The Hot Little Girl (しびれくらげ, Yasuzo Masumura, 1970)

“Using women to make money is the same as a yakuza” a repentant gangster insists on confronting the real big bad of exploitative corporate power in Yasuzo Masumura’s ironic exploration of corruptions of a consumerist society. Ironically given the rather salacious title The Hot Little Girl (しびれくらげ, Shibure Kurage), the Japanese a more suggestive Numbing Jellyfish, Masumura’s spicy drama finds an exploited woman fighting back to reclaim her own image and agency by seizing the tools used against her in the company of a sensitive yakuza himself tiring of the amoral world of contemporary gangsterdom. 

Once an ordinary coffeeshop waitress, Midori (Mari Atsumi) is now a successful model thanks to the efforts of her salaryman boyfriend Hiroshi (Yusuke Kawazu). Completely in love with him, Midori is convinced they will one day be married while Hiroshi is obsessed with corporate success and ultimately intends to buy his own advancement with her body by acquiescing to an indecent proposal from an American department store owner to strike a massive trade deal none of his colleagues had been able to broker. Shocked and disgusted Midori refuses but is later won over by Hiroshi’s rather dubious arguments that she must sleep with the American for the good of Japan along with their personal happiness, insisting that nothing will change between them while her sacrifice will buy a more secure footing for their mutual future. 

After the deed is done she seeks additional reassurance, heading straight to Hiroshi’s apartment where they again make love he insisting she is “clean” as the day she was born. In this instance he sells her body directly, though as others point out he was already doing something similar in selling her image for his own gain. Yet he is not the only person to do so, Midori’s feckless father who ruined himself embezzling money to spend on a bar hostess and thereafter going to jail, goes out on the town claiming to be a movie star and showing off Midori’s magazine spread to a woman at a bar who turns out to be there with a petty yakuza. They decide to run a scam on him, demanding compensation for messing with a yakuza’s girl while setting the amount so high they know he’ll never pay intending to press the pretty daughter, should he have one, into sex work in a fairly common gangster manoeuvre. 

The flaw in their plan is that the feisty Midori is less than attached to her dad who continues to ruin her life with his fecklessness, a drunken fool who steals her money and gets himself into trouble. It’s clear that he sees Hiroshi as something of a meal ticket, while Midori sees a marriage to him as a path towards a more stable, conventional life. Nevertheless, she finds herself unable to abandon her father, bravely standing up to the yakuza who threaten her and eventually saved by sensitive gangster Kenji (Ryo Tamura) who instantly sympathises with her situation having grown up with an abusive father he once tried but failed to kill. The gang he’s with are old school yakuza not yet part of the newly corporatising breed, still running petty scams pressing women into sex work through blackmail or parental debt. 

Yet those two worlds are, the film suggests, beginning to merge. The corporation is founded on an image of female exploitation, Hiroshi pimping out his girlfriend while his bosses giggle about it jokingly referring to her as a secret weapon for the company. On being confronted with her father’s problematic past, Hiroshi makes Midori an ultimatum to sever ties with her dad or break up with him because associating with the yakuza will ruin his career despite the fact that he is really no different himself in his desire to exploit her. Kenji’s boss Yamano (Daigo Kusano) instructs him to make Midori his woman and then put her work, but he refuses while Midori eventually opts for an ironic revenge that will quite literally buy her freedom not only from the corporate world but from yakuza threat in allowing Kenji to free himself. Together they determine to “become ordinary people again”, attempting to shake off both parental failure and the corruptions of a rabidly consumerist society to resist the commodification of body and image in world in which everything has a price and nothing any value. 


The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (華岡青洲の妻, Yasuzo Masumura, 1967)

The close relationship between two women is disrupted by the reintroduction of a man in Yasuzo Masumura’s fictionalised account of the rivalry between the wife and mother of pioneering Japanese doctor Seishu Hanaoka. Scripted by Kaneto Shindo and adapted from the novel by Sawako Ariyoshi, the refocusing of the narrative is apparent in its title, not the life of but The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (華岡青洲の妻, Hanaoka Seishu no Tsuma) less a tale of scientific endeavour than of domestic rivalry born of the inherently patriarchal social codes of the feudal society which cannot but help pit one woman against another while forcing each of them to play a role they may not wish to fulfil in order to secure their status and therefore their survival. 

Samurai’s daughter Kae (Ayako Wakao) first catches sight of the beautiful Otsugi (Hideko Takamine) at only eight years old and is instantly captivated by her, a fascination which persists well into adulthood when she is approached to marry into the Hanaoka household as wife to oldest son Seishu (Raizo Ichikawa) away studying to become a doctor like his father. Kae’s father originally objects to the match because of the class difference between the two families, Seishu’s father Naomichi (Yunosuke Ito) being only a humble country doctor of peasant stock whereas they had envisaged a grander station for their only daughter. Yet Kae is already old not to be married and continues to decline prospective suitors and so her mother and nanny (Chieko Naniwa) are minded to put it directly to her discovering that she is in fact more than willing to become a Hanaoka though mostly it seems in order to get close to Otsugi whom she has continued to idolise. 

The strange thing is that the wedding is conducted in Seishu’s absence, a medical text standing in for him while Kae in effect marries her mother-in-law Otsugi. These early days are spent in blissful tranquility as Kae does her best to be the ideal daughter-in-law, Otsugi even remarking that she’s come to love her more than a daughter. The two women share a room, Kae often staring longingly at the back of Otsugi’s head, their relationship one of mutual respect and affection that allows them to forget their respective stations but when three years later Seishu finally returns, it forces them apart in reverting to the roles of wife and mother their statuses conferred only by proximity to a man. 

