The Vampire Moth (吸血蛾, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1956)

“You’ve become an evil beast that sucks blood!” intones ace detective Kindaichi, though just as his later The Lady Vampire featured no lady vampires, there is no literal bloodsucker involved in Noburu Nakagawa’s Vampire Moth (吸血蛾, Kyuketsuga). Inspired by one of Seishi Yokomizo’s mysteries featuring his iconic detective here played by the rather suave Ryo Ikebe cutting a very noirish figure in contrast to the famously disheveled eccentric from the original novels, the film is for a time at least a werewolf movie though as usual the villain turns out to be post-war greed and amorality. 

This is perhaps rammed home in the open sequence as the camera pans around the neon-lit nighttime city before entering a small cabaret bar where a fashion competition is currently in progress. A note of discord is immediately introduced by a white-haired grumpy old man (Eijiro Tono) sitting in the front row who appears to be in an incredibly bad mood, later exclaiming that the winning design by rising star Fumiyo Asaji (Asami Kuji) does not seem very original to him. Some of the models later complain about the strange spectator who’s evidently come to several other shows and has begun to creep them out. Meanwhile, an aloof, conservatively dressed woman brushes past them. Fumiyo’s assistant Toru (Ichiro Arishima) explains that she is Tazuko Kusakata (Chieko Nakakita) who had been the previous number one before Fumiyo returned to Japan after an extended stay in France. The real drama begins however with the arrival of a masked man with a box for Fumiyo who reveals his wolf-like face to Toru in an effort to convince him to deliver it. After opening the box and finding an apple with a few distinctive bite marks on the outside, Fumiyo promptly collapses.  

From the introduction of the three loose “suspects” an ominous atmosphere takes hold in the certainty that something untoward is about to happen. Soon enough some of the models start getting bumped off in quite bizarre and unpleