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. 


A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Tomu Uchida, 1965)

Fugitive from the past“There’s no way back” intones a spirit medium in the throws of a possession early on Tomu’s Uchida’s three hour police procedural, A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Kiga kaikyo, AKA Straits of Hunger). Her message will be repeated frequently throughout the journeys of our three protagonists – a guilty man seeking escape from himself, the hooker with a heart of gold who thinks of him as a “kind person”, and the obsessive policeman whose quest to find him threatens to destroy his own family and chance of ongoing happiness. Beginning in 1947, Uchida’s adaptation of the novel by Tsutomu Minakami is a cutting indictment of post-war inequalities but is also keen to remind us that the war was merely a symptom and intensifier of problems which existed long before and are likely to survive long after.

In 1947, three men in military uniforms attempt to escape from Hokkaido after committing a crime while the island is subject to a typhoon warning. Using a ferry disaster in which hundreds of people have been killed as cover, the men steal a boat and try their luck on the stormy seas. Only one of them makes it. Once all the bodies from the ferry are accounted for, two more are discovered and later identified as recent parolees from Abashiri prison. The dead convicts are then linked to a local robbery, murder, and arson case in which a large amount of money was stolen leaving the third man, described by witnesses as bearded, tall and imposing, the prime suspect in the deaths of the two prisoners as well as the original robbery.

Calling himself “Inugai” (Rentaro Mikuni), the “third man” takes off with all the money and ends up forging an unexpectedly genuine connection with a cheerful prostitute just on the way back from her mother’s funeral. Yae (Sachiko Hidari), claiming to have seen through to Inugai’s kindly soul, seems to reawaken something within him but the next morning he moves on leaving only a vast a mount of money and some nail clippings behind him. Meanwhile, Yumisaka (Junzaburo Ban), the dogged policeman who discovered the convicts’ bodies, tracks him at every turn.

The world of 1947 is a hellish one in which perpetual hunger is the norm and crushing impossibility all but a given. Inugai is starving. With rationing in place the black market is flourishing while the unscrupulous profiteer off the back of other people’s desperation. This is a land of defeat where to survive at all is both shame and victory, yet somehow you have to go on living. Inugai, like many a hero of golden age Japanese cinema, is engaged in an internal war to erase the dark past, drawing a veil over what it took to move from post-war privation to economic prosperity. He does however take his unseeing further than most in adopting a new, more respectable persona, remaking himself as self-made man and wealthy philanthropist keen to “pay back” the society which has been so supportive of his “success”.

Thus when Yae, whose attempt to remake herself in the capital has fared far less well, spots Inugai’s photo in the papers and decides she just must track him down, it’s not that Inugai fears blackmail or even really that she poses a threat but that she shatters the integrity of his carefully crafted post-war persona and reminds him who he really is. A climactic storm mirroring that which illuminated their first meeting also graces their last as “Inugai” finally resurfaces, committing an impulsive act of animal violence which tugs at the strings of his new life and sets the whole thing unravelling.

Yae used Inugai’s money to pay off her debts and get out of the brothel, but even if the Tokyo of 1947 was warmer than that of Hokkaido it was no more kind and her attempt to lead an “honest” life was quickly derailed by underworld crime and unforgiving law enforcement. Realising there’s nowhere left for her to go she resigns herself to life in the red light district but does at least manage to find a “nicer” establishment run by a kindly older couple where the girls are like one big family. Her meeting with Inugai has come to take on mythical proportions in her mind – she even worships a tiny relic of him in the form of one of his nail clippings. Hoping to repay his kindness she commits herself to hard work and barely spends any of her money on herself, dreaming of the day she will one day see him again.

Yumisaka, however, mirrors Yae’s devotion in his all encompassing “hate” for Inugai as his obsession consumes him, costs him his job, and threatens to ruin his family. Alerted by two more bodies washing up out of the sea, a young detective (Ken Takakura) puts two and two together and gives Yumisaka a chance to vindicate his long held convictions but what they discover through the shifting sands of invented truths and corrupted memories is a legacy of suffering and resentment which runs far further back than the recent wartime past. As Yumisaka later puts it, those who’ve never been poor or miserable cannot understand the desperation felt by those who have in the presence of money. Inugai, poor and trapped by circumstance, longed to escape the drudgery of Hokkaido life but couldn’t live with what he did to do it and so conjured up another history for himself.

