Rub Out the Past (日本暗黒街, Masaharu Segawa, 1966)

A former yakuza’s attempts to shed his old identity and start again as an upscale restaurateur are disrupted by the unwelcome appearance of an old acquaintance in Masaharu Segawa’s noirish drama, Rub Out the Past (日本暗黒街, Nihon Ankokugai). Another “akokugai” or “underworld” film, Segawa’s surprisingly subversive Toei crime story involves not only the drugs trade but hints of Manchurian transgression as the hero tries to forget his past while unable to realise his love for the daughter of a man he killed on the order of his boss. 

Now calling himself Yashiro, Kageyama (Koji Tsuruta) runs a swanky bar in Kobe and is in love with his pianist Yoko (Eiko Muramatsu) who is also, though she doesn’t know it, the daughter of a former associate back in his yakuza days whom he apparently killed for otherwise unclear reasons leaving Yoko and her mother alone and defenceless in Manchuria during the evacuation at the end of the war. When a mysterious man arrives and explains he’s from “Hayami Industries”, Kageyama is reluctant to listen but eventually forced to accompany him to Tokyo where he is led into Hayami’s rather swanky new office complete with electronic displays and workers positioned in tiny booths. Since the end of the war, Hayami has become a “respectable” businessman running some of Asia’s most prestigious hotels in addition to a chain of casinos. Yet his real business is of course in drug smuggling, which is a problem because the guy he put in charge of the Hong Kong route has drawn the attention of the police. He makes Kageyama an offer he can’t refuse ,much as he tries, to take it over. He accepts on the condition it’ll just be a one time thing. 

In any case, Kageyama’s involvement with Hayami soon costs him his relationship with Yoko, who is aware of Kageyama’s criminal past but blames Hayami for her father’s death, and with it a potential for redemption. Details are few, but there are constant references to the gang’s illegal and immoral dealings in Manchuria, a time that Kageyama is keen to leave in the past having made a new more honest life for himself in the post-war society while Hayami has shifted into the increasingly corporatised realms of contemporary organised crime. Yet despite himself Kageyama is good at being a gangster, effortlessly subduing the bumbling head of “Sekiya Industries” and realising that part of the problem is that too many of his men are getting high on their own supply. To streamline the business he lays off drug users telling them to come back when they’re clean and temporarily pauses the business while he reorganises it at street level. This however leaves a small vacuum in the underworld economy which is soon filled by “alternative” suppliers. 

More akin to one of Toho’s spy spoofs, Hayami Industries seems to be incredibly keen on zany gadgets like cigarette lighters that double as secret radios and guns which shoot listening devices not to mention the panel wall which hides Hayami’s secret control room or the knuckle dusters and belt swords sported by the Sekiya guys. All of which is slightly at odds with the seriousness of the constant reminders of abuses in Manchuria and on the Mainland, and the frankness with which drugs are treated onscreen with frequent shots of syringes and powder. As usual in these films, the main villain is from Hong Kong, an unhinged maniac who kidnaps Yoko and gets her hooked on drugs partly at the instigation of Hayami who seems to be making something of a strategic blunder in his attempts to manipulate Kageyama. Yet Kageyama can only get his redemption through reassuming his wartime persona to face Hayami if indirectly in trying to engineer a gang war between middlemen with Hong Konger Tei caught in the middle. 

Segawa adds to the noir feel through the melancholy jazz score reinforcing the fatalism and futility that seems to define Kageyama’s life as he tries but fails to escape from his violent past. A product of wartime misuse he finds himself at odds with the contemporary society, inconveniently falling in love with the daughter of a man he killed and therefore unable to move on from the shadow of his life of crime only granted a second chance after losing everything and paying his debt to society by destroying the system he himself helped to create. 


An Outlaw (ならず者, Teruo Ishii, 1964)

Outside of Japan, “king of cult” Teruo Ishii is most closely associated with a particular brand of transgressive ero-guro exploitation films such as Horrors of Malformed Men, yet his career was much more eclectic than many might assume. Starring Ken Takakura with whom Ishii was developing a professional relationship which would eventually lead to the hugely successful Abashiri Prison series, 1964’s An Outlaw (ならず者, Narazumono) is one of a string of noir thrillers from the earlier part of Ishii’s career this one taking place mainly in Hong Kong and Macao. 

China-based Japanese hitman Nanjo (Ken Takakura) runs into trouble after he offs a man he assumed to be “the biggest thug in the underworld” but actually turns out to have been a law enforcement official working against a people trafficking ring. To make matters worse when Nanjo returns to his hotel where he was supposed to get his pay off, he discovers the body of a young woman in his bed who is later identified as the official’s daughter. Understandably annoyed, Nanjo starts trying to track down the people who hired him to figure out what’s going but is accidentally dragged into underworld intrigue after being mistaken for a drug deal middle-man owing to the yellow flower he’s wearing on his lapel. 

