Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Takumi Furukawa, 1964)

cruel-gun-story-poster.jpgIn the history of Japanese noir, the name Haruhiko Oyabu looms large. Oyabu’s gritty, pulp infused tales of tough guy heroes found their clearest expression in the hardline ‘70s with Toru Murakawa’s unique brand of macho action as seen in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf or The Beast Must Die, but a decade earlier they were also finding fertile ground in Nikkatsu’s harder B-movie noir. Based on a novel by Oyabu, Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Kenju Zankoku Monogatari) seems to owe more than a little to Kubrick’s The Killing in its crime never pays tale of honest crooks undercut by their unscrupulous comrades but the central message is that the gun is a cruel master and those living under its control will pay a heavy price.

Togawa (Jo Shishido) has just been (unexpectedly) given early release from a prison sentence incurred when he took revenge on the truck driver who knocked down his little sister (Chieko Matsubara) and confined her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Middle rank gangster Ito – formerly a crooked lawyer with a pencil mustache a supercilious air, has a job for him the gang thinks only he can do. The payout is 120 million yen – not to be sniffed at, but Togawa has reasons to be suspicious. He takes some convincing but finally relents when he finds out an old and trusted friend, Shirai (Yuji Kodaka), has already agreed. The gang have another three guys lined up but Togawa rules the third one out when he tests him and confirms he’s an untrustworthy blabbermouth. The other two are a former boxer with mild brain damage whose girlfriend has just left him, and an unscrupulous but clever chancer named Teramoto (Kojiro Kusanagi).

Following the general pattern, Furukawa walks us through the heist as it’s supposed to go if everything goes to plan complete with a 3D diagram and plastic toy cars but, of course, not everything goes to plan. The job is to steal the ticket money from the Japan Derby (much like the race course robbery in The Killing). The gang will set up fake road signs and station a “policeman” to divert the armoured car onto a small country lane where they will kill the police motorcycle escort, get rid of the guards, and load the truck onto a bigger lorry that they will then take to a disused US airbase they’ll use as their lair.

Disused American airbase could easily apply to the entirety of the surrounding area. Jets fly ominously overhead while the world Togawa and his guys inhabit is one of noirish jazz bars filled with foreigners, grimy boxing clubs, signs in English and the relics of destruction everywhere. This is a place for those who’ve already fallen through the cracks, even the gangsters are only really small fry – not yakuza but hoodlums ripped straight from the Edward G. Robinson playbook. This giant heist is the most audacious in living memory, pulling it off would be the finest achievement any of them would ever make, taking them out of their dead end environments and catapulting them into the criminal high life.

Togawa knows there’s something not right about this – he almost turns it down because he wants to be around to take care of his sister, but he also wants the money to pay for an operation he hopes will restore her mobility to assuage his guilt over having sent her out on the fateful day she was injured. Rie now lives in the care of kindly nuns and is a goodhearted, religious woman hoping for her big brother’s reformation. Togawa and his sister are also victims of war having lost their parents during the evacuation from Manchuria and have been essentially on their own ever since. Rie has become a living symbol of Togawa’s failures – his inability to protect her, to keep them both safe and together, and to free them of the ruined post-war landscape within which they both remain trapped. Rie pins her hopes on God, but Togawa says to hell with that – where has He been so far?

Having pinned his hopes on the gun, Togawa intends this to be the heist to end all heists. After this, he’ll be free to give his sister the life she deserves away from crime and the rundown town strewn with mementos of a distant, dethroned occupying power. The gun, however, is a divisive weapon and engenders nothing but mistrust among men. Resentful of Togawa’s solid friendships, the other guys turn on him as do his shady employers sending Togawa even further along the dark path to moral ruination than he already was. All that’s waiting for Togawa is a hollow victory and the intense disappointment of those whose faith in him was ultimately misplaced.


Danger Pays (危いことなら銭になる, Ko Nakahira, 1962)

Danger PaysWhere there’s danger, there’s money! Or, maybe just danger, who knows but whatever it is, it certainly doesn’t lack for excitement. Ko Nakahira is best known for his first feature, Crazed Fruit, the youthful romantic drama ending in speed boat murder which ushered in the Sun Tribe era. Though he later tried to make a return to more artistic efforts, it’s Nakahira’s freewheeling Nikkatsu crime movies that have continued to capture the hearts of audience members. Danger Pays (AKA Danger Paws, 危いことなら銭になる, Yabai Koto Nara Zeni ni Naru) is among the best of them with its cartoon-like, absurd crime caper world filled with bumbling crooks and ridiculous setups.

The central plot gets going when a truck carrying watermarked paper destined for the mint is hijacked with force by armed thugs. They need a master forger though so they set out to recruit one of the best counterfeiters currently working on his way back from a business trip to Hong Kong. However, three petty crooks have also gotten wind of the scam and are trying to head off their rivals by kidnapping the old grandpa first.

The three guys are “Glass Hearted Joe” – a purple suited dandy with an aversion to the sound of scraping glass, Slide Rule Tetsu who walks with a cane and is a whizz with the abacus, and Dump-Truck Ken who’s a geeky sort of guy who also owns a dumper truck. Sakamoto, the forger, eludes their grasp when the better equipped professionals turn up, but none of them is willing to give up on the prize. A little later, Joe teams up with a female ally – Tomoko, who is keen martial artist and smarter than the other three put together. Eventually the four end up becoming an accidental team though it remains to be seen if they can really turn this increasingly desperate situation to their advantage.

