The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Kihachi Okamoto, 1967)

“Hey, what’s going on around here?” a sidekick asks directly to camera at the conclusion of Kihachi Okamoto’s characteristically anarchic conspiracy-thriller-cum-spy-spoof The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Satsujinkyo Jidai). Sparked by Bond mania, the late 1960s saw a marked trend in B-movie espionage parody though Okamoto’s take on the genre is darker than the norm even if embracing his trademark taste for absurdist humour leaving us wondering who our hero really is and which side, if any, he’s really on in the confusing geopolitical realities of 1967 Japan. 

As we first meet him, the hero is bumbling professor of criminal psychology Shinji Kikyo (Tatsuya Nakadai) who has extreme myopia and a persistent case of athlete’s foot not to mention a prominent mother complex. Unbeknownst to him, he’s one of three targets picked not quite at random by Rudolf von Bruckmayer (Bruno Lucique), former Gestapo chief, who is interested in hiring some assassins trained by the megalomaniac psychiatrist Mizorogi (Hideyo Amamoto) who’s been turning his mentally distressed patients into hyper-efficient killing machines (sometimes literally) under the rationale that all great men throughout history have been in a certain sense “crazy”. Mizorogi is also in charge of a eugenicist project titled “The Greater Japan Population Control Council” which believes that Japan is already overpopulated but they have to ensure that “the lives of people who might become useful in the future must not be destroyed before they’re born.” Therefore, “the people who will be useless should be asked to bow out”, the assassin calmly explains shortly before Shinji is saved by the divine energy of his late mother as her bust falls from a shelf and knocks the killer out. 

The central conceit plays into a real anxiety about the post-war baby boom expressed in earlier films such as Yuzo Kawashima’s Burden of Love while attacking the capitalistic philosophy that regards some people as more useful than others. By the late 1960s, Nazis had begun to make frequent appearances in these kinds spy spoofs as comedy villains usually crazed to the point of being little real threat. Mizorogi too is eventually exposed as exalting the “mad” interested more in the art of chaos and the impulse to murder than in any greater political goal. Indeed, the central MacGuffin turns out to be less to do with a grand conspiracy to create some kind of super society than the very B-movie-esque missing diamond known as Cleopatra’s Tear.

Okamoto piles each of these subplots one on top of the other as if he were making it up as he goes along suddenly undercutting what we thought we knew with an unexpected reversal. Shedding his glasses and shaving his scraggly beard, Shinji shifts from myopic professor to suave super agent using profiling and psychology to stay one step ahead while encountering plots by spiritualist cults, overly cheerful self defence force officers in the middle of training exercises, and eccentric assassins. From a modern standpoint, it might seem uncomfortable that each of the killers is manifesting disability in order to seem non-threatening, a female operative concealing a deadly weapon behind an eyepatch, while her poetry-obsessed colleague stores his in a fake crutch, but then again they are each pawns of a game being played by the crazed Mizorogi. Aided by female reporter Keiko (Reiko Dan) and car thief sidekick Otomo Bill (Hideo Sunazuka), Shinji seems to bumble from one bizarre episode to another but may actually be far more in charge of the situation than we might have assumed. 

Among the most visually striking of Okamoto’s late ‘60s pictures and once again making great use of animation, Age of Assassins features high concept production design, Mizorogi’s asylum lair a maddening corridor of Omega-shaped passages with ornate cell bars on either side behind which we can see a room full of men often engaged in what seems to be a military exercise regime while the plaster effigies of human form seem to be bursting from the walls. As in all of Okamoto’s films the central message lies in the absurdity of violence suggesting in a sense that the dog-eat-dog ethos of contemporary capitalist consumerism is in itself a kind of internecine madness countered only by Shinji’s rather childish mentality crafting his various gadgets out of household objects while attacking this elitist individualism with nothing more sophisticated than a vegetable peeler. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kill! (斬る, Kihachi Okamoto, 1968)

“Samurai aren’t as great as you might think” according to a jaded retainer in Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! (斬る, Kiru) but it’s a message that the ambitious farmer at the film’s centre struggles to take in. Having been a victim of samurai violence he resolves to become a samurai while a former samurai turned yakuza drifter attempts to show him the hypocritical realities of the samurai life as they find themselves swept into local intrigue when a band of young revolutionaries arrive to cut down a corrupt and oppressive lord. 

Corrupt and oppressive is perhaps the defining image of the samurai in post-war cinema, but like the film’s title that cuts both ways. Farmer Tabata (Etsushi Takahashi) sold his lands to buy a sword after witnessing peasants cut down during an uprising but he’s decided the best way out of oppression is to become an oppressor and is dead set on achieving samurai glory through the time-honoured method of distinguishing himself in battle. That may prove a little difficult given that his new boss, Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama), immediately mocks him for swinging his sword as if it were a scythe. Then again as former samurai Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) explains to him, if you don’t know what you’re doing you can always just stab people which at the end of the day does rather undermine the idea of samurai elegance in the art of killing. 

Genta keeps trying to tell Tabata that “samurai are no good” but Tabata still wants to be one anyway even after learning that Ayuzawa means to double cross them, hiring ronin to take out the young samurai whose sense of honour he manipulated to eliminate the admittedly corrupt (but aren’t they all?) lord for his own political gain while planning to send in his retainers to finish off the job to ensure there are no witnesses. Genta gave up his samurai status because he was “disgusted” by just this sort of duplicity along with the meaningless codes of loyalty that govern samurai society and caused him to betray a friend who was acting only in the interests of justice. Leader of the ronin Jurota (Shin Kishida) did something similar though in his case for love when his fiancée’s father was condemned on false charges and she and her mother exiled. He wants not land or status but only money in order to redeem the woman he loves from a geisha house and like Genta is under no illusions about the nature of samurai life having figured out most of what’s going on but hoping to emerge with the means to liberate both himself and his wife from samurai oppression. 

