The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

“Your kindness will harm you” a well-meaning retainer advises his charge, but in the end it is her kindness which saves her along with numerous others in Akira Kurosawa’s Sengoku-era epic, The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Kakushi Toride no San Akunin). Largely told from the point of view of two bumbling peasants trying to get rich quick by exploiting the hierarchal fluidity of a time of war, the film nevertheless cuts against the grain of the democratic era in advocating not so much the destruction of the class-bound feudal order as benevolent authority. 

This can quite clearly be seen in the dynamic figure of displaced princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the successor of her routed clan protected by a hidden fortress in the mountains which she must eventually leave. Her female servant laments that her father raised her as a boy which has given her a haughty and dominant manner at odds with the polite submissiveness usually expected of upperclass women. While often exerting her authority, she is otherwise uncomfortable with the uncritical servitude of her retainers, chief among them the talented general Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who sacrificed the life of his own sister, allowing her to be executed in Yuki’s place buying them some time. “Kofuyu was 16. I am 16. What difference is there in our souls?” she asks, yet even if she believes their souls are equal she is not quite so egalitarian as to forget her position or the power and privilege that comes with it. 

Nevertheless, hers is an authority that is tempered by compassion and in the end chosen. Her salvation comes in speaking her mind to an enemy retainer, Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who has been savagely beaten by his own lord for losing a duel with Makabe who, to the mind of some, humiliated him with kindness in refusing to take his life leaving him to live in defeat. Yuki says she doesn’t know who is stupider, Tadokoro or his lord, for never would she punish a man in such a way simply for losing to an enemy. She tells him that there is another way, and that he need not serve a lord who does not serve him leading Tadokoro to defect and choose to follow her instead. 

She also inspires confidence in a young woman she insists on redeeming after discovering that she is a former member of the Akizuka clan sold into sexual slavery after being taken prisoner by the Yamane. Kurosawa presents the girl with a dilemma on realising that the mysterious woman who saved her is the fugitive princess, knowing that she could betray her and pocket the gold, but finds her resolving to serve Yuki all the more. In a moment of irony, we learn that the girl was bought for five silver coins, the same amount of money a wealthy traveller offers for Makabe’s horse, but displeases her master in refusing to speak or serve customers. For Yuki he offers gold, though withdraws on being told that she is mute. Knowing that she would be unable to disguise her speech or accent which would instantly give her away as a haughty princess, Makabe convinces her to stay silent though as she tells him he cannot make her heart mute too. 

Even the peasants, oblivious to her true identity, view Yuki as part of the spoils insisting that they should be entitled to a third of her too and at one point preparing to rape her only to be fought off by the rescued girl. “We can rely on their greed” Makabe had said, knowing that their material desires make them easy to manipulate and that their loyalties are otherwise fickle. Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and his friend Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) sold their houses in their village to buy armour in the hope of achieving social mobility through distinguishing themselves in war, but have largely been humiliated, robbed of their armour, mistaken for captured members of the enemy, and forced to dig the graves of others. They pledge eternal friendship but their bond is continually disrupted by the promise of monetary gain. They fall out over a moral quandary, one willing to plunder the body of a fallen soldier and the other not, while even on reuniting squabbling about how to divide the money first deciding it should be equal and immediately disagreeing as soon as they get their hands on it. At the film’s conclusion it rests on Yuki to play mother, telling them that they must be good and share the boon she’s given them equally without complaint each then too only quick to be generous insisting that the other can keep it. 

The implication is still, however, that Matashichi and Tahei should return to their village to live as peasants while Yuki assumes her place in a castle no longer hidden as its ruler. Order has returned and the old system remains in place, all that changes is that this is now a compassionate autocracy ruled by a benevolent lord who views her subjects lives as equal to her own yet not perhaps their status. Where it might prompt Tadokoro to conclude that he need serve no lord at all for there should be no leaders only equals, the film concludes that a leader should be just and if they are not they should not be followed. Then again, the disagreement between firm friends Matashichi and Tahei is ended when they each have enough and no longer find themselves fighting for a bigger slice of the pie content in the validation of their equality. As Makabe puts it, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Yuki’s suffering is in the responsibility of rebuilding her clan though she does so with compassion and empathy ruling with respect rather than fear or austerity. Kurosawa utilises the novel scope format to hint at the wide open vistas that extend ahead of the peasants as they make their way towards the castle in search of gold only to leave with something that while more valuable may also shine so brightly as to blind them to the inherent inequalities of the feudal order. 


The Hidden Fortress screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 20th & 27th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

High and Low (天国と地獄, Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

A self-made man is landed with an unthinkable dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped in place of his own just at the moment he’s staked his entire fortune on a manoeuvre to outsmart cynical executives set on taking over his company in Kurosawa’s post-war crime film, High and Low (天国と地獄, Tengoku to Jigoku). The movie’s Japanese title, Heaven and Hell, might hint more strongly at the growing economic disparities in the era of the economic miracle but also at the dualities embodied in the hero’s choices. “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity” his wife tells him, but he still struggles with the validity of choosing his heart over his head knowing that to pay anyway even though it’s another man’s son means financial ruin, the final question being if he is really prepared to allow a child to die simply to maintain his own wealth and status. 