Pregnant with her first child and about to become a mother herself, Kae’s resentment towards Otsugi begins to boil over. In an ironic premonition of the way the relationship between Masumura and his muse would eventually break down, she claims to have seen through Otsugi’s beauty and concluded that she is cold and calculating believing that she only brought her into the household as an unpaid servant forcing her to work a loom to raise money for Seishu’s medical training. Alternately jealous and condescending, Otsugi’s resentment is mediated through attempts to undermine her daughter-in-law’s authority finally leading to an ironic and absurdist battle between the two as they attempt to outdo each other volunteering to become test subjects for Seishu’s ongoing experiments to discover a safe anaesthetic in order save patients who require surgery but cannot endure the trauma. 

The marriage itself perhaps represents a moment of change in the feudal society, it becoming clear that the samurai are on their way down while skill and knowledge will define success in this new age of enlightenment. While Seishu works on his anaesthetic, the superstitious local community begins to view the Hanaokas with suspicion, believing that the misfortune that befalls them is the result of a curse owing to the large number of cats and dogs which have become casualties of Seishu’s failed experiments while a pedlar brings news of a mysterious disease attributed to the rain which is in fact due to mass malnutrition following a famine caused by the bad weather. When news of Seishu’s prowess as a doctor spreads they are soon overwhelmed with patients, many of whom cannot pay but are seemingly treated anyway. 

Seishu’s eventual victory is one of science over superstition, but it also requires faith which is the battleground contested between wife and mother. Having found a successful solution in cats, Seishu needs human test subjects with both instantly volunteering only to become locked into an absurd, internecine contest to prove who is the most self-sacrificing. The competition goes so far that it effectively becomes a game of dare with each determined to be the one to die for Seishu’s discovery but later realising that the stakes are even higher than first assumed because the winner will be dead but the loser saddled with guilt and possible ostracisation as someone who allowed their mother/daughter-in-law to die to in their place. 

Even so, the pair of them are described as “wonderful examples of womanhood” in their willingness to risk their lives for their “master’s success”. Kae is reminded that a woman’s job is to give birth to a healthy baby, later weaponising her ability to do so as currency in realising that Otsugi has all the control but the one thing she can’t do is bear Seishu’s child. Ironically enough, the cases Seishu is trying to treat are of aggressive breast cancer, the oft repeated maxim being that a woman’s breasts are her life and to remove them is as good as killing her contributing to the sense that maternity is the only thing that gives a woman’s life meaning. It’s not without irony that the first successful surgery under anaesthesia directly juxtaposes a massive tumour removed from a woman’s breast with a baby being removed from a pregnant Kae who, at this point having lost her sight as a consequence of Seishu’s experiments, must bear the pain with no relief. 

Brought together by tragedy, Kae comes to a better understanding of her relationship with her mother-in-law only after she dies learning to see her once again as the kind and beautiful woman she met at eight years old while her unmarried sister-in-law having witnessed their painful war of attrition prays that she won’t be reborn as a woman glad that she was never forced to become a bride nor a mother-in-law. “The struggles of the women in this house were in the end just to bring up one man” she laments, suggesting that Seishu most likely noticed the conflict between the two and used it to his advantage in getting them to participate in his experiments as they desperately tried to prove themselves the better through dying for his love. 

Going one step further, it seems that being a woman is an exercise in futility the only source of success lying paradoxically in birth or death alone, the natural affection between Otsugi and Kae neutered by the presence of Seishu who inserts himself as the pole around which they must dance for their survival. Kae becomes a local legend, a woman who sacrificed her sight in service of her husband but now rejects this mischaracterisation of her life along with the implication that it’s somehow a wife’s duty to deplete herself for her husband’s gain retreating entirely from the society of others while Seishu’s practice continues to prosper. Even so Masumura ends on a note of irony in the literal transformation of Kae into the figure of Otsugi recreating the opening scene as she walks among the bright flowers she can no longer see.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Wife Confesses (妻は告白する, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

Mountains are dangerous places in Japanese cinema. Yasuzo Masumura’s tense, claustrophobic courtroom noir A Wife Confesses (妻は告白する, Tsuma wa Kokuhaku Suru) was released in the same year as Toshio Sugie’s Death on the Mountain, adapted from a popular story by legendary mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto in which a veteran climber is ushered towards his death through a series of machinations by his friend which might or might not be regarded as “murderous” depending on your point of view. Masumura wants to ask us a similar question but from another angle as he puts a woman on trial not quite for the “murder” of her husband but the fact of her survival.

Opening outside the courthouse with a gum-chewing paparazzo, Masumura unwittingly makes us part of the baying mob watching intently as a young woman hides her face with her handbag while the press more than live up to their name, pinning her with questions about the salacious case at hand. Inside, however, he shifts the focus. We are now in the dock with Ayako (Ayako Wakao), looking up at the three men who will judge her for her “crime” from a literal moral high ground. A youngish widow, Ayako is charged with the murder of her husband who died during a freak mountain climbing accident. Caught between a handsome young man, Koda (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), and her abusive husband, Takigawa (Eitaro Ozawa), with no way up or down Ayako chose to cut the rope and let her husband fall. If she had not done so, both she and Koda would also be dead. Ayako is on trial because she refused to sacrifice herself for a wifely ideal. The question is, in many ways, if a woman’s or more to the point a wife’s life has worth, not just worth equal to that of her husband’s but any kind of worth at all. 

The first charge against Ayako is a lack of womanliness. A man at the scene testifies that they don’t usually allow wives or mothers to view bodies and Takigawa’s was in a particularly bad way but Ayako insisted on seeing it only to react with a calm he found suspicious. A policeman then echoes his sentiment, admitting that he arrested Ayako for her unwifeliness. “A wife should stick with her husband ’til the end no matter how tough it is” he says, adding that his own wife agrees with him. As her lawyer points out, had Ayako been a man, or the person below her on the rope a stranger, the policeman would not have arrested her but her refusal to die with her husband, which would have resulted in the “murder” of another man, is an arrestable offence. You can argue about the moralities of choosing to end someone else’s life to save your own, a kind of self defence permitted under Japanese law through the “necessity” legislation, but Ayako’s transgression is in believing that her life and her husband’s weigh the same and that she had a right to save herself. Many feel she should perhaps have cut the rope above her own head, saving Koda only in a lovers’ suicide with Takigawa. 