Like any good noir hero and especially one played by Takakura, Nanjo is basically a good guy with a strong sense of justice and an acute moral compass. He doesn’t like having been manipulated into killing someone who wasn’t in the game nor does he approve of those who make their living by exploiting women such as arch villain Mao (Toru Abe) whom he discovers to have been running a nefarious international trafficking ring getting Japanese women hooked on drugs, shipping them to Hong Kong and Macao, and working them to death before abandoning them once they’ve served their purpose. Then again, he also has a strange problem with women who like to lie in bed in the middle of the day which seems slightly puritanical for a man who kills for a living yet you’d have to admit no one could call him lazy. 

Not much of Nanjo’s past is revealed save that he was born in prison to a woman who stabbed her former partner because he left her for another woman while she was pregnant with his child, raising her son to be anything but dishonest especially with women. In any case, he appears to have been based in China and Hong Kong for some time, claiming that he came down from Xiamen for the job and speaking fairly fluent Cantonese and Mandarin though in another strange coincidence many of the people he meets turn out to be Japanese. In this there’s a slightly ironic inversion of the normal patterning of post-war crime films which sees Japan exporting crime to China the big mcguffin revolving around a tin of drugs Nanjo was given by mistake intended for the local market while the secondary target becomes Mao’s people trafficking operation bringing sex workers who’ve gotten into his bad books to Hong Kong or to be used for the pleasure of wealthy men. Despite his apparent disapproval, Nanjo reveals he was given part payment for the job in the form of a girl who he could use for his “convenience” though it seems unlikely that he did so.

On the other hand, the secondary villain, the Japanese-speaking Minran (Yoko Mihara), is painted as something of a femme fatale playing off Nanjo and her boss while trying to get her hands on the drugs to split the proceeds with her Cantonese-speaking lover who accidentally kills a young girl Nanjo had befriended in Hong Kong. The girl’s death is in part Nanjo’s responsibility in that he placed her in danger without warning or an understanding of what he was asking her to do, yet he later proves no better when he kills the landlady of the hotel who had watched as she died and then blackmailed Minran for financial gain. Aside from the girl and her Japanese friend Aki (Yoko Minamida) who is dying of consumption after being worked to death as one of Mao’s trafficked women, and a detective with whom Nanjo later forms an unexpected alliance, Nanjo is the representative of humanist morality despite his morally compromised existence reminding Mao that his mistake was in thinking that there is nothing money could not buy in rejecting his efforts to pay him off. 

Shot largely on location in Hong Kong and Macao, Ishii adds to the noirish tone with frequent voice over and a melancholy jazz score while making full use of the atmospheric environment with its deserted alleyways and cobbled streets not to mention the naturally canted angles of the Victoria Peak funicular, while there is a fair amount of lowkey sleaze more typical of his later career along with a bizarre scene in which Nanjo sucks out blood from the mouth of a woman suffering a pulmonary haemorrhage. First and foremost a fatalistic noir thriller in which the hero, unfairly damned by a corrupt society, is unable to outrun his past transgressions, An Outlaw nevertheless suggests that true nobility is to be found only in those existing outside of its borders.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Terror of Yakuza (沖縄やくざ戦争, AKA Okinawa Yakuza War, Sadao Nakajima, 1976)

An old-school yakuza finds himself cornered on every side while caught in the confusion of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in Sadao Nakajima’s jitsuroku gangster movie Terror of the Yakuza (沖縄やくざ戦争, Okinawa Yakuza Senso, AKA Okinawa Yakuza War). Where similarly themed Okinawa-set gangster pictures such as Sympathy for the Underdog had largely presented the islands as an appealing place for mainland gangsters because the conditions of the occupation which had allowed them to prosper were still in place, Sadao reframes the debate in terms colonisation and conquest as the hero finds himself increasingly marginalised as an island boy contending with amoral city elitists. 

Nakazato (Hiroki Matsukata) has just been released from prison after serving seven years for the murders of two rival gang bosses that allowed his boss, Kunigami (Shinichi Chiba), to rule the roost in Koza. But now that Okinawa has reverted to Japan, everything has changed. Kunigami has formed a loose alliance with another regional gang to oppose the incursion of mainland yakuza but behind the scenes the higher-ups are intent on a mutually beneficial alliance with the Japanese perhaps seeing the writing on the wall and assuming that it’s better to work with the new regime that against it. For his part, Nakazato is more loyal to the clan than he is opposed to Japan but he’s also resentful towards to Kunigami for failing to live up to his side of the bargain now that he’s been released while fearing the influence of his new sidekick Ishikawa (Takeo Chii) whom he suspects of murdering one of his former associates while he was inside. 

As such, much of the drama unfolds as in any other yakuza picture with Nakazato, regarded by some of the other bosses as a loose cannon and potential liability, reluctant to move against Kunigami for reasons of loyalty even while Kunigami becomes increasing unhinged and dangerous, deliberately running over an Osakan foot soldier who was apparently just on holiday with no particular business in town. Kunigami’s recklessness in his hatred of the Japanese threatens to start a turf war the Okinawan gangs fear they couldn’t win, sending snivelling yakuza middleman Onaga (Mikio Narita) along with Nakazato to negotiate in Osaka only to be told the price of peace is Kunigami’s head. Inspired by the Fourth Okinawa War which was still going on at the time of the film’s completion (in fact, the release was blocked in Okinawa in fear that it would prove simply too incendiary), the conflict takes on political overtones as the mainland gangsters assume their conquest of Okinawa is a fait accompli while those like Onaga are only too quick to capitulate leaving Kunigami and Nakazato as two very different examples of resistance. 

