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)

The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Bad Sleep Well posterThere’s something rotten in the state of Japan – The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), Akira Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet, unlike his previous two Shakespearean adaptations, is set firmly in the murky post-war society which, it becomes clear, is so mired in systems of corruption as to be entirely built on top of them. Our hero, like Hamlet himself, is a conflicted revenger. He intends to hold a mirror up to society, reflecting the ugly picture back to the yet unknowing world in the hope that something will really change. Change, however, comes slow – especially when it comes at the disadvantage of those who currently hold all the cards.

We open at a wedding. A small number of attendants lineup around a lift waiting for the arrival of the married couple only for a carriage full of reporters to pour out, apparently in hope of scandal though this is no gossip worthy society function but the wedding of a CEO’s daughter to his secretary. The press is in attendance because the police are – they believe there will be arrests today in connection with the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing the company in which a number of employees are suspected of engaging in kickbacks on government funded projects.

The rather strange wedding proceeds with the top brass sweating buckets while the bride’s brother (Tatsuya Mihashi), already drunk on champagne, takes to the mic with a bizarre speech “refuting” the claims that the groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), has only married the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), for financial gain before avowing that he will kill his new brother-in-law if he makes his little sister sad. Nishi, as we later discover, has indeed married with an ulterior motive which is anticipated by the arrival of a second wedding cake in the shape of a building at the centre of a previous corruption scandal with one black rose sticking out of the seventh floor window from which an employee, Furuya, committed suicide five years previously.

The police are keen to interview their suspects, the press are keen to report on scandal, but somehow or other the system of corruption perpetuates itself. The top guys cover for each other, and when they can’t they “commit suicide” rather than embarrass their “superiors” by submitting themselves to justice. The system of loyalty and reward, of misplaced “honour” mixed with personal greed, ensures its own survival through homosocial bonding with backroom deals done in hostess bars and the lingering threat of scandal and personal ruin for all should one rogue whistleblower dare to threaten the governing principle of an entire economy.

Nishi chooses to threaten it, partly as an act of revolution but mainly as an act of filial piety in avenging the wrongful death of his father who had, in a sense, cast him aside for financial gain and societal success. Wanting to get on, Nishi’s father refused to marry his mother and instead married the woman his “superiors” told him to. Later, his father threw himself out of a seventh floor window because his “superiors” made him understand this was what was expected of him. Furuya wasn’t the last, each time a man’s transgressions progress too far his “superiors” sacrifice him to ensure the survival of the system. Strangely no one seems to rebel, the men go to their deaths willingly, accepting their fate without question rather than submitting themselves to the law and taking their co-conspirators down with them though should someone refuse to do the “decent” thing, there are other ways to ensure their continuing silence.

Reinforcing the post-war message, Nishi chooses a disused munitions factory for his secret base. Both he and his co-conspirator, a war orphan, had been high school conscripts until the factory was destroyed by firebombing and thereafter were forced to live by their wits alone on the streets. Nishi swears that he wants to take revenge on those who manipulate the vulnerable, but finds himself becoming ever more like his prey and worse, hardly caring, wanting only to steel himself for the difficult task ahead.

In any revolution there will be casualties, but these casualties will often be those whom Nishi claims to represent. Chief among them his new wife, Yoshiko, who has been largely cushioned from the harshness of the outside world thanks to her father’s wealth and seeming care. She loves her husband and wants to believe in her father or more particularly that the moral arc of her society points towards goodness. Nishi, tragically falling for his mark, married his wife to destroy her family but ironically finds himself torn between genuine love for Yoshiko, a desire for revenge, and a mission of social justice. Can he, and should he, be prepared to “sacrifice” an innocent in the same way the “superiors” of the world sacrifice their underlings in order to end a system of oppression or should he abandon his plan and save his wife the pain of learning the truth about her husband, her father, and the world in which she lives?

