The Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Kosaku Yamashita, 1984)

The ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters standing up for the little guy with decency and honour, had been Toei’s mainstay throughout the 1960s but a decade later the image of righteous yakuza had been well and truly imploded by the advent of the jitsuroku or “true account” movie which drew inspiration from real life tales of post-war gangsterdom using voiceover narration and onscreen text for added authenticity as it proved once and for all that there was no “honour and humanity” to be found in the gangster life only nihilism and futility. Still, the ninkyo, like many of its heroes, proved hard to kill as 1984’s Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Shura no Mure) perhaps proves. A throwback to an earlier era with its infinitely noble hero and unexpectedly if not quite happy then defiantly positive ending, Kosaku Yamashita’s manly drama nevertheless adopts some of the trappings of the jitsuroku in its infrequent use of voiceover and emphasis on concrete historical events. 

The hero, Ryuji Inahara (Hiroki Matsukata), is like many heroes of post-war gangsterdom an orphan though his story begins in the mid-1930s as he’s recruited by a friendly yakuza at a karate dojo. As his teacher explains, Ryuji has already been offered a job with the police but given the chance to join the other side instead immediately agrees, explaining that his life’s ambition has been to gain revenge against the force that ruined his father and destroyed his family, gambling. He chooses to do this, however, not by destroying gambling dens everywhere but by becoming a gambler himself determined to be a winner which is, it seems, a textbook example of having learned the wrong lesson. Still, his noble gangster cool stands him in good stead in the yakuza world where he quickly earns the loyalty of other men, rapidly advancing up the ranks to head his own gang by the crime heyday of the mid-1950s. 

As the title implies, this is a story of a man, a very manly man, among other men. The gangster world is intensely homosocial and founded on ideas of brotherhood and loyalty. Thus, Ryuji finds a surrogate father figure in fellow gangster Yokoyama (Koji Tsuruta) who constantly gives him advice on what it is to be a proper man. “Don’t be a fool, don’t be too smart, and most of all don’t be half-hearted” he advises, later adding “you can’t be a man if you’re dirty about money”, and “taking action isn’t the only way to be a man. It takes a man to have patience.” (this last one as Ryuji hotheadedly discharges himself from hospital to get revenge on a punk who got the jump on him outside a shrine). To be a man, Ryuji intervenes when he sees some less than honourable young toughs hassling an old couple running a dango stand at the beach and the young woman from the caramel stall next-door, throwing his entire wallet on their counter to make up for the damage in what will become something of a repeated motif. His manliness earns him the eternal devotion of the young woman, Yukiko (Wakako Sakai), who eventually becomes his devoted wife against the will of her concerned mother who is nevertheless brought round on realising the love she has for him because of his intense nobility. 

Indeed, Ryuji lives in a noble world. He’s a gambler by trade but only because he hates gambling and is trying to best it. He doesn’t participate in the seedier sides of the yakuza life such as drugs or prostitution and is also in contrast to jitsuroku norms a humanist who defiantly stands up against racism and xenophobia, taking another gambler to task for using a racial slur against a Korean opponent while opting to befriend the “foreign” gangs of Atami when eventually put in charge of the lucrative area rather than divide and conquer. This is apparently a lesson he learned from his flawed but goodhearted father who hid a Korean man and his daughter from the pogroms after the 1923 earthquake because “we’re all the same human beings”. Spared the war because of an injury to his trigger finger, Ryuji kicks off against an entitled son of a gang boss for acting like a slavedriver while working at a quarry but earns only the respect of his superiors further enhancing his underworld ties because of his reputation as a standup guy willing to stand up to oppression. 

Such an intense sense of uncomplicated righteousness had perhaps been unseen since the ninkyo eiga days, and Ryuji’s rise and rise does in that sense seem improbable as his goodness only aids his success earning him the respect of over 1000 foot soldiers even as he finds himself in the awkward position of having to exile one of his most trusted associates for getting too big for his boots and disrespecting the yakuza code. His children also suffer for their connection to the gangster underworld, but are reassured that their father is a good man if with the subtle implication that he has damned them as his father did him. Shot with occasional expressionist flourishes such as crashing waves or a midnight sky, A Story of a Man among Men is not free from manly sadness and indeed ends on the sense of a baton passing from one era to another but does so with an unexpected sense of moral victory for its righteous hero who vows to bring his manly ideas with him into a new age of gangsterdom. 

