The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

After the war during the American occupation, the samurai film encountered a de facto ban with the authorities worried that historical epics may encourage outdated fuedal and fascistic ideology. The period films of the post-war era, however, are often fiercely critical of the samurai order even as it stands in for the hypocrisies of the contemporary society. Two years before Masaki Kobayashi launched a similar assault on the notion of samurai honour in Harakiri, Tomu Uchida’s The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Sake to Onna to Yari) finds a loyal retainer similarly troubled when he is ordered to die only to be ordered not to and then finally told that yes he must commit suicide to serve a kind of honour in which he no longer believes. 

Takasada (Ryutaro Otomo) is a battlefield veteran with the Tomita clan much revered for his skill with the spear. As a retainer to the current regent, Hidetsugu (Yataro Kurokawa), he finds himself in trouble when the ageing Hideyoshi (Eijiro Tono) stages a coup to solidify his power, accusing his nephew of treason on abruptly “discovering” a stash of illegally obtained rifles. Takasada is outraged not to have been ordered to die with his master, but later resents being “strongly encouraged” to do so by his brother, the head of their clan. Storming out, he temporarily retreats into a drunken haze during which he convinces his favourite actress, Umeme (Hiromi Hanazono), to stay with him (just serving drinks, no funny business), before committing himself to public seppuku on a date of his own choosing. When the day arrives, Takasada is greeted by parades of “well wishers” keen to congratulate him for being such a fine samurai. Encouraging those in line to step out of it and stand horizontally without account of rank or status, he agrees to drink with them all, with the consequence that he becomes extremely drunk and passes out. 

Just as he’s about to cut his belly, a messenger arrives from Hideyoshi himself ruling Takasada’s suicide illegal. He if goes ahead and does it anyway, his clan will be disgraced. Takasada’s brother changes his tune and begs him not to proceed for the sake of the Tomita honour. Thoroughly fed up, Takasada has a sudden epiphany about the hypocrisies of the samurai code and decides to renounce his status, dropping out of court life to live simply in the country where he is eventually joined by Umeme who has fallen in love with him. 

Meanwhile, court intrigue intensifies. These are the quiet years leading up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara which in itself decided the course of Japanese history. While the elderly Hideyoshi attempts to hold on to power by ruling as a regent on behalf of his sickly son Hideyori, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Eitaro Ozawa) plots on the sidelines. Hideyoshi is advised by his steward Mitsunari (Isao Yamagata) to take a hard line with treachery, executing all 36 “spies” planted in his household by Ieyasu, including a number of women and children. Mitsunari is himself working with the other side, and the executions are nothing short of a PR disaster for Hideyoshi, provoking fear and resentment in the general populace who can’t accept the inherent cruelty of putting women and children to the sword. Sakon (Chikage Awashima), a kabuki actress and fiercely protective friend of Umeme, comes to a similar conclusion to Takasada, hating the samurai order for its merciless savagery. 

That’s perhaps why she’s originally wary of Takasada’s interest in Umeme, uncertain he will keep his promise to keep his hands off her and so staying over one night herself to make sure Umeme is safe. Umeme, meanwhile, may not have wanted him to be quite so honourable, leaving in the morning visibly irritated and exclaiming that Takasada is drunk on himself and understands nothing of women. That may be quite true, but it’s his sense of honour which eventually tells him that he must reject the samurai ideal. First they tell him honour dictates he must die, then that he must not, then when Hideyoshi dies and the prohibition is lifted, that he must die after all because his entire clan is embarrassed by his continuing existence. By this point, Takasada has decided to accept his “cowardice”. Sickened by the spectacle of his ritual suicide and the humiliation of its cancelation, he came to the conclusion that “loyalty and honour for world fame, glorious exploits etc” is all a big joke. He loves food, and wine, and his wife, and if that means others call him coward so be it because he’s finally happy and perhaps free. 

His spear, however still hangs over his hearth. He hasn’t truly let go of it or of the code with which he was raised. Sakon, perhaps on one level jealous and guarding her own feelings as she accepts that Umeme has chosen to leave the stage to retreat into an individual world with Takasada, warns her that her happiness will end if Takasada is convinced to accept a commission from the Tokugawa. He surprises her by once again renouncing his status as a samurai, choosing to stay a “coward” living a simple life of love and happiness. But as soon as he puts his hand on the spear intending to break it for good something in him is reawakened. He can’t do it. He finds himself at Sekigahara, confronted not only by samurai hypocrisy but by his own as Sakon does what he could not do to show him what he has betrayed. His rage explodes and he raises his spear once again but not for the Tokugawa, against the samurai order itself piercing the very banners which define it in an ironic assault on an empty ideology.  


Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

yakuza law posterOne of the things that (supposedly) separates the “yakuza” from regular thugs is that they have a “code”. That code means many and various things, but in their grand mission to justify their existence it often means that they stand up for the little guy, all too often oppressed by the powers that be. Of course, a lot of people might feel themselves to be oppressed by yakuza thugs who like to throw their weight around and generally cause trouble for small business holders, but that’s beside the point. Teruo Ishii’s Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Yakuza Keibatsushi: Lynch!) goes one step further and asks if the yakuza are themselves “oppressed” by their own code, or at least the various ways it is used and subverted by all who subscribe to it.

