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.

Blood End (天狗党, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1969)

When the black ships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853, it provoked a moment of crisis which eventually led to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. Between those two events however lay a period of intense confusion as several groups and movements attempted to lay claim to the future direction of the nation. Many, such as the legendary figure Sakamoto Ryoma, held that above all else Japan needed to Westernise as quickly as possible in order to defend itself against foreign powers now far more technologically advanced than the Japan which had attempted to hold back time for over 200 years. Others felt quite the opposite, that what was needed was an end to the corrupt rule of the Shogunate and the restoration of power to the emperor while expelling foreign influence and going back into isolation. 

Satsuo Yamamoto’s Blood End (天狗党, Teng-to) dramatises this debate through the melancholy tale of the Mito Rebellion as a brutalised peasant farmer is sucked in by the idea of revolution but eventually betrayed by it in discovering that the samurai, even revolutionary samurai, will never change. They may claim they want an end to the feudal caste system and to live in a world where all men are equal, but continue to feel themselves entitled to more equality than others and insist on deference from those they still believe to be inferior. 

The action begins with a scene familiar from many a jidaigeki in that a small farming community is being pressed to provide the usual amount of rice despite the failure of the harvest. Revolutionary yakuza Jingoza (Kanemon Nakamura) and egalitarian samurai Kada (Go Gato) stumble on the scene of a “stubborn” peasant being subjected to 100 blows as punishment for the village’s raising the unfairness of their situation with the local lord. Surviving his ordeal, Sentaro (Tatsuya Nakadai) asks only for water but is denied by his cruel samurai tormentor. Jingoza intervenes and offers him his flask along with some money by way of an apology on behalf of these savage nobles, a gesture for which Sentaro remains grateful. While many of his friends are exiled and lose their lands, Sentaro disappears from the village and becomes a yakuza himself, learning the art of the sword in preparation for his mission of revenge. 

Meeting Jingoza by chance, he takes the opportunity to thank him and agrees to transport some money back to his family in a nearby village while he engages in urgent business in the mountains. While there, Sentaro ends up defending Jingoza’s steely daughter Tae (Yukiyo Toake) who is running something like an orphanage for children rendered fatherless by the ongoing chaos. It’s at Tae’s that he ends up running into Kada, who is a member of revolutionary movement “Tengu-to”, named for the mythical ogres with long noses and bright red faces. Sentaro ends up joining the movement, but gradually discovers that Tengo-to is not all he thought it to be. In the modern parlance, many of their actions are terrorist, they care little for human life and have no issue with looting wealthy houses as they prove after helping Sentaro assassinate the man who beat him, killing the man’s wife and servants and making off with his money as “military funds”. Sentaro is shocked, but only manages to get some of the money for himself to take back to Tae as a way of making amends. He continues to associate with Tengu-to despite his growing disillusionment with their philosophy. 

The Mito clan were perhaps outliers in the great Bakumatsu culture war, running under the “Sonno Joi” banner but doing so alone and forcefully advocating that the emperor’s instruction to expel all foreigners with immediate effect be enforced. At least as far as Yamamoto’s revolutionaries go, they advocate for this not so much because they reject foreign influence but because they resent the country’s elites maintaining a stranglehold on the riches to be gained by foreign trade. Kada, however, claims to have a more revolutionary spirit in that he wants to improve conditions for farmers like Sentaro, protecting them from the “corrupt system” but he’s still a product of his society and finds the programming increasingly hard to break. Having recruited vast numbers of peasants to their cause and witnessing the failure of their campaign, the other leaders want to go to Kyoto to talk to the emperor but are embarrassed to go there in the company of so many men who are not samurai. The solution is that they simply kill them, because peasants aren’t really people anyway. 

Sentaro thought they were “doing something good for peasants and the poor”, but samurai will always be “samurai” and eventually they will betray him. He wavers when Kada and the others ask him to assassinate Jingoza because he’s gone over to the Westernising cause, and is half talked round by his insistence that he’s acting blindly without thinking far enough ahead but himself finds it hard to break with the idea that samurai are honest and know what they’re doing. 

