Sweet Home (スウィートホーム, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1989)

A documentary film crew hoping to discover long-hidden frescos by an artist with a tragic history find themselves on a quest to resurrect the traditional family in unlikely horror comedy Sweet Home (スウィートホーム). Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the film shares many of the hallmarks of his later career in his preoccupation with what lurks in the shadows, yet produced by Juzo Itami who also stars and apparently reshot some scenes himself it also mines a deep seam of ironic humour harking back to classic serials and contemporary kids adventures in the same way as Hiruko the Goblin among others would do just a few years later. 

This strain of irony is perceptible in the opening scenes in which producer Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto) appears in an elegant ’40s-style outfit more in keeping with an archeological dig than a haunted house adventure, her later attire strongly recalling that seen in Indiana Jones. The gang are waiting by their military-style jeep seemingly in the middle of a sandstorm while chief producer Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro) is busy at the municipal office trying to get permission to enter the Mamiya Mansion which has been shut up for the last 30 years since the death of legendary artist Ichiro Mamiya who is the subject of their documentary. A diffident man as his daughter jokes, Kazuo finds it difficult to make headway until a slightly more cynical employee takes over the negotiations and hands over the key with the rationale that they’ll either find out the house isn’t haunted after all in which case they can turn it into a museum, or that they’ll get some tidy publicity out of the horrifying deaths of all concerned. 

A western-style gothic mansion, the house is itself as imposing as it is ominous even without swirling mists or hovering gloom. Once inside the crew find what they’re looking for, a beautiful fresco with the title “home sweet home” painted in a corner. All we’re told about Ichiro is that he died in the house, but when all is said and done he, like Kazuo, is not terribly important and it is not his death which has cursed the mansion but that of his wife. The sweet home the couple had dreamed of was coming to fruition with the long-awaited birth of a child whose life was to inspire frescos on the remaining walls only tragedy struck. As a toddler the child somehow climbed into the furnace and was burnt alive when his unknowing mother ignited it. She then went mad, kidnapping other children and apparently burning them so her child would not be lonely before eventually throwing herself in too.

Perhaps uncomfortably, Sweet Home leans in to the kind of maternal questioning common to the genre as it considers the formation of a new family in the awkward romance between the shy widower Kazuo who has brought his teenage daughter Emi (Nokko) along on the job, and capable producer Akiko who is repeatedly questioned about marriage, children, and the reasons she currently has neither of them. Keying in to the terror of the house, Emi reveals that as she grows older the memories of her birth mother begin to fade to the extent that she can barely make out her outline, envisioning her merely as an indistinct light. She is prepared to accept Akiko as second mother, offering her the dress which her own mother used to wear only for Akiko to diffidently refuse on the grounds that the dress should be worn by Emi as her mother would have wanted perhaps hinting at the way Emi often treats her father as a clueless child in need of mothering himself. 

Nevertheless, it’s the dress of maternity that Akiko must finally put on in order to claim the maternal space in venturing back into the haunted house in order to save Emi from becoming another playmate for Mrs Mamiya’s child. Rather than Kazuo, who proves rather ineffectual, she is guided by a weird old man, Yamamura (Juzo Itami), from the petrol station who apparently knows all about fighting ghosts but bluntly tells her she has no chance of success because she is not a mother herself and cannot understand the pain of a mother who has lost a child nor the magnetic pull between a childless mother and motherless child. In order to defeat the vengeful spirit, Akiko must fully embrace the role of the mother, easing the spirit’s pain with maternal compassion in returning to her what was lost. Her child restored to her, the spirit takes on the appearance of the Holy Mother ascending to Heaven bathed in golden light lifting the shadowy gloom that cursed the house. 

Even so there is something insidious in the fact that as Yamamura says if you attempt to fight shadow with light all you get is more of the same, the crew trapped in the house with no means of defence against the encroaching darkness. This unknown, shadowy sense of threat, of being swallowed by darkness, is a key harbinger of a Kurosawa’s signature style as well as a clear evocation of the gothic dread focused on the house with the ironic failure of the “sweet home” dream which is in essence what Akiko, Kazuo, and an Emi are chasing as they try to escape the haunted mansion. Ironically enough, Sweet Home has become best remembered for fathering a video game which eventually led to the Resident Evil series while Kurosawa himself has all but rejected the film claiming Itami’s later interventions undercut his directorial vision. Featuring effects work by Dick Smith, the horror is visceral and disturbing at one point a man’s face melting, his skin slipping from his bones, while the score is cheerfully whimsical in keeping with the absurd lightness of tone that recalls classic teen adventures before heading into the fable-like conclusion in which Akiko must wrest her surrogate child from a vengeful spirit through maternal exchange. Having served its purpose the mansion implodes, freeing not only the spirits trapped inside but the new family now freed of the weight of traditional mores to embrace their new connection founded on love and empathy rather than duty or convention.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rub Out the Past (日本暗黒街, Masaharu Segawa, 1966)

