Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gate of Hell (地獄門, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Which is the greater challenge to the social order, love or ambition, or are they in the end facets of the same destabilising forces? Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (地獄門, Jigokumon) is, from one angle, the story of a man driven mad by “love”, reduced to the depravity of a crazed stalker betraying his samurai honour in order to affirm his status, but it also paints his need as a response to the chaos of his age along with its many repressions while the heroine is, once again, convinced that the only freedom she possesses lies in death. Yet in the midst of all that, Kinugasa ends with a triumph of nobility as the compassionate samurai restores order by rejecting the heat of raw emotion for an internalised contemplation of the greater good. 

Set in the 12th century, the film opens in revolt as two ambitious lords combine forces to attack the Sanjo Palace in what would become known as the Heiji Rebellion. The lords have attacked knowing that Taira no Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is not in residence, having departed on a pilgrimage. Fearful for the safety of his sister and father, retainers order decoys to be sent out to distract the rebels. Kesa (Machiko Kyo), a court lady in service to the emperor’s sister, agrees to be her decoy and Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), a minor retainer, is ordered to protect her. He manages to escort her back to his family compound where he assumes she will be safe, transgressively giving her a kiss of life, pouring water into her mouth with his own, after she has fainted during the journey. Unfortunately, Morito has miscalculated. His brother has sided with the rebels and they are not safe here. During the chaos they go their separate ways, and as soon as Kiyomori returns he puts an end to the rebellion restoring the status quo.  

Shocked at his brother’s betrayal, Morito tells him that only a coward betrays a man to whom he has sworn an oath of loyalty but he explains that he is acting not out of cowardice but self interest. He has made an individualist choice to advance his status in direct opposition to the samurai code. Morito doesn’t yet know it but he is about to do something much the same. He has fallen in love with Kesa and after meeting her again at the Gate of Hell where they are each paying their respects to the fallen, his brother among them, is determined to marry her, so much so that he asks Kiyomori directly during a public ceremony rewarding loyal retainers for their service. The other men giggle at such an inappropriate, unmanly show of emotion but the joke soon fades once another retainer anxiously points out that Kesa is already married to one of the lord’s favoured retainers. Kiyomori apologises and tries to laugh it off, but Morito doubles down, requesting that Kiyomori give him another man’s wife. 

This series of challenges to the accepted order is compounded by a necessity for politeness. Morito is mocked and derided, told that his conduct is inappropriate and embarrassing, but never definitively ordered to stop. Making mischief or hoping to defuse the situation, Kiyomori engineers a meeting between Morito and Kesa, cautioning him that the matter rests with her and should she refuse him he should take it like a man and bow out gracefully. Kesa, for her part, has only ever been polite to Morito and is extremely confused, not to mention distressed, by this unexpected turn of events. She is quite happily married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata) who is the soul of samurai honour, kind, honest, and always acting with the utmost propriety. That might be why he too treats Morito with politeness, never directly telling him to back off but refusing to engage with his inappropriate conduct. That sense of being ignored, however, merely fuels Morito’s resentment. He accuses Kesa of not leaving her husband because Wataru is of a higher rank, as if she rejects him out of snobbishness, rather than accept the fact she does not like him. 

Morito continues in destructive fashion. We see him repeatedly, break, smash, and snap things out of a sense of violent frustration with the oppressions of his age until finally forced to realise that he has “destroyed a beautiful soul” in his attempt to conquer it. “One cannot change a person’s feelings by force” Wataru advises, but is that not the aim of every rebellion, convincing others they must follow one man and not another because he is in someway stronger? The priest whose head was cut off and displayed at the Gate of Hell was killed in part because he reaped what he had sown in beheading the defeated soldiers of a previous failed revolution. Morito kills a traitor and he falls seemingly into rolling waves which transition to an unrolling scroll reminding us that rebellions ebb and flow through time and all of this is of course transient. Only Wataru, perhaps ironically, as the unambiguously good samurai is able to end the cycle, refusing his revenge in the knowledge it would do no real good. Morito is forced to live on in the knowledge of the destruction his misplaced passion has wrought, standing at his own Gate of Hell as a man now exiled from his code and renouncing the world as one unfit to live in it. 


Gate of Hell is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1947)

vlcsnap-2019-03-27-01h39m45s435The Taisho era was, like that of the post-war, a time both of confusion and possibility in which the young, in particular, looked for new paths and new freedoms as the world got wider and ideas flowed in from every corner of the globe. In The Love of the Actress Sumako (女優須磨子の恋, Joyu Sumako no koi), the second of a loose trilogy films about female emancipation, Kenji Mizoguchi took the real life story of a pioneering actress of Western theatre and used it to explore the progress of lack there of in terms of social freedoms not only for women but for artists and for society as a whole.

We begin in late Meiji as theatre director Shimamura (So Yamamura) fights to establish a foothold of Western-style “art theatre”, moving away from the theatricality of kabuki for something more immediate and naturalistic. He has, however, a problem in that as women were not allowed to take to the kabuki stage all of his students are male and casting a man to play a woman’s role would run counter to his desires to create a truly representative theatre. It is therefore lucky that he runs into Sumako Matsui (Kinuyo Tanaka) – a feisty, determined young woman who had divorced her first husband for infidelity and then left the second when he complained about her desire to pursue a career on the stage. In Sumako, Shimamura finds a muse and the ideal woman to portray the extremely controversial figure of Nora in his dream production of Ibsen’s incendiary A Doll’s House.

Shimamura casts Sumako because he sees in her some of Nora’s defiance and eventual desire to be free from illusionary social constraints, but it is in fact he who ends up embodying her spirit in real life. Somewhat feminised, Shimamura is in a difficult position in having married into his wife’s family, leaving him without real agency inside his own home as evidenced by his mild opposition to his daughter’s arranged marriage. While he wishes that his daughter be happy and if possible marry for love, Shimamura’s wife is very much of the old school and wants to make the best possible match in terms of financial gain and social status, viewing emotional compatibility as a low priority (the daughter herself as relatively little say). Unwisely falling in love with Sumako, it is he who eventually decides to follow Nora’s example by walking out not only on his family but also on the theatre company. He does this not quite because the scales have been lifted from his eyes – he was never under any illusion that his arranged marriage was “real” and there is of course an accepted degree of performance involved in all such unions, but because he finally sees possibility enough in his love for Sumako and the viability of emotionally honest Western art to allow him to break free of outdated feudal ideas of familial obligation.

Nevertheless, making a career as an artist is a difficult prospect in any age and Shimamura’s emotional freedom quickly becomes tied up with that of his art. Sumako’s Nora proves a hit (in the last year of Meiji), but he is ahead of his times both in terms of his liberal, left-wing philosophy and his determination to embrace modern drama in a still traditional society. The roles we see Sumako perform, including that in Tolstoy’s Resurrection which was another of those that helped to make her name, are all from proto-feminist plays which revolve around women who, like herself, had chosen to challenge the patriarchal status quo in pursuit of their own freedom and agency. Shimamura’s wife makes no secret of her outrage to her husband’s desire to stage A Doll’s House, viewing Nora’s decision as “selfish” and perhaps of a subversion of every notion she associates with idealised femininity. Though not so far apart in age, Sumako is a woman of Taisho who left not one but two unfulfilling marriages and is determined to forge her own path even if that path eventually leads her to subsume her own desires within those of her lover as the pair attempt to put their social revolution on the stage.

The revolution, however, does not quite take off. Despite good early notices, Shimamura’s Art Theatre company quickly runs into trouble. Faced with financial ruin, he does what any sensible theatre producer would do – he begins to prioritise bums on seats and acknowledges that if he’s to keep his company afloat and facilitate his dream of making Western theatre a success in Japan he’ll have to compromise his artistic aims  by putting on some populist plays. Of course, this sudden concession to commercial demands does not go down well with all and some of his hardline actors begin to leave in protest not just of his selling out but of his twinned desire to make Sumako his star.

Tellingly, the pair are eventually forced out of Japan entirely to tour the beginnings of empire from Korea to China and on to Taiwan. Their ideas are too radical and their society not quite ready for their messages even if not initially as hostile as it would later become. Shimamura works himself to the bone trying to keep his dream alive, eventually damaging his health. Sumako remains somewhat petulant about being forced into an itinerant lifestyle while her onstage personas come increasingly to influence her offstage life until it is said of her that her performance is “no longer an interpretation but an extension of reality”. In this, Sumako has, in a sense, achieved Shimamura’s dreams of a truly naturalistic theatre, but it comes at a cost, as perhaps all art does, and, Mizoguchi seems to suggest, becomes a kind of sacrifice laid down to a society still too rigid and unforgiving to appreciate its sincerity. Nevertheless, their boldness, as fruitless as it was, has started a flame which others intend to keep burning, eventually becoming a beacon for another new world looking to rebuild itself better and freer than before.


Short clip featuring Sumako’s performance as Carmen.

The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1960)

Wandering Princess posterAs in her third film, The Eternal Breasts, Kinuyo Tanaka’s fourth directorial feature, The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Ruten no Ouhi), finds her working with extremely recent material – in this case the memoirs of Japanese noblewoman Hiro Saga which had become a bestseller immediately after publication in 1959. Tanaka’s filmic adaptation arrived mere months later in January 1960 which was, in an ironic twist, a year before the real life tale would meet something like the conventional romantic ending familiar from classic melodrama. Nevertheless, working with Daiei’s top talent including Kon Ichikawa’s regular screenwriter (and wife) Natto Wada, Tanaka attempts to reframe the darkness of the preceding 20 years as the defeat of compassionate idealism at the hands of rigid austerity and unstoppable oppression.