Yamamoto is perhaps making a direct allusion to the imminent failure of the student movement in Japan which finds itself in much the same place as the Tengu-to, torn apart by infighting and increasingly corrupted by duplicitous dogma. Kada has a lot of fine ideas but he doesn’t act on them, doubling down on ruthlessness in complaining that Sentaro is too sentimental, insisting that emotion is the enemy. Sentaro, however, has figured out that the enemy is the sword and everything it represents. Jingoza’s “Restoration” is the one he should have been fighting for if he wanted to see a classless Japan, but the Tengu-to have misused his idealism for their own ends and turned him into a defender of his own oppression. Still, the Tengu-to are the ones who pay the price, their entreaties to the emperor falling on deaf ears with 353 retainers beheaded as punishment. Sentaro lives on, vowing he will never die, as he walks towards the “Restoration” of the future and away from the Blood End of an inherently corrupt insurrection. 


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)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道, Kenji Misumi, 1973)

baby-cart-land-demonsOgami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former Shogun executioner now a fugitive in search of justice after being framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan who are also responsible for the death of his wife, is still on the Demon’s Way with his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Five films into this six film cycle, the pair are edging closer to their goal as the evil Lord Retsudo continues to make shadowy appearances at the corners of their world. However, the Demon’s Way carries a heavy toll, littered with corpses of unlucky challengers, the road has, of late, begun to claim the lives of the virtuous along with the venal. Conflicted as he was in his execution of a contract to assassinate the tragic Oyuki in the previous instalment, Baby Cart in Peril, whose story was perhaps even sadder than his own, Ogami is about to descend further still as a commission to kill a living Buddha proves even more sordid than expected.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道,  Kozure Okami: Meifumado) starts as it means to go on as Ogami finds yet another coded way of touting for business when he notices the strange demonic drawing on the face mask of a resting man and correctly reads it as a message for the Lone Wolf and Cub. The Kuroda clan have despatched five of their best men wearing just such masks in order to test his skills and find out if he’s worthy of their job. Each time he defeats one, he’ll receive 100 ryou (a fifth of his fee) and part of the reasons and explanations he requires in deciding whether to take the job.

This time the assignment is to do with a mislaid yet incriminating letter from the Kuroda lord, Naritaka (Shingo Yamashiro), who has unwisely been deceiving the Shogun as to the identity of his children. Very much in love with his mistress, Naritaka has been passing off their daughter, Hamachiyo (Sumida Kazuyo), as his son Matsumaru. Meanwhile the real Matsumaru, his legitimate heir through his legal wife, has been imprisoned in the compound and kept away from prying eyes. A particularly stupid and pointless ruse, yet the lord has created even more problems for himself by allowing a letter outlining all of this to fall into the hands of a treacherous priest, Jikei (Hideji Otaki), who turns out to be the head of a ninja spy network. Ogami’s job is to kill Jikei and get the letter back but it comes with some additional spice – Jikei plans to hand the letter to Lord Retsudo, Ogami’s arch nemesis.

Ogami’s world is a feudal one where allegiance to one’s lord trumps almost everything. The lords are, however, often dishonest, selfish, and cruel. The hypocrisy of the samurai world is a phenomenon well known to all, and most particularly to Ogami who has found himself at the mercy of the ambitious Yagyu clan. Whatever else he may have become, Ogami is a man of honour to whom the way of samurai maintains a deep spiritual importance. Jikei’s attempt to unsettle Ogami by asking him what he thinks he’s going to achieve on the Demon’s Way and if killing a living Buddha is a fitting use of his talents, further pushes Ogami into a spiritual crisis regarding his quest for vengeance and ongoing career as a sword for hire.

