Blood End (天狗党, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1969)

When the black ships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853, it provoked a moment of crisis which eventually led to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. Between those two events however lay a period of intense confusion as several groups and movements attempted to lay claim to the future direction of the nation. Many, such as the legendary figure Sakamoto Ryoma, held that above all else Japan needed to Westernise as quickly as possible in order to defend itself against foreign powers now far more technologically advanced than the Japan which had attempted to hold back time for over 200 years. Others felt quite the opposite, that what was needed was an end to the corrupt rule of the Shogunate and the restoration of power to the emperor while expelling foreign influence and going back into isolation. 

Satsuo Yamamoto’s Blood End (天狗党, Teng-to) dramatises this debate through the melancholy tale of the Mito Rebellion as a brutalised peasant farmer is sucked in by the idea of revolution but eventually betrayed by it in discovering that the samurai, even revolutionary samurai, will never change. They may claim they want an end to the feudal caste system and to live in a world where all men are equal, but continue to feel themselves entitled to more equality than others and insist on deference from those they still believe to be inferior. 

The action begins with a scene familiar from many a jidaigeki in that a small farming community is being pressed to provide the usual amount of rice despite the failure of the harvest. Revolutionary yakuza Jingoza (Kanemon Nakamura) and egalitarian samurai Kada (Go Gato) stumble on the scene of a “stubborn” peasant being subjected to 100 blows as punishment for the village’s raising the unfairness of their situation with the local lord. Surviving his ordeal, Sentaro (Tatsuya Nakadai) asks only for water but is denied by his cruel samurai tormentor. Jingoza intervenes and offers him his flask along with some money by way of an apology on behalf of these savage nobles, a gesture for which Sentaro remains grateful. While many of his friends are exiled and lose their lands, Sentaro disappears from the village and becomes a yakuza himself, learning the art of the sword in preparation for his mission of revenge. 

Meeting Jingoza by chance, he takes the opportunity to thank him and agrees to transport some money back to his family in a nearby village while he engages in urgent business in the mountains. While there, Sentaro ends up defending Jingoza’s steely daughter Tae (Yukiyo Toake) who is running something like an orphanage for children rendered fatherless by the ongoing chaos. It’s at Tae’s that he ends up running into Kada, who is a member of revolutionary movement “Tengu-to”, named for the mythical ogres with long noses and bright red faces. Sentaro ends up joining the movement, but gradually discovers that Tengo-to is not all he thought it to be. In the modern parlance, many of their actions are terrorist, they care little for human life and have no issue with looting wealthy houses as they prove after helping Sentaro assassinate the man who beat him, killing the man’s wife and servants and making off with his money as “military funds”. Sentaro is shocked, but only manages to get some of the money for himself to take back to Tae as a way of making amends. He continues to associate with Tengu-to despite his growing disillusionment with their philosophy. 

The Mito clan were perhaps outliers in the great Bakumatsu culture war, running under the “Sonno Joi” banner but doing so alone and forcefully advocating that the emperor’s instruction to expel all foreigners with immediate effect be enforced. At least as far as Yamamoto’s revolutionaries go, they advocate for this not so much because they reject foreign influence but because they resent the country’s elites maintaining a stranglehold on the riches to be gained by foreign trade. Kada, however, claims to have a more revolutionary spirit in that he wants to improve conditions for farmers like Sentaro, protecting them from the “corrupt system” but he’s still a product of his society and finds the programming increasingly hard to break. Having recruited vast numbers of peasants to their cause and witnessing the failure of their campaign, the other leaders want to go to Kyoto to talk to the emperor but are embarrassed to go there in the company of so many men who are not samurai. The solution is that they simply kill them, because peasants aren’t really people anyway. 

Sentaro thought they were “doing something good for peasants and the poor”, but samurai will always be “samurai” and eventually they will betray him. He wavers when Kada and the others ask him to assassinate Jingoza because he’s gone over to the Westernising cause, and is half talked round by his insistence that he’s acting blindly without thinking far enough ahead but himself finds it hard to break with the idea that samurai are honest and know what they’re doing. 

