Eighteen Years in Prison (懲役十八年, Tai Kato, 1967)

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.

A True Story of the Private Ginza Police (実録・私設銀座警察, Junya Sato, 1973)

By the early 1970s the ninkyo eiga (pre-war tales of noble yakuza) had begun to fall from favour. Modern audiences were perhaps unconvinced by the romanticism of the honourable gangster caught between personal loyalty and his inner humanity, real life thugs are rarely so high minded after all. The cinema industry may have been in decline, but the consumerist revolution was well underway, the economic miracle was nearing completion, and there was perhaps a readiness to reckon with the recent past from a position of relative safety. The jitsuroku eiga did just that, providing a more “realistic” depiction of the yakuza life based on the recollections of real life gangsters and incorporating the aesthetics of reportage with the use of stock footage, newspaper montage, narratorial voiceover, and high impact text recording the names of characters along with the times of their deaths. 

Released in the same year as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity which has perhaps become the jitsuroku archetype, Junya Sato’s A True Story of The Private Ginza Police (実録・私設銀座警察, Jitsuroku: Shisetsu Ginza Keisatsu) paints an even bleaker picture of the immediate post-war era as one in which chaos and inhumanity rule. The pre-credits sequence follows demobbed soldier Watarai (Tsunehiko Watase) who finds himself in a bombed out warehouse where a woman is drinking around an open fire with a US serviceman. Standing motionless he stares at an upper balcony where another woman is having sex with a black GI. It seems this woman is known to him, perhaps his wife or in any case a woman he thought he was coming back to. She is not overjoyed to see him, breaking down in tears while he spots a baby girl crying in the corner who also happens to be black. Unthinkably he takes the child and throws her into a flooded area of the floor below, chasing the mother when she goes after the baby, strangling and then bludgeoning her to death with a rock. 

All of this has happened in the first five minutes. There will be no heroism here, no noble act of resistance only shame and desperation. These are men brutalised by war who’ve come home to a land in ruins where the enemy is now in charge, ruling their streets and sleeping with their women. They are humiliated and resentful, many of them still in uniform likely because they simply have no other clothes. Sato introduces us to the later gang members in turn beginning with a scene which echoes those of the Battles Without Honour series as Iketani (Noboru Ando) is chased and beaten by an angry mob in the chaos of the marketplace after being accused of stealing. Masaru (Tatsuo Umemiya) meanwhile is beaten by GIs who come to the rescue of a sex worker he tries to rape, offended when she tells him she doesn’t go with Japanese customers dismissing him as “just another defeated soldier”. Iwashita (Hideo Murota) uses his service revolver to commit an armed robbery to get money to gamble. Only the gang’s later leader, Usami (Ryoji Hayama), is introduced without a wartime record, named only as a pre-war gangster. The gang is forged when they meet by chance in a gambling den and bond over a grenade, mounting a military operation against the Korean street gang who hassled Iketani by bombing their HQ. 

A few months later they’ve become the “Private Ginza Police Force” of the title, now all in smart suits, loud shirts, and sunshades. They have their eyes set on ruling the area, taking down rival gangsters the Nakane brothers through cunning and trickery, turning an underling by threatening his family. But there is no honour among thieves and the gang is only a temporary arrangement intended to last only as long it’s useful. Iketani goes his own way, starting a small business running black market goods from China, bribing the police to turn a blind eye while Usami runs a conventional protection scam targeting the Chinese owner of a cabaret bar, Fukuyama (Asao Uchida), run as a front for black market smuggling. The problems start when Iketani learns that Fukuyama has been colluding with a government accountant to misappropriate money intended to be used for subsidies. 

This world is infinitely corrupt, from the easily bribed policemen to the civil servants out for all they can get and those who merely make use of them like Fukuyama and Iketani. While the guys get rich opening gambling clubs in Ginza, a wide scale famine creates a shantytown of starving poor at Ueno station where six die per day from hunger. Iketani is in someways the “noble” thug, he looks after his guys and pays attention to their lives, perhaps even claiming that his black market activities are a public service but it’s still every man for himself and if he’s assuming post-war chaos is on its way out he is sadly mistaken. Having got him hopped up on heroine and used him as a ghostly assassin, the gang jokingly refer to Watarai as a zombie, somehow surviving every bizarre death experience that comes his way including being buried alive, but they are walking dead too, soulless men who left their humanity on the battlefield. Fearing the game may be up, Masaru suggests one last hurrah blowing their ill-gotten gains on sake and women. “I’ll show you how rape is done,” Usami deliriously exclaims”, “how we used to do it on the continental front.” Meanwhile, Masaru throws notes all around the room screaming “Rejoice! There will be no tomorrow” sending all into a Bacchanalian frenzy as they cram as much cash as they can grab inside what little clothing they still have on.

