Savage Wolf Pack (野獣を消せ, Yasuharu Hasebe, 1969)

savage wolf pack posterYasuharu Hasebe was a key player in Nikkatsu’s pre-Roman porno stab at groovy youth gone wild responsible as he was for 3/5ths of the Stray Cat Rock series. Yet even before launching the seminal cycle, he was busy sowing the seeds of Pinky Violence in Nikkatsu’s regular action output. Savage Wolf Pack (野獣を消せ, Yaju wo Kese), released in 1969, features many of the same motifs as his later work in its beatniky setting, mildly anti-American sentiment, and general counter cultural milieu along with a propensity for shockingly nasty sex and violence. Hasebe manages to include all of this within the confines of a Nikkatsu Action movie which would normally hold back from such extreme fare, painting a nightmarish vision of lawless youth and out of control cruelty.

A vicious biker gang chases a young girl down into an abandoned field where the lackeys gang rape her while the chieftain (Tatsuya Fuji) and his lady (Mieko Tsudoi) look on from their custom jeep with a strange bat symbol attached to the front. Once they’ve finished what they came for the gang simply leaves and the young woman, battered, bruised and broken picks up a discarded Coke bottle and smashes it to slash her wrists.

Meanwhile, big game hunter Tetsuya (Tetsuya Watari) has returned from Alaska to find his hometown much changed. The violated woman, Satoko (Mari Yoshioka), is Tetsuya’s younger sister though the identity of her attackers is not yet known. Ironically enough, Tetsuya himself encounters the gang by chance while they’re in the business of running another girl, Kyoko (Meiko Fujimoto), off the road. He turns back, confronts them, and rescues the woman but continues to encounter the gang until Kyoko is eventually captured, as is he when his valiant rescue attempt fails.

The gang at the centre of Savage Wolf Pack is genuinely nasty. There’s nothing noble or aspirational in their drop out, delinquent lifestyle. They make their living by fencing stolen booze to a local nightclub and threatening violence to anyone who gets in their way. The entire town is frightened of them, even the old man who owns the garage where Tetsuya lives urges him not to get mixed up in their business as they have the surrounding area under complete control.

As later becomes apparent the gang’s casual attack on Satoko is not an isolated incident, but a symptom of their way of life. Just as Tetsuya hunts down big game in the frozen expanses of Alaska, the gang stalk, chase, run down and devour their prey for nothing more than the thrill of subjugating another human being. The attack is as brutal as it is mundane, once done it hardly matters to them.

Tetsuya starts out as the unshakeable hunter, a solitary figure unwilling to get involved with a local girl who might take him away from the beautiful simplicity of his life as sniper in the shadows. Kyoko apparently falls for him straightaway thanks to his knight in shining armour act though ironically enough it’s she who’s been struggling to assert her own independence after running away from her wealthy politician father’s home in protest at an arranged marriage. Tetsuya proves a poor protector, allowing her to be captured through his own indifference and then failing to save her from the gang’s bestial appetite for cruelty. Though Hasebe hangs back from excessive depictions of sexual violence and its fetishisation as seen in other films of the era, Kyoko’s sudden desire to give herself to Tetsuya mere hours after being kidnapped, humiliated, and gang raped seems unlikely and an odd resolution to their already bizarre romance.

What starts out not so far from Gangster V.I.P eventually runs into horror territory as Tetsuya takes his all-powerful gun to the beatnik drop out biker gang preying on all the women in his life. The final battle is bloody and visceral in the extreme as bits of brain stain the walls and intestines tumble from open stomachs. Tetsuya hunts the gang with bear traps and picks them off from afar with his sniper rifle, reducing them to the rampant beasts they really are.

Yet the world itself is a dark one. One theory behind Satoko’s death is that she was perhaps attacked by GIs from the nearby base and it’s no coincidence that she slashes her wrists with a broken Coke bottle or that a Coca Cola billboard is later used for target practice. Another of the gang’s would be victims is the wife of a high-ranking GI who is not currently around leaving her to enjoy the company of various men while he is away – something the biker gang choose to exploit. The biker gang is, perhaps, a symptom of the ongoing corruption of traditional culture by imported Western values as they indulge their delinquent, drug fuelled, individualist lifestyle to its horrifying, destructive limit.

Tetsuya is later forced to surrender to the Americans and presumably submit himself to whatever punishment is appropriate for clearing up town. Kyoko seems to have rediscovered an ability of self-assertion as she vows to stand up to the father she’s repeatedly blamed for her current situation rather than running away, inspired by Tetsuya’s heroic defiance against the offensive hubris of the biker gang. Unlike the majority of Nikkatsu Action movies, Tetsuya does not emerge as a hero but merely as a survivor, caged and robbed of his own autonomy even if ultimately victorious in ridding his nostalgic childhood home of corrosive, drug addled crazed youth.