Yet Nakazato finds himself doubly marginalised because he is from one of the smaller islands with most of his men also hailing from smaller rural communities (one uncomfortably wearing extensive makeup to ram the point home that he is from the southern reaches) with the result that they are often pushed around by the city gangsters who view them as idiot country bumpkins. On his trip to Osaka, Nakazato even describes himself as such in an attempt to curry favour apologising in advance should he make a mistake with proper gangster etiquette. Like a good platoon leader, Nakazato’s primary responsibilities are to his men which is one reason why he takes so strongly against Ishikawa, one of the new breed of entirely amoral yakuza who care nothing at all for the code and think nothing of knocking off his guys for no reason. Consequently he finds himself caught between the invading mainlanders, the unhinged chaos of Kunigami, the coldhearted greed of Ishikawa, and the spineless venality of turncoats like Onaga. 

It’s no wonder that he eventually loses his cool, going all out war and like Kunigami dressing in vests and combats in an internecine quest for vengeance precipitated in part by Kunigami’s attempt to discipline one of his men for encroaching on his territory by removing his manhood with a pair of pliers. “Someone will get to you someday too” Nakazato is reminded though having lost everything including his loyal wife who insisted on selling herself to a brothel to get the money to fund his war of revenge he may no longer care so long as he cleans house in Okinawa to the extent that he is really able to do so. “Okinawa is such a scary place” one of the Japanese guys admits, though showing no signs of backing off in this maddeningly chaotic world which turns stoic veterans and hotheaded farm boys alike into enraged killers fighting on a point of principle in a world which no longer has any. 


Terror of Yakuza screens at Japan Society New York May 20 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: Terror of Yakuza © 1976 Toei

The Thief in Black (黒の盗賊, Umetsugu Inoue, 1964)

Best known as a master of the musical, Umetsugu Inoue had a long and varied filmography embracing almost every genre imaginable. He began his career at Shintoho and later joined Nikkatsu where he quickly became an in demand director often working with top star Yujiro Ishihara, but took the somewhat unusual step of going freelance in 1960 thereafter working at various studios including Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. 1964’s The Thief in Black (黒の盗賊, Kuro no Tozoku) is not a musical but is characteristically playful even within the confines of the lighter side of Toei’s jidaigeki adventures. 

Set between the Battle of Sekigahara and the Siege of Osaka, the samurai corruption in play is essentially the burgeoning Tokugawa dictatorship, the heroes eventually uncovering Ieyasu’s secret plan for making sure his line (well, more himself in essence) remains in power for perpetuity through an insidious plot to weaken the feudal lords and ensure their loyalty to him. Meanwhile, the still developing city of Edo is beginning to turn against the Tokugawa who seem to be intent on exploiting ordinary people to enrich themselves most obviously through forcing the local workforce to renovate Edo castle rather than cleaning up the town which is apparently rampant with crime. Faced with such lack of leadership, the townspeople have come to admire a Robin Hood-like vigilante known only as the Thief in Black who alone is resisting overreaching lords. 

Part of the problem is that Ieyasu’s rule is still insecure because of the potential threat of Hideyori Toyotomi in Osaka. Consequently, they are fearful that some of the men working on the castle may be Toyotomi spies or otherwise disclose information that might benefit him if he chose to attack which is why they’ve refused the workers permission to return home to their families during the pause before beginning the second phase of works leading to further unrest. Meanwhile, corrupt local lord Tadakatsu (Ryutaro Otomo) and his sleazy priest buddy Tenkai (Minoru Chiaki) have an even darker plan in mind, preparing to simply kill the five master craftsmen in charge to ensure they present no threat. Alerted to the situation on the ground by idealistic samurai Jiro (Hashizo Okawa), their boss instructs Tadakatsu in no uncertain terms that he must treat the workers fairly in order to prevent civil unrest and/or disillusionment with the Tokugawa regime but the pair are entirely unfazed and determined to go on with their nefarious plan getting rid of Jiro if the occasion arises. 

As we later discover and in a typical jidaigeki plot device, Jiro is one of a pair of twins with his brother Kotaro (also Hashizo Okawa) abandoned because of the superstitious belief that multiple births are inauspicious. Though both men unwittingly lay claim to the name, Kotaro turns out to be the masked vigilante, his primary cause to regain the lands of the family who raised him unfairly displaced from their estates on the Musashino plains because of Tokugawa greed. Though Jiro, raised as a member of the establishment, is originally loyal to the Tokugawa who have after all brought about an era of peace, he soon begins to see that their rule is no good for the people of Edo. In his more egalitarian worldview, only by enriching the poor can they secure their rule which means less castle building and more infrastructural development along with paying people fairly for their work and absolutely not killing them afterwards. Kotaro too claims that his rebellion is for the good of the common people though unlike Jiro is much more transgressive in his ideology prepared to shake off his samurai status to become a wandering outlaw rather than content himself with the restrictive life of the heir to a samurai clan. 