Tanaka opens with a scene taking place in 1957 which in fact depicts a somewhat notorious incident already known to the contemporary audience and otherwise unexplained on-screen in which the older Ryuko (Machiko Kyo) tenderly bends over the body of lifeless schoolgirl. The camera then pulls back to find another girl in school uniform, Ryuko, twenty years earlier. A young woman with innocent dreams, Ryuko’s life encounters the usual kind of unwelcome disruption in the unexpected arrival of a marriage proposal but this is no ordinary wedding. Ryuko, as the oldest daughter of a prominent noble family, has been selected as a possible bride for the younger brother of the former Qing emperor now installed as the symbolic leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria. Against the odds, Ryuko and her new husband Futetsu (Eiji Funakoshi) are well matched and endeavour to build a happy home together just as they intend to commit themselves to the creation of a new nation born from the twin legacies of the fallen Chinese empire and the resurgent Japan.

Foregrounding Ryuko’s experience, the film does its best to set “politics” aside but the inescapable truth is that each of our protagonists is a prisoner of the times in which they live. The second scene finds Ryuko in 1937 as an innocent schoolgirl gazing at the young men in uniform as they march past her. She remains out of step with them, walking idly and at her own uneven rhythm while they keep rigorous and seemingly unstoppable time. The family are understandably wary of the implications of the marriage proposal, especially as it comes with a military escort, with Ryuko’s beloved grandmother the only one brave enough to ask to see whoever’s in charge of this outrage only to be told that their fates are in the hands of the nebulous concept known as “army” which knows no individual will.

Assured by her family that the decision rests with her, Ryuko consents – not only to becoming a stranger’s wife (which would have been her fate in any case) but to being a kind of ambassador, the presentable face of imperial ambition. On her marriage she’s presented with a deep red cheongsam and continues to dress in Chinese fashion for remainder of her life in Manchuria where she learns to speak Mandarin and devotes herself to becoming as Chinese as it’s possible to be. Meanwhile, her husband Futetsu busies himself with a complementary desire to become Japanese, intensely worried that the sometimes degrading treatment he and his family receive is exclusively caused by his problematic nationality. When their daughter, Eisei, is born, the couple determine to raise her as the child of a new world, the embodiment of idealised cultural integration.

The world, however, is not so kind and the blunt force of militarism continues to present a barrier to familial harmony. Futetsu is prevented from seeing his brother by the officious forces of the military police while the lonely, paranoid “emperor” suspects that Ryuko is nothing more than a Japanese spy sent to undermine his rule. Ryuko was sent to Manchuria to be the bridge between two cultures. Her, in a sense, feminine energy which attempts to build connection through compassion and understanding is consistently contrasted with the prevailing male energy of the age which prizes only destruction and dominance. Filled with the naivety of idealism, she truly believes in the goodness of the Manchurian project and is entirely blind to the less altruistic actions of her countrymen engaged in the same endeavour.

Confronted by some children in a park while pushing the infant Eisei in a pram, Ryuko is identified as a Japanese woman by her accent while conversing in Mandarin. She assures the children that Eisei is Manchurian like them, and that seeing as she married a Manchurian she is now too despite her Japanese birth. The kids are satisfied, so much so that they warn her that some Manchurians were killed recently in this park by Japanese soldiers, adding a mild complaint that it upsets their parents when Japanese people come to their restaurant and leave without paying. Mortified, Ryuko decides to use some of her (meagre) resources to buy all of the kids and everyone else in the park some sweets from a nearby stand, fulfilling her role as a Japanese ambassador even while insisting that she is a proud citizen of the newly born state of Manchuria.

Nevertheless the Manchurian project is doomed to fail, the kind of idealism fought for by Ryuko and Futetsu crushed under the boot of militarism. Despite everything, Ryuko still wants to be the bridge if only to prevent a catastrophe of this kind happening again (while perhaps refusing to engage with some of the reasons it happened in the first place) but in Eisei’s eventual death, foreshadowed in the melancholy opening, a deeply uncomfortable implication is made that the kind of cross-cultural harmony that Ryuko dreams of may not be viable. In contrast to the salaciously reported real life events (somewhat alluded to by presence of a schoolboy’s cap next to the body) which hinted at a suicide pact or murder, Ryuko attributes Eisei’s decision to end her life to an inability to reconcile her twin heritage coupled with the heavy burden of being the last descendent of the Qing Dynasty. Despite this minor misstep of tying the fate of Eisei to the failure of the Manchurian dream and the loss of its misplaced idealism, Ryuko ends her account on a hopeful note in admiring the flowers she planted finally in bloom and looking forward to a more hopeful age governed by warmth and compassion rather than violence and austerity.


