Female Ninja Magic (くノ一忍法, Sadao Nakajima, 1964)

female ninja magic posterSadao Nakajima, a veteran director and respected film scholar, is most often associated with his gritty gangster epics but he made his debut with a noticeably theatrical fantasy tale of female ninjas and their idiosyncratic witchcraft. Adapted from a novel by Futaro Yamada, Female Ninja Magic (くノ一忍法, Kunoichi Ninpo) is an atypically romantic take on the ninja genre, infused with ironic humour and making the most of its embedded eroticism as a collection of wronged women attempt to change the course of history and mostly pay with their lives.

The night before the fall of Osaka castle in 1615, Sanada Yukimura (Eizo Kitamura) comes up with a cunning plan to ensure the survival of the Toyotomi clan. Following the death of Hideyoshi, his son Hideyori had inherited the title but he was sickly and had no children of his own. His wife, Princess Sen (Yumiko Nogawa), was not able to bear an heir and so Sanada has hit on an idea. He wants to send five women of Iga to Hideyori’s bed chamber in the hope that one of them will become pregnant and ensure the survival of the Toyotomi line. Princess Sen is very much in on the plan and hopes to raise the child herself. However, she is by birth a member of the Tokugawa which is where she is eventually sent following fall of Osaka. Refusing to return to her birth clan, Sen rejects her father and insists on remaining true to the memory of her (now departed) husband and his unborn child. Tokugawa Ieyasu (Meicho Soganoya), however, has learned of the Toyotomi heir and is determined to see it killed…

Nakajima opens in grand fashion with a ghostly sequence in which Sanada outlines his plan. The ninjas sit silently before magically fading from the frame and being replaced by Sasuke, Sanada’s messenger. Soon enough, both Sanada and Sasuke are cut down by a rogue assassin but rather than going straight to heaven they decide to hang around and see how well the plan works out, becoming our narrators of sorts, hovering around in the background and occasionally offering the odd ironic comment from beyond the frame.

The ghostly effects don’t stop with the two undead commentators but comprise a key part of Nakajima’s deliberately theatrical aesthetic. Like many ninja films, Female Ninja Magic is filmed almost entirely on studio sets but never pretends otherwise. Its world is unrealistic and deliberately over the top, filled with with visual motifs both from traditional Japanese and classical European art. The female ninjas dance, topless, beckoning and seducing but they do it against a stark black background moving firmly into the film’s magical space in which all things are possible.

Meanwhile, Tokugawa Ieyasu has sent five male ninjas to take care of our five female witches, making use of their own, devious, ninja magic to combat that of our heroines. The first nefarious male ninja technique involves the murder and identity theft of a trusted maid, while another tries a similar trick by “projecting” himself into the consciousness of a handmaiden he has figured out is pregnant by listening for additional heartbeats, and convincing her to commit harakiri. His villainy is eventually turned back on him as the female ninjas make use of the most important of their spells – the “Changing Rooms” technique which effectively shifts the foetus from one womb to another.

Deliciously named – Rainbow Monsoon, Dancing Snow, Robe of Wings etc, the spells run from the sublime to the ridiculous with the self explanatory Eternal Gas which sends noxious purple smoke billowing from under the skirts of an elegant princess. Each has its own erotic component, even if it doesn’t necessitate a shift into the film’s elegantly designed dreamscape, but by and large the female ninja fight with supernatural rather than earthly powers. Facing such extreme threat, the women form a tight group of mutual support in order to ensure the survival of the child which Princess Sen will raise but not birth. Though her quest originated as a fierce declaration of her loyalty to the Toyotomi, she later recants on her tribal zealotry. Shocked by her father’s cruelty and sick of a persistent suitor, she admits that she has come to loathe the world of men and prefers to think of the baby as belonging to her band of women alone. Nevertheless, male violence eventually saves her as her aggressor, ironically enough, is moved by her devotion to the new life in her arms – he is “defeated by her strength as a woman”, and turns on his own kind. Female Ninja Magic eventually achieves the revenge it sought, allowing a princess to survive in triumph while the male order quakes in its boots.