Such messages are perhaps common in Toei’s brand of jidaigeki but seem unusually pronounced as the peasant workers are often given voice to lament their fate and resist their oppression more directly, pointing the finger not just at a rogue rotten lord but at the entire system built on exploiting their labour. Nevertheless, Inoue injects a hearty dose of whimsical humour to the politically charged narrative even going so far as to include a bumbling ninja claiming to be the famous Hattori Hanzo along with a comic relief magistrate and former samurai brothel owner taking his own kind of ironic revenge in getting the cowardly lords hooked on modernity with a load of faulty rifles. Obviously, Ieyasu couldn’t be stopped, but perhaps they slowed him down and reminded him of the dangers of underestimating the people. Shot with Inoue’s characteristic flare if remaining largely within the Toei house style, Thief in Black is a surprisingly direct attack on corrupt and entitled government but also a righteous romp as its idealistic heroes shuffle themselves back into their ideal positions while fighting Tokugawa oppression all the way. 


Devotion to Railway (大いなる驀進, Hideo Sekigawa, 1960)

In the early 1960s, Japan’s rail network might have felt a little uneasy with the Shinkansen already on the horizon. Hideo Sekigawa’s Devotion to Railway (大いなる驀進, Oinaru Bakushin) is in part a celebration of this essential service, the conductor and steward ever fond of reminding us that most passengers probably don’t realise that the Sakura sleeper service on which they are travelling from Tokyo all the way to Nagasaki is operated by only seven or eight people (though they don’t seem to be counting the staff from the dining car which hints at a minor source of division among the crew). While the Japanese title which means something more like “the great dash” might hint at a little more excitement, the film is less thriller than gentle ensemble drama in which the passengers and crew must come together to solve the improbable number of crises arising on this otherwise ordinary journey. 

Even so considering the film is directed by the left-leaning Sekigawa best known for his anti-war films such as Hiroshima and Listen to the Voices of the Sea, not to mention scripted by Kaneto Shindo, it is a little ironic that the central thrust of the drama revolves around junior steward Yajima’s (Katsuo Nakamura) rediscovery of his own devotion to the railway after at the beginning of the film declaring this will be his final journey. Mimicking the dilemma at the centre of Yoshitaro Nomura’s Stakeout, Yajima’s problem is that he has been engaged for two years and is sick of waiting to get married but his girlfriend Kimie (Yoshiko Sakuma) is the main breadwinner in her family and though his salary could support them as a couple it won’t stretch much further. Kimie, however, is dead against him taking the counter-productive decision to quit the railways even with the suggestion of going into business with a friend who owns a cafe, partly because it’s better to stick with a steady job than take a chance on something less certain, and partly because she knows he likes his work and all his experience will be wasted if he suddenly opts to switch careers. 

Despite its positive warmhearted message of people pulling together to overcome crisis, the film does skew a little conservative in essentially turning Kimie into a minor villain as if she were in a sense responsible for making Yajima doubt his devotion to the railway. After jumping aboard to make sure he doesn’t suddenly quit before the end of the line, she eventually has a heart to heart with the sympathetic conductor Matsuzaki (Rentaro Mikuni) that forces to her to admit that perhaps she’s just nervous about the nature of married life and has been making trouble where there needn’t be any, now certain that it’s better to just get married as soon as possible and let the rest figure itself out. 

Meanwhile, there’s additional tension seeing as a waitress from the diner car has an obvious crush on Yajima and is quite resentful on being presented with his fiancée, but even this is eventually solved with the two women becoming accidental friends during the climatic crisis, a landslide caused by a typhoon, that grants each of the passengers an epiphany about what it is they really want out of life. While waiting for the maintenance crew from the next station to arrive, Yajima, still in a bad mood, stands around doing not much of anything until coaxed into action by Kimie and Matsuzaki, Kimie too eventually jumping off the train to solve this literal roadblock in their relationship followed by the dining car girls and a young woman only on the train to transport blood to a hospital needed urgently by 2pm the next day. This sense of collective endeavour opening the way gives everyone on board a new sense of positivity, allowing Kimie and Yajima to repair their relationship and a man who tried to take his own life in the night to gain a new sense of hope for future. 

Several times Yajima is reminded that he has the lives of the passengers in his hands which is undoubtedly true given that there is always the chance of disaster yet also perhaps going a little far seeing as most of his job is checking tickets and providing travel information. Nevertheless, there is a lot going on on this train from eloping couples to yakuza assassins, not to mention the twin sights of a newly wed couple and a pompous politician momentarily disembarking at each stop to be feted either by workers at their factory or the local members of their political party. The snooty politician even gets a minor comeuppance from a famous pickpocket who steals his watch as a joke and then gives it back only to dismissively ignore his thank you message while eating a giant apple. 