The Wandering Princess was presented by Japan Foundation London as part of a series of events marking the publication of Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity.

Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

Hanzo sword of Justice posterJapanese cinema was in a state of flux in the early ‘70s. Audiences were dwindling. Daiei, a once popular studio known for polished, lavish productions folded while Nikkatsu took the proactive measure to rebrand itself as a purveyor of soft core pornography. Toho did not go so far, but in its first foray into a new kind of jidaigeki, exploitation was the name of the game. Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (御用牙, Goyokiba) was released in 1972 – the same year as the beginning of another seminal series, Lone Wolf and Cub, which was produced by Hanzo’s star, former Zatoichi actor Shintaro Katsu, who also happens to the be brother of the franchise’s lead Tomisaburo Wakayama. Like Lone Wolf and Cub, Hanzo the Razor is based on a manga by Kazuo Koike whose work later provided inspiration for the Lady Snowblood films, and is directed by Lone Wolf and Cub’s Kenji Misumi. It is then of a certain pedigree but its intentions are different. More obviously comedic in its exaggerated, unpleasant sexualised “humour”, Hanzo the Razor is also a tale of the systemic corruption of the feudal order but one which casts its “hero” as a noble rapist.

Honest and steadfast police officer Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) usually skips the annual swearing in ceremony but this year he’s decided to make an appearance. He appears to have done so to make a personal stand by refusing to sign the policeman’s oath because he knows everyone else is breaking it. Officers may not be doing something so obvious as accepting cash for preferential treatment, but they gladly accept free drinks, gifts from lords, and entertainment in the local geisha houses. Hanzo’s actions, honest as they are, do not go down well with his fellow officers and if he can’t figure something out on time, Hanzo faces the possibility that his career in law enforcement may come to an abrupt end when contracts are up for renewal at the end of the year.

Whatever else Hanzo is, he doesn’t like bullies or those who abuse their authority and the trust placed in them by those they are supposed to be protecting. More than just saving his own skin, Hanzo is determined to unmask the hypocrisy and corruption of his boss, Onishi (Ko Nishimura), who he discovers shares a mistress with a notorious killer still on the run. Chasing this early thread, Hanzo walks straight into a chain of corruption which leads all the way to the top.

At his best, Hanzo is a steadfast champion of the people who remain oppressed by the corrupt and venal samurai order. Far from the a by the books operative, Hanzo is prepared to do what’s best over what’s right as in his decision to help a pair of siblings who are faced with a terrible dilemma trying to care for a terminally ill father. He’s also extremely well prepared, having installed a host of booby traps and hidden weapons caches throughout his home to deal with any conceivable threat. Dedicated in the extreme, Hanzo has also spent long hours testing his torture techniques on himself to find out the exact point of maximum efficiency for each of them.

Here’s where things get a little more unusual. As Hanzo climbs down from a bout of torture, a huge erection is visible inside his loincloth, prompting him to reveal that it’s pain which really turns him on. Later we see Hanzo doing some maintenance on his “tool” which involves placing it on a wooden board bearing a huge penis shaped indent, and hitting it repeatedly with a hammer before ramming it back and forth into a bag of uncooked rice. Each to their own, but Hanzo derives no pleasure from these acts – they are simply to make sure his “special interrogation method” runs at maximum efficiency. Which is to say, Hanzo’s preferred technique for getting women to talk amounts to rape but as each of them fall victim to his oversize member they cry out in pleasure, willing to spill the beans just to get Hanzo to finish what he started. Playing into the fallacy that all women long to be raped, Hanzo’s inappropriate misuse of his own authority is played for laughs – after all, the women eventually enjoy themselves so it’s no harm done, right? Troubling, but par for the course in the world of Hanzo.

This essential contradiction in Hanzo’s character – the last honourable man who nevertheless abuses his authority in the course his duty (though he apparently takes no personal pleasure in the act), is reduced to a roguish foible as he goes about the otherwise serious business of taking down corrupt authority and ensuring the law protects the people it’s supposed to protect. Odd as it is, Hanzo’s world is an strangely sexualised one in which sexually liberated women wield surprising amounts of power. Hanzo is assured one of his targets has “no lesbian tendencies” as other older court ladies are said to, while a gaggle of camp young men gossip about the size of Hanzo’s world beating penis. In an odd move, Misumi even includes a penis eye view of Hanzo’s techniques, superimposed over the face of a woman writhing in pleasure. Surreal and broadly humorous if offensive, Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice is very much of its time though strangely lighthearted in its obviously bizarre worldview.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Odd Obsession (鍵, Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

odd-obsessionJunichiro Tanizaki is widely regarded as one of the major Japanese literary figures of the twentieth century with his work frequently adapted for the cinema screen. Those most familiar with Kon Ichikawa’s art house leaning pictures such as war films The Burmese Harp or Fires on the Plain might find it quite an odd proposition but in many ways, there could be no finer match for Tanizaki’s subversive, darkly comic critiques of the baser elements of human nature than the otherwise wry director. Odd Obsession (鍵, Kagi) may be a strange title for this adaptation of Tanizaki’s well known later work The Key, but then again “odd obsessions” is good way of describing the majority of Tanizaki’s career. A tale of destructive sexuality, the odd obsession here is not so much pleasure or even dominance but a misplaced hope of sexuality as salvation, that the sheer force of stimulation arising from desire can in some way be harnessed to stave off the inevitable even if it entails a kind of personal abstinence.

