A Chaos of Flowers (華の乱, Kinji Fukasaku, 1988)

Kinji Fukasaku is best remembered for his work in the yakuza genre and most particularly the Battles Without Honour cycles which chronicled the darkness beneath Japan’s progress towards the economic miracle of the post-war era. He was, however, much more varied in output than it might at first seem. Set before the war, A Chaos of Flowers (華の乱, Hana no Ran) positions the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 as the day innocence died, Taisho-era liberalism crushed in a fundamental collapse of the old world which led only to the intensification of militaristic ideology and the subsequent corruption of Japanese imperialism. 

Our guide is legendary poet Akiko Yosano (Sayuri Yoshinaga) who tells the story of pre-war 20th century Japan by recounting her own which begins in 1901 when she fell in love with fellow poet and later husband, Tekkan (Hiroshi) Yosano (Ken Ogata). The situation is complicated firstly because Hiroshi is already married with an infant daughter, and secondly because Akiko’s friend Tomiko (Yoshiko Nakada), another poet who had worked with her on a feminist journal, was also in love with Hiroshi and perhaps her rival. Akiko tricks Hiroshi into seeing him alone on the pretext that Tomiko is coming too, confessing her feelings and discovering that he plans to divorce his wife because she is unsupportive of his work. Full in the knowledge that he is choosing poetry over his daughter, Hiroshi decides to enter a relationship with Akiko because she, as a fellow poet, is more appreciative though it proves harder than expected to separate from his first wife. In any case, Akiko is left with a sense of guilt which continues throughout her married life that she cheated Tomiko to claim Hiroshi. 

During this time, Akiko Yosano becomes one of the most celebrated yet controversial young poets in Japan well known for her explicit, erotic love poetry much of which was inspired by her husband. She has eclipsed him as an artist and is supporting the family while he has fallen into a deep depression. A mother of 13 children, Akiko has begun to feel lonely in her marriage and wonders if someone who has only known one man has the authority to continue writing tracts about love and sex. Meanwhile, thanks to the admiration her poetry has received among the young radicals, she has become an accidental figurehead for the Taisho radicals and finds herself swept up by the movement through her associations with such avant-garde figures as Sakae Osugi (Morio Kazama) and his wife Noe Ito (Eri Ishida), the actress Sumako Matsui (Keiko Matsuzaka) held responsible for a revolution in Japanese theatre, and finally tragic author Takeo Arishima (Yusaku Matsuda) who was also the father of golden age actor Masayuki Mori. 

Arishima is first struck by Akiko when knocks her out of a rickshaw during an anarchist publicity stunt driving a motorcycle and sidecar around outside the theatre where Sumako Matsui is performing one of her most famous roles in a play inspired by Tolstoy’s Resurrection. It turns out that Akiko bears a striking resemblance to his late wife, which is one reason he sends her an extravagant gift of a beautiful Western-style outfit which she first tries to return partly because she only wears kimono and partly because it’s an inappropriately expensive gesture. Arishima is from a wealthy, landed family and like many of his generation uncomfortable with his privilege but struggling to convince himself to abandon it. Drawn to him in the same way she was drawn to Hiroshi, Akiko accepts the dress and later wears it on a picnic she organises where her children and Arisihma’s two sons can play together. The Western clothing becomes a kind of signifier of Akiko’s drive towards the future and away from her husband as she too despite her feminist perspective struggles to free herself of the image of the good wife while inwardly burning with a desire for love and passion which her husband can no longer satisfy. 

That same dilemma is one which plagues her rival, journalist Akiko Hatano (Kimiko Ikegami) who is already involved with Arishima but married to a patriarchal man who sees her as nothing more than a “doll”, something which is supposed to look pretty and live in its box until he chooses to take it out. Akiko Hatano warns Akiko Yosano that Arishima is a man drawn to death and is merely looking for someone to die with in a lovers’ suicide, something of a fad at the time. In meeting Akiko Yosano, however, his desire for life seems to have been reinvigorated. He makes peace with himself by dissolving his estate in Hokkaido and surrendering control of it to a peasants’ committee, but is thrown again into suicidal despair when the secret police turn up to harass the peasants for undermining the social order. 

As Akiko Hatano puts it, Arishima is a man vacillating between life and death, claiming to be in love with Akiko Yosano soon after meeting her and actively rejecting Akiko Hatano as symbolic of his newfound desire to live. Arishima committed a love suicide with Akiko Hatano on 9th June, 1923 which is only a few months before the Great Kanto Earthquake which devastated the city of Tokyo and enabled a roundup of subversive forces such as socialists and anarchists along with Koreans many of whom were massacred by state sanctioned forces after a false rumour circulated that they had been poisoning the wells and preparing an insurrection for Korean independence (Sakae Osugi and Noe Ito along with their 6-year-old nephew were also victims of this pogrom). 

In her voice over, Akiko describes the earthquake as the death of Taisho which in real terms lasted a few more years until 1926, but was perhaps over as far as its liberalising ideals are concerned, the crisis giving the militarists further excuses to increase their powers. Yet like Arishima the Taisho intellectuals had also been obsessed with death and futility of which the love suicides were a part. Arishima, shortly before witnessing Sumako’s very public breakdown over the death of her lover Hogetsu Shimamura (Keizo Kanie) from Spanish Flu, describes her nothing more than a ham actress but also believes that the theatrical revolution of the Taisho era would not have been possible without her. Sumako also committed suicide for love a few months after Hogetsu’s death, unable to go on without him. Tomiko, Akiko’s old friend, contracted TB and painfully faded away with Hiroshi unexpectedly by her side. Catching sight of a couple of Osugi’s comrades being dragged away after the earthquake Akiko chases after them with rice balls, telling them they must survive. She’s watched many of her friends and the finest minds of her generation die, mostly through choice, and is making an active choice to live. 

