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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanzo the Razor: Who’s Got the Gold? (御用牙 鬼の半蔵やわ肌小判, Yoshio Inoue, 1974)

Hanzo the razor who's got the gold posterAll things must come to an end, and so the third instalment in the Hanzo the Razor series, Who’s Got the Gold? (御用牙 鬼の半蔵やわ肌小判, Goyokiba: Oni no Hanzo yawahada koban) is the last. To be frank the central tenet is wearing a bit thin (not least because Hanzo’s been bashing away at it with a mallet for the last two movies), and though scripted by the previous film’s director, Yasuzo Masumura, direction has been handed to the less experienced studio director Yoshio Inoue. Consequently, Who’s Got the Gold? is the most obviously parodic entry in the series, camping it up in grand style as Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) goes after a more obvious kind of vice in the form of greedy, entitled lords, corrupt priesthood, and a nation too obsessed with its past to survive in a rapidly modernising era.

Inoue opts for a purely theatrical opening as Hanzo’s two ex-con underlings, Devil and Viper, enjoy a spot of night fishing whilst dreaming about having enough money to head to the red light district. They get the fright of their lives when they think they see a creepy ghost woman emerging from the lake. Being Devil and Viper they panic and run home screaming to report this terrifying incident to their brave protector Hanzo. Hanzo is in the middle of his usual “tool polishing” routine but fancies paying a visit this mysterious lake because, well, it might be fun to try having sex with a ghost for once. Devil and Viper are very confused by this idea, but it’s par for the course with Hanzo and so off they go.

Of course, the ghost lady is not a real ghost so only part of Hanzo’s lusts are satisfied as he performs his normal sort of “special torture” on her and finds out that she’s part of an ongoing scam in which treasury officials have been skimming off some of the gold they’re supposed to be protecting. Sadly, Hanzo’s investigations hit a snag when the woman’s husband turns up and kills her for having been raped by Hanzo before promptly getting killed himself.

Hanzo does not approve of any of these goings on and fully intended to arrest the treasury officers if only they hadn’t gone and died first. Accordingly he reports all of this to his superiors but advises against prosecutions because he sympathises with the difficult position these men found themselves in. Being a samurai is not cheap and these lowly jobs are very badly paid – how are you supposed to maintain your house to the manner required without resorting to extreme measures when your lord is snaffling all the money and not paying his retainers what they’re owed. It will not come as a surprise that the lord didn’t want to hear this, and so Hanzo marks his card. It didn’t really help that Hanzo’s walk into the castle involved running a gauntlet of unfortunate samurai forced to kneel along the path all day just hoping that the lord would show them some favour. Among them was a old friend of Hanzo’s who receives a tactless offer of fixed employment if only he will give up a family heirloom that the lord has been admiring.

The gold smuggling subplot runs in parallel with another problem – a doctor whom the lord has ordered Hanzo to arrest because he was advocating the adoption of Western technologies, fearing that the nation was leaving itself dangerously vulnerable if it refused to modernise. The doctor, like the girl’s father in the first film, is dying of a terminal illness and so Hanzo thinks the sentence can wait. Hiding the doctor in his house he listens to his ideas and then comes to the same conclusion, allowing him to finish building a cannon to prove to the lord just how destructive these new weapons really are and just how dangerous it would be to fight them with only katanas and samurai spirit. Hanzo lives in interesting times, but this dilemma says something both about the precarious position of the samurai order in the face of increasing modernisation and about the 1970s background in which a small war was currently being waged against American imperialism.

As usual Hanzo refuses to bow. He will not give in to bullies or those who abuse their authority to add additional oppression onto an already oppressed populace which he has pledged his life to protecting. The contradiction of being a rapist so well endowed that afterwards no one seems to mind has still not been solved, but by this third instalment in the series the “joke” is so well worn as to receive little attention. Who’s Got the Gold? is weakest of the three adventures for Hanzo and his well conditioned razor but it has its charms, if only in the troublingly easy way that its central conceit has become so essentially normalised as to be barely noticed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanzo the Razor: The Snare (御用牙 かみそり半蔵地獄責め, Yasuzo Masumura, 1973)

Hanzo the Razor the Snare posterYasuzo Masumura had spent the majority of his career at Daiei, but following the studio’s bankruptcy, he found himself out on his own as a freelance director for hire. That is perhaps how he came to direct this improbable entry in his filmography on the second of a trilogy of exploitation leading jidaigeki films for Toho. Essentially a vanity project for former Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu who both produces and stars in the series, Hanzo the Razor: The Snare (御用牙 かみそり半蔵地獄責め , Goyokiba: Kamisori Hanzo Jigoku Zeme) is another tale of the well endowed hero of the Edo era protecting ordinary people from elite corruption, but Masumura, providing the script himself, bends it to his own will whilst maintaining the essential house style.

Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) chases a pair of crooks right into the path of treasury officer Okubo. As expected, the lord and his retainers kick off but Hanzo won’t back down, shouting loudly about honour and justice much to his lord’s displeasure. Eventually Hanzo takes the two crooks into custody and they tell him exactly what’s happened to them this evening – they snuck over from the next village to steal some rice from the watermill but they found a dead girl in there and so they were running away in terror. Hanzo investigates and finds the partially clothed body still lying in the mill untouched but when he takes a closer look it seems the girl wasn’t exactly murdered but has died all alone after a botched abortion. Realising she smells of the incense from a local temple, Hanzo gets on the case but once again ends up uncovering a large scale government conspiracy.

Though it might not immediately seem so, Masumura’s key themes are a perfect fit for the world of Hanzo. In his early contemporary films such as Giants & Toys and Black Test Car, Masumura had painted a grim view of post-war society in which systemic corruption, personal greed, and selfishness had destroyed any possibility of well functioning human relationships. It was Masumura’s belief that true freedom and individuality was not possible within a conformist society such as Japan’s but this need for personal expression was possible through sexuality. Sex is both a need and a trap as Masumura’s (often) heroines chase their freedom through what essentially amounts to an illicit secret, using and manipulating the men around them in order to improve their otherwise dire lack of agency.

Hanzo’s investigation takes him into an oddly female world of intrigue in which a buddhist nun has been duped into becoming a middle-woman in a government backed scheme pimping innocent local girls to the highest bidder among a gang of wealthy local merchants. Hanzo berates the parents of the murdered girl for not having kept a better eye on her, but these misused women are left with no other recourse than the shady protection of others inhabiting the same world of corrupt transactions such as the local shamaness who has developed a “new method of abortion” just as Hanzo has developed a “new method of torture” which involves a bizarrely sexualised ritual in which both parties must be fully naked before she enacts penetration with her various instruments. Hanzo first tries more usual torture methods on the nun before indulging in his trademark tactic of trapping her in a net to be raised and lowered onto his oversize penis which he keeps in top notch by beating it with a stick and ramming it into a bag of rough uncooked rice.

Unlike the first film, the women are less ready to fall for Hanzo’s giant member. The nun complains loudly that her Buddhist vows of chastity are being violated while Hanzo’s later rape of the woman who runs the local mint is a much more violent affair. Hanzo grapples with her legs as she struggles, gasping as he opens his loincloth and reveals his surprisingly large appendage, once again playing into the fallacy that all women harbour some kind of rape fantasy. Hanzo has done this, he claims, to “calm her down”, because he could sense her sexual frustration and desperate need for male contact. To be fair to Hanzo, he does appear to be correct in his reading of the woman’s behaviour as she sheds her anxiety and becomes a firm devotee of the cult of Hanzo.

Meanwhile, political concerns bubble in the background as the main conspiracy revolves around consistent currency devaluations which are placing a stranglehold on the fortunes of the poor while their overlords, who are supposed to be protecting them, spend vast sums on claiming the virginity of innocent young girls. Hanzo may be a rapist himself (though he makes it clear that he derives no pleasure from his actions and only gives pleasure to the women involved), but he draws the line at the misuse of innocents, saving a little girl about to be violated by the master criminal Hamajima (Kei Sato) in a daring confrontation in which he boldly brings his own coffin, just in case.

Masumura broadly sticks to the Toho house style, but gone is the camp comedy of the first instalment with its giggly gossipers and humorous shots of Hanzo’s permanently erect penis. Instead he opts for an increase in sleazy voyeurism, filling the screen with female nudity whilst neatly implicating the male audience who enjoy such objectification by shooting from secretive angles as his collection of dirty old men crowd round a two way mirror to watch the lucky winner torture and abuse the soft young flesh they’ve just been bidding on. Like Sword of Justice, The Snare also ends with a slightly extraneous coda in which Hanzo settles a dispute with another official by means of a duel he would rather not have fought. Walking off bravely into the darkness, Hanzo utters only the word “idiot” for a man who wasted his life on petty samurai pride. Hanzo has better things to do, protecting the common man from just such men who place hypocritical ideas of pride and honour above general human decency in their need for domination through fear and violence over his own tenet of unrestrained pleasure.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