Naritaka has, indeed, broken his code in lying to the Shogun but also in rejecting his position and creating an alternative family of his choosing by favouring the female child of his mistress over his legitimate male heir. In addition to his contract to kill Jikei and retake the letter, Ogami also receives a request to assassinate the lord himself alongside his concubine and even their daughter. This illegitimate line cannot be allowed to continue, the illicit family born of personal choice must be cut off before it begins to corrupt the future of the Kuroda clan. Actively plotting the death of one’s lord is an unthinkable concept, yet a retainer also has a responsibility to guard the honour of their house and so the lord must go, even if the retainer is bound to follow him.

The decision to execute the entire family recalls the series’ origins in which Ogami was seen to act as a second in the “harakiri” of a toddler shortly before seeing his own family fall under the sword of a Yagyu plot. Daigoro is growing older at an unnatural rate but shows a little more willingness to engage in acts of altruistic heroism than his father, such as in an episode where he decides to refuse to identify a local pickpocket even if it means he himself will be flogged in her place. Ogami looks on in inaction, yet there is the faintest flicker of pride in his otherwise impassive face as his fearless son opts to undergo a harsh punishment rather than allow someone else to suffer even as she tries to save him in turn. Daigoro also has an awkward moment of connection with the similarly aged unlucky princess but remains apparently unmoved by her fate at the end of their mission. The legitimate prince may have been liberated and the official line restored, but there has been a heavy price for all concerned and the Kuroda clan is far from saved.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons marks the return, albeit for the last time, of the series’ original director Kenji Misumi who gets rid of the heavily exploitation leaning approach brought by Buichi Saito in the previous film, Baby Cart in Peril. No voiceovers, no musical sequences, and an overall return to quiet contemplation mixed with impressively balletic fight sequences rather than the frenetic action and sudden trickery which defined Baby Cart in Peril send the series back to its spiritual roots after a brief foray into the contemporary jidaigeki. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is also the first in the series which contains no female nudity though it does make room for another skilled female warrior and also repeats the motif of Ogami leaving a melancholy woman behind him as he sets off into the sunset, yet this time it’s a woman who has chosen her own path in keeping with her own code and earned Ogami’s respect, and perhaps sorrow, in the process. Ogami is drawing closer to Retsudo, though his path leads him through a land of demons each more villainous than the last and justice seems like an unrealistic ideal where only men like Ogami stand at the gates of man and beast.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (子連れ狼 死に風に向う乳母車, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

lone-wolf-and-cub-baby-cart-to-hadesOgami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his (slightly less) young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) are going to hell in a baby cart in this third instalment of the six film series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (子連れ狼 死に風に向う乳母車, Kozure Okami: Shinikazeni Mukau Ubaguruma). The former shogun executioner, framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan intent on assuming his position, is still on the “Demon’s Way”, seeking vengeance and the restoration of his clan’s honour with his toddler son safely ensconced within a bamboo cart which also holds its fair share of secrets. In the previous chapter, Baby Cart at the River Styx, Ogami’s stoic personality came to the fore as he showed that sometimes there is more strategic value to be found in avoiding a fight rather than charging into one where it isn’t necessary. Baby Cart to Hades will further test this element of his life philosophy as he finds himself bound onwards, seeking his redemption.

Neatly attaching Daigoro’s cart for towing, Ogami boards a boat which appears to be being followed by underwater ninjas, if the reeds he notices whilst using his sword as a mirror are anything to go by. Also on the boat is a distressed young woman, apparently on her way to be sold to a brothel. Diagoro takes pity on the girl and catches her tiny bundle of belongings when the loquacious middle man knocks them overboard. Later they all end up at the same inn where the unfortunate woman kills her procurer when he attempts to rape her (bad business decision as that would be). Daigoro takes pity on the woman once again and Ogami decides to help her, especially after he notices the wooden memorial tablet among her belongings. Rather than fight off the brothel running samurai who come to find her, Ogami agrees to undergo the torture which is the alternative to entering a brothel on the girl’s behalf.