In essence this choice may not be as positive as it first sounds. One of Japan’s first avowed pacifists, Akiko Yosano turned increasingly towards the right in the years following the earthquake, eventually becoming an enthusiastic supporter of the war in China and actively subverting the words of her previous poems in insisting it was glorious to die for the emperor after all. Her friends died out of a sense of futility, that the social changes they envisaged were not possible or that they were unable to continue living with themselves in such a society. Society changed, and Akiko changed with it, such was the path she found to continue living. Nevertheless, something did die with the earthquake and it was perhaps those youthful dreams of overwhelming romance crushed like Akiko’s hat in the rubble of a world which was already collapsing. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Detective Hibari 3: Hidden Coin (ひばり捕物帖 ふり袖小判, Kokichi Uchide, 1959)

Hibari Misora returns as Oshichi in another adventure for the Edo detective, this time becoming embroiled in a conspiracy against the Shogunate which she continues to serve. By this third instalment in the Detective Hibari series, Hidden Coin (ひばり捕物帖 ふり袖小判, Hibari Torimonocho: Furisode Koban), Oshichi is no longer hiding her noble birth as an esteemed princess, but is living as a singer/law enforcement officer under her “common” name, and upholding the interests of “common” people suffering under “corrupt” samurai oppression but, paradoxically, very much upholding the system which enables it.

The conspiracy in which Oshichi becomes involved this time around is concerned with the plot to overthrow the Shogunate. Rebel forces manage to ambush a convoy carrying tax money to the government, hoping to use the money to buy guns from the Dutch to aid their revolution. As only one of the retainers survives, he will be held responsible for the loss of the money and almost certainly asked to commit ritual suicide, but the Ota clan and most particularly retainer Kennoshin (Kotaro Satomi), are worried about the man’s daughter, Misuzu (Atsuko Nakazato), to whom he was very close. Oshichi becomes involved when she hears of an entire household being murdered and their funds stolen, while a lone pickpocket is found dead with a precious gold coin lying nearby. 

Before discovering the crime, Oshichi and her trusty sidekick Gorohachi (Takehiko Kayama) are talking to a kabuki actor who is about to undergo a succession ceremony which will cost a significant amount of money – 1000 Ryo. Gorohachi is mystified, wondering how many years he’d have to work in order to find that kind of money, while the two pickpockets outside wonder something much the same. The older of the two, Oshima (Keiko Yukishiro), wants to make sure the actor gets his money and has been desperately trying to get in touch with him but he is too snooty to see her. Oshichi starts connecting the dots between the pickpockets and the conspiracy to find a vital clue, but once again is keen to stress that “the law can be merciful too” as she both ensures that Oshima faces justice and allows her to find emotional fulfilment in revealing her true identity and finally seeing the show. 

Meanwhile, despite outwardly dressing in manly, action friendly outfits, this Oshichi is one more romantically inclined, fretting over the fate of her brother’s retainer Hyoma (Chiyonosuke Azuma) who, she thinks, has left his employ and become a drunkard. The drunken downward spiral of his life turns out to be a kind of undercover assignment, but provokes a little jealousy in Oshichi as she sees him “protecting” other women at a nearby restaurant, one of whom turns out to be Misuzu who holds a few more pieces of the puzzle. Vowing to save Misuzu and stop the conspiracy, Oshichi adopts a male persona complete with top knotted wig and takes on an entire boatload of sailors who stupidly tell her that they’re shipping out that very night. 

Oshichi rescues Misuzu and gets the money back, saving her father and “restoring” the status quo, but it’s difficult to see which side she should be on in this fight. As Gorohachi perhaps implies, it’s not exactly fair or responsible for the samurai class to be hoarding all these vast amounts of money, or for it to be necessary to spend the annual salaries of several ordinary people on an extravagant celebration for an actor’s promotion. We’re told that the rebels are “evil” and villainous, and they do indeed seem to be cruel and self-interested, willing to sacrifice anyone and everyone to achieve their goal, but it’s difficult to argue with the desire to stand up to this inherently oppressive system in which samurai corruption is the expected norm. 

Insisting that “the law can be merciful”, Oshichi serves a kind of moral justice, rescuing the innocent Misuzu and saving her wrongfully abused father while unmasking samurai corruption, but she remains a loyal servant of the Shogunate and a part of the system into which she was born. Oshichi has been permitted escape from her own oppression thanks to her “compassionate” brother who has allowed her to live freely in the city rather than pressuring her to marry and conform to the feminine norm, but living outside it herself seemingly has no sympathy for those who wish to reform the system and seeks only to preserve it. Having successfully solved the mystery, she reassumes her femininity and retreats into the cheerful festival atmosphere arm in arm with a clean shaven Hyoma finally embracing her romantic dream in an Edo freed from immediate strife. 


Short clip (no subtitles)

Detective Hibari 2: Secret of the Golden Coin (ひばり捕物帖 自雷也小判, Kinnosuke Fukada, 1958)

Oshichi returns! Two years after her first adventure, the princess in hiding has moved on, still living in the city hiding from the burdens of privilege but fiercely opposing injustice wherever she finds it as a detective in her own right. Unlike Mysteries of Edo and in keeping with Case of the Golden Hairpins, this Oshichi undergoes much less of a softening, remaining largely disinterested in the idea of romance, and cooly rebellious in her refusal to be cowed while strangely OK with Shogunate oppression as a quasi-agent of the state. 

