Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊, Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)

Toei’s stock in trade through the 1960s had been the ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters set before the war and implicitly in a less corrupt Japan in which jingi could still triumph over the giri/ninjo conflict if at great personal cost to the idealistic hero. By the end of the decade, however, audiences were growing tired of yakuza romanticism particularly in the wake of grittier youth dramas produced by Nikkatsu. Originally conceived as a kind of sequel to Japan Organised Crime Boss, Kinji Fukasaku’s Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊,  Bakuto Gaijin Butai) marks a shift towards the jitsuroku or “true account” trend of the 1970s which would come to dominate the genre following the success of his Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle two years later, employing many of the same techniques from onscreen text to shaky handheld photography but doing so within the confines of moody noir as the hero emerges from a 10-year prison sentence into a very different Japan. 

When Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) gets out, he steps into an empty, windswept street his incongruous zori sandals clashing with his smart suit and sunshades and marking him out as a relic of a bygone era. He’s met only two loyal underlings, his gang apparently now disbanded following the death of his boss who refused to take his advice as regards the big name gang from Tokyo attempting to muscle in to their Yokohama territory. Part of the missing post-war generation, Gunji has no illusions about going straight, wandering into their former HQ now a derelict building and calling the guys, who’ve since moved on to more legitimate occupations, back together. He knows he can’t take on Daitokai with his meagre forces and so settles for extracting from them some compensation money to get out of town, later teaming up with Kudo (Noboru Ando) a similarly orphaned former member of a rival Yokohama gang wiped out by Daitokai, and resolving to relocate to Okinawa where he is convinced the post-war gangster paradise is still very much in existence. 

Okinawa was only “returned” to Japanese sovereignty in 1971, having been governed by the Americans since the end of the war, and of course maintains a large American military presence up to the present day. As such to Gunji, and in a yakuza movie trope which persists right into Takeshi Kitano’s Boiling Point, it exists in a permanent post-war present in which the conditions of the occupation are still very much in play. Gunji knows that he and his guys are products of the post-war era, they cannot adapt to the “new” world of corporatising yakuza in which street brawls and petty thuggery have given way to more sophisticated kinds of organised crime, and so they retreat into an Okinawan time warp, determining to steal turf from under two rival gangs who control between them the ports and the red light district mediated by black market booze from the American military.  

Fukasaku was apparently inspired by Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, intending to make a comment on resistance to American imperialism on the mainland though it has to be said that this is extremely ironic given that Japan is itself a coloniser of the Okinawan islands where there has long been a demand for self-determination and recognition of a distinct identity which has often been subject to oppression in the face of conformist Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the film continues the persistent theme that the chaotic post-war era which has come to a close thanks to rising economic prosperity in the time Gunji was inside is inextricable from the American occupation, implying that Okinawa is in a sense the last frontier and the only viable territory for men like Gunji who, like the melancholy ronin of the Edo era, lack the skills to live in time of peace.  

Nevertheless, modernity is also on its way to Okinawa and where there’s money there are gangsters so as expected Daitokai eventually rear their heads on the island pushing Gunji towards the revenge he didn’t want to take. The Okinawa he inhabits is one of loss and nostalgia, taking up with a sex worker who reminds him of the Okinawan woman who left him when he went to prison and perhaps playing into the slightly complicated political dialogue which positions Gunji as an ironic “migrant worker” salmoning back to Okinawa as many Okinawan youngsters are forced to travel to the mainland for work while the islands themselves remain, it’s implied, mired in poverty and crime economically dependent on the American military. Indeed, the head of the dock gang brokers a deal with Daitokai predicated on the fact that there is plenty of cheap labour available at the harbour. “Good place for a long life” he ironically adds, shortly before all hell breaks loose. Shot with typical Fukasaku immediacy, Sympathy for the Underdog looks forward to jitsuroku nihilism but does so through the prism of film noir cool as its fatalistic hero submits himself to his inexorable destiny.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Snake Woman’s Curse (怪談蛇女, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1968)

The landed gentry find themselves haunted by the feudal legacy in Nobuo Nakagawa’s Meiji-era ghost story, Snake Woman’s Curse (怪談蛇女, Kaidan Hebi-onna). Though the figure of the vengeful ghost is rightly feared, they are rarely directly dangerous pushing their targets to damn themselves as they rail against the manifestation of their deeply buried guilt, yet the guilt here is perhaps buried deeper still as those who once had power find themselves floundering in the death throws of feudalism. 

As the opening voice over explains, the screen oppressively letterboxed to an extreme degree, the tale takes place in Onuma, a small village yet to be Westernised where the ruling family brutally exploit the tenant farmers still regarded as part of their fief. Old Yasuke (Ko Nishimura) chases after the local lord Onuma (Seizaburo Kawazu) and begs him not to kick him off his land, vowing that even if he has to eat dirt he will repay his debts. Onuma pays him no attention and Yasuke is soon thrown by the wayside after trying to catch hold of his cart. Concussed, all he can do is repeat his pleas not to lose the farm, and though he seems to recover passes away some days later leaving his wife Sue (Chiaki Tsukioka) and daughter Asa (Yukiko Kuwahara) alone. Heartless, Onuma evicts the women and knocks the house down to plant mulberry trees in its place while offering them “jobs” in his household for which they will not be paid for at least 10 years while they work off Yasuke’s debts. 

In addition to terrorising the peasants on the land, we discover that the Onumas are also running a sweatshop, a sign on the wall of Asa’s new place of employment reading that she must rise at 4am and be at work by 5 where she must stay until 9pm. There is to be no talking between the women in the workplace. Sue meanwhile is enlisted as a maid, but Onuma’s wife Masae (Akemi Negishi) immediately takes against her while she is continually sexually harassed by Onuma. Like father like son, the young master Takeo (Shingo Yamashiro) has also taken a fancy to Asa, though he is soon to be married to the daughter of the local mayor (Yukie Kagawa), a match all seem to regard as auspicious. 

Immediately after his soul vacates his body, Yasuke fetches up to haunt Onuma who is perhaps more affected by his guilt than his feudal upbringing would allow him to admit. Questioned later, he likens the peasants on his land to worms in the earth claiming that the deaths of one or two are no real matter and in any case nothing at all to do with him. “You people can survive drinking water and eating anything” he cruelly snaps back seconds after exclaiming he will fire the entire weaving staff as if that would put an end to the curse, paying little consideration to the fact he’s likely just condemned them to starvation. An exploitative landlord, he cares nothing for his feudal responsibility and all for his privileges. He and his son reserve the right to do as they please, regarding peasant women as theirs to be taken and having no real right to refuse. They do not believe there are any consequences for their actions because they are in a sense above the law of the land. 

Yet modernity is coming. We see our first uniformed policemen descend on the village after Sutematsu (Kunio Murai), Asa’s intended before her virtual enslavement through debt bondage, creates a scene at Takeo’s wedding in protest of the family’s treatment of Asa. Onuma’s attempts to reject the authority of the police in refusing their summons, describing it as “rude”, roundly fail, as do his attempts to leverage his feudal privilege in threatening to have the police chief fired in order to avoid answering his questions. His grip on authority is weakening as power necessarily reverts to the mechanisms of the state rendering him in some senses equal with those who till the soil. 

Even so, it’s spiritual rather than Earthly justice which will eventually do for him. The ghosts, such as they are, are mere echoes of time repeating the essential messages of the moments in which they died. Yasuke pleads for his land, he does not harm Onuma directly but causes Onuma to harm himself as he thrashes around trying in vain to vanquish a ghost with his gentleman’s cane. The family is, essentially, crushed under the weight of their feudal injustices as their noble house collapses all around them with modernity knocking on the door. Shooting in unusually lush colour, Nakagawa makes the most of his famously effective ghostly apparitions, finally drenching the screen itself in blood, but closes with an image of serenity in which justice of a kind at least has been served leaving the wronged to walk peacefully towards salvation while their tormentors will perhaps be travelling in another direction condemned not only for their own heartless venality but for that of the system that allowed them so ruthlessly to exploit those they ought to have protected. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Horrors of Malformed Men (江戸川乱歩全集 恐怖奇形人間, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

Horrors of Malformed Men posterThe line between madness and sanity is often a thin one, entirely dependent on a series of social perceptions themselves dictated by a vague concept of time and morality. Horrors of Malformed Men (江戸川乱歩全集 恐怖奇形人間, Edogawa Rampo Zenshu: Kyofu Kikei Ningen), loosely inspired by an Edogawa Rampo short story The Strange Tale of Panorama Island as well as a series of similarly themed tales from East and West, is set in 1925 – the end of “Taisho” which is to say immediately before the problematic “Showa” era marked by its own kind of madness and defeat if also by a gradual rebirth. Nevertheless, madness reigns in here though it’s madness of a very particular kind as those excluded from a fiercely conformist society seek to remake the world in their own image and take a horrifyingly poetic revenge on the rest of humanity for their failure to embrace difference.