Hanzo sword of Justice posterJapanese cinema was in a state of flux in the early ‘70s. Audiences were dwindling. Daiei, a once popular studio known for polished, lavish productions folded while Nikkatsu took the proactive measure to rebrand itself as a purveyor of soft core pornography. Toho did not go so far, but in its first foray into a new kind of jidaigeki, exploitation was the name of the game. Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Goyokiba) was released in 1972 – the same year as the beginning of another seminal series, Lone Wolf and Cub, which was produced by Hanzo’s star, former Zatoichi actor Shintaro Katsu, who also happens to the be brother of the franchise’s lead Tomisaburo Wakayama. Like Lone Wolf and Cub, Hanzo the Razor is based on a manga by Kazuo Koike whose work later provided inspiration for the Lady Snowblood films, and is directed by Lone Wolf and Cub’s Kenji Misumi. It is then of a certain pedigree but its intentions are different. More obviously comedic in its exaggerated, unpleasant sexualised “humour”, Hanzo the Razor is also a tale of the systemic corruption of the feudal order but one which casts its “hero” as a noble rapist.

Honest and steadfast police officer Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) usually skips the annual swearing in ceremony but this year he’s decided to make an appearance. He appears to have done so to make a personal stand by refusing to sign the policeman’s oath because he knows everyone else is breaking it. Officers may not be doing something so obvious as accepting cash for preferential treatment, but they gladly accept free drinks, gifts from lords, and entertainment in the local geisha houses. Hanzo’s actions, honest as they are, do not go down well with his fellow officers and if he can’t figure something out on time, Hanzo faces the possibility that his career in law enforcement may come to an abrupt end when contracts are up for renewal at the end of the year.

Whatever else Hanzo is, he doesn’t like bullies or those who abuse their authority and the trust placed in them by those they are supposed to be protecting. More than just saving his own skin, Hanzo is determined to unmask the hypocrisy and corruption of his boss, Onishi (Ko Nishimura), who he discovers shares a mistress with a notorious killer still on the run. Chasing this early thread, Hanzo walks straight into a chain of corruption which leads all the way to the top.

At his best, Hanzo is a steadfast champion of the people who remain oppressed by the corrupt and venal samurai order. Far from the a by the books operative, Hanzo is prepared to do what’s best over what’s right as in his decision to help a pair of siblings who are faced with a terrible dilemma trying to care for a terminally ill father. He’s also extremely well prepared, having installed a host of booby traps and hidden weapons caches throughout his home to deal with any conceivable threat. Dedicated in the extreme, Hanzo has also spent long hours testing his torture techniques on himself to find out the exact point of maximum efficiency for each of them.

Here’s where things get a little more unusual. As Hanzo climbs down from a bout of torture, a huge erection is visible inside his loincloth, prompting him to reveal that it’s pain which really turns him on. Later we see Hanzo doing some maintenance on his “tool” which involves placing it on a wooden board bearing a huge penis shaped indent, and hitting it repeatedly with a hammer before ramming it back and forth into a bag of uncooked rice. Each to their own, but Hanzo derives no pleasure from these acts – they are simply to make sure his “special interrogation method” runs at maximum efficiency. Which is to say, Hanzo’s preferred technique for getting women to talk amounts to rape but as each of them fall victim to his oversize member they cry out in pleasure, willing to spill the beans just to get Hanzo to finish what he started. Playing into the fallacy that all women long to be raped, Hanzo’s inappropriate misuse of his own authority is played for laughs – after all, the women eventually enjoy themselves so it’s no harm done, right? Troubling, but par for the course in the world of Hanzo.

This essential contradiction in Hanzo’s character – the last honourable man who nevertheless abuses his authority in the course his duty (though he apparently takes no personal pleasure in the act), is reduced to a roguish foible as he goes about the otherwise serious business of taking down corrupt authority and ensuring the law protects the people it’s supposed to protect. Odd as it is, Hanzo’s world is an strangely sexualised one in which sexually liberated women wield surprising amounts of power. Hanzo is assured one of his targets has “no lesbian tendencies” as other older court ladies are said to, while a gaggle of camp young men gossip about the size of Hanzo’s world beating penis. In an odd move, Misumi even includes a penis eye view of Hanzo’s techniques, superimposed over the face of a woman writhing in pleasure. Surreal and broadly humorous if offensive, Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice is very much of its time though strangely lighthearted in its obviously bizarre worldview.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Inn of Evil (いのちぼうにふろう, Masaki Kobayashi, 1971)

inn-of-evil“Sometimes it feels good to risk your life for something other people think is stupid”, says one of the leading players of Masaki Kobayashi’s strangely retitled Inn of Evil (いのちぼうにふろう, Inochi Bonifuro), neatly summing up the director’s key philosophy in a few simple words. The original Japanese title “Inochi Bonifuro” means something more like “To Throw One’s Life Away”, which more directly signals the tragic character drama that’s about to unfold. Though it most obviously relates to the decision that this gang of hardened criminals is about to make, the criticism is a wider one as the film stops to ask why it is this group of unusual characters have found themselves living under the roof of the Easy Tavern engaged in benign acts of smuggling during Japan’s isolationist period.