Even the elderly chamberlain later rescued by Genta tries to warn Tabata that the samurai life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, hinting at the ways they are also oppressed by their own code while clearly gleeful to have had the opportunity of stepping into a teahouse for the first time responding to Genta’s request to stay put that if he could he’d like to stay put for the rest of his days. Both former samurai, neither Genta nor Jurota are minded to draw their swords knowing that whatever the outcome it would be unhappy while the young who thought it was their duty to change the world by removing one who brought shame on their names are faced with the realisation that they have been used and their resistance will count for nothing. Even their bond as brothers banding together to achieve a common goal is eventually disrupted by alcohol and petty jealousy.

Genta acts as a kind of chorus, touched by the naivety of the seven samurai holed up in a mountain lodge because they believed in justice, while knowing that the society itself is innately unjust and already beyond redemption. Tabata eventually comes to a similar conclusion having gained samurai status but found it quite literally uncomfortable deciding to shake off his newfound nobility and rejoin Genta as a cynical yet pure hearted wanderer because the only way to escape samurai oppression is to actively live outside it. The final irony is that it’s the elderly chamberlain who eventually sets him, and all they women trapped in indentured servitude at the geisha house, free using samurai gold to enable them to escape a system he himself cannot escape but does not exactly support while Genta enlists the help of local peasants to hold a festival of rebellion to cover the final assault. Marked by Okamoto’s characteristically absurd humour and cartoonish composition along with the eerily gothic emptiness of the deserted ghost town where not even yakuza can survive the film takes on a quasi-spiritual dimension in which Genta and the gang eventually walk out of hell if only into a purgatorial freedom. 


Kill! screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 2 as part of the Monthly Classics series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Until the Break of Dawn (ツナグ, Yuichiro Hirakawa, 2012)

If you had the opportunity to reunite with someone no longer here for a single night, would you take it? The young hero of Until the Break of Dawn (ツナグ, Tsunagu) is beginning to wonder whether or not it’s a good thing to be able to converse with the dead, if some people regret their choice to meet again, and if it’s better to just move on accepting that there will always be unanswered questions at the end of a life. Arriving shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Hirakawa’s moving drama is a meditation on grief and living with loss, but also on life and legacy and everything it means to be alive. 

High schooler Ayumi (Tori Matsuzaka) is being apprenticed by his grandmother Aiko (Kirin Kiki) to become a “connector” able to meet with spirits of the dead. As he explains to his potential clients, each person is allowed to meet only one other from the other side for one time only and should the deceased decline the invitation the petitioner will not be permitted to make another. If all goes to plan, Ayumi sets up a meeting at a fancy hotel where the pair can stay until dawn on the night of a full moon. Obviously this is not exactly a well publicised activity and the first customer Ayumi meets, Hatada (Kenichi Endo), is reluctant to trust him assuming it’s some kind of scam no better than an end of the pier clairvoyant despite repeated assurances that they accept no money and even the hotel expenses are covered.  

Tellingly, in the first reunions which we see the deceased does not tell the living anything they did not already know, Hatada claiming that he wanted to talk to his mother to find out where she put the deeds for their house only for her to tell him he already knows where they are and obviously had some other reason for wanting to see her. Even Aiko admits that she can’t be sure she’s really summoning the spirit of the deceased, Ayumi wondering if they really call someone back from the other side or if it’s more like the memories of a person who is no longer alive that have remained in the world are pulled back to together building a composite picture of someone as others saw and remembered them. He isn’t sure if what they’re doing is ethical, or if some people might wish they’d never chosen to meet again. The subject of another meeting, a young woman who died while presumed missing, is uncertain whether to meet her former boyfriend on hearing that he had spent the last few years waiting for her return realising that the her that had remained in him will die when he is forced to accept her death but deciding it’s worth it so that they both can achieve some closure and he can perhaps begin to move on. 

Moving on is something Ayumi is himself struggling to do, presented with the option of setting up a meeting of his own before he prepares to take over from his grandmother as the connector while meditating on the deaths of his parents wondering if he should meet one of them and simply ask why they left him behind. Meanwhile, he also finds himself proximate to death when a classmate is killed in a traffic accident, her guilt-stricken friend unknowingly asking for his services though for less than altruistic reasons worried her friend may use the service to tell others about their falling out. She’s fond of repeating the phrase that you regret more the things you didn’t do than the things you did though her reunion turns out to have a sting in the tail she may not have been expecting hinting at the bad outcomes Aiko had also warned were possible in such emotionally fraught situations. 

The conclusion that he comes to is to embrace the true nature of his calling as a connector hearing that Aiko only got the power from her brother (Tatsuya Nakadai) to keep her connected to the family while she later gave it to her son for the same reason only to harbour a sense of guilt that her imperfect instruction may have contributed to his death. Learning to see with his heart, Ayumi comes to understand that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there discovering a source of comfort in the feeling of someone gently watching over those below while accepting that perhaps it doesn’t matter if the reunions are real or illusionary because their true purpose is to comfort those left behind. A gentle meditation on grief and living with loss, Hirakawa’s quietly moving film eventually makes the case for growing old happily with no regrets living to the full until the break of dawn.


