Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

“No one can be happy without money” the villain of Seijun Suzuki’s Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Ankokugai no Bijo) claims, vainly trying to justify his actions. He may indeed have a point, but you can’t buy happiness through selfish immorality. A noirish tale of changing times, Underworld Beauty pits a noble hearted gangster on the road towards reform against his amoral bosses as he tries to ensure a better future for the sister of a friend whose life was irreparably changed through proximity to crime. 

Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima) has just been released from three years in prison. His first stop is the sewers where he locates a loose brick he’d been using as a dead drop and retrieves a handgun and a small bag containing three diamonds stolen in the heist which got him sent away. Paying a visit to his old gang, Miyamoto makes it plain that he intends to keep the diamonds for himself so that he can sell them and give the money to Mihara (Toru Abe), the man who was crippled during the job and now lives an “honest” life running a small oden stall. To Miyamoto’s surprise, his boss, Oyane (Shinsuke Ashida), says OK and offers to set him up with a foreigner in Yokohama who is interested in buying blackmarket jewels. Unfortunately, the whole thing goes south in predictable fashion when a gang of masked heavies turns up to disrupt the deal. Mihara, who had come along with Miyamoto, swallows the diamonds and promptly falls off a nearby wall. He survives just long enough to tell the police that he “slipped” thanks to his unsteady legs, which makes his death “accidental” meaning he won’t have to undergo an autopsy. That’s both good and bad for the crooks. The cops won’t find the diamonds, but getting them back before the body is burned is going to be difficult. 

Arita (Hiroshi Kondo), a sculptor of mannequins, finds himself perfectly primed to find a solution because he’s been dating Mihara’s little sister, Akiko (Mari Shiraki), who’d been working as a nude model. Mihara had talked to Miyamoto about his sister and his fears for her in the big city. Feeling his debt even more since his friend’s death, Miyamoto decides to save Akiko from the evils of city life, but finds himself fighting an uphill battle. Meanwhile, Akiko is smitten with the intellectual yet cold Arita, who may perhaps be more interested in her for access to her brother’s body than to her own. 

The diamonds themselves become a kind of MacGuffin and symbol of amoral post-war greed. Having been away for three years, Miyamoto is the classically conflicted film noir hero, a noble yet compromised figure forced to operate in a murky moral universe that is at odds with his own sense of justice. That is perhaps why he tries so hard to “save” Akiko even if she resents his sometimes patronising paternalism that, well-meaning as it is, denies her the agency that is a mark of the age. Mihara warned his sister about hanging out with Arita, suspecting he was a no good guy likely to drag her further into the underworld which he had now escaped, but she sees him as “different” from the men around her, mistaking his coolness for sophistication rather than a possibly sociopathic superiority complex. 

Yet it’s perhaps a sense of inferiority which sends him so crazy about the diamonds. A tortured artist slumming it in a mannequin factory, he resents the way he’s chosen to “sell” his art while superficially laughing at those who buy it. There is something quite perverse in the various ways he is “using” Akiko, literally commodifying her body and turning it into a lifeless object, a simulacrum of “real” womanhood sans voice or agency, all the while planning to use her in order to get his hands on the diamonds. Figuring out Arita may have mutilated her brother’s body in order to dig them out, she wonders if he ever really loved her at all. His sudden declarations of affection and an impromptu proposal only further convince her that what he wants is money. She hides the diamonds inside the breast of a half-baked mannequin, just about where the heart ought to be. Later we spot the poor thing dismembered and abandoned, a gaping hole in its chest as it floats ominously in the sewer, discarded in just the way a woman like Akiko might be if she’d let a man like Arita get his hands on the loot. 

Kidnapped as leverage to force Miyamoto to hand the diamonds over, Akiko loses her fascination with underworld darkness in learning what the “yakuza code” really means. “What do you mean, the yakuza way?” She barks at Oyane, “it’s wrong to kill, you idiot!”. Literally steamed clean and making an ironic escape up a coal shoot, she edges towards a new dawn. “What a beautiful day!” She exclaims, declaring herself not bored in the least, freed from the false promises of the underworld and released from the diamonds’ corruption into the bright sunshine of a wide open future.


Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Yuzo Kawashima, 1955)

Two decades into the new century, Japanese society finds itself gripped by a population crisis. Supposedly “sexless”, young people constrained by a stagnant economy and a series of outdated social conventions have increasingly turned away from marriage and children to the extent that the birth rate is currently at the lowest it’s ever been. How strange it is then to revisit Yuzo Kawashima’s baby boom paranoia comedy Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Ai no Onimotsu) in which the very same anxieties now expressed for the declining population are expressed for its reverse – that it will damage the economy, that it is the result of a moral decline, and that society as we know it is on the brink of destruction. 