A former yakuza’s attempts to shed his old identity and start again as an upscale restaurateur are disrupted by the unwelcome appearance of an old acquaintance in Masaharu Segawa’s noirish drama, Rub Out the Past (日本暗黒街, Nihon Ankokugai). Another “akokugai” or “underworld” film, Segawa’s surprisingly subversive Toei crime story involves not only the drugs trade but hints of Manchurian transgression as the hero tries to forget his past while unable to realise his love for the daughter of a man he killed on the order of his boss. 

Now calling himself Yashiro, Kageyama (Koji Tsuruta) runs a swanky bar in Kobe and is in love with his pianist Yoko (Eiko Muramatsu) who is also, though she doesn’t know it, the daughter of a former associate back in his yakuza days whom he apparently killed for otherwise unclear reasons leaving Yoko and her mother alone and defenceless in Manchuria during the evacuation at the end of the war. When a mysterious man arrives and explains he’s from “Hayami Industries”, Kageyama is reluctant to listen but eventually forced to accompany him to Tokyo where he is led into Hayami’s rather swanky new office complete with electronic displays and workers positioned in tiny booths. Since the end of the war, Hayami has become a “respectable” businessman running some of Asia’s most prestigious hotels in addition to a chain of casinos. Yet his real business is of course in drug smuggling, which is a problem because the guy he put in charge of the Hong Kong route has drawn the attention of the police. He makes Kageyama an offer he can’t refuse ,much as he tries, to take it over. He accepts on the condition it’ll just be a one time thing. 

In any case, Kageyama’s involvement with Hayami soon costs him his relationship with Yoko, who is aware of Kageyama’s criminal past but blames Hayami for her father’s death, and with it a potential for redemption. Details are few, but there are constant references to the gang’s illegal and immoral dealings in Manchuria, a time that Kageyama is keen to leave in the past having made a new more honest life for himself in the post-war society while Hayami has shifted into the increasingly corporatised realms of contemporary organised crime. Yet despite himself Kageyama is good at being a gangster, effortlessly subduing the bumbling head of “Sekiya Industries” and realising that part of the problem is that too many of his men are getting high on their own supply. To streamline the business he lays off drug users telling them to come back when they’re clean and temporarily pauses the business while he reorganises it at street level. This however leaves a small vacuum in the underworld economy which is soon filled by “alternative” suppliers. 

More akin to one of Toho’s spy spoofs, Hayami Industries seems to be incredibly keen on zany gadgets like cigarette lighters that double as secret radios and guns which shoot listening devices not to mention the panel wall which hides Hayami’s secret control room or the knuckle dusters and belt swords sported by the Sekiya guys. All of which is slightly at odds with the seriousness of the constant reminders of abuses in Manchuria and on the Mainland, and the frankness with which drugs are treated onscreen with frequent shots of syringes and powder. As usual in these films, the main villain is from Hong Kong, an unhinged maniac who kidnaps Yoko and gets her hooked on drugs partly at the instigation of Hayami who seems to be making something of a strategic blunder in his attempts to manipulate Kageyama. Yet Kageyama can only get his redemption through reassuming his wartime persona to face Hayami if indirectly in trying to engineer a gang war between middlemen with Hong Konger Tei caught in the middle. 

Segawa adds to the noir feel through the melancholy jazz score reinforcing the fatalism and futility that seems to define Kageyama’s life as he tries but fails to escape from his violent past. A product of wartime misuse he finds himself at odds with the contemporary society, inconveniently falling in love with the daughter of a man he killed and therefore unable to move on from the shadow of his life of crime only granted a second chance after losing everything and paying his debt to society by destroying the system he himself helped to create. 