In the end, Nishi will waver. Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), will not. Goodness becomes a weakness – Iwabuchi turns his daughter’s love and faith against her, subverting her innocence for his own evil. He makes a sacrifice of her in service of his own “superiors” who may be about to declare that they “have complete faith” in him at any given moment. The only thing that remains clear is that Iwabuchi will not be forgiven, the wronged children of the post-war era will not be so quick to bow to injustice. Let the great axe fall? One can only hope.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)

north sea dragon dvd cover.jpgAt the beginning of the 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity would put the ninkyo eiga firmly to bed, but in the mid-1960s, they were still his bread and butter. Fukasaku’s earlier career at Toei leant towards the studio’s preference for youthful rebellion but with a stronger trend towards standardised gangster tropes than the countercultural thrills to be found in similar offerings from Nikkatsu. For Fukasaku the rebellion is less cool affectation than it is a necessary revolt against increasing post-war inequality and a constraining society though, as the heroes of If You Were Young, Rage or Blackmail is My Life find out, escape can rarely be found by illicit means. Jiro, the prodigal son of North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Hokkai no Abare-Ryu), finds something similar even whilst conforming almost entirely to Toei’s standard “young upstart saves the village” narrative.

Jiro (Tatsuo Umemiya), dressed in white with jet black sunshades, nonchalantly walks into his childhood fishing village filled with a sense of nostalgia and the expectation of a warm welcome. The village, however, is much changed. There are fewer boats around now, and the fishermen are all ashore. Arriving at his family home he discovers they now live in the boat shed and his mother doesn’t even want to let him in. Jiro, as his outfit implies, has spent his time away as a yakuza, and his family want little to do with him, especially as his father has been murdered by the soulless gangsters who are currently strangling the local fishing industry.

The local fishermen are all proudly tattooed but they aren’t yakuza, unlike the tyrannical son of the local boss, Gen Ashida (Hideo Murota), who carries around a double barrelled shotgun and fearsome sense of authority. The Ashidas have placed a stranglehold around the local harbour, dictating who may fish when and extracting a good deal of the profits. An attempt to bypass them does not go well for Jiro’s mother who is the only one brave enough to speak out against their cruel treatment even if it does her no good.

When Jiro arrives home for unexplained reasons he does so happily, fully expecting to be reunited with his estranged family. Not knowing that his father had died during his absence, Jiro also carries the guilt of never having had the opportunity to explain himself and apologise for the argument that led to him running away. An early, hot headed attempt to take his complaint directly to the Ashidas ends in disaster when he is defeated, bound, and whipped with thick fisherman’s rope but it does perhaps teach him a lesson.

The other boys from the village – Jiro’s younger brother Shinkichi (Hayato Tani) and the brother of his childhood friend Reiko (Eiko Azusa), Toshi (Jiro Okazaki), are just as eager as he is both to avenge the death of Jiro’s father and rid the village of the evil Ashida tyranny. Jiro tries to put them off by the means of a good old fashioned fist fight which shows them how ill equipped they are in comparison with the older, stronger, and more experienced Jiro but their youth makes them bold and impatient. The plot of Toshi and Shinkichi will have disastrous consequences, but also acts as a galvanising force convincing the villagers that the Ashidas have to go.

Jiro takes his natural place as the hero of a Toei gangster film by formulating a plan to undermine the Ashidas’ authority. His major strategic decision is to bide his time but he also disrupts the local economy by attempting to evade the Ashida net through sending the fisherman to other local ports and undercutting the Ashida profit margin. As predicted the Ashidas don’t like it, but cost themselves a crucial ally by ignoring the intense bond between their best fighter and his adorable pet dog. Things do not quite go to plan but just as it looks as if Jiro is about to seal his victory, he stays his sword. The Ashidas’ power is broken and they have lost enough already.

Fukasaku’s approach tallies with the classic narrative as the oppressive forces are ousted by a patient people pushed too far finally deciding to fight back and doing so with strategic intelligence. It is, in one sense, a happy ending but not one without costs as Jiro looks at the restored village with the colourful flags of fishing boats enlivening the harbour and everyone going busily about their work. He knows a sacrifice must be made to solidify his mini revolution and he knows who must make it. Like many a Toei hero before him, he prepares to walk away, no longer welcome in the world his violence has saved but can no longer support.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Detective Story (探偵物語, Kichitaro Negishi, 1983)

Dective Story 1983Yusaku Matsuda became a household name and all round cool guy hero thanks to his role as a maverick private eye in the hit TV show Detective Story, however despite sharing the same name, Kichitaro Negishi’s Detective Story movie from 1983 (探偵物語, Tantei Monogatari) has absolutely nothing to with the identically titled drama series. In fact, Matsuda is not even the star attraction here as the film is clearly built around top idol of the day Hiroko Yakushimaru as it adapts a novel which is also published by the agency that represents her and even works some of her music into the soundtrack.