All of these arguments are made by the Minister for Health, Araki (So Yamamura), as he tries to chair a committee meeting put together to find a solution to the baby boom crisis. The government policy he’s putting his name to is a birth control advocacy programme coupled with greater education to discourage couples from having so many children. Some object on the grounds that encouraging the use of birth control will inevitably lead to promiscuity and sexual abandon, which is why Araki’s government intends to limit its use only to married couples to be used for proper family planning. A feminist politician challenges him again, first citing the go forth and multiply bits from the bible to imply she objects to birth control on religious grounds only to trap Araki by reminding him that that is exactly what the government encouraged people to do during the wartime years. She thinks limiting birth control to married couples is little more than thinly veiled morality policing which will fail to help those really in need, suggesting that if this is the road they want to go down perhaps they should think about relaxing abortion laws so that those who become pregnant without the means to raise a child will have another option. Predictably, Araki is not quite in favour, but takes her point. In any case, events in his personal life are about to overtake him. 

The first crisis is that his son, Jotaro (Tatsuya Mihashi), is in a secret relationship with Araki’s secretary Saeko (Mie Kitahara), who has now become pregnant and is quite smug about it because Jotaro will finally have to sort things out with his family so they can marry. There are several reasons why he’s been dragging his feet: firstly, Saeko is a very good secretary and it’s customary for women to stop working when they marry (though as we later find out Jotaro is a progressive type who has no intention of stopping Saeko working if she wants to even after they marry and have children), secondly, his mother Ranko (Yukiko Todoroki) and younger sister Sakura (Tomoko Ko) are old fashioned and may feel marrying a secretary is beneath him, and thirdly he’s just a lackadaisical sort who doesn’t get round to things unless someone gives him a push. Sakura has an additional concern in that she’s engaged to an upperclass dandy from Kyoto (Frankie Sakai) and worries his family might object if they know that Jotaro has undergone a shotgun wedding to someone from the “servant class”. Araki’s oldest daughter, Kazuko (Emiko Azuma), is happily married to a gynaecologist (Yoshifumi Tajima) but ironically has been unable to conceive after six years of marriage. All of which is capped by the intense irony that his own wife at the age of 48 may be expecting a late baby of their own. 

The press is going to have a field day. Araki, for all his faults, is a surprisingly progressive guy, a moderate in the conservative party but one who, worryingly, doesn’t seem to believe in much of what he says as a minister of government, merely doing what it is he thinks he’s supposed to do. It’s perhaps this level of hypocrisy that Jotaro so roundly rejects, insisting he wants neither a career in the family’s pharmaceuticals company (which, it’s worth saying, also produces the birth control Araki’s policy seeks to promote), or a career in politics, and insists on being his own man. Tinkering with various bits of modern technology, he eventually gets a job in research and development of cheap TV sets, signalling his allegiance to the new all while dressing in kimono to visit kabuki clubs with Saeko. Saeko too is a modern woman – she speaks several languages and has a university degree, supporting herself independently even though she is “only” secretary albeit to a cabinet minister. Sakura, a more traditional sort, originally looks down her for being all those things, but later comes to a kind of admiration especially when she finds herself in need of advice from another modern woman. Jotaro’s mother, however, only comes around when she hires a detective who discovers Saeko might be posh after all. 

“Children have their own worlds to live in” one of Araki’s grownup kids later emphases, unwilling to rely their father for money or career advancement, they want to make their own way in the world. Jotaro, a kind man and something of a socialist, wonders if they shouldn’t be using some of this money the government has earmarked for defence on social welfare, suggesting perhaps that’s the best way to deal with the population crisis rather than pointlessly trying to police desire. Burden of Love was released in 1955, which is immediately before Japan instituted its anti-prostitution law doing away with the Akasen system that existed under the American occupation. Araki goes to visit an establishment in the red light district and declares himself horrified, but is unable to come up with a good solution when the women working there point out that they support entire families who will starve without their income. He may have a point that the pimp’s identification of himself as a social worker is disingenuous because he profits from the exploitation of women, but Araki’s later visit to a tavern staffed by geisha raises a series of questions about a continuing double standard. 

Araki exposes his own privilege when he tells Jotaro that he’d do anything for a single slice of bread before he’d ever do “that”, which is ignoring the fact that it’s very unlikely he’d ever have to consider it. Araki’s father, himself a retired politician, is also a fairly progressive sort who actively gets involved in the kids’ nefarious plans to get around their parents so they can marry the people the want when they want to marry them, while Araki remains largely preoccupied with his political position, even suggesting to his wife, despite what he said in the committee meeting, that she get an abortion to spare him the embarrassment caused by increasing the population while proposing a series of population control policies. Ranko is distraught because to her the child is the product of their love, even if to Araki it is also a “burden”, but being a traditional sort thinks first of her husband and is minded to do as he says. The younger generation think and feel differently. They want to make decisions for themselves, not just about what they do but who they love and how they live. The lesson is perhaps that this isn’t something to be overly worried about. Children are the “burden” of love, but we carry them together, and it’s a happier society that is content to figure it out rather than trying  to pointlessly police forces beyond its control. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Ko Nakahira, 1964)