The policeman offers more grounds for suspicion having discovered that Ayako had taken out an insurance policy on her husband and hoped to profit from his “accidental” death, though as an act of premeditated murder this would certainly be quite an elaborate plot. Furthermore, the prosecution posit that she and Koda were having an affair but, for reasons which are not clear, Koda is not under suspicion or cited as a co-conspirator and is in fact testifying in her defence. He is also engaged to someone else, Rie (Haruko Mabuchi), though the marriage was arranged by his boss for strategic reasons because she is the daughter of a major client at their insurance firm and yes Koda drafted the policy which is currently being used as evidence against Ayako. All very Double Indemnity, but Ayako is certainly no cold and scheming Phyllis whether or not she made a conscious decision to free herself from a man who made her life a misery by literally cutting him loose. 

Yet Ayako’s victimisation is also used against her as further evidence of her unwomanly coldness. She testifies that she married Takigawa after he attempted to rape her and then proposed, confessing that she did so in order to escape a life of poverty that had already driven her into suicidal despair (she still has a vial of potassium cyanide she had taken from his office with just this in mind). She did not love him, but did her best to become a “good wife”, even beginning to wear kimono because he preferred it. Her predicament is no different than that of many other women who agreed to an arranged marriage and found themselves shackled to an unpleasant man with whom they could not get along but the marriage’s failure is laid squarely at Ayako’s feet for not trying hard enough and having insufficient love for the husband who treats her like a glorified maid, is cruel and emotionally abusive, and finally forces her to have an abortion against her will because he doesn’t want to spend money on a child. She asks for a divorce but he points out that as things stand a woman cannot escape a bad marriage without a husband’s consent and he has done nothing to break their marital contract and so to that extent he owns her. 

But for all she’s a cold woman who resented her husband and longed to be free of him, Ayako is also condemned for illicit passion in her secret love for Koda. Indeed we can see she is clearly fond of him, and in flashback we realise much of this is simply because he was kind to her though the extent of his kindness was only to the level of general civility. At heart, they are both “decent” people and so there is nothing more between them than unexpressed longing but still the kernel of their attraction remains and the prosecution has indeed found a grain of truth on which to found a motive for murder.

For his part, in another kind of film Koda would be the hero but here his “goodness” is intensely problematic in that he falls for Ayako precisely because of her suffering. His problem is that he later doubts her, swayed by arguments that paint her as a plotting femme fatale. Though amused by the whole affair, Koda’s boss warns him that women like Ayako are “trouble” and that he’s only been taken in because he is young and naive. Rie, meanwhile, is resentful and wounded, contemplating her own revenge but ultimately testifying in Ayako’s favour, she claims more for herself than for Koda or “justice” too embarrassed to take the stand and offer her own feminine “inferiority” as evidence against her romantic rival. Yet she later comes to admire her, seeing her as one who was bold enough to chase love at the expense of all else no longer caring what anyone might say or think. Ayako is the most liberated woman alive, and she would die for love but did not love her husband and so would not die for him. 

Koda is punished because he fell in love with an image of suffering womanhood but is afraid of Ayako’s transgressive femininity. He is conflicted in the knowledge that if she killed her husband her love for him may have been the reason, and is disturbed by her venality in that she would have taken the insurance money and lived well without finding it distasteful while he would have preferred to reject the settlement entirely lest it besmirch the innocence of their love. In real terms it doesn’t really matter why she did it, Ayako cut the rope and whether she did so out of an instinct for self preservation, in hate, or in love, the result is all the same. What she’s on trial for is defiance, that she acted, seized her own agency and made a choice to value her life over her husband’s which is still, as it turns out, a moral crime in the supposedly modern and democratic society of 1961. Masumura’s accusatory camera finds her pinned, confined, trapped at the edges of frames hiding her face with her single permitted feminine accessory while the subject of our judgemental gaze until the curtain finally closes leaving her in shadow but perhaps finally free of her cruel and oppressive society. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Super Express (黒の超特急, Yasuzo Masumura, 1964)

By 1964, Japan had returned to the world stage and was beginning to enter a new age of modernity as symbolised by the completion of the Shinkansen “bullet train” high speed rail network opened in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Behind the scenes, however, many were still trying to pull themselves free of post-war privation while others feared that the promised age of plenty had provoked a moral decline giving rise to widespread exploitation and rampant criminality. Yasuzo Masumura’s “Black” Super Express (黒の超特急, Kuro no Chotokkyu) was the last in a series of “Black” films (which also included the earlier Black Test Car) produced by Daiei in the mid-‘60s which exposed the seedy underbelly of the modern economy through tales of shady corporate shenanigans. Though in this case the hero finds himself in difficultly largely because of bad luck and his own poor judgement, he eventually exposes the cronyism and corruption which seem set to engulf the modern society. 

As the film opens, shady businessman Nakae (Daisuke Kato) approaches local real estate agent Kikyo (Jiro Tamiya) with an unusual business proposition. It seems that someone wants to build a factory on a large stretch of land currently owned by a number of farmers and other small concerns. Nakae wants to buy it up, but he’s afraid he won’t get a good price as an outsider and wants Kikyo to handle things on the ground. Kikyo is a little confused by Nakae’s intention to offer a significant sum of money to the farmers while proposing a sizeable commission to him, but eventually decides to go along with it. Everything goes to plan – it’s a not a scam, the farmers get their money, and everyone’s happy. Everyone except Kikyo, that is, who loses everything playing the stock market. It’s then he’s contacted by a disgruntled farmer who realises he might have been able to get more because it turns out the land wasn’t purchased for a factory, but for a second line on the Shinkansen. Nakae took their land and sold it on to the government at huge profit. 