Until the Break of Dawn streamed as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Untamed (あらくれ, Mikio Naruse, 1957)

“Don’t let guys control you. You have to make them men” the heroine of Mikio Naruse’s Taisho-era drama Untamed (あらくれ, Arakure, AKA Untamed Woman) advises a former rival, yet largely fails to do so herself in the fiercely patriarchal post-Meiji society. Based on a serialised novel by Shusei Tokuda published in 1915 but set in late Meiji rather than early Taisho, Naruse’s adaptation essentially drops a contemporary post-war woman into a by then almost unrecognisable Japan but finds her hamstrung firstly by feckless and entitled men and then by complicit women who themselves cannot accept her transgressive femininity. 

As the film opens, a teenage Shima (Hideko Takamine) has just married wealthy grocery store owner Tsuru (Ken Uehara) but the marriage is already a failure. Though Shima is compared favourably with Tsuru’s previous wife who was apparently in poor health, presumably suffering with TB which required a sojourn by the sea, it soon becomes clear that Tsuru is as trapped by the archaic patriarchal social system as she is. He was apparently in love with a woman from a higher social class he was too afraid to pursue and despite still seeing her also has a mistress near their factory in Hokkaido whom he often visits under the guise of a business trip. Yet when Shima tells him she thinks she may be pregnant, he is unimpressed immediately questioning the paternity of the child while harping on about her having been married before which it seems is not quite true. Perhaps the reason that she has ended up a second wife despite her youth and beauty, Shima ran out on a marriage to a childhood friend arranged for her by her adoptive parents the night before the wedding not realising they had already registered the union without her knowledge or consent. 

This transgressive act at once signals Shima’s total disregard for conventionality and insistence on her own autonomy, yet it is also indicative of the fact she married Tsuru in search of a better life, knowing that to marry her adoptive parents’ choice meant only a life of servitude on the family farm. She is not always a terribly likeable figure, coldly explaining that she didn’t mind being fostered out because the adoptive family were wealthier and could give her a better life than she had with her birth parents yet it’s this sense of familial dislocation and the liminal status it gives her that allow her to take agency over her life in the way other women might not unwilling to lose the familial security Shima may not feel she ever had. Tsuru is also an adopted son, but the price for disobedience for him may be even higher and indeed as we later hear his inability to sort out his love life eventually sees him out on his ear. His pettiness in refusing to accept the child is his leads to an argument which causes Shima to slip on the stairs and miscarry the implication being that she may not be able to bear more children leaving her unlikely to remarry and thereby spurring her desire for a tempered independence. 

The fall is the last straw, Tsuru divorces her citing her inability to play the role of the proper wife while her birth family, from whom she is emotionally estranged, refuse to take her back as do the adoptive parents because of the embarrassment she caused them with the marriage stunt. She is often described as “like a man”, unable to win as Tsuru at once insists she wear the frumpy kimonos left behind by his previous wife who was a decade older, complains she wears too much makeup, and tells her to loosen her kimono belt to de-emphasises her figure, while criticising her for being unfeminine in her refusal to simply put up with his bad behaviour as is expected for a wife in this era. Shima fulfils all her wifely duties and as we see is in fact running his business as the women of the family are often seen to do while their husbands spend the money they earn for them on other women whether drinking with geishas or supporting mistresses in second homes. When her husband hits her, she fights back rather than shrinking away chastened as intended. 

Yet she cannot overcome the sense that a man is necessary for her success which cannot be accomplished alone. Cast out from her family, her brother installs her in the mountains to work in a geisha house if only as kitchen staff but soon does a flit to reunite with his married lover who has left her husband for him. While there she falls for the quiet and sensitive inn owner Hamaya (Masayuki Mori), also an adopted heir, whose wife is again ill with TB. Hamaya may be treating his wife a little better than Tsuru did his, but quite clearly assumes she’ll die in starting an affair with Shima who is then sent away to an even more remote inn to avoid a potential scandal. As Tsuru did with the woman he apparently loved, Shima continues to see Hamaya until he too succumbs to TB as an ideal of an impossible love while simultaneously accepting that he failed her in being too weak and cowardly to fight for their romance outright refusing to become his mistress. 

This may be one reason she is determined never again to be an employee but to own her own store which is why she ends up marrying tailor Onoda (Daisuke Kato) who introduces her to textiles and seamstressing at which she quickly proves adept having mastered the modern sewing machine. She marries Onoda in believing him “reliable”, but soon comes to regard him as lazy and feckless. The first shop fails because he can’t keep up with her. The male employees are always taking breaks to drink tea and play shogi, Onoda complaining that he’s tired while she does all his work for him and the housework too. Yet he also criticises her for a lack of femininity, snapping back that it must be her time of the month when she berates him in front of their employees while later after they’ve become successful complaining it’s “embarrassing” that his workhorse wife doesn’t know the things a sophisticated society woman would such as ikebana while flirting with the teacher he’s hired ostensibility to teach her. He even forces her to wear a frumpy and already somewhat dated classically Edwardian dress with a fancy bonnet which more resembles something a country girl might wear to church than the latest in Western fashions in an attempt to advertise their tailoring which seems primed to backfire. 

