cop also sees Fukasaku reuniting with the frequent star of those early films – Sonny Chiba, now considerably older but still an impressive action star willing to put himself in danger to achieve the heart stopping stunts his fans had come to expect.

Chiba plays Okinawan “crazy cop” Kano, the stranger in town currently on a mission to find a childhood friend at the request of her sickly priestess mother. A body has been discovered, so horribly charred that visual identification is not possible but based on the clues found in the room the police are convinced the woman is Kano’s missing person, Yuna, who had been living as a prostitute under another name. Kano is not convinced, the priestess has conducted rituals which suggest her daughter is alive and there’s something not quite right about this case which the police have attributed to a spate of serial killings targeting prostitutes in the Tokyo area. An encounter with a shady yakuza turned music promoter brings Kano into contact with Miki (Janet Hatta) – an aspiring singer who bears a striking resemblance to the missing Yuna.

Doberman Cop is, loosely, based on the manga by Buronson. Part of the “gekiga” movement which prided itself on gritty, adult stories, Doberman Cop owed much to Dirty Harry with its sarcastic, tough as nails policeman armed with a .44 Magnum and a rock hard desire for justice. Fukasaku’s Kano is reimagined as a genial country bumpkin, a toughened farm boy in a straw hat displaced in the Tokyo jungle. Turning up like a strange relative, Kano has brought along a local delicacy in the form of a live pig he offers to the Tokyo police precinct with the promise that all they need to do is snap its neck and light the barbecue. Unsurprisingly, the city policemen decline his polite offer leaving him trailing the squealing piggy around with him like a burdensome sidekick.

Kano’s Yuna is not the only young woman of Okinawa fetching up in the mainland capital in search of a “better” life, but finding only failure and despair. The country detective alienates the city police with his arcane divinatory ritual which involves tipping out a large bag of small seashells and counting them to ascertain the answer to a binary question, but his methods convince him than Yuna is still alive while another Okinawan woman is dead. That a woman from his island has met such a grim end is of no small regret to Kano, be she Yuna or not, and his quest is one of vengeance for both women ruined by the false promise of city life, tempted from simple village existence by bright lights and urban sophistication.

Miki’s path has followed this pattern to the letter. City life turned her into a prostitute and drug addict, eventually running all the way to New York but failing to escape her ongoing despair. Running into a similarly depressed former yakuza, Hidemori (Hiroki Matsukata), who falls in love with her, reawakens her desire for life, and becomes determined to rescue both of their futures by turning her into a singing star, Miki is at a turning point as she prepares for TV stardom as the winner of a signing competition while Hidemori backtracks to his gangster days to make it happen.

Kano begins to piece things together and comes to realise his worst fears are true. Nevertheless, if he could he’d take Yuna home with him to the village to forget her city ordeal rather than hand her over to the Tokyo police to face justice whatever she might have done. Though the tone is largely a comic one, laced with Fukasaku’s characteristically bleak sense of humour, the conclusion is just as melancholy as any of his other sad stories of broken men as Kano is forced to conclude that whatever the facts, the Yuna who left the village is no longer in this world. Putting a lead on his piggy friend, he resigns himself to leaving the city to take care of itself while he returns home, his mission a failure.

Necessarily less serious than Fukasaku’s other work of the ‘70s, Doberman Cop is a return to the nonsensical B-movie action fests of the past which leaves ample room for Chiba to show off his still potent skills including the famous scene of him abseiling down a tall building to bust into a hotel room where Miki is being held captive by a crazed yakuza. The country bumpkin adapts to this part of city life well enough, karate kicking bad guys and loudly disapproving of drug peddling misogynists (not to mention “righteous” serial killers hellbent on “cleansing” the city of sleaziness). Bonding with the “salt of the earth” residents of the lower class neighbourhoods, including a stripper who takes a fancy to the pig during her routine, and a member a biker gang unfairly hauled in as a suspect, Kano concludes that city life is not all it’s cracked up to be much as he comes to admire these basically “good” people who have gone out of their way to help him for mostly altruistic reasons. Still, the world is a darker place for Kano following his city adventure, and all he can do in the end is return to the relative safety of a sunny Okinawan village, pig in tow.