Led by the innkeeper Ikuzo (Kan’emon Nakamura), the Easy Tavern is, effectively, the hideout of a smuggling gang conveniently located on a small island in the middle of a river where they can unload goods from the Dutch boats before shipping them on to Edo. Everything had been running smoothly, but the friendly policeman has been moved on and the new guy seems very straight laced. The gang’s routine existence changes one night when they receive two unexpected visitors – a young man they save from a beating in the street, and a drunk who wanders in looking for sake. The younger man, Tomijiro (Kei Yamamoto), brings a sad story with him in that all of his troubles have been caused by trying to save the woman he loves from being sold to a brothel. Moved by Tomijiro’s innocent ardour, even the most hardhearted residents of the Easy Tavern become determined to help him. Accepting a job everyone had a bad feeling about in order to get the money for Tomijiro to buy back his lady love before it’s too late, the gang’s unusual decision to risk their lives for someone else’s happiness may be the first and last time they ever do so.

The residents of the Easy Tavern have various different backstories, but the thing they all have in common is having been rejected by mainstream society at some point in their lives. The most high profile, Sadashichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), is known as “The Indifferent” which is both apt and slightly ironic. Sullen and cynical, he puts on a show about caring for nothing and no one but, as inn keeper’s daughter Omitsu (Komaki Kurihara) has figured out, it’s more that the opposite it true – he cares too much about everything. Abandoned as a child, Sadashichi’s sad story is that he once thought his saw his mother long after they were separated but killed her because she’d fallen into prostitution. Then again, perhaps it was just a woman who looked like her, or perhaps he made he whole thing up. Coming across a lost baby bird shortly after killing a man, Sadashichi is determined to look after it but is later distressed by the words of the drunk who reminds him that the bird’s mother is probably going crazy with worry. Sadashichi may identify with this lost little bird, but his empathy also extends to Tomijiro’s plight as his plaintive looks and gloomy face prompt him into action, if only to make them go away.

Similarly, the other members including “The Living Buddha” – a rabidly bisexual former monk thrown out of his temple for his lascivious ways, an effeminate homeless man, a stutterer, and an invalid all have reasons for living outside the law. As the sympathetic inn keeper later tries to explain to a policeman, most of these men are people who’ve faced rejection in one way or another. Craving sympathy, they’ve turned violent and suspicious, pushed away from the very things they wanted most. Far from an Inn of Evil, the Easy Tavern is the only place where these people have been able to find acceptance, building a community of lost souls from those cast out from society at large.

The decision to try and help Tomijiro to rescue his childhood sweetheart, cruelly sold by her selfish and uncaring father, is, in once sense, a selfless one but perhaps also reminds them of all the times they were also betrayed or abandoned and no one came to help. Even knowing the plan is unlikely to end well, the inn keeper is proud of his men’s decision, if they didn’t try to help the girl no one else would. They may be throwing their lives away in a pointless endeavour, but if they don’t at least try then what’s the point in living at all. This more than anything expresses Kobayashi’s constant preoccupation throughout his career in pointing to the essential goodness of those who refuse to simply accept acts of injustice as normal and stand up to oppose them, even if their resistance will produce little or no actual change.

Filming in a crisp black and white, Kobayashi creates an eerie atmosphere aided by Toru Takemitsu’s strangely ethereal score. The world of the The Easy Tavern is a dark one in which cruelty and betrayal lie at every turn and men ruin themselves through thoughtless and reckless decisions, but the best of humanity is to be found among this gang of outlaws who collectively decide it’s world risking their lives for someone else’s love story. Filled with impressive visual imagery including the strange sight of the looming bright white police lanterns and the impressively staged last stand as Sadashichi holds off the troops for Tomijiro to escape, Inn of Evil is a tightly controlled, minutely detailed character drama in which men who’d throw their lives away for nothing find that their sacrifice has not been in vain.