Feisty Edo Girl Nakanori-san (ひばり民謡の旅シリーズ べらんめえ中乗りさん, Masamitsu Igayama, 1961)

Nakanori-san posterThe voice of the post-war era, Hibari Misora also had a long and phenomenally popular run as a tentpole movie star which began at the very beginning of her career and eventually totalled 166 films. Working mostly (though not exclusively) at Toei, she starred in a series of contemporary and period comedies all of which afforded her at least a small opportunity to showcase her musical talents. Directed by Masamitsu Igayama, Feisty Edo Girl Nakanori-san (ひばり民謡の旅シリーズ べらんめえ中乗りさん, Hibari Minyo no Tabi: Beranme Nakanori-san, AKA Travelsongs: Sharp-Tongued Acquaintance) once again stars Hibari Misora as a strong-willed, independent post-war woman who stands up to corruption and looks after the little guy while falling in love with regular co-star Ken Takakura. 

Nobuko (Hibari Misora) is the daughter of a formerly successful lumber merchant whose business is being threatened by an unscrupulous competitor. With her father ill in bed, Nobuko has taken over the family firm but is dismayed to find that a contract she assumed signed has been reneged on by a corrupt underling at a construction company who has been bribed by the thuggish Tajikyo (Takashi Kanda). Unlike Nobuko’s father Sado (Isao Yamagata), Tajikyo is unafraid to embrace the new, completely amoral business landscape of the post-war world and will do whatever it takes to become top dog in the small lumber-centric world of Kibo.

Tajikyo has teamed up with the similarly minded, though nowhere near as unscrupulous, Oka (Yoshi Kato) whose son Kenichi (Ken Takakura) has recently returned from America. Kenichi, having come back to Japan with with clear ideas about the importance of fair practice in business, is not happy with his father’s capitulation to Tajikyo’s bullying. Of course, it also helps that he had a charming meet cute with the spiky Nobuko and became instantly smitten so he is unlikely to be in favour of anything which damages her father’s business even if they are technically competitors.

As in the majority of her films, Misora plays the “feisty” girl of the title, a no nonsense sort of woman thoroughly fed up with the misogynistic micro aggressions she often encounters when trying to participate fully in the running of her family business. Though her father seems happy enough, even if casually reminding her that aspects of the job are more difficult for women – particularly the ones which involve literal heavy lifting and being alone with a large number of men in the middle of a forest, he too remarks on her seeming masculinity in joking that her mother made a mistake in giving birth to her as a girl. Likewise, Tajikyo’s ridiculous plan to have Nobuko marry his idiot son is laughed off not only because Tajikyo is their enemy, but because most people seem to think that Nobuko’s feistiness makes her unsuitable for marriage – something she later puts to Kenichi as their courtship begins to become more serious. Kenichi, of course, is attracted to her precisely because of these qualities even if she eventually stops to wonder if she might need to become more “feminine” in order to become his wife.

To this extent, Feisty Edo Girl is the story of its heroine’s gradual softening as she finally writes home to her father that she is happy to have been born a girl while fantasising about weddings and dreaming of Kenichi’s handsome face. Meanwhile, she also attracts the attentions of an improbable motorcycle champion who just happens to also be the son of a logging family and therefore also able to help in the grand finale even if he never becomes a credible love rival despite Nobuko’s frequent admiration for his fiery, rebellious character which more than matches her own.

Nevertheless, the central concern (aside from the romance) is a preoccupation with corruption in the wartime generation. Where Nobuko’s father Sado is “old fashioned” in that he wants to do business legitimately while keeping local traditions alive, the Tajikyos of the world are content to wield his scruples against him, destroying his business through underhanded methods running from staff poaching to bribery and violence. Kenichi’s father has gone along with Tajikoyo’s plans out of greed and weakness, irritated by his son’s moral purity on one level but also mildly horrified by what he might have gotten himself into by not standing up to Tajikyo in the beginning.

As expected, Nobuko and Kenichi eventually triumph through nothing more than a fierce determination to treat others with respect. Working together cheerfully achieves results, while the corrupt forces of Tajikyo eventually find themselves blocked by those who either cannot be bought or find the strength to refuse to be. Nobuko’s big job is finding prime lumber to be used to build a traditional pagoda in America as part of a cultural celebration. She wants to do her best not only because she takes pride in her work but because she knows this project will represent Japan overseas. Tajikyo, however, would cut corners, believing that the Americans wouldn’t notice even if he sent them rotten logs riddled with woodworm as long as the paperwork tallies. Filled with music and song, Nakanori-san is an action packed outing for Misora in which she once again succeeds in setting the world to rights while falling in love with a likeminded soul as they prepare to sail off into kinder post-war future.


