Sword of the Beast (獣の剣, Hideo Gosha, 1965)

sword of the beast posterHideo Gosha’s later career increasingly focussed on men at odds with their times – ageing gangsters who couldn’t see their eras were ending. His second feature, Sword of the Beast (獣の剣 Kedamono no Ken), is much the same in this regard but its youthful hero knows perfectly that change is on the horizon. Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) tries to ride that change into a better, more equal future but the forces of order will not allow him. The cinematic samurai world of the post-war era is no longer that of honourable men, manfully living out the samurai code even when it pains them to do so. It is one of men broken by oppressive feudal rule, denied their futures, and forced to betray themselves in service to systemic hypocrisy. Yet even if men think of reforming the system, they rarely think to escape it unless it actively spits them out.

When we first meet Gennosuke, he’s crawling around in a muddy grass field, dishevelled and hungry. A lone woman spots him and plies her trade leading Gennosuke to embrace his baser instincts and give vent to his lust, but the pair are interrupted by the sound of approaching horses. Gennosuke is on the run from his clan for his part in the murder of a lord. His pursuers scream at him, “have you no pride?”, lamenting his lack of stoical resignation to one’s fate so central to the samurai ideal. “To hell with name and pride” Gensosuke throws back, “I’ll run and never stop.”

Gennosuke’s odyssey leads him into the path of petty bandits who’ve been swiping gold out of the local river. Unbeknownst to them, a couple from another clan have been living an isolated life in a small cottage where they too have been skimming the Emperor’s gold, only they’ve been doing it for their lord. The man, Jurota (Go Kato), is excited about this work because he thinks when it is completed he’ll finally be accepted as a true samurai and the future for himself and his wife, Taka (Shima Iwashita), will be much brighter. He is quite wrong in this assumption.

Gennosuke, it is later revealed, committed his fateful act of murder upon the assumption that he was part of a revolutionary vanguard, removing cruel and corrupt lords from their positions so fairer minded, decent men could rule in their stead. Instead he realises he’s been rendered a disposable pawn in a political game and that the new master he believed would usher in a brighter future only envisaged one for himself. Jurota has been duped in much the same way, asked to do something illicit, immoral, and against the samurai code under the assumption that he will finally be accepted as “one of us”. He has not considered the corruption of those he wants to join, and does not see that his crime likely means he cannot be allowed to live.

Gennosuke and Jurota are cynical men who nevertheless possess true faith in the way of the samurai. Exiled from his clan, Gennosuke is a wandering beast who pretends not to care about the people he meets, but ends up saving them anyway. Yet if Gennosuke has been “freed” from his illusions, Jurota’s devotion to them makes him a less heroic figure. When Taka is captured by bandits who threaten her life, Jurota has a difficult decision to make – surrender the gold or his wife. Jurota chooses poorly and abandons his wife to a fate worse than death at the hands of uncivilised ruffians. Taka finds this hard to forgive. No longer wishing to stay with a man who values her so lightly she turns to Gennosuke – her accidental saviour, and reveals to him that she longs to become “a beast” like him. Now “freed” of her own illusions as regards her husband’s love, their shared mission, and the fallacy of their future together as noble samurai, Taka is prepared to exile herself from the samurai world as Gennosuke has, but, as he tells her, the wife of a retainer cannot choose the life of a beast.

This world of samurai is facing its own eclipse. The Black Ships have arrived, the spell has been broken, and the modern world awaits. Gennosuke can see this future, he tried to grasp it in the murder of his lord, but it is not here yet. Gennosuke’s friend, Daizaburo (Kantaro Suga), is duty bound to take his revenge as the fiancé of the murdered lord’s daughter though he’d rather not do it, and does so only to give Gennosuke an “honourable” death. The daughter, Misa (Toshie Kimura), is understandably angry and filled with hate but she pays dearly for her vengeance. Following their ordeal, neither Daizaburo or Misa can return to their clan. They are also “freed”, their illusions broken, their debts forgiven. Breaking with the burden of their past, they would now follow Gennosuke into his new world, even if none of them know exactly where they’re going.

These private revolutions amount to a kind of deprogramming, reawakening a sense of individual agency but one which is unselfish and carries with it the best of samurai honour. Gennosuke may be a “beast” on the run, reduced to a creature of needs rather than thoughts, but there’s honesty in this uncivilised quest for satisfaction which leaves no room for artifice or hypocrisy. It may be a rough world and lonely with it, but it is not unkind. To hell with name and pride, Gennosuke will have his honour, even as a nameless beast, a self-exile from a world of cruelty, greed, and inhumanity.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Queen Bee (女王蜂, Kon Ichikawa, 1978)

queen beeKon Ichikawa may be best remembered for his mid career work, particularly his war films The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain as well as his melodramas Ototo and Bonchi, but he was one of the few directors who was prepared to keep one foot in the commercial arena as well as making more personal, “artistic” efforts. For this reason he was able to go on working through the creatively dry ‘80s when other big name directors, in particular Akira Kurosawa, found themselves locked out of the cinematic arena in their native country. Ichikawa’s biggest box office success was in fact the literary adaptation of a popular mystery novel The Inugamis (which he actually remade in 1999 as his final feature film). 1978’s Queen Bee (女王蜂, Jooubachi) is one of five films that Ichikawa made based on the work of popular mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo which feature the eccentric detective Kousuke Kindaichi.

In many ways, Queen Bee is the perfect synthesis of European and Japanese mystery styles as it technically plays host to its strange detective but places him off centre, more as an onlooker to events than the protagonist. Though it follows something like a classical Agatha Christie approach, it also brings in the Japanese love of puzzles and the importance of long buried secrets bubbling to the surface and coming back to haunt everyone involved in the original incident. It’s also important to note that Ichikawa is deliberately playing up the camp comedy of the situation too as he makes his bumbling policeman a definite figure of fun as well as sending Kindaichi tumbling into a pond among other oddly comic elements for this multiple murder mystery.

The story itself begins in 1932 as two students, Hitoshi and Ginzo, leave a small town where they’ve been learning all about the local folklore. Hitoshi later returns under less than pleasant circumstances as he’s come to get his grandmother’s ring back after giving it to a local girl, Kotoe, whom he’d agreed to marry, only his mother objects so now he wants to hold off a bit. Unfortunately this is not a good idea as Kotoe is already pregnant with his child. Sometime later Hitoshi dies in mysterious circumstances and we flash forward to 1936 when the daughter, Tomoko, is three years old and Ginzo comes back to propose to Kotoe.

Now we fast forward to 1952 when Tomoko is about to turn 19. Kotoe has died, Tomoko has been adopted by Ginzo, and three folklore loving students have set their eyes on her as a bride. Unfortunately, one of these suitors also winds up getting killed with Tomoko the prime suspect and it looks like history may be about to repeat itself.

Queen Bee may be a more mainstream effort, but Ichikawa films in a noticeably anarchic fashion with extremely strange cuts and juxtapositions, not to mention the almost parodic tone of the film. He adopts a fairly perverse approach to the entire enterprise even allowing his veteran star Tatsuya Nakadai to play the 20 year old version of himself in the brief 1930s scenes which is, it has to be said, something of a mistake. As fine an actor as Nakadai is, playing a 20 year old at 50 is a stretch and one which serves as a point of alienation during the deepest historical layer of the film.

As is usual with Japanese mysteries, the plot relies on the solution of various puzzles, riddles and the mechanics of crime much more so than the human psychology and importance placed on motive that dominate Western detective tales. As well as the long buried secrets, Queen Bee brings in some commentary on the place of social class in the post-war world, the folly of misplaced love, and how the failure to act honestly and in the best interests of others by putting your own feelings aside can cause extreme repercussions not only in your own future but those of generations to come. Once again, only by exposing previously unexpressed emotions and lies both accidental and deliberate can the trauma be resolved and crises come to an end.

Queen Bee is a strange film which plays up its European detective novel atmosphere complete with the drawing room lecture that has become a hallmark of the genre but also adds in a layer of irony and an almost winking jokiness that make for an oddly amusing tone. The mystery element itself is satisfying enough to keep even the most seasoned crime fan guessing with plenty of red herrings and misinformation along the way. That said, Queen Bee is also very much of its time and perhaps fails to offer much more than an enjoyably old fashioned detective story, albeit one which is anchored by strong performances from its veteran cast.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Ran (乱, Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

ran posterAkira Kurosawa is arguably the most internationally well known Japanese director – after all, Seven Samurai is the one “foreign film” everyone who “doesn’t do subtitles” has seen. Though he’s often thought of as being quintessentially Japanese, his fellow countryman often regarded him as too Western in terms of his filming style. They may have a point when you consider that he made three different movies inspired by the works of Shakespeare (The Bad Sleep Well – Hamlet, Throne of Blood – Macbeth, and Ran – King Lear) though in each case it’s clear that “inspired” is very much the right word for these very liberal treatments.

In the case of Ran (乱) – a loose adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa moves the story to feudal Japan and an ageing king who this time has three sons rather than three daughters. This leaves Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) with a smaller problem than Lear’s though in his original idea of making his eldest son his heir with the other two inheriting smaller roles it’s clear things aren’t going to end well. Just as in the original play, the oldest two sons Taro and Jiro sing their father’s praises with cynical glee but the youngest and most sincere, Saburo, refuses to play this game as his respect for his father is genuine. Unfortunately, Saburo’s honesty sees him banished from his father’s kingdom and his share of responsibility given over to his treacherous brothers. Predictably, neither is satisfied with what they’ve been given and it’s not long before a familial conflict has sparked into a bloody civil war.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child….Hidetora is not quite as far gone as Lear in Shakespeare’s original text at the beginning of the film yet he is still unable to see that his oldest two sons have placed personal ambition ahead of filial piety. Hidetora was once a fearsome, if cruel, warrior, famous for burning enemy villages and creating peace only through destruction. He’s old now, and tired and so he proposes to hand over the running of the kingdom to his eldest son, yet – he wants to remain the de facto leader until the very end. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with Taro, or more to the point his ambitious wife Lady Kaede. Hidetora is thrown out of Taro’s castle and then also from Jiro’s before all out war erupts between the two leaving him totally isolated – a king without a kingdom.

Hidetora’s true madness begins when he realises not only how little regard his eldest two sons hold for him, but also that his failure to recognise the true nature of the situation has lead to the deaths of the people in his care that have remained loyal to him to the very end. As the enemy begin to engulf the castle, concubines begin helping each other to commit suicide in order to avoid ravishment while others try to escape but are cut down by arrow fire. This is all his own fault – his ruthless cruelty has been filtered down to his two oldest sons who, as he did, will stop at nothing in the pursuit of power. What is a king if not the father of a nation, and as a father he has failed. Neither Taro or Jiro are worthy of the offices afforded to them and lack both basic humanity and the princely power one needs to become the unifying force of a people.

Only too late does Hidetora see the wisdom in Saburo’s words and finally understand that he has alienated the only one of his children that truly loved him. From this point on his madness increases and Nakaidai’s performance becomes increasingly mannered and theatrical as if Hidetora himself is acting in another play which only he can see. Wandering and lonely, the once great king is reduced to the estate of a beggar led only by his fool and sheltered by the ruins of a castle which he himself burned down.

However, as great as Nakadai is (and he always is), he’s very nearly upstaged by the young Mieko Harada as one of the all time great screen villainesses with the Lady Macbeth a-like Lady Kaede. Filled with a vengeful fury, Kaede is unafraid to use every weapon at her disposal to achieve her goal. No sooner is she brought the news of her first plan’s failure in the death of her husband than she’s embarking on a plot to seduce his brother which includes getting him to execute his wife. Vile as Kaede’s actions often are, her desire for revenge is an understandable one when you consider that Hidetora was responsible for the deaths of her family leaving her to become a trophy bride for the son of the man that killed them. Viewed from another angle, it would be easy to sympathise with Kaede’s desire to rid the world of these cruel and tyrannical lords were it not for her insistence on the death of Lady Sue – a woman in exactly the same position as herself whose death would not actually advance her cause very much at all.

Kurosawa films all of this from a distance. We, the audience, almost become the gods he speaks of – the ones who weep for us, watching silent and helpless, unable to save us from ourselves. We see the world for what it is – chaos, horses and men and blood. The battles aren’t glorious, they are frenetic, frightening and ultimately pointless. Though for all that there is a beauty to it too and the sheer scale of the production with its colour coded princes and immense armies is one the like of which we will never see again.

Ran presents us with a prognosis which is even more pessimistic than that of Lear. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, as profoundly tragic as it is, there is at least the glimmer of hope. There is a new, rightful king and the idea that something has been restored. Here there is no such resolution, we are the blind man casting a stick around the edge of a precipice, entirely alone and unable to see the gaping chasm which extends before us into which we may plunge headlong driven only by the chaos in our own hearts. In the end, Kurosawa’s message is not so different from Shakespeare’s – all the weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Fathers and sons must strive to understand each other, and themselves, lest we fall into the eternal chaos which leads us to build our very own hell here on Earth.


Ran is currently playing in UK cinemas in a brand new 4K restoration courtesy of StudioCanal!

 

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 4: Police Tactics (仁義なき戦い: 頂上作戦, Kinji Fukasaku, 1974)

b0176154_10205690It’s 1963 now and the chaos in the yakuza world is only increasing. However, with the Tokyo olympics only a year away and the economic conditions considerably improved the outlaw life is much less justifiable. The public are becoming increasingly intolerant of yakuza violence and the government is keen to clean up their image before the tourists arrive and so the police finally decide to do something about the organised crime problem. This is bad news for Hirono and his guys who are already still in the middle of their own yakuza style cold war.

Police Tactics (仁義なき戦い: 頂上作戦, Jingi Naki Tatakai: Chojo Sakusen), the fourth in the Yakuza Papers (or Battles Without Honour and Humanity) series, once again places Hirono at the centre of events for much of the film. The cold war from the end of the last film, Proxy War, is still going on with ambitious boss Takeda hosting additional foot soldiers from other areas of the country. However, all these extra guys are quite a drain on his resources and, simply put, it’s going to ruin him if this situation goes on much longer. Yamamori is currently holed up in a safe place and only steps outside to go to the bath house when he’s surrounded by a huge entourage of bodyguards. Added to the gang rivalry which is only growing now as factions split and new families are formed, not to mention all the guys from outside, is the now constant police pressure. Up to now, the police have been either a minor irritation or a soft ally but this time the guys might have finally met their match.

It’s almost twenty years since Hirono settled into the yakuza life. He’s not an old man, but he’s not a young one either. You can no longer explain or excuse any of his actions with the fire of youth – he’s one of the veterans now. However, young men are always young men and even while the older guys try to scheme and come up with a plan the youngsters are all for action. Hirono has always been the one noble gangster. Committed to yakuza ideals, he’s loyal to his bosses and dedicated to taking care of his guys. Hence, there’s no way he’s going to let one of his men take out Yamamori – firstly, after nursing a grudge for 18 years he wants to handle it himself but even if he didn’t he still wouldn’t be able go after Yamamori in anything other than an honourable way. However, now even Hirono says at one point “I don’t give a fucking shit about honour anymore”. At this point you know it’s all over, the one loyal retainer has finally given up.

With the police pressure mounting, the violence on the streets intensifies with even more feats of desperate backstreets warfare. Hirono himself is absent for a lot of the film while he gets picked up by the police on a flimsy pretext. More gangs are introduced, more guys die before you even begin to remember their names. There’s death everywhere yet still more yakuza keep turning up, offering to die for their bosses who will sell them out without a second thought if it buys them ten seconds more in power. The younger generation may not have the trauma of the war to burn through, but they’ve grown up in this world of street gangs and constant violence so it stands to reason that they come to idolise the tough guys and think joining a gang is their one way ticket out of the slums. As they will discover, there is always a heavy price to be paid for ambition and naivety.

The shooting style is pretty much the same as the first few films in the series. Documentary style voice over, hand held camera and freeze frame death shots are the order of the day. Once again we begin and end with the ruined dome reminding us of the price of violence. Police Tactics could almost be the end of the cycle. With the police finally deciding to act, by the end of the film all of the major players are off the streets in one way or another. In the end, all that death and violence amounted to to nothing. As the film reminds us, public order may have been restored (temporarily) but the systems and conditions which lead to violence are still very much in place.


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

 

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 3: Proxy War (仁義なき戦い: 代理戦争, Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

3-Battles-Without-Honor-and-Humanity-3-Proxy-WarThree films into The Yakuza Papers or Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, Fukasaku slackens the place slightly and brings us a little more intrigue and behind the scenes machinations rather than the wholesale carnage of the first two films. In Proxy War we move on in terms of time period and region following Shozo Hirono into the ’60s where he’s still a petty yakuza, but his fortunes have improved slightly.

It’s now 1960 – almost 15 years since Hirono came home from the war. The young people who are just coming of age grew up in the turbulent post-war era but probably don’t remember much of the conflict itself. These days the problem is the ANPO treaty and the wider world’s pre-occupation with communism. Russia and America are engaged in various “proxy wars” across the world in what would come to be known as the cold war. This tactic of indirect warfare has also taken root in the yakuza world as gangs and gang members form covert alliances, hatch secret plots to take out rivals, or otherwise try to manipulate the situation to their advantage. When the head of the Muraoka crime syndicate is assassinated in broad daylight and his underling, Uchimoto, does nothing, it kickstarts a chain of petty vendettas as each of the ambitious crime bosses vie to fill the power vacuum with the snivelling Uchimoto not least among them.

Bunta Sugawara returns to centre stage again with Hirono at the forefront of the action. One of the few yakuza guys who’s pretty happy with his lot and not seeking a higher position he’s in the perfect spot to become a very important player when it comes to supporting other people’s bids for power. Having originally backed Uchimoto he’s at something of a disadvantage following Uchimoto’s cowardly flip-flopping. However, having found himself back under the aegis of former boss Yorimoto, it does afford Hirono the possibility of finally getting revenge against him. Gangs merge several times while fracturing on the inside as the lower bosses try to get their guys in line whlst picking sides as to whom they support in the leadership battles (some with more of an eye on their own futures) but this time the action is a little more cerebral than the audacious violence of the immediate post-war period.

Changing up his style slightly, Fukasaku keeps the overall documentary approach with the news reel voice over relating the salient political and historical details plus the initial captions explaining the names and allegiances of the major players but reduces the freeze frame death announcements. The action is still frenetic with ultra naturalistic handheld camera and occasional strange angles but this time he opts for a muted colour effect in the final shoot out which increases the shocking nature of the scene. Blow for blow there’s less overt violence here though there is a fairly graphic and unpleasant rape scene which feels a little out of place though it does add to Fukasaku’s argument about the nature of aggression.

Once again the ruined the dome looms large over everything, reminding us that this isn’t just a story of gang warfare but a critique of the senselessness of a violent life. As the film says, young men are the first to die when the battles begin but their deaths are never honoured. Like Hiroshima Death Match, Proxy War also leads to the death of a youngster in pointless gang violence – another young man who ended up in the criminal underworld through lack of other options. The futility of the cycle of violence is becoming wearing – as is perhaps the point. One gang boss falls, another rises – only the names have changed. There’s no rest for an honest yakuza like Hirono when the less scrupulous are willing switch allegiance without a second thought. The only victory is staying alive as long as you can.


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