Female Ninja Magic (くノ一忍法, Sadao Nakajima, 1964)

female ninja magic posterSadao Nakajima, a veteran director and respected film scholar, is most often associated with his gritty gangster epics but he made his debut with a noticeably theatrical fantasy tale of female ninjas and their idiosyncratic witchcraft. Adapted from a novel by Futaro Yamada, Female Ninja Magic (くノ一忍法, Kunoichi Ninpo) is an atypically romantic take on the ninja genre, infused with ironic humour and making the most of its embedded eroticism as a collection of wronged women attempt to change the course of history and mostly pay with their lives.

The night before the fall of Osaka castle in 1615, Sanada Yukimura (Eizo Kitamura) comes up with a cunning plan to ensure the survival of the Toyotomi clan. Following the death of Hideyoshi, his son Hideyori had inherited the title but he was sickly and had no children of his own. His wife, Princess Sen (Yumiko Nogawa), was not able to bear an heir and so Sanada has hit on an idea. He wants to send five women of Iga to Hideyori’s bed chamber in the hope that one of them will become pregnant and ensure the survival of the Toyotomi line. Princess Sen is very much in on the plan and hopes to raise the child herself. However, she is by birth a member of the Tokugawa which is where she is eventually sent following fall of Osaka. Refusing to return to her birth clan, Sen rejects her father and insists on remaining true to the memory of her (now departed) husband and his unborn child. Tokugawa Ieyasu (Meicho Soganoya), however, has learned of the Toyotomi heir and is determined to see it killed…

Nakajima opens in grand fashion with a ghostly sequence in which Sanada outlines his plan. The ninjas sit silently before magically fading from the frame and being replaced by Sasuke, Sanada’s messenger. Soon enough, both Sanada and Sasuke are cut down by a rogue assassin but rather than going straight to heaven they decide to hang around and see how well the plan works out, becoming our narrators of sorts, hovering around in the background and occasionally offering the odd ironic comment from beyond the frame.

The ghostly effects don’t stop with the two undead commentators but comprise a key part of Nakajima’s deliberately theatrical aesthetic. Like many ninja films, Female Ninja Magic is filmed almost entirely on studio sets but never pretends otherwise. Its world is unrealistic and deliberately over the top, filled with with visual motifs both from traditional Japanese and classical European art. The female ninjas dance, topless, beckoning and seducing but they do it against a stark black background moving firmly into the film’s magical space in which all things are possible.

Meanwhile, Tokugawa Ieyasu has sent five male ninjas to take care of our five female witches, making use of their own, devious, ninja magic to combat that of our heroines. The first nefarious male ninja technique involves the murder and identity theft of a trusted maid, while another tries a similar trick by “projecting” himself into the consciousness of a handmaiden he has figured out is pregnant by listening for additional heartbeats, and convincing her to commit harakiri. His villainy is eventually turned back on him as the female ninjas make use of the most important of their spells – the “Changing Rooms” technique which effectively shifts the foetus from one womb to another.

Deliciously named – Rainbow Monsoon, Dancing Snow, Robe of Wings etc, the spells run from the sublime to the ridiculous with the self explanatory Eternal Gas which sends noxious purple smoke billowing from under the skirts of an elegant princess. Each has its own erotic component, even if it doesn’t necessitate a shift into the film’s elegantly designed dreamscape, but by and large the female ninja fight with supernatural rather than earthly powers. Facing such extreme threat, the women form a tight group of mutual support in order to ensure the survival of the child which Princess Sen will raise but not birth. Though her quest originated as a fierce declaration of her loyalty to the Toyotomi, she later recants on her tribal zealotry. Shocked by her father’s cruelty and sick of a persistent suitor, she admits that she has come to loathe the world of men and prefers to think of the baby as belonging to her band of women alone. Nevertheless, male violence eventually saves her as her aggressor, ironically enough, is moved by her devotion to the new life in her arms – he is “defeated by her strength as a woman”, and turns on his own kind. Female Ninja Magic eventually achieves the revenge it sought, allowing a princess to survive in triumph while the male order quakes in its boots.