That she learns to ride a bicycle in this rather ridiculous outfit is again a symbol of her desire to seize and manipulate modernity even giving rise to a piece of innuendo from her much younger assistant Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai) as to the pounding she’s been getting from the saddle. Kimura seems to think the problem with the business is that Onoda’s patterns are outdated, offering her a new modernity while she prepares to cut Onoda out on catching him with his mistress taking their best employee with her to ruin his business and start another of her own. Though once again she cannot leave alone only with a man the ending is perhaps more hopeful than might be expected from a Naruse film allowing Shima to commit herself fully to the sense of industry she embodies always ready to start again, work harder, and achieve her desires unwilling to be bound by conventional ideas of femininity or to simply put up with useless men who refuse to accept her for all she is. Yet she largely fails to make men of them, each of her various suitors failing to live up to her, ruined by an oppressive social system that encourages them to exploit female labour while taking it for granted in their intense sense of patriarchal entitlement. 


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)

The Beast Shall Die (野獣死すべし, Eizo Sugawa, 1959)

“He’s not a beast. No, he’s a robot. A machine created by a modern, twisted society” according to a frustrated policeman acknowledging that a sociopathic killer is going to get away with his crimes because when it comes right down to it he’s just that good. Eizo Sugawa’s The Beast Shall Die (野獣死すべし, Yaju Shisubeshi) is the first of several adaptations of the hardboiled novel by Haruhiko Oyabu, Sugawa would himself direct a “sequel” 15 years later while a better-known version would prove a hit for Toru Murakawa in 1980 with action star Yusaku Matsuda in the leading role, and a two-part V-cinema adaptation would follow in 1997. The 1959 edition however is very much an expression of the anxiety of its times, a slightly reactionary take on the post-Sun Tribe phenomenon hinting at a generational divide between the nihilistic, hyper individualist post-war generation and their confused though morally compromised forbears. 

As the film opens, three policemen meet in a pub one of whom proudly shows off a Robby the Robot toy he’s picked up for his young son and is intending to give him on returning home from work. Sadly, however, Okada (Akira Sera) will never make it home because, for largely unexplained reasons, he is shot dead by nihilistic American literature student Date (Tatsuya Nakadai) who bundles the body into the boot of a car which he then simply abandons. Date never reveals much of a motive for this first murder, but he does later use Okada’s warrant card and service weapon to facilitate later crimes. 

The problem, at least for earnest policemen Kawashima (Eijiro Tono), a veteran cop and father of seven, and idealistic rookie Masugi (Hiroshi Koizumi) who is engaged to barmaid Yoko (Yumi Shirakawa) but drags his feet over the marriage because of his precarious life as a law enforcement officer, is an ideological divide within the contemporary police force. “Investigations are about science. And science is the best” according to their boss, reflecting a new faith in forensics prioritising physical evidence from the crime scene over a policeman’s intuition. From a modern perspective, this seems to be the right call though Kawashima and Masugi appear to find it both restrictive and mildly insulting as if their experience on the job now counts for nothing. They also worry that such rigid thinking prevents thorough investigation, and they might have a point in the boss’ continued insistence that the crimes must be down to “gang activity” even though the evidence clearly points at someone connected to the university or perhaps a disgruntled salaryman with access to the uni gun club. 

Kawashima and Masugi lament that they feel powerless to act because they don’t have the right to arrest someone on the basis of a “hunch”, and the film seems to agree with them as Date continues to commit his crimes unbothered by law enforcement though really who wants to live in such an authoritarian society that the police can haul you in solely because they think there’s something odd about you and “feel” you must be guilty of a crime even in the absence of conclusive evidence? Nevertheless it’s precisely these ideological divides that Date wilfully exploits while planning his hits, his second targets also reflecting the continuing Sinophobia of post-war cinema in impersonating a police officer to rob, but interestingly not kill, a pair of Chinese gangsters running an illegal gambling racket. 

Hearing Date’s back story, we realise that society has in a sense warped him in witnessing an injustice done to his father which later led to his suicide while his mother was apparently engaging in an affair with the man who framed him. He strongly argues that the only response to the “chaos, madness, and contradictions” of the modern society is to “show our beastly nature”, wilfully abandon humanistic morality and conventional civility in favour of an individualistic satisfaction of one’s personal desires above all other concerns. Date is certainly an amoral man who has no problem with sacrificing those he determines to be lesser beings for his own gain, but as even Masugi reveals his thinking may not be out of line with that of his generation. Many people are driven to murderous rage, he argues, but do not act on it because of a social taboo. 

As the film opens, a group of left-wing students is holding a rally in support of the anti-ANPO protests ahead of the treaty’s imminent renewal, though the professors mock them from inside insisting that their politics is not genuine only a reflection of the despair they feel in their society knowing that even if they graduate all that awaits them are low-level salaryman jobs with little promise of advancement. Those who can’t even manage that, they joke, turn to academia. Date’s professor (Nobuo Nakamura) affects sympathy with his poverty but also wilfully exploits him, getting him to do translations of novels which will later be published under his own name while it seems to be an open secret that he owes much of his success to the fact that he married into a prominent family which allowed him to spend five years studying abroad in America. 

Meanwhile, his students philosophise on the psychology of crime insisting that a “robotic, truly ruthless personality” can only come from a “mechanistic society like the US” while Japanese criminals are generally “emotional” in that crimes are committed because of “love affairs, resentment, finances”, “petty humanistic motives” which society can easily understand if not exactly condone. Date, admittedly a student of American literature with his eyes firmly set on going abroad, entirely disproves this theory. His crimes appear to be dispassionate and committed largely for practical reasons, the later ones at least with money as the motive even if he also derives a thrill from his amoral rebellion against the system. His poverty is offered as a justification yet we also see him abuse and manipulate those weaker than himself, humiliating an old lady trying to sell flowers in the bar where Yoko works while later talking a fellow student suffering with TB and unable to pay his tuition into helping him commit a robbery. 