Our narrator for this sardonic tale is an ambitious young doctor, Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai), who opens the film in an unusually meta fashion with a direct to camera address taking the form of a brief lecture on the decline of the human body (which begins at age ten and then gets progressively worse). Kimura reminds us that we too will grow old, but his warning is intended less to engender sympathy for the elderly patriarch who will become our secondary protagonist than it is to raise a grim spectre of the inescapability of death.

The story Kimura wants to tell us of a man who fought against senility centres on antiques expert and respected cultural critic Kenmochi (Ganjiro Nakamura). Advanced in years, Kenmochi is beginning to feel the darkness encroaching along with the desire to resist it through restored virility. For this reason, he’s been making regular appointments at Kimura’s clinic which he keeps secret from his wife who would be unhappy to know he’s been getting mysterious injections to help with his sex drive but which also come with a number of side effects including dangerously raising his blood pressure.

Eventually Ikuko (Machiko Kyo), Kenmochi’s slightly younger wife and mother of his grown up daughter Toshiko (Junko Kano), does indeed find out though what she does not appear to know is that Kenmochi has also been drugging her so that he can take photos of her naked body and enjoy his rights as her husband without her needing to be 100% present at the time. Kenmochi’s plan is to lure Kimura into having an affair with his wife so that the resultant jealousy will stimulate his system, staving off senility and other unwelcome effects of ageing. This would be strange enough on its own were it not that Kenmochi has also been trying to set up a marriage between Toshiko and Kimura who are already engaged in a discreet affair.

In contrast with the source material which takes the form of a number of diary entries providing differing perspectives on events, the film takes the point of view of the cynical and morally bankrupt doctor Kimura who feels himself above this “pathetic” old man with his sexual preoccupations and diminished prospects. As the narrator, Kimura evidently believes himself in control but Ichikawa is keen to play with our sense of the rules of storytelling to show him just how wrong he could be. Intrigue is everywhere. Kenmochi may think he’s using all around him in a clever game to prolong his own life but he’s entirely blind to a series of counter games which may be taking place behind his back.

Sex is quite literally a weapon – aimed at the heart of death. Kimura recounts a dream he sometimes has in which he is shot through the heart in an arid desert, only for this same scene to invade the mind of a paralysed Kenmochi on gazing at the naked body of his wife. The marriage of Kenmochi and Ikuko has apparently been a cold (and perhaps unhappy) one with Kenmochi berating his wife for remaining “priest’s daughter” all these years later, prudish and conventional. Nevertheless, Ikuko – the kimonoed figure of the traditional Japanese wife, subservient yet mysterious and melancholy, becomes the central pivot around which all the men turn, eclipsing her own daughter – a Westernised, sexually liberated young woman rendered undesirable in her very availability. Kimura is not quite the destructive interloper of Pasolini’s Theorem so much as he is a “key” used by Kenmochi to “unlock” a hidden capacity within himself but one which, as it turns out, opens many doors not all of them leading to intended, or expected, destinations.

Ichikawa continues with a more experimental approach than was his norm following the bold opening scene in which Kimura directly addresses the audience with a straight to camera monologue. A pointed symbolic sequence of a train coupling, freeze frames, dissolves and montages add to his alienated perspective as he adopts Kimura’s arch commentary on the ongoing disaster which is the extremely dysfunctional Kenmochi family home. Middle class and well to do, the Kenmochis’ lives are nevertheless empty – the house is mortgaged and the beautiful statues which taunt Kenmochi with their physical perfection have all already been sold though Kenmochi refuses to let the buyer take them home. Old age should burn and rave at close of day, but as the beautifully ironic ending makes plain it will be of little use, death is in the house wearing an all too familiar face which you will always fail to recognise.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Opening scene (no subtitles)

Warning from Space (宇宙人東京に現わる, Koji Shima, 1956)

Warning_from_Space_1956
Taro Okamoto illustration from Japanese DVD liner notes

Apparently the citizens of Japan are a little more cautious than some of their contemporaries when it comes to extraterrestrial contact. After all, the kindly aliens who visit with helpful advice in The Day the Earth Stood Still end up leaving in a huff because humanity is just not ready to accept their offers of interplanetary research and is constantly trying eliminate the alien “threat”. Hence, though the people of Japan recoil in horror from the Pairans in their scary starman shape, they start paying attention when they come in the form of a pretty showgirl. Somethings never change, eh?