© 1964 Nikkatsu CorporationDespite being among the directors who helped to usher in what would later be called the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira remains in relative obscurity with only his landmark movie of the Sun Tribe era, Crazed Fruit, widely seen abroad. Like the other directors of his generation Nakahira served his time in the studio system working on impersonal commercial projects but by 1964 which saw the release of another of his most well regarded films Only on Mondays, Nakahira had begun to give free reign to experimentation much to the studio boss’ chagrin. Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Suna no Ue no Shokubutsu-gun), adapted from the novel by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, puts an absurd, surreal twist on the oft revisited salaryman midlife crisis as its conflicted hero muses on the legacy of his womanising father while indulging in a strange ménage à trois with two sisters, one of whom to he comes to believe he may also be related to.

After a brief prologue in which our hero, cosmetics salesman Ichiro Igi (Noboru Nakaya), imagines a scenario for a novel in which a dying husband becomes so jealous of the man that may succeed him in his wife’s life that he sets about plotting to make her the weapon of that very man’s destruction, Igi heads to his regular barber and longtime family friend where he takes the time to probe him about his late father’s womanising habits. Igi’s father died young at only 34 for years of age, three years younger than the age Igi is now. His father’s spitting image, Igi cannot help seeing him everywhere he goes and feels unable to evade his ongoing influence, almost as if he were possessed by his father’s (un)departed spirit.

The major preoccupation Igi has is that his wife (Yukiko Shimazaki) may have slept with his father before they were married while she was just a teenager. The barber tells him he’s pretty sure not, but Igi cannot let the idea go and repeatedly brings it up with his wife, creating discord in the family home. Meeting a precocious schoolgirl at the Marine Tower one evening, Igi finds himself taking her to a hotel and deflowering her even though she begins to resist him at the last minute. The girl, Akiko (Mieko Nishio), then makes a strange request of him – she wants Igi to seduce and “hurt” her older sister Kyoko (Kazuko Inano) whose sanctimonious attitude she can no longer stand. Igi does indeed visit the bar where Kyoko works as a hostess and embarks on an intense affair with her but Akiko’s pleas to “hurt” her sister are complicated by Kyoko’s masochistic tendencies and Igi’s descent into a kind of madness.

Beginning with the painting by Paul Klee which gives the film its name, Nakahira asks us to imagine what would happen if a large dash of red were suddenly to appear, disrupting the comforting harmony of Klee’s perfectly matched colours. The discomforting redness does dutifully appear as strangely shaped squares on the canvas but the symbolic value of the colour is felt throughout the black and white narrative from the dark stain of Akiko’s broken maidenhead to the affectation of her lipstick and constant references to red seas and suns.

Though Igi’s world may have seemed just as perfectly ordered as Klee’s painting from the outside, his constant preoccupations with his father become the disruptive influence which leads to all of the redness later leaking in. Haunted by his father as he is, seeing his face everywhere from train windows to the barber shop mirror, Igi’s attempt at a plot for a murder mystery takes on a strangely Oedipal quality as we begin to wonder if it’s his father rather than Igi himself who has assumed the role of the “protagonist”, leaving a time bomb for his wayward son, the inheritor of his woman, just as Igi laid out in his prologue. Bizarre reality or another symptom of Igi’s increasingly fractured mind, the plot seems likely to succeed at least in a sense as Igi declines into a dishevelled mess, prone to hallucinations and uncertain visions.

Nakahira gives us several of these as Igi panics and struggles with a key only to open a door into bright white light and nothingness or another in which he and Kyoko dine in an empty restaurant which is suddenly filled with the noisy chatter of other diners. Strange touches such as the German beerhall with a Spanish guitarist, or the odd peepshow in which Igi and his two friends take on the appearance of demons or impassive Buddhist statues thanks to the light reflected into their eyes, add to the unbalanced atmosphere as do the frequent closeups of lips and hands, and the symbolic value of seeds never meant to be planted which nevertheless flower at an unintended moment. Shooting in black and white, Nakahira begins with a colour sequence featuring the abstract artwork with occasional flashes of colour as well as voice over and occasional intertitle-style captions adding to the absurdist atmosphere.

A surreal and complex psychological exploration of sex, power, obsession, identity, and legacy Flora on the Sand finds Nakahira flexing his experimental mussels for a drama rife with ambiguity and strangeness. Sadly this brand of innovation was not entirely welcome at Nikkatsu head offices and so he found himself left out in the cold eventually ending up in Hong Kong making action movies for Shaw Brothers. Despite some later success at international festivals, Nakahira’s work remains sadly neglected but the unusual degree of sophistication and almost playful atmosphere seen in Flora on the Sand make him worthy of attention as more than just an almost was of the rising New Wave.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.