Kikyo is extremely pissed off even though he was originally happy with the money he received and the reasons he lost it are nothing at all to do with Nakae. He gets straight on a train (not a Shinkansen) to Tokyo to confront him, but only gets the brush off and an offer of token hush money when Nakae realises Kikyo could cause a problem, something he is apparently keen to do because he starts connecting the dots between the elegant young woman he saw delivering envelopes to Nakae and a senior executive at the rail office. 

Needless to say, Nakae is a totally immoral, not quite conman chancer with the gift of the gab. He approached Kikyo with the job because he’d done his research and knew he’d take the bait. Kikyo already had a failed business behind him and desperately wanted to succeed. In the end he’d find it too difficult to resist the temptation of such a big contract even if he had his doubts, and his greed might prevent him asking too many questions. What Nakae didn’t bank on, however, was the depth of his resentment when he realised he’d been used and then cheated. 

“Large corporations are the new Daimyo” Kikyo tells his later accomplice, Yoko (Yukiko Fuji), Nakae’s former squeeze. He quit his salaryman job because he wanted to be his own boss, but feels like the world has pulled away from people like him, forever denying them a ticket on the Shinkansen, allowing them only to ride the now ironically named “super express”. Yoko feels something similar. She’s refused marriage after coming to the conclusion that men can’t be relied on – her father died in an accident when she was 11 after which her now bedridden mother raised her alone by working as a maid, and an ill-advised “affair” with a married university professor who took advantage of her naivety only further convinced her that she’s better off a free agent. Yoko wants total independence and the opportunity to start a business of her own, which is why she agreed to team up with Nakae to become the mistress of her boss at the rail company, Zaitsu (Eiji Funakoshi), who’d taken a liking to her and is the classic sad middle-aged salaryman with a wife suffering from TB he’d long since grown apart from. 

“There’s nothing more important than life” Nakae later grimly admits, trying to save his own skin, but it’s too little too late. Previously, he’d claimed he was “ready to commit any crime for money”, but mainly thrived on sadistic machinations setting up complex blackmail plots lined with little bombs he could set off if and when the occasion called. Kikyo takes him on at his own game, blackmailing the blackmailer, never really intending to expose the corruption only to parasitically profit from it. What he discovers is there was a much higher price to be paid than he realised because Nakae was only ever a middle man. The people at the top of the tree won’t want to pay at all and they think they don’t have to because “peasants” are expendable. Eventually turning to the police, he finds himself thanked for his service but is forced to admit that he only really wanted the money until he realised how far others were willing to go to get it. Spotting the shiny new Shinkansen rocketing past his widow seat on the super express, all he can do is lower the blind and try to get some sleep. 


An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

An Actor's Revenge blu-ray cover“Revenge is difficult even for an actor” our secret observer tells us, watching quietly from the rooftops like a spectator at a play. In celebration of his 300th screen appearance, Kazuo Hasegawa stars once again as vengeful onnagata Yukinojo in another version of An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Yukinojo Henge), this time directed by Kon Ichikawa with a script written by his wife, Natto Wada, which was itself based on the earlier film with minor adaptations. Recasting the scope frame for the Kabuki stage, Ichikawa shows us a maddening world of theatricality, defined by artifice and governed by the rules of narrative determinism.

Orphaned after his parents were driven to suicide, Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) was taken in by an actor at a young age and trained as an “onnagata” – an actor specialising in female roles on the kabuki stage where women were forbidden to tread. Years later Yukinojo is one of the most popular actors of the age and lives more or less as a woman on stage and off. Having brought his Osakan theatre company to the Edo capital he finally sees his chance for revenge against the trio of corrupt and ambitious merchants who conspired to ruin his father for personal gain. He is, however, conflicted – not in his desire for vengeance but in the strain it continues to place on his mental state as well as the moral corruption need for it provokes.

Despite his feminine appearance, Yukinojo is regarded as male and most assume that his (volitional) romantic attachments will be with women. His gender ambiguity is, however, a problem for some such as the spiky pickpocket Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) who describes him as “creepy” in being neither male nor female. Then again, Ohatsu’s gender presentation is also atypical in that though she dresses and acts as a woman, most regard her as inappropriately masculine in the independence and authority which make it possible for her to act as the leader of a gang of street thieves. Lamenting her tomboyishness, some of her minions make the suggestion common in these kinds of films that Ohatsu will rediscover her femininity on falling in love (with a man). Despite her supposed hatred of men, Ohatsu finds herself falling for Yukinojo possibly precisely because of his gender ambiguity in that she is in some sense permitted to fall in love with him as a woman because he is a man.

Meanwhile, Yumitaro (also played by Kazuo Hasegawa) – another street thief only a much more egalitarian one, has no desire for women and has also developed some kind of fascination with Yukinojo as man who presents as female. Yukinojo is remarkably uninterested in Ohatsu, but seems drawn both to the mysterious Yumitaro and to the pawn in his revenge plot, lady Namiji (Ayako Wakao). The daughter of Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), the ambitious lord who orchestrated the plot against Yukinojo’s father, who has sold her to the Shogun as a concubine in order to buy influence, Namiji develops a deep fascination with the feminine actor which is then manipulated both by Yukinojo who plans to break her heart solely to get at Dobe, and by Dobe who intends to indulge her fascination in order to persuade her to return to the Shogun. Namiji is entirely innocent and effectively powerless. Involving her in the plot weighs on Yukinojo’s conscience but he refuses to look back, preparing to sacrifice her solely in order to a strike blow towards her father.