Set in three distinct time periods, Yakuza Law is also fairly unique in that the vast majority of those on the receiving end of its violence are male. The yakuza is an extremely homosocial world after all. Each of the three tales presented is preceded by a title card featuring the particular “laws” the unhappy gangsters are about to break and what kind of punishment they might expect for doing so.

The first and earliest, set in the Edo era, is a typical giri/ninjo tale that places the ideal of the yakuza code against the need to preserve a personal vision of justice. The “rules” here are that a yakuza does not steal and he does not fool around with married women. Our hero, Tsune (Bunta Sugawara), takes the heat for a nervous underling, Shinkichi (Hiroshi Miyauchi), who crumbled in the heat of battle, but incurs the wrath of his boss while a devious footsoldier, Viper (Renji Ishibashi), hides in the bushes and then stabs a corpse numerous times to make it look as if he’s done good service. Viper, not content with his ill-gotten gains, sets up Tsune and his superior Tomozo (Ryutaro Otomo) by implicating them in a gambling scam while Tsune falls for the boss’ girl Oren (Yoshiko Fujita) who is also desperately trying to protect the feckless Shinkichi.

The problem with all of this, it would seem, is not so much that the yakuza “law” has been broken but that’s it’s being misused in all quarters and is clearly in conflict with basic humanity. The boss uses the code to manipulate his underlings and keep a firm grip on his power, while Viper bends it to his own nefarious ways and a third underling, Shohei (Shhinichiro Hayashi), rests on the sidelines playing a little each way but remaining loyal to his brothers even as the axe falls on his head. The punishments meted out are suitably gruesome, escalating from finger cutting to eye gauging and ear removal in a senseless and counterproductive lust for violence which does eventually blow back on the boss who pushes his authority too far over too small a cause.

In tale two, however, which takes place in 20th century pre-war Japan, the “crime” is causing trouble and the punishment exile, but again the problem is not the code but the men who subvert it. Thus, hotheaded foot soldier Ogata (Minoru Oki) sets the cat amongst the pigeons by starting a gang war on his own and is sent to prison for three years during which time his gang prospers because of the movement he started. Even so, they aren’t keen to have him back when he gets out and immediately exile him from their territory. He sticks around waiting for his girl, Sayo (Masumi Tachibana), but she gets picked up by the evil boss who wants her for himself and delays her departure so that Ogata can be captured. Believing he’s dead, she hooks up with another goodhearted yakuza, Amamiya (Toyozo Yamamoto), who saves her from the bad guys only to have a romantic crisis when Ogata suddenly resurfaces. Amamiya and Ogata are, however, both “good” yakuza which means they both really love Sayo and want the best for her, each respecting the other for the old love and the new as they team up to kick the corrupt yakuza out of town and make sure she’s permanently safe whoever it is she eventually ends up with.

By the third tale we’ve reached the contemporary era, but we’re no longer in a traditional “yakuza” world so much as one seemingly ripped from a spy spoof in which the cardinal rule is that if you undermine the organisation you will be eliminated. More thugs than yakuza, this kind have no code and will stoop to the lowest kind of cruelty solely for money. Debonair, 007-esque international hitman Hirose (Teruo Yoshida) accepts a job from shady gangster Shimazu (Takashi Fujiki) to assassinate his boss, only Shimazu offs him first and then frames Hirose (which he finds very irritating). Hirose spends the rest of the picture teaching him a lesson while Shimazu tries to eliminate his competition in increasingly inhuman ways (including having someone crushed into a cube while trapped inside a luxury car).

Bar the third episode which isn’t really even about “yakuza”, what Ishii seems to be saying is that the yakuza are also oppressed because they are forced to live with fragmented integrity, torn between giri and ninjo in their adherence to an arcane set of values which are often overly enforced at the cost of true “justice”. To be fair, that is the idea behind every other yakuza film, but Ishii does is add a more cynical edge in suggesting the issue isn’t the code and conflicting value systems but individualised corruption (which is itself perhaps a kind of “ninjo”) in those who deliberately misuse the “noble” idea of the code for their own ends – something which has intensified since the Edo era though is apparently not a result of post-Meiji internationalism. All of that aside, despite the brutality of the title, Yakuza Law is fairly tame outing for Ishii which tempers its lust for blood with cartoonish irony as its deluded heroes battle themselves in service of a code which has never and will never truly serve them.