Mysterious flying objects have been spotted above the skies of Tokyo. Nobody knows what they are with some leaning towards aliens and others becoming paranoid that Japan is under attack from another nation who are positioning spy satellites above its capital city. There have also been sightings of mysterious creatures near sources of water, usually accompanied by blue flickering lights.

These strange creatures turn out to be a scientific delegation from the planet Paira (inconveniently located directly opposite Earth but behind the sun which is why it’s never been discovered). They are a race of star shaped bipedal creatures with a single eye in the middle of their chests. Actually, they are quite cute and completely non-threatening in appearance and seem quite hurt that the Earthlings think they are ugly and are too frightened to talk to them. Consequently, they send their best scientist through a special process to change his appearance to one humans find more appealing which just happens to involve copying that of a local superstar showgirl.

The Pairans have come in peace! With their advanced technology they can see a rogue planet is about to crash into Earth and destroy it forever. This is bad news for everyone so they’ve come to warn humanity and try to help, if only they could get someone to listen to them. They also know that Doctor Matsuda has been developing a nuclear weapon which is far more powerful than the atomic bomb. The Pairans think this is a very bad idea and he should stop, but only after they’ve used it to destroy the rogue planet before it’s too late.

Warning from Space (宇宙人東京に現わる, Uchujin Tokyo ni Arawaru) is Daiei’s first colour sci-fi film though it’s actually not all that colourful aside from that weird blue light. In contrast to many other films from the era and even those previously made by Daiei, Warning From Space seems to have an oddly ambivalent view on weapons of mass destruction. The Pairans have chosen Japan because they think the Japanese are the best placed to appreciate the destructive power of an atomic bomb and will therefore share their stance on the necessity of abandonment. Yet, they also know Dr. Matsuda has been working on an even more destructive weapon – the Pairans also discovered this power at some point in their history but abandoned it over fears of its power being misused. They supposedly developed a much safer way to harness nuclear energy but now need Matsuda’s research to destroy the rogue planet. Like much of the Pairan’s behaviour, this doesn’t make complete sense (at least, to those of us used to Earth logic).

The Pairans are very friendly, but a bit shy. Their idea of “making contact” seems to be running away when the humans spot them and start screaming. Seeing something so unusual is probably quite traumatising, but the Pairans are so cute with their starfish outfits and comical waddle that it’s strange to think anyone could find them threatening. The Pairans are even a little upset that Earthlings find them “ugly”. They think the best thing to do is appear in a more pleasing form so they freak everyone out by visiting a popular musical show and stealing a picture of the star to clone. Because every scientist on Earth is going to want to listen to the advice of a cabaret showgirl, right? That’s always how it happens. She doesn’t even care very much about maintaining her disguise and keeps doing alien stuff like jumping really high in the air or dematerialising in one place and rematerialising somewhere else, but then no one seems to find this that weird anyway.

Basically, the Pairans have come to tell the Earthlings not to go ahead with their weapons research because they don’t know what they’re getting into. However, they also need to use this research to destroy the rogue planet which is a bit contradictory. The Pairans are apparently too shy to actually talk to the UN and think the other nations are kind of mean anyway so Japan will have to sort this out on their own while the Pairans nod appreciatively in the background (other than when they randomly disappear for a whole month until coming back to sort everything out because humans are rubbish). Of course, evil corporations are also after Matsuda’s super weapon but he’s a proper scientist and doesn’t want to sell, so they kidnap him and tie him to a chair out of spite while the world simultaneously floods and burns thanks to the rogue planet’s effect on the atmosphere.

Finally, science saves the day in a quiet and methodical way! All the creatures of the Earth emerge from underground. The birds are singing, turtles are swimming, racoons are doing racoon stuff again all while the sun is shining brightly and children are singing, so it’s definitely all going to be OK and Earth has probably made a whole new set of star shaped friends! All in all it was probably worth near destruction. Warning from Space is the kind of science fiction film which is always 100% serious, with the consequence that it’s not serious at all. Not as much fun as some of other B-movies of the era it nevertheless adds its own charms particularly in the form of the completely batty Pairans and their cute star shaped suits but fails to offer anything memorable beyond them.


Original trailer (poor quality, no subtitles)

The adorable starfish-like Pairans were designed by iconic Japanese artist Taro Okamoto who is probably best known for the Tower of the Sun constructed for Expo ’70.

The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1969)

haunted castle 1969These days, cats may have almost become a cute character cliche in Japanese pop culture, but back in the olden days they weren’t always so well regarded. An often overlooked subset of the classic Japanese horror movie is the ghost cat film in which a demonic, shapeshifting cat spirit takes a beautiful female form to wreak havoc on the weak and venal human race. The most well known example is Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko though the genre runs through everything from ridiculous schlock to high grade art film.