As far as plot goes, Detective Story is the kind of good natured, innocent crime thriller that has all but disappeared since the 1980s. Yakushimaru plays teenage student Naomi who is due to move to America to be with her father in the very near future. However, Naomi is an inquisitive, mildly rebellious sort with a habit of sneaking out of her room through the window despite the fact that no one is preventing her simply leaving through the front door. Consequently someone or other has hired a detective, Tsujiyama (Matsuda), to keep an eye on her. This he does pretty well until he puts a stop to Hiroko making a huge mistake with a fellow student in a love hotel. Though Naomi is very not happy about a creepy old guy following her about everywhere, she gradually gets used to it and when Tsujiyama’s ex-wife gets caught up in a hotel room murder case, Naomi gets the inspiration to embark on some detective work of her own.

Despite the shadiness of the world that rich girl Naomi is about to get embroiled in, the film maintains a bright and cheerful tone – perhaps because of Naomi’s own straightforward innocence. Even if she very nearly falls for the advances of an obvious creep (seriously, the guy actually borrows money from his “girlfriend” ? right in front of Naomi to take her out on a date, after which he tries to persuade her to join him in a love hotel), Naomi’s teenage spunkiness largely keeps her out of trouble for the rest of the movie which sees her getting mixed up with nightclubs, showgirls and yakuza. Somehow there is very little feeling of actual danger in the film leaving this all feeling like the kind of thing that happens to Naomi all the time and is simply just one last adventure before she heads off to America.

It must have been something of a coup to get arguably the biggest movie star of the day, Yusaku Matsuda, to play second fiddle in a mainstream teen idol movie especially as his other film choices of the time seem to indicate a desire to get away from his tough guy persona into more dramatic roles. Tsujiyama is cool presence in his stylish brown suit, smoking away in the shadows content to simply keep watch. He’s the omniscient type who always seem to have a plan in motion yet it’s Naomi herself who takes the lead here, solving the case whilst saving Tsuijiyama and his damaged show girl of an ex-wife in the process.

As is common with these kinds of stories there is a light romantic subplot which is a little unseemly when you consider Yakushimaru was only 19 at the time and her character around the same age whereas Matsuda was already in his 30s. This plot strand is played a little strangely throughout the film with a tacked on airport gate conclusion which dissolves itself almost straightway but does play into the film’s coming of age themes as Naomi develops greater sense of herself as an adult woman rather than a reckless teenager.

Detective Story is no lost classic, it’s very much of its time and has perhaps faded a little as has the fame of its tentpole star. That said it’s a perfectly enjoyable cute teen idol detective story which overall succeeds in doing exactly what it sets out to do even if it proves a little dull in the execution. An interesting watch for fans of its two stars Hiroko Yakushimaru and Yusaku Matsuda and even for its director Kichitaro Negishi who has gone on to win some later critical acclaim particularly with the prestige drama Villon’s Wife in 2009, Detective Story is perhaps not worth an all night stakeout but at least warrants a cursory investigation.


Unsubtitled trailer:

and here’s a video of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the (very catchy) title song at a concert celebrating the 35th anniversay of her film debut (video has a bit about the concert at the beginning, fastfoward to 1:13 for the song only)

 

I Want to Be a Shellfish (私は貝になりたい, Shinobu Hashimoto, 1959)

shellfishAfter Japan was defeated and later occupied by the Americans, there came the painstaking exercise of examining what exactly had happened during the conflict and assessing is who, if anyone, could be held accountable for any wrongdoing. The so called “war criminals” were divided into classes according to the severity of their crimes with Tojo himself at the top who eventually paid with his life. However, many of the men who were given the same Class A rating were just rank and file soldiers who had been “following orders”, often because they feared for their own lives if they refused. The debut directorial effort from writer Shinobu Hashimoto who provided scripts for some of Akira Kurosawa’s most famous works, I Want to be a Shellfish (私は貝になりたい, Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai), examines just one of these tragically absurd cases.