Yamamoto is perhaps making a direct allusion to the imminent failure of the student movement in Japan which finds itself in much the same place as the Tengu-to, torn apart by infighting and increasingly corrupted by duplicitous dogma. Kada has a lot of fine ideas but he doesn’t act on them, doubling down on ruthlessness in complaining that Sentaro is too sentimental, insisting that emotion is the enemy. Sentaro, however, has figured out that the enemy is the sword and everything it represents. Jingoza’s “Restoration” is the one he should have been fighting for if he wanted to see a classless Japan, but the Tengu-to have misused his idealism for their own ends and turned him into a defender of his own oppression. Still, the Tengu-to are the ones who pay the price, their entreaties to the emperor falling on deaf ears with 353 retainers beheaded as punishment. Sentaro lives on, vowing he will never die, as he walks towards the “Restoration” of the future and away from the Blood End of an inherently corrupt insurrection. 


The Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1959)

“When all human beings acknowledge each other as human let the precious joy that results be universal. When this joy lives forever in the hearts of women and is handed down to daughters who become mothers then tomorrow will not just repeat today but be a new beginning” reads the opening title card/mission statement of Satsuo Yamamoto’s chronicle of early 20th century Japan. Told though the eyes of one very good woman wrestling against her baser instincts, Song of the Cart (荷車の歌, Niguruma no Uta) is a gentle plea for a little more empathy and understanding in which the heroine suffers greatly but is finally rewarded in managing to keep the darkness at bay. 

In late Meiji, Seki (Yuko Mochizuki) develops a fondness for the most eligible young man in town – the postman, Moichi (Rentaro Mikuni), who can read and write and isn’t bad looking either. To her surprise, Moichi admires her too and eventually proposes marriage, intending to give up his job as a postman which doesn’t pay as much as it used to now costs are rising because of the recently concluded Sino-Japanese war to buy a handcart with the longterm goal of building a small handcart empire with a warehouse of his own that will allow him to build a fancy house to live in. Seki hesitates, she’s an illiterate maid perhaps she isn’t good enough for the great Moichi but he replies that he couldn’t care less about that and only wants to know if she wants him. She does, but has to check with her parents first. They object to the marriage on the grounds that Moichi is penniless and disown her when she tells them she’s marrying him anyway. Disowned by her parents, she also loses her job as a maid and is forced to head to Moichi’s ahead of schedule where his extremely cold mother (Teruko Kishi) makes no secret of her resentment of her new daughter-in-law but is eventually forced to relent. 

Unlike Moichi and his mother, the other residents of the village and particularly its women are bright and cheerful despite the harshness of their lives. Swept off her feet by Moichi’s seeming sophistication, Seki is in for a rude awakening in realising that his work ethic is extreme and in many ways he’s just as cruel as his heartless mother. On her arrival, Seki’s mother-in-law complains that she brings “only a small bundle” while simultaneously suggesting that she somehow looks down on them because they are only poor people, insisting that she work alongside Moichi pulling carts to make their dreams of riches come true. Seki jumps at the chance to prove her love, but finds her mother-in-law unchanged. 

Pulling the cart through the village, Moichi and Seki pass another woman who seems put out by Seki’s presence, complaining that Moichi never bothered to reply to her own proposal. Moichi dismisses her complaints, avowing that he didn’t marry her because she wasn’t a worker, implying that he was only interested in someone who would work alongside him in pursuit of his goal of becoming a homeowner. Seki is indeed a worker, and a strong woman who bears her hardships with grace, but finds it increasingly difficult to put up with her mother-in-law’s heartlessness and adherence to old-fashioned feudal customs by which she claims her authority over the household while Moichi, as the dutiful son, always defers to his mother. When the first child arrives, Moichi declares that a daughter brings him no joy, while the mother-in-law who is supposed to be watching her, just lets her cry all day long and doesn’t even change her nappies. Out on the road, Seki comes across another couple in a similar situation who’ve brought their little one with them, riding in a bucket on the back of the cart. Seki wonders why they can’t do the same, then she’d at least know her daughter was alright and not crying her heart out in a dirty nappy, but Moichi won’t hear of it lest his mother be offended that Seki is suggesting she’s not looking after her granddaughter properly. 