Danger Pays is in no way “serious” though this is far from a criticism. Armed with a killer script filled with amazing one liners which are performed with excellent comic timing by the A-list cast, Danger Pays is the kind of effortlessly cool, often hilarious crime caper which is near impossible to pull-off but absolutely sublime when it works – which Danger Pays most definitely does. Though there is a large amount of death and bloodiness in the final third, the atmosphere remains cartoonish as our intrepid team of four simply step over the bodies to go claim their prize with only one of them left feeling a little queasy.

Nakahira maintains the high octane, almost breathless pace right through to the end. The finale kicks in with our heroes trying to escape from a locked room which is about to be filled with gas only to be trapped like rats in an elevator shaft where they engage in an improbable shootout whilst bodies rain down on them from above bathed in the red emergency light of the escape vaults. This is a hardboiled world but one cycled through cigar munching wise guys and tommy guns, it’s all fun and games until you’re trapped in a lift knee deep in corpses while blood drips from a couple more dead guys on the ceiling.

Ridiculous slapstick humour and broad comedy are the cornerstones of Danger Pays though it also makes its central crime conceit work on its own only to overturn it with a final revelation even as the credits roll. Excellently played by its four leads, this comic tale of “victimless crime” in the improbably colourful underworld of ‘60s Tokyo is one which is filled with absurd humour, cartoon stunts, and ridiculous characters but proves absolutely irresistible! If only modern day crime capers were this much fun.


Danger Pays is the second of three films included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.

Tokyo Mighty Guy (東京の暴れん坊, Buichi Saito, 1960)

Tokyo Mighty GuyThe bright and shining post-war world – it’s a grand place to be young and fancy free! Or so movies like Tokyo Mighty Guy (東京の暴れん坊, Tokyo no Abarembo) would have you believe. Casting one of Nikkatsu’s tentpole stars, Akira Kobayshi, in the lead, Buichi Saito’s Tokyo Mighty Guy is, like previous Kobayashi/Saito collaboration The Rambling Guitarist, the start of a franchise featuring the much loved neighbourhood big dog, Jiro-cho.

In this first instalment, Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) has just returned from some overseas study in Paris where, rather than the intellectual pursuits that he planned, Jiro mostly wound up with a love of French cuisine. His parents have just opened a small French restaurant in fashionable Ginza and Jiro is now working there too despite the more lucrative paths that might be open for someone with a college education, language skills and overseas experience.

Jiro is also a hit with the ladies, and the daughter of the family that run a nearby bathhouse, Hideko (Ruriko Asaoka), has quite a crush on him though Jiro seems fairly oblivious to this fact despite her revealing to him that her family have received an offer of arranged marriage. After a high ranking official crashes his car into the family restaurant, Jiro becomes embroiled in a series of complicated local political and shady business plots which conflict strongly with his righteous and individual nature.

Tokyo Mighty Guy begins with a cute musical title sequence that would be much more at home in a glossy musical of the time than in a smalltime gangster flick which is what lurks around the edges of this feel good, youthful tale. Indeed, Kobayashi gets ample opportunity to show off those pipes as he sings to himself alone in the male side of the bathhouse and later repeats snatches of the song throughout the film. There’s a single being peddled here, but it’s being done in a fun, if unsubtle, way.

Jiro is very much a man of his age. He’s the big man in the neighbourhood – middle class, educated, studied abroad, likes the finer things such as foreign food and sharp suits, but he’s got the words social justice engraved on his heart so you know you can go to him with your troubles and he’ll help you figure them out. He doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone; he sends the yakuza protection mob packing and even convinces one of them to go straight with a trainee chef job in his restaurant. No wonder the animal loving former politician has taken such a liking to him – he’s the kind of man it’s hard not to like.

That’s not to say Jiro’s a saint, he’s out for himself just like everyone else. We can see how much distress there is for others when we venture into a rundown tenement filled with the genuine poor who have too many children and not enough resources. Actually, the film isn’t terribly kind about these people and treats them more or less as an embarrassing joke but it does demonstrate how the bigwigs have exploited the needs of the lower orders in more ways than one. Jiro, at least, won’t stand for this kind of deception and misuse of traditional social bonds but he will still use it as leverage to bring things to a fittingly ironic solution that is to the benefit of everyone aside from those that were originally in the wrong.

Cute and quirky is definitely the theme and even where there are darker elements, the cheerful atmosphere is tailor made to eclipse them. Saito doesn’t roll out any particularly impressive directorial tricks but allows the absurd humour of the script to do his work for him, highlighting it with surreal touches such as the face of an absent lover appearing in the moon or the celebratory feeling of hundreds of advertising leaflets dropping from the sky like confetti. Light and fluffy as it is, Tokyo Mighty Guy is time capsule from the socially mobile youth of Tokyo in 1960 who don’t want arranged marriages or to take over the family business. The world has opened up for them with a new vista of foreign culture and multicultural cool. The message is clear, the future belongs to guys like Jiro, and by extension to the Jiro wannabes lining up to watch him prosper from their cinema seats.


Tokyo Mighty Guy is the first of three films included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.