Barber Shimizu has finally started to make headway in his very own shop where he lives happily with his wife and son when he’s unexpectedly drafted into the army towards the end of the war. Unused to heavy physical labour and a fairly gentle man, he doesn’t take well to the soldier’s life and gets himself into trouble with his C/O. Stationed near Tokyo, Shimizu’s squad is charged with searching for a pair of US airmen thought to have bailed out after their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid over the city. When they eventually find the pilots, both have already died of their injuries.

At this point Shimizu’s captain makes a cruel and rash decision – rather than sending the bodies back to HQ or burying them there, he decides to use them as target practice for his raw recruits. When ordered to pick out the two weakest soldiers, the NCO picks Shimizu and another man, Takita, who are then ordered to bayonet the corpses to prove what fine soldiers they have become. Though they both fail the first time the captain berates them until they finally comply.

The war ends and Shimizu goes home to his family only to receive a knock on the door from the war crimes commission who drag him off to Tokyo for trial. The trial itself is a farce, Shimizu is charged with executing a prisoner of war – the fact the pilots were both dead when found and therefore were never executed and were never even prisoners is never revealed by anyone. Finally classified as a Class A War Criminal, Shimizu is sentenced to death for having stabbed a corpse.

It goes without saying that, yes, terrible crimes were committed during the war and some of them deliberately and wilfully. However, in Shimizu’s case his crime is an absurd one. Though the way in which his superiors have treated the fallen soldiers of their enemies is far from humane, Shimizu has committed no murder and was just following the orders of his superiors. Improper as it may have been, it hardly warrants the loss of his own life and that he’s being placed in the same category as members of execution squads and those who wilfully participated in crimes against civilians is more than a little disproportionate.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the film is that Shimizu seems to have been denied a fair trial. To those who can understand both languages, or even just from the subtitles provided for the translation of the American prosecutor’s questions, it’s obvious that the way in which his questioning is being conducted is far from ideal. The translation gap between the two languages is immense and leads to a series of misunderstandings which in no way aid Shimizu’s case.

It’s also clear that the panel in charge of the trial have very little understanding of how the Japanese military works and how this might differ from American military law. Shimizu is repeatedly questioned about how he feels about the order he was given – a strange question given that the idea of not following an order is not one which immediately presents itself. Shimizu repeats the credo he was taught that an order from his C/O is the same as one coming directly from the Emperor. However, when translated, the prosecutor infers that Shimizu thinks his order came from the Emperor himself and stupidly asks if Shimizu actually met the Emperor in person. Likewise, they ask why he didn’t simply refuse to follow the order and when he replies that he believed he would be shot, they ask why he didn’t ask to be referred to a military court which is just not something that would have been reasonably feasible for a Japanese soldier in this sort of situation.

The fact that the soldiers were already dead to begin with is never even mentioned, by anyone. The highest ranking officer who ordered the search is held responsible even though his orders were to bring the men in alive. Shimizu’s captain has since killed himself, conveniently, leaving everyone else to take the fall for his inhumane decision.

At the end of the film as Shimizu is faced with saying goodbye to a world which has dealt him nothing but hardship other than the wife and son he will be forced to leave behind, Shimizu utters the film’s title. He wishes he were a shellfish buried deep at the bottom of the ocean far from humans and their capacity for cruelty. No poverty, no draft, no war, no absurd trials – free from this world of torment. A lament for the little guy paying the price for world gone mad, I Want to be a Shellfish is a bleak and tragic tale which is filled with universal quality of melancholic absurdity which continues into its heartbreaking final moments.


Bonus trivia – Frankie Sakai (more usually seen as a singer or in comedic roles) also played Shimizu the previous year in an enormously successful TV drama. This story has in fact been filmed several times, most recently as a feature film in 2008 and was inspired by the book by Tetsutaro Kato who was sentenced to death as a war criminal though later had his sentence commuted and was released for “good behaviour” in 1952 (but may not have been quite as innocent as poor old Shimizu).