Surprisingly handsome for a Toei programmer, Sekigawa’s deft direction lends a claustrophobic sense of dread to the interior of the train stalked by a vengeful assassin, while simultaneously making it an essentially safe space guarded by the ever solicitous crew keen to help an anxious young woman with a long journey ahead of her arrive on time to get home to her chronically ill mother. An effective piece of advertising for the Sakura sleeper service (which ran until 2005 albeit in slightly different forms), Devotion to Railway may surprise in its insistence that the hero rededicate himself to his employer but is nevertheless a charming ensemble drama which finds a new sense of positivity in the solidarity between friends and strangers coming together to overcome crisis through common endeavour. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Golden Bat (黄金バット, Hajime Sato, 1966)

Named after Japan’s oldest brand of cigarettes, Golden Bat is regarded by some as the nation’s first superhero created as a character for Kamishibai in 1931 by Takeo Nagamatsu and Suzuki Ichiro. Drawing inspiration from mythological illustrations, Nagamatsu and Ichiro had however intended Golden Bat to be rooted in science rather than legend which might seem ironic on viewing Hajime Sato’s 1966 piece of Toei tokusatsu titled simply The Golden Bat (黄金バット, Ogon Bat). 

Though Toho might be more closely associated with big screen tokusatsu adventures, Toei also had a small sideline in special effects movies as well as a series of hugely popular television franchises. Back in the 1960s, however, Golden Bat was something of an outlier in that it shifts away from the predominant messages that underlined many post-war tokusatsu in the importance of responsible science favouring instead a kind of throwback to the 1930s serial origins of the title character. As the film opens a factory worker with an obsessive though amateur interest in astronomy, Kazahaya (Wataru Yamakawa), tries to convince a professor that the planet Icarus has left its regular orbit and is on an imminent collision course with the Earth. The professor, however dismisses him, stating that his story might appeal to the tabloids but “it is essential that scientists examine any situation carefully” (which he doesn’t seem interested in doing). An assistant then arrives to back him up, adding that as they live in a world in which mankind has been to the moon “the universe no longer poses any terror for us” which sounds like quite an irresponsible statement for a scientist to make. 

In any case, according to Kazahaya Icarus is going to collide with the Earth in under 10 days so there isn’t much time for careful investigation anyway. On his way out of the building he’s accosted by two scary looking guys, but contrary to expectation they aren’t from some shady government organisation carting him off because he knows too much but from the super secretive Pearl Research Institute which has apparently been following him closely and wants to offer him a job because he’s right about Icarus. In another break with the usual tokusatsu anti-nuclear messages, Pearl has developed the “Hyper Annihilator Beam Cannon” which, using a special lens they haven’t developed yet, can turn a ray of atomic light into a heat beam with the power of a thousand H-bombs. They plan use this to blow up Icarus before it hits the Earth (no mention is ever made about whether or not Icarus is also inhabited). It’s about this time that their expeditionary force begins sending distress signals and then drops out of contact, the gang then discovering Icarus is part of a master plan operated by the evil inter galactic villain Nazo who thinks that only he deserves to exist so wants the Earth destroyed. 

Nazo is Golden Bat’s arch enemy, here a man in a rat costume with four eyes and a large metal wrench for a hand. Travelling to find their fallen comrades, the gang discover Golden Bat in his sarcophagus hidden in what looks like an ancient temple with instructions to wake him up with a single drop of water should humanity be in crisis which he predicts will happen 10,000 years after he went into storage in Atlantis. Professor Pearl’s adorable 12-year-old granddaughter Emily (Emily Hatoyama) does just this and then becomes his point of contact, but in true tokusatsu fashion after simply gifting them the special lens and fighting off Nazo’s goons Golden Bat flies off into the sunset with important superhero business to attend to. Meanwhile, Captain Yamatone (Sonny Chiba) and the others attempt to save the Earth while battling Nazo’s three most dangerous henchmen: wolfman Jackal (Keiichi Kitagawa), fish woman Piranha (Keiko Kuni), and Keloid (Yoichi Numata) who has a large skin lesion on his face which honestly seems in poor taste. 

As in his other films, Sato appears to have his tongue very much in his cheek given that the performances of his cast are decidedly broad with a tendency towards evil glares and reaction shots, his camera often zooming in directly on villainy. Golden Bat meanwhile is often seen striking theatrical poses while uttering phrases such as “for justice alone do I fight!” and hitting people with his baton to make them behave. You might think children would find a skeleton man with an eyeless gold skull a little frightening, but Golden Bat seems to make it work while offering his own non-evil laugh as he cheerfully returns to save the day until finally forced to tap the sign he’s helpfully put up reading “those who attempt to subjugate the world through force by their own force shall perish”. Nazo meanwhile has a definite nautical theme, travelling by shark submarine/aeroplane and giant squid-shaped earth borer with laser eyes but is finally undone in surprisingly violent fashion by Golden Bat’s Baton of Justice. Defiantly irreverent and flying in the face of tokusatsu’s general responsible science stance, Golden Bat is exceptionally silly and makes little literal sense but is undeniably fantastic fun as the skeletal superhero does his best to ward off galactic imperialism. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Swordsman and the Actress (大江戸千両囃子, Yasushi Sasaki, 1955)

Working mainly with Toei, singer Hibari Misora was able to carve out for herself a distinctive career as a tentpole movie star in the early post-war period. In contrast to other female stars of the day, Misora’s leading women are generally feisty and rebellious standing up against injustice in period films and contemporary dramas alike while she also made a point of subverting societal gender norms often crossdressing or playing with gender ambiguity. 1955’s The Swordsman and the Actress (大江戸千両囃子, Oedo Senryo Bayashi) meanwhile sees her taking a backseat to the main action but sowing the seeds for her later career as she stops a cruel samurai plot in its tracks and even gets to participate in the final showdown. 