Graveyard of Honor (新・仁義の墓場, Takashi Miike, 2002)

In Kinji Fukasaku’s 1975 jitsuroku eiga Graveyard of Honor, a collection of voices open the film musing on whether the hero was corrupted by the times in which he lived or merely born crazy. Like most jitsuroku or true account gangster movies of the ‘70s, Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor is a post-war story about a man who failed to adapt himself to the rules of his society which was of course in constant flux though the rules of the yakuza are perhaps as fixed and timeless as any. Inspired by the same source material Takashi Miike’s comparatively subdued, contemplative Graveyard of Honor (新・仁義の墓場, Shin Jingi no Hakaba) maintains the moody, noirish feel of the ‘70s gangster drama complete with melancholy jazz score but updates the legend of Rikio Ishikawa to late 20th century Japan which again finds itself in crisis, floundering for direction and filled with despair. The bubble has burst in more ways than one as the young in particular awaken to the fact they have been deceived by the false promise that the good times of the Bubble years were cost free and would last forever leaving them abandoned in a world they no longer recognise as their own. 

Unlike Rikio Ishikawa who, we are told, always wanted to be a gangster, Rikuo Ishimatsu (Goro Kishitani) falls into the gokudo world by chance, his life thereafter one long fall until the bloody suicide with which the film opens. A bleach blonde dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant, he gets an offer he can’t refuse when he calmly defuses a would be assassin by hitting him on the head with a chair, earning the eternal gratitude of boss Sawada (Shingo Yamashiro) who takes him on and makes him his protege. This meteoric rise in the yakuza ranks, however, is not without its drawbacks especially in that it destabilises the internal politics of the Sawada gang with old retainers instantly resentful that this young upstart has leap frogged them to sit at the boss’ side while they’ve patiently put the work in only to be sidelined. 

A stretch in prison for avenging the boss’ honour brings him into contact with Imamura (Ryosuke Miki), later his sworn brother but also his opposing number, possibly the last honourable yakuza. “A yakuza without honour isn’t worth shit” Imamura’s boss later remarks, instructing him that Rikuo is a liability he’ll have to take responsibility for, but in this graveyard of honour that kind of responsibility is the one that will get you killed. Honourable yakuza can no longer survive in the world of corporatised thuggery that is the modern gokudo existence. Later we realise that the tale is being narrated by Rikuo’s former underling, Kikkawa, who reminds us that “even yakuza are human beings” existing within a social structure with clearly defined rules which must be followed, yet the rules themselves are largely superficial and Kikkawa survives because he subverts them, abandoning the reckless Rikuo for the certainty of Sawada and setting himself on the traditional gokudo path of sucking up to the boss in the constant hope of advancement. 

Kikkawa is, in a sense, the grovelling salaryman to Rikuo’s frenzied maverick, one as much they symptom of the age as another. Rikuo’s rise occurs against the economic boomtown of Japan in the ‘80s which is as much a paradise for gangsters as for anyone else but also a kind of twilight, the yakuza as an institution relegated to the Showa era and the post-war past. Gangsters forced out of their families like the desperate ronin of the feudal era further destabilise an already chaotic environment which, like that of the post-war years, is filled with despair and disillusionment only to be further disrupted by the advent of natural disaster and economic collapse. 

Like the yakuza of the jitsuroku, those of Miike’s Graveyard of Honor struggle to reorient themselves in a changing society, no more equipped to deal with economic stagnation than their forbears were for the end of occupation and the increasing irrelevance of gangsterdom in a world of economic prosperity. Increasingly paranoid and anxious, Rikuo sees betrayal in all quarters and remains essentially powerless, eventually imprisoned in what appears to have been previously used as a child’s bedroom. He seeks escape in drugs which he finds by chance, and then in romance with an equally powerless woman who bizarrely seems to have fallen in love with him after he brutally raped her though their strange, drug-fuelled quasi-wedding ceremony is the tenderest, most vulnerable we ever see them. Yet as the opening scene implied, all there is is futility. Knowing what he knows, Kikkawa meditates on his memories of happier days when he was just a minion at Rikuo’s side. In this graveyard of honour only the slippery survive and the only way to be free is to fall, and fall hard. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

“Like hell you’re free” the “hero” of Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Jingi no Hakaba) coolly snaps back in squaring off against a rival gang in a crowded marketplace. Perhaps a familiar scene in the jitsuroku eiga, a genre Fukasaku had helped usher into being and later solidified in the hugely influential Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. A reaction against the increasingly outdated ninkyo eiga and their tales of noble pre-war gangsterdom, the jitsuroku or “true account” movie claimed a higher level of authenticity, inspired by the real lives of notorious gangsters and depicting the chaotic post-war period as it really was, a Graveyard of Honor. 