The problem is that Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) has attempted to mount a rebellion against the evils of consumerism, incurring the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground. Though Gondo appears sympathetic, hinting that he might be interested if there’s a good enough promotion in it, he later tells them where to go on seeing that their business plan is to start producing poor quality disposable footwear. Gondo started on the factory floor and he doesn’t want to put the company’s name on such shoddy produce nor does he think that their admittedly fair point that if the shoes are well made and last a long time no one will need to buy any is a good way to do business. He doesn’t think the boss is right either and wants to make shoes his own way which is why he’s remortgaged the sizeable mansion he owns on top of a hill overlooking the city and has pretty much run through his wife’s dowry to buy a majority stake in the company.

On top of a hill is a good place to live if you want a good vantage point to oversee the land below, but while you’re looking down others look up and not all of them kindly. Gondo is as he says a self-made man, but also out of touch with contemporary society and not so far from an ambitious courtier always after a little more. He says it isn’t about getting the top job but getting shoes made right, but it seems he too had been bitten by the consumerist bug and is otherwise unable to affirm his status without material proof. When he thinks it’s his own son that’s been kidnapped, he’d have given it all away but when it’s the driver’s boy it’s a different question. Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu) isn’t his responsibility and as he points out there are plenty of other wealthy men, why is he the only one to pay? While his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) tearfully urges him to do the right thing, his assistant (Tatsuya Mihashi) tries stop him, insisting he should take the sizeable cheque they’ve had drawn up to Osaka and the stakeholder he’s buying the shares from. 

While he vacillates, the driver, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), is humiliated and forced into servitude. Gondo seems to have the old-fashioned idea that the kidnappers would simply let Shinichi go on realising they’ve got the wrong boy and his father can’t pay, but Aoki knows there’s nothing he can do to save his son but throw himself on Gondo’s mercy. He falls to the ground and prostrates himself, but later retracts all telling Gondo it doesn’t matter, that he hadn’t realised what he was asking of him, and insisting that Shinichi is a bright boy who will look for a chance to escape on his own. Once the boy is returned he treats him harshly, interrogating him about anything he might have forgotten and later driving him around looking for the hideout where he was kept in an attempt to do something and repay the debt he now feels he owes to Gondo by helping the police retrieve the money Gondo eventually agreed to pay for him. 

In agreeing to give up the money, Gondo is in a sense unburdened knowing he has made the right choice and realising that he would never live a comfortable life in that house if cost a child’s life to keep it. Part of his rationale for not wanting to pay had been that though he had been poor before and might be again, his wife had not been and does not truly understand what it is to live in poverty much as she says her life of luxury means nothing to her. She has never wanted for anything, after all. As for the kidnapper, Ginjiro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), we know little of his motives save for his intense resentment living quite literally in the shadow of Gondo’s mansion and feeling as if it were mocking him. Then again, though his life is hard Ginjiro already had a path to success in that he would soon have completed his medical studies implying at least that he or someone else was able to cover his tuition and costs of living, that he was able to continue in education, and really had no need to take such drastic action in rebellion against the antagonistic capitalism of the post-war society. “Do you think we have to hate each other?” Gondo asks him, but Ginjiro has no answer only his intense resentment for everything he represents.

The “hell” that Gondo inhabits is a backstreet wasteland peopled by the hopeless. Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), the earnest policeman, follows him through thronging clubs and on into “dope alley” where Ginjiro picked up his accomplices so desperate to escape their suffering that they’d agree to help him kidnap a child. Though it costs him his job, Gondo decision to do the right thing makes him a national hero, the working class millionaire who mows his own lawn and can still knock up a pair of shoes should the occasion call while women across the country decide to boycott the company in protest at his treatment. Ginjiro can only howl like a caged animal while facing a death sentence for the coldblooded murder of his accomplices. The light bouncing off his mirrored sunshades gives him an eerie supernatural quality, a demon arising from depths of hell to wreak havoc in heaven but finding only infinite tragedy in the contradictions of the consumerist post-war society.


High and Low screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hit and Run (ひき逃げ, Mikio Naruse, 1966)

The contradictions of the contemporary society drive two women out of their minds in Mikio Naruse’s dark psychological drama, Hit and Run (ひき逃げ, Hikinige, AKA A Moment of Terror). Scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama and starring his wife Hideko Takamine in her final collaboration with the director, Naruse’s penultimate film takes aim at the persistent unfairness of a post-war society already corrupted by increasing corporatisation while caught at a moment of transition that leaves neither woman free to escape the outdated patriarchal social codes of the feudal era. 

The two women, both mothers to five-year-old boys, are mirror images of each other. Kuniko (Hideko Takamine), the heroine, is a widow working in a noodle bar and continually exasperated by her energetic son Takeshi who keeps escaping kindergarten to play pachinko which is not a suitable environment for a small child. Kinuko (Yoko Tsukasa), meanwhile, is mother to Kenichi and married to a high ranking executive at Yamano Motors, Kakinuma (Eitaro Ozawa). These two worlds quite literally collide when Kinuko, emotionally distressed and driving a little too fast, knocks over little Takeshi while he is out playing with some of the other neighbourhood boys. As she is with her lover, Susumu (Jin Nakayama), she decides to drive on abandoning Takeshi to his fate but discovers blood on the bumper of her shiny white convertible on returning home and thereafter decides to tell her husband everything aside from revealing her affair. Kakinuma covers the whole thing up by forcing their driver to take the rap to protect not his wife but the company along with his own status and success fearing that a scandal concerning his wife driving carelessly may have adverse consequences seeing as Yamano Motors is about to launch a new super fast engine that will make them worldwide industry leaders. 