In addition to saving a life from fear and suffering, Ogami’s forbearance also earns him the respect of the madam in question, Torizo (Yuko Hama), who has another job for him. Her older sister was raped at the court of their lord and subsequently committed suicide, she and her father would like him dead and are willing to pay for it. Amusingly enough, the corrupt lord in question also tries to hire Ogami for another assassination for which he will pay double, but Ogami is an honest man. This latest mission brings him closer to his fated battle with the Yagyu but the Demon’s Way is long and Ogami is not yet approaching its end.

Directed once again by Kenji Misumi, this third instalment is much less psychedelic and action packed than the preceding film but seems keener to explore more of Ogami’s world which is often cruel and unforgiving. An early scene in the film features a discussion between four mercenaries, one a fine samurai who refuses to associate too much with the other three who are of a much more earthy character. Caring only for women and sake, the three men live a life of banditry by another name, fleeting from one clan to another participating in parades to bulk out an otherwise lacking show of force. Kanbei (Go Kato), by contrast, at least has a consciousness of the “true samurai” and a conflicted heart when it comes to his way of life. Having been a loyal retainer and later betrayed by the very lord he was seeking to protect over a matter of protocol, he has lost sight of his place in the world but knows himself to be superior to these venal, dishonest, empty scabbards for hire.

These same three men then attempt to have some sport with a well to do mother and daughter unwisely travelling with a single attendant. After despatching their escort, the three rape the two women before turning to Kanbei for help to clear up the giant mess they’ve just made. Kanbei does indeed clear it up by killing the two women in the gentlest and most elegant way he can before instructing the three culprits to draw lots – one of them will have to die and take the blame for everything to avoid getting entangled with the local police. Neither Kanbei or Ogami arrive in time to save the two women, whose deaths are both a solution to their “defilement” and the means to coverup a crime, leaving two thirds of the perpetrators free to commit the same crime again further along the road. Female life is both cheap and worth a lot of money to the right people, though there are precious few willing to defend it as a matter of honour – even Ogami’s decision to help the young woman about to be sold against her will has more to do with the cosmic coincidence of her memorial tablet than a desire to defend a vulnerable girl in trouble.

Where the dying monologue in Baby Cart at the River Styx was about the elegance and nobility of killing, Baby Cart to Hades focuses on the nature of the “true samurai” as the similarly disenfranchised Kanbei and Ogami discuss the “proper” way of life and death. Kanbei, like Ogami, is a brave man who served his lord in his own way, only to accomplish his mission and be cast out by those who disagreed with his methods. Is it really wrong to fight to live, rather than prepare to die? Both men say no, but the conclusion that is reached is that a samurai can only live by death. Meeting for the first time, Kanbei requests a dual from Ogami, promising to care for his son if only he survives. Ogami agrees but later sheaths his sword and declares the fight a draw. He would rather not fight a man who appears to be his equal in every way and has no quarrel with him, though the two will meet again for an unavoidable showdown.

Misumi is more straightforward his direction save for a few expressionist scenes of the bright sunset and a dramatic switch to POV as a head is severed from its body and rolls away. Nevertheless the ninja antics become ever more impressive, as do Ogami’s methods of detecting them. Once again Ogami attracts the attention of a grateful woman in the person of Torizo who, in keeping with the previous two chapters, watches him push his baby cart away with tears in her eyes (all accompanied by the first appearance of a closing ballad in the series). There are a lot more bodies behind him now as Ogami strides away from a battlefield littered with corpses, yet he’s seemingly no closer to achieving his goal despite his brush with the Yagyu. The price of vengeance is increasing, but the Demon Way is long, and Ogami must follow it to its end, no matter where it leads.


