Espy (エスパイ, Jun Fukuda, 1974)

espy posterBy 1974 the Toho SFX movie was perhaps long past its heyday though Jun Fukuda’s Espy (エスパイ) was far from the last. Clearly influenced by popular spy franchises such as James Bond as well as more serious cold war spy dramas, Espy is a jet setting tale of superpowered assassins, international conspiracy, and love as an unexpected source of salvation, but as much as it embraces its hippyish message of total communication it also moves further into the realms of exploitation, skewing closer to Nikkatsu’s ’70s output than the more child friendly supernatural adventures of ages past.

The world is at breaking point. A small conflict in a tiny East European nation known as Baltonia threatens to spark a third world war. A UN delegation is currently en route to a conference in which they hope to settle the conflict in a peaceful way but all hope is lost when a sniper equipped with X-ray vision takes them all out with maximum precision.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, test driver Miki (Masao Kusakari) gets into trouble on the course when he swerves to avoid some pigeons. The car spins out of control but just at the last minute, Miki turns it around through his dormant psychic powers which brings him to the attention of the IPPG – the International Psychic Power Group. Following the assassination of the UN delegation, all eyes are on Japan where the prime minister of Baltonia is due to meet the US president in what is hoped will be a bold new development in international relations but the IPPG have reason to believe an attempt will be made on the prime minister’s life and only their ESP equipped team can stop it.

Espy takes the essential components of both the spy thriller in its international conspiracy set up, and the B-movie science fiction adventure in its presentation of the good and evil possibilities of advanced technologies or in this case innate superpowers. The Espy team are pitted against the Anti-Espy who have similar powers but are committed to using them to harm mankind. The leader of the Anti-Espy, Ulrov (Tomisaburo Wakayama), sees himself as a superior being to regular Earthlings and, believing that humans have overpopulated the planet which they continue to damage, is convinced the best solution is a mass cull. He plans to do this by helping the “lesser” humans destroy themselves by provoking a third world war or a hundred mini conflicts in which thousands will die.

Ulrov’s arguments tie in nicely with Toho’s trademark environmentalism and ambivalent attitude towards scientific development, but they go against the prevailing sense of humanism which is to be found in the studio’s genre output. In Ulrov’s fascistic view of the world, he and the other ESPers are a superior race whose existence is threatened by weaker humans and their reckless disregard for the planet as a whole. Due to a traumatic childhood incident, he believes that humans are cruel beasts who lust for blood and talk of peace with hearts filled with hate. He may have a point, but his message conflicts with the positive movement for peace which is advanced by the Baltonian PM who doesn’t want a world in which peace is brokered and balanced but one of true unity.

Espy is, however, of its time and fails to fully live out its peace and love ideals. Team member Maria (Kaoru Yumi) is kidnapped by Anti-Espy and taken to Ulrov’s lair where she is forced to dance lasciviously in front of fellow team member Tamura (Hiroshi Fujioka) with whom she shares an especially strong connection. Tamura’s arms and legs are cuffed as he communicates telepathically with Ulrov, semi-hypnotised by Maria’s strange dance. Maria is then approached by a large dark-skinned man wearing only a loincloth who proceeds to tear open her shirt at which point she snaps out of her trance, frees Tamura, and rips out the attacker’s tongue.

Meanwhile, new recruit Miki has failed in his mission and killed a man for the first time sending him into a kind of depression. Though Miki was introduced as the protagonist, he is in fact absent for most of the film though his journey is among the strangest as he reminisces about a foreign girl he was friends with as a child and enjoys an unusually strong bond with his intrepid dog, Caesar, who teaches the gang a few lessons about unconditional love. Maria is severely traumatised by her attack while Tamura reconsiders his sense of self worth having temporarily lost his powers, but eventually the team realise that their psychic abilities are nothing more than a manifestation of a great love. Ulrov later has the same epiphany but the team’s decision to consider him possessed by something “inhuman” is a worrying one. They don’t want to accept that it was humans who made him that way because it would be too sad, but not to do so is a failure to recognise humanity’s darkness as well as its light.

Espy bites off a little more than it can chew in failing to deal with some of the more interesting ideas it raises though it makes the most of its meagre budget to present an exciting spy thriller voyaging from Japan to Turkey and Switzerland. Skewing more towards Nikkatsu’s brand of exploitation action, Espy is definitely among the more adult orientated of Toho’s SFX adventures but its messages are broadly the same in its insistence on human interconnectedness as the ultimate superpower. 


