The Thief in Black (黒の盗賊, Umetsugu Inoue, 1964)

Best known as a master of the musical, Umetsugu Inoue had a long and varied filmography embracing almost every genre imaginable. He began his career at Shintoho and later joined Nikkatsu where he quickly became an in demand director often working with top star Yujiro Ishihara, but took the somewhat unusual step of going freelance in 1960 thereafter working at various studios including Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. 1964’s The Thief in Black (黒の盗賊, Kuro no Tozoku) is not a musical but is characteristically playful even within the confines of the lighter side of Toei’s jidaigeki adventures. 

Set between the Battle of Sekigahara and the Siege of Osaka, the samurai corruption in play is essentially the burgeoning Tokugawa dictatorship, the heroes eventually uncovering Ieyasu’s secret plan for making sure his line (well, more himself in essence) remains in power for perpetuity through an insidious plot to weaken the feudal lords and ensure their loyalty to him. Meanwhile, the still developing city of Edo is beginning to turn against the Tokugawa who seem to be intent on exploiting ordinary people to enrich themselves most obviously through forcing the local workforce to renovate Edo castle rather than cleaning up the town which is apparently rampant with crime. Faced with such lack of leadership, the townspeople have come to admire a Robin Hood-like vigilante known only as the Thief in Black who alone is resisting overreaching lords. 

Part of the problem is that Ieyasu’s rule is still insecure because of the potential threat of Hideyori Toyotomi in Osaka. Consequently, they are fearful that some of the men working on the castle may be Toyotomi spies or otherwise disclose information that might benefit him if he chose to attack which is why they’ve refused the workers permission to return home to their families during the pause before beginning the second phase of works leading to further unrest. Meanwhile, corrupt local lord Tadakatsu (Ryutaro Otomo) and his sleazy priest buddy Tenkai (Minoru Chiaki) have an even darker plan in mind, preparing to simply kill the five master craftsmen in charge to ensure they present no threat. Alerted to the situation on the ground by idealistic samurai Jiro (Hashizo Okawa), their boss instructs Tadakatsu in no uncertain terms that he must treat the workers fairly in order to prevent civil unrest and/or disillusionment with the Tokugawa regime but the pair are entirely unfazed and determined to go on with their nefarious plan getting rid of Jiro if the occasion arises. 

As we later discover and in a typical jidaigeki plot device, Jiro is one of a pair of twins with his brother Kotaro (also Hashizo Okawa) abandoned because of the superstitious belief that multiple births are inauspicious. Though both men unwittingly lay claim to the name, Kotaro turns out to be the masked vigilante, his primary cause to regain the lands of the family who raised him unfairly displaced from their estates on the Musashino plains because of Tokugawa greed. Though Jiro, raised as a member of the establishment, is originally loyal to the Tokugawa who have after all brought about an era of peace, he soon begins to see that their rule is no good for the people of Edo. In his more egalitarian worldview, only by enriching the poor can they secure their rule which means less castle building and more infrastructural development along with paying people fairly for their work and absolutely not killing them afterwards. Kotaro too claims that his rebellion is for the good of the common people though unlike Jiro is much more transgressive in his ideology prepared to shake off his samurai status to become a wandering outlaw rather than content himself with the restrictive life of the heir to a samurai clan. 

Such messages are perhaps common in Toei’s brand of jidaigeki but seem unusually pronounced as the peasant workers are often given voice to lament their fate and resist their oppression more directly, pointing the finger not just at a rogue rotten lord but at the entire system built on exploiting their labour. Nevertheless, Inoue injects a hearty dose of whimsical humour to the politically charged narrative even going so far as to include a bumbling ninja claiming to be the famous Hattori Hanzo along with a comic relief magistrate and former samurai brothel owner taking his own kind of ironic revenge in getting the cowardly lords hooked on modernity with a load of faulty rifles. Obviously, Ieyasu couldn’t be stopped, but perhaps they slowed him down and reminded him of the dangers of underestimating the people. Shot with Inoue’s characteristic flare if remaining largely within the Toei house style, Thief in Black is a surprisingly direct attack on corrupt and entitled government but also a righteous romp as its idealistic heroes shuffle themselves back into their ideal positions while fighting Tokugawa oppression all the way. 