Moichi works every hour god sends, but not so much to provide for his family as to improve his own status in the hope of owning a sizeable home, perhaps to “regain” the kind of position his mother thinks is theirs as descendents of the Heike. He exists on a kind of political fault line in his rigid austerity, believing that you really can make it just by working hard while also becoming the de facto spokesman for the other cartmen because he is the only one able to read and write. Yet faced with constant and obvious oppression of the eerily feudal kind in persistent rice profiteering he does nothing much to resist it and gives only grudging approval to his son’s intention of forming a train driver’s union. 

While Moichi has pinned all his hopes on handcarts, the future is fast approaching. A funeral procession of cartmen is greeted by the horse-drawn variety coming the other way as if to signal their imminent obsolescence. But the horsemen aren’t much better off. If Moichi couldn’t afford a horse, he’ll never afford a motor car and the mechanised age is on the horizon. The only work he manages to find ironically involves transporting lumber for the new railway line, but it’s a gamble that pays off and makes Moichi a wealthy man once again. 

Material comforts aren’t everything, however, and Seki struggles to reconcile herself to life with her increasing cruel mother-in-law and emotionally distant husband. She worries that she’s becoming what she hates, finding it difficult to find sympathy for Moichi’s mother now she’s ill in feeling that perhaps she’s getting what she deserves. Her friend advises her that that’s just “bugs” eating away at her heart and what she really needs to do is fly in the opposite direction, finally make a friend of her mother-in-law in trying to understand her. She has, after all, had a very hard life, starved of affection all these years as a young widow raising a son alone on little more than charcoal money. 

Seki meanwhile suffers numerous humiliations and heartbreaks, notably Moichi’s extremely unreasonable decision to bring his 50-year-old sex worker mistress to live with them in their home, but does her best to be generous and forgiving. As she points out, this house is half hers, she built it alongside Moichi and she won’t just vacate it so Moichi can do what he always does which is as he pleases (once his mother’s not around to tell him not to). Moichi perhaps pays for his feudalist follies and selfish authoritarianism in a fairly direct way which aligns him with his chastened nation waking up to the emotional costs of his mistakes, while Seki is finally rewarded. Unlike her mother-in-law she becomes a beloved neighbourhood granny giving rides to all the local kids while pulling her cart onwards towards the future like a reverse Mother Courage embracing her long absent son finally returned to her in recognition of her goodness. 


Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies (ペン偽らず 暴力の街, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1950)

vlcsnap-2020-01-16-00h05m26s354The immediate post-war era was one marked by fear and anxiety. The world had turned upside down, food was scarce, and desperation had provoked a widespread moral decline which rendered compassion a luxury many thought they could ill afford. Yet, in hitting rock bottom there was also the opportunity to rebuild the world better than it had been before. Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies (ペン偽らず 暴力の街, Pen Itsuwarazu Boryoku no Machi), is one of many pro-democracy films arriving in the wake of Japan’s new constitution and makes an unlikely hero of the local newspaperman as the sole means of speaking truth to power in the fierce belief that the people have a right to know.

Tojo, a small town Northwest of Tokyo, was once the centre of the silk trade but as the industry declined, it gradually became home to gangs and a hub for wartime black market shenanigans. The sad truth is that the growing nouveau riche middle-classes profiting from post-war shadiness have more or less got the town sewn up. The corrupt police force is in cahoots with the gangsters who call themselves a “police support organisation” and make a point of wining and dining the local police chief, while also making sure the local paper is firmly in their pocket. The trouble starts when rookie reporter Kita (Yasumi Hara) is invited to a policeman’s ball and figures out the whole thing is sponsored by the silk traders’ union, which he thinks is not quite right. He takes what he’s learned back to his editor and is warned off the story but publishes something anyway, quickly becoming a target for prominent “politician” Onishi (Masao Mishima).