Datsugoku Hiroshima Satsujinshu (脱獄広島殺人囚, Sadao Nakajima, 1974)

DVD coverSadao Nakajima had made his name with Toei’s particular brand of violent action movie, but by the early seventies, the classic yakuza flick was going out of fashion. Datsugoku Hiroshima Satsujinshu (脱獄広島殺人囚, AKA The Rapacious Jailbreaker) follows in the wake of seminal genre buster, Battles Without Honour and Humanity, but also honours the classic Toei ganger movie past in its exploitation leaning, cynically humorous tale of a serial escapee and his ever more convoluted schemes to avoid the bumbling police force’s noose.

Kobe, 1947. Ueda (Hiroki Matsukata) and his buddy kill a drug dealer and his girlfriend in a robbery gone wrong. Landing himself a twenty year sentence, Ueda resigns himself to spending his prime years behind bars in a Hiroshima prison but then he starts getting a few ideas and his first escape attempt is a moderate success, until he’s recaptured after stupidly going home to his wife.

Nakajima spends quite a long time exploring the unusual environment of the prison in Hiroshima. The life is strictly ordered and run with precision but the prisoners are also forced to do a strange dance for the guards, waving their hands and shouting their ID numbers to prove there’s nothing interesting inside their mouths – a gesture which is hilariously turned back on the warden when a prisoner begins a mini riot after a sports game is turned off at crucial moment. The warden submits himself to the degrading dance but once the man surrenders, he does not honour any of the promises he made to convince him to come down from the tower he was occupying. The guards are corrupt, violent, and untrustworthy whereas the majority of prisoners are docile, resigned, and going mad through inactivity.

Ueda, like many “heroes” of yakuza films is a man who’s had a hard life, left to fend for himself after his father died and his mother left. He appears to love and care for his wife who pledges to wait for him, starting her own seamstressing business in the meantime, but his subsequent escape attempts take him further and further away from his home. Nevertheless, home is the first place he decides to go despite the danger even if his reunion with his wife is anything but romantic.

After being recaptured, Ueda’s desire for escape intensifies, requiring ever more complicated schemes to make it happen. These range from the traditional file hidden inside a lovingly prepared meal delivered by his wife, to simply running away when arraigned for a court date after committing another murder while inside. Seeing as Ueda intends to escape, he cares little for the prison rules and his 20 year sentence is soon doubled thanks to his ongoing crimes both inside and outside of the prison walls.

Other than his wife the other source of support Ueda turns to is his estranged sister with whom he’s had no contact since his mother left sixteen years previously. What he discovers is that the now widowed Kazuko (Naoko Otani) is involved in some dodgy business of her own concerning the local black market meat trade. Ueda decides Kazuko is not getting her fair share and more or less takes over, bending the local petty gangsters to his will, but once again he messes everything up for himself after getting into a fight at a brothel which lands him back at the police station.

Nakajima follows Fukasaku’s jitsuroku aesthetic using frequent onscreen text detailing names and conviction records for each of the major players though his approach owes far less to realism than b-movie action in its willingness to linger on blood and gore even if scenes of violence are generally few and executed quickly. Scenes of a cow being butchered in the woods, blood, skin, and bones dominating, introduce a note of sickening horror but are then echoed in Ueda’s animalistic murders committed with makeshift tools and an unforgiving heart. Despite this frightening coldness, Ueda’s humorous voiceover turns him into a roguish figure whose bumbling acts of self destruction and stubborn attempts to regain his freedom take on an oddly cartoonish quality.  The situation may be hopeless, but Ueda does not give up. His story remains unfinished as he makes another (apparently) successful escape after being betrayed by a fellow criminal who is then himself betrayed by the police he mistakenly thought would help him, but as for how long he’ll manage to keep himself on this side of the bars, that remains to be seen…


 

Kurutta Yaju (狂った野獣, Sadao Nakajima, 1976)

Kurutta Yaju dvd coverRobbing a bank is harder than it looks but if it does all go very wrong, escaping by bus is not an ideal solution. Sadao Nakajima is best known for his gritty yakuza movies but Kurutta Yaju ( 狂った野獣, Crazed Beast/Savage Beast Goes Mad) takes him in a slightly different direction with its strangely comic tale of bus hijacking, counter hijacking, inept police, and fretting mothers. If it can go wrong it will go wrong, and for a busload of people in Kyoto one sunny morning, it’s going to be a very strange day indeed.