Moving (お引越し, Shinji Somai, 1993)

The title of Shinji Somai’s 1993 coming-of-age drama Moving (お引越し, Ohikkoshi) quite literally refers to the process of vacating one space in order to inhabit another but also to the heroine’s liminal movement into a space of adulthood while caught in the nexus of a recently destabilised society itself in a state of flux. Not only must she process the disruption of her father’s decision to leave the family home, but its wider implications that will one day leave her orphaned while coming to accept that such partings are only a part of life to borne with stoicism and sympathy. 

At around 12 or so, Renko (Tomoko Tabata) finds herself on the brink of change. Not only is she beginning to grow up, soon to be changing schools, but is also facing a further destabilisation of her home as her parents prepare to separate. The tension in the household is clear from our first meeting with the family as they sit around an almost violent, green triangular table the point aimed straight at us with Renko at the opposite end and her near silent mother and father on either side. As she often will, Renko attempts to parent her parents, repeatedly criticising her father for his poor table manners wondering if he’ll be able to take care of himself when living alone while later remonstrating with her mother for having had too much to drink while cautioning her to mind what the neighbours might think. 

Already unbalanced by the economic shock of the bubble bursting, the Japanese society of the early 90s was also changing evidenced in part by the separation itself. Divorce is still a minor taboo, even Renko herself had taken part in the shunning and bullying of another girl who’d transferred to their school after returning to her mother’s hometown following her parents’ separation, but this is perhaps the first era in which it becomes acceptable to end a marriage solely because one or both parties is unhappy rather than there being some additional pressure that endangers the family. “Marriage is survival of the fittest”, Renko’s mum Nazuna (Junko Sakurada) later exclaims during a heated exchange but we can also see that the marriage itself was already unusual perhaps uncomfortably suggesting an altered power balance and shifting gender roles led to its breakdown. Father Kenichi (Kiichi Nakai) had previously worked from home completing many of the domestic tasks while Nazuna had become the breadwinner with a successful career earning higher salary. She complains that when she was pregnant with Renko Kenichi sniped at her for not contributing to the household financially but changed his tune when her economic success undercut his sense of masculine pride. 

Despite apparently embracing her freedom Nazuna nevertheless seems to resent Kenichi for leaving, accusing him of deserting his family while he later floats the idea of trying again but only perhaps because he is feeling the ache of the loss of the home he previously hinted suffocated him in responsibility. Meanwhile, Renko is also forced to process the fact that a family friend, Yukio (Taro Tanaka), on whom she’d had an innocent childish crush, is engaged to be married. Overhearing their conversation she also learns that his fiancée is pregnant but unsure about having the baby. Given all of these changes, she begins to wonder why it is she was born, intensely anxious in potential parental abandonment while witnessing the remaking of her home. 

Yet to cure her of her anxiety Somai removes her from her environment, Renko once again taking on a parental role in borrowing her mother’s credit card to book a hotel and train tickets to a familiar destination they’d previously travelled to as a family. It’s in this liminal space that Renko begins roam, eventually encountering an old man with some important life lessons while undergoing a spiritual odyssey of her own as she weaves through a summer festival towards an ethereal encounter with her past self and the spectre of her future orphanhood. Somai’s characteristically lengthy tracking shots add to the sense of destabilisation, Renko’s world constantly in motion yet as she tells us herself she’s on her way to the future, moving on but on a more equal footing and discovering at least a sense of equilibrium in an ever shifting society.


Moving screens at the BFI on 29 December as part of BFI Japan.

Lady Sen and Hideyori (千姫と秀頼, Masahiro Makino, 1962)

Son of cinema pioneer Shozo Makino, Masahiro Makino is most closely associated with the jidaigeki though he also had a reputation for highly entertaining, innovatively choreographed musicals some of which starred post-war marquee singing star Hibari Misora. The somewhat misleadingly titled Lady Sen and Hideyori (千姫と秀頼, Sen-hime to Hideyori), however, is pure historical melodrama playing fast and loose with the accepted narrative and acting as a star vehicle for Misora to showcase her acting talent in a rare dramatic role in which she neither sings nor engages in the feisty swordplay for which her otherwise generally lighthearted work at Toei was usually known. 