The drama starts when young actress Koharu (Hibari Misora) misplaces her fan and is lent one by another performer which attracts the attention of bad samurai Shuzen Ogaki (Kyu Sazanaka) who recognises it as having once belonged to the Shogun. As it turns out, Koharu’s friend Hanji (Rentaro Kita) was gifted the fan by a childhood friend, a noble woman, Okyo (Keiko Yashioji), for whom he may have had feelings which would could never be returned seeing as he was the son of a maid. Having seen him in a play but feeling it would be inappropriate to meet, Okyo sent the fan in fondness but had not realised it to be valuable and is now in a difficult position as the Shogun will soon be visiting and if he does not see the fan will be offended. Shuzen wants the fan for himself to embarrass Okyo and her husband and advance his own position. Just as Okyo dispatches trusted retainer Gennojo (Chiyonosuke Azuma) to ask Hanji to return the fan, Shuzen sends in his goons killing Hanji but only after he manages to substitute a fake fan for the real one. 

What follows is a complicated game of find the lady as the fake fan and the real are swapped between Gennojo and Shuzen often via a pair of pickpockets, Oryu (Ayuko Saijo) and sidekick, who alternately help and hinder largely because Oryu develops a crush on the extremely disinterested Gennojo. As usual, Koharu is on the side of right trying to fulfil Hanji’s dying wish by returning the fan to Okyo before the Shogun’s New Year visit but is also on a side quest of her own in looking for her long lost sister. It would be tempting in a sense to view the fan as cursed as it indeed provokes nothing but trouble, not only getting Hanji killed and endangering the lives of Okyo and her son, but also provoking discord wherever it’s mentioned sending a pair of married shopkeepers into a blazing row when they realise their young son may have walked off with the priceless object (and later sold it so his mum can buy sake). 

In the quest for the fan, Koharu takes a backseat while Gennojo does most of the leg work played as he is by jidaigeki star Chiyonosuke Azuma with whom Misora would frequently co-star. Though there are hints of a romance it is not the main thrust of the drama considering Misora’s relative youth, though she does get to wistfully sing the title song several times over. Meanwhile the pair are finally joined by a late in the game appearance from veteran Ryutaro Otomo as a typically raucous ronin, Jubei, who steals the screen to such an extent it almost seems as if the film is part of a series revolving around his character who turns out to be another victim of Shuzen’s plot having been exiled from his clan supposedly for having turned down the advances of his now mistress Oren. “I, Fujisaki Jubei, may be unemployed but mine is still the sword of righteousness and it doesn’t like evil doers!” he snarls apparently quite fed up with samurai corruption. 

Sasaki certainly has a lot of fun with his fan swapping shenanigans, even going slightly experimental in an excuse to give Chiyonosuke Azuma a fan dance while throwing in additional comic relief from the bumbling pickpockets and some strangely comic death scenes but does not disappoint as the major heroes and villains reunite in the final showdown taking place as it does on stage and allowing Koharu’s troupe mistress to show off her sword skills while Oryu redeems herself and the evil samurai plot is finally defeated by the forces of righteousness. An anarchic affair, Swordsman and the Actress never takes itself too seriously but nevertheless sows the seeds for many of Misora’s subsequent adventures as she sets the world to rights again with the aid of her two complementary samurai sidekicks. 


Musical clip (no subtitles)

The Phantom Goblin (まぼろし天狗, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1962)

“Everything is money these days” as a pirate king cheerfully proclaims in Nobuo Nakagawa’s tale of Edo-era corruption, Phantom Goblin (まぼろし天狗, Maboroshi Tengu). Perhaps named to capitalise on Nakagawa’s reputation for spookiness, Phantom Goblin features no real ghosts and only metaphorical goblins in the bright red tengu masks sported by the hero’s mysterious clan while otherwise conforming to the Toei programmer house style and starring jidaigeki superstar Hashizo Okawa in a double role as brothers separated at birth and reunited by their resistance towards the inherently corrupt authority of Edo society. 

Drawing parallels with the present day, the film opens at a bawdy banquet at which corrupt councillor Tanuma (Isao Yamagata) is being entertained by a pair of local social climbers with a floor show of dancing girls. Shortly after the performance begins, however, one of the women collapses writhing in agony and loudly crying out for drugs. Embarrassed, the lords would rather this not get out deciding to finish the woman off and dump her body in a nearby well. Unfortunately for them, the plan is interrupted by local policeman Shuma Moriya (Hashizo Okawa) who arrives in time to hear the woman exclaim the words “drugs” and “mastermind” before she passes away. Determined to figure out the truth, Moriya heads to the not so secret hideout of a local gang but is shot in the arm and has to take refuge in an inn where he encounters a man who looks just like himself, Kyonosuke Asakawa (also Hashizo Okawa) of the Goblin clan, who eventually sends him to his estate to recover and assumes his position as policeman in order to root out the truth. 