Meanwhile, chaos reigns in Edo as the corruption of the ruling elite provokes a rebellion by the ordinary people fed up with their persistent profiteering. This too Yukinojo harnesses as a part of his plot, setting his greedy merchants one against the other as they weigh up the benefits of making themselves look good to the people and the Shogun through engineering a crash in the price of rice by dumping the stocks they’ve been hoarding. The theatrical world and the “real” begin to overlap as Yukinojo performs the ghosts of his parents to bring the merchants’ crimes home to them, but his revenge plot has devastating and unforeseen consequences which perhaps begin to eat away at his carefully crafted chameleonism. Possessing no true identity of his own, Yukinojo passes into legend, retreating back to his natural home of the stage the shadow of an avenger disappearing over the horizon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nakano Spy School (陸軍中野学校, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

Nakano Spy School posterFor Yasuzo Masumura, freedom and individuality were often elusive concepts in a society as rigidly conformist as Japan’s even in the increasingly liberal post-war era. Casting an eye back almost 30 years, 1966’s Nakano Spy School (陸軍中野学校, Rikugun Nakano Gakko) stopped to ask what it took to make young men and women abandon their sense of self in order to become faceless warriors for cause in which it was extremely difficult to believe. Masumura described his spy story not as a critique of militarism but of the naivety of youth, carried away by misguided passions and essentially seduced by a corrupted sense of romantic heroism.

In October 1938, reservist Jiro Miyoshi (Raizo Ichikawa) has been putting off marriage to his fiancée Yukiko (Mayumi Ogawa) until he’s completed his obligatory two years of military service overseas. At the mercy of his times, he’s suddenly given a new and mysterious assignment as one of the first recruits to the Nakano Spy School – the first military intelligence training school in Japan. He tells his family that he’ll be away for an unspecified period of time but unbeknownst to him, entering the spy school will require a complete erasure of his original identity. Miyoshi will cease to exist, and Shiina will take his place.

Masumura paints the spy school with a hint of absurdist camp clearly inspired by James Bond as the recruits take lessons in ridiculous gadgetry, safecracking, and the erotic arts while learning to act like gentlemen even if not exactly born to the manor. What he’s most interested in, however, is how these fiercely intelligent and brave young men were convinced to abandon their identities in order to serve an abstract cause like country. The answer he finds, surprisingly, is “passion”. Jiro is among the first to question the rationale of their would-be-spymaster who tells them that their role will be indispensable in Japan’s ongoing activities in Asia in order to “liberate” to continent from European imperialists. An exasperated recruit points out that Japan’s main aim is colonisation which doesn’t quite square with Lieutenant Kusanagi’s (Daisuke Kato) depiction of them as revolutionary insurrectionists. Kusanagi agrees but offers only the justification that he set the school up against the army’s wishes because he knew things had to change. He doesn’t quite claim to be anti-militarist despite his insistence that a spy’s greatest weapon is empathy, but appeals to a sense of righteousness rather than loyalty in winning hearts and minds.

A strange, avuncular man, Lieutenant Kusanagi is an odd fit for the militarist crowd. A former spy himself, his entire conception of spyhood seems to be informed by European romance which is why he trains his guys to become suave gentlemen who know how to be charming at dances and manipulate feminine affection in order to facilitate their missions. Nevertheless, despite his affiliation he appears to be a basically good, noble hearted man who cares deeply for the men under his command even in the knowledge that he is training them for a precarious existence in which many of them will die young. He asks them to abandon not only their presents but their futures and they do it, not for Japan but for this very good, very earnest man who has earned their respect and whose dream they wish to realise even at the costs of their lives.

Jiro is only too quick to forget about Yukiko after throwing his lot in with Kusanagi. Yukiko, however, is frantic and leaves her job working for a British trading company to become a typist with the army in the hope of hearing news of him. Her position in the office obviously makes her a top asset for British intelligence by whom she eventually recruited. Her former boss, who turns out to be a high ranking spy, tells her that Jiro is dead – executed for speaking out against the war, and that her real enemy is none other than the Japanese army whose iron militarist grip is slowly destroying her nation.

Like Jiro, Yukiko is recruited through “passion” only this time out of anger and revenge, hastening the fall of those she believes responsible for the death of the man she loves. The irony is cruel. Jiro is presented with a choice – on discovering that Yukiko is a mole, he could choose to save the woman he loves but risk losing the chance to take down the operative that is running her. His original choice is to do nothing, allow events to take their course and absolve himself of responsibility even in the knowledge that if caught Yukiko will face extreme cruelty at the hands of the military police. He never considers rescue. Only a conversation with the kindly, remorseful Kusanagi leads him towards a “kinder” solution which is in itself a kind of spiritual suicide.

It is this question that Masumura wants to ask, what force is so strong that it could make a young man wilfully destroy his humanity in its service? The answer isn’t patriotism, it’s a kind of misplaced love and the passionate earnestness of a good man who himself is working for a misguided cause in which he believes totally. Jiro does not sacrifice himself for Japan, he sacrifices himself for Kusanagi because Kusanagi is good and he is young and naive enough to be swayed by goodness and passion alone. It is not militarism which seduces Jiro, but the misuse of his youthful idealism and absolute faith in the righteousness of one man who convinced him that he too was good and could act only in goodness.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Double Suicide at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中, Yasuzo Masumura, 1978)

Love Suicides at Sonezaki posterAfter spending the vast majority of his career at Daiei, Yasuzo Masumura found himself at something of a loose end when the studio went bankrupt in the early ‘70s. Working as a freelance director for hire he made the best of what was available to him, even contributing an instalment in former Daiei star Shinataro Katsu’s series of period exploitation films, Hanzo the Razor: The Snare. There is, however, a particular shift in the famously fearless director’s point of view in these later films as his erotically charged grotesquery begins to soften into something more like an aching sadness in the crushing sense of defeat and impossibility which seems to consume each of his heroes. Maintaining the contemporary groove of Lullaby of the Earth – an uncharacteristically new age inflected tale of a naive orphan from the mountains tricked into the sex trade through a desire to see the sea, Double Suicide at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中, Sonezaki Shinju, AKA Love Suicides at Sonezaki / Double Suicides of Sonezaki, Double Suicide in Sonezaki) is a melancholy exploration of the limitations of love as a path to freedom in which the demands of a conformist, hierarchical society erode the will of those who refuse to compromise their personal integrity on its behalf until they finally accept that there is no way in which they can possibility continue to live inside it.

