Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Nikkatsu’s brand of youth cinema could often have a nasty edge, its damaged heroes caught up in complicated rebellion but necessarily outsiders in a changing world which they feared held no real place for them. For each of those, however, there are others filled with life and possibility, not to mention a cartoonish sense of fun and infinite safety which perhaps largely disappeared from the films of the 1960s only to be found again in Kadokawa’s similarly aspirational teen movies of the bubble era. 

Living by Karate (無鉄砲大将, Muteppo Daisho, AKA Reckless Boss / A Hell of a Guy) once again stars Koji Wada as an earnest young man kicking back against the corrupt wartime generation. Still in high school, Eiji has a part-time job at an ice rink which he doesn’t treat quite as seriously as he ought to but his boss lets him get away with it because his handsome face is a hit with the local ladies. Eiji and two of his friends are keen members of a karate club and have decided to use their skills to fight for justice in their lawless town by going on “patrol”, clearing up the kinds of crimes the police might not make it to in time. Their plan backfires, however, when they come across the body of a recently deceased union leader and are arrested by a local bobby after getting caught with a joke knife one of the boys made for fun at his job on the family scrap yard. 

It comes as no surprise that Eiji’s arch enemy, sleazy mob boss Shinkai (Nakajiro Tomita), is behind the murder, apparently hired by a corrupt corporate CEO trying to stop his workforce exercising their legal rights. Eiji hates Shinkai because he bankrolled his widowed mother’s (Kotoe Hatsui) bar business but did so perhaps in return for being able to control her and by extension him by wielding his economic power against them. His loathing intensifies once he realises that the slightly older young woman he’s carrying a torch for, Yukiyo (Izumi Ashikawa), has fallen for one of Shinkai’s men, Goro (Ryoji Hayama). 

Goro is the classically “good” gangster who feels indebted to Shinkai because he took him in after the war, but wants to leave the underworld behind, going straight in Kobe where he intends to live a settled married life with Yukiyo. The modern yakuza is in many ways a Showa era phenomenon, a mechanism for men without families to protect themselves in the desperate post-war environment. By 1961, however, its existence was perhaps becoming harder to justify. The war orphans had grown up and had families of their own, the economy had significantly improved, and there was no need anymore to live a life of crime and heartlessness – a conclusion Goro has come to on his own after meeting the earnest Yukiyo who has similar problems with her goodhearted yet permanently drunk doctor father. 

Knowing he might have messed things up for his mother in interfering with her relationship with Shinkai, Eiji confesses that doesn’t “know what to do with the grownup world”. For him, everything is still very black and white. He hates yakuza because they prey on the vulnerable and Shinkai in particular because he does it so insidiously, forcing desperate people to accept loans on bad terms so that he can in fact “own” them and use them as he wishes. Eiji and his peer group kick back against what they see as the selfish corruption of the wartime generation, agitating for a fairer, more just world. The wealthy daughter of a corrupt CEO (Mayumi Shimizu) who has a crush on Eiji though he only has eyes for Yukiyo comes up with the idea of selling her fancy car to get money to help Eiji’s mother escape Shinkai’s control, but her father snaps at her that other people aren’t her responsibility and that she doesn’t understand how the real world works. 

Somewhat chastened by the youngsters’ pure hearted love of justice, he eventually comes up with a compromise in buying the car off her himself, but before that Eiji and his friends have to think carefully about the form they want their revolution to take. Taking him to task, Yukiyo points out that if all you do is fight with yakuza then maybe you’re a yakuza yourself, which shifts Eiji’s perspective towards ensuring that his rebellion is fully legal and involves the justice systems already in place. He comes to recognise that Goro is much like himself, and if he’s going to take down a sleazy brute like Shinkai it will take more than some fancy karate. Their resistance starts at home, giving others courage to stand up to yakuza oppression while living right themselves in the hope of creating a better, fairer world free of heartless organised crime.


Lake of Dracula (呪いの館 血を吸う眼, Michio Yamamoto, 1971)

Lake of Dracula posterThe Vampire Doll, the first in a loose trilogy of films along vampiric themes released by Toho in the 1970s, had done its best to relocate Hammer-style horror to contemporary Japan. Adopting the best of the gothic from thundery skies to creepy mansions in the middle of nowhere, Vampire Doll successfully merged the Japanese longhaired grudge bearing ghost with the “romantic” bloodsucking tragedy of a young woman corrupted by illicit desires (though in this case for revenge). Returning to the theme a year later, Michio Yamamoto steps away from Japanese folklore altogether and positions his “foreign” Dracula as a “living” embodiment of repressed trauma, sucking the life out of his unwitting enemy until she finally learns to remember him, burning him away in the bright sunlight of his own eye.