Some of Hibari’s songs from the film (no subtitles):

Brutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1965)

brutal tales of chivalry posterBrutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Showa Zankyo-den) – a title which neatly sums up the “ninkyo eiga”. These old school gangsters still feel their traditional responsibilities deeply, acting as the protectors of ordinary people, obeying all of their arcane rules and abiding by the law of honour (if not the laws of the state the authority of which they refuse to fully recognise). Yet in the desperation of the post-war world, the old ways are losing ground to unscrupulous upstarts, prepared to jettison their long-held honour in favour of a dog eat dog mentality. This is the central battleground of Kiyoshi Saeki’s 1965 film which looks back at the immediate post-war period from a distance of only 15 years to ask the question where now? The city is in ruins, the people are starving, women are being forced into prostitution, but what is going to be done about it – should the good people of Asakusa accept the rule of violent punks in return for the possibility of investment in infrastructure, or continue to struggle through slowly with the old-fashioned patronage of “good yakuza” like the Kozu Family?

Here is where we find ourselves in the 21st year of the Showa Era (1947) – the small marketplace in Asakusa is rife with black marketeers and illegal goods, but it’s still the only mechanism by which people are able to survive. The market is overseen by the elderly patriarch of the Kozu Family, Gennosuke (Tomosaburo Ii), who does his best to ensure a kind of “fairness” in its operation, at least in as far as yakuza rules extend. His territory is currently under threat from a rival gang – the Shinsei (literally “new truth”) who obey no such rules and are growing ever more ruthless in their quest to control the local area. Their big idea is to build an entirely new marketplace with a roof to make it a permanent and pleasant place for traders to do business – they will finance this through a kind of crowdfunding paid for by the merchants themselves who will also be paying protection money and kickbacks to the Shinsei. Everyone approves of the covered market project, even the Kozu, but if it means letting the Shinsei assume control is it a price worth paying?

This is a question which faces prodigal son Seiji (Ken Takakura) who returns from the war to find his city in ruins, Gennosuke murdered by the Shinsei, that he is now the new head of the Kozu, and that the woman he loved has been given away in a dynastic marriage to man from another minor clan. Before he died, Gennosuke was able to dictate two important instructions – that Seiji was to take over, and that the gang should proceed on a note of peace, avoiding violence or aggression where possible, leading by example rather than attempting to crush their new rivals. Seiji, having just returned from one battlefield is intent on following Gennosuke’s orders but how far can he really survive on the moral high ground when his opponents are content to fight dirty from down below?

The “Showa” era spanned some 60 years of turbulent Japanese history but in 1965 it was just under 40 years old and already beginning to generate the complicated feelings of nostalgia which are still attached to it today. Showa is right there in the Japanese title as if it were an age already passed but it’s clear in 1965 that something has shifted, one age has or is beginning to give way to another. The desperation of the post-war world with its empty, rubble strewn vistas and population filled with hunger and despair has ebbed away now that Japan is back on the world stage following the 1964 Olympics and the economy has as last begun to pick up. The young no longer fixate on the rights and wrongs of empire building, war and surrender but have begun to turn their attention towards the American occupation, social justice, and foreign conflicts. The young of 1947 were middle-aged in 1965, no one would begrudge them romanticising their youth, and so even if the world of Brutal Tales of Chivalry is a bleak one it still contains a kind of nostalgia for the kind of honourable gangster inhabited by Takakura who embodies traditional values some may feel are under represented in modern society.

Yet, for all that, there’s something subtly subversive in the film’s eventual suggestion that pacifism will only go so far and that one side or another must be banished from the battlefield through violence if peace is ever to prosper. Still, the struggle is a noble one in which honour is defined by strength of character and the selfless desire to ensure the well-being of others as much as it is to a blind observation of arcane rules and obsolete, meaningless ritual. The first in a long running series, Brutal Tales of Chivalry helped established Takakura’s iconic presence which eventually became synonymous with the “ninkyo eiga” as a personification of idealised Japanese masculinity, tough but caring even if passion is often repressed or redirected into violence. Remnants may be all that’s left of “chivalry” in the new Showa era, but there’s a degree of beauty in this brutality that refuses to die even as its era passes.


Now available on Region A blu-ray from Twilight Time (limited to 3000 copies only)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)