Lady Sen (Hibari Misora) is herself a well-known historical figure though Hideyori (Kinnosuke Nakamura) will not feature in the film beyond his presumed demise (his body was never found leading to various rumours that he had actually survived and gone into hiding) during the siege of Osaka in 1615. Born the granddaughter of Tokugawa Ieyasu (Eijiro Tono) who would later defeat the Toyotomi to bring Japan’s Warring States era to an end, Sen was sent to the Toyotomi as Hideyori’s future wife at seven years old (he was only four years older than she was and 21 at the presumed date of his death) and therefore perhaps far more Toyotomi that Tokugawa. In contrast to other portrayals of Sen’s life which centre on her understandable identity conflict and lack of agency in the fiercely patriarchal feudal society, Misora’s Lady Sen is clear in her loyalty to her husband whom she dearly loved and feels her father and grandfather who were directly responsible for his death are her natural enemies.  

Old Ieyasu and his son meanwhile do at least appear to care about Sen’s welfare, loudly crying out for a retainer to save her during their assault on the castle offering unrealistic rewards to any who manage a rescue. Unfortunately, however, having retrieved his granddaughter Ieyasu immediately marries her off to someone else demonstrating just how little control Sen has over her own destiny and how ridiculous it might be that she should have any loyalty to the family of her birth. His decision backfires on two levels, the first being that Dewa (Tetsunosuke Tsukigata), a lowly retainer responsible for Sen’s rescue from the falling castle, has taken a liking to her himself and fully expected to become her husband as a reward. While originally annoyed and hurt to think that perhaps she has rejected him because of the prominent facial scarring sustained while he was rescuing her, Dewa finally realises he just wants her to be happy only to be offended on realising that they’ve rerouted her bridal procession past his home which he takes as a personal slight. Nevertheless, in contrast with real life (Sen’s marriage to Honda Tadatoki was apparently amicable and produced two children though only one survived to adulthood) Sen’s relationship with her new husband is not a success, in part because she resents being used as a dynastic tool and in part because she remains loyal to Hideyori. In consequence, she makes full use of her only tool of resistance in refusing to consummate the marriage with the result that her new husband, Heihachi (Kantaro Suga), slowly drinks himself to death. 

Her other act of rebellion is however darker, striking down an old man who made the mistake of telling her with pride how he informed on retreating Toyotomi soldiers after the siege. Determining to become an “evil woman” she deliberately blackens the Tokugawa name by killing random commoners, chastened when confronted by a grieving widow but banking on the fact her relatives will not move against her and will therefore gradually lose public sympathy for failing to enforce the law against one of their own. The spell is only broken by the arrival of a former Toyotomi retainer (played by Misora’s frequent co-star in her contemporary films Ken Takakura) who reminds her of her loyalty to her husband’s legacy and prompts her retreat into religious life as a Buddhist nun mirroring the real Lady Sen who entered a convent after her second husband died of tuberculosis. Like most of Misora’s film’s Lady Sen ends with a softening, a rebuke to her transgressive femininity which in this case has admittedly turned worryingly dark her murder spree apparently a form of resistance to the entrenched patriarchy of the world around her and most particularly to her continued misuse at the hands of her father and grandfather. Despite the absence of large-scale musical numbers, Makino makes space for a fair few dance sequences along with festival parades and well-populated battle scenes but makes sure to place Misora centre stage as if countering the continual marginalisation of Lady Sen and all the women of feudal Japan. 


Clip (English subtitles)

Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

Killing Yoshiwara posterHaving led a somewhat floating life, Tomu Uchida returned to Japan in only in 1953 after a sustained period with the Manchurian Film Cooperative followed by a brief flirtation with Maoism. Before the war Uchida had been closely identified with the Keiko Eiga movement of broadly left-wing filmmaking but later fell hard for the inherent romanticism of militarist ideology during his time in Manchuria. Nevertheless it was apparently the Maoist doctrines of progress through contradiction that influenced his later dramatic philosophy in which he came to think of narrative as a series of conflicts which culminate in an explosive act designed to resolve them (or not, as we will see). 1960’s Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri, AKA Hero of the Red Light District) is perhaps a prime example as it takes a seemingly generic story inspired by a kabuki play and uses it to tell a melancholy tale of parallel yet mutually thwarted desires for vengeance against a cruel and oppressive society.