Original trailer (German subtitles for captions only, NSFW)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

lone-wolf-and-cub-sword-of-vengeanceWhen it comes to period exploitation films of the 1970s, one name looms large – Kazuo Koike. A prolific mangaka, Koike also moved into writing screenplays for the various adaptations of his manga including the much loved Lady Snowblood and an original series in the form of Hanzo the Razor. Lone Wolf and Cub was one of his earliest successes, published between 1970 and 1976 the series spanned 28 volumes and was quickly turned into a movie franchise following the usual pattern of the time which saw six instalments released from 1972 to 1974. Martial arts specialist Tomisaburo Wakayama starred as the ill fated “Lone Wolf”, Ogami, in each of the theatrical movies as the former shogun executioner fights to clear his name and get revenge on the people who framed him for treason and murdered his wife, all with his adorable little son ensconced in a bamboo cart.

The first instalment in the series, Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, Kozure Okami: Kowokashi Udekashi Tsukamatsuru), begins with Itto Ogami’s fall from grace when he’s framed by a rival clan, Yagyu, who have their eyes on his family’s historical position as the Shogun’s official “executioner”. In fact, when we first meet Ogami he’s in the middle of an unusual job – he’s to be the “second” in the seppuku of a noble lord, only this noble lord is a toddler whom Ogami must behead (the child will obviously be spared the horror of cutting his own stomach, but not excused the execution). Returning home after completing his grim task with seemingly no reaction at all, Ogami embraces his own young son, not so different in age from the boy whose head he just removed, and talks warmly with his wife who describes to him an ominous nightmare she’s been having in which some of the lords Ogami has been the second for come back for revenge.

Though Ogami decries his wife’s fears as ridiculous, his house is indeed raided, his wife killed and a tablet bearing the Shogun’s crest placed on his memorial altar neatly incriminating him for plotting against his master. Ogami manages to defeat the Yagyu clan members who’ve been sent to arrest him and sets off on a quest for vengeance, wandering the land as a swordsman for hire with his little son, Daigoro, also apparently for rent too.

Despite his cool exterior and lack of outward expression, Ogami is clearly attached to his son both as the head of his clan and as a father. In deciding what to do with the child, he gives Daigoro a simple test in which he positions a sword and a ball on the floor and instructs his infant son to choose one, even knowing that he can’t understand well enough to make anything other than an instinctual choice. Had he chosen the ball, Ogami would have sent him to meet his mother but Daigoro chooses the way of the sword and so the pair are forced onto the “Demon Way”, a path filled with blood and violence as they journey onward to avenge the death of a wife and mother, and restore the good name of their clan unfairly tarnished by a dark plot.

Though his quest is for bloody vengeance, Ogami is not a cruel man as evidenced by the first job the pair receive which is for little Daigoro who finds himself seized by a woman driven mad by grief following the death of her own infant son but seems to calm down a little after being allowed to breastfeed Ogami’s boy. Though the woman’s mother apologises and offers to pay for “borrowing” Daigoro as it says on the large sign attached to his cart, Ogami refuses to take the money seeing as Daigoro needed feeding anyway. Similarly, when the pair find themselves swordless and trapped among vicious bandits, Ogami saves the life of a prostitute who just attempted to stick up for him by giving in to the bandits’ demands and publicly sleeping with her.

This earns him the woman’s eternal admiration, not only for “degrading” himself by sleeping with such a lowly woman as herself and in such a public way, but apparently making quite a success of it for someone supposedly terrified into silence. No one, she says, could be so considerate and bring such satisfaction to a woman in a state of fear. Indeed, Ogami has been playing the long game, pretending to be just another terrified hostage of this tiny hot spring town but when the bandits suddenly declare it’s time to get rid of anyone who’s seen their faces, Ogami leaps into action with a series of cleverly hidden tools secreted about Daigoro’s cart.

That is to say, he’s there on a job, saving the townspeople is more of a happy byproduct than his ultimate intention. On his entrance into the town, Ogami comes across the scene of a local woman failing to escape the bandits’ clutches before being stripped, molested, raped and murdered in front of the father who has come to try and save her and is also murdered for his pains. Ogami, end game in mind, does nothing. The bandits eventually find their comeuppance on the edge of Ogami’s sword, but it’s too late for a poor young woman and her elderly father.

