Black Sun (黒い太陽, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964)

black sun still 2The Warped Ones showed us a nihilistic world of aimless youth living not so much on their wits as by their pleasures, indulging their every animalistic whim while respectable society looked on in horror. By 1964 things have only got worse. Tokyo might have got the Olympics, Japan might be back on the international map, and economic prosperity might be on the rise but all around the city there’s an arid wasteland – a literal dumping ground in which the unburied past has been left to fester as a grim reminder of historical follies and the present’s reluctance to deal with them.

Akira (Tamio Kawaji), now calling himself “Mei” (perhaps a play on the reading of the character for his name 明), seems to have mellowed since the heady days of his youth. Living alone save for a dog named Thelonious Monk, Mei has co-opted a disused church and turned it into a shrine for jazz. The walls and ceilings are covered in photographs of famous jazz musicians and posters for club nights and solo shows. He has his own turntable and a well stocked selection of LPs, though he still seems to frequent the same kind of jazz clubs that so defined his earlier life.

Change arrives when Mei boosts a fancy car and is almost caught in a police net caused by the body of an American serviceman found floating in the harbour. Apparently the crime is the product of an internal GI squabble, but the offending soldier is on the run with a machine gun. As coincidence would have it, the wounded killer, Gil (Chico Lourant), fetches up at Mei’s church and, as Gil is a black man, Mei assumes that they will definitely be friends. It is, however, not quite that simple.

As in the earlier film, jazz is the force which keeps Mei’s mind from fracturing. His life still moves to improvisational rhythms even if apparently not quite so frenetically as it once did. Rather than the rampant animal of The Warped Ones, this Mei has embraced his outsider status through literally removing himself from the city in favour of self-exile and isolation as a squatter in the house of God – a place about to be torn down.

While Mei has been literally pushed out with only his beloved dog as evidence of his latent human feelings, his formerly delinquent friend, Yuki (Yuko Chishiro), has gone on to bigger and better things. No longer (it seems) a casual prostitute catering to foreigners, Yuki has repurposed the skills her former life gave her to shift into an aspirational middle-class world as a translator for those same American troops she once performed another service for. The American occupation is long over, but the US Army is everywhere.

Mei thinks of himself as one of Japan’s oppressed outsiders – an outcast in a land subjugated by a foreign power. He squats in a ruined church while the Americans “squat” in his ruined country. He likes jazz because it fits the rhythms of his mind but also because he believes it to be the music of the oppressed. In Gil he thinks he sees another like him, a man oppressed in his own homeland and ironically enough by the same forces that are (in part) oppressing him. Mei has a lot of strange, stereotypical ideas about black men – he’s excited to meet Gil because he thinks all black men must love jazz and that Gil must be some kind of jazz god, but Gil is a frightened rabbit on the run, terrified and bleeding. Thinking he’s in the middle of a visitation, Mei tries to make plain his enthusiasm despite the obvious language barrier, pointing wildly at his shrine to jazz, but all Gil wants is quiet and help with the bullet wound currently suppurating on his thigh.

The “relationship” deteriorates, but a strange kind of camaraderie is eventually born between the two men. Things take a turn for the surreal when Mei dons black face and paints Gil’s white, only to get stopped by GIs who want to see an ID from a “foreigner” driving a fancy car, and for Mei to introduce Gil at his favourite jazz bar as his new “slave”. In hindsight it’s all a little awkward as Kurahara throws in stock footage of the civil rights movement and tries to equate it both to the recent protest movements in Japan and to Mei’s self-identified status as one of Japan’s oppressed masses. Still, you can’t argue with the fact that the two men have found a bond in their shared alienation and desire to escape from the impotence of their current situations.

Ironically enough Kurahara does seem to believe in an escape, though it’s perhaps not so positive as it sounds. The tragic friendship of the two men in which one must save the other by releasing him towards the sea and the sun pushes Mei out of his self-exile and back into the “real” world even if he still considers himself to be an outsider within it. The sun is bright but it’s also dull, shining not with hope but with consolation for a hopeless world in which the only victory lies in the final act of surrender.