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)

Heat Wave (陽炎, Hideo Gosha, 1991)

heat-waveHideo Gosha had something of a turbulent career, beginning with a series of films about male chivalry and the way that men work out all their personal issues through violence, but owing to the changing nature of cinematic tastes, he found himself at a loose end towards the end of the ‘70s. Things picked up for him in the ‘80s but the altered times brought with them a slightly different approach as Gosha’s films took on an increasingly female focus in which he reflected on how the themes he explored so fully with his male characters might also affect women. In part prompted by his divorce which apparently gave him the view that women were just as capable of deviousness as men are, and by a renewed relationship with his daughter, Gosha overcame the problem of his chanbara stars ageing beyond his demands of them by allowing his actresses to lead.

Heat Wave (陽炎, Kagero), which was to be the director’s penultimate feature, is a homage to late ‘70s gangster movies with a significant nod to Toei’s Red Peony Gangster series. Set in 1928, the action follows cool as ice professional itinerant gambler Rin Jojima (Kanako Higuchi) whose high stakes life becomes even more complicated when she accidentally runs into her adopted little brother, apparently on the hook to some petty gangsters. Dropping her commitments to help him out of his sticky situation and recover the family restaurant, Rin comes face to face with the yakuza who killed her father in a gambling dispute more than twenty years previously but vengeance is just one of many items on her to do list.

The title Heat Wave was apparently selected for the film to imply that Gosha was back on top form and ready to burn the screen with thrilling action but when producers saw his rushes they knew that their hopes were a little misplaced. Gosha was already seriously ill and was not able to direct with the fire of his youth. Heat Wave is undoubtedly a slow burn as Rin figures out the terrain and designs her campaign with the opposing side coming up with a counter plan, but the gradual acceleration begins to pay off in the film’s elaborate smoke and flames finale as Rin takes a bundle of dynamite to the disputed territory and then fights her way out with sword and pistol aided by an unlikely ally. Downbeat but leaving room for the hoped for sequels, Heat Wave is very much in the mindset of Gosha’s heyday in which, as Rin laments, the good die young and the bad guys win.

In keeping with many gambling films much of the action is taken up with tense games of hanafuda which may prove confusing to the uninitiated and are not particularly engaging in any case, though Gosha does not overly rely on the game to fill the screen. This may be early Showa, but save for the trains the action could almost be taking place a hundred years previously. Rin may have an unusual degree of autonomy as an unmarried woman travelling alone and earning her money through back alley gambling but her world is still a traditional one in which the honour of the game is supposed to matter, even if it is ignored by the unscrupulous who would be prepared to undercut their rivals away from the gaming table by attacking their friends and allies. Rin gains and then loses, reduced to an endgame she never wanted to play and which she fully intends to win by destroying herself only to be saved by her greatest rival.

Gosha’s reputation for vulgarity was not quite unjustified, even if perhaps overstated. Rin apparently inhabits the male world of her profession in a full way as an odd scene in which she’s taken to an inn to watch a live lesbian sex show seems to demonstrate though there is no dramatic purpose to its inclusion save to emphasise Rin’s impassive poise. Though nudity is otherwise kept to a minimum, Rin’s yakuza tattoos are on full show as a clear indication of her position in the underworld. The appearance of such extensive tattooing on female gangsters is a rare sight and Gosha does his best to make the most of its transgressive qualities.

When the producers realised Gosha was not as filled with intensity as they’d hoped, they hatched on the idea of attaching a hard rock song to the end to give the film more edge (apparently much to the consternation of the composer). This might explain the strange entry to the credits sequence which is accompanied by a very up to the minute burst of synthesiser music accompanied by computer graphics loading the faces of the stars across the screen in strips. Perhaps meant to bring the ‘70s inspired action into the present day the sudden entry of the modern world is jarring to say the least though perhaps it kept viewers in their seats long enough to enjoy the post credits sting of Rin giving it her best “you shall perish”, presumably to whet appetites for a sequel. Even if not quite as impressive as some of Gosha’s previous work, Heat Wave makes up for its flaws in its exciting finale which brings all of his choreographical and aesthetic abilities to their zenith as Rin basks in both victory and defeat with the legacy of the good people who took her in burning all around her.


Selection of scenes from the the film (no subtitles)