 

Dreams (夢, Akira Kurosawa, 1990)

dreamsDespite a long and hugely successful career which saw him feted as the man who’d put Japanese cinema on the international map, Akira Kurosawa’s fortunes took a tumble in the late ‘60s with an ill fated attempt to break into Hollywood. Tora! Tora! Tora! was to be a landmark film collaboration detailing the attack on Pearl Harbour from both the American and Japanese sides with Kurosawa directing the Japanese half, and an American director handling the English language content. However, the American director was not someone the prestigious caliber of David Lean as Kurosawa had hoped and his script was constantly picked apart and reduced.

When filming finally began, Kurosawa was fired and replaced with the younger and (then) less internationally regarded Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda. The film was an unmitigated failure which proved hugely embarrassing to Kurosawa, not least because it exposed improprieties within his own company. Other than the low budget Dodesukaden, Kurosawa continued to find it difficult to secure funding for the sort of films he wanted to make and in 1971 attempted suicide, thankfully unsuccessfully, but subsequently retreated into domestic life leaving a large question mark over his future career in cinema.

American directors who’d been inspired by his golden age work including George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were keen to coax Kurosawa back into the director’s chair, helping to fund and promote his two biggest ‘80s efforts – Ran, and Kagemusha, both large scale, epic jidaigeki more along the line of Seven Samurai than the arthouse leaning smaller scale of his contemporary pictures. The success of these two films and the assistance of Steven Spielberg, allowed him to move in a radically different direction for his next film. Dreams (夢, Yume) is an aberration in Kurosawa’s back catalogue, a collection of thematically linked vignettes featuring surreal, ethereal, noh theatre inspired imagery, it was unlike anything the director had attempted before and a far cry away from the often straightforward naturalism which marked his career up to this point.

Inspired by Kurosawa’s own dreams from childhood to the present day, Dreams is divided into eight different chapters beginning with a solemn wedding and ending in a joyous funeral. Each of the segments takes on a different tone and aesthetic, but lays bare many of the themes which had recurred throughout Kurosawa’s career – namely, man’s relationship with the natural world, and its constant need to tear itself apart all in the name of progress.

Casting his central protagonist simply as “I”, Kurosawa begins with an exact recreation of his childhood home and a little boy who disobeys his mother in leaving the house during a spell of sun streaked rain. Weather like this is perfect for a “kitsune” wedding, only fox spirits do not like their rituals to be witnessed by humans and punishment is extreme if caught, still, the boy has to know. His fate is echoed in the second story in which the still young I is lured to the spot where his family’s orchard once stood to be berated by the spirits of the now departed peach blossoms in the guise of the traditional dolls given to little girls at the Hina Matsuri festival. The spirits are upset with the boy, who starts crying, but not, as the spirits originally think because he’s mourning all of the peaches he’ll never eat but because he truly loved the this place and knows he’ll never see the glory of the full orchard in bloom ever again.

The spirits recognise his grief and contritely agree to put on a display of magic for him so that he may experience the beauty of peach trees in full blossom one last time. However, the illusion is soon over and the boy is left among the stumps where his beloved trees once stood. Later, the adult I finds himself in a monstrous nuclear apocalypse which has now become much harder to watch as the Ishiro Honda inspired horror of the situation has turned mount Fuji and the surrounding sky entirely red with no escape from the invisible radioactive poison. Quickly followed by I traipsing through a dark and arid land in which giant mutant dandelion provide the only sign of life aside from the remnants of post-apocalyptic humanity reduced to devouring itself in scenes worthy of Bruegel, these sequences paint the price of untapped progress as humans burn their world all the while claiming to improve it.

Humans are, in a sense, at war with nature as with themselves. The Tunnel sees an older I return from the war to encounter first an aggressive dog and then the ghosts of men he knew who didn’t make it home. Apologising that he survived and they didn’t, I contrives to send the blue faced ghosts back into the darkness of the tunnel while he himself is plagued by the barking, grenade bearing dog outside. The mountaineers of the blizzard sequence are engaged in a similar battle, albeit a more straightforwardly naturalistic one of human endurance pitted against the sheer force of the natural world. That is, until the natural becomes supernatural in the sudden appearance of the Snow Woman which the mountaineer manages to best in his resilience to the wind and cold.

The better qualities of humanity are to be found in the idyllic closing tale which takes place in a village lost to time. Here there is no electric, no violence, no crime. People live simply, and they die when they’re supposed to, leaving the world in celebration of a life well lived rather than in regret. People, says the old man, are too obsessed with convenience. All those scientists wasting their lives inventing things which only make people miserable as they tinker around trying to “improve” the unimprovable. As the young I says, he could buy himself as many peaches as he wanted, but where can you buy a full orchard in bloom?