Street of Violence opens with onscreen text taken from the press code which emphasises that mass media has a duty to preserve the truth. Kita’s paper had been in league with the police and the gangsters enabling the atmosphere of casual violence which is gradually consuming the town. Kita, a new recruit, is not yet inured to the way things are and immediately thinks his duty is to blow a whistle, most obviously on the corrupt police force and judiciary. He is only allowed to do so because the previous editor stepped down and a similarly idealistic older gentleman (Takashi Shimura) from out of town has taken over. He decides to fight back, standing up to the crypto-fascist goons by continuing to publish the truth about the links between the police, black market silk traders, gangsters, and the rest of the local press who eventually gain the courage to join him.

Onishi continues to masquerade as a “legitimate businessman” and “respectable politician” claiming that he’s “striving for democracy” to help the “downtrodden”, but is also responsible for directly targeting Kita’s mother and sister in an attempt to intimidate him. The editor assigns another reporter, Kawasaki (Ryo Ikebe), to keep Kita safe and starts trying to find locals who will consent to be interviewed about gang intimidation while Kita’s friends from the Youth Association generate a kind of resistance movement holding protests and handing out flyers condemning the atmosphere of violence which has ordinary citizens turning off their lights and avoiding going out after dark to protect themselves from thuggery.

The silent cause of all this strife is of course post-war privation which has made the blackmarket the only means of survival for those otherwise starving but has also given free rein to selfish immorality. The Onishis of the world, the spineless police chief, and the cynical local press, have all abnegated their human responsibilities in wilfully taking advantage of a bad situation to further their own cause. When the press chooses not to turn a blind eye to entrenched corruption, it raises a flag that ordinary people can follow. Too intimidated to speak out, the townspeople had been living in fear but post-war youth has the courage to say no and demand a better future. A mass rally crying out “democracy” and insisting on an end to the cronyism and the corrupt systems of pre-war feudalism produces a people power revolution that can’t be ignored, forcing Onishi into submission, and a clean out of corrupt law enforcement. But, the earnest voice over reminds us, the victory is only partial – violence still exists and will rise again when it thinks no one’s looking. The press, most of all, cannot afford to look away if “democracy” is to be maintained.


Freezing Point (氷点, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1966)

freezing point posterRevenge is a dish best served cold, so they say, but just how cold can you go before your own heart freezes over? Based on a novel by Ayako Miura, Freezing Point (氷点, Hyoten) is a somewhat unusual family drama centring on parental responsibility, familial love, and the necessity of forgiveness following betrayal and tragedy. Maintaining Miura’s characteristic Hokkaido setting with its appropriately snowbound vistas, Yamamoto sidesteps the author’s Christianising viewpoint whilst embracing her views on the nature of sin and the innocence of children.

Ophthalmologist Keizo (Eiji Funakoshi) returns home one day to find his wife, Natsue (Ayako Wakao), playing the piano, seemingly in a kind of self involved rapture. The maid has taken their son, Toru, out, and their daughter, Ruriko, is supposedly playing outside. Only, she isn’t – Ruriko has gone missing. Some time later they find the little girl’s body at the riverside, apparently strangled. The killer is caught and commits suicide in prison. Natsue has a breakdown and spends some time in a hospital but on her release Keizo decides to adopt a baby to help her recover from losing Ruriko.

More exactly, Keizo is torn between altruistic, humanist values and a deep and cruel desire for revenge on the wife he believes neglected their daughter while she entertained a lover at home. Keizo’s plan is to adopt the now orphaned baby girl of the man who murdered his daughter both as a way of proving himself a good, forgiving person and of getting his own back on his wife by forcing her to raise a murderer’s child, only revealing the truth once she has come to love it like her own.

