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)

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (女囚さそり けもの部屋, Shunya Ito, 1973)

beast-stableAt the end of Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Matsu – the “Scorpion” of the title, had enacted parts of her revenge but lost even more friends and allies along the way. Still filled with an intense rage, she wandered away from her imprisonment towards the dawn and a free, if uncertain, future. It’s here we find her at the beginning of Beast Stable (女囚さそり けもの部屋, Joshu Sasori – Kemono Beya) – a fugitive from justice, but a seemingly calm one. Until, that is, she is cornered.

Beginning in an extremely memorable opening sequence, the film zooms in on Matsu riding a subway train like any other young woman when she gets spotted by a couple of policemen who decide to try and take her in. Whipping out her knife from under her coat, Matsu slashes away but is almost caught when one of the policeman handcuffs her. She reacts to this situation in a typically direct way by simply hacking the policeman’s arm off and running away with it.

Hiding out in a graveyard and gnawing at her macabre bracelet in an attempt to get it off, Matsu strikes up an improbable friendship with prostitute Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe). Yuki is harbouring a dark secret in that she keeps her brain damaged brother locked up in a back room where she is forced to satisfy his sexual urges lest he attack other women.

While working as a seamstress, Matsu becomes more and more involved with the underworld and its collection of pimps and madams, each eager to profit from the weakness and misfortune of others. Eventually, after becoming too much of a problem, Matsu is locked up again – but this time inside the birdcage of a dangerous and eccentric yakuza mama-san, Katsu (Reisen Lee), with the corpse of a less fortunate victim on the other side of the bars. New names are about to appear on Matsu’s ever growing grudge list as the wrongs done to others begin to outweigh the pain of those enacted on herself.

Beast Stable differs from the first two films in the series as it mostly takes place in the “free” world until it reenters the prison environment for the final stretch. Matsu may be out of jail but she’ll never be truly free and her intense inner rage might give her away if it weren’t for her the fact her face is plastered all over the city adorning wanted posters in every conceivable location. With no particular target for her vengeful spirit, Matsu is in survival mode but her growing alliance with Yuki and the cruelty of the underground sex industry quickly awaken her old fire.

This time the big bad is another woman – a cruel madam, willing to protect her investment to the max. When she finds out one of her girls has been hiding a pregnancy, she insists on an abortion even though the baby is six months or so along. Kicking and screaming, the pregnant woman is subjected to a horrific procedure conducted by a drunken doctor which is neatly contrasted with another abortion which is carried out with a much higher level of medical care. Needless to say, Matsu cannot let this one go and makes another of her daring and mysterious escapes to enact her revenge. As she leaves, she’s become a fury of vengeance once again – her face pixelated by the surgery window, shaving her of her identity.

Though more grounded in reality than Jailhouse 41, Beast Stable is still selling the ballad of Matsu as she continues her trajectory into legendary heroine status. Always playing a long game, Matsu has the uncanny ability to escape from any holding pen save the one that burns inside her mind. Having satisfied her personal desire for revenge, Matsu moves on to the cruelties of the wider world and those that bully and misuse already vulnerable people. Her sense of greater responsibility grows as her humanity begins to return through her friendship with Yuki which eventually becomes a deep alliance between two equally trapped women.

At the end of the film we’re told that Matsu served her prison sentence and was released, but no one knows what happened to her after that. Her apotheosis is complete as she becomes the legend – a wandering heroine, meeting out justice in a cruel and indifferent world. Kaji continues to excel in her performance of the near silent Matsu, burning with rage and resentment in every scene. Beast Stable would be Ito’s final contribution to the series and acts as a suitable conclusion to the trilogy as Matsu finally becomes Scorpion in our imaginations and, strangely, our hearts.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW/gore)

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (蛇娘と白髪魔, Noriaki Yuasa, 1968)

snake girl and the white haired witchLittle Sayuri has had it pretty tough up to now growing up in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, but her long lost father has finally managed to track her down and she’s going to able to live with her birth family at last! However, on the car ride to her new home her father explains a few things to her to the effect that her mother was involved in some kind of accident and isn’t quite right in the head. Things get weirder when they arrive at the house only to be greated by the guys from the morgue who’ve just arrived to take charge of a maid who’s apparently dropped dead!

If that weren’t enough her “mother” calls her by the wrong name and then dad gets a sudden telegram about needing to go to Africa for “several weeks” to study a new kind of snake! On her tour of the house, Sayuri finds a room full of snakes, reptiles and insects (and also for some reason a large vat of acid?!) as well as a room with a buddhist altar where the food seems to disappear just as if Buddha himself were really eating it. Eventually, Sayuri is introduced to her secret sister, Tamami, who has slight facial disfigurement and a wicked disposition which has seen her locked away from view for quite some time…..

Based on the manga by Kazuo Umezu, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (蛇娘と白髪魔, Hebi Musume to Hakuhatsuma) is, apparently, aimed at a younger audience which explains its child’s eye view of events but the film makes no concessions to the supposed softness of little minds. With a host of surreal imagery including dream sequences full of creepy, hypnotic spirals, and moments of shocking violence such as a large frog being suddenly ripped in half right in front of Sayuri’s eyes the film certainly doesn’t stint on blood, horror and general freakiness.

Sayuri herself seems largely unperturbed by these strange goings on outside of her nightmarish serpentine visions. She seems to have been well cared for at the orphanage and is happy to have found her family rather than just to be escaping the institution. On getting “home” she does her best to fit in right away, acting politely and trying to bond with her mother even in her confused state. She even tries to get on well with her mysterious sister despite the ominous warning to keep her very existence a secret from her father. Tamami, however, is a nightmare child with homicidal tendencies who isn’t interested in playing happy families with the girl who’s come to usurp her place in the household.

There’s a little more to the set up than just snake based horror (the clue being the Silver-Haired Witch of the title) but the secondary message seems to be one of remembering that the true beauty of a person lies not in their external appearance but in the goodness of their soul. The previously deformed Tamami is later said to be looking sweeter after having “redeemed” herself and Sayuri pledges to honour Tamami’s sisterly sacrifice by always remembering to hold fast and true to the beautiful things in her own soul without being swayed by worldly charms.

Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is more of a psychological horror tale than some of the effects laden efforts of the period. However, there are a fair few practical effects on show most notably during the dream sequences – one of which sees Sayuri actually fighting a giant snake with a sword, as well as the creepy spirals and the appearance of weird vampire-like snake women, dancing oni masks and the Silver-Haired Witch herself.

A children’s film that no one in their right mind would actually show to a child, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a freakishly psychological horror show seen through the eyes of a little girl. Part dreamscape and part terrifying reality, the film mixes the real and the imagined with a fiendish intensity and it just goes to show that sometimes you really do need to pay attention to the strange fancies of intrepid young ladies.


This trailer doesn’t have any subtitles but it is actually quite scary…..