As the film opens, a young woman impersonates Oshichi in order to gain entrance to a prison where her boyfriend is in jail for rebelling against the Shogunate. Meanwhile, Oshichi (Hibari Misora) is teaching a singing class as a favour to her boss who had to go out on an errand, after which she discovers that Hyoma (Chiyonosuke Azuma), currently a retainer of her brother’s, has been sent to bring her home. Once again she refuses because she likes her “ordinary” life. Shortly thereafter, a fire breaks out in the prison and the rebels escape. Oshichi becomes a prime suspect in the jailbreak, not only because the accomplice borrowed her name but because it’s advantageous to the plotters to blame her because they can use her guilt to tarnish her brother’s reputation and get him fired, usurping his position in the process. 

Oshichi, now working as a detective, is technically an agent of the Shogunate against which the rebels are rebelling for reasons which aren’t stated here but are probably easy to guess. They are, in many ways, the same sorts of reasons that Oshichi chose to become a detective, even if she’s coming at them from the other side. She doesn’t like bullies, or corruption, injustice or unfairness. Oshichi won’t stand for unkindness either, which is perhaps why she aligns so strongly behind the woman who blackened her name by impersonating her, knowing that she did it all for love and a little bit for justice, while also forgiving the rebel Seinosuke (Kotaro Satomi) who was preparing to kill the woman he loved because the corrupt samurai had kidnapped his dad and threatened to kill him if he didn’t. 

Despite all that however, Oshichi still insists that “the Shogunate can be compassionate too”, encouraging Seinosuke and his girlfriend Namiji (Hiromi Hanazono) to tell all so she can help them safe in the knowledge that they will be forgiven. It’s a slightly strange position for to her take, essentially authoritarian but arguing for a benevolent paternalism that is just and fair and kind, insisting that the corrupt samurai are bad apples which must be expelled rather than a product of an inherently oppressive social system as they are generally depicted in post-war jidaigeki. 

This insistence on the “compassion” of the Shogunate is perhaps the concession to Oshichi’s femininity which she has otherwise rejected in rejecting her life as a cosseted princess. As Kawashima had in Mysteries of Edo, Oshichi’s “protector” Hyoma asks her how she can take on all those men before challenging her to a contest of masculinity as mediated through a drinking competition which she does not exactly “win” but makes a minor victory all the same. Rather than rely on her brother or Hyoma, Oshichi vows to clear her name herself and starts investigating on her own dressing as a man and fighting bad guys while insisting on her independence. 

Nevertheless, she is but a pawn in a game of courtly intrigue, manipulated as a means of getting to her brother. The corrupt samurai think nothing of killing anyone who gets in their way, be they princesses or peasants, even going far as to mount an attack on the stage of a theatre mid-performance in front of a room full of spectators, many of whom join Oshichi by throwing projectiles as she tries to fend them off. Once again, she isn’t quite permitted to save herself but is “rescued” by the patriarchal forces representing the greater Shogunate including her protector Hyoma, and her brother, the embodiment of state authority. She is, however, the primary motivator in unmasking the corruption as she both clears her own name, and creates a better future for Namiji in which she can be with the man she loves, reminding her to always remember the compassion the Shogunate has shown her (in case she was minded to mount any more rebellions). As for herself, she manages to slip the loop once again, running off into the wild to claim her independence rather than be forced back into the golden cage of her princesshood while the loyal Hyoma contents himself with following her lead. 


Short clip (no subtitles)

Detective Hibari 1: Case of the Golden Hairpins (ひばり捕物帖 かんざし小判, Tadashi Sawashima, 1958)

Two years after Mysteries of Edo and a year after its sequel, Hibari Misora returns as Oshichi in a new series of films, still living undercover in Edo solving crimes and living her best life as a singer and performer. Like Mysteries, Detective Hibari 1: Case of the Golden Hairpins (ひばり捕物帖 かんざし小判, Hibari Torimonocho: Kanzashi Koban, AKA Edo Girl Detective / Here Comes the Girl Detective) sees Oshichi investigating murders of women, though this time the crime is far less involved and much more typical of Toei’s period films in its venal samurai and their insatiable appetites for wealth and status. Oshichi is, essentially, an agent of the state but a much less ambiguous one than she’d become in the following pictures, fighting bravely against corruption and standing proudly for justice in the face of implacable samurai arrogance. 

Having escaped the cage of her noble birth, Princess Tae/Oshichi (Hibari Misora) is still living as an “ordinary” woman in Edo and has just won a singing competition to be named as Queen Beauty. The competition is marred however when one of the other contestants is offed on the way home. Still working with her trusty sidekick Gorohachi (Shunji Sakai), Oshichi quickly realises the woman seems to have been murdered with an ornate hairpin and starts an investigation.

What she discovers is that an unscrupulous gang of samurai is attempting to recover a set of three hairpins which were stolen in a robbery some years previously. The lord claims he’s doing it to satisfy his clan’s honour, but more likely has a less honorable goal in in mind. To put the plan in action, he’s mobilised his conflicted daughter, Sumie (Eiko Maruyama), who thinks this is all a bit much for set of shiny hair ornaments, and her boyfriend Tamiya (Kotaro Satomi) whose family originally owned the jewels which is why he sees it as his duty to get them back, even if that means murdering innocent women and sending the entire city into a panic in the process. Of course, Oshichi agrees with Sumie, and as usual immediately sympathises with her romantic dilemma which earns her a few sarcastic comments from sometime love interest Hyoma (Chiyonosuke Azuma) who will recur throughout the rest of the series.

Hyoma, posing as a drunken ronin but in reality shadowing Oshichi as a protector, like Kawashima in Mysteries, expresses consternation with Oshichi’s atypical feminity, echoing Kawashima’s words that “a woman should be feminine” while claiming not to find Oshichi’s manly fortitude very effective. Kawashima’s words may have wounded her, but Hyoma’s only irritate. She fires back that as a talented samurai he’s wasting his potential drowning himself in drink and he should “stop fighting and do something for society”. Meanwhile, she doubles down – dressing as a man and even joining a kendo dojo to spy on the corrupt lords, scrapping with the best of them and holding her own in a fight. 

Swinging the other way, another of her investigative tactics sees her posing as a geisha and then later as a noble lady, even getting dressed up in her formal princess clothes to beg a favour from her extremely understanding brother. Sympathy for Sumie and a few romantic songs may be the sole concessions to conventional femininity, but Oshichi remains proudly defiant and intent on maintaining her freedoms. It may be true that the unusual degree of freedom she has is permitted her because of her progressively minded brother who ignores “advice” from an elderly servant to exercise more control because he can see being of use to society makes his sister happy and that she’ll probably come home when she wants to, but it’s also freedom that she has actively chosen for herself and chooses to maintain. 

Oshichi gets drunk with Hyoma (apparently for the first time), fights bad guys, and gives orders that stop seasoned samurai in their tracks but not so much for herself as to help those like Sumie who have become victims of corrupt samurai ethics. She does this, however, as someone who largely believes in the righteousness of the system, that the Shogunate is kind and forgiving while local lords may be avaricious or cruel. When her brother arrives to save the day, he announces that the hairpins will be sent to the Shogun who will return them to the people, sharing the treasure with everyone rather than keeping it for himself. Oshichi, meanwhile has found something greater – a worthy sparring partner in the dashingly romantic Hyoma, and the confirmation of herself not as Tae the caged princess but Oshichi who owns the very ground she walks upon and allows no other to tell her where she may be permitted to go. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

After the war during the American occupation, the samurai film encountered a de facto ban with the authorities worried that historical epics may encourage outdated fuedal and fascistic ideology. The period films of the post-war era, however, are often fiercely critical of the samurai order even as it stands in for the hypocrisies of the contemporary society. Two years before Masaki Kobayashi launched a similar assault on the notion of samurai honour in Harakiri, Tomu Uchida’s The Master Spearman (酒と女と槍, Sake to Onna to Yari) finds a loyal retainer similarly troubled when he is ordered to die only to be ordered not to and then finally told that yes he must commit suicide to serve a kind of honour in which he no longer believes. 

Takasada (Ryutaro Otomo) is a battlefield veteran with the Tomita clan much revered for his skill with the spear. As a retainer to the current regent, Hidetsugu (Yataro Kurokawa), he finds himself in trouble when the ageing Hideyoshi (Eijiro Tono) stages a coup to solidify his power, accusing his nephew of treason on abruptly “discovering” a stash of illegally obtained rifles. Takasada is outraged not to have been ordered to die with his master, but later resents being “strongly encouraged” to do so by his brother, the head of their clan. Storming out, he temporarily retreats into a drunken haze during which he convinces his favourite actress, Umeme (Hiromi Hanazono), to stay with him (just serving drinks, no funny business), before committing himself to public seppuku on a date of his own choosing. When the day arrives, Takasada is greeted by parades of “well wishers” keen to congratulate him for being such a fine samurai. Encouraging those in line to step out of it and stand horizontally without account of rank or status, he agrees to drink with them all, with the consequence that he becomes extremely drunk and passes out. 

Just as he’s about to cut his belly, a messenger arrives from Hideyoshi himself ruling Takasada’s suicide illegal. He if goes ahead and does it anyway, his clan will be disgraced. Takasada’s brother changes his tune and begs him not to proceed for the sake of the Tomita honour. Thoroughly fed up, Takasada has a sudden epiphany about the hypocrisies of the samurai code and decides to renounce his status, dropping out of court life to live simply in the country where he is eventually joined by Umeme who has fallen in love with him. 

Meanwhile, court intrigue intensifies. These are the quiet years leading up to the decisive battle of Sekigahara which in itself decided the course of Japanese history. While the elderly Hideyoshi attempts to hold on to power by ruling as a regent on behalf of his sickly son Hideyori, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Eitaro Ozawa) plots on the sidelines. Hideyoshi is advised by his steward Mitsunari (Isao Yamagata) to take a hard line with treachery, executing all 36 “spies” planted in his household by Ieyasu, including a number of women and children. Mitsunari is himself working with the other side, and the executions are nothing short of a PR disaster for Hideyoshi, provoking fear and resentment in the general populace who can’t accept the inherent cruelty of putting women and children to the sword. Sakon (Chikage Awashima), a kabuki actress and fiercely protective friend of Umeme, comes to a similar conclusion to Takasada, hating the samurai order for its merciless savagery. 

That’s perhaps why she’s originally wary of Takasada’s interest in Umeme, uncertain he will keep his promise to keep his hands off her and so staying over one night herself to make sure Umeme is safe. Umeme, meanwhile, may not have wanted him to be quite so honourable, leaving in the morning visibly irritated and exclaiming that Takasada is drunk on himself and understands nothing of women. That may be quite true, but it’s his sense of honour which eventually tells him that he must reject the samurai ideal. First they tell him honour dictates he must die, then that he must not, then when Hideyoshi dies and the prohibition is lifted, that he must die after all because his entire clan is embarrassed by his continuing existence. By this point, Takasada has decided to accept his “cowardice”. Sickened by the spectacle of his ritual suicide and the humiliation of its cancelation, he came to the conclusion that “loyalty and honour for world fame, glorious exploits etc” is all a big joke. He loves food, and wine, and his wife, and if that means others call him coward so be it because he’s finally happy and perhaps free. 

His spear, however still hangs over his hearth. He hasn’t truly let go of it or of the code with which he was raised. Sakon, perhaps on one level jealous and guarding her own feelings as she accepts that Umeme has chosen to leave the stage to retreat into an individual world with Takasada, warns her that her happiness will end if Takasada is convinced to accept a commission from the Tokugawa. He surprises her by once again renouncing his status as a samurai, choosing to stay a “coward” living a simple life of love and happiness. But as soon as he puts his hand on the spear intending to break it for good something in him is reawakened. He can’t do it. He finds himself at Sekigahara, confronted not only by samurai hypocrisy but by his own as Sakon does what he could not do to show him what he has betrayed. His rage explodes and he raises his spear once again but not for the Tokugawa, against the samurai order itself piercing the very banners which define it in an ironic assault on an empty ideology.  


Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yasushi Sasaki, 1961)

The post-war world was one of increasing globalisation which brought with it anxiety as well as hope as Japan readied itself to step back onto the world stage. The populist cinema of the early ‘60s is marked by ambivalent attitudes to international influences, not just towards creeping Americanisation and its perceived costs but perhaps somewhat uncomfortably towards the wider world and Asia in particular with the same old prejudices which had marked the previous 20 years rearing their heads once again. Voice of the post-war era, the films of Hibari Misora are, by contrast, about as forward looking and progressive as it was possible to be but Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yurei-jima no Okite) in which she plays a noticeably smaller part, is a bizarre exception in which a “lawless” melting pot outpost must be “civilised” by Japanese influences else the creeping rule of thuggish Asian gangs finally reach Japan “proper”.

We’re deep in the Bakumatsu. The Black Ships have already arrived and there is considerable political trouble brewing back in Japan. That’s not our immediate concern however because we’re on a creepy boat with slovenly ronin Yagi Hanzo (Hashizo Okawa) and a mysterious woman wearing a cheongsam (Hibari Misora). Fellow petty gangster and slave trafficker Bunji (Chiyonosuke Azuma) is suspicious of Hanzo, but decides he’s probably just an unlucky retainer on the run from something or other and might prove useful. Therefore, on arrival at Dragon Island, Bunji starts on trying to recruit Hanzo for his boss Chou Yang Po (Isao Yamagata), but Hanzo’s his own man and he hasn’t come here looking for a job. Fearing Hanzo is a government official here to bring the law down on all their heads, Chou tries to force him to harm a man they have in custody and believe to be working for the state. Hanzo gets round this by breaking a chair over the man’s back but leaving him otherwise unharmed, keeping his cover (if that’s what it is) firmly intact.

During his stay on Dragon Island, Hanzo will meet several other shady characters, many of them dressed in outfits more usually associated with the Chinese, Indians, nondescript “islanders”, and strange movie pirates, but what must be assumed is that though Japan “owns” this distant island it is unable to police it and as such it has become a den of scum and villainy in which various tribal gangs vie for hegemony and control over the lucrative smuggling hub which has unwittingly formed in direct response to Japan’s unwise policy of internal isolation which is itself at breaking point thanks to Perry’s Black Ships which we later hear are also on their way to Dragon Island.

Our key into this conflict is the crazed child of the leading gangster, Isakichi (Hiroki Matsukata), who dresses like a cowboy and likes to showoff his hard-won saloon credentials as sharpshooting libertine and all round party animal. Hanzo is not as impressed by this as Isakichi was hoping though an awkward sort of camaraderie eventually arises between them. Meanwhile, Isakichi has fallen in innocent love with the sister of his childhood best friend who is deep into a putative resistance movement hoping to end the stranglehold the smugglers have placed over the previously peaceful island.

Misora’s Madame Song, for some reason posing as a Chinese sex worker, hints at the various ways nothing is quite as it seems in her astute observations of the world around her, sensing that Hanzo is hiding something but also assuming that he is on the “right” side. There is conspiracy everywhere – the putative revolution at home is sending its shockwaves all the way out here as our unscrupulous gangsters try to procure guns to send to various sides on the mainland, while Madame Song ironically laments that what Dragon Island needs is to be more like Japan which is to say ruled less by law itself than an internalised acceptance of the proper order of things. Uncomfortably, it also probably means sending the people who aren’t wearing kimono somewhere else and trying to stop them tricking nice women from Kyushu into coming to tropical islands where they discover they’ve been trafficked into sex work and are unable to leave.

Among Toei’s lower budgeted efforts, Law in Ghost Island bills itself as a supernatural tale and does indeed open with a creepy scene of a misty boat but Hanzo doesn’t end up anywhere like the isle of the dead only a fantasy tropical “paradise” filled with zany movie pirates. Somewhere between pirate fantasy and western, Law in Ghost Island is closer to the kind of spy spoofs Toho would start producing in a few years’ time and even ends with a strangely comic scene in which just about everyone reveals themselves as spy for the same side during the climactic final shootout having been too busy playing spy games to figure any of it out before.

The final messages too are uncomfortable and ambivalent as Hanzo affirms that if there were more “good samurai” Japan would not become lawless like it is here while also claiming Dragon Island for the mainland in fear external forces may use it as a base to attack Japan. The smugglers pay heavily for their “treachery” in contributing to internal mainland chaos while the revolutionary islanders declare their intentions to make the island a better place, which mainly seems to mean making it more “Japanese” which is a fairly ambivalent message whichever way you look at it. Misora only sings two songs and is relegated to a minor mystery in the strange goings on of Ghost Island which features absolutely no ghosts or supernatural intrigue. It does however perhaps shine a light on a strange moment of cultural flux however how unflattering that mirror may turn out to be.


Brief clip of some of Hibari’s songs (no subtitles)

Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Tomu Uchida, 1959)

Chikamatsu's love in Osaka poster“Money is the enemy” a dejected geisha declares in an attempt to explain her desperate circumstances to a naive young man part way  through Tomu Uchida’s Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka (浪花の恋の物語, Naniwa no Koi no Monogatari). Before a wartime flirtation with the militarist far right, Uchida had been closely involved with the leftwing “tendency film” movement and his post-war work perhaps displays much the same spirit only with a world weary resignation to the inherent unfairness of human society. Chikamatsu, as cited in the slightly awkward English language title, was a Japanese playwright of the 17th/18th century who also specialised in tales of social oppression, most notably in frustrated romance and eventual double suicides.