Perhaps in a way the true villain, Kakinuma cares about nothing other than his corporate success. Kinuko states as much in complaining that he’s never once considered her feelings only his own and that their marriage was a failure from the start, little more than an act of exploitation in which she was traded by her father for money in return for political connections. For these reasons she seeks escape through her extra-marital affair but is unable to leave partly in the psychological conflict of breaking with tradition and partly because she has a son whom she would likely not be permitted to take with her even if it were practical to do so. Another woman says something similar in disparaging Kuniko, implying that her life is in some ways over as few men would be interested in marrying a widow with a child. 

Takeshi’s loss is therefore additionally devastating in severing Kuniko’s only lifeline. A brief flashback reveals that Kuniko was once a post-war sex worker, she and her yakuza brother Koji war orphans who lost their parents in the aerial bombing. When she married and had a child she thought the gods had smiled on her but in true Narusean fashion they gave only to take away leaving her a widow and finally robbing her even of her child. To add insult to injury, they try to put a price on her son’s life, a mere 500,000 yen for a boy of five hit by a car. When the driver stands in the dock, he gets off with only a 30,000 yen fine for the death of a child. Then again on visiting his home, there appears to be a boy of around five there too, perhaps you can’t blame him for taking the money having been robbed of his youth in wartime service. 

Still, on hearing from an eye witness that it was a woman who was driving, Kuniko quickly realises that Kinuko must have been responsible. Quitting her job she joins a maid agency in order to infiltrate the house and gain revenge later settling on the idea of killing little Kenichi, who takes an instant liking to her, to hurt his mother in the way she has been hurt only to be torn by her unexpected maternal connection with the boy. The conflict between the two women is emotional, but also tinged with class resentment that a wealthy woman like Kinuko should be allowed to escape justice with so little thought to those around her while Kuniko is tormented not only by her grief but the persistent injustice of the cover up. 

As in all things, it’s the lie that does the most damage in ironically exposing the truth of all it touches. Kinuko’s escape route is closed when her lover reveals that he’s lost faith in her, unable to trust a woman who’d run away from the scene of a crime and allow someone else to take the blame, while Kakinuma’s emotional abandonment of his social family for the corporate is thrown into stark relief by his immediate decision to further exploit their driver just as he will later their maid. Driven out of her mind, Kuniko has white hot flashes of lustful vengeance as she imagines herself engineering an accident for Kenichi, throwing him off a rollercoaster or coaxing him into traffic, only to regain her senses unable to go through with it so pushed to the brink of madness is she that no other action makes sense. 

Even so the conclusion is brutally ironic, Kuniko accused of a crime she did not commit but half believing that she must have done it because she wanted to so very much. Kakinuma gets a minor comeuppance, encouraged by his servant to make clear what actually happened and exonerate Kuniko thereby walking back his total commitment to the corporate (then again it seems his dream project was itself under threat from a potential plagiarism scandal) though the damage may already have been done. This societal violence of an unequal, increasingly corporatised and unfeeling society, eventually comes full circle bringing with it only death and madness as the two women seek escape from their internal torment. Naruse experiments with handheld camera and canted angles to emphasise the destabilisation of the women’s sense of reality along with blow out and solarisation in the visions that plague them, but curiously ends with a set of motor vehicle accident stats as if this had been a roundabout public information film to encourage careful driving. Then again perhaps in a way it is, a cautionary tale about the dangerous curves of untapped modernity and the cruelties of the nakedly consumerist era.  


The Great White Tower (白い巨塔, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1966)

“It’s about the right thing to do, it’s about conscience, and Prof. Zaizen lacks conscience” according to a star witness at the conclusion of a medical malpractice trial in Satsuo Yamamoto’s adaptation of the novel by Toyoko Yamasaki, The Great White Tower (白い巨塔, Shiroi Kyoto). One of a series of films heavily critical of the medical system in the midst of rising economic prosperity, Yamamoto’s tense political drama presents the succession intrigue at a university hospital as an allegory for the nation as a whole implying that lingering feudalistic and authoritarian thinking has poisoned the contemporary society. 

This is in part reflected in the way in which major hospitals are often run as large family businesses where succession is a dynastic matter. In this case, however, the scene is a prominent university hospital in Osaka at which the head of the surgical department, Azuma (Eijiro Tono), is about to retire. Generally, one of his assistant professors would simply move up after being approved by a board comprised of other department heads but the problem is no one, and especially not Azuma, is particularly happy with the most likely candidate, Zaizen (Jiro Tamiya). The issue between them seems to be one of ambition and authority. Zaizen is regarded by all as an excellent doctor with a stellar track record but he is also cold and arrogant with no regard for departmental protocol all of which of course offends Azuma as does his background and person. The son of a country teacher, Zaizen prospered through the dedicated labour of his widowed mother along with family connections before marrying into the extraordinarily wealthy and influential Zaizen family who run a large obstetrics clinic. Consequently, he is free to pursue his interests and lacks the economic anxiety that might make another employee wary of pushing his luck. 