Ostensibly, our “hero” is Jiro (Chiezo Kataoka) – a successful silk merchant. A good and kind man, Jiro is beloved of all his staff for his careful consideration of them as people as well as employees. This concern is, however, perhaps not as wholly “good” as it seems. Jiro’s major problem in life is that he is an adopted child, taken in by his parents who auspiciously discovered him abandoned on the anniversary of their own child’s death. Jiro, apparently of noble birth, was abandoned because he has a prominent grey birthmark “staining” his face. This is the reason he has so far been unable to find a wife despite his good character and relative wealth. Desperately grateful to the couple who took him in “despite” his “imperfection”, Jiro feels this failure heavily in his current inability to provide them with a male heir to take over the family business.

Being good and earnest, Jiro has never dared to fritter money away in the red light district but is tempted when invited by a valued client whom he would not want to offend by refusing. Nevertheless, his first visit to the Yoshiwara is not an altogether pleasant experience as even the seasoned courtesans find it difficult to bear the sight of his “monstrous” face. Embarrassed, the innkeepers finally decide to employ a lowly servant, Otsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), who is not a trained courtesan but a woman convicted for illegal prostitution, to minister solely to Jiro. Otsuru does her work and is relatively unbothered by Jiro’s facial abnormality – something which endears her to Jiro’s heart and has the desired effect of hooking him through his weakness.

Otsuru, later “Tamarazu” the courtesan, is in many ways our villainess but she is also Jiro’s mirror and merely another outsider trying to escape oppression through any means possible. Uchida is careful to frame Otsuru not as a cruel and amoral adventurer, but someone who has decided to survive and can at least be honest about her intentions. We see her caged, imprisoned inside the Yoshiwara to do inside it what was declared “illegal” outside and acknowledging that she may well die here to met by a lonely funeral and rest unnamed in a communal grave. Otsuru decides that if she has to stay in the Yoshiwara then she will be its queen and then use that success to catapult herself into a more comfortable life even if she knows that it will be little more than a nicer kind of cage.

Jiro and Otsuru are each victims of the oppressive society in which they live as symbolised by the cruelly hypocritical worldview of the brothel owners who set out to exploit them both. Otsuru, worldly wise, is fully aware of the ways in which she is and will continue to be exploited but has chosen to be complicit within them as a means of effecting her escape. Jiro, meanwhile, is obviously aware that the “stain” across his face is the reason for his unhappy destiny but has only ever sought to minimise the distress his appearance causes to others. Thus he overcompensates by being relentlessly nice and infinitely humble, grateful for each and every concession which is extended to him as a fully human being rather than the “monster” which he is later branded by the innkeepers in a rare moment of candour which exposes their venial desires. 

This extreme desire for acceptance is in itself a symptom of his self loathing and internalised shame regarding his appearance which is after all merely an accident of birth over which he had no control. Abandoned by his birthparents who left him with a “cursed” destiny in the form of an unlucky sword, Jiro has been working overtime to overcome social prejudice but finding his path continually blocked. He latches on to Otsuru simply because she was nice to him without understanding the peculiar rules of interactions within the Yoshiwara, or as she later puts it “no money, no love”. Jiro ruins himself out of frustrated loneliness and a forlorn hope of repaying the debt he owes the couple who took him in by being able to provide them with a male heir to inherit the family business.

It is these mutual conflicts which eventually lead to the explosive finale hinted at by the violence of the title. Otsuru’s star rises while Jiro’s falls – not only is he fleeced by the innkeepers and an unrepentant Otsuru, his business also fails thanks to an act of God while his reputation lies in tatters once his associates get to know of his “frivolous” behaviour in the Yoshiwara. This in itself is doubly hypocritical as it was this same major client who introduced Jiro to the “pleasure” quarters in the first place only to remind him that business is a matter of trust and that they no longer trust him because he has broken his promise of keeping away from the Yoshiwara.

Pushed to the brink by successive humiliations, Jiro’s rage erupts in a singular act of violence which takes the sword not only to the Yoshiwara but the entrenched systems of oppression and exploitation which it represents. Otsuru, now an oiran, is literally trapped by her ostentatious outfit (in reality the very purpose it is designed to serve) as she struggles to escape male violence, her hand on the gate of the Yoshiwara which refuses to release her. Their parallel quests for revenge eventually converge only to defeat each other in a staggering act of futility which remains unresolved as the curtain falls on a moment of unanswerable rage.