Available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes a new audio commentary by Jasper Sharp and a vintage interview with Teruo Ishii, as well as a booklet featuring new writing by Tom Mes.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)

Edogawa Rampo’s Beast in the Shadows ( 江戸川乱歩の陰獣, Tai Kato, 1977)

Edogawa Rampo (a clever allusion to master of the gothic and detective story pioneer Edgar Allan Poe) has provided ample inspiration for many Japanese films from Blind Beast to Horrors of Malformed Men. So synonymous with kinky terror is his name, that it finds itself appended into the title of this 1977 adaptation of his novel Beast in the Shadows (江戸川乱歩の陰獣, Edogawa Rampo no Inju) by veteran director Tai Kato best known for his work in the yakuza genre. Mixing classic European detective intrigue with a more typically Japanese obsession with method over motive, Beast in the Shadows, like much of Edogawa Rampo’s work twists and turns around the idea of atypical sexuality, one side cerebral and another physical as the “Westernised” sadomasochism of the heroine’s husband becomes the driving force of the narrative.

Our hero, Koichiro Samukawa (Teruhiko Aoi), is a best selling author who likes to describe himself as the creator of “serious” mystery novels. In this he contrasts himself favourably with the coming younger generation who rely on sensationalised tricks and twists rather than the intricately plotted, traditionally constructed crime stories which Samukawa prides himself on writing. The particular object of his rage is a recently successful rival, Shundei Oe, who is making quite a splash in literary circles in part due to his mysterious persona. Refusing all in-person contact, Oe’s whereabouts are completely unknown and though he supplies a “real name” at the back of each book, there is great speculation as to who he really is, how he lives, and where he might be.

Down south to supervise a movie shoot based on one of his novels, Samukawa is thrilled to run into a fan – particularly as she’s such a beautiful young woman. Shizuko (Yoshiko Kayama) is the wife of a wealthy businessman, Oyamada, who has recently returned from an extended spell abroad though he doesn’t share her passion for literature even if he brings home such luxuries as fancy European gloves. The relationship moves beyond mutual appreciation when Shizuko asks for Samukawa’s help in investigating a series of threatening letters she’s been receiving from an old boyfriend who may or may not also be stalking her. The real kicker is that the letters purport to be from Shundei Oe – apparently the pen name being used by a man who fell deeply in love with Shizuko when he was a student but couldn’t take no for an answer when his creepy behaviour became too much for the then school girl. Though Samukawa is sure the letters are all talk and commits himself unmasking Oe for the perverted cretin he is, Shizuko’s husband is eventually murdered just as the letters threatened.

Though the final twist is one which most seasoned mystery lovers will have seen coming, Kato keeps the audience on its toes with plenty of intrigue and red herrings as Samukawa attempts to discover the truth behind the death of Shizuko’s husband as well as taking the opportunity to indulge in a little intellectual vanity by unmasking his rival. The movie subplot quickly gets forgotten but Samukawa is also helped/hindered by his publisher, Honda (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who keeps reminding him about the looming deadline for his latest work. The case at hand provides ample distraction for the harried writer whose writer’s block is only made worse by thoughts of Shundei Oe’s growing success and his resentment of this new, sensationalised form of crime novel which seems to be eclipsing his own.

If the way he acts in “real life” is anything to go by, Samukawa’s detective novels owe much to the European tradition but still, there’s a persistent fear of the foreign underlining much of the proceedings despite the heavy presence of Westernised clothing, music and culture which seems to diffuse itself throughout daily life. Shizuko’s husband may have just returned from abroad but it seems he brought back much more with him than some fancy gloves and an elegant English mistress (pointedly named Helen Christie). The English style riding crop in Oyamada’s study is not mere affectation but the cause of the nasty looking wound on Shizuko’s shoulder which first caught Samukawa’s attention. Oyamada’s sadistic tendencies are posited as a credible reason he could himself be masquerading as Oe, getting off on driving his wife half crazy with fear, but his eventual murder would seem to rule that out.

Nevertheless the game is one of pleasure and pain as Samukawa comes to the realisation that he is integral to the plot. Challenged by his literary rival to a game of minds, Samukawa is putting his detective abilities to the test as his rival is writing their latest story in reality rather than on the page. Love, lust, betrayal, violence and tragedy all come together for a classic gothic detective story which looks ahead to noir with its melancholy fatalism yet remains resolutely within the dark and ghoulish world of the gothic potboiler. Kato shoots a prestige picture with the undercurrent of repressed eroticism in his strange low level angles and unusual compositions which bind, tie and constrain the elusive Shizuko within the window panes and doorways of her home. Light levels fluctuate wildly, isolating the haunted protagonists in their supernatural gloom until we hit the expressionism of the theatrical finale which takes place in an entirely red, almost glowing attic space. The atmosphere is one of profound unease as Oe is thought to be perpetually watching, hidden somewhere in the house, out of sight.

The Beast in the Shadows does not just refer to the unseen voyeur but to the repressed eroticism which his actions symbolise and is perhaps brought out in the various sadomasochistic relationships created between each of the protagonists. Then again, where are we in all this – sitting in the dark, watching, undetected, seeing things we had no right to see. Kato takes our own voyeuristic tendencies and serves them back to us with visual flair in a late career masterpiece which perfectly captures Edogawa Rampo’s gothic world of repressed desire and brings it to its cinematic climax as two detectives go head to head in a game so high stakes neither of them quite realised what it was they were playing.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)