Available now from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 1: Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

Snapshot-2015-12-07 at 11_06_36 PM-930280086When it comes to the history of the yakuza movie, there are few titles as important or as influential both in Japan and the wider world than Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Jingi Naki Tatakai). The first in what would become a series of similarly themed movies later known as The Yakuza Papers, Battles without Honour is a radical rebooting of the Japanese gangster movie. The English title is, infact, a literal translation of the Japanese which accounts for the slightly unnatural “and” rather than “or” where the “honour and humanity” are collected in a single Japanese word, “jingi”. Jingi is the ancient moral code by which old-style yakuza had abided and up to now the big studio gangster pictures had all depicted their yakuza as being honourable criminals. However, in Fukasaku’s reimagining of the gangster world this adherence to any kind of conventional morality was yet another casualty of Japan’s wartime defeat.

The story begins with a black and white image of a mushroom cloud with the film’s bright red title card and now famous theme playing over the top. This is Hiroshima in 1946. Things are pretty desperate, the black market is rife and there are US troops everywhere. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) has just returned from the war (in fact he’s still in his uniform). He gets himself into trouble when he intervenes as an American soldier attempts to rape a Japanese woman in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded marketplace. He manages to cause enough of a commotion for the woman to escape but the Japanese cops just tell him not to mess with the GIs. Things don’t get much better as one of Hirono’s friends is assaulted by a yakuza. They get some rival yakuza to help them get revenge and in the commotion Hirono accidentally kills someone and is sent to prison for 12 years. In prison he meets another yakuza who wants to escape by pretending to commit harakiri and promises to get his yakuza buddies to bail Hirono out if he helps. From this point on Hirono has become embroiled in the new and dangerous world of the Hiroshima criminal underground.

Battles Without Honour and Humanity has a famously complicated plot entered around the various power shifts and machinations between different groups of yakuza immediately after the end of World War II. The film begins in 1946 and ends in 1956 though many of its cast of tough guys don’t last anywhere near as long. The picture Fukasaku paints of Japan immediately after the war is a bleak one. Even if some of these guys are happy to have survived and finally reached home, they’ve seen and done terrible things. Not only that, they’ve been defeated and now they’re surrounded by foreign troops everywhere who can pretty much do what they want when they want. They just don’t have a lot of options – if they don’t have connections to help them find work when there’s not enough to go around then it isn’t surprising if they eventually fall into to crime. Also, having spent time in the military, the yakuza brotherhood provides a similar kind of camaraderie and surrogate family that you might also find in an army corps.

It all gets ugly quite fast. Largely the yakuza are making their money profiting from the political instability, resenting the US occupation yet reaching deals with them to support their efforts in the Korean war and then selling new and untested drugs at home (with less than brilliant results). Betrayals, executions, assassinations in previously safe places like a bath house or the barbers – these are a long way from the supposedly honourable gangsters of old. One minute Hirono is offering to cut off his finger as a traditional sign of atonement (though no one knows exactly what you’re supposed to do in this situation and it all ends up seeming a little silly) and taking the rap for everyone else’s mistakes, but his friend faked harakiri to get out of jail and everyone is double crossing everyone else whichever way you look.

The whole thing is filmed in an almost documentary style with captions identifying the various characters and giving the exact time of their demise (if necessary) as well as a voice over giving background information about the historical period. The film is inspired by real life yakuza memoirs and there are parts which feel quite like a bunch of old guys sitting in a drinking establishment and recounting some of their exploits.

This new postwar world of heartless gangsters is a tough one and almost devoid of the old honour-bound nobility, however somehow Fukasaku has managed to make it all look very cool at the same time as being totally unappealing. You wouldn’t want to live this way and you definitely don’t want to get involved with any of these guys but somehow their self determined way of life becomes something to be admired. That said, there’s a sadness too – that even in the criminal underworld there used to be something noble that’s been obliterated by the intense trauma of the war. You can rebuild, you can move on from the destruction left by the war’s wake but there’s no going back to those days of “honour and humanity” – if they ever existed, they’re gone forever now.


Battles without Honour and Humanity is available in blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity: The Complete Collection box set.