A former hatamoto who apparently resigned his position after finding himself unable to support corrupt lords, Kyonosuke declares himself “frustrated with how things are run”, realising that the system is rotten beyond repair on hearing that Moriya has been fired by a corrupt magistrate apparently in league with the conspirators. While comparatively rare in Edo-era dramas, drugs are a controversial subject in any age but in keeping with the sensibilities of the early ‘60s Phantom Goblin eventually slips into the Sinophobia then rampant in contemporary crime dramas as it becomes clear the drugs trade in the feudal economy is being driven by Chinese pirates trafficking it in from overseas while weak willed lords enable their rise to power. 

There is however a touch of conservatism in Kyonosuke’s desire to see justice served in that he fears a world in which “if you can buy power and position with money, then one day we will have a chief counsellor who is a pirate”. While he’s undoubtedly got a point, it’s also true that he is in a sense protecting his own privilege conveyed by birth rather than worth in addition to rejecting the influence of the “foreign” as he raises his sword against a Chinese pirate in order to target the corrupt lords who’ve been collaborating with him in order to bolster their own power and position. Kyonosuke wanted to “clean out evil in Edo”, but eventually succeeds rather ironically in simply becoming a part of the system himself after having supposedly cleaned it out by getting rid of the “obviously” corrupt elites. 

Recovering from his shoulder injury and flirting with the adopted sister of Kyonosuke, Moriya is largely relegated to a secondary role though the secret brotherhood of the two never develops into much of a plot point even as they bond as men too honest for the world in which they live. Nor do the respective romantic dilemmas ever materialise even as the conflicted figure of a female bandit in love with the noble policeman is forced to pay for her crimes with her life, unable to progress into the purified world the brothers are about to create. Working in the Toei house style, Nakagawa abandons his taste for the strange or otherworldly contenting himself only with a few ironic tengu masks and the literal shadows surrounding the shady mastermind while indulging in genre staples such as the comic relief provided by Kyonosuke’s bumbling retainers and the double casting of Hashizo Okawa as two brothers alike in both appearance and sensibility who find themselves unable to accept the increasing corruption of their society and determine to oppose it. 


Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊, Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)

Toei’s stock in trade through the 1960s had been the ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters set before the war and implicitly in a less corrupt Japan in which jingi could still triumph over the giri/ninjo conflict if at great personal cost to the idealistic hero. By the end of the decade, however, audiences were growing tired of yakuza romanticism particularly in the wake of grittier youth dramas produced by Nikkatsu. Originally conceived as a kind of sequel to Japan Organised Crime Boss, Kinji Fukasaku’s Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊,  Bakuto Gaijin Butai) marks a shift towards the jitsuroku or “true account” trend of the 1970s which would come to dominate the genre following the success of his Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle two years later, employing many of the same techniques from onscreen text to shaky handheld photography but doing so within the confines of moody noir as the hero emerges from a 10-year prison sentence into a very different Japan. 

When Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) gets out, he steps into an empty, windswept street his incongruous zori sandals clashing with his smart suit and sunshades and marking him out as a relic of a bygone era. He’s met only two loyal underlings, his gang apparently now disbanded following the death of his boss who refused to take his advice as regards the big name gang from Tokyo attempting to muscle in to their Yokohama territory. Part of the missing post-war generation, Gunji has no illusions about going straight, wandering into their former HQ now a derelict building and calling the guys, who’ve since moved on to more legitimate occupations, back together. He knows he can’t take on Daitokai with his meagre forces and so settles for extracting from them some compensation money to get out of town, later teaming up with Kudo (Noboru Ando) a similarly orphaned former member of a rival Yokohama gang wiped out by Daitokai, and resolving to relocate to Okinawa where he is convinced the post-war gangster paradise is still very much in existence. 

Okinawa was only “returned” to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, having been governed by the Americans since the end of the war, and of course maintains a large American military presence up to the present day. As such to Gunji, and in a yakuza movie trope which persists right into Takeshi Kitano’s Boiling Point, it exists in a permanent post-war present in which the conditions of the occupation are still very much in play. Gunji knows that he and his guys are products of the post-war era, they cannot adapt to the “new” world of corporatising yakuza in which street brawls and petty thuggery have given way to more sophisticated kinds of organised crime, and so they retreat into an Okinawan time warp, determining to steal turf from under two rival gangs who control between them the ports and the red light district mediated by black market booze from the American military.  

Fukasaku was apparently inspired by Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, intending to make a comment on resistance to American imperialism on the mainland though it has to be said that this is extremely ironic given that Japan is itself a coloniser of the Okinawan islands where there has long been a demand for self-determination and recognition of a distinct identity which has often been subject to oppression in the face of conformist Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the film continues the persistent theme that the chaotic post-war era which has come to a close thanks to rising economic prosperity in the time Gunji was inside is inextricable from the American occupation, implying that Okinawa is in a sense the last frontier and the only viable territory for men like Gunji who, like the melancholy ronin of the Edo era, lack the skills to live in time of peace.  