All moody, anarchic jazz score and canted angles, Sato’s post-war Tokyo is a world of constant anxiety, a maddening no man’s land of fire and rubble inhabited by ghosts of men who died long ago for whom the war never ended. In true jitsuroku fashion, the picture ends on a note of fatalistic nihilism, the screen filled with red as the narrator cooly informs us what became of our heroes as they find themselves consumed by the futility of their lives of violence.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Shunya Ito, 1972)

scorpion-2Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Joshu Sasori – Dai 41 Zakkyobo) picks up around a year after the end of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and finds Matsu (Meiko Kaji) tied up in a dingy prison basement, apparently left bound and in solitary confinement for the entire interval. Once again directed by Shunya Ito, the second instalment in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series is another foray into the women in prison field but Ito resolutely refuses to give in to the exploitative genre norms, overlaying his tale of individualistic rebellion with an arthouse sensibility that has a much wider scope than its ordinary vengeance driven narrative may suggest.

Matsu may have been lying bound and gagged in a dingy underground hole for the best part of a year but today is a special day and sadistic prison warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) is going to let her out to be shown off in front of a visiting inspector who’s paying a final visit before Goda is promoted to a top job in Tokyo. When Matsu makes a lunge for Goda, the inspector is so afraid that he wets himself, sending the other woman into a frenzy and resulting in a riot. Once again the entirety of the prison is punished, but this time Matsu is singled out for a public punishment gang rape by Goda’s goons. This kind of humiliation is too much for her fellow prisoners who instantly turn on her, but their violence provides an opportunity for escape and before long Matsu is on the run, again.

At the end of the first film, Matsu had accomplished her first round of vengeance – against the man who orchestrated her downfall and the men who secured it, but ultimately she wound up a female prisoner once again. Though Goda may have had her hidden away because of her habitual escapism, Matsu had not given up as we see from her attempts to scrape the floor away with her spoon held tight in her mouth. Barely speaking, Matsu is an unstoppable column of pure rage but an elegant one, supported by her self contained restraint.

Her anger this time is directed towards Goda himself, especially after his despicable organised punishment rape that was designed both to break her own spirit once and for all and also to damage her in the eyes of her fellow inmates who are intended to see her defeated and destroyed. The guards are a stand in for society at large, using sexual dominance and social position to keep their women in line. The visiting prison inspector makes a point of telling Matsu that “they” don’t hate her personally – they’re there for her, to help her “recover” and become a functioning member of society. Which is ironic because Goda does hate her personally as he holds her responsible for the damage to his eye sustained in the previous film. His last act before moving on is one against Mastu – an attempt by the forces of authority to crush her individual rebellion and use their victory as a coercive tool to force others to conform.

In this way, Matsu’s position as a member of a subjugated class is less important than her status as an agitator but these are women who have each suffered at the hands of men. As an extremely theatrical sequence sung in the traditional form informs us, the women who escaped with Matsu committed their crimes out of love or jealousy. Poisoned rivals, dead lovers, even children murdered to get back at their philandering father in some Medea level psychotic rage which ruins the perpetrator even more than the intended victim.

Later while the women are enjoying their brief taste of freedom, one of them is brutally raped and murdered by a troupe of feral men who boast about the wartime atrocities they committed before descending on a lone woman like a pack of rabid dogs. The others take their revenge for their friend, but also for all the women who have met a similar fate inflicted by a male dominated society which sees them as something to be controlled and then made use of, little more that cattle hemmed in and milked until dry.

As in the first film Ito makes use of expressionist techniques and strange angles to give his film a more elevated feeling that might be expected but this time he adds in a surrealist, spiritual dimension as with the old woman who sings the stories of our heroines and then dies only to bury herself in leaves and disappear into the ether, like some forgotten deity of misused women. Likewise, when one of the prisoners is raped and murdered, the men throw her body into a nearby river like an empty beer can but the waterfall behind her suddenly runs with blood as an expression of the violence which pollutes the natural world. A bus suddenly splits in two, separating our subjugated women from the violent men who mentally sentence them, given free reign simply because of their sex. Ironically enough, our last glimpse of of Matsu takes place in the reflection of Goda’s glasses and then in his false eye when she is suddenly rejoined by her compatriots for a triumphant dance of freedom on a city rooftop.

Even stronger than in the original Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion, Jailhouse 41 further advances its ideology of free individuals battling the conformist authority of the state all filtered through the prism of the patriarchy. Matsu’s vengeance is personal, she keeps her distance from the other women who do not seem inclined to band together to oppose the forces which oppress them so much as seek a wary, temporary alliance of necessity, but seeing them all reassembled in spirit at the end brings a larger dimension to Matsu’s victory which now seems much less like solving a practical problem than a deliberate strike at a wall which was solely designed to keep a certain group of people in their place. The jail is broken, all that remains is to choose to escape its restraints.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW/gore)