Of course, Kurosawa doesn’t let himself off the hook either as the middle aged I finds himself sucked into a van Gogh painting, wandering through the great master’s works until meeting the man himself (played by Martin Scorsese making a rare cameo in another director’s film) who transforms his world through his unique perception but finds himself erased by it as his art consumes him to the point of madness. I wanders back through van Gogh’s landscapes, now broken down to their component parts before eventually extricating himself and arriving back in the gallery as a mere spectator. Even if the work destroyed its creator through its maddening imperfection it lives on, speaking for him and about him as well about a hundred other things for an eternity.

For all of the fear and despair, there is hope – in humanity’s capacity for endurance as in the Blizzard, in its compassion as in The Tunnel, and in its appreciation for the natural world as in The Peach Orchard alongside its need to re-envision its environment through the glorious imperfection of art. There is the hope that mankind may choose to live in The Village of the Water Mills rather than the hellish post apocalyptic world of fear and greed, however small and slim that hope maybe. Creating a living painting filled with hyperreal colour and a misty dreaminess, Kurosawa’s Dreams, like all dreams, speak not only of the past but of the future, not only of what has been but what may come. Equal parts despair and love, Kurosawa’s vision is bleak yet filled with hope and the intense belief in art as a redemptive, creative force countering humanity’s innate capacity for self destruction.


Original international trailer (irritating English language voiceover only)

Ran (乱, Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

ran posterAkira Kurosawa is arguably the most internationally well known Japanese director – after all, Seven Samurai is the one “foreign film” everyone who “doesn’t do subtitles” has seen. Though he’s often thought of as being quintessentially Japanese, his fellow countryman often regarded him as too Western in terms of his filming style. They may have a point when you consider that he made three different movies inspired by the works of Shakespeare (The Bad Sleep Well – Hamlet, Throne of Blood – Macbeth, and Ran – King Lear) though in each case it’s clear that “inspired” is very much the right word for these very liberal treatments.

In the case of Ran (乱) – a loose adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa moves the story to feudal Japan and an ageing king who this time has three sons rather than three daughters. This leaves Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) with a smaller problem than Lear’s though in his original idea of making his eldest son his heir with the other two inheriting smaller roles it’s clear things aren’t going to end well. Just as in the original play, the oldest two sons Taro and Jiro sing their father’s praises with cynical glee but the youngest and most sincere, Saburo, refuses to play this game as his respect for his father is genuine. Unfortunately, Saburo’s honesty sees him banished from his father’s kingdom and his share of responsibility given over to his treacherous brothers. Predictably, neither is satisfied with what they’ve been given and it’s not long before a familial conflict has sparked into a bloody civil war.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child….Hidetora is not quite as far gone as Lear in Shakespeare’s original text at the beginning of the film yet he is still unable to see that his oldest two sons have placed personal ambition ahead of filial piety. Hidetora was once a fearsome, if cruel, warrior, famous for burning enemy villages and creating peace only through destruction. He’s old now, and tired and so he proposes to hand over the running of the kingdom to his eldest son, yet – he wants to remain the de facto leader until the very end. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with Taro, or more to the point his ambitious wife Lady Kaede. Hidetora is thrown out of Taro’s castle and then also from Jiro’s before all out war erupts between the two leaving him totally isolated – a king without a kingdom.

Hidetora’s true madness begins when he realises not only how little regard his eldest two sons hold for him, but also that his failure to recognise the true nature of the situation has lead to the deaths of the people in his care that have remained loyal to him to the very end. As the enemy begin to engulf the castle, concubines begin helping each other to commit suicide in order to avoid ravishment while others try to escape but are cut down by arrow fire. This is all his own fault – his ruthless cruelty has been filtered down to his two oldest sons who, as he did, will stop at nothing in the pursuit of power. What is a king if not the father of a nation, and as a father he has failed. Neither Taro or Jiro are worthy of the offices afforded to them and lack both basic humanity and the princely power one needs to become the unifying force of a people.

Only too late does Hidetora see the wisdom in Saburo’s words and finally understand that he has alienated the only one of his children that truly loved him. From this point on his madness increases and Nakaidai’s performance becomes increasingly mannered and theatrical as if Hidetora himself is acting in another play which only he can see. Wandering and lonely, the once great king is reduced to the estate of a beggar led only by his fool and sheltered by the ruins of a castle which he himself burned down.

However, as great as Nakadai is (and he always is), he’s very nearly upstaged by the young Mieko Harada as one of the all time great screen villainesses with the Lady Macbeth a-like Lady Kaede. Filled with a vengeful fury, Kaede is unafraid to use every weapon at her disposal to achieve her goal. No sooner is she brought the news of her first plan’s failure in the death of her husband than she’s embarking on a plot to seduce his brother which includes getting him to execute his wife. Vile as Kaede’s actions often are, her desire for revenge is an understandable one when you consider that Hidetora was responsible for the deaths of her family leaving her to become a trophy bride for the son of the man that killed them. Viewed from another angle, it would be easy to sympathise with Kaede’s desire to rid the world of these cruel and tyrannical lords were it not for her insistence on the death of Lady Sue – a woman in exactly the same position as herself whose death would not actually advance her cause very much at all.

Kurosawa films all of this from a distance. We, the audience, almost become the gods he speaks of – the ones who weep for us, watching silent and helpless, unable to save us from ourselves. We see the world for what it is – chaos, horses and men and blood. The battles aren’t glorious, they are frenetic, frightening and ultimately pointless. Though for all that there is a beauty to it too and the sheer scale of the production with its colour coded princes and immense armies is one the like of which we will never see again.

Ran presents us with a prognosis which is even more pessimistic than that of Lear. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, as profoundly tragic as it is, there is at least the glimmer of hope. There is a new, rightful king and the idea that something has been restored. Here there is no such resolution, we are the blind man casting a stick around the edge of a precipice, entirely alone and unable to see the gaping chasm which extends before us into which we may plunge headlong driven only by the chaos in our own hearts. In the end, Kurosawa’s message is not so different from Shakespeare’s – all the weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Fathers and sons must strive to understand each other, and themselves, lest we fall into the eternal chaos which leads us to build our very own hell here on Earth.


Ran is currently playing in UK cinemas in a brand new 4K restoration courtesy of StudioCanal!

 

Murder in the Doll House (乱れからくり, Susumu Kodama, 1979)

murder in the doll houseYusaku Matsuda was to adopt arguably his most famous role in 1979 – that of the unconventional private detective Shunsaku Kudo in the iconic television series Detective Story (unconnected with the film of the same name he made in 1983), but Murder in the Doll House (乱れからくり, Midare Karakuri) made the same year also sees him stepping into the shoes of a more conventional, literature inspired P.I.

Toshio Katsu has had a bad day at the bicycle races, almost losing his entire salary before thinking better of it and retuning his last betting slips to buy himself some ramen. Originally hoping to write detective thrillers, Toshio had studied literature at university but later dropped out fearing he had no real talent as a writer. Spotting an ad for jobs at a P.I. firm he thinks it’s worth a shot. When he arrives at the Udai detective agency he finds it’s just one tiny office led by former police woman Maiko Udai. Being short on help, she hires Toshio right away and puts him to work on her number one case – investigating some interfamilial conflict at a top toy company. However, when their target is killed during a car chase, Maiko and Toshio find themselves trapped inside a maze of complicated tricks and devious puzzles.

Matsuda plays it a little straighter here as an, admittedly laid back, master detective with a knack for always being in the right place at the right time. The case at hand concerns an elderly toy magnate and his factory which is run by his son Soji as the president and his nephew Tomohiro as the manager of production. As might be expected there’s a fair amount of conflict between the two men which is exacerbated by an incident in which a series of racing cars the company was due launch had to be pulled following safety concerns leading Soji and Tomohiro to hold each other responsible for the failure. The old man wants the detectives to keep an eye on Tomohiro in case he decides to launch some sort of coup but just about everyone is acting suspiciously in this weird mansion which was built as some kind of folly with hundreds of built in tricks like a lakeside woodland labyrinth and secret underground passages. Oh, and there might even be some hidden Edo era treasure too. Before long people start dropping dead in increasingly bizarre ways.

In the best traditions of Japanese mystery stories which place fiendishly elaborate plots at their centre, Murder at the Doll House more than succeeds as a classic detective story. We’re presented with a set of strange occurrences which our master sleuth will explain to us in a long lecture at the end and even if one or two twists are a little obvious, the satisfaction involved in having figured them out ahead of time outweighs any kind of disappointment. Toshio may say he wants to be like Philip Marlowe but in actuality his detective is a little more in the European mould – almost like a more active Poirot or a slightly less obtuse Sherlock Holmes. Still, donning a trench coat with a turned up collar yet eschewing the classic hat which would have obscured his giant ‘70s perm, Matsuda once again turns in a very “cool” performance as super smart private eye.

Welcome to the Doll House isn’t quite as action packed as some of Matsuda’s other roles from this era even if it does have a genuinely thrilling finale. Making up for physical excitement with a more cerebral approach which mixes in a few horror tropes with the creepiness of the old house and “murder by doll” scenario, Murder at the Doll House makes for an enjoyably strange mystery adventure which also adds in a little quirky humour along the way for good measure.


Based on the novel by Tsumao Awasaka (not currently available in English).

Matsuda does some detecting (unsubtitled)