A young woman receives a phone call at a cafe – the person she’s waiting for is on his way, but the girl seems surprised and irritated to hear he will be arriving via public transport. Meanwhile, ordinary people are seen cheerfully going about their everyday business and boarding a bus headed for Kyoto station while a cool looking man in mac and sunshades clutches a violin case in the back. Suddenly, two shady guys jump on after their bank robbery goes belly up. Trying to escape the police, they threaten the driver with a gun and take the passengers hostage.

This sounds like a serious situation, and it is, but the two bumbling bank robbers haven’t thought any of this through and have no plans other than somehow driving the bus onwards to a land without policemen. Eventually the authorities are made aware of the hijacking but there is another hidden problem – the driver has a heart condition and is supposed to be avoiding “stressful situations”. Neither the bus company or the police has any more idea what to do now than the increasingly panicked criminals and the situation quickly makes its way into the press whereupon the mothers of two little boys presumed to be onboard are forced to dash straight down to the police station to find out exactly what the police are up to as regards rescuing their sons from dangerous criminals.

The atmosphere on the bus is tense but also ripe for comedy as each of these captive passengers gradually reveals an unexpected side of themselves. The “hero”, Shin (Tsunehiko Watase) – the cool looking dude on his way to meet the girl waiting in the cafe, keeps a low profile in the back, hoping this will all blow over. Meanwhile, a woman desperately tries to get off the bus because she’s more worried about missing an appointment than being killed by hijackers, and an adulterous couple on their way back from an illicit visit to a love hotel begin bickering about what will happen if any of this gets into the papers. The two little boys start crying and are comforted by an old lady who takes the time to remind the hijackers that they’re bringing shame on their families as well as exhorting the man next to her who is so engrossed in the racing news that he hasn’t really noticed the hijacking that he ought to be doing something about it. He does, but only gets himself into more trouble whilst further revealing the depths of the highjackers’ ineptitude.

Soon enough the woman from the cafe, Miyoko (Jun Hoshino), jumps on her bike to chase the bus and find out what Shin is playing at. As might be expected, there’s more to Shin than his ice cold exterior, and more to that violin case than a priceless musical instrument. The bus careers onward while the police come up with ever more bizarre attempts to stop it including, at one point, trying to drive right into the side to damage the engine. Bizarre hilarity ensues as a troupe of traditional musicians trolls the hijackers with an impromptu show, a kid pees out the window, and the bus plows straight through a chicken barn like some old time cartoon. Shin becomes the unlikely hero of the hour as he ends up counter hijacking the bus to try and cover up the circumstances which led him to get on in the first place.

Playing out in real time and only 78 minutes in length, Kurutta Yaju is a brilliant mix of absurd comedy and gritty action movie. Shin attempts to ride the situation out, hoping he’ll be able to turn it to his advantage, and, though he plays everything beautifully, eventually becomes disillusioned with what his strange bus odyssey might have cost him. Action packed, hilarious, and ultimately a little bit sad Kurutta Yaju is a lost gem in Toei’s B-movie backlog and another exciting addition to Japan’s long history of bus-centric cinema.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Hideo Gosha, 1987)

yoshiwara-enjoHideo Gosha maybe best known for the “manly way” movies of his early career in which angry young men fought for honour and justice, but mostly just to to survive. Late into his career, Gosha decided to change tack for a while with a series of female orientated films either remaining within the familiar gangster genre as in Yakuza Wives, or shifting into world of the red light district as in Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Yoshiwara Enjo). Presumably an attempt to get past the unfamiliarity of the Yoshiwara name, the film’s English title is perhaps a little more obviously salacious than the original Japanese which translates as Yoshiwara Conflagration and directly relates to the real life fire of 1911 in which 300 people were killed and much of the area razed to the ground. Gosha himself grew up not far from the location of the Yoshiwara as it existed in the mid-20th century where it was still a largely lower class area filled with cardsharps, yakuza, and, yes, prostitution (legal in Japan until 1958, outlawed in during the US occupation). The Yoshiwara of the late Meiji era was not so different as the women imprisoned there suffered at the hands of men, exploited by a cruelly misogynistic social system and often driven mad by internalised rage at their continued lack of agency.