The tale begins with amnesiac medical student Hirosuke (Teruo Yoshida) who finds himself inside a cage at a mental institution surrounded by screaming, half naked women one of whom attacks him with a knife. Luckily, the knife turns out to be a stage prop with a retractible blade presumably given to the unfortunate woman wielding it as a kind of calming device. Eventually rescued by the warden who attacks the mad with whips as if they were mere cattle, Hirosuke retreats to his cell to ponder on his current circumstances, if he is really “mad” or the only sane man in an insane world. Meanwhile, he is plagued by the memories of a long forgotten lullaby and the vision of a woman’s face suddenly contorting, transformed into a horrifying monstrosity.

Managing to escape, Hirosuke gets a lead on the lullaby that takes him to a coastal village where he discovers that a man who looks eerily like himself has recently passed away. Hoping to solve a series of mysteries, he fakes his own death and manages to convince the other villagers that he is the recently deceased Genzaburo somehow resurrected and risen from the grave. Where all this takes him is to a mysterious island where Genzaburo’s father Jogoro (Tatsumi Hijikata) – a hideously deformed man with webbed fingers, has been trying to create his own bizarre society.

Horrors of Malformed Men was technically “banned”, or perhaps it’s better to say suppressed in an act of self censorship by a nervous studio, but not so much for its gleefully surreal grotesquery as for the “malformed” in the Japanese title which is in fact an extraordinarily offensive word. In any case it adopts a typically difficult position towards those it calls “malformed” as warped both in body and mind. Our mad scientist, Jogoro is a man driven insane by his society’s consistent rejection of him. When the beautiful wife he has somehow managed to win displays only disgust towards his twisted body and finally betrays him by sleeping with her handsome, sensitive cousin, Jogoro’s mental stability is forever fractured leading to his dark desire to take revenge on the “perfect” world by creating his own “malformed” creatures mirroring his own spiritual decline.

Jogoro’s island is a place of “madness” where spiritual corruption leads only to a kind of devolution in which animalistic desires exist only to be sated. Here there is no love or community, only a cold and individual progress towards oblivion. Hirosuke enters a nightmare of a waking sort in which he must confront himself, his family legacy, and a potential conflict between his own desires and the rules of society. Yet he is also haunted by the image of an as yet unseen future of where such ugliness may lead. Jogoro’s otherworldliness and deformities, his singleminded to desire to remake the world with himself on top and others all below, speak of a madness yet to come and the terrible retribution which would be exacted for it.

As if to reinforce his own message, Hirosuke declares himself not of this kind – he chooses to remove himself from a world with which his personal desires are incompatible, maintaining their purity in refusing to live on indulging in a practice most would regard as so taboo as to constitute a kind of “madness” all on its own rather than honouring civilisation by living on in denial. Something tells him, this is where he’s been heading all along. Deeply strange, surreal, and perhaps questionable in its final moment of capitulation which lays the blame for the entire sad and sorry escapade at the feet of a scornful woman rather than the society which both forced her to marry a man she didn’t like and encouraged her to reject him on the grounds of his “ugliness”, Horrors of Malformed Men is not a story about madmen and weird islands but of the evil that men do and the pain it leaves behind.


Horrors of Malformed Men is available on blu-ray from Arrow Films. The set includes two audio commentaries – one featuring film critic Mark Schilling ported from a previous release, and the other a new commentary by film scholar Tom Mes, as well as interviews with Shinya Tsukamoto and Minoru Kawasaki on Ishii’s career, and footage of Ishii visiting the Udine Far East Film Festival. The first pressing also comes with a booklet featuring a wide ranging essay by Jasper Sharp plus shorter essays by Tom Mes on Ishii’s career and Grady Hendrix on Edogawa Rampo.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Tomu Uchida, 1965)

Fugitive from the past“There’s no way back” intones a spirit medium in the throws of a possession early on Tomu’s Uchida’s three hour police procedural, A Fugitive from the Past (飢餓海峡, Kiga kaikyo, AKA Straits of Hunger). Her message will be repeated frequently throughout the journeys of our three protagonists – a guilty man seeking escape from himself, the hooker with a heart of gold who thinks of him as a “kind person”, and the obsessive policeman whose quest to find him threatens to destroy his own family and chance of ongoing happiness. Beginning in 1947, Uchida’s adaptation of the novel by Tsutomu Minakami is a cutting indictment of post-war inequalities but is also keen to remind us that the war was merely a symptom and intensifier of problems which existed long before and are likely to survive long after.