Ohatsu (Meiko Kaji), the geisha, has fallen in love with a client – Tokubei (Ryudo Uzaki), who is a humble man taken in by an uncle with the intention that he take over his soy-sauce shop. No longer the relationship between a prostitute and a customer, Ohatsu refuses to take Tokubei’s money which begins to cause friction with her “master” at the brothel to whom she still owes a significant debt. Tokubei does not possess the resources to redeem her, nor is he ever likely to. Matters are forced to a crisis point when each of them is offered what would usually be thought the best possible option for their respected social paths. Tokubei is offered the hand in marriage of his aunt’s niece and the chance to set up his own shop in Edo but it isn’t what he wants because he wants Ohatsu. Similarly, Ohatsu is sought by a wealthy client who wants to buy her and take her home as a mistress – she tries to refuse but has to play along given her relative lack of agency, longing to be with Tokubei or no one at all. Tokubei is thrown out by his uncle for refusing the marriage and finds himself the difficult position of having to reclaim dowry money from his greedy step-mother only to be conned out of it by an unscrupulous “friend”, Kuheiji (Isao Hashimoto), who later frames him to make it look like Tokubei cheated him. Beaten and ostracised, Tokubei sees no escape from his shame other than through an “honourable” death and Ohatsu sees no life for herself without her love.

Inspired by Chikamatsu’s world of double suicides, Masumura adopts a deliberately theatrical method of expression in which the cast perform in a heightened and rhythmic style intended to evoke the classical stage of Japan. Yet he also makes a point of scoring the film with contemporary folk and jazz as if this wasn’t such an old story after all. Times may be more permissive, but perhaps there’s no more freedom in love than there ever was and the pure dream of happiness in romantic fulfilment no more possible.

The forces that keep Tokubei and Ohatsu apart are only partly those unique to the feudal world – debt bondages and filial obligations being much weakened if not altogether absent in the post-war society, but are almost entirely due to their lack of individual agency and impossibility of freeing themselves from the various systems which oppress them. Tokubei is a poor boy from the country whose father has died. He has been taken in by an uncle and trained up as an heir – something he is grateful for and has worked hard to repay, but will not sacrifice his individual desire in order to accept the path laid down for him.

Ohatsu, in a more difficult position, is oppressed not only by her poverty but by her gender. Sold to a brothel she is subject to debt bondage and viewed only as a commodity, never as a person. When she intervenes to stop Tokubei being beaten by Kuheiji’s thugs, her patron panics but only because he will lose his money if she is “damaged”. Similarly, the brothel owner complains for the same reason after some ruckus at the inn. Neither of them are very much bothered about Ohatsu in herself but solely in her functionality as tool for making money or making merry respectively.

“Money is better, money means everything” claims Tokubei’s angry step-mother and she certainly seems to have a point as both of our lovers struggle through their lack of it. In the end it’s not so much money but “shame” which condemns them to a sad and lonely death as they realise they can no longer live with themselves in this cruel and unforgiving world which refuses them all hope or possibility for the future. An honourable man, Tokubei cannot live with such slander – men die for honour, and women for love, as Ohatsu puts it. Ironically enough there was a chance for them but it came too late as Kuheiji’s machinations begin to blow back on him and Tokubei’s uncle begins to regret his overhasty disowning of his nephew, but the world is still too impure for such pure souls and so they cannot stay.

Unlike some of Masumura’s earlier work, there’s a sadness and an innocence implicit in Double Suicide at Sonezaki that leaves defiance to one side only to pick it up again as the lovers decry their love too pure to survive in an impure world. The world does not deserve their love, and so they decide to leave it, freeing themselves from the “shame” of living through the purifying ritual of death. Softer and sadder, the message is not so far from the director’s earlier assertions save for being bleaker, leaving no space for love in an oppressive and conformist society which demands a negation of the soul as the price for acceptance into its world of cold austerity. 


Opening (no subtitles)

Play (遊び, Yasuzo Masumura, 1971)

5a4a5621a8387Yasuzo Masumura is most often associated with the eroticism and grotesquery which marked the middle part of his career, but his beginnings as a regular studio director at Daiei are a more cheerful affair even if darker in tone and with additional bite. His debut, 1957’s Kisses, was an unusual youth drama for the time – an innocent romance between a naive boy and girl who meet when each of their parents is languishing in jail. Far from the tragic conclusion of Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit, Masumura offers his youngsters a degree of hope and the possibility, at least, of a happy ending. Daiei would go bust in 1971, and so it’s a minor irony that Masumura would revisit a similar theme towards the end of his tenure at the studio. Play (遊び, Asobi, AKA Play With Fire / Games), inspired by Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel, is another tale of youthful romance threatened by a harsh society, but this time around Masumura is not quite so hopeful.

A 16 year old (unnamed) girl has become the main breadwinner for her mother and bedridden older sister following the death of her father, formerly a violent drunk. Having had to leave school, she has a full-time job at an electronics factory where she lives in the company dorm along with a number of other female employees, most of whom are a few years older than she is. The girl is an earnest sort, she resents her mother’s constant pestering of her for money, but she sends her pay checks home keeping only enough to keep herself fed and clothed.