Perhaps in someways uncomfortably in continuing a motif associating homosexuality with sadistic criminality, it’s also heavily implied that Date is bisexual, encountering an effeminate young man on the street with whom it is clear from their conversation he has previously been intimate to later use him as cannon fodder when engaging in a firefight with Chinese gangsters, while there is also an obvious homoerotic charge to his relationship to the student who later becomes a temporary accomplice. His relations with women are somewhat caddish and perfunctory, his sometime girlfriend Tae (Reiko Dan) telling the police that Date is a player who only sleeps with the same woman three times before becoming bored with her. Date’s attitude, though interestingly enough not his crimes, may reflect a societal misogyny, impoverished medical student Tae later refused access to the morgue because it’s not something a woman should see, though Tae herself later claims that it’s Date’s coldness and cruelty that draw her to him. Seemingly unable to feel genuine emotion for others, it nevertheless appears that Date is in a sense moved enough by Tae’s ability to embrace his inner darkness to eventually decide to alleviate her poverty on realising he no longer needs his ill-gotten gains because he’s secured his passage to America through more legitimate means. 

A reaction to the post-Sun Tribe sense of moral panic about disillusioned post-war youth, The Beast Shall Die suggests that for the moment at least those like Date are in an unassailable position thanks to an overly liberal justice system as the two policemen lament their inability to prevent his escape through judicial means while turning their attention to Tae though there’s no real way they can know that Date gave the stolen money to her rather than taking it with him or depositing it in some other location even if she’s walking around with an ugly handbag that might be full of cash. Alternating between an acceptance of Date’s nihilistic, crypto-fascist philosophy in implying that those who obey the rules of civility are doing so solely because they are too weak to break them, and advocating for a more authoritarian society in which policemen are free to act on their “hunches”, Sugawa’s take on Oyabu’s hard boiled tale of societal corruption and warped post-war morality has its reactionary qualities even as it ends on a note of ambiguity that implies order will eventually triumph though not, it seems, today. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai (峠 最後のサムライ, Takashi Koizumi, 2021)

“Even with 100 plans and 100 ideas, we cannot defeat the march of progress” a progressive samurai admits, well aware that he’s witnessing the end of his era while knowing that the “thrilling future” that lies ahead will have no place for him. Adapted from the novel by Ryotaro Shiba, The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai (峠 最後のサムライ, Toge: Saigo no Samurai) is inspired by the life of Kawai Tsugunosuke, known as the “Last Samurai” for his steadfast embodiment of the samurai ideal during the chaos of the Bakumatsu and subsequent Boshin War

As the opening voiceover from Tsugunosuke’s wife Osuga (Takako Matsu) explains, the Tokugawa Shogunate had ruled Japan for close to 300 years after bringing the warring states era to an end following the Battle of Sekigahara, placing the nation into a period of enforced isolation which by the 1850s was beginning to crack while resentment towards the Tokugawa continued to grow over their handling of access to foreign trade. In 1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (Masahiro Higashide) effectively relinquished his monopoly on power and restored ultimate authority to the emperor (the “Meiji Restoration”). Yet if he hoped his decision would both restore peace and allow the Tokugawa to maintain political influence he was quite mistaken. In the immediate wake of this political earthquake the nation became polarised between those in favour of imperial rule and those who remained loyal to the Shogunate. 

The chief retainer in Nagaoka, Tsugunosuke (Koji Yakusho) finds himself in an impossible position caught between the forces of East and West and essentially unable to pick a side because of the demands of samurai loyalty. Fearing another war would prove disastrous, he chooses neutrality certain that the present conflict cannot be resolved militarily and requires a political solution. To this effect he attempts to petition a delegation from the Western, pro-emperor, pro-modernisation army but his pleas fall on deaf ears and lead only to a rebuke that he is a coward and a traitor. Like any good leader, however, Tsugunosuke has also been preparing for the worst, buying a gatling gun from foreign dealers in order to boost his meagre man power eventually realising they have no other option than to go war 

The irony is that Tsugunosuke tacitly supports imperial rule but cannot say so because his clan is closely affiliated with the Tokugawa. He is well aware that his era has come to a close and that he will not live to see the new Japan, knowing that he is man of the old world and cannot progress into the classless society he is certain is coming. For all that he seems to be excited by the promises of revolution, encouraging the son of a friend to take advantage of the freedoms of a new era while dreaming of foreign travel and advocating for “liberty and rights” along with universal education in the hope of building of a better society. 

Yet for himself he cannot let go of samurai ideals, knowing he must fight a pointless war in which he does not believe because honour dictates it. “If it shows future generations what we samurai truly stood for then this battle will have been worthwhile” he tells a friend, fearful of a future dominated by the clans of Satsuma and Choshu. “Your samurai spirit will encourage countless others” another retainer tells him, “you are our ideal”, touched by his stoicism and grace even in defeat as he takes sole responsibility for the failure of their military campaign caused in part by the betrayal of a defecting ally. “This warriors’ way shall die with me” he cheerfully tells a servant, advising him to become a merchant and travel abroad to seize the “thrilling future” which lies ahead of him. 