Short scene from the beginning of the film (English subtitles)

The Incorrigible (悪太郎, AKA The Bastard, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

(C) Nikkatsu 1963

(C) Nikkatsu 1963Seijun Suzuki often credits 1963’s Youth of the Beast as the real turning point in his directorial career, believing that it marked the first time he was ever really able to indulge his taste for the surreal to the extent that he truly wanted. The Incorrigible (悪太郎, Akutato, AKA Bastard), completed directly after Youth of the Beast, is another turning point of a kind in that it marks Suzuki’s first collaboration with set designer Takeo Kimura who would accompany him through his ‘60s masterpieces contributing to the uniquely theatrical aesthetic which came to be the director’s trademark.

Inspired by an autobiographical novel by Toko Kon, The Incorrigible of the title, Togo Konno (Ken Yamauchi), is a young man coming of age in the early Taisho era. He’s of noble birth and enjoys both wealth and privilege – something of which he is well aware, but is also of a rebellious, individualist character believing himself above the normal rules of civil society. Expelled from his posh Kyoto school after getting into a dalliance with a teacher’s daughter (she’s been sent off to a convent), Konno is then abruptly abandoned by his mother who has tricked him into travelling to a remote rural town where a friend of a family friend has promised to reform him at his military middle school. Konno thinks he’s too clever for this, he makes a point of deliberately failing his entrance exam in the mistaken belief that failing to get in would make him free to travel to Tokyo and start life on his own. He’s wrong, and failure to pass the exam would only entail being held back a year. Konno capitulates and agrees to start his new life as one among many in a backward little village in Southern Japan.

Though set in the Taisho era, Konno’s youth seems to suffer from the same problems that would plague the young men of 30 years later. His school is proto-militarist and hot on discipline. The boys are trained to be strong rather than smart and have inherited all the petty prejudices of their parents which they hone to the point of weaponry. The “Public Morals” department operates almost like a mini military police for students – making routine inspections of students’ home lives and keeping an eye out for “illicit” activities round and about town. Konno sees himself as grown man with a rebellious heart – he smokes openly, keeps a picture of the girl who got him into this mess in his room, and tells bawdy, probably made up stories about how he lost his virginity to a geisha (for free). He will not bow to the morality police, or any authority but his own.

Authority is something Konno seems to be good at. Picked on for his continuing preference for Japanese dress, Konno neatly deflects the attentions of the Public Morals division and comes out on top. When they raid his room and complain about his novel reading habit, he shouts them all down and gets them to sit on the floor while he “educates” them about foreign literature. Militarism has not yet arrived, but anti-intellectualism is already on the up and up. Konno’s love of literature is one of his many “deficient” qualities as teachers and students alike bemoan his “frivolous” hobbies, seeing his sensitivity and disregard for the commonly accepted ideals as signs of his unwelcome “unmanliness”.

Konno’s other big problem is, as might be expected, girls. Having been in town only moments Konno takes a fancy to doctor’s daughter Emiko (Masako Izumi) – his desire is only further inflamed after catching sight of her in the book shop and realising she too has bought a copy of Strindberg’s Red Room. She doesn’t care for Strindberg’s misanthropy, but a bond is quickly forged between the two sensitive souls trapped in this “traditional” small town where feelings are forbidden and youth constrained by social stricture.

It is, however, a love doomed to fail. The majority of Suzuki’s early work for Nikkatsu had been contemporary youth dramas, yet the artfully composed black and white photography of the Taisho setting is a melancholic affair which rejects both the rage of the modern action dramas and Suzuki’s trademark detached irony. Using frequent dissolves, The Incorrigible conjures a strong air of nostalgia and regret, a sad love story without end. Yet at its conclusion it makes sure to inject a note of uplifting inspiration as our hero wanders off into a fog of confusion, filled with a passion for pursuing truth and vowing to live without losing hope.