Uchida’s masterstroke is that he retells Chikamatsu’s well known bunraku play The Courier for Hell and its kabuki counterpart Couriers of Love Fleeing to Yamato from the inside out. Among Chikamatsu’s most famous works the play was in fact inspired by a real life event which took place in Osaka (then known as “Naniwa”) in 1710. Uchida places the grumpy, worldweary figure of the playwright directly into the action as a powerless observer, trapped on the wrong side of the stage able only to observe and comment but, crucially, with the ability to remake reality in altering his tale in the telling.

The tale is familiar enough and possibly a little too close to that of Chikamatsu’s previous hits including Love Suicides at Sonezaki which is given a grim namecheck as events begin to mirror one of his plays. Our hero, Chubei (Kinnosuke Nakamura), is an earnest young man who has been adopted into the Kameya family with the intention that he will marry its only daughter and take over the courier business now being run by stern widow Myokan (Kinuyo Tanaka). Early foreshadowing reminds us that immense responsibility is regularly placed in Chubei’s hands and he must remain above suspicion. Embezzlement is a capital offence in the increasingly austere 18th century society.

Chubei is an honest man, but meek. Unable to risk offending a bawdy client, he allows himself to be bamboozled into the red light district where Hachiemon (Minoru Chiaki) buys him the prettiest courtesan in the place, Umegawa (Ineko Arima). Chubei tries to leave as soon as Hachiemon disappears but is convinced to stay by Umegawa’s entreaties that his sudden exit will reflect badly on her and possibly result in censure or punishment. Struck by her predicament, Chubei falls in love. He makes repeated returns, dips into his savings, and finally makes the fateful decision to spend money not his own when he discovers that a lascivious magnate has made an offer to buy out Umegawa’s contract.

Meanwhile, Chikamatsu hovers on the edges conducting “research” for a new play to save his failing theatre company which itself is suffering due to lack of monetary receipts seeing as audience members obviously prefer the heartrending melodrama of Sonezaki to the more artistic fare he’s currently running. Though he is obviously a frequenter of the red light district and its surrounding drinking establishments, Chikamatsu has a noticeably ambivalent stance towards its existence. His sympathy is instantly caught by the melancholy Umegawa when he notices her tenderly bandage the hand of a little girl who serves in the brothel, only to have her beautiful gesture of human kindness immediately mocked by the lascivious magnate who witnesses the same thing but chooses to ask her to repeat the act on him.

Chikamatsu was supposed to come to the teahouse in order to schmooze the magnate so that he will invest in the theatre company which perhaps generates an odd commonality between the playwright and courtesan both at the mercy of wealthy patrons who, one might say, are all money and no class. Umegawa, however, as Chikamatsu is painfully aware is in no way free and entirely dependent on pleasing men like the magnate whether she likes them or not. As she tells Chubei, Umegawa didn’t choose this line of work but people judge her for it anyway. She has no bodily autonomy and is bought and sold daily with no right to refuse. She is “merchandise” that “talks, laughs, cries, and gets angry” and the sole concern in all of her life is money which she now regards as “the enemy” for the subjugated position in which the need for it has placed her.

Of course, the playwright (our stand-in) has been listening all along. He too would like to free Umegawa from her torment, but he is powerless and can only blame the world that created the circumstances that trap her. Chubei is no hero either, he is weak and feckless even if his eventual willingness to damn himself by embezzling other people’s money (and ruining his adopted family in the process) proves the depth both of his love and of his rage at the social injustice which prevents him from pursuing his romantic desires. Chikamatsu can’t save his fatalistic heroes, but he can create a more fitting vision of their love imbued with all world nearly grandeur of tragic romance that returns our eyes to the cruelty of the world that wouldn’t let them be. A stunning final shot pulls us from Chikamatsu once again in the background as he watches his own play onto the other side of the stage and then back again as the playwright’s eyes burn with silent rage and impotence as he offers the only kind of resistance he can in the face of a cruel and indifferent society.


Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

Killing Yoshiwara posterHaving led a somewhat floating life, Tomu Uchida returned to Japan in only in 1953 after a sustained period with the Manchurian Film Cooperative followed by a brief flirtation with Maoism. Before the war Uchida had been closely identified with the Keiko Eiga movement of broadly left-wing filmmaking but later fell hard for the inherent romanticism of militarist ideology during his time in Manchuria. Nevertheless it was apparently the Maoist doctrines of progress through contradiction that influenced his later dramatic philosophy in which he came to think of narrative as a series of conflicts which culminate in an explosive act designed to resolve them (or not, as we will see). 1960’s Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri, AKA Hero of the Red Light District) is perhaps a prime example as it takes a seemingly generic story inspired by a kabuki play and uses it to tell a melancholy tale of parallel yet mutually thwarted desires for vengeance against a cruel and oppressive society.

Ostensibly, our “hero” is Jiro (Chiezo Kataoka) – a successful silk merchant. A good and kind man, Jiro is beloved of all his staff for his careful consideration of them as people as well as employees. This concern is, however, perhaps not as wholly “good” as it seems. Jiro’s major problem in life is that he is an adopted child, taken in by his parents who auspiciously discovered him abandoned on the anniversary of their own child’s death. Jiro, apparently of noble birth, was abandoned because he has a prominent grey birthmark “staining” his face. This is the reason he has so far been unable to find a wife despite his good character and relative wealth. Desperately grateful to the couple who took him in “despite” his “imperfection”, Jiro feels this failure heavily in his current inability to provide them with a male heir to take over the family business.

Being good and earnest, Jiro has never dared to fritter money away in the red light district but is tempted when invited by a valued client whom he would not want to offend by refusing. Nevertheless, his first visit to the Yoshiwara is not an altogether pleasant experience as even the seasoned courtesans find it difficult to bear the sight of his “monstrous” face. Embarrassed, the innkeepers finally decide to employ a lowly servant, Otsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), who is not a trained courtesan but a woman convicted for illegal prostitution, to minister solely to Jiro. Otsuru does her work and is relatively unbothered by Jiro’s facial abnormality – something which endears her to Jiro’s heart and has the desired effect of hooking him through his weakness.

Otsuru, later “Tamarazu” the courtesan, is in many ways our villainess but she is also Jiro’s mirror and merely another outsider trying to escape oppression through any means possible. Uchida is careful to frame Otsuru not as a cruel and amoral adventurer, but someone who has decided to survive and can at least be honest about her intentions. We see her caged, imprisoned inside the Yoshiwara to do inside it what was declared “illegal” outside and acknowledging that she may well die here to met by a lonely funeral and rest unnamed in a communal grave. Otsuru decides that if she has to stay in the Yoshiwara then she will be its queen and then use that success to catapult herself into a more comfortable life even if she knows that it will be little more than a nicer kind of cage.

Jiro and Otsuru are each victims of the oppressive society in which they live as symbolised by the cruelly hypocritical worldview of the brothel owners who set out to exploit them both. Otsuru, worldly wise, is fully aware of the ways in which she is and will continue to be exploited but has chosen to be complicit within them as a means of effecting her escape. Jiro, meanwhile, is obviously aware that the “stain” across his face is the reason for his unhappy destiny but has only ever sought to minimise the distress his appearance causes to others. Thus he overcompensates by being relentlessly nice and infinitely humble, grateful for each and every concession which is extended to him as a fully human being rather than the “monster” which he is later branded by the innkeepers in a rare moment of candour which exposes their venial desires. 

This extreme desire for acceptance is in itself a symptom of his self loathing and internalised shame regarding his appearance which is after all merely an accident of birth over which he had no control. Abandoned by his birthparents who left him with a “cursed” destiny in the form of an unlucky sword, Jiro has been working overtime to overcome social prejudice but finding his path continually blocked. He latches on to Otsuru simply because she was nice to him without understanding the peculiar rules of interactions within the Yoshiwara, or as she later puts it “no money, no love”. Jiro ruins himself out of frustrated loneliness and a forlorn hope of repaying the debt he owes the couple who took him in by being able to provide them with a male heir to inherit the family business.

It is these mutual conflicts which eventually lead to the explosive finale hinted at by the violence of the title. Otsuru’s star rises while Jiro’s falls – not only is he fleeced by the innkeepers and an unrepentant Otsuru, his business also fails thanks to an act of God while his reputation lies in tatters once his associates get to know of his “frivolous” behaviour in the Yoshiwara. This in itself is doubly hypocritical as it was this same major client who introduced Jiro to the “pleasure” quarters in the first place only to remind him that business is a matter of trust and that they no longer trust him because he has broken his promise of keeping away from the Yoshiwara.

Pushed to the brink by successive humiliations, Jiro’s rage erupts in a singular act of violence which takes the sword not only to the Yoshiwara but the entrenched systems of oppression and exploitation which it represents. Otsuru, now an oiran, is literally trapped by her ostentatious outfit (in reality the very purpose it is designed to serve) as she struggles to escape male violence, her hand on the gate of the Yoshiwara which refuses to release her. Their parallel quests for revenge eventually converge only to defeat each other in a staggering act of futility which remains unresolved as the curtain falls on a moment of unanswerable rage.


Deep River Melody (風流深川唄, So Yamamura, 1960)

Deep River Melody poster 2An actor with a long and distinguished career, So Yamamura first stepped behind the camera in 1953 with an adaptation of the famous proletarian novel by Takeji Kobayashi, The Crab Cannery Ship (later adapted by Sabu in 2009), and eventually completed six features. Deep River Melody (風流深川唄, Furyu Fukagawa Uta), released in 1960 and adapted from a novel by Matsutaro Kawaguchi, was last among them and starred post-war singing sensation Hibari Misora in the leading role. Hibari Misora was a frequent presence at Toei through the ‘50s and ‘60s, appearing in a series of musical dramas both period and contemporary but Deep River Melody is among the small number of purely dramatic pieces in which she starred which do not feature any musical numbers even over the opening and closing.

Set in the early years of militarism, the story revolves around Setsu (Hibari Misora) – the daughter of a restaurant owner, and her head chef, Cho (Koji Tsuruta). Having grown up together, Setsu and Cho have quietly fallen in love but these are times in which it is difficult to state one’s feelings plainly. Luckily, Setsu’s father, Isaburo (Kan Ishii), and his warm hearted mistress (Isuzu Yamada), have noticed the growing affection between the pair and are only too happy for them. What could be better after all than the head chef marrying into the family? Despite some qualms on Cho’s side in breaking a class ceiling taboo, the matter appears to be settled and both he and Setsu are blissfully happy.

However, tragedy soon strikes. Isaburo unwisely agreed to become the guarantor of a loan taken out by Shunsuke Ohta (So Yamamura) – the leader of the communist party in Japan (not an easy thing to be amid the rising tides of militarism). He, of course, defaults on the loan putting the restaurant at risk. The other relatives, learning of the prospective marriage between Setsu and Cho are extremely unhappy, viewing it as improper for mere servant to inherit the restaurant. Isaburo stands firm, but matters are pushed to crisis point by grumpy uncle Koshikawa who is determined to act as a go-between for the wealthy son of a rival restaurant who has long had designs on Setsu.

