Gojoe (五条霊戦記, Sogo Ishii, 2000)

gojoe-2Not your mama’s jidaigeki – the punk messiah who brought us such landmarks of energetic, surreal filmmaking as Crazy Family and Burst City casts himself back to the Middle Ages for an experimental take on the samurai genre. In Gojoe (五条霊戦記, Gojo reisenki), Sogo Ishii remains a radical even within this often most conservative of genres through reinterpreting one of the best loved Japanese historical legends – the battle at Kyoto’s Gojoe Bridge . Far from the firm friends of the legends, this Benkei and this Shanao (Yoshitsune in waiting) are mortal enemies, bound to each other by cosmic fate but locked in combat.

Following a war between the Heike and Genji clans, the Heike have assumed power sending the Genji into retreat and exile. All should be well, but a mysterious force is taking the lives of Heike guardsmen. Around this time, former bloody warrior turned Buddhist monk Benkei (Daisuke Ryu) has received a prophecy that his path to enlightenment lies in vanquishing the “demon” which is killing soldiers in needlessly bloodthirsty ways. The Heike are not so much afraid of a supernatural threat as they are of a predictable one – the first son of the Genji whom they intended to murder as a child but later set free. Shanao (Tadanobu Asano ), only just come of age, wants his right and just revenge to restore his clan to its rightful place, but this is a dark time and there are more powerful forces at play than traumatised monks and disinherited princes.

The world of the jidaigeki, though often violent, has its own degree of careful order – rules which must be followed, pledges which must be honoured, and causes which must be seen through at any cost. The world of Gojoe is a necessarily chaotic one in which a fragile peace has been forged through violence and trickery but the sins of the past weigh heavy on those trying to forge ahead in the new era.

The Benkei of the legends is fiercely loyal to his lord, but this Benkei is very much a lone wolf, standing apart in his desire to expiate his sins. Though his fellow monk tries to convince him that the prophecy he’s been given is nothing but a delusion, Benkei is determined to find his peace through killing a literal demon rather than tackle the ones inside his mind. Nevertheless, the past is ever present through flashbacks, even at one point revisiting one of the darker elements of the Benkei story – the killing of a child who might be his own.

The “demon” which Benkei seeks turns out to be three orphaned children who have been trained by the remnants of their clan to seek nothing other than revenge. Shanao is more killing machine than man, thinking of nothing other than assuming his rightful role as the head of the Genji and restoring his family honour. When the two meet, each regards the other as “demonic” but Shanao has a point when he asks Benkei if it’s not his own heart which is unquiet. Where Benkei is contained rage, Shanao is calmness and refinement personified.

Benkei is joined for some of his journey by the comparatively more everyman presence of Tetsukichi (Masatoshi Nagase), formerly a master sword maker who’s taken to robbing corpses after growing disillusioned with his craft which often saw his beautiful handiwork in the hands of hypocritical warrior monks. “What’s so great about being alive anyway?” he asks at one point, not long after reminding Benkei that “this hell” is all of his making. Hell this is, Ishii’s world is bathed in fire and blood as petty clan conflict burns the villages of ordinary peasants who are so far removed from this sword bearing society as to be otherwise unaware of it. The peasants have their own problems to deal with as a shaman calls for the brutal beating to death of a pregnant woman supposedly infected by a “demon” and about to give birth to a “demon child”, but even if Benkei is moved to counter this instance of injustice, he is not willing to follow through when it comes to the larger implications of his decision.