Opening with a voice over narration from Kyoko Kishida, the film introduces us to the heroine, 19 year old Hisano (Yuko Natori), as she is unwillingly sold to the red light district in payment for her father’s debts. After a strange orientation ceremony from the Yoshiwara police force where one “kindly” officer explains to her about the necessity of faking orgasms to save her stamina, Hisano is taken to the brothel which is now her home to begin her training. Some months later when Hisano is due to serve her first customer, she runs from him in sheer panic, leaping into a lake where a young Salvation Army campaigner, Furushima (Jinpachi Nezu), tries and fails to help her escape.

Taken back to the brothel and tied up in punishment, Hisano receives a lesson in pleasure from the current head geisha, Kiku (Rino Katase), after which she appears to settle into her work, getting promoted through various ranks until she too becomes one of the top geisha in the area. Sometime later, Furushima reappears as a wealthy young man. Regretting his inability to save her at the river and apparently having given up on his Salvation Army activities, Furushima becomes Hisano’s number one patron even though he refuses to sleep with her. Though they eventually fall in love, Hisano’s position as a geisha continues to present a barrier between the pair, forcing them apart for very different reasons.

Despite having spent a small fortune accurately recreating the main street of the Yoshiwara immediately prior to the 1911 fire, Gosha is not interested in romanticising the the pleasure quarters but depicts them as what they were – a hellish prison for enslaved women. As Hisano and Furushima later reflect, the Yoshiwara is indeed all built on lies – a place which claims to offer freedom, love, and pleasure but offers only the shadow of each of these things in an elaborate fake pageantry built on female suffering. Hisano, like many of the other women, was sold to pay a debt. Others found themselves sucked in by a continuous circle of abuse and exploitation, but none of them are free to leave until the debt, and any interest, is paid. Two of Hisako’s compatriots find other ways out of the Yoshiwara, one by her own hand, and another driven mad through illness is left alone to die like an animal coughing up blood surrounded by bright red futons in a storage cupboard.

As Kiku is quick to point out, the Yoshiwara is covered in cherry blossoms in spring but there is no place here for a tree which no longer flowers. The career of the courtesan is a short one and there are only two routes forward – become a madam or marry a wealthy client. Kiku’s plans don’t work out the way she originally envisioned, trapping her firmly within the Yoshiwara long after she had hoped to escape. Hisano is tempted by a marriage proposal from a man she truly loves but finds herself turning it down for complicated reasons. Worried that her lover does not see her as a woman, she is determined to take part in the upcoming geisha parade to force him to see her as everything she is, but her desires are never fully understood and she risks her future happiness in a futile gesture of defiance.

Defiance is the true theme of the film as each of the women fight with themselves and each other to reclaim their own freedom and individuality even whilst imprisoned and exploited by unassailable forces. Hisano, as Kiku constantly reminds her (in contrast to herself), never accepts that she is “just another whore” and therefore is able to first conquer and then escape the Yoshiwara even if it’s through a second choice compromise solution (albeit one which might bring her a degree of ordinary happiness in later life). Land of lies, the Yoshiwara promises the myth of unbridled pleasure to men who willingly make women suffer for just that purpose, further playing into Gosha’s ongoing themes of insecurity and self loathing lying at the heart of all physical or emotional violence. Though the ending voiceover is overly optimistic about the climactic fire ending centuries of female oppression as the Yoshiwara burns, Hisano, at least, may at last be free from its legacy of shame even whilst she watches the object of her desire destroyed by its very own flames.


Oiran parade scene (dialogue free)

Aesthetics of a Bullet (鉄砲玉の美学, Sadao Nakajima, 1973)

aesthetics of a bullet1973 is the year the ninkyo eiga died. Or that is to say, staggered off into an alleyway clutching its stomach and vowing revenge whilst simultaneously seeking forgiveness from its beloved oyabun after being cruelly betrayed by the changing times! You might think it was Kinji Fukasaku who turned traitor and hammered the final nail into the coffin of Toei’s most popular genre, but Sadao Nakajima helped ram it home with the riotous explosion of proto-punk youth movie and jitsuroku-style naturalistic look at the pettiness and squalor inherent in the yakuza life – Aesthetics of a Bullet (鉄砲玉の美学, Teppodama no Bigaku). This tale of a small time loser playing the supercool big shot with no clue that he’s a sacrificial pawn in a much larger power struggle is one that has universal resonance despite the unpleasantness of its “hero”.