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Love and Wolbachia (恋とボルバキア, Sayaka Ono, 2017)

love-and-walbachia-poster-2-e1527641922439.jpgDocumentarian Sayaka Ono turned the camera on herself and her family seven years ago with her graduation project/debut feature The Duckling. Returning with her second feature after spending the intervening years in TV documentary, Ono tackles a subject perhaps more distant from her personal experience in exploring the lives of sexual minorities and particularly of transgender women in generally conformist Japan. Love and Wolbachia (恋とボルバキア, Koi to Wolbachia) takes its name from that of a parasitic bacteria which can cause its host to change sex. Love may very well be a kind of virus, but Ono seems more interested in answering the question of why someone might decide to live as a woman in a society so often hostile to them.

The first two protagonists Ono introduces us two were born intersex. Despite their personal feelings, each was encouraged to take hormones to conform more closely to their external appearance. Forced to make a perhaps false binary choice, or in essence being deprived of the right to make it for themselves, each has attempted to live in the way which bests suits their authentic selves though they often encounter discrimination and/or hostility from those around them.

The question of gender in and of itself appears more important to some than others. Another of our protagonists, Miya, refers to herself as a “makeup man” and runs a bar which acts as a kind of community space and refuge for other transgender and non-binary people who often have nowhere else to turn. Nevertheless, Miya struggles with her partner’s decision to undergo gender confirmation surgery and finds it difficult to understand why someone would be willing to put themselves through so much pain and suffering for something she sees as an external concern. For Miya the question of “gender” seems moot, not quite something requires only an individual identification but which scarcely requires one at all. It is she feels, in essence, something culturally defined which an individual is free to accept or reject in claiming their own personal identity as distinct from from social codes dictated by society.

Yet Miya also finds herself a victim of these social codes in a desire to provide protection to those who need it only to find herself ill equipped to cope with the intense responsibility of accidentally becoming a community leader if one without a particular political agenda save wanting to make other people’s lives easier. The question of gender roles becomes a more obvious problem in the relationship between lesbian Julian and her transgender partner Hazumi. Criticised by some of her friends for dating a transwoman, Julian also struggles with a perceived expectation to adopt a “masculine” role within the relationship, that Hazumi expects her to provide protection while also becoming the dominant partner which she seems to feel does not fit her personality. Conversely, Julian also longs for a conventional home and family as a married couple with children yet Hazumi wants to transition fully and, having left a marriage and a child to live a more authentic life, worries that starting another family with Julian may prevent her from achieving her dream.

A conventional family life also seems to have prevented 50-year-old Ichiko from pursuing her desire to live as a woman, having lived in a time when few knew such things were possible. A father with three children, most of her resources are given over to their care but she still finds time to enjoy a more authentic life and participate in the community. Like Ichiko, Mihiro began wearing women’s clothing after admiring her wife’s outfits only she later decided to leave her marriage and retains a male personality only for work. Having fallen in love with a man who himself feels uncomfortable with the culturally defined notions of “masculinity”, Mihiro is heartbroken to realise he already has a live-in girlfriend and worries his impression of their relationship may not match her own. This rings eerily true given a solo interview in which he jokingly laments Mihiro’s purehearted approach to romance which he believes leaves her open to male manipulation.

Ono does not particularly explore the lives of transmen, perhaps an anomaly seeing as Japan is one of few nations to have elected a transman to office (Japan also elected its first transgender female politician back in 2003), preferring to explore the place of trans and gay women in a society which can be deeply misogynistic and relentlessly conformist. Mihiro’s supportive mother, watching her carefully applying her makeup, remarks on how much time men must save in not needing to bother. Mihiro partially corrects her – wearing makeup is a choice which is open to women but not perhaps to men and choice, it seems, is the main thing or not so much “choice” but freedom to live in the way you choose rather than the way which is chosen for you by your society. 

Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)