The supernatural elements are more a means of cosmological explanation than they are of real threat yet Ishii conjures a dark and creepy world of ominous shadows and ever present danger. Fantasy tinged action allows for giant blood sprays as heads come off with abandon, but the sword fights themselves are both beautifully choreographed and filled with intensity. The final battle between Shanao and Benkei heads off in an unexpectedly experimental direction as swords spark against a starless sky until a cosmic event allows their fierce conflict to erupt into a raging fire, destroying the bridge and everything it stands for. There is no resolution here, only a passage of one state to the next as Benkei and Shanao live on in altered forms. Conducted to the pulsing, warlike drumbeats of a typically exhilarating Ishii score (composed by Ishii’s own band, Mach 1.67), Gojoe is jidaigeki reimagined for the modern era bringing all of the genre’s anxiety and spiritual conflict with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Panic High School (高校大パニック, Sogo Ishii, 1978)

Panic High SchoolSogo (now Gakyruu) Ishii was only 20 years old when Nikkatsu commissioned him to turn his smash hit 8mm short into a full scale studio picture. Perhaps that’s why they partnered him with one of their steadiest hands in Yukihiro Sawada as a co-director though the youthful punk attitude that would become Ishii’s signature is very much in evidence here despite the otherwise mainstream studio production. That said, Nikkatsu in this period was a far less sophisticated operation than it had been a decade before and, surprisingly, Panic High School (高校大パニック, Koukou Dai Panic) neatly avoids the kind of exploitative schlock that its title might suggest.

Back in 1977, though sadly little has changed in the intervening 40 years, schools are little more than pressure cookers slowly squeezing out every inch of individuality from the young people trapped within them as they cram for tests in subjects they might not actually understand. When a pupil commits suicide, the head master offers a few words of condolence over the tannoy system which the form tutor later backs up by emphasising that no one knows why the boy did this and that it probably has nothing at all to do with the school, exam pressure, or his performance in the recent mock exams. The school expect a line to be drawn here and for everyone to forget about it and get back to work.

However, when the teacher, Ihara, starts going on about the league tables suffering if the kids don’t buckle down some of them have had enough. One young man, Jono, looses it completely and takes a swing at the teacher only to miss and run out of the school in a panic. Whilst wandering around town he passes a gun shop and swipes a rifle before returning to the classroom and assassinating the maths tyrant. Not knowing what to do next, Jono hides out in the school building taking some of his friends hostage and then all hell breaks loose.

At its core, Panic High School is satire laying bare the crisis in Japan’s educational system which places undue emphasis on one particular set of exams which will determine the entirety of a person’s life. The teachers are cruel and heartless, little more than cogs in a machine. They don’t care about the kids, they only care about the statistics and the prestige associated with being the top high school in the area. All of these kids are bright, they already passed the stressful middle school entrance exams to get here, and the school just expects them to succeed but offers no support if they can’t.

Indeed, Ihara isn’t even teaching them anything. At the beginning of the film he asks a female student to solve an equation on the board. When she can’t, not only does he not explain the solution to her, he sends her outside adding to her original humiliation in front of the entire class and preventing her from actually learning how to solve the problem. When the next boy can’t solve it either he simply berates him for not studying, saying a “student at this high school should be able to solve this problem”. When the boy points out he did study but just doesn’t understand all he gets is abuse, no actual teaching at all.

Even when the police have been called, all anyone cares about is the reputation of the school. The headmaster keeps harping on about their status as the top school in the area and how “unfortunate” it would be if a student is killed inside the school – which is completely ignoring the fact that a teacher has already been murdered by a shotgun toting teenager right in the classroom. The police bungle the entire affair, starting by tearing apart Jono’s desk for clues including going right through his lunchbox and pointlessly cutting a hole in the bottom of his schoolbag. Bringing even more guns and riot police into the school to deal with one frightened boy who doesn’t want to shoot anyone else but is only trying to effect his escape (so he can take his entrance exams next year) is far from a good idea.

The kids are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take this anymore. The pressure is extreme and in the face of adult hypocrisy, it’s unsurprising that Jono and the other young people like him find themselves lashing out in extreme ways. Their teachers see them only as products, or even as components in the building of a “future” but never as people. Even if some of them start out wanting to help Jono, by the end even a teacher is trying to grab a gun screaming “That kid! I hate him now – I’ll kill him, he’s abandoned the most important thing – his education! He should never have come here in the first place!” putting the blame firmly on the boy and not on the system. In fact, the other teachers are busy in a huddle talking about how this is going to raise questions about the educational establishment and how they intend to mitigate that (they do not intend to address the “problems” in themselves).