Kiyoshi Koike is a former chef with a gambling problem and a living room full of rabbits that he bought hoping to sell as pets but his sales patter could use some work and the business is not exactly taking off. Getting violent with his girlfriend after borrowing money from her to play mahjong and then getting annoyed when she doesn’t seem keen to lend him more to change his rabbit business into a dog business, Kiyoshi is at an impasse. So, when the local gangsters are looking for a patsy they can send into enemy territory as a “bullet” Kiyoshi’s name is high on the list. They need someone “hotblooded, must have daredevil courage, when he flips he should make a huge racket” – Kiyoshi more than fits the bill, and more to the point he has no idea what he’s doing.

Given a large amount of money and a gun, Kiyoshi gets a haircut and buys some fancy suits to play his part as a super cool gangster who doesn’t take any shit from anyone. He goes around telling everyone his name and gang affiliation very loudly, waving his pistol and acting like a big shot despite the fact he obviously has no name and no reputation. The plan is he fires his gun, gets killed, his gang swoop in for a gang war and wipe out the opposition. Only, when Kiyoshi gets too invested in his part and beats up a rival gangster, the local boss apologises and offers him a knife to make things even with the guy who just disrespected him…

If he fires his gun, it’s game over but what exactly is keeping his finger off the trigger – fear, or self preservation? Either way, Kiyoshi is way over his head in a game he never understood in the first place.

This is no ninkyo eiga. There’s no nobility here, these men are animals with no humanity let alone a pretence of honour. Kiyoshi is a loser, through and through, but once the gun is in his hand he transforms into something else. The gun becomes an extension of himself, a symbol of his new found gangster hero status. A fancy suit and a fire arm are handy props for a method actor but the performance only runs so deep, what is Kiyoshi now, a man, or a bullet?

Whatever he is, he’s no hero. In his untransformed state he violently beat his girlfriend whom he also forced to work as a prostitute, and even after getting the gun he witnesses a woman being gang raped yet appears to be more amused than anything else. He ends up getting into a fight with the other two guys waiting for their go and seems to feel heroic after the woman gets away but his intention was never to rescue her. Indeed, bumping into her again he makes a clumsy attempt at subtle blackmail though she gets a kind of revenge on him in the end. Even his “romantic” encounter with the glamorous former photo model girlfriend of the rival gang boss ends with a bizarre sex game in which he makes her get on all fours and bark like a dog.

When the time comes, Kiyoshi can’t contemplate the idea of returning to his old loser self and is fixated on reaching the peak of Kirishima which is said to be the place where the gods descended to Earth. When the bullet finally emerges, it heads in the wrong direction. Self inflicted wounds are the name of the game as an aesthetically pleasing, poetic end to this tragic story follows the only trajectory available for a classic yakuza fable.

After beginning with a montage of people sloppily eating junk food set against a proto-punk rock song dedicated to the idea of living the way you please and not letting anyone get in your way, the film contrasts the independent, non-conformist yakuza ideal of total freedom with Kiyoshi’s lowly status in an increasingly consumerist environment. The yakuza life would indeed prove a passport for a man like Kiyoshi to jump into the mainstream, but this fantasy world is one that cannot last and one way or another the curtain must fall on this expensive piece of advanced performance art.

Aesthetics of a Bullet has, like its hero, been abandoned on the roadside. Whereas the Battles Without Honour series has become a landmark of the yakuza genre, Aesthetics of a Bullet has never even received a home video release in Japan and has received barely a mention even the histories of ATG movies. This is surprising as its noir style and art house approach ought to have made it one of ATG’s more commercially viable releases even with its sleazy, nihilistic tone. Opting for a more naturalistic approach, Nakajima nevertheless breaks the action with expressionistic sequences as Kiyoshi fantasises a glorious death for himself, climaxes through gunshot, or remembers the student riots through a blue tinted sequence of still photographs. A complex yet beautifully made, genre infused character piece, Aesthetics of a Bullet is a long lost classic and one in urgent need of reappraisal.


Title sequence and first scene (unsubtitled)