Unlike Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula (呪いの館 血を吸う眼, Noroi no Yakata: Chi wo Su Me) begins with a short prologue in which some children play on a rocky outcrop underneath a strangely ominous pink sky. When little Akiko’s pet dog Leo uncharacteristically runs off, she follows him and he leads her straight into the path of danger. Finding herself in a creepy mansion complete with stained glass windows and a dead body posed at a piano, the last thing that Akiko remembers is the pale face of a strange man with golden eyes and blood staining his chin.

Flashforward 20 years and Akiko (Midori Fujita) is a school teacher still living with her younger sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi) in their childhood home. She is convinced her traumatic childhood incident must have been a dream though it continues to haunt her enough to be a frequent subject in her artwork including a striking canvas she has just completed featuring a frightening golden eye looming over a tiny girl and her dog. Akiko has nice boyfriend, Takashi (Choei Takahashi), who is a doctor in the city, and all things considered a pretty nice life. Sadly it is not to last.

The trouble begins when someone randomly delivers a coffin to the local boathouse. First Akiko’s dog goes missing, then her trusted uncle figure tries to attack her before running off never to be seen again. Meanwhile, at Takashi’s hospital, a young “runaway” has been brought in in a catatonic state though no one can find much wrong with her until Takashi spots two suspicious bite marks on her neck. In case you’d forgotten about Natsuko, she has also begun behaving strangely – offering snide comments to her sister, going out alone in the middle of the night, and most alarmingly she has begun to grow pale.

Like Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula is also an experimental vampire movie hybrid – a B-movie stalker picture in which Dracula is the creepy guy who can’t seem to take no for an answer. Yamamoto films the “naturalistic” action in standard Toho fashion but shifts into a higher register for his conception of heightened vampiric romanticism as Akiko’s “dream” erupts under a blood red sky and eventually leads her to an artfully appointed gothic cottage in which even the dead bodies are tastefully arranged.

Yet what Dracula comes to represent is the soul sucking power of the repressed past. Akiko has largely been able to move past her traumatic childhood adventure, convincing herself it was nothing more than a dream, and seems to be living a pleasant enough life even if her paintings betray her continuing anxiety. As we later find out, it is not quite so much the episode itself as the refusal to accept it which has caused Akiko so many problems – not least a buried rift with her treasured sister resulting from unfortunate sibling rivalry never fully dealt with both because of the incident and the early death of their parents. Akiko, resentful of having a new sister who had “displaced” her in her parents’ affections, sought to win back her rightful place by being the ideal child – good and obedient. Hence when no one believed her about the creepy house and strange man, she backed down, let them tell her it was only a dream to avoid being thought argumentative. Now she wonders if Natsuko harboured ill will towards her too for “stealing” back her parents’ love through her crazy story and perhaps relegating her to second place when she had become used to first.

Familial love becomes an odd kind of theme as we discover Dracula had a father of his own – a descendent of non-Japanese immigrants who had purposefully built a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere in order to limit the possibility of his “bad blood” wreaking havoc in the world. The bad blood apparently skips a generation here and there and so Dracula, the third generation, is the first to be affected by it. His father tried to sacrifice himself to control his son, but now the demon is loose and is after Akiko who, creepily enough, seems to have caught his eye all those years ago (when she was five!) and he is determined to make her his “wife”. Vampirising someone’s sister is probably not a good way to win their heart, but Dracula, oddly, has never been very good at conventional romance.

Dracula’s “foreign” origins are perhaps an uncomfortable nod back to the xenophobic nature of the vampire myth. Despite being 3/4 Japanese and born and raised in Japan, Dracula’s late in the game exposure as not properly “Japanese” enough unfortunately reinforces the idea that “mixed” blood is somehow “impure”, even dangerous, and that even those who’ve spent their lives in Japan are not the same as those who are descended from long lines fully recorded 100% Japanese ancestors. Thus the danger becomes a “foreign object” which must be expelled to restore the integrity of the whole.