While not as loud or as dynamic as some of Ishii’s later work, Panic High School displays much of his punkish sensibility even if it takes a form closer to ‘70s youth drama complete with all the zooms, whips and pans associated with the exploitation era. However, perhaps because Ishii’s own age is so close that of his protagonists the film is firmly on the side of youth. Far from a “youth in crisis” film, Panic High School places the blame firmly at the feet of the system which forces its young people into extreme and absurd situations. Notably different from Ishii’s later work in terms of tone and style, Panic High School is nevertheless an impressive studio debut feature and a strong indicator of the director’s continuing preoccupations.


Climatic scene from towards the beginning of the film (unsubtitled)

 

Attack! Hakata Street Gang (突撃!博多愚連隊, Sogo Ishii, 1978)

hakataSogo Ishii (now Gakuryu Ishii) was one of the foremost filmmakers in Japan’s punk movement of the late ‘70s and ‘80s though his later work drifted further away from his youthful subculture roots. Perhaps best known for his absurdist look at modern middle class society in The Crazy Family or his noisy musical epics Crazy Thunder Road and Burst City, Ishii’s first feature length film is a quieter, if no less energetic, effort.

Like his other films from the period, Attack! Hakata Street Gang (突撃!博多愚連隊, Totsugeki! Hakata Gurentai) is fairly light on actual plot but broadly follows a group of low level street punks who get themselves into trouble after accidentally shooting the son of a yakuza boss in the leg and leaving him to bleed to death. In trouble with both the law and the gangs the guys find themselves in the midst of a turf war they are ill equipped to handle.

Very clearly an early effort, Attack! Hakata Street Gang is an ultra low budget production filmed on the real streets starring Ishii’s friends rather than professional actors. It can’t claim to any level of aesthetic beauty and, in truth, is not particularly interesting in terms of look or style but is filled with Ishii’s characteristic energy and runs fast even given its brief 67 minute run time.

Generally, Ishii sticks to a naturalistic representation of the street punk world. Taking his cue from the realistic action genre pioneered by Fukasaku et al not long before the film’s release, Ishii employs a similar approach to the fight scenes shooting from the middle of the action and often from low angles. Full of handheld camera and shakey, unfocused shots Attack! Hakata Street Gang is filled with the kind of youthful freshness that was very in vogue at the time.

Ishii does not appear to want to offer any kind of critique of this extremely masculine, violent world but solely to capture it on film. The street punks themselves are not particularly well drawn but there is a notably strange set of characters including an ultranationalist and his younger brother with learning difficulties who wears an SS helmet and rides around on a pushbike with a large nazi flag flying on the back. Nicknamed “manji” (the word for the Japanese “swastika”) the boy is obsessed with warfare and dangerously gets hold of one of the guns his older brother has adapted from a toy to be able to fire real bullets. He’s more of a plot point than anything else but still offers a convincingly weird sample of modern street life.

Also in keeping with the recent brand of cool action dramas, the film has an energetic score which is perhaps more jazz fusion or blues rock than outright punk which gives it more of a nihilistic, sophisticated tone than the full on noise explosion of some of Ishii’s later efforts. By the time the guys have taken their final stand by capturing hostages and occupying the local kindergarten (literally kids with guns) it’s pretty clear that there is no way back for this collection of down and out street rats.

Perhaps more interesting as an early work of a master than in its own right, Attack! Hakata Street Gang is an energetic and youthful exploration of a little seen late 1970s subculture. Literally playing fast and loose, Ishii’s debut is in many ways a statement of intent and none the worse for it.


Trailer for the Sogo Ishii The Punk Years 1976 – 1983 box which includes this film (though unfortunatly does not include any subtitles).