Still, the truth will out and there really is “no way back”, not for Inugai or for his nation which seems determined to continue unseeing the darkness of the previous 30 years as it begins to find a degree of comfort once again. Incorporating strong spiritual overtones from the sutras Yumisaka is so strangely adept at reciting to the gloomy intoning of the spirit medium, Uchida imbues all with a heavy sense of dread as a man attempts to outrun his fate by running from himself only to be tripped up by sudden moment of panic born of a lack of faith in his only true believer. A chronicle of the post-war era, A Fugitive From the Past makes poverty its ultimate villain but attempts to paper over spiritual corruption with the pretty trappings of conventional success will only end in ruin as the unresolved past eats away at the foundations of a brave new world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Brutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1965)

brutal tales of chivalry posterBrutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Showa Zankyo-den) – a title which neatly sums up the “ninkyo eiga”. These old school gangsters still feel their traditional responsibilities deeply, acting as the protectors of ordinary people, obeying all of their arcane rules and abiding by the law of honour (if not the laws of the state the authority of which they refuse to fully recognise). Yet in the desperation of the post-war world, the old ways are losing ground to unscrupulous upstarts, prepared to jettison their long-held honour in favour of a dog eat dog mentality. This is the central battleground of Kiyoshi Saeki’s 1965 film which looks back at the immediate post-war period from a distance of only 15 years to ask the question where now? The city is in ruins, the people are starving, women are being forced into prostitution, but what is going to be done about it – should the good people of Asakusa accept the rule of violent punks in return for the possibility of investment in infrastructure, or continue to struggle through slowly with the old-fashioned patronage of “good yakuza” like the Kozu Family?

Here is where we find ourselves in the 21st year of the Showa Era (1947) – the small marketplace in Asakusa is rife with black marketeers and illegal goods, but it’s still the only mechanism by which people are able to survive. The market is overseen by the elderly patriarch of the Kozu Family, Gennosuke (Tomosaburo Ii), who does his best to ensure a kind of “fairness” in its operation, at least in as far as yakuza rules extend. His territory is currently under threat from a rival gang – the Shinsei (literally “new truth”) who obey no such rules and are growing ever more ruthless in their quest to control the local area. Their big idea is to build an entirely new marketplace with a roof to make it a permanent and pleasant place for traders to do business – they will finance this through a kind of crowdfunding paid for by the merchants themselves who will also be paying protection money and kickbacks to the Shinsei. Everyone approves of the covered market project, even the Kozu, but if it means letting the Shinsei assume control is it a price worth paying?

This is a question which faces prodigal son Seiji (Ken Takakura) who returns from the war to find his city in ruins, Gennosuke murdered by the Shinsei, that he is now the new head of the Kozu, and that the woman he loved has been given away in a dynastic marriage to man from another minor clan. Before he died, Gennosuke was able to dictate two important instructions – that Seiji was to take over, and that the gang should proceed on a note of peace, avoiding violence or aggression where possible, leading by example rather than attempting to crush their new rivals. Seiji, having just returned from one battlefield is intent on following Gennosuke’s orders but how far can he really survive on the moral high ground when his opponents are content to fight dirty from down below?

The “Showa” era spanned some 60 years of turbulent Japanese history but in 1965 it was just under 40 years old and already beginning to generate the complicated feelings of nostalgia which are still attached to it today. Showa is right there in the Japanese title as if it were an age already passed but it’s clear in 1965 that something has shifted, one age has or is beginning to give way to another. The desperation of the post-war world with its empty, rubble strewn vistas and population filled with hunger and despair has ebbed away now that Japan is back on the world stage following the 1964 Olympics and the economy has as last begun to pick up. The young no longer fixate on the rights and wrongs of empire building, war and surrender but have begun to turn their attention towards the American occupation, social justice, and foreign conflicts. The young of 1947 were middle-aged in 1965, no one would begrudge them romanticising their youth, and so even if the world of Brutal Tales of Chivalry is a bleak one it still contains a kind of nostalgia for the kind of honourable gangster inhabited by Takakura who embodies traditional values some may feel are under represented in modern society.

Yet, for all that, there’s something subtly subversive in the film’s eventual suggestion that pacifism will only go so far and that one side or another must be banished from the battlefield through violence if peace is ever to prosper. Still, the struggle is a noble one in which honour is defined by strength of character and the selfless desire to ensure the well-being of others as much as it is to a blind observation of arcane rules and obsolete, meaningless ritual. The first in a long running series, Brutal Tales of Chivalry helped established Takakura’s iconic presence which eventually became synonymous with the “ninkyo eiga” as a personification of idealised Japanese masculinity, tough but caring even if passion is often repressed or redirected into violence. Remnants may be all that’s left of “chivalry” in the new Showa era, but there’s a degree of beauty in this brutality that refuses to die even as its era passes.


Now available on Region A blu-ray from Twilight Time (limited to 3000 copies only)

Original trailer (no subtitles)