His humble background might have placed a chip on Zaizen’s shoulder but it’s also clear he’s part of a new generation that does things differently from the last, apparently keen to build a public media brand appearing in a glossy magazine which brands him “the magic scalpel” thanks to his success in treating pancreatic cancer. While they might not be able to argue with his track record, other doctors worry that Zaizen has developed a god complex and is slapdash with his practice often timing his operations and smugly pleased with himself when hitting a new record. Azuma first picks him up on this in the case of elderly patient, questioning his treatment decisions in accusing him of neglecting to fully consider the patient’s post-op wellbeing. This then becomes something of a recurring theme as good doctor Satomi (Takahiro Tamura) is minded to bring Zaizen in on the tricky case of a man, Sasaki (Nobuo Minamikata), he suspects may have pancreatic cancer but has been repeatedly diagnosed with chronic gastritis. 

Though it’s political intrigue that in some senses leads him to Zaizen, Satomi is otherwise depicted as the responsible physician who deeply cares for his patients’ wellbeing and not much at all for interoffice politics. Thus he continues to investigate Sasaki’s case even when other doctors tell him he’s wasting too much time on one patient and should just leave it at gastritis. Zaizen, meanwhile, is the exact opposite taking one look at the X-rays and deciding it is pancreatic cancer after all but thereafter ignoring Satomi’s advice after taking over the case refusing to run a CT scan to verify that the cancer hasn’t spread to the lungs as Satomi fears it might have. 

For Zaizen Sasaki ceases to matter, to him the human body is no different to a machine and he perhaps more engineer than doctor even as he proclaims medicine more art than science in insisting that he just knows the early signs of pancreatic cancer while others are unable to detect them. After the first operation we see him perform, a grateful wife stops to thank him profusely for saving her husband’s life though he treats her coldly and implies it’s all part of the job before going outside to celebrate his private glory in his record-breaking feat. It’s then a minor irony that he finds himself later slapped with a malpractice suit by Sasaki’s wife upset that he was unavailable as her husband was dying because he was preoccupied with the ongoing elections for Azuma’s successor.

The implication is that the dehumanisation of the health industry has reduced it to the status of any other company, the head doctors no better than ambitious salarymen whose lives are defined by their job titles. The various department heads eventually descend into factions with Azuma plumping for an external candidate, Kikukawa (Eiji Funakoshi), while others line up behind Zaizen or his internal rival Kasai (Koichi Ito). Influence is brokered largely by outright bribery or industry manipulation by external influential players including Zaizen’s wealthy father-in-law and a professor in Tokyo who can offer monetary perks, access to funding, and potential promotions to those willing to vote for their chosen candidate. The main argument against Zaizen is his bad character, yet the fact he has been carrying on an affair with a bar hostess is never used against him even as they prepare to smear a rival candidate with his mistress even suggesting they hire a hitman to take him out completely. Zaizen’s minions meanwhile make an ill-advised visit to Kikukawa to ask him to withdraw bizarrely stating the importance of maintaining “democracy” even as they themselves deliberately undermine it for their own gain.  

It’s this sense of feudalistic, fascistic authoritarian chumminess that Azuma’s daughter Saeko (Shiho Fujimura) later decries in asking her father why he did nothing to change such a destructive system while he himself had the power to do so the implication being that he saw no need because he continued benefit from it. Only she and Satomi present any kind of challenge to the hypocrisy that pervades the medical system but eventually discover that there is no place for integrity in the contemporary society. Zaizen miraculously falls upwards every time because his success is more expedient that his failure. Even the Tokyo professor brought in as an expert witness during the malpractice suit declares that Zaizen is unfit to be a physician because of his arrogance and total lack of human feeling but pulls back from testifying that he caused the death of his patient through negligence later explaining to a colleague that if a university professor were to be found guilty of malpractice it would undermine public faith in the medical system. 

If can’t they can’t have faith in the medical system, the very people who are supposed to care for them when they are most in need, how can they have faith in anything else? As the rather bleak conclusion makes clear, the entire system is rotten to the core and no longer has any place for idealists like Satomi who are continually pushed to the margins by those jockeying for power in this infinitely corrupt society defined by hierarchy and cronyism while ordinary people, like Sasaki, continue to pay the price. Just as in his opening sequence, Yamamoto takes a scalpel to the operations of the medical industry to expose the messy viscera below but ultimately can offer no real cure in the face of such an overwhelming systemic failure. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1965)

“Even the cops wouldn’t keep innocent people in prison” a prisoner ironically exclaims in Satsuo Yamamoto’s farcical crime drama Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Nippon Dorobo Monogatari), displaying a strange sense of faith in the system for one who’s already been caught out by it. It is in many ways the system at which Yamamoto takes aim, refusing to blame even the guilty for their crimes while condemning the society that forever tars not only them but their entire families with the criminal brush, similarly defaming the innocent while the mechanisms of the State actively abuse their power to ensure they continue to maintain it. 

Set in 1948, the action takes place as the opening voiceover explains in an exaggerated accent which at times lends itself to lowkey comedy, at a moment of societal collapse in which cash has become almost worthless and the only items of value are clothing and rice. Yet Gisuke (Rentaro Mikuni) it seems was living a life of crime even before the war, the youngest of five brothers left to look after his mother and sister after his father’s death. While operating as an amateur unlicensed dentist having picked up the basics from his dad, Gisuke makes his living peddling black market kimonos stolen from local warehouses. After bungling one particular job he finds himself spotting a strange site on the railway tracks, overwhelmed by shadowy figures of nine men he first fears have come to tackle him but in the end simply pass by even calmly returning his call of good evening as they discuss among themselves the best way to the local hot spring. Taking refuge in a haystack, it’s not until the next morning that Gisuke learns of a train derailment that took the lives of the engineer and two crew members. He realises that the men he saw must have been the ones who sabotaged the track but he’s not a snitch and it’s none of his business so he decides to keep quiet. 

That is until he gets arrested for the botched burglary and ends up incarcerated alongside a member of the accused, Kimura (Mizuho Suzuki), who quickly befriends him and in fact becomes something of a labour activist even inside the prison negotiating better conditions for prisoners. Indebted, Gisuke maintains his silence strangely certain that Kimura and the others will soon be released because they are innocent despite already knowing that the judicial system is infinitely corrupt. The case at hand takes inspiration from the Matsukawa Derailment, a real life incident which Yamamoto had already dramatised in 1961’s Matsukawa Incident, in which suspicion had fallen on the Railway Union who, in the film, are seen leading a protest agitating for better working conditions. Kimura, a prominent unioniser, is picked up along with other members of the rail workers union and left-wing activists on largely spurious grounds solely to discredit their movement at the behest of an overly authoritarian police force. 

The irony is that Gisuke ends up in prison for a crime that he technically is not quite guilty of in that he’s arrested after his wife, a geisha he redeemed with his ill-gotten gains, unwittingly sells some stolen kimonos which he was storing for a friend on the run. Kimura by contrast is in prison for something of which he is entirely innocent, in effect a political prisoner. Yet the force that imprisons both of them is not so much the law as social censure in the stigmatisation of crime. Gisuke feels acutely guilty knowing that his family members continue to suffer because of his criminality, his sister unable to marry as each of her engagements is eventually broken off when they find out her brother’s been in jail. After getting out and vowing to go straight, Gisuke marries again and has a child but is perpetually worried that someone will find out about his past and that his son will forever be stigmatised as a “burglar’s kid”. It’s for this reason that he finds himself torn, refusing to help Kimura by testifying as to what he saw that night even after hearing that he’s been sentenced to death, unwilling to risk his newfound happiness even at the expense of another man’s life. 

Strangely, it’s the injustice of the situation which later changes his mind though in an unexpected way when he realises that his own son has escaped being tainted with his father’s criminal legacy while Kimura’s is bullied at school because his dad’s in jail even though he’s innocent. Pursued by authoritarian police officer Ando (Yunosuke Ito) who attempts to blackmail him into changing his story to incriminate Kimura he eventually decides to free himself by telling the truth despite realising that another witness was most likely murdered for signalling an intention to do the same. “But how is it that the police who are charged to catch us are even bigger liars than the thieves?” Gisuke asks the judge during his improbably humorous testimony, earning rapturous applause from the court in a touch of the absurd with even his wife, hitherto stoney faced despite the laughter all around her, cracking a smile seemingly warming up to his decision to play the hero even if it has taken him rather a long time to decide to do the right thing. 

Yamamoto doesn’t hang around to hear the verdict, perhaps because it’s Gisuke who’s really on trial and the judge appears to be his wife whose forgiveness is the only acquittal necessary. His crimes are in a sense not really his fault, Yamamoto seems to argue, but the fault of an indifferent society which left him with no other choice in order to support himself, the same society which then frustrates his attempts to live an “honest” life by forever tainting him as a “burglar” and tarring his entire extended family with the same brush. Only by owning his stigmatisation can he free himself of it, rejecting the illusionary power corrupt authority has over him while refusing to be complicit in their constant battle to hang on to it by levelling his marginalisation against him. Extremely ironic in terms of tone, often employing archaic screen wipes for comic effect, Yamamoto’s strangely hopeful tale implies that justice can in fact prevail but only when imperfect men commit to it even at the expense of their personal happiness. 


The House of Hanging (病院坂の首縊りの家, Kon Ichikawa, 1979)

Unlike many directors of his generation who either shifted into television or saw their careers stall, Kon Ichikawa was able to continue working throughout the difficult 70s and 80s precisely because he was less averse to taking on commercial projects such as 1976’s The Inugami Family, an ensemble mystery adapted from the bestselling book by Seishi Yokomizo and starring his famed detective Kosuke Kindaichi. The film proved an unexpected hit, an early success for Haruki Kadokawa’s new multimedia marketing model which would allow him to dominate cinema screens throughout the bubble era, and spawned a series of Kindaichi adaptations produced for Toho boasting a host of A-list stars. By 1979, however, the age of the prestige country house mystery was perhaps coming to a close and The House of Hanging (病院坂の首縊りの家, Byoinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie) would be the last in the cycle of movies starring Koji Ishizaka who would eventually return to the role in Ichikawa’s 2006 remake of the original Inugami Family. 

Set quite specifically in 1951 (Showa 26), House of Hanging is among the more complex of Kindaichi’s cases and rests not on war trauma, which is only a background presence in the present venality of the post-war society, but on the decline of a once noble house ruined, as we find out, through the legacy of sexual immorality and abuse. For the moment, however, Kindaichi gets roped into the mystery after visiting an author friend (played by Seishi Yokomizo himself in a cameo) who recommends a photo studio he could visit in order to get a picture taken for his passport as he plans to travel to America. The photographer, Naokichi (Koji Shimizu), takes on an odd job from a strange young woman who asks them to take wedding photos of her sister but abruptly leaves explaining she’ll send a car later to bring them to an undisclosed location. That turns out to be the bombed-out former home of the Hogen family who own the local hospital. Escorted by a creepy young man, Naokichi finds himself in front of a traditional gold screen backdrop but feels uncomfortable because the bride does not seem to be very present and he worries that perhaps she’s been drugged and something untoward may have been going on. He shows the photo to Kindaichi for advice and is later called back to the same location to discover the severed head of the groom hanging from a ceiling light.  

In slightly comedic fashion, the circumstances of the case are so confusing that they have even Kindaichi admitting that he doesn’t quite follow while his temporary sidekick, photographer’s apprentice Mokutaro (Masao Kusakari), proudly holds up a chart he’s made to help keep track. Though the why is in this case more important than it might usually be, it boils down to the same old problem of buried secrets and past shame. We learn that the Hogen family is descended from a line of prominent doctors, though the family tree is complicated because it appears many of the sons of previous generations had illegitimate children, some of whom were later adopted or married to other adopted children in a quasi-incestuous union. With no one quite sure whose children are whose, incest appears to be the original sin which condemns the family, though as we later realise it’s another kind of abuse which sets the present events in motion.

The murdered man, Toshio (Teruhiko Aoi), was apparently part of travelling jazz band earning their living playing on American bases (the photographer also has a sideline in blackmarket army surplus). Aside from the original sin that connects the murders with melancholy fatalism, the additional victims damn themselves through their amoral greed, foolishly engaging in blackmail in the hope of improving their circumstances. Nevertheless, the sin remains the same, the theory being that Toshio was murdered by missing sister Koyuki who killed him in order to escape his inappropriate romantic obsession with her. The additional complication is that Koyuki looks near identical to Yukari (Junko Sakurada), daughter of the Hogen family, connecting the crime with the traumatic events of some years’ previously which led to the cottage becoming known as the “house of hanging” when the body of a young woman was found there having taken her own life. 

As in many of the other Kindaichi mysteries, the detective has only sympathy for those caught up in this complicated murder plot, many of whom are also victims acting simply to protect themselves ironically enough from the past trauma that has in a sense led to this sorry turn of events. Justice, in the end, takes care of itself though Kindaichi will also do his bit to protect those in need acting from a place of moral compassion rather than judicial censure. This final instalment in the Kindaichi cycle has slightly lower production values and a much less starry ensemble but sees Ichikawa adding a few idiosyncratic touches such as his fast, multi-angle cuts to a single person’s speech and a brief theatrical reconstruction sequence, while making time for the return of bumbling inspector Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and the ironic comedy the series is known for. “Old things pass, that’s when new things are born” Yokomizo sagely advises in his cameo, Kindaichi apparently taking his leave from a corrupted post-war Japan for the bright lights of San Francisco, perhaps never to return. 


Original trailers (no subtitles)

Murder of the Inugami Clan (犬神家の一族, Kon Ichikawa, 2006)

the inugami family 2006 posterBeginning his career in the late 1940s, Kon Ichikawa was a contemporary of the leading lights of Japanese cinema during the golden age though has never quite achieved the level of international acclaim awarded to studio mate Akira Kurosawa. Unlike Kurosawa however, whose career floundered the wake of the studio system’s collapse, Ichikawa was able to go on making films through the difficult years of the 70s and 80s precisely because he was willing to take on projects that were purely commercial in nature. His biggest box office hit was an adaptation of the Seishi Yokomizo novel The Inugami Family which led to a further four films starring the author’s eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi. 30 years later, in what would turn out to be his final film, Ichikawa took the unusual step of remaking his biggest commercial success and even more unusually decided to recast several of the same actors in their original roles.

The script remains almost identical to the 1976 version though slightly slimmer. In 1947, pharmaceuticals magnate Sahei Inugami (Tatsuya Nakadai) dies leaving a confusing will which upsets absolutely everyone – not least his three daughters whom he fathered with three different women none of whom he was legally married to. Sahei has elected to leave the bulk of his estate to a young lady, Tamayo (Nanako Matsushima), who is not part of the family, on the condition that she marry one of his grandsons though he stresses that she is free to choose. If she chooses to marry someone else, the estate will be split between the three grandsons and another illegitimate son fathered with a maid whose whereabouts are apparently unknown. With such a vast fortune at stake, it is not long before the first murder occurs.

The most major difference between the 1976 and 2006 versions is, perhaps counterintuitively, the budget. Whereas the 1976 version had been one of the “taisaku” prestige pictures which dominated the mainstream cinema of the era and had the marketing genius of a young Haruki Kadokawa behind it, the 2006 version is a much more modest affair with minimal production values and a noticeably unfussy approach. The 1976 version, like the other instalments in the ‘70s series, also boasted a starry cast including golden age star Mieko Takamine, even employing Kyoko Kishida in a tiny two scene role as a blind koto teacher. Perhaps the strangest and most experimental choice made by Ichikawa in terms of his “remake”, is the one to cast original star Koji Ishizaka as the eccentric detective, reprising his role from the earlier film 30 years later. In fact, many of the other characters whose ages are not important are also played by the original actors including the bumbling policeman (Takeshi Kato) and his sidekick who appear throughout the series (comedy director Koki Mitani makes a noted cameo in the spot occupied by Seishi Yokomizo in the original adaptation).

The recasting adds to the level of uncanniness created by the dissonance between the opulence of the 76 version, and the austerity of that from 2006. This time around, Ichikawa shoots in 16:9 rather than (the then) TV friendly 4:3, but in the scaled back hyperrealist style common to lower budget dramas from the 2000s. The flat digital cinematography only serves to add to the general lifelessness of the drama which features only the main players, the sole crowd scene occurring during a flashback to the repatriation shot to match the accompanying stock footage just as in the 1976 version. Whereas Ishizaka and the other veterans are mainly acting within the broader yet largely naturalistic style of 70s cinema, the younger members have adopted the decidedly theatrical tones common in contemporary indie drama which somewhat undercuts the strange mix of camp fun and serious drama which had defined the Kindaichi series.

In contrast to the ‘70s movies, Ichikawa plays it uncharacteristically safe – opting for many of the same techniques but reining them in, using plain black and white instead of negative, easing back on the gore, and lowering the level of violence. The results are decidedly mixed and though the central mystery has not changed, the 2006 edition proves a much less satisfactory experience that does not so much attempt to recapture the strange magic of the original as throw it into contrast through its absence. The story of the Inugami murders is, like many a Kindaichi mystery, one less of greed and selfishness than the lasting effects of repression, frustrated desires, and difficult loves and as such it is timeless, yet lightning doesn’t strike twice and Ichikawa’s second attempt at bottling it only goes to show that there’s little to gain in slavishly aping the past.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Inugami Family (犬神家の一族, Kon Ichikawa, 1976)

the inugami family 1976 posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Kon Ichikawa was able to go on working through the turbulent ‘70s and ‘80s because he was willing to take on purely commercial projects. The phenomenal and hugely unexpected success of 1976’s The Inugami Family (犬神家の一族, Inugami-ke no Ichizoku) set him in good stead for the rest of the decade during which he followed up with another four movies starring Koji Ishizaka as the eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi as featured in the novels of Seishi Yokomizo each of which was a bonafide box office success partially thanks to the effect of Haruki Kadokawa’s intensive multimedia marketing strategy then still in its infancy. In fact, Ichikawa would return to the sordid world of the Inugamis for his final picture in which he dared to remake his “greatest hit” with a now much older Koji Ishizaka reprising his role exactly 30 years later. Ichikawa might have been making “commercial” movies, but he never lost his experimental spirit.

Old Sahei Inugami (Rentaro Mikuni) finally drops dead in 1947 after a lifetime of seemingly doing exactly as he pleased. As a 17-year-old orphan he was taken in by a kindly priest and thereafter founded one of the biggest pharmaceuticals companies in Japan which is to say he leaves behind him a vast estate and desirable name. Unfortunately, he also leaves a messy family situation. Sahei was never legally married, but fathered three daughters with three different women who each have a son. In his 50s, he also fathered a son with his maid who would be about the same age as the grandchildren if anyone knew where he was. Sahei’s will, which in dramatic fashion can only be read with everyone present, leaves everything to a young woman, Tamayo (Yoko Shimada), who isn’t even part of the family but was doted on all the same by the elderly patriarch. In order to inherit, Tamayo must consent to marry one of the three grandsons – Suketake (Takeo Chii), Suketomo (Hisashi Kawaguchi), or Sukekiyo (Teruhiko Aoi) with whom she seems to have shared a past attachment. The will stresses that she is free to choose though if she decides to marry someone else entirely, the fortune will be divided in five with one part each to the grandsons and the rest to the maid’s son. As one can imagine, the daughters are furious.

Kindaichi is called in by a clerk (Hajime Nishio) at the solicitor’s office who has seen the will and finds it all decidedly strange (plus he’s in love with Tamayo so it’s very bad news for him). The clerk gets murdered before he can spill the beans, but the solicitor himself, Furudate (Eitaro Ozawa), decides to enlist Kindaichi’s help in figuring all of this out before it claims any more lives. Unfortunately, claim more lives it will.

Greed, as ever, is at the root of all evil but like the other entries in the Kindaichi series the crimes are largely a result of the world which surrounds them. Old Sahei made his money in some dubious ways. Ingratiating himself with the rich and powerful, later becoming a militarist for what seems like opportunistic reasons, he got himself special dispensation to grow poppies for their medicinal properties. Which is to say, he got rich selling opium to the masses. Inugami pharmaceuticals profited hugely from suffering incurred in wars spanning the century – with Russia, with China, through the first world war and the second. There was Inugami, ready to fuel the fire by numbing the pain.

Yet it’s his own unresolved emotional suffering that seems to have sent him such a dark and amoral path. Later we discover that a strange and emotionally difficult set of circumstances involving a quasi-incestuous, bisexual love triangle seem to have left him craving something to numb his own pain but only succeeding in passing it on to those around him. Firstly through the women he kept around to satisfy his carnal desires and then sent away, keeping the children with him but in a loveless, austere home. The sisters – Matsuko (Mieko Takamine), Takeko (Miki Sanjo), and Umeko (Mitsuko Kusabue) share an uneasy sort of camaraderie but are quick to turn on each other when it becomes clear that only one of them will inherit the family fortune and that they are now each rivals for the hand of Tamayo.

Like their grandfather, the Inugami boys are not an especially good catch. Two of them eventually attempt to rape Tamayo in an attempt to force her into marriage through shame (despite the fact that one has already fathered a child with his cousin), while she also has her doubts that Sukekiyo, with whom she has always felt a connection, is really who he says he is. Having gone away to the war, Sukekiyo did not return home after being demobbed because of intense survivor’s guilt. He also sustained severe burns to his face which require him to wear a latex mask over his entire head making positive identification difficult seeing as his voice, which he rarely uses, is also changed.

Rather than submit himself to the necessarily pokerfaced approach common to prestige murder mysteries from across the globe, Ichikawa uses the saleability of the property as an excuse to go all out. His tone varies wildly, almost to the point of parody in his frequent cuts to Kindaichi causing another of his famous anxiety induced dandruff avalanches. The blood eventually flies as do severed heads while upended corpses do handstands in lakes. The story of the Inugami family is a strange one filled with moments of bizarre whimsy but somehow it all works. As in many a Japanese mystery, the past refuses to die and the guilty eventually realise how misguided their enterprise has been, but there is hope for those left behind if they can free themselves from the cycle of guilt and suffering on which the Inugami name was built.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Island (獄門島, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Island posterKon Ichikawa revisits the world of Kosuke Kindaichi for the third time in Devil’s Island (獄門島, Gokumon-to). Confusingly enough, Devil’s Island is adapted from the second novel in the Kidaichi series and set a few years before Ichikawa’s previous adaptation The Devil’s Ballad (the twin devils are just a coincidence). As with his other Kindaichi adaptations, Ichikawa retains the immediate post-war setting of the novel though this time the war is both fore and background as our tale is set on profane soil, a pirate island once home to Japan’s most heinous exiled criminals, which is to say it is the literal fount of every social failing which has informed the last 20 years of turbulent militarist history.

In 1946, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) travels to Kasaoka to catch the ferry to the island. On the way he runs into a demobbed soldier hobbling along on crutches only to catch sight of the man quickly picking his up crutches and running across the railway tracks when he thought no one was looking. Kindaichi is in luck – before he even reaches the boat he runs into the very man he’s come to see, Reverend Ryonen (Shin Saburi), for whom he has a message. Posing as a fellow soldier, Kindaichi reveals he has a “last letter” from a man named Chimata who sadly passed away right after the cessation of hostilities having contracted malaria. Chimata, as we later find out, was the legitimate heir of the island’s most prominent family. Kindaichi chooses not to reveal his true purpose, but the truth is that Chimata suspected his death would put his three younger sisters in danger from various unscrupulous family members attempting to subvert the succession.

Your average Japanese mystery is not, as it turns out, so far from Agatha Christie as one might assume and this is very much a tale of petty class concerns, island mores, and changing social conventions. The extremely confusing island hierarchy starts with the head of household who doubles as the head of the local fishing union and then shuffles out to the branch line and brassy sister-in-law Tomoe (Kiwako Taichi) who is keen claim all the authority she is entitled to. The old patriarch, Yosamatsu (Taketoshi Naito), went quite mad at the beginning of the war and is kept in a bamboo cage in the family compound where he screams and rails, only calmed by the gentle voice of Sanae (Reiko Ohara), a poor relation raised in the main house alongside her brother Hitoshi who hasn’t yet returned from the war. Aside from Yosamatsu, the absence of the two young men means the main house is now entirely inhabited by women, looked after by veteran maid Katsuno (Yoko Tsukasa).

Then again, Japanese mysteries hinge on riddles more than they depend on motives and there are certainly plenty of those on this weird little island where they don’t like “outsiders”. Ichikawa hints at the central conceit by flashing up haiku directly on the screen along with a few original chapter headings for Kindaichi whose eccentricities might seem less noticeable in such an obviously crazy place but strangely seem all the more overt, his trademark dandruff falling like rain from his tousled hair. It has to be said that Kindaichi fails in his otherwise pure hearted aims – he doesn’t make a great deal of effort to “save” the sisters and only attempts to solve the crimes as they occur, each one informing the next. This time around he gets trouble from both irritatingly bumbling detective Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and his assistant Bando (Kazunaga Tsuji) , and the local bobby who immediately locks Kindaichi up and declares the crimes solved on the grounds that they only started happening after Kindaichi arrived.

Meanwhile, there are rumours of an escaped “pirate” running loose, demobbed soldiers, and a host of dark local customs contrasting strongly with the idyllic scenery and the strange “pureness” of this remote island otherwise untouched by the war’s folly save for the immediate events entirely precipitated by the absence of two young men taken away to die on foreign shores. Though the various motives for the crimes are older – shame, greed, classism, a bizarre dispute between Buddhists and Shamans, none of this would have been happening if the war hadn’t stuck its nose into island business and unbalanced the complex local hierarchy. Tragically, the crimes themselves all come to nought as a late arriving piece of news renders them null and void. Just when you think you’ve won, the rug is pulled from under you and the war wins again. Ichikawa opts for a for a defiantly straightforward style but adopts a few interesting editing techniques including fast cutting to insert tiny flashbacks as our various suspects suddenly remember a few “relevant” details. This strange island, imbued with ancient evils carried from the mainland, finds itself not quite as immune from national struggles as it once thought though perhaps manages to right itself through finally admitting the truth and acknowledging the sheer lunacy that led to the sorry events in which it has recently become embroiled.


Original trailer (no subtitles)