Based on another true crime novel by Battles Without Honour and Humanity’s Goro Fujita, Graveyard of Honour charts the slow self-implosion of reckless gangster Rikio Ishikawa (Tetsuya Watari). In keeping with the jitsuroku mould, Fukasaku opens in documentary mode, onscreen text giving us Rikio’s pregnant birthdate of 6th August, 1924 before giving way to the voices of, we assume, real people who actually knew him when he was child. They describe him alternately as shy, an oversensitive crybaby, and an evil genius in waiting who was always different from the others and had a lifelong ambition to become a yakuza. They wonder if it was the chaos of the post-war world which turned him into a “rabid dog” but note that he was in fact just as crazy before the war and after.

A cellmate during his time in juvenile detention recalls that Rikio would often liken himself to a balloon, intending to rise and rise until he burst but his trajectory will be quite the opposite. A mess of contradictions, he repeatedly tells his remarkably understanding boss Kawada (Hajime Hana) that whatever it is he’s done this time it was all for the gang but all he ever does is cause trouble, picking fights with the rival area gangs in an obsessive need for masculine dominance over his surroundings. His trip to juvie was apparently down to getting into a fight defending Kawada’s honour, implying that he was “the sort of kid who genuinely respected his godfather”, yet it’s in transgressing this most important of unwritten yakuza rules that he damns himself. Beaten up as punishment for setting fire to the car of a gang boss he felt slighted him, Rikio is asked for his finger but gets so drunk psyching himself up that he eventually turns on his own side and is exiled from the capital for a decade. 

That gang boss, meanwhile, Nozu (Noboru Ando), is currently running for political office in Japan’s new push towards democracy. He eventually loses but only by a small margin, bearing out that in this extremely difficult post-war environment, the yakuza is still a respected, if perhaps also feared, force providing services which ordinary people are sometimes grateful for in that they provide a buffer against other kinds of threat. Meanwhile, the first of Rikio’s gang raids is undertaken against so called “third country nationals” a dogwhistle euphemism for Zainichi Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, and other citizens from nations colonised by Japan during in its imperialist expansion who entered the country as Japanese citizens but have now been “liberated” only to face further oppression while those like Rikio accuse them of looking down on and taking revenge against the Japanese for the abuse they suffered as imperial subjects. When both sides are arrested a racist policeman allows the yakuza to escape, thanking them for helping him round up all the Chinese businessmen who will now go to jail for illegal gambling allowing the local gangs to seize their turf. 

The greatest irony is, however, that the American occupation forces may be the biggest gang of all, willingly collaborating with Kawada in peddling blackmarket whiskey (amongst other things) from the local base. The yakuza is also in collaboration with the local sex workers who use their connections with American servicemen to facilitate yakuza business. When Rikio starts a fight with a rival gang in a local bar that threatens to spark a war, it’s the Americans who are called in as neutral third party mediator, Nozu being unable to fulfil that role in having an affiliation with Kawada. The Americans, however, merely issue a loudspeaker announcement for the gang members to disperse or face possible arrest, keeping the peace if somewhat hypocritically. 

Rikio, meanwhile, continues to flounder. Exiled from his gang, he becomes addicted to hard drugs and gets a problematic minion of his own, Ozaki (Kunie Tanaka), not to mention contracting tuberculosis. In a particularly morbid moment, he has his own gravestone carved, perhaps detecting that the end is near or at least that an ending is coming for him. In another somewhat inexplicable turn of his life, though a common trope in jitsuroku, he eventually marries the sex worker who fell in love with him after he raped her, presumably touched by his concern after he burned a hole in her tatami mat floor. Wearied by grief and already out of his mind, a final act of nihilistic craziness sees him approach his former boss for the turf and capital to form his own gang, crunching his late wife’s bones as hardened gang members look on in utter disbelief. 

Rikio’s desire for freedom, to be his own boss, is elusive as the red balloon we often see floating away away from him, free in a way he’ll never be. “Don’t these young people respect the code anymore?” Kawada exasperatedly asks on hearing that Rikio has broken the terms of his exile and returned only a year into his sentence. But Rikio’s tragedy may in a sense be that he understood the code too well. On the side of his tombstone he writes the word “jingi”, honour and humanity, full in the knowledge that such concepts in which he seems to have believed no longer exist in the cruel and chaotic post-war world which forces even true believers to betray themselves in a desperate bid for survival. “We all live by a code” his friend echoes, “there’s just no way around the rules”. 

A case of printing the legend, Fukasaku’s take on the life of Rikio Ishikawa may not quite be the “true account” it claims but is in its own strange way a tale of frustrated gangster nobility, a cry baby’s failure to become the man he wanted to be in the complicated post-war landscape. Capturing the confusion of the era through frantic, handheld camera Fukasaku nevertheless takes a turn for the melancholy and mediative in his shifts to sepia, the listless vacant look of a drugged up Rikio somehow standing in for the nihilistic emptiness of a life lived in honour’s graveyard. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Snake Woman’s Curse (怪談蛇女, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1968)

The landed gentry find themselves haunted by the feudal legacy in Nobuo Nakagawa’s Meiji-era ghost story, Snake Woman’s Curse (怪談蛇女, Kaidan Hebi-onna). Though the figure of the vengeful ghost is rightly feared, they are rarely directly dangerous pushing their targets to damn themselves as they rail against the manifestation of their deeply buried guilt, yet the guilt here is perhaps buried deeper still as those who once had power find themselves floundering in the death throws of feudalism. 

As the opening voice over explains, the screen oppressively letterboxed to an extreme degree, the tale takes place in Onuma, a small village yet to be Westernised where the ruling family brutally exploit the tenant farmers still regarded as part of their fief. Old Yasuke (Ko Nishimura) chases after the local lord Onuma (Seizaburo Kawazu) and begs him not to kick him off his land, vowing that even if he has to eat dirt he will repay his debts. Onuma pays him no attention and Yasuke is soon thrown by the wayside after trying to catch hold of his cart. Concussed, all he can do is repeat his pleas not to lose the farm, and though he seems to recover passes away some days later leaving his wife Sue (Chiaki Tsukioka) and daughter Asa (Yukiko Kuwahara) alone. Heartless, Onuma evicts the women and knocks the house down to plant mulberry trees in its place while offering them “jobs” in his household for which they will not be paid for at least 10 years while they work off Yasuke’s debts. 

In addition to terrorising the peasants on the land, we discover that the Onumas are also running a sweatshop, a sign on the wall of Asa’s new place of employment reading that she must rise at 4am and be at work by 5 where she must stay until 9pm. There is to be no talking between the women in the workplace. Sue meanwhile is enlisted as a maid, but Onuma’s wife Masae (Akemi Negishi) immediately takes against her while she is continually sexually harassed by Onuma. Like father like son, the young master Takeo (Shingo Yamashiro) has also taken a fancy to Asa, though he is soon to be married to the daughter of the local mayor (Yukie Kagawa), a match all seem to regard as auspicious. 

Immediately after his soul vacates his body, Yasuke fetches up to haunt Onuma who is perhaps more affected by his guilt than his feudal upbringing would allow him to admit. Questioned later, he likens the peasants on his land to worms in the earth claiming that the deaths of one or two are no real matter and in any case nothing at all to do with him. “You people can survive drinking water and eating anything” he cruelly snaps back seconds after exclaiming he will fire the entire weaving staff as if that would put an end to the curse, paying little consideration to the fact he’s likely just condemned them to starvation. An exploitative landlord, he cares nothing for his feudal responsibility and all for his privileges. He and his son reserve the right to do as they please, regarding peasant women as theirs to be taken and having no real right to refuse. They do not believe there are any consequences for their actions because they are in a sense above the law of the land. 

Yet modernity is coming. We see our first uniformed policemen descend on the village after Sutematsu (Kunio Murai), Asa’s intended before her virtual enslavement through debt bondage, creates a scene at Takeo’s wedding in protest of the family’s treatment of Asa. Onuma’s attempts to reject the authority of the police in refusing their summons, describing it as “rude”, roundly fail, as do his attempts to leverage his feudal privilege in threatening to have the police chief fired in order to avoid answering his questions. His grip on authority is weakening as power necessarily reverts to the mechanisms of the state rendering him in some senses equal with those who till the soil. 

Even so, it’s spiritual rather than Earthly justice which will eventually do for him. The ghosts, such as they are, are mere echoes of time repeating the essential messages of the moments in which they died. Yasuke pleads for his land, he does not harm Onuma directly but causes Onuma to harm himself as he thrashes around trying in vain to vanquish a ghost with his gentleman’s cane. The family is, essentially, crushed under the weight of their feudal injustices as their noble house collapses all around them with modernity knocking on the door. Shooting in unusually lush colour, Nakagawa makes the most of his famously effective ghostly apparitions, finally drenching the screen itself in blood, but closes with an image of serenity in which justice of a kind at least has been served leaving the wronged to walk peacefully towards salvation while their tormentors will perhaps be travelling in another direction condemned not only for their own heartless venality but for that of the system that allowed them so ruthlessly to exploit those they ought to have protected. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Prison Boss (獄中の顔役, Yasuo Furuhata, 1968)

“Both you and I must do what a man must do and live this life to the very end” according to the melancholy theme song of Yasuo Furuhata’s fatalistic tale of gangster nobility, Prison Boss (獄中の顔役, Gokuchu no Kaoyaku). Another vehicle for tough guy star Ken Takakura, this post-war drama despite the name spends less time in a cell than one might imagine but casts its melancholy hero as a man imprisoned by the times in which he lives, too good to survive in an ignoble society and eventually brought down by his self-destructive need for retributive justice. 

As the film opens, Hayami (Ken Takakura) is goaded into a knife fight with a foot soldier from the evil Honma gang, Tetsu the Viper, and eventually kills him. Stumbling into a nearby bar, his only intention is to do the right thing and turn himself in filled with remorse as he is that he’s offed Tetsu in territory which belongs to “good” mob boss Tajima (Ichiro Ryuzaki). Tajima lives up to his name when some of his guys rescue Hayami and take him to their HQ where the old man insists that he rest and recover from his wounds. Whilst there, Hayami is cared for by Tajima’s teenage daughter Toshiko (Junko Fuji) who falls in love with him and vows to wait while he honours his word and spends seven years in jail for the killing of Tetsu. 

Meanwhile, awkward small-town politics is destabilising the precarious post-war environment as the Honma, embodiments of the new, venal and violent yakuza who care nothing for honour or humanity, are intent on squeezing Tajima’s influence mostly through muscling in on the running of the local bike races for which Tajima currently runs security. Though the Tajima gang is presented as an unambiguous good, the old style noble yakuza who live by a code and care about protecting the little guy, you can’t deny the levels of nepotistic corruption on display at the local council meetings given that the mayor and Tajima are apparently childhood friends while his rival shouts about allowing yakuza too much sway in politics while in the pay of Honma. 

Nevertheless, the central drama exists solely in the soul of Hayami who emerges from seven years in prison into this already destabilised environment owing a debt of honour to Tajima. Not quite a yakuza, he feels himself a perpetual other forever tainted by his crime having lost the right to live as other men live. Thus he struggles with discovering that Toshiko has also remained true to her word, having waited for him all this time running a small coffee bar rather than getting married. Even so, he finds himself dragged back into yakuza drama avenging the death of a Tajima man gunned down by Honma and thereby ending up back inside where he’s reunited with another childhood friend, Kurosaki (Ryo Ikebe), who’s been far less fortunate and is now affiliated with Honma.  

Kurosaki and veteran prisoner Pops (Shogo Shimada) are perhaps both mirrors of Hayami’s internal conflict, Kurosaki like him bound by a code but forced to act in ways which betray his own sense of honour and humanity and eventually paying a heavy price for doing so. Pops meanwhile as a man nearing the end of his life tries to talk him down from the road of destructive nobility, reminding him that he has a choice and ought to choose himself rather continuing to suffer for an outdated ideal. Hayami’s selflessness, his oft remarked tendency to disregard his own interest to protect others (the true mark of the noble gangster), is his weakness and fatal flaw. A yakuza’s daughter, Toshiko understands the code of manliness well enough and even she eventually tells him to run, to abandon his revenge and live free rather than becoming just another sacrifice on the altar of yakuza honour, but of course a man has to do what a man has to do. 

Though Hayami himself becomes a big man in prison, it’s Honma to whom the film’s title primarily refers hinting at the corruption involved in a society in which it is perfectly possible (and in some ways advantageous) to continue running a yakuza gang from behind bars, while the central crisis also turns on post-war desperation in betting all on controlling the lucrative bicycle races. In such a world as this, there’s precious little room for the noble gangster who must in the end damn himself if only to redeem it. 


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.