A martyr to his age, Tsugunosuke is the last of the samurai stoically defending a lofty ideal in an acknowledgement that he does not belong in the new society and must sacrifice himself in order to bring it about. An homage to classic samurai cinema from former Akira Kurosawa AD Takashi Koizumi, who even throws in the odd screen wipe, featuring cameos from golden age stars Tatsuya Nakadai and Kyoko Kagawa, The Pass is about the passage from one era to the next taking as its hero a closet revolutionary and walking embodiment of the idealised samurai who chooses unity and shared vision over conflict in the creation of a better world he does not intend to live to see.


The Pass: Last Days of the Samurai screens on Aug. 21 and Sept. 1 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cash Calls Hell (五匹の紳士, Hideo Gosha, 1966)

“Life is made of gambles” according to the villain of Hideo Gosha’s 1966 Shochiku Noir Cash Calls Hell (五匹の紳士, Gohiki no Shinshi). Sometimes dismissed by contemporary critics for the wilful vulgarity of his late career yakuza films, Gosha was most closely associated with jidaigeki but here makes a rare foray into B-movie crime, a genre which perhaps aligned with the so-called “manly way” philosophy which imbued much of his work. Led by frequent star Tatsuya Nakadai the men of Cash Calls Hell are indeed all suffering manfully, each desperately floundering in the post-war society while quietly resentful in being locked out of its growing prosperity. 

The hero, Oida (Tatsuya Nakadai), is the son of a meek civil servant whom he resented for his passivity. Oida was determined to make something of himself, and so he invested his efforts not in hard work and dedication but in personal relationships, seducing the boss’ daughter in order to win her hand and thereby advancement and security. Meanwhile, he was preparing to unceremoniously ditch the bar hostess who’d been supporting him while he made his way to the top, only after arguing with her on a car drive home he gets into an accident in which a father and his little girl are killed. Oida’s bright future is ruined in an instant. He’s asked to backdate a resignation letter, his engagement is cancelled, and he also owes compensation to the widowed mother Natsuko (Miyuki Kuwano) whose face, filled with rage and resentment, he is unable to forget. With no money to pay her, he winds up in prison which is where he meets soon-to-be released Sengoku (Mikijiro Hira) who has a proposition for him but refuses to give any further details, instructing him to find a woman named Utako (Atsuko Kawaguchi) as soon as he’s released. 

As Utako relates, the job involves knocking off the three men on her hit list for which he will be paid a cool 15 million yen (5 million each). Advised to not to ask any further questions, Oida decides to go along with it after all he has nothing left to lose, but as he begins his investigations he becomes increasingly confused and conflicted. As we discover, the men were all part of a gang that robbed a syndicate of Hong Kong drug dealers, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Sengoku wants them out of the way so he won’t have to divide the loot when he gets out. The money is many ways beside the point, what the men wanted was a way to kick back against the various forces which oppressed them and took their revenge on society through crime. The first, Motoki (Hisashi Igawa), is a former policeman who ran off with a gangster’s wife and subsequently went all the way to the dark side. Umegaya (Kunie Tanaka) is the son of a career criminal who wanted some control over his life and to care for the woman he loved. Embittered former boxer Fuyujima (Ichiro Nakatani) had his dreams shattered when gangsters crushed his hand because he refused to throw a fight. 

Sengoku, who was left lame after being injured in the aerial bombing during the war, recruited them all by exploiting their resentment. Fuyujima describes the men as wandering like ravenous dogs. They are already imprisoned, framed by the chainlink fence which divides them from the well-to-do salarymen killing time at the driving range. “Life is half made of luck and circumstances” Sengoku tells them, echoing his words to Oida, handing them agency in crime in asking them to “bet” on him. “We can’t sink any lower” he rationalises, “now we must get back on our feet”. Oida is much the same. He’d sunk as far as he could and thought nothing of taking these men’s lives to save his own, but resents being used by Sengoku and is probably figuring out that a man who doesn’t want to split his loot in four won’t be keen to split it in half either. He is also burdened by a sense of guilt and responsibility, both to the widow of the man he killed in the accident and to Motoki’s small daughter Tomoe (Yukari Uehara), about the same age as the little girl who died with him. 

Natsuko, it turns out, has since become a bar hostess, herself sinking in the cruelty of the post-war landscape, now wearing a sparkly cheongsam in echo of the “Golden Dragon” syndicate running the club where Umegawa works and the Hong Kong gangsters hot on Oida’s trail. Indulging in a stereotypical B-movie Sinophobia, the implication is that crime is a foreign phenomenon, the threat lurking in the shadows dressed oddly more like a 30s bootlegger from a Hollywood gangster flick than a triad drug trafficker and killing with the point of his umbrella. Oida’s redemption is sparked by his sense of responsibility towards the orphaned little girl who continues to follow him around, latching on to him as a sympathetic figure entirely unaware of his relationship to her father. In the end he declares that he wants the money in order to buy back his soul having sold it to Sengoku in agreeing to take on the job without knowing what it was, but also wants to make restitution to Natsuko which he later does in a poetic if perhaps insensitive fashion that implies he can in a sense restore the child he killed by substituting it with another. 

Oida is one of Gosha’s “manly” heroes, surviving at all costs but finally defending his sense of honour in regaining his humanity. Nevertheless, Gosha is also keen to demonstrate the various ways the women suffer at the hands of irresponsible men, each of the wives endangered by their husbands’ transgressions and Natsuko forced onto the fringes of the sex trade by Oida’s thoughtless crime. Opening in a bold negative with the heist that started it all, Gosha shoots in true noir style all shadows and canted angles through a series of episodic set pieces including a chase pregnant with symbolism through a “purification station” scored by moody jazz before ending on a fatalistic POV shot. Life is a gamble after all, but is this a loss or a victory? With the world the way it is, who could really say.


Immortal Love (永遠の人, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1961)

Patriarchal feudalism destroys not only the life of an innocent young woman but all of those around her in Keisuke Kinoshita’s embittered romantic melodrama Immortal Love (永遠の人, Eien no Hito). Scored to the impassioned beat of an incongruous flamenco and spanning almost thirty years of turbulent history from the tightening years of militarism to Anpo protests, Immortal Love finds its heroine imprisoned by the system within which she was raised but determining to free her children from the legacy of feudalism even while knowing that she traps herself in her intense resentment towards her husband and everything he represents. 

Heibei (Tatsuya Nakadai), the wealthy son of the village chief, returns home from military service in Manchuria after sustaining an injury that will leave him walking with crutches for the rest of his life. Though his father tells him that his is an honourable discharge and has organised a small parade complete with flag waving and a band to greet him, it’s obvious that Heibei feels ashamed to have returned home wounded and is unhappy that his father has made such a fuss. He’s doubly unhappy at his welcome home party on hearing the gossip that local beauty Sadako (Hideko Takamine) is in love with farmer’s son Takashi (Keiji Sada) to whom Heibei has always felt inferior, something which is only exacerbated by the fact Takashi is also at the front and apparently acquitting himself well. Cruelly calling her over, he tells Sadako that he met Takashi at a field hospital but that he was about to go off to a big battle so could very well be dead. 

Heibei’s true feelings, if you could call them that, remain unclear. Later, justifying himself, he claims that he really did care for Sadako and that all of his subsequent “immoral” acts were committed out of a love he was ill equipped to express, but that first night at the party it seems obvious that he only wants her because he knows she is Takashi’s. He tries to assault her when she is massaging his wounded leg, attempts to court her, and then finally resorts to rape with the help of his father who keeps Sadako’s dad occupied by forcing him to drink sake as his guest while making veiled threats about the status of his tenancy. Heibei had made a formal proposal which Sadako was about to turn down, further humiliating him, despite the pressure he’d piled on by threatening to throw Takashi’s brother off his land and potentially kicking her family off theirs too. By raping her and tricking her father into agreeing to the marriage he forces her to accept, wielding his feudal privilege like a weapon. 

Shortly before the marriage, Takashi returns on leave, a heroic soldier painted in glory. He too is resentful and heartbroken to learn that Sadako is to marry to Heibei, eventually hearing the truth of it from his brother. Sadako tries to kill herself rather than be forced into marriage with her rapist, and avoids seeing Takashi in thinking she is now “impure” and can no longer be his wife. Takashi assures her she is wrong, and that even if Heibei thinks he has “stolen” her in taking her by force, he can simply take her back. He proposes they elope, but fails to turn up, leaving Sadako standing sadly at the roadside until her father arrives with a letter explaining that Takashi has reconsidered and advises her to accept a life of material comfort as Heibei’s wife rather than one of hardship with him. 

Forced to marry the man who raped her, Sadako lives in quiet resentment, bearing three children the first of which she struggles to love because he is the result of the rape which condemned her to her present life of misery. Years later, Sadako learns that Takashi married too when his wife Tomoko (Nobuko Otowa) is evacuated to the village to stay with his brother. Heibei, ever cruel, offers Tomoko a job as a household servant, revelling in the idea that Takashi’s first love and current wife are both under his roof, telling her all about their strange romantic history and setting her at odds with Sadako whom she too resents knowing that her husband has never loved her because he can’t give up on his first love. A twisted bond arises between Heibei and Tomoko, united in resentment of Takashi and Sadako, but Heibei eventually tries to rape her too, once again trying to take what Takashi has, or possibly destroy it.  

Despite her despair and loathing for her husband, Sadako tries to rise above it and always makes a point of treating Tomoko with respect and kindness even when she is cruel. Later on the road, she tells her not to worry, that what she grieves isn’t Takashi but the life she lived before. Heibei is perhaps also a victim of the system, his masculinity undermined by his brash father while his sense of inferiority is exacerbated by his disability, but he is also innately cruel and selfish. There’s strange perversion in the act of healing which closes the film in that it forces Sadako to ask for an apology from Heibei, the man who raped her and ruined her life, for using his abuse as an “excuse” to go on hating him all these long years. Heibei characteristically paints himself as the victim, branding Sadako a cold and unfeeling woman, wondering who will look after him now that he has been abandoned by all his children. He tells her that his feelings were sincere even if his acts were immoral, implicitly blaming her for the abuse that he inflicted, but Sadako merely accuses him of romanticising the past in trying to justify this internecine bid for vengeance that ruined the lives of at least four people as a frustrated love story. 

“You and I may never be reconciled until one of us dies” Heibei admits, while Sadako tearfully tells a dying Takashi that it’s not too late for her to try to be happy. Tomoko was able to reconcile with her son and apparently lived out the last of her days in contentment. Naoko (Yukiko Fuji), Sadako’s daughter, eventually married Takashi’s son Yutaka (Akira Ishihama), breaking with the past both in rejecting the feudal class structure within which she was raised in marrying a working class man, and the patriarchal in ignoring her cruel father’s authority. A kind of healing has been achieved, freeing the younger generation from the cursed family legacy which claims that their ancestral wealth was gained by a literal betrayal of thousands of peasant farmers at the time of the siege of Osaka in 1615. The corruption of the war and a culture of hypermasculinty is visited on Sadako in the violent trauma of the rape, an event which echoes through not only her life but perhaps her children’s too. It is not she who should be asking for forgiveness, but she does perhaps begin to find it in herself, in making a kind of peace with the past which at least cuts the cord, allowing the younger generation to escape the net of feudal oppression for a brighter, freer, post-war future.


Immortal Love is available to stream in the US via the Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blood End (天狗党, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1969)

When the black ships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853, it provoked a moment of crisis which eventually led to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. Between those two events however lay a period of intense confusion as several groups and movements attempted to lay claim to the future direction of the nation. Many, such as the legendary figure Sakamoto Ryoma, held that above all else Japan needed to Westernise as quickly as possible in order to defend itself against foreign powers now far more technologically advanced than the Japan which had attempted to hold back time for over 200 years. Others felt quite the opposite, that what was needed was an end to the corrupt rule of the Shogunate and the restoration of power to the emperor while expelling foreign influence and going back into isolation. 

Satsuo Yamamoto’s Blood End (天狗党, Teng-to) dramatises this debate through the melancholy tale of the Mito Rebellion as a brutalised peasant farmer is sucked in by the idea of revolution but eventually betrayed by it in discovering that the samurai, even revolutionary samurai, will never change. They may claim they want an end to the feudal caste system and to live in a world where all men are equal, but continue to feel themselves entitled to more equality than others and insist on deference from those they still believe to be inferior. 

The action begins with a scene familiar from many a jidaigeki in that a small farming community is being pressed to provide the usual amount of rice despite the failure of the harvest. Revolutionary yakuza Jingoza (Kanemon Nakamura) and egalitarian samurai Kada (Go Gato) stumble on the scene of a “stubborn” peasant being subjected to 100 blows as punishment for the village’s raising the unfairness of their situation with the local lord. Surviving his ordeal, Sentaro (Tatsuya Nakadai) asks only for water but is denied by his cruel samurai tormentor. Jingoza intervenes and offers him his flask along with some money by way of an apology on behalf of these savage nobles, a gesture for which Sentaro remains grateful. While many of his friends are exiled and lose their lands, Sentaro disappears from the village and becomes a yakuza himself, learning the art of the sword in preparation for his mission of revenge. 

Meeting Jingoza by chance, he takes the opportunity to thank him and agrees to transport some money back to his family in a nearby village while he engages in urgent business in the mountains. While there, Sentaro ends up defending Jingoza’s steely daughter Tae (Yukiyo Toake) who is running something like an orphanage for children rendered fatherless by the ongoing chaos. It’s at Tae’s that he ends up running into Kada, who is a member of revolutionary movement “Tengu-to”, named for the mythical ogres with long noses and bright red faces. Sentaro ends up joining the movement, but gradually discovers that Tengo-to is not all he thought it to be. In the modern parlance, many of their actions are terrorist, they care little for human life and have no issue with looting wealthy houses as they prove after helping Sentaro assassinate the man who beat him, killing the man’s wife and servants and making off with his money as “military funds”. Sentaro is shocked, but only manages to get some of the money for himself to take back to Tae as a way of making amends. He continues to associate with Tengu-to despite his growing disillusionment with their philosophy. 

The Mito clan were perhaps outliers in the great Bakumatsu culture war, running under the “Sonno Joi” banner but doing so alone and forcefully advocating that the emperor’s instruction to expel all foreigners with immediate effect be enforced. At least as far as Yamamoto’s revolutionaries go, they advocate for this not so much because they reject foreign influence but because they resent the country’s elites maintaining a stranglehold on the riches to be gained by foreign trade. Kada, however, claims to have a more revolutionary spirit in that he wants to improve conditions for farmers like Sentaro, protecting them from the “corrupt system” but he’s still a product of his society and finds the programming increasingly hard to break. Having recruited vast numbers of peasants to their cause and witnessing the failure of their campaign, the other leaders want to go to Kyoto to talk to the emperor but are embarrassed to go there in the company of so many men who are not samurai. The solution is that they simply kill them, because peasants aren’t really people anyway. 

Sentaro thought they were “doing something good for peasants and the poor”, but samurai will always be “samurai” and eventually they will betray him. He wavers when Kada and the others ask him to assassinate Jingoza because he’s gone over to the Westernising cause, and is half talked round by his insistence that he’s acting blindly without thinking far enough ahead but himself finds it hard to break with the idea that samurai are honest and know what they’re doing. 

Yamamoto is perhaps making a direct allusion to the imminent failure of the student movement in Japan which finds itself in much the same place as the Tengu-to, torn apart by infighting and increasingly corrupted by duplicitous dogma. Kada has a lot of fine ideas but he doesn’t act on them, doubling down on ruthlessness in complaining that Sentaro is too sentimental, insisting that emotion is the enemy. Sentaro, however, has figured out that the enemy is the sword and everything it represents. Jingoza’s “Restoration” is the one he should have been fighting for if he wanted to see a classless Japan, but the Tengu-to have misused his idealism for their own ends and turned him into a defender of his own oppression. Still, the Tengu-to are the ones who pay the price, their entreaties to the emperor falling on deaf ears with 353 retainers beheaded as punishment. Sentaro lives on, vowing he will never die, as he walks towards the “Restoration” of the future and away from the Blood End of an inherently corrupt insurrection.