Genre star Noburu Ando had a certain cachet in that he had been a yakuza prior to becoming an actor. He had in fact been the head of his own gang which at its high point had over 300 members and controlled much of the lucrative Shibuya nightlife scene. His first onscreen appearance was in a gangster movie in which he played himself. Rather than the jitsuroku epics he would later become associated with, Tai Kato’s Eighteen Years in Prison (懲役十八年, Choueki Juhachi Nen) essentially casts him in a ninkyo role as a noble if compromised former captain of the kamikaze squad who finds himself caught between the contradictions of post-war Japan and the American occupation.
Indeed, in this as in many other yakuza movies set during the immediate post-war era, the Americans are really just the biggest gang. Suffering with survivor’s guilt, Captain Kawada (Noboru Ando) has set up an association together with former comrade Tsukada (Asao Koike) to look after he dependent relatives of men who fell in war. To do this, he has to resort to criminality raiding American boats for supplies such as sugar and rice which he redistributes to war widows and their families. His ultimate goal is amassing enough money to buy a patch of land in the town centre and do away with the black market which exploits the vulnerable replacing it with a legitimate market so the surviving family members can set up businesses to support themselves.
Around this time, the association manages to track down the younger sister of one of their men who died as a kamikaze, Hisako (Hiroko Sakuramachi ), and discovers she is living in desperation having lost the family home to aerial bombing. As her mother is seriously ill and she needs money for food and medical treatment, Hisako contemplates turning to sex work and is almost assaulted by a gang of drunk and abusive American servicemen from whom she is rescued by a passing Kawada. This incident makes plain his resentment towards the occupation and sense that it is the American influence that is wilfully suppressing the efforts of the Japanese people to rebuild their society. It’s this resentment that lends a note of justification to Kawada’s decision to rob a nearby factory of valuable copper wire to get the money to save Hisako’s mother thereby saving her from falling into sex work and thereafter helping to achieve their ultimate goal of building the market. The raid, however, goes wrong. Kawada sends an injured Tsukada back to the association and is arrested.
In prison he discovers only more corrupt authority in which guards beat and torture prisoners, just another bigger gang. He finds out that block warden Hanya (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is actively accepting bribes and in cahoots with some of the inmates that attempt to terrorise newbies to the point that one attempts suicide by swallowing glass though Hanya refuses to call for help forcing Kawada and some of the other men to pull the alarm themselves. The sources of moral authority lie in the new college-educated deputy warden recently returned from five years as a POW in Manila, and a veteran yakuza with a grudge against Hanya who apparently had his girlfriend raped leading to her suicide.
Though the film is titled eighteen years in prison, Kawada becomes eligible for parole in 1952 which is of course the year the occupation ends. By this point he discovers that Tsukada has abandoned their idealistic mission and turned full yakuza, building an immense red-light district on the land they bought for the market and making himself rich through the violent trafficking and exploitation of women. Eventually confronted, he tries to convince Kawada that the world has changed, that the post-war years of privation are over and that he sees only “the ghost of a nation that lost the war” rather than burgeoning new economy stimulated by the Korean War and an ironically a repositioned America now no longer occupiers but still somehow influential if leaving a vacuum a man like Tsukada may step into. It’s no coincidence that he threatens Hisako with deportation to a brothel in Okinawa he’s set up to service American servicemen in a place where the conditions of occupation are still largely in place.
Tsukada clearly feels that he need have no more responsibility for his wartime conduct, roundly telling Kawada that the families of the fallen are not his responsibility and should “stop leeching off other people and start working for a living”. Hisako’s long lost younger brother Kenichi (Masaomi Kondo) who ended up alone on the streets after being conscripted as a student factory worker and returning to find his home in ashes, turns the blame back on the authorities reminding them that it’s their fault, they started the war the cost him his home and family and turned him into the half-crazed man of violence who immediately introduces himself as “King” on moving up from a juvie prison. Much of Kawada’s prison life is then given over to saving Kenichi, a representative of the next generation, from becoming mired in a life of nihilistic crime.
In many ways, he remains a squad leader trying to atone for having sent so many young men to die by accepting the responsibility for their families while trying to protect those left behind from the vagaries of the post-war era including the amoral capitalism represented by the infinitely corrupt Tsukada. Dressed in a military uniform ironically pinched from an American soldier he goes on the rampage knowing that he has to deal with Tsukada himself in order to defend the post-war future from those like him who’ve apparently learned nothing much at all even from such recent history. Shooting from his characteristically low angles, Kato explores the seedy underbelly of the beginnings of the economic miracle while his noble hero does his best to offer a course correction to those who have already forgotten their responsibility not just to others but to those they left behind.