Though this is definitively a pre-war story, many of the problems faced by Setsu and Cho are the same as those in Hibari Misora’s contemporary movies in that she, in particular, finds herself trapped by a series of outdated social codes in which her extended family expect her to consent to marry a man she does even like for money in order to save their “good” name. They believe Isaburo is a feckless fool who has lost the restaurant through a needless gesture of loyalty towards a man who had been good to him in the past and was now in trouble. Isaburo places human relationships above money and politics, remaining uninterested in the relatives’ insistence on class hierarchies and preservation of the family’s good standing. Though he may, to a degree at least, be sympathetic towards Ohta’s political intentions, he acts as guarantor out of respect and gratitude rather than deep belief in a cause.

Nevertheless, the barriers between Cho and Setsu are less physical than they are psychological. Cho, raised as a servant, feels himself inferior and has difficulty accepting Isaburo’s talk of marriage owing to their differing social status. Isaburo, somewhat embarrassed, has not yet spoken with Setsu, but then knows his daughter well and is right in assuming the pair will eventually sort things out on their own if given a gentle push. When the relationship is tested by the restaurant’s failure, Isaburo and Setsu stand firm. No one entered this relationship for the wrong reasons – Cho loves the restaurant and everyone who works in it, but he fell in love with Setsu independently and would marry her for nothing. He remains uncertain, however, if his devotion is selfish and if the best way to love her is to leave her and allow her to save her familial legacy by marrying a man with money.

Like many post-war films, Deep River Melody is essentially about learning to let go of outdated ideas and that the maintenance of tradition is less important than individual happiness. Setsu and her father are ready to let go rather than commit themselves to a course of lifelong unhappiness solely to please their snooty relatives. Cho, however, struggles to free himself of a feeling of social inferiority. His own family tell him that his desire to marry Setsu is not only wrong but dangerous, that they have built a life for themselves though being loyal servants and that crossing the class divide risks all of their futures. Conflicted, Cho remains unwilling to fight for his love because he does not believe he can win and not only that, he feels it would be inappropriate to even try. If the pair are to find true happiness, they will have to find the courage to move on from the past and build their own future free of feudal ideas but to do so will require both sacrifice and support in the belief that a better life is possible.


Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Tadashi Sawashima, 1966)

actress vs greedy sharks soundtrack albumA studio director at Toei, Tadashi Sawashima is best remembered for his work in the studio’s ninkyo eiga genre – prewar tales of noble gangsters, and samurai movies but he also made the occasional foray into the world of musical drama, teaming up with top name singing star Hibari Misora on a few of her historical action musicals. In 1966’s Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Kobanzame Oyakusha Jingi) Hibari once again plays a dual role though this time her casting is entirely arbitrary and the visual similarity of the legit actress and the acrobatic outlaw is never explicitly remarked upon.

The action opens with Shichi (Hibari Misora), an acrobat and member of a Robin Hood style band of outlaws (they don’t so much give to the poor as “share” with the less fortunate) interrupting the plot of Yamitaro (Yoichi Hayashi) – a nobleman in disguise to pursue revenge against corrupt lord Doi (Eitaro Shindo) who exiled his father to Convict Island when he began to raise questions about judicial corruption. Meanwhile, Yuki (also played by Hibari) is a top stage actress who is plotting against Doi for sending her father to Convict Island 20 years previously on a trumped up charge. Just as the “tomboyish” Shichi is beginning to fall for the mysterious Yamitaro, he teams up with Yuki to pursue their mutual quests for revenge which has Shichi feeling (needlessly, as it turns out) betrayed and vengeful.

Once again, the samurai order is shown to be corrupt beyond redemption. Doi, a greedy lord, is planning to sell off his only daughter, Ran (Yumiko Nogawa), as a concubine to the shogun. Meanwhile, he is also engaging in a rice profiteering scheme in order to bolster his financial resources. He is also still misusing his influence, just as he did when he had Yuki’s father sent to prison and got rid of Yamitaro’s so he couldn’t expose him.

As in her other movies, Hibari cannot allow this corruption to continue and becomes a thorn in the side of authority. However, the situation this time around is further complicated by her double casting in which she plays two visually identical characters who are, nevertheless, entirely unrelated and the resemblance between them entirely unremarked upon. The “tomboyish” Shichi, apparently falling in love for the first time much to the confusion of herself and others who regarded her lack of traditional femininity as a barrier to romance, becomes awkwardly resentful of the graceful Yuki whose charms she assumes will sway the handsome Yamitaro. Shichi does not seem to consider a class barrier between herself and Yamitaro as a problem but fears his natural affinity with a woman she perceives as superior to herself in her refinement, yet Yuki proves herself as staunch a fighter as Shichi and just as feisty. She appears to have little romantic interest in Yamitaro even if she resents Shichi’s rather blunt instructions to back off, and aside from concentrating on her revenge, spends the rest of the film dealing with the rescue of Doi’s daughter Ran who has drawn inspiration from her stage performances to rebel against her cruel fate and father.

Ran is just another symptom of her father’s corruption in his obvious disregard for her feelings as he prepares to send her off as a concubine to buy himself influence with only the mild justification that her ascendence to the imperial court is an honour even if she will never be a wife, only one of many mistresses. Unlike Ran, Yuki and Shichi have managed to seize their own agency, living more or less independently and as freely as possible within the society they inhabit. Experiencing differing kinds of bad luck and betrayal, they find themselves at odds with each other yet on parallel paths despite their obvious dualities.

With less space for song, Hibari’s dual casting does at least offer twice the fight potential as the outlaw and the actress finally find themselves on the same side to tackle the persistent injustice of Edo era society as manifested in the corrupt Doi and his slimy cronies gearing up for the mass brawl finale in which the wronged take their revenge on the wicked lord by proving him a villain in the public square and earning themselves not a little social kudos in the process. All of which makes the strangely melancholy ending exiling one aspect of Hibari to the outer reaches somewhat uncomfortable but then it does provide an excuse for another song.


Hibari’s musical numbers