Daiei’s 1969 genre effort The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Hiroku Kaibyoden) sits towards the high art end but remains firmly within the realm of entertainment. Displaying the high production values the studio was known for, the film paints its 18th century tale with a plush opulence and makes fantastic use of the nighttime gloom to evoke a gothic, supernatural atmosphere which is at least extremely unsettling even if it stops short of actual terror.

As for the story, it’s another take on the classic Japanese supernatural tale The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima. Events are set in motion when blind monk Mataichirou and his sister Sayo run into their lord whilst out walking one day. Lord Tangonokami Nabeshima takes a liking to Sayo and wants to add her to his collection of concubines. He despatches an underling to ask Mataichirou about it, but Mataichirou understandably refuses, offering the excuse that Sayo is “too awkward” and the the lord wouldn’t find her very good company anyway. Nabeshima is angry at this affront to his authority and summons Mataichirou for their regular round of Go where Mataichirou once more resolutely refuses to surrender his sister. When Mataichirou realises Nabeshima and his aid are cheating, the pair argue and Nabeshima loses his temper and kills him.

This is a big problem for several reasons so they pretend not to know anything about it and dump the body in a well. Fearing discovery, they also banish the sister, Sayo, but she opts to commit harakiri and begs the weird cat that had been attached to her brother to drink her blood and become a demon to enact their revenge! Soon enough, two maids are dead in the Nabeshima household and the lord’s favourite mistress is refusing to take baths and has developed a liking for fish which she previously could not stand….

Ghost cats mostly come at night (mostly) so the majority of the film takes place in the intense darkness of the pre-electric world. The cat begins to stalk its prey quietly with only the tinkling of its ghostly bell and then tiny, bloody paw prints left as evidence of a supernatural killing. Tanaka opts for a floating, dreamlike shooting style weaving a degree of hypnotic confusion into the proceedings which also manage to keep up a high level of tension as the demonic cat spirit goes about its bloody business.

Of course, the moral of the tale is to live your life in a more altruistic manner – stop trying to take things which aren’t yours, respect the views of others, and don’t lose your temper and rashly kill people for no reason at all. All good advice there. The “hero” of the story is the more sympathetic vassal, Komori, who is trying to broker a satisfactory outcome of this complex situation right from the start, but finds himself frustrated as the servant of an unreasonable lord whose will cannot be restrained. Komori can’t avoid the supernatural retribution but manages to ride the waves well enough to ensure a morally satisfying ending where corruption is exposed and the land returned to its rightful owners rather than remaining in the hands of a lascivious usurper. It’s an old story, but a good one, and is presented with such a degree of sophistication to make The Haunted Castle one of the better horror offerings of the late ‘60s.


 

The Invisible Man vs The Human Fly (透明人間と蝿男, Mitsuo Murayama, 1957)

The Invisible Man Vs the Human FlyWho would win in a fight between The Invisible Man and The Human Fly? Well, when you think about it, the answer’s sort of obvious and how funny it would be to watch probably depends on your ability to detect the facial expressions of The Human Fly, but nevertheless Daiei managed to make an entire film out of this concept which is a sort of late follow-up to their original take on Invisible Man Appears from 1949. Like that film, The Invisible Man vs The Human Fly (透明人間と蝿男, Tomei Ningen to Hae Otoko) also adopts a deadpan, straightforward tone despite its rather ridiculous premise.

Tokyo is being plagued by a series of mysterious murders occurring in broad daylight in which the victim is stabbed through the back piercing the heart yet witnesses report seeing no suspicious activity near the crime scene. Perhaps The Invisible Man did it, hahaha….However, when the man sitting next to the professor in charge of researching the “imperceptibility device” is murdered in an aircraft toilet, the police get wise to a possibly surreal explanation for these bizarre crimes. The only other evidence they have is a connection between a sleazy nightclub owner, a friend of his and one of the murdered men who briefly served together during the war, the fact that one of the victims pointed at the sky before dying, and reports of a strange buzzing sound….

Interestingly, the major viewpoint here is from the policemen investigating the case and their attempts to get their heads around this extremely unusual series of events. As often happens with revisiting a form of technology which has been used for ill in the previous picture, here the “imperceptibility device” becomes a force for good as it might be able to help the powers at be stamp out The Human Fly. This time there’s not so much of the accompanying madness which is caused by going invisible but there’s still a heavy price to be paid as no one’s figured out a way of turning back which doesn’t involve rapid death from cancer immediately afterwards.