When an older woman, Yoshiko, who works as a “hostess” in one of the local cabaret bars comes to visit, she does so dressed to the nines with a handsome man sporting fancy sunglasses and porting a selection of upscale cakes. Yoshiko sells the virtues of life in the clubs, talking about the money to be made by having fun while the naive gaggle of young women remain in awe of her confidence, poise, and fancy haircut. In desperate need of money, the girl considers Yoshiko’s suggestion which is what brings her into contact with the (unnamed) boy (Masaaki Daimon).

The boy is 18 and pretends to be more worldly wise than he really is. He offers to show the girl around the cabaret scene, though he discourages her from working there. Taking her out and around town, the boy charms the girl though he has a dark and ulterior motive. The boy is a petty yakuza for a gang whose main stock in trade is pulling girls off the street and raping them for reasons of both blackmail and forced prostitution.

Owing to her young age and bad experience with her father who was often drunk and violent, the girl has steered clear of men. The other girls make fun of her for not having a boyfriend, not wearing make up, and for being “good” in sending all her money home. The girl isn’t really interested in the same kind of fun loving life as the more jaded of the factory girls – especially when she sees them roll in drunk boasting about the bruises on their skin from a night of debauchery, or even staggering back crying with a dress torn to shreds after being violently assaulted (perhaps by the same kind of yakuza thugs that will shortly target her). Despite the harshness of her life, she remains naive and innocent, concerned for her mother and invalid sister who have only her to depend on.

The boy is in a similar situation, though far less keen to confess it. Also let down by a drunken, promiscuous mother, he’s found himself in a gang desperate for the approval of his new “big brother”. Though he reacts with horror to the gang’s main stock in trade, he does not try to stop it even if he stops short of rape himself, but continues to assist in trapping the girls whilst fully aware of what will happen to them.

Coming from a harsh world, the boy has never met anyone as earnest or as naive as the girl and her goodness starts to reawaken something in him. Likewise, the girl, unaware of the boy’s true purpose, has never met anyone that was so immediately nice to her – her fear of men and alcohol dissipates as she (mistakenly, or perhaps not) believes she has met someone truly good and kind who only wants to help her. The girl does not belong in the boy’s world of sleazy clubs and youth haunts but bears them well enough for him. The boy recognises the incongruity and takes her somewhere else, still conflicted in his true purpose of delivering her to the dingy love hotel where his boss conducts his illicit trade.

The boy and the girl are innocents corrupted by their environments. Let down by irresponsible parenting (perhaps also a symptom of the difficulties of the society they live in), the pair remain trapped, dreaming of freedom and happiness but seeing no way of finding them. Deciding to make a break for it, leave their respective disappointing families far behind, the boy and the girl sail away. Their boat is full of holes, but they refuse to be beaten, committing to forge ahead together they swim towards the sea and an uncertain but hopeful future.


Title sequence (no subtitles)

Vixen (女体, Yasuzo Masumura, 1969)

Vixen poster“Freedom for the masses!” cry the student protestors outside the claustrophobic environment of a corrupt educational institution at the heart of Yasuzo Masumura’s Vixen (女体, Jotai – lit. “a woman’s body”). While they cry for freedom, one young “liberated” woman finds she’s anything but free even in the throws of her liberation. Possessed of little power, she has a need to find herself a white knight but no sooner has she got him than she begins to long for new conquests, trapped in a destructive cycle of sex and violence. Subverting his own ideas of sex as liberation, Masumura reconfigures lust as a trap in the form of a siren song sung by a lonely young woman unable to find her place in the complicated post-war landscape.

Michi (Ruriko Asaoka), a modern young woman, has a brief episode of fondling an office chair while waiting to see the chairman of a university. Proudly showing off the bruises on her thighs, she accuses the chairman’s son of rape. Despite the evidence, Michi’s accusation is undermined by her mercenary behaviour which does not tally with that expected in such difficult situations. She’s come alone, flirts with the chairman’s secretary Nobuyuki (Eiji Okada), and is quick to talk money. Questioned at home the chairman’s son admits everything but thinks it’s no big deal because that’s just “how it’s done these days”. The chairman, worried more for his reputation which is already under strain given the widespread student protest movement, thinks paying Michi off is the best thing to do but there’s a disagreement over the amount. Nobuyuki’s wife Akie (Kyoko Kishida), sister of the accused and daughter of the chairman, only wants to give Michi half of the two million she’s asked for. Nobuyuki gives her the full amount anyway behind his wife’s back, winning Michi’s eternal admiration for his considerate treatment. Unwisely visiting her hotel room, Nobuyuki develops a dangerous fascination with the alluring young woman and embarks on a passionate, ill-advised affair.

Michi is, in many ways, the archetypal post-war woman. Orphaned at a young age she was raised by a grandmother in a small fishing village and has been living with another relative whilst working as a waitress in his ramen restaurant after coming to the city. She’s grown up in a more liberal era, has a “positive” attitude to sex, and lives outside of the “traditional” path for “respectable” young women of early marriage and continued monogamy. As someone later puts it, women like Michi are two a penny now that the economy is getting back on its feet – they live alone in the city, aren’t interested in marriage and value their independence. Michi, however, is more or less the opposite of this “new” kind of woman. Independence is something that frightens her beyond all else. She cannot survive without a man, does not want or know how to live alone as a “single” woman and uses her sex appeal in order to manipulate men into staying by her side to look after her. Sex is not what she craves so much as security, but security also frightens her and so each time she’s made one conquest she latches on to the next gallant young man who shows her any sign of kindness or courtesy.