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.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道, Kenji Misumi, 1973)

baby-cart-land-demonsOgami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former Shogun executioner now a fugitive in search of justice after being framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan who are also responsible for the death of his wife, is still on the Demon’s Way with his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Five films into this six film cycle, the pair are edging closer to their goal as the evil Lord Retsudo continues to make shadowy appearances at the corners of their world. However, the Demon’s Way carries a heavy toll, littered with corpses of unlucky challengers, the road has, of late, begun to claim the lives of the virtuous along with the venal. Conflicted as he was in his execution of a contract to assassinate the tragic Oyuki in the previous instalment, Baby Cart in Peril, whose story was perhaps even sadder than his own, Ogami is about to descend further still as a commission to kill a living Buddha proves even more sordid than expected.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道,  Kozure Okami: Meifumado) starts as it means to go on as Ogami finds yet another coded way of touting for business when he notices the strange demonic drawing on the face mask of a resting man and correctly reads it as a message for the Lone Wolf and Cub. The Kuroda clan have despatched five of their best men wearing just such masks in order to test his skills and find out if he’s worthy of their job. Each time he defeats one, he’ll receive 100 ryou (a fifth of his fee) and part of the reasons and explanations he requires in deciding whether to take the job.

This time the assignment is to do with a mislaid yet incriminating letter from the Kuroda lord, Naritaka (Shingo Yamashiro), who has unwisely been deceiving the Shogun as to the identity of his children. Very much in love with his mistress, Naritaka has been passing off their daughter, Hamachiyo (Sumida Kazuyo), as his son Matsumaru. Meanwhile the real Matsumaru, his legitimate heir through his legal wife, has been imprisoned in the compound and kept away from prying eyes. A particularly stupid and pointless ruse, yet the lord has created even more problems for himself by allowing a letter outlining all of this to fall into the hands of a treacherous priest, Jikei (Hideji Otaki), who turns out to be the head of a ninja spy network. Ogami’s job is to kill Jikei and get the letter back but it comes with some additional spice – Jikei plans to hand the letter to Lord Retsudo, Ogami’s arch nemesis.

Ogami’s world is a feudal one where allegiance to one’s lord trumps almost everything. The lords are, however, often dishonest, selfish, and cruel. The hypocrisy of the samurai world is a phenomenon well known to all, and most particularly to Ogami who has found himself at the mercy of the ambitious Yagyu clan. Whatever else he may have become, Ogami is a man of honour to whom the way of samurai maintains a deep spiritual importance. Jikei’s attempt to unsettle Ogami by asking him what he thinks he’s going to achieve on the Demon’s Way and if killing a living Buddha is a fitting use of his talents, further pushes Ogami into a spiritual crisis regarding his quest for vengeance and ongoing career as a sword for hire.

Naritaka has, indeed, broken his code in lying to the Shogun but also in rejecting his position and creating an alternative family of his choosing by favouring the female child of his mistress over his legitimate male heir. In addition to his contract to kill Jikei and retake the letter, Ogami also receives a request to assassinate the lord himself alongside his concubine and even their daughter. This illegitimate line cannot be allowed to continue, the illicit family born of personal choice must be cut off before it begins to corrupt the future of the Kuroda clan. Actively plotting the death of one’s lord is an unthinkable concept, yet a retainer also has a responsibility to guard the honour of their house and so the lord must go, even if the retainer is bound to follow him.

The decision to execute the entire family recalls the series’ origins in which Ogami was seen to act as a second in the “harakiri” of a toddler shortly before seeing his own family fall under the sword of a Yagyu plot. Daigoro is growing older at an unnatural rate but shows a little more willingness to engage in acts of altruistic heroism than his father, such as in an episode where he decides to refuse to identify a local pickpocket even if it means he himself will be flogged in her place. Ogami looks on in inaction, yet there is the faintest flicker of pride in his otherwise impassive face as his fearless son opts to undergo a harsh punishment rather than allow someone else to suffer even as she tries to save him in turn. Daigoro also has an awkward moment of connection with the similarly aged unlucky princess but remains apparently unmoved by her fate at the end of their mission. The legitimate prince may have been liberated and the official line restored, but there has been a heavy price for all concerned and the Kuroda clan is far from saved.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons marks the return, albeit for the last time, of the series’ original director Kenji Misumi who gets rid of the heavily exploitation leaning approach brought by Buichi Saito in the previous film, Baby Cart in Peril. No voiceovers, no musical sequences, and an overall return to quiet contemplation mixed with impressively balletic fight sequences rather than the frenetic action and sudden trickery which defined Baby Cart in Peril send the series back to its spiritual roots after a brief foray into the contemporary jidaigeki. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is also the first in the series which contains no female nudity though it does make room for another skilled female warrior and also repeats the motif of Ogami leaving a melancholy woman behind him as he sets off into the sunset, yet this time it’s a woman who has chosen her own path in keeping with her own code and earned Ogami’s respect, and perhaps sorrow, in the process. Ogami is drawing closer to Retsudo, though his path leads him through a land of demons each more villainous than the last and justice seems like an unrealistic ideal where only men like Ogami stand at the gates of man and beast.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 5: Final Episode ( 仁義なき戦い: 完結篇, Kinji Fukasaku, 1974)

800x1200srAnd so, the saga finally reaches its conclusion. Final Episode (仁義なき戦い: 完結篇, Jingi Naki Tatakai: Kanketsu-hen) brings us ever closer to the contemporary era and picks up in the mid ‘60s where Hirono is still in prison and Takeda, released on a technicality, has decided to move the yakuza into the legit arena. The surviving gangs have united and rebranded themselves as a political group known as the Tensei Coalition. However, not everyone has joined the new gangsters’ union and the enterprise is fragile at best.

Hirono’s sworn brother, Ichioka, is one such antagonist and after the Coalition’s accountant is clumsily gunned down in the street, tempers start to flair. Though the Coalition is nominally headed by Takeda, an up and coming youngster, Matsumura, is winning a lot of respect for his level headed judgement and ability to form long term plans. He wants to move away from the image of the traditional yakuza with their missing fingers and bad attitudes to something a little more media friendly. However, the old guard including the veteran, Otomo (now played by Jo Shishido), aren’t willing to see the bigger picture and continue to behave in the old ways requiring swift and bloody justice for their fallen comrade. The older generation maybe on their way out, but that doesn’t mean they can’t cause a little trouble on their way. Despite the best efforts of the younger guys the cycle of violence seems set to continue, will anything ever change at all?

According to Fukasaku, almost certainly not. Though Matsumura is accounted to be a good guy by both of our “heroes” Hirono and Takeda, his yakuza revolution seems doomed to fail. This kind of coalition is completely pointless if not everybody joins and obviously not everybody is going to. Following the public outcry and subsequent police crackdown in the previous film, the yakuza feel the need to reform their image, keep the violence off the streets and appear generally less scary than the image they’ve hitherto cultivated. Now it suits them to conduct themselves in a more dignified manner, more like regular businessmen than thugs in flashy suits.

Meeting at the prison in the end of Police Tactics, Hirono and Takeda both agree that their era has passed. They still aren’t quite old men, but they aren’t young and this violent world isn’t for them anymore. Their resolutions are both that the general environment has changed making the way they’ve lived so far untenable, but also that if they attempted to live that way again they simply wouldn’t survive any longer (perhaps they are “better off” in jail). Hirono spends most of the movie off screen again, in prison, writing his memoirs. Before coming out he seems set on “retirement” but once released he decides to return to the yakuza world. It’s not until the end of the film when once again confronted by the senseless violence of gang warfare that he finally decides to retire. Matsumura may have been trying to change things, but more young guys are dying so fast there’s barely any point learning their names and what really does it get you in the end? Can you live freely, has the world really changed at all? From Hirono’s late middle age viewpoint, the answer is no.

Final Episode follows the same basic formula as the other films in the series with the narrative voice over, frenetic handheld camera work, captions and freeze frames. The violence may be a little less frequent but appears bolder in its execution. These youngsters are messier than their forebears – the gunning down of the Tensei accountant is a clumsy affair carried out by two amateurs in the middle of a crowded street. Random weapons are constructed with pretty much anything that’s lying around during a street fight. These young guys are a different kind of desperate and have no idea how to conduct themselves in a subdued way.

We’re almost up to the the contemporary era of the film. It’s getting on for 25 years since Hirono came home from the war and joined a different kind of battlefront. Japan’s development has been startlingly rapid – from post-war rubble to hosting the olympic games and a newly burgeoning prosperity. Hirono and those like him have found themselves riding the wrong wave as their fortunes continue to dwindle just as the legitimate world is coming into its own. When Hirono and Takeda were talking at the prison at the end of part four they knew something had come to an end. They had no place in this world anymore – unless you become a ruthless boss like the hated Yamamori (still harbouring dreams of domination well into his dotage), the yakuza life is a young man’s game. Once again we finish on a shot of the ruined dome and a reminder that the strong will always prey on the weak. Fukasaku’s prognosis for the future is grim but, it has to be said, accurate.


Final Episode is available on blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity: The Complete Collection box set.