By contrast, The Human Fly is born of a man made serum developed by Japanese mad scientists during World War II and brought back by a man who was abandoned on an island by his comrades and subsequently left to take the wrap at a war crimes tribunal. He wants to use the technology to further his own success yet has a minion carrying out most of the dirty work. The Human Fly serum does, apparently, carry a number of psychological side effects including violent impulses, paranoia and addiction.

The special effects are not quite as good as in Invisible Man Appears though the invisible antics are not the focus of the film anyway. Bizarrely, The Human Fly is just a shrunken man who is somehow able to zip about like a regular fly even though he’s still dressed in his normal business suit and keeps his arms rigidly to his sides like some kind of human torpedo. Apparently, the buzzing sound is made because of his being very small (so says science) which gets around the inconvenient truth of him not having any wings or other fly-like characteristics other than the ability of flight.

It’s all very silly, though not quite silly enough in places. For the most part, the film plays out like a regular police procedural with slight noir undertones despite the obvious strangeness of the mysteries at hand. Though there’s obviously something to be made about the origin of the Human Fly serum and the anger of the “war criminal” who feels himself betrayed by his country, it’s a fairly subtle comment on post-war resentment. However, attitudes to the practice of scientific research do seem to have shifted with the researchers investigating the imperceptibility device cast as the good guys (though no particular reason for their work is ever offered) who can be relied upon to help catch the “bad guys” who are making use of “bad technology” to do “bad things”.

A fairly solid B-movie though one which is perhaps a little too po-faced for its genretastic title, The Invisible Man vs The Human Fly is an interesting mix of noir crime thriller with a little science fiction and even a few horror trappings thrown in. Thanks to its straightforward approach it may prove a little dull for genre enthusiasts but does offer its own kind of surreal iconography and it’s difficult to forget the sight of a tiny, angry looking besuited man flying around and committing random crimes while an invisible opponent stalks him from the shadows.


Scientific technology being put to a predictable use…..

Invisible Man Appears (透明人間現る, Nobuo Adachi, 1949)

Invisible man appearsReleased in 1949, The Invisible Man Appears (透明人間現る, Toumei Ningen Arawaru) is the oldest extant Japanese science fiction film. Loosely based on the classic HG Wells story The Invisible Man but taking its cues from the various Hollywood adaptations most prominently the Claude Rains version from 1933, The Invisible Man Appears also adds a hearty dose of moral guidance when it comes to scientific research.

Once again the action centres around an esteemed chemist, Professor Nakazato, who has been working on a serum to render living things invisible. So far he has a sample which works on animals but is reluctant to move on to human testing as A) he hasn’t found a way to reverse the procedure, and B) there are some unpleasant side effects in which the subject becomes increasingly violent and irrational. The professor currently has two top students who are helping him towards his goal and, inconveniently, both have taken a shine to his daughter, Machiko. Half joking, the professor remarks that whoever can solve the problem first will win his daughter’s hand.

A business associate of the professor, Kawabe, is also interested in Machiko and also in the rights to the professor’s important new discovery. The professor, however, is a responsible man and refuses to sell it in case it falls into the wrong hands. Shortly after the professor is kidnapped by a gang of armed thugs who plan to use the serum to steal a set of diamonds known as The Tears of Amour.

There’s plenty of intrigue with various twists and turns to the original story which keep the viewer on their toes as they try to figure out who exactly is the invisible man and what he’s really after. Actually, the solution is sort of obvious and heavily signposted but that doesn’t make it any less fun. Kawabe is a moustache twirling villain from the get go and it’s obvious he has various things going on in the background but there’s more to the story than a greedy business man trying to manipulate everyone around him for his own gains. There’s also an interesting subplot in which the younger sister of one of the scientists is a top actress at the Takarazuka Review and turns out to have a connection to the Tears of Amour.

All of the classic B-movie hallmarks are here from the slightly ridiculous sci-fi jargon to the classic women in peril shenanigans as the serum starts to take hold and the Invisible Man becomes increasingly paranoid. There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so – so it would be for science as far as the film is concerned. According to the message at the film’s beginning and end, there is no scientific discovery which is innately “evil” but each is apt to be misused. It’s not difficult to see why this would be a popular, even essential, message in the Japan of 1949 and indeed it recurs in many films of this type including, of course, the original Godzilla. The professor takes responsibility for having invented something which, although not created with evil intent, has wrought such destruction on society but finds himself with nothing left to do other than apologise.

Director Nobuo Adachi uses a lot of classic silent cinema techniques such as dissolves and montages with a fair amount of handheld camera and some location shooting (though the majority of the film is studio bound). The special effects were supervised by Eiji Tsuburaya who would later become the founding father of tokusatsu and co-creator of the Godzilla franchise and are top notch for the time period. An enjoyably silly B-movie, The Invisible Man appears is a well crafted addition to the Invisible Man corpus and a fantastic example of Daiei’s post-war genre output.


This is an unsubtitled trailer but I wish all trailers were this much fun!