The Incorrigible is the fourth of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Takumi Furukawa, 1964)

cruel-gun-story-poster.jpgIn the history of Japanese noir, the name Haruhiko Oyabu looms large. Oyabu’s gritty, pulp infused tales of tough guy heroes found their clearest expression in the hardline ‘70s with Toru Murakawa’s unique brand of macho action as seen in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf or The Beast Must Die, but a decade earlier they were also finding fertile ground in Nikkatsu’s harder B-movie noir. Based on a novel by Oyabu, Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Kenju Zankoku Monogatari) seems to owe more than a little to Kubrick’s The Killing in its crime never pays tale of honest crooks undercut by their unscrupulous comrades but the central message is that the gun is a cruel master and those living under its control will pay a heavy price.

Togawa (Jo Shishido) has just been (unexpectedly) given early release from a prison sentence incurred when he took revenge on the truck driver who knocked down his little sister (Chieko Matsubara) and confined her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Middle rank gangster Ito – formerly a crooked lawyer with a pencil mustache a supercilious air, has a job for him the gang thinks only he can do. The payout is 120 million yen – not to be sniffed at, but Togawa has reasons to be suspicious. He takes some convincing but finally relents when he finds out an old and trusted friend, Shirai (Yuji Kodaka), has already agreed. The gang have another three guys lined up but Togawa rules the third one out when he tests him and confirms he’s an untrustworthy blabbermouth. The other two are a former boxer with mild brain damage whose girlfriend has just left him, and an unscrupulous but clever chancer named Teramoto (Kojiro Kusanagi).

Following the general pattern, Furukawa walks us through the heist as it’s supposed to go if everything goes to plan complete with a 3D diagram and plastic toy cars but, of course, not everything goes to plan. The job is to steal the ticket money from the Japan Derby (much like the race course robbery in The Killing). The gang will set up fake road signs and station a “policeman” to divert the armoured car onto a small country lane where they will kill the police motorcycle escort, get rid of the guards, and load the truck onto a bigger lorry that they will then take to a disused US airbase they’ll use as their lair.

Disused American airbase could easily apply to the entirety of the surrounding area. Jets fly ominously overhead while the world Togawa and his guys inhabit is one of noirish jazz bars filled with foreigners, grimy boxing clubs, signs in English and the relics of destruction everywhere. This is a place for those who’ve already fallen through the cracks, even the gangsters are only really small fry – not yakuza but hoodlums ripped straight from the Edward G. Robinson playbook. This giant heist is the most audacious in living memory, pulling it off would be the finest achievement any of them would ever make, taking them out of their dead end environments and catapulting them into the criminal high life.

Togawa knows there’s something not right about this – he almost turns it down because he wants to be around to take care of his sister, but he also wants the money to pay for an operation he hopes will restore her mobility to assuage his guilt over having sent her out on the fateful day she was injured. Rie now lives in the care of kindly nuns and is a goodhearted, religious woman hoping for her big brother’s reformation. Togawa and his sister are also victims of war having lost their parents during the evacuation from Manchuria and have been essentially on their own ever since. Rie has become a living symbol of Togawa’s failures – his inability to protect her, to keep them both safe and together, and to free them of the ruined post-war landscape within which they both remain trapped. Rie pins her hopes on God, but Togawa says to hell with that – where has He been so far?

Having pinned his hopes on the gun, Togawa intends this to be the heist to end all heists. After this, he’ll be free to give his sister the life she deserves away from crime and the rundown town strewn with mementos of a distant, dethroned occupying power. The gun, however, is a divisive weapon and engenders nothing but mistrust among men. Resentful of Togawa’s solid friendships, the other guys turn on him as do his shady employers sending Togawa even further along the dark path to moral ruination than he already was. All that’s waiting for Togawa is a hollow victory and the intense disappointment of those whose faith in him was ultimately misplaced.