Natsue’s heart truly is broken by the death of her daughter. It’s not exactly unusual for small children to be playing outside in ‘60s Japan – in this Natsue is not at fault. Here is the first grain of “sin” – there was indeed someone else in the house that day, another doctor from Keizo’s hospital, Murai (Mikio Narita). What exactly happened is not clear but Keizo is convinced the pair have been having an affair for some time and assumes his wife had asked the maid to take their son out and put Ruriko outside so that her lover could visit unseen. Natsue is also unable to bear any more children due to complications with a previous pregnancy and Keizo seems to think she gave herself free reign in having an affair seeing as there could be no “consequences”. Keizo’s “revenge” is as much about his betrayal as a husband as it is resentment in holding his wife responsible for the death of their daughter even though, as another friend points out, unexpected, random events occur all the time and this one was no one’s fault but the killer’s.

Parenthood, or more specifically motherhood, becomes a persistent theme as Natsue becomes pre-occupied with being a “good mother”. Time moves on and the baby, Yoko (Michiyo Okusu billed here as Michiyo Yasuda), grows up only for Natsue to discover the truth by accident after she finds a letter Keizo had written to a friend in which he expresses his inability to love Yoko knowing what she is. Yoko is not and cannot be responsible for her father’s crime but its effects are visited on her as she is branded a “murderer’s child” or a carrier of “murderous genes”. Once Natsue knows the truth the relationship changes and becomes one of artificial game playing as she and Keizo tiptoe around the issue, each unwilling to give the other the satisfaction of knowing that the game is up. Yoko realises she must be an adopted child but remains cheerful, kind, and innocent, not wanting to be a burden to the family to which she is desperate to belong.

Matters come to a head when Yoko approaches adulthood. Brother Toru (Kei Yamamoto), overhearing his parents’ ugly argument, discovers Yoko is not his blood sister and develops complicated, inappropriate romantic feelings for her (feelings which his mother almost wants to encourage if only as a kind of revenge against Keizo). Meanwhile, he also brings home a university friend, Kitahara (Masahiko Tsugawa), as a possible suitor for her and way out of this dead end tragic love story. Natsue tries to put an end to this by literally getting in the middle of it – cutting off the correspondence between Yoko and Kitahara before trying it on with him herself either as a way of frightening him off completely or positioning herself as a direct rival to her adopted daughter. Rival she already is in the eyes of her son, and also perhaps those of Keizo whose eyes linger on the daughter he couldn’t force himself to love a little too long in realising she is no longer a child and no blood relation. Thus it comes as a relief to him when a family friend offers to make Yoko her heir, paying for a college education or foreign travel if those are things Yoko would like to do.

Yoko, however, wants nothing more than to stay with her family forevermore. This is a common sentiment from a daughter in a family drama, one which usually changes when an appropriate marriage partner is found, but it means more for Yoko whose single concern is feeling unwanted by her parents whilst also feeling grateful to them for taking her in. Her romance with Kitahara provokes a revelation which leaves her feeling internally destroyed. A classically “good” person, she did not want to see any “bad” in herself but now finds out her birth father committed a heinous, senseless crime against people she loves. This, she says, is the freezing point of her heart. Realising that “sin” is everywhere and even if it hadn’t been her father there would be other instances of wrongdoing somewhere in her lineage she feels as if her heart is frozen, her spirit killed, and she can no longer continue.

Of course, there are more revelations to come provoked by yet another tragedy which threatens to bring the whole thing full circle. Nobody expected or intended this as a result of their own petty desires for revenge, but then all they really thought about was themselves and the way they’d been slighted. Keizo asked his doctor friend who facilitated his adoption whether there existed two people in the world who’d be able to love the child of the man who’d killed their own. His friend is sure such people do exist (though it turns out he had his own solution to this particular problem), but Keizo’s desires are less about trying to prove himself one of them than exacting the most painful kind of emotional wound on a wife he feels has humiliated him. This family is a fraud and the only “innocent” member is the adopted daughter whose capacity for goodness they have in part destroyed. Bleak, probing, and extremely uncomfortable, Yamamoto’s adaptation of Miura’s novel is an artfully composed dissection of family values, such as they are, in the post-war world.