Inhabiting a similar cinematic world to the also Koike scripted Lady Snowblood, Sword of Vengeance is a Leone-esque, western-tinged tale of a mysterious wandering assassin, albeit one pushing a baby cart. Complete with the more expressionist aesthetics of the Japanese ‘70s exploitation film from the colourful ice and fire opening to the exaggerated blood spray in the genre’s characteristically thick, too bright red, Sword of Vengeance is a worthy start to the cycle which casts Ogami downwards from his elite samurai roots and onto the “Demon Way”, bound for hell by way of vengeance, and all with a smiley faced toddler peeking out from a constantly moving cart.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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.


 

Irezumi (刺青, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

91HAEic7eNL._SL1500_Irezumi (刺青) is one of three films completed by the always prolific Yasuzo Masumura in 1966 alone and, though it stars frequent collaborator Ayako Wakao, couldn’t be more different than the actresses’ other performance for the director that year, the wartime drama Red Angel. Based on a novel by Tanizaki and scripted by Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Kuroneko), Irezumi is a supernaturally tinged tale of vengeance and betrayal.

The film begins in the middle as Otsuya, having been abducted and sold to a geisha house, is tied, bound and chloroformed so that a tattooist can mark her skin with the eery portrait of a spider with a human face. Skipping back awhile, it seems this came about as a consequence of Otsuya convincing the mild mannered assistant of her father, Shinsuke, to run away with her. The pair take refuge at the home of a family friend, Gonji, but after his advances towards Otsuya are rebuffed he arranges to have Shinsuke killed and Otsuya sold as a geisha. Shinsuke manages to get away after a bloody fight but he’s a gentle man and the violence of the encounter marks him. Otsuya, by contrast, finds she quite enjoys her new life and gets along OK with her pimp, Tokubei, who urges her to “feed on men”. Otsuya’s lusts become ever more violent with the spectre of the tattoo artist hovering in the background. Is the tattoo itself enacting these scenes of terrifying vitality or merely an excuse for releasing Otsuya’s true nature?

Shot in vibrant colour in contrast to Red Angel and many of Masumura’s other efforts from around the same time, Irezumi makes fantastic use of its lurid atmosphere. Sex and death and violence – hardly unusual themes for Japanese cinema though Irezumi feels like an early precursor to the exploitative pinky violence cycle of the following decade. In keeping with those films, Otsuya is another conflicted avenger, wreaking havoc on venial men who think they can buy and sell a woman’s soul as well as her body. As the violence mounts, Otsuya falls into a kind of mania and at one point exclaims that this isn’t really her at all, it’s all the fault of the spider on her back – trapping men in its silky web only to suck them dry and throw away the husk.

Whether Otsuya is herself an avenging warrior for the female sex or merely a demonic vision of the ultimate male fear is somewhat up for debate. Her transgressions are intentionally destabilising – she breaks with convention by “betraying” her father when she runs of with Shinsuke and not only that, she does so at her own insistence. Shinsuke himself is far too meek and mild mannered to have ever done such a thing entirely of his own will and is largely swept along by Otsuya for the entire course of the film. Only when he fears she may betray him does he decide to take action. Otsuya’s sexuality in itself is also transgressive, actively pursuing Shinsuke before a formal marriage and then even expressing her enjoyment of her new life in the pleasure quarters – neither attitude is one that is expected of the demure daughter of a noble house. Is she an emancipated woman, or fallen one? The film offers no clear judgement here but presents her both in terms of vengeful heroine and of terrifying villainess.

Along with its rather complicated structure beginning in a media res opening followed by a lengthy flashback sequence, Irezumi is never quite as successful as Masumura’s other mid ‘60s offerings. Though boasting a script by maestro Kaneto Shindo, a noted director in his own right and frequent visitor to the realms of horror, something about Irezumi fails to coalesce. That said, it does offer a visually arresting, generally interesting supernaturally tinged tale and yet another fantastic performance from its talented leading lady.


Irezumi is available with English subtitles on UK R2 DVD from Yume Pictures

Tattoo sequence from the film: