Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Kei Kumai, 1974)

Sandakan 8 posterSome might argue that Japanese cinema has often been reluctant to examine the nation’s traumatic 20th century history with the proper rigour, but even if subtle and coming from unexpected angles there have been many and varied attempts to ask questions about the lingering consequences of feudalism. Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Sandakan Hachiban Shokan: Bokyo), inspired by a true life account of a woman unwittingly sold into sexual slavery as a child at the turn of the century, is not only a condemnation of socially approved people trafficking and its role in building the short-lived Japanese empire but a mild provocation of the contemporary society which refuses to engage with its traumatic past.

In the contemporary era, graduate student Keiko Mitani (Komaki Kurihara) is engaged in researching the “karayuki-san” – Japanese women who were sold into sexual slavery throughout Asia in the early 20th century. Almost forgotten, the karayuki-san are a taboo subject and even those still living in the areas from which women and girls were sent away are unwilling to speak of them. By chance, however, Keiko runs into an old woman in a cafe who speaks with a standard Tokyo accent and tells them that she spent most of her life “abroad”. Quickly realising she doesn’t mean she was a diplomat’s wife, Keiko wonders if the woman might be have been a karayuki-san and delays her return to Tokyo in order to find out.

There is something, it has to be said, ironically exploitative in Keiko’s determination to get the old woman, Osaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), to open up about a subject on which she so obviously does not want to be drawn. A visit to Osaki’s home reveals her to be living in a run-down hovel on the edge of town which is filled with stray cats whom Osaki feeds because “they’re all abandoned, but still they have to live”. Keiko gets herself brownie points by reacting politely to Osaki’s reduced living situation, eventually staying three weeks during which time she gradually teases out Osaki’s sad life story. Finally asking if there wasn’t anything Osaki might have liked to know about her, Keiko’s hypocrisy is fully brought home to her when Osaki admits that no one was more curious about Keiko than she was but that “people have reasons for not confiding in others” and if it’s something you need to ask about then it’s probably something that the other person may not want to share. In any case, Osaki seems to have known Keiko had an ulterior motive but does not regret sharing her story and has no worries about what Keiko might do with it as long as she makes sure to tell the truth.

The truth, in a sense, seems to be something the villagers feel themselves well acquainted with which is why Osaki lives in a shack on the edge of town. Tricked into sexual slavery as a child by an amoral people trafficker who lured her with promises of money to be made overseas, Osaki found herself in Borneo and a prisoner of “Sandakan No. 8” which was one of 10 numbered brothels on the island largely catering to Japanese travellers overseas, facilitating the expansion of the Japanese empire as accidental emissaries and ports of call. When Osaki was a child, Japan was a poor country and it was considered normal to sell one’s daughter in order to feed a family. Working overseas carried with it a kind of cache though no one, except perhaps her brother, seems to be fully aware of what Osaki is going to and she herself has not in any way chosen or consented to become a sex worker. When she eventually returns to Japan, she finds herself unwelcome in her brother’s house, which her money paid for, because of the shame associated with those who have “worked away”. Even 50 years later, she finds herself living alone, all but disowned by her only son, on the outskirts of her childhood village ostracised by the “respectable” townspeople who don’t for a second believe Osaki’s quick introduction of Keiko as her daughter-in-law.

The daughter-in-law deception is only one heartbreaking aspect of the complex relationship between the two women who are each, in a sense, hiding something from the other but end up forming a genuine connection anyway. Intensely lonely and having lived a life filled with suffering, Osaki is willing to pay for company with her story while Keiko is, not quite deliberately, using her loneliness against her in an attempt to earn her trust and get her to reveal her secrets. Nevertheless, Keiko is able to mine a rich and deep seem of 20th century trauma through the tragic story of just one woman which reaches out to hundreds like her some of whom rest in a graveyard in the forests of Borneo with their backs forever to Japan. The enemy is, once again, poverty more than it is patriarchy or even feudalism, a problem less of the essence in the rapidly improving post-war economy, but as Kumai is keen to point out, this system of state sanctioned people trafficking (finally outlawed only once Japan’s status on the world stage began to rise) had far wider implications than it might be thought which still echo into the present day and perhaps beyond if not for the efforts of women like Keiko who do not wish to forget.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Man with a Shotgun (散弾銃の男, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Man with a Shotgun 1961Nikkatsu’s “Borderless Action” seemingly opened a portal to a world entire to be found within Japan itself. Man with a Shotgun (散弾銃の男, Shotgun no Otoko) is, as the title suggests, another tale of a wandering, gun toting hero though this time one less of aimless flight from failure, responsibility, or rejection than of revenge. Hideaki Nitani gets a (relatively) rare chance to strut his stuff as the lead in a full colour picture, perhaps incongruously starring as one of Nikkatsu’s singing cowboys but he does certainly lend his characteristic sense of gravitas and authority to an otherwise underwritten role.

Ryoji (Hideaki Nitani) rocks up at at rickety bridge looking for a nearby shrine only to be warned off by a grumpy old man in a van. You don’t want to go up there, he tells him, there’ll be trouble if you do. Ryoji is, he claims, a hunter and so he’s not afraid. After all, he’s still in Japan – it’s not as if the entire place is infested with lions and tigers. Then again it’s not exactly game he’s come to hunt.

When he reaches the shrine, Ryoji finds himself in a strange mini kingdom presided over by mill owner Nishioka (Akio Tanaka). The few locals who still live in the village mingle uncomfortably with the migrant work force who people the mill while Nishioka dominates the local economy by owning the only bar in town which is also the only place his largely male workforce have to blow off steam. After getting roughed up by three of Nishioka’s henchmen on the way into town, Ryoji makes the first of many enemies when he stands up to fellow drifter Masa (Yuji Kodaka) when he threatens to throw a man’s daughter to the sex starved labour force unless he pays his debts. The sheriff, an ineffectual local, gets himself seriously wounded meaning the position becomes temporarily open. Nishioka, originally a “benevolent” dictator, is in danger of becoming less so when it is suggested he also form a police force given that the state authorities can’t be bothered with such a remote little village. Ryoji doesn’t quite want to stand for that and volunteers only for Masa to do the same, but the argument is eventually settled to one side of their continued male posturing.

As far as westerns go, Man with a Shotgun leans heavily towards colonial romance and adventure rather than your typically arid, dusty world of saloons and ranches. Lush and green, the small mountain town smacks more of the jungle as does Nitani’s idiosyncratic costume which arrives somewhere between chic safari and fashionable cowboy. Claiming to be a “hunter” Ryoji wanders around with self satisfied smugness, certain that he’s bringing justice to this lawless town all while he makes investigations into the matter which sent him wandering in the first place. Of course, while he’s here, there are other damsels in distress including Setsuko (Izumi Ashikawa) – the younger sister of the sheriff’s late wife, apparently raped and killed by “drifter” bandits.

“Drifters” turn out to be the scapegoated big bad as the migrant workforce quickly take over this little town, making trouble in the bar and hassling the locals, only the locals don’t seem to mind as much as they say they do. There’s trouble at the mill, but not quite the kind that might be imagined. Nishioka has his sticky fingers in some nasty business which also involves not just migrants but actual foreigners and illegal activity on a grand scale. As it turns out, some people are in on the action and some aren’t, and Nishioka is currently making a few calculations as to how to “eliminate” a few inconveniences – something to which he thinks Ryoji and his sparring partner Masa might turn out to be the perfect solution.

Like many a Nikkatsu hero Ryoji is a noble sort, something which engineers for him a happier ending than many get even if it has to be bittersweet to hint at possible followup instalments where Ryoji takes names and fights crime in other small towns. Nevertheless, given the choice he opts for the cool guy conclusion of firing into the air and casting his burdens away rather than damning himself forever in becoming what he hates. Shooting in colour even if not quite with Nikkatsu’s A-list, Suzuki doesn’t get much scope to flex his muscles but does make pointed use of painted backdrops coupled with location shooting, as well as doing everything he can to bring out Nitani’s cowboy cool and adding in a number of B-movie western cliches from letters delivered by a knife thrown into a door to the constant refrains of the title song. Still even if it largely lacks Suzuki’s anarchic touch save for the stylishly composed and absurdly humorous bar room brawls, there’s plenty of fun to be to had with Ryoji and his shotgun as they protect the innocent and seek justice in an often unjust world.


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (子連れ狼 三途の川の乳母車, Kenji Misumi, 1972)

baby-cart-at-river-styxThe first instalment of the Lone Wolf and Cub series saw the former Shogun executioner framed for treason and cast down from his elite samurai world onto the “Demon’s Way” on a quest to clear his name and avenge the murder of his wife whilst caring for his young son, nominally also on the path of vengeance alongside his father. As far as progress goes, Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) has made little other than dispatching a few of his enemy Yagyu foot soldiers and earning himself 500 ryou by ridding a spring town of some pesky gangsters. Well trained genre fans will correctly have guessed that chapter two in this six part series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (子連れ狼 三途の川の乳母車, Kozure Okami: Sanzu no Kawa no Ubaguruma), contains more of the same as Ogami trudges onward pushing his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) in a bamboo cart earning a living by way of the sword with his sights set on the Yagyu stronghold.

After swiftly despatching a series of Yagyu agressors, Ogami and Daigoro procede along the Demon’s Way, jointly earning their living as hitmen for hire. The procedures for hiring the Lone Wolf and his Cub are complicated – talismans are positioned on the road calling for their services, and if the pair are interested, they’ll build a trail of rocks to indicate a meeting. Their mission this time is in the name of a put-upon clan whose income stems from a unique dyeing technique, only they’ve been “underestimating” their takings to avoid unfair taxation by the Shogun. Another clan found out about their practices and sent in undercover agents to agitate among the workforce who were already feeling oppressed and misused. The elite samurai took out most of the ringleaders, but their foreman has run off and taken refuge with a neighbouring clan who claim to know nothing about him. Ogami’s job is to kill the manager before he reaches the Shogun and blows the whistle on everything and everyone.

In addition to the Hidari brothers – a trio of skilled ronin acting as bodyguards to Ogami’s target, Ogami also has to contend with the Yagyu currently still angry over the foot soldiers he dispatched in the first film. Now that they know Ogami is not a man to be taken lightly, they’ve handed over the assignment to their crack troop of female ninja led by the expert swordswoman, Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo).

As in the first film the action scenes are impressively choreographed if filmed with a degree of absurd whimsy. Sayaka attempts to ambush Ogami by having her women hanging out in the country performing normal tasks such as washing daikon at the riverside, only the daikon are filled with knives and these are no ordinary housewives. Ogami is not fooled and quickly despatches the full complement of female warriors with ease (and a little help from Daigoro and his well equipped cart), leaving him to face Sayaka one-to-one. Their battle ends in a stalemate in which Sayaka effects a daring ninja escape (from her kimono no less) to retreat to fight another day.

As much as Ogami is on the road to hell, he maintains his honour – as do his opponents, the Hidaris, who take the time even whilst trapped on a burning boat to explain to him that they have no particular grudge towards Ogami and mean him no ill will. They will though respond without mercy if attacked. Unfortunately, Ogami will have to do battle with them as they stand between himself and his target but his philosophy is broadly the same. He will be ruthless in the execution of his mission but is not a ruthless man and will attempt to leave bystanders out of his quarrels.

This oddly stoical quality of his threatens to turn Ogami into something of a wandering heartbreaker as once again he attracts the admiration of a woman, this time his closely matched rival Sayaka, just as he had the prostitute in the first film. Though determined to gain revenge for her fallen clan members, Sayaka is uncomfortable with her clansmen’s plan to kidnap Daigoro and use him as bait to trap Ogami. As the plan offends her honour, she frustrates it at a crucial moment, allowing Ogami to escape with Daigoro in hand. Later following him and trying again to assassinate Ogami during his flight from the aforementioned burning boat, Sayaka finds herself rescued by the very man she was trying to kill. Though misunderstanding Ogami’s rough tearing off of her wet clothes – ever uncommunicative, Ogami is simply trying to prevent her dying of hypothermia and borrow some of her body heat to help himself and Daigoro do the same, Sayaka eventually finds herself literally and figuratively “disarmed” by her target.

Heading back into the world of the spaghetti western, the final fight takes place in the desert with enemies buried in the sand itself. Misumi’s approach is even more psychedelic this time round in which he has Ogami fighting shadows and even more elaborate blood sprays striking the camera as heads, limbs, ears and fingers are severed with glee abandon. The mood shifts slightly as one fallen warrior is allowed a long dying monologue about the sad wail emanating from his fatal wound and his lingering feelings of jealously that he was never able to inflict the kind of elegant kill which Ogami so effortlessly effected on him. Still, the road is long. Ogami remains on the Demon’s Way seemingly no closer to achieving his goal and with a trail of fallen enemies and broken hearts stretching out behind him, but continue he must, pushing his baby cart onwards towards hell in search of both redemption and revenge but with no guarantee of finding either.


Original trailer (intermittent German subtitles only)

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 1: Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

Snapshot-2015-12-07 at 11_06_36 PM-930280086When it comes to the history of the yakuza movie, there are few titles as important or as influential both in Japan and the wider world than Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Jingi Naki Tatakai). The first in what would become a series of similarly themed movies later known as The Yakuza Papers, Battles without Honour is a radical rebooting of the Japanese gangster movie. The English title is, infact, a literal translation of the Japanese which accounts for the slightly unnatural “and” rather than “or” where the “honour and humanity” are collected in a single Japanese word, “jingi”. Jingi is the ancient moral code by which old-style yakuza had abided and up to now the big studio gangster pictures had all depicted their yakuza as being honourable criminals. However, in Fukasaku’s reimagining of the gangster world this adherence to any kind of conventional morality was yet another casualty of Japan’s wartime defeat.

The story begins with a black and white image of a mushroom cloud with the film’s bright red title card and now famous theme playing over the top. This is Hiroshima in 1946. Things are pretty desperate, the black market is rife and there are US troops everywhere. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) has just returned from the war (in fact he’s still in his uniform). He gets himself into trouble when he intervenes as an American soldier attempts to rape a Japanese woman in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded marketplace. He manages to cause enough of a commotion for the woman to escape but the Japanese cops just tell him not to mess with the GIs. Things don’t get much better as one of Hirono’s friends is assaulted by a yakuza. They get some rival yakuza to help them get revenge and in the commotion Hirono accidentally kills someone and is sent to prison for 12 years. In prison he meets another yakuza who wants to escape by pretending to commit harakiri and promises to get his yakuza buddies to bail Hirono out if he helps. From this point on Hirono has become embroiled in the new and dangerous world of the Hiroshima criminal underground.

Battles Without Honour and Humanity has a famously complicated plot entered around the various power shifts and machinations between different groups of yakuza immediately after the end of World War II. The film begins in 1946 and ends in 1956 though many of its cast of tough guys don’t last anywhere near as long. The picture Fukasaku paints of Japan immediately after the war is a bleak one. Even if some of these guys are happy to have survived and finally reached home, they’ve seen and done terrible things. Not only that, they’ve been defeated and now they’re surrounded by foreign troops everywhere who can pretty much do what they want when they want. They just don’t have a lot of options – if they don’t have connections to help them find work when there’s not enough to go around then it isn’t surprising if they eventually fall into to crime. Also, having spent time in the military, the yakuza brotherhood provides a similar kind of camaraderie and surrogate family that you might also find in an army corps.

It all gets ugly quite fast. Largely the yakuza are making their money profiting from the political instability, resenting the US occupation yet reaching deals with them to support their efforts in the Korean war and then selling new and untested drugs at home (with less than brilliant results). Betrayals, executions, assassinations in previously safe places like a bath house or the barbers – these are a long way from the supposedly honourable gangsters of old. One minute Hirono is offering to cut off his finger as a traditional sign of atonement (though no one knows exactly what you’re supposed to do in this situation and it all ends up seeming a little silly) and taking the rap for everyone else’s mistakes, but his friend faked harakiri to get out of jail and everyone is double crossing everyone else whichever way you look.

The whole thing is filmed in an almost documentary style with captions identifying the various characters and giving the exact time of their demise (if necessary) as well as a voice over giving background information about the historical period. The film is inspired by real life yakuza memoirs and there are parts which feel quite like a bunch of old guys sitting in a drinking establishment and recounting some of their exploits.

This new postwar world of heartless gangsters is a tough one and almost devoid of the old honour-bound nobility, however somehow Fukasaku has managed to make it all look very cool at the same time as being totally unappealing. You wouldn’t want to live this way and you definitely don’t want to get involved with any of these guys but somehow their self determined way of life becomes something to be admired. That said, there’s a sadness too – that even in the criminal underworld there used to be something noble that’s been obliterated by the intense trauma of the war. You can rebuild, you can move on from the destruction left by the war’s wake but there’s no going back to those days of “honour and humanity” – if they ever existed, they’re gone forever now.


Battles without Honour and Humanity is available in blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity: The Complete Collection box set.