Restoring integrity is Akiko’s quest as she, along with her doctor boyfriend, attempts to solve the mystery through revisiting her traumatic childhood incident and finally learns to put it behind her. Yamamoto’s direction shifts between standard B-movie naturalism and florid avant-garde compositions but perhaps fails to capitalise on their inherent theatricality. Picking up the pace for the final set piece, Yamamoto also allows himself to go grim in taking a leaf directly out of the Hammer book by lifting the final death scene from the Christopher Lee starring Hammer Horror from 1958 in his crumbling, melting vampire, not to mention the other decomposing corpse resting in the house whose skin slides sickeningly from his body. A strange, hybrid adventure, Lake of Dracula makes an early attempt to pair the vampire chiller with serial killer thriller and does so moderately successfully even if its psychology remains firmly within the realms of the B-movie.


Lake of Dracula is the second of three films included in Arrow’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy box set which also includes extensive liner notes by Jasper Sharp detailing the history of vampires and horror cinema in Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

o0500070913581105946Nikkatsu’s main stock in trade during its 50s/60s heyday was the youth movie – films which captured the frustrations of being young (and usually male) in the scrappy post-war years. It’s a surprise then that the hero of Seijun Suzuki’s “action” movie Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Jusango Taihisen Yori: Sono Gososha wo Nerae) is a genial middle-aged man who’s more Cary Grant in North by Northwest than Japanese James Dean. A programme picture, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the movie on paper but it’s among the first in which Suzuki indulges his talent for the surreal including a number of fantastically choreographed action sequences.

The film opens with a warning as a sniper trains his sights on a set of road signs which state that many accidents have occurred in this area. The one which is about to befall unlucky prison warden Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) is however entirely man made. Momentarily confused by the figure of a woman watching the bus from the roadside, Tamon is blindsided when the sniper opens fire and kills several of the passengers while another, Goro (Shoichi Ozawa), cowers in the back. Tamon is suspended for six months but isn’t particularly upset about it. He’s not a detective and he knows he should leave it to the professionals, but he’s desperate to know why someone would bother attack such a lowly crew of petty criminals. Wondering who the woman was and how she fits into the case, who the snipers were aiming for and if they got them, and perhaps wanting to assuage his own feelings of powerlessness during the attack Tamon gets on the case.

Tamon is not your typical Nikkatsu action hero. He’s a little on the old side for starters – hardly the marquee face the studio was beginning to favour with its collection of “Diamond Guys”. He’s also not a policeman or a detective, he has no idea what he’s doing or what he’s getting himself into. What Tamon is is a righteous man. Almost immediately he’s sucked into the seedy underbelly of late ‘50s Tokyo with its strip clubs, trafficked women, and petty gangsters. This world is alien to him and he’s disgusted by it. Meeting the female manager of the “talent agency” which supplies in-room strippers to sleazy hotels where businessmen go when they’ve told their wives they’re at a conference, Tamon is horrified to hear her admit she thinks of the girls as “merchandise”. He pauses to explain to her that he always thought of the felons he looked after as “humans” rather than “criminals”, no matter what it was they’d done. Such naive humanitarianism is too much for Yuko (Misako Watanabe) – she’s instantly smitten, which is a problem because it means she needs to play both sides of her own game.

The pair end up in an uneasy alliance as Tamon’s goodness begins to work its magic. An unlikely white knight, Tamon finds himself wanting to save all the ladies threatened by “Akiba’s” dastardly plan from the icy charms of Yuko to Goro’s cabaret girl Tsunako (Mari Shiraki), and another young one, Shoko (Kyoko Natsu), about to get sucked into the Akiba web. What he discovers is a nasty trail of exploitation running from the bars and clubs of the city centre to the genial holiday spa towns where the moderately wealthy travel to pursue their discrete pleasures.

Tamon may be a little older than your average Nikkatsu action star, but he’s also a perfect fit for a film noir hero in wrong man mould. Tamon is not on the run, but he is out of place in this world, perhaps harking back to a presumably more innocent age where honesty and compassion still counted for something. He views his job as a prison warden as a public service, believing that there is goodness in everyone and it’s the job of people like him to find it and bring it to the surface. This he does at least seem to accomplish with Yuko who (despite her role in events so far) seems to have “reformed” and intends to follow Tamon’s lead in taking her “talent agency” in a more legitimate direction. 

Suzuki often claimed that Youth of the Beast was the first of his films where he was able to fully embrace his madcap desires, but Take Aim at the Police Van contains a fair few Suzuki touches of its own from the bold opening sequence shot through the sights of a sniper rifle, to the show girl killed by an arrow to her bare breast, bizarre murder by petrol tanker set piece, and exciting train station finale. Keeping the camera fluid, Suzuki captures a world in motion, seemingly running away from our noble hero until justice, in the form of an unstoppable steam train, finally arrives.


Attack on the police van clip (English subtitles)