Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1965)

“Even the cops wouldn’t keep innocent people in prison” a prisoner ironically exclaims in Satsuo Yamamoto’s farcical crime drama Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Nippon Dorobo Monogatari), displaying a strange sense of faith in the system for one who’s already been caught out by it. It is in many ways the system at which Yamamoto takes aim, refusing to blame even the guilty for their crimes while condemning the society that forever tars not only them but their entire families with the criminal brush, similarly defaming the innocent while the mechanisms of the State actively abuse their power to ensure they continue to maintain it. 

Set in 1948, the action takes place as the opening voiceover explains in an exaggerated accent which at times lends itself to lowkey comedy, at a moment of societal collapse in which cash has become almost worthless and the only items of value are clothing and rice. Yet Gisuke (Rentaro Mikuni) it seems was living a life of crime even before the war, the youngest of five brothers left to look after his mother and sister after his father’s death. While operating as an amateur unlicensed dentist having picked up the basics from his dad, Gisuke makes his living peddling black market kimonos stolen from local warehouses. After bungling one particular job he finds himself spotting a strange site on the railway tracks, overwhelmed by shadowy figures of nine men he first fears have come to tackle him but in the end simply pass by even calmly returning his call of good evening as they discuss among themselves the best way to the local hot spring. Taking refuge in a haystack, it’s not until the next morning that Gisuke learns of a train derailment that took the lives of the engineer and two crew members. He realises that the men he saw must have been the ones who sabotaged the track but he’s not a snitch and it’s none of his business so he decides to keep quiet. 

That is until he gets arrested for the botched burglary and ends up incarcerated alongside a member of the accused, Kimura (Mizuho Suzuki), who quickly befriends him and in fact becomes something of a labour activist even inside the prison negotiating better conditions for prisoners. Indebted, Gisuke maintains his silence strangely certain that Kimura and the others will soon be released because they are innocent despite already knowing that the judicial system is infinitely corrupt. The case at hand takes inspiration from the Matsukawa Derailment, a real life incident which Yamamoto had already dramatised in 1961’s Matsukawa Incident, in which suspicion had fallen on the Railway Union who, in the film, are seen leading a protest agitating for better working conditions. Kimura, a prominent unioniser, is picked up along with other members of the rail workers union and left-wing activists on largely spurious grounds solely to discredit their movement at the behest of an overly authoritarian police force. 

The irony is that Gisuke ends up in prison for a crime that he technically is not quite guilty of in that he’s arrested after his wife, a geisha he redeemed with his ill-gotten gains, unwittingly sells some stolen kimonos which he was storing for a friend on the run. Kimura by contrast is in prison for something of which he is entirely innocent, in effect a political prisoner. Yet the force that imprisons both of them is not so much the law as social censure in the stigmatisation of crime. Gisuke feels acutely guilty knowing that his family members continue to suffer because of his criminality, his sister unable to marry as each of her engagements is eventually broken off when they find out her brother’s been in jail. After getting out and vowing to go straight, Gisuke marries again and has a child but is perpetually worried that someone will find out about his past and that his son will forever be stigmatised as a “burglar’s kid”. It’s for this reason that he finds himself torn, refusing to help Kimura by testifying as to what he saw that night even after hearing that he’s been sentenced to death, unwilling to risk his newfound happiness even at the expense of another man’s life. 

Strangely, it’s the injustice of the situation which later changes his mind though in an unexpected way when he realises that his own son has escaped being tainted with his father’s criminal legacy while Kimura’s is bullied at school because his dad’s in jail even though he’s innocent. Pursued by authoritarian police officer Ando (Yunosuke Ito) who attempts to blackmail him into changing his story to incriminate Kimura he eventually decides to free himself by telling the truth despite realising that another witness was most likely murdered for signalling an intention to do the same. “But how is it that the police who are charged to catch us are even bigger liars than the thieves?” Gisuke asks the judge during his improbably humorous testimony, earning rapturous applause from the court in a touch of the absurd with even his wife, hitherto stoney faced despite the laughter all around her, cracking a smile seemingly warming up to his decision to play the hero even if it has taken him rather a long time to decide to do the right thing. 

Yamamoto doesn’t hang around to hear the verdict, perhaps because it’s Gisuke who’s really on trial and the judge appears to be his wife whose forgiveness is the only acquittal necessary. His crimes are in a sense not really his fault, Yamamoto seems to argue, but the fault of an indifferent society which left him with no other choice in order to support himself, the same society which then frustrates his attempts to live an “honest” life by forever tainting him as a “burglar” and tarring his entire extended family with the same brush. Only by owning his stigmatisation can he free himself of it, rejecting the illusionary power corrupt authority has over him while refusing to be complicit in their constant battle to hang on to it by levelling his marginalisation against him. Extremely ironic in terms of tone, often employing archaic screen wipes for comic effect, Yamamoto’s strangely hopeful tale implies that justice can in fact prevail but only when imperfect men commit to it even at the expense of their personal happiness. 


The Ghost of the Hunchback (怪談せむし男, Hajime Sato, 1965)

The old, dark house fetches up in Japan in Hajime Sato’s slice of weird, gothic horror The Ghost of the Hunchback (怪談せむし男, Kaidan Semushi Otoko, AKA House of Terrors). Long in circulation only in an Italian dub, Sato’s B-movie romp owes an obvious debt to Mario Bava but also to similarly themed gothic chillers such as Robert Wise’s The Haunting somewhat repurposing the central nexus of the cursed mansion as a black hole of morality sucking into its orbit the sinners of the post-war society each it seems both victims and embodiments of their times. 

Opening in true gothic fashion with lightning and a full moon, Sato zooms in to a strangely creepy yet ordinary Western-style villa where the soon-to-be widowed Yoshie (Yuko Kusunoki) is woken from a dream in which she had a premonition that her husband, who we learn has been in a vegetative state for some time, had something he desperately wanted to tell her. Shinichi has indeed passed away while apparently imprisoned under the care of his father, Munekata (Kazuo Kitamura), a psychiatrist who seems less than moved by his son’s death describing it as the least he could do to repay the debt he owed to his parents. It seems that Shinichi had been in the hospital following an “incident” some time previously and though Munekata insists that his brain had been “destroyed”, younger doctor Yamashita (Shinjiro Ebara) echoes Yoshie’s dream in informing her that immediately before he died it seemed that Shinichi, who had long been mute, was desperately trying to tell him something. Meanwhile, Yoshie begins hearing strange noises emanating from the coffin and opens it to find a chrysanthemum clenched between her husband’s teeth. 

After the funeral, she’s visited by a lawyer claiming that Shinichi entrusted a key to him to be given to his wife in the event of his death along with the deed for a mountain villa where “the incident” took place. Later, everyone comes to the conclusion that what Shinichi wanted to tell them was not to go to the mansion, but of course what else was Yoshie supposed to do other than investigate. A classic gothic estate swathed in fog and hidden behind ornate iron gates, the remote country house also turns out to have a hunchback custodian (Ko Nishimura) as well as a weird, demonic statue standing inconveniently in the hallway. Soon after arriving Yoshie is attacked by a crow, told of “the incident” by the hunchback, and begins to hear strange noises including disembodied laughter before she is eventually joined by Munekata, Yamashita, and her niece Kazuko (Yoko Hayama).

Yamashita tries to rationalise that the noises are just the normal kinds of creaking born of “deformation” as a building naturally ages, literally becoming warped with time, while the stress of living in such an environment, he claims, can eventually drive one mad. He’s come along to investigate believing that Shinichi’s illness is connected to the mansion. Yet the old, dark house in this case is somewhat divorced from its gothic roots in being transported to Japan where it is in a sense “new” and “foreign” rather than an ancient relic weighing heavily on the shoulders of declining aristocracy. Even so we do indeed have something of that in the later revelations of previous owner Baron Tominaga and his particular grudges which, in this case, are if only partially rooted in wartime trauma, the mansion apparently also once home to an anti-aircraft depot the remains of which can be seen in the grounds. 

The war may not be the corrupting force in play but it’s certainly a factor, especially the surprising accusation thrown at Dr. Munekata that he participated in wartime atrocity in being party to vivisection, a claim he does not dispute but defends in insisting his actions were justified in the name of science. The house has not so much called them, but each of the “guests” is in their own way morally compromised, Munekata not only a war criminal but a venal, lecherous old man hoping to get his hands on the house to open a sanatorium by fulfilling his quasi-incestuous desire for Yoshie. Yamashita, meanwhile, is not exactly pure hearted either, using what he knows about Munekata to blackmail him into standing down so he can become the director in his place and marry his wealthy girlfriend, Akiko (Keiko Yumi), who has also turned up to join in the haunted house fun. As far as sin goes, Yoshie is largely without it but perhaps pays for daring to own her sexuality, rejecting Munekata’s advances but apparently having made a habit of getting into bed with her comatose husband despite knowing of his many affairs which may be the reason for his punishment by the house. Only Kazuko remains pure and innocent save her one-sided attraction to Yamashita, the only one of the gang to show any kind of compassion towards the admittedly strange hunchback. 

In keeping with the house, Tominaga and the hunchback are later revealed to be Christians, though in a gothic inversion they are also the source of the “evil” that infects the creepy old mansion once again positioning Christianity as a foreign corruption but also in this case punishing post-war moral failure. Sato conjures an atmosphere of pure gothic chill complete with oversize cobwebs, doors which open and close on their own, a crow infestation, and even a passing shinto priestess (Mitsue Suzuki) who just had to drop in because of the powerful emanations of evil echoing from the mansion but leaves his collection of extremely flawed humans very much at the mercy of their own demons as they desperately try to escape from the House of Terrors. 


Brutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1965)

brutal tales of chivalry posterBrutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Showa Zankyo-den) – a title which neatly sums up the “ninkyo eiga”. These old school gangsters still feel their traditional responsibilities deeply, acting as the protectors of ordinary people, obeying all of their arcane rules and abiding by the law of honour (if not the laws of the state the authority of which they refuse to fully recognise). Yet in the desperation of the post-war world, the old ways are losing ground to unscrupulous upstarts, prepared to jettison their long-held honour in favour of a dog eat dog mentality. This is the central battleground of Kiyoshi Saeki’s 1965 film which looks back at the immediate post-war period from a distance of only 15 years to ask the question where now? The city is in ruins, the people are starving, women are being forced into prostitution, but what is going to be done about it – should the good people of Asakusa accept the rule of violent punks in return for the possibility of investment in infrastructure, or continue to struggle through slowly with the old-fashioned patronage of “good yakuza” like the Kozu Family?

Here is where we find ourselves in the 21st year of the Showa Era (1947) – the small marketplace in Asakusa is rife with black marketeers and illegal goods, but it’s still the only mechanism by which people are able to survive. The market is overseen by the elderly patriarch of the Kozu Family, Gennosuke (Tomosaburo Ii), who does his best to ensure a kind of “fairness” in its operation, at least in as far as yakuza rules extend. His territory is currently under threat from a rival gang – the Shinsei (literally “new truth”) who obey no such rules and are growing ever more ruthless in their quest to control the local area. Their big idea is to build an entirely new marketplace with a roof to make it a permanent and pleasant place for traders to do business – they will finance this through a kind of crowdfunding paid for by the merchants themselves who will also be paying protection money and kickbacks to the Shinsei. Everyone approves of the covered market project, even the Kozu, but if it means letting the Shinsei assume control is it a price worth paying?

This is a question which faces prodigal son Seiji (Ken Takakura) who returns from the war to find his city in ruins, Gennosuke murdered by the Shinsei, that he is now the new head of the Kozu, and that the woman he loved has been given away in a dynastic marriage to man from another minor clan. Before he died, Gennosuke was able to dictate two important instructions – that Seiji was to take over, and that the gang should proceed on a note of peace, avoiding violence or aggression where possible, leading by example rather than attempting to crush their new rivals. Seiji, having just returned from one battlefield is intent on following Gennosuke’s orders but how far can he really survive on the moral high ground when his opponents are content to fight dirty from down below?

The “Showa” era spanned some 60 years of turbulent Japanese history but in 1965 it was just under 40 years old and already beginning to generate the complicated feelings of nostalgia which are still attached to it today. Showa is right there in the Japanese title as if it were an age already passed but it’s clear in 1965 that something has shifted, one age has or is beginning to give way to another. The desperation of the post-war world with its empty, rubble strewn vistas and population filled with hunger and despair has ebbed away now that Japan is back on the world stage following the 1964 Olympics and the economy has as last begun to pick up. The young no longer fixate on the rights and wrongs of empire building, war and surrender but have begun to turn their attention towards the American occupation, social justice, and foreign conflicts. The young of 1947 were middle-aged in 1965, no one would begrudge them romanticising their youth, and so even if the world of Brutal Tales of Chivalry is a bleak one it still contains a kind of nostalgia for the kind of honourable gangster inhabited by Takakura who embodies traditional values some may feel are under represented in modern society.

Yet, for all that, there’s something subtly subversive in the film’s eventual suggestion that pacifism will only go so far and that one side or another must be banished from the battlefield through violence if peace is ever to prosper. Still, the struggle is a noble one in which honour is defined by strength of character and the selfless desire to ensure the well-being of others as much as it is to a blind observation of arcane rules and obsolete, meaningless ritual. The first in a long running series, Brutal Tales of Chivalry helped established Takakura’s iconic presence which eventually became synonymous with the “ninkyo eiga” as a personification of idealised Japanese masculinity, tough but caring even if passion is often repressed or redirected into violence. Remnants may be all that’s left of “chivalry” in the new Showa era, but there’s a degree of beauty in this brutality that refuses to die even as its era passes.


Now available on Region A blu-ray from Twilight Time (limited to 3000 copies only)

Original trailer (no subtitles)