In 1947, three men in military uniforms attempt to escape from Hokkaido after committing a crime while the island is subject to a typhoon warning. Using a ferry disaster in which hundreds of people have been killed as cover, the men steal a boat and try their luck on the stormy seas. Only one of them makes it. Once all the bodies from the ferry are accounted for, two more are discovered and later identified as recent parolees from Abashiri prison. The dead convicts are then linked to a local robbery, murder, and arson case in which a large amount of money was stolen leaving the third man, described by witnesses as bearded, tall and imposing, the prime suspect in the deaths of the two prisoners as well as the original robbery.

Calling himself “Inugai” (Rentaro Mikuni), the “third man” takes off with all the money and ends up forging an unexpectedly genuine connection with a cheerful prostitute just on the way back from her mother’s funeral. Yae (Sachiko Hidari), claiming to have seen through to Inugai’s kindly soul, seems to reawaken something within him but the next morning he moves on leaving only a vast a mount of money and some nail clippings behind him. Meanwhile, Yumisaka (Junzaburo Ban), the dogged policeman who discovered the convicts’ bodies, tracks him at every turn.

The world of 1947 is a hellish one in which perpetual hunger is the norm and crushing impossibility all but a given. Inugai is starving. With rationing in place the black market is flourishing while the unscrupulous profiteer off the back of other people’s desperation. This is a land of defeat where to survive at all is both shame and victory, yet somehow you have to go on living. Inugai, like many a hero of golden age Japanese cinema, is engaged in an internal war to erase the dark past, drawing a veil over what it took to move from post-war privation to economic prosperity. He does however take his unseeing further than most in adopting a new, more respectable persona, remaking himself as self-made man and wealthy philanthropist keen to “pay back” the society which has been so supportive of his “success”.

Thus when Yae, whose attempt to remake herself in the capital has fared far less well, spots Inugai’s photo in the papers and decides she just must track him down, it’s not that Inugai fears blackmail or even really that she poses a threat but that she shatters the integrity of his carefully crafted post-war persona and reminds him who he really is. A climactic storm mirroring that which illuminated their first meeting also graces their last as “Inugai” finally resurfaces, committing an impulsive act of animal violence which tugs at the strings of his new life and sets the whole thing unravelling.

Yae used Inugai’s money to pay off her debts and get out of the brothel, but even if the Tokyo of 1947 was warmer than that of Hokkaido it was no more kind and her attempt to lead an “honest” life was quickly derailed by underworld crime and unforgiving law enforcement. Realising there’s nowhere left for her to go she resigns herself to life in the red light district but does at least manage to find a “nicer” establishment run by a kindly older couple where the girls are like one big family. Her meeting with Inugai has come to take on mythical proportions in her mind – she even worships a tiny relic of him in the form of one of his nail clippings. Hoping to repay his kindness she commits herself to hard work and barely spends any of her money on herself, dreaming of the day she will one day see him again.

Yumisaka, however, mirrors Yae’s devotion in his all encompassing “hate” for Inugai as his obsession consumes him, costs him his job, and threatens to ruin his family. Alerted by two more bodies washing up out of the sea, a young detective (Ken Takakura) puts two and two together and gives Yumisaka a chance to vindicate his long held convictions but what they discover through the shifting sands of invented truths and corrupted memories is a legacy of suffering and resentment which runs far further back than the recent wartime past. As Yumisaka later puts it, those who’ve never been poor or miserable cannot understand the desperation felt by those who have in the presence of money. Inugai, poor and trapped by circumstance, longed to escape the drudgery of Hokkaido life but couldn’t live with what he did to do it and so conjured up another history for himself.

Still, the truth will out and there really is “no way back”, not for Inugai or for his nation which seems determined to continue unseeing the darkness of the previous 30 years as it begins to find a degree of comfort once again. Incorporating strong spiritual overtones from the sutras Yumisaka is so strangely adept at reciting to the gloomy intoning of the spirit medium, Uchida imbues all with a heavy sense of dread as a man attempts to outrun his fate by running from himself only to be tripped up by sudden moment of panic born of a lack of faith in his only true believer. A chronicle of the post-war era, A Fugitive From the Past makes poverty its ultimate villain but attempts to paper over spiritual corruption with the pretty trappings of conventional success will only end in ruin as the unresolved past eats away at the foundations of a brave new world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Brutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1965)

brutal tales of chivalry posterBrutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Showa Zankyo-den) – a title which neatly sums up the “ninkyo eiga”. These old school gangsters still feel their traditional responsibilities deeply, acting as the protectors of ordinary people, obeying all of their arcane rules and abiding by the law of honour (if not the laws of the state the authority of which they refuse to fully recognise). Yet in the desperation of the post-war world, the old ways are losing ground to unscrupulous upstarts, prepared to jettison their long-held honour in favour of a dog eat dog mentality. This is the central battleground of Kiyoshi Saeki’s 1965 film which looks back at the immediate post-war period from a distance of only 15 years to ask the question where now? The city is in ruins, the people are starving, women are being forced into prostitution, but what is going to be done about it – should the good people of Asakusa accept the rule of violent punks in return for the possibility of investment in infrastructure, or continue to struggle through slowly with the old-fashioned patronage of “good yakuza” like the Kozu Family?

Here is where we find ourselves in the 21st year of the Showa Era (1947) – the small marketplace in Asakusa is rife with black marketeers and illegal goods, but it’s still the only mechanism by which people are able to survive. The market is overseen by the elderly patriarch of the Kozu Family, Gennosuke (Tomosaburo Ii), who does his best to ensure a kind of “fairness” in its operation, at least in as far as yakuza rules extend. His territory is currently under threat from a rival gang – the Shinsei (literally “new truth”) who obey no such rules and are growing ever more ruthless in their quest to control the local area. Their big idea is to build an entirely new marketplace with a roof to make it a permanent and pleasant place for traders to do business – they will finance this through a kind of crowdfunding paid for by the merchants themselves who will also be paying protection money and kickbacks to the Shinsei. Everyone approves of the covered market project, even the Kozu, but if it means letting the Shinsei assume control is it a price worth paying?

This is a question which faces prodigal son Seiji (Ken Takakura) who returns from the war to find his city in ruins, Gennosuke murdered by the Shinsei, that he is now the new head of the Kozu, and that the woman he loved has been given away in a dynastic marriage to man from another minor clan. Before he died, Gennosuke was able to dictate two important instructions – that Seiji was to take over, and that the gang should proceed on a note of peace, avoiding violence or aggression where possible, leading by example rather than attempting to crush their new rivals. Seiji, having just returned from one battlefield is intent on following Gennosuke’s orders but how far can he really survive on the moral high ground when his opponents are content to fight dirty from down below?

The “Showa” era spanned some 60 years of turbulent Japanese history but in 1965 it was just under 40 years old and already beginning to generate the complicated feelings of nostalgia which are still attached to it today. Showa is right there in the Japanese title as if it were an age already passed but it’s clear in 1965 that something has shifted, one age has or is beginning to give way to another. The desperation of the post-war world with its empty, rubble strewn vistas and population filled with hunger and despair has ebbed away now that Japan is back on the world stage following the 1964 Olympics and the economy has as last begun to pick up. The young no longer fixate on the rights and wrongs of empire building, war and surrender but have begun to turn their attention towards the American occupation, social justice, and foreign conflicts. The young of 1947 were middle-aged in 1965, no one would begrudge them romanticising their youth, and so even if the world of Brutal Tales of Chivalry is a bleak one it still contains a kind of nostalgia for the kind of honourable gangster inhabited by Takakura who embodies traditional values some may feel are under represented in modern society.

Yet, for all that, there’s something subtly subversive in the film’s eventual suggestion that pacifism will only go so far and that one side or another must be banished from the battlefield through violence if peace is ever to prosper. Still, the struggle is a noble one in which honour is defined by strength of character and the selfless desire to ensure the well-being of others as much as it is to a blind observation of arcane rules and obsolete, meaningless ritual. The first in a long running series, Brutal Tales of Chivalry helped established Takakura’s iconic presence which eventually became synonymous with the “ninkyo eiga” as a personification of idealised Japanese masculinity, tough but caring even if passion is often repressed or redirected into violence. Remnants may be all that’s left of “chivalry” in the new Showa era, but there’s a degree of beauty in this brutality that refuses to die even as its era passes.


Now available on Region A blu-ray from Twilight Time (limited to 3000 copies only)

Original trailer (no subtitles)