Indeed, all Michi thinks she has to offer is her body – the “Jotai” of the title. Perhaps hinting at some past trauma in speaking of the roughneck fishermen that frequented her grandmother’s ramen shop, fatherless Michi says she’s chased men in her dreams since childhood, seeking new tastes and new sensations. She wishes she could find one man and stick with him because the chase and the longing cause her nothing but pain, but her need will not let her be. Asked what she will do when her appeal fades (as it inevitably will), Michi has no other plan than drinking herself into oblivion. “I’m a woman,” she says, “what is there for me to do but love?”. Quite far from the idea of the “liberated”, independent woman spoken of before who has learned to make her own way in the new “freedoms” promised by increased economic prosperity.

This false idea of liberality is one which originally attracts Nobuyuki. A straight laced salaryman working for his corrupt father-in-law and often doing his dirty work for him against his batter judgement, Nobuyuki has sacrificed his individual freedom for the rewards his society offers those who play by the rules. Also a war orphan, Nobuyuki sacrificed his youth to raise his younger sister (now preparing to marry herself), and has a comfortable, middle-class life with an austere if loving wife. Having worked his way into their upperclass world, Nobuyuki feels he doesn’t quite belong, something always nagging at him prevents Nobuyuki from fully committing to his drone-like life of pleasant conformity. A mad infatuation with Michi, an irritating child woman at the best of times, is an excuse to go all out in escaping the oppression of his conventional life but it’s not one with long term stability and his life with Michi is unlikely to offer him the freedom he had originally envisaged.

Later, Michi makes a play for the man Nobuyuki’s sister is set to marry. Akizuki (Takao Ito) is not like Nobuyuki – he’s a post-war man but one with definite ambitions and goals, each element of his life is a product of considered choices. As anyone would who took the time to really think about it, he’s turning Michi down, but for some reason he continues to help her placing a wedge between himself and his fiancée. This way of living – the considered, ordered, boring but pleasant life is directly contrasted with the chaotic, destructive, and perhaps exciting one that is offered by Michi, and the dull life is winning. Michi is miserable, and her self destruction is primed to drag any “nice” young man into her wake along with any other woman associated with him. Nobuyuki is left with a choice but it turns out not to be so binary as might be assumed. Personal freedom, if it is to be found, is not found in abandonment either to another person or to a job or way of life, but in the realisation that choice exists and can be exercised, freely, by all.


Manhunt (君よ憤怒の河を渉れ, Junya Sato, 1976)

manhunt 1976 posterMost people, when faced with being framed for a crime they did not commit, become indignant, loudly shouting their innocence to the rooftops and decrying injustice. Prosecutor Morioka (Ken Takakura) reacts differently – could he really be a master criminal and have forgotten all about it? Does he have an evil twin? Is he committing crimes in his sleep? The answer to all of these questions is “no”, but Morioka will have to go on a long, perilous journey in which he pilots his first solo aeroplane flight, fights bears, and escapes a citywide police net via horse, in order to find out. Junya Sato’s adaptation of the Juko Nishimura novel Manhunt (君よ憤怒の河を渉れ, Kimi yo Fundo no Kawa o Watare, AKA Dangerous Chase, Hot Pursuit) is a classic wrong man thriller though it has to be said thrills are a little thin on the ground.

Morioka’s very bad day begins with a woman (Hiroko Isayama) pointing at him and screaming, clutching the arm of a policeman and insisting that Morioka is the man who burgled her a few nights ago and stole her diamond engagement ring. Morioka is very confused but goes calmly to the police station before asking to see an officer he knows, Yamura (Yoshio Harada). Unfortunately, at the police station things only get worse as they dig up another witness (Kunie Tanaka) who says Morioka mugged him in the street for his camera. Beginning to doubt his sanity Morioka is sure things will be sorted out when they search his apartment, only when they get there they do indeed find a camera, the ring hidden in his fish tank, and a whole lot of dodgy money. Realising the game is up and that his prosecutor buddies aren’t interested in helping him, Morioka takes to the road to clear his name, finding himself increasingly compromised every step of the way.

This being Japan Morioka’s options for disappearing are limited – it’s not as if he can dye his hair or radically change his appearance, he’ll have to make do with sunshades and burying his face in the collar of his mac. Looking askance at policemen and trying to avoid people reading newspapers, he tries to investigate his case beginning with his accusers who, predictably, are not quite who they seemed to be. When one of them ends up dead Morioka can add murder suspect to his wanted card but at least he correctly figures out that this all goes back to one particular case his boss was very keen to rule suicide but Morioka was pretty sure wasn’t.

During his quest Morioka picks up an ally – Mayumi (Ryoko Nakano), the daughter of a wealthy horse trader with political ambitions whom he saves during a random bear attack. Mayumi falls instantly in love with him and despite the best efforts of one of her father’s underlings determines to help him clear his name. Morioka is an honest sort of guy but does also pick up another girl in the city (a cameo appearance by Mitsuko Baisho) who rescues him and takes him home to recuperate from an illness. Much to her disappointment he only has eyes for Mayumi who unexpectedly saves the day thanks to her herd of horses, not to mention her father’s “kind offer” of a light aircraft which Morioka will have to learn to pilot “on the fly”.

Eventually Morioka gets himself confined to a dodgy mental hospital to find the final clue during which time he uncovers a corporate conspiracy to manufacture drugs which turn people into living zombies, all their will power removed and compliance to authority upped. Rather than a dig at corporate cultism, enforced conformity, and conspiratorial manipulation, the Big Pharma angle is a just a plot device which provides the catalyst for Morioka’s final realisations – that having experienced life on the run he can never return to the side of authority. For him, the law is now an irrelevance which fails to protect its people and the “hunted” are in a much stronger position than the “hunters”. Accepting his own complicity in the adventure he’s just had, he willingly submits himself to “justice” for the rules he broke as a man on the run but it looks like those sunshades, the anonymous mac, and the beautiful and loyal Mayumi are about to become permanent fixtures in his impermanent life.