Nevertheless, modernity is also on its way to Okinawa and where there’s money there are gangsters so as expected Daitokai eventually rear their heads on the island pushing Gunji towards the revenge he didn’t want to take. The Okinawa he inhabits is one of loss and nostalgia, taking up with a sex worker who reminds him of the Okinawan woman who left him when he went to prison and perhaps playing into the slightly complicated political dialogue which positions Gunji as an ironic “migrant worker” salmoning back to Okinawa as many Okinawan youngsters are forced to travel to the mainland for work while the islands themselves remain, it’s implied, mired in poverty and crime economically dependent on the American military. Indeed, the head of the dock gang brokers a deal with Daitokai predicated on the fact that there is plenty of cheap labour available at the harbour. “Good place for a long life” he ironically adds, shortly before all hell breaks loose. Shot with typical Fukasaku immediacy, Sympathy for the Underdog looks forward to jitsuroku nihilism but does so through the prism of film noir cool as its fatalistic hero submits himself to his inexorable destiny.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Kosaku Yamashita, 1984)

The ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters standing up for the little guy with decency and honour, had been Toei’s mainstay throughout the 1960s but a decade later the image of righteous yakuza had been well and truly imploded by the advent of the jitsuroku or “true account” movie which drew inspiration from real life tales of post-war gangsterdom using voiceover narration and onscreen text for added authenticity as it proved once and for all that there was no “honour and humanity” to be found in the gangster life only nihilism and futility. Still, the ninkyo, like many of its heroes, proved hard to kill as 1984’s Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Shura no Mure) perhaps proves. A throwback to an earlier era with its infinitely noble hero and unexpectedly if not quite happy then defiantly positive ending, Kosaku Yamashita’s manly drama nevertheless adopts some of the trappings of the jitsuroku in its infrequent use of voiceover and emphasis on concrete historical events. 

The hero, Ryuji Inahara (Hiroki Matsukata), is like many heroes of post-war gangsterdom an orphan though his story begins in the mid-1930s as he’s recruited by a friendly yakuza at a karate dojo. As his teacher explains, Ryuji has already been offered a job with the police but given the chance to join the other side instead immediately agrees, explaining that his life’s ambition has been to gain revenge against the force that ruined his father and destroyed his family, gambling. He chooses to do this, however, not by destroying gambling dens everywhere but by becoming a gambler himself determined to be a winner which is, it seems, a textbook example of having learned the wrong lesson. Still, his noble gangster cool stands him in good stead in the yakuza world where he quickly earns the loyalty of other men, rapidly advancing up the ranks to head his own gang by the crime heyday of the mid-1950s. 

As the title implies, this is a story of a man, a very manly man, among other men. The gangster world is intensely homosocial and founded on ideas of brotherhood and loyalty. Thus, Ryuji finds a surrogate father figure in fellow gangster Yokoyama (Koji Tsuruta) who constantly gives him advice on what it is to be a proper man. “Don’t be a fool, don’t be too smart, and most of all don’t be half-hearted” he advises, later adding “you can’t be a man if you’re dirty about money”, and “taking action isn’t the only way to be a man. It takes a man to have patience.” (this last one as Ryuji hotheadedly discharges himself from hospital to get revenge on a punk who got the jump on him outside a shrine). To be a man, Ryuji intervenes when he sees some less than honourable young toughs hassling an old couple running a dango stand at the beach and the young woman from the caramel stall next-door, throwing his entire wallet on their counter to make up for the damage in what will become something of a repeated motif. His manliness earns him the eternal devotion of the young woman, Yukiko (Wakako Sakai), who eventually becomes his devoted wife against the will of her concerned mother who is nevertheless brought round on realising the love she has for him because of his intense nobility. 

Indeed, Ryuji lives in a noble world. He’s a gambler by trade but only because he hates gambling and is trying to best it. He doesn’t participate in the seedier sides of the yakuza life such as drugs or prostitution and is also in contrast to jitsuroku norms a humanist who defiantly stands up against racism and xenophobia, taking another gambler to task for using a racial slur against a Korean opponent while opting to befriend the “foreign” gangs of Atami when eventually put in charge of the lucrative area rather than divide and conquer. This is apparently a lesson he learned from his flawed but goodhearted father who hid a Korean man and his daughter from the pogroms after the 1923 earthquake because “we’re all the same human beings”. Spared the war because of an injury to his trigger finger, Ryuji kicks off against an entitled son of a gang boss for acting like a slavedriver while working at a quarry but earns only the respect of his superiors further enhancing his underworld ties because of his reputation as a standup guy willing to stand up to oppression. 

Such an intense sense of uncomplicated righteousness had perhaps been unseen since the ninkyo eiga days, and Ryuji’s rise and rise does in that sense seem improbable as his goodness only aids his success earning him the respect of over 1000 foot soldiers even as he finds himself in the awkward position of having to exile one of his most trusted associates for getting too big for his boots and disrespecting the yakuza code. His children also suffer for their connection to the gangster underworld, but are reassured that their father is a good man if with the subtle implication that he has damned them as his father did him. Shot with occasional expressionist flourishes such as crashing waves or a midnight sky, A Story of a Man among Men is not free from manly sadness and indeed ends on the sense of a baton passing from one era to another but does so with an unexpected sense of moral victory for its righteous hero who vows to bring his manly ideas with him into a new age of gangsterdom. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)