Datsugoku Hiroshima Satsujinshu (脱獄広島殺人囚, Sadao Nakajima, 1974)

DVD coverSadao Nakajima had made his name with Toei’s particular brand of violent action movie, but by the early seventies, the classic yakuza flick was going out of fashion. Datsugoku Hiroshima Satsujinshu (脱獄広島殺人囚, AKA The Rapacious Jailbreaker) follows in the wake of seminal genre buster, Battles Without Honour and Humanity, but also honours the classic Toei ganger movie past in its exploitation leaning, cynically humorous tale of a serial escapee and his ever more convoluted schemes to avoid the bumbling police force’s noose.

Kobe, 1947. Ueda (Hiroki Matsukata) and his buddy kill a drug dealer and his girlfriend in a robbery gone wrong. Landing himself a twenty year sentence, Ueda resigns himself to spending his prime years behind bars in a Hiroshima prison but then he starts getting a few ideas and his first escape attempt is a moderate success, until he’s recaptured after stupidly going home to his wife.

Nakajima spends quite a long time exploring the unusual environment of the prison in Hiroshima. The life is strictly ordered and run with precision but the prisoners are also forced to do a strange dance for the guards, waving their hands and shouting their ID numbers to prove there’s nothing interesting inside their mouths – a gesture which is hilariously turned back on the warden when a prisoner begins a mini riot after a sports game is turned off at crucial moment. The warden submits himself to the degrading dance but once the man surrenders, he does not honour any of the promises he made to convince him to come down from the tower he was occupying. The guards are corrupt, violent, and untrustworthy whereas the majority of prisoners are docile, resigned, and going mad through inactivity.

Ueda, like many “heroes” of yakuza films is a man who’s had a hard life, left to fend for himself after his father died and his mother left. He appears to love and care for his wife who pledges to wait for him, starting her own seamstressing business in the meantime, but his subsequent escape attempts take him further and further away from his home. Nevertheless, home is the first place he decides to go despite the danger even if his reunion with his wife is anything but romantic.

After being recaptured, Ueda’s desire for escape intensifies, requiring ever more complicated schemes to make it happen. These range from the traditional file hidden inside a lovingly prepared meal delivered by his wife, to simply running away when arraigned for a court date after committing another murder while inside. Seeing as Ueda intends to escape, he cares little for the prison rules and his 20 year sentence is soon doubled thanks to his ongoing crimes both inside and outside of the prison walls.

Other than his wife the other source of support Ueda turns to is his estranged sister with whom he’s had no contact since his mother left sixteen years previously. What he discovers is that the now widowed Kazuko (Naoko Otani) is involved in some dodgy business of her own concerning the local black market meat trade. Ueda decides Kazuko is not getting her fair share and more or less takes over, bending the local petty gangsters to his will, but once again he messes everything up for himself after getting into a fight at a brothel which lands him back at the police station.

Nakajima follows Fukasaku’s jitsuroku aesthetic using frequent onscreen text detailing names and conviction records for each of the major players though his approach owes far less to realism than b-movie action in its willingness to linger on blood and gore even if scenes of violence are generally few and executed quickly. Scenes of a cow being butchered in the woods, blood, skin, and bones dominating, introduce a note of sickening horror but are then echoed in Ueda’s animalistic murders committed with makeshift tools and an unforgiving heart. Despite this frightening coldness, Ueda’s humorous voiceover turns him into a roguish figure whose bumbling acts of self destruction and stubborn attempts to regain his freedom take on an oddly cartoonish quality.  The situation may be hopeless, but Ueda does not give up. His story remains unfinished as he makes another (apparently) successful escape after being betrayed by a fellow criminal who is then himself betrayed by the police he mistakenly thought would help him, but as for how long he’ll manage to keep himself on this side of the bars, that remains to be seen…


 

Cops vs. Thugs (県警対組織暴力, Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

cops vs thugs J BDCops vs Thugs – a battle fraught with friendly fire. Arising from additional research conducted for the first Battles Without Honour and Humanity series and scripted by the author of the first four films, Kazuo Kasahara, Cops vs Thugs (県警対組織暴力, Kenkei tai Soshiki Boryoku) shifts the action west but otherwise remains firmly within the same universe. This is a world of cops and robbers, but like bored little boys everyone seems to forget which side it was they were on – if they truly were on any other side than their own. There are few winners, and losers hit the ground before feeling the humiliation, but the one thing which is clear is that the thin blue line is so thin as to almost be transparent and if you have to choose your defenders, a thug may do as well as a cop.

A dodgy looking guy in a dirty mac roughs up some equally dodgy looking kids. Given that the shady looking fella is played by Bunta Sugawara you’d peg him for a petty thug, but against the odds Kuno is a cop – just one with a taste for crumpled raincoats. The town he’s policing is one in the midst of ongoing gang strife following a series of breakaways and civil wars throughout the ‘50s. Things are coming to a head as rival bosses of the two breakaway factions, Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) and Kawade (Mikio Narita), vie for power while a former yakuza politician, Tomoyasu (Nobuo Kaneko), does his best to stir up trouble between them that Kuno is trying to keep from exploding into all out war.

Cops vs Thugs is as cynical as they come but slightly more sympathetic to its desperate, now middle aged men whose youth was wasted in the post-war wasteland. The central tenet of the film is neatly exposed by a drunken gangster who points out that at heart there’s little difference between a cop and a yakuza aside from their choice of uniform. Policemen, like gangsters, follow a code – the law, carry a gun, are fiercely loyal to their brotherhood, and at the mercy of their superiors. Good jobs were hard to come by in the devastation following the surrender, in fact one of the reasons company uniforms became so popular was that no one had decent clothes to wear and a providing a uniform was a small thing that a company could to do increase someone’s sense of wellbeing, community, and engender the feeling of family within a corporate context. The police uniform, even if it’s reduced to a badge and a gun, does something similar, as do a yakuza’s tattoos. They literally say someone has your back and will come running when you’re in trouble.

These drop outs with nowhere left to turn eventually found themselves one side of a line or on the other – the choice may have been arbitrary. Kuno says he became a cop because he wanted to carry a gun, something he could have done either way but for one reason or another he chose authority over misrule. Cops being friends with yakuza sounds counter intuitive, but many of these men grew up alongside each other, attended the same schools, perhaps even have relatives in common.

Both the police and the yakuza claim to be the defenders of honest, working people but neither of them quite means what they say. Police brutality is rife while yakuza battles reach new levels of violent chaos including, at one point, a beheading in the middle of a sunlit street. Yet the greatest threats to the population at large aren’t coming from such obvious sources, they’re hardwired into the system. Sleazy politico Tomoyasu spends his time in hostess bars and schmoozes with gangsters he uses to do his dirty work while the press look on gleefully at having something to report. Kuno may not be a candidate for police officer of the year, but he tells himself that his policy is one of appeasement, and that working with organised crime is the best way to protect the ordinary citizen. When you’re forced to work within a corrupt system, perhaps there is something to be said for flexibility.

For all of the nihilistic cynicism Fukasaku retains his ironic sense of humour, staging a violent, inefficient, and bloody murder in a tiny room where a sweet song about maternal love in which a woman sings of her hopes for the bright future of her son is playing a healthy volume. Corruption defines this world but more than that it’s the legacy of post-war desperation that says on the one hand that it’s every man for himself, but that it’s also necessary to pick a side. Cops, thugs – the distinction is often unimportant. There is sympathy for these men, and sadness for the world that built them, but there’s anger here too for those who play the system for their own ends and are content to see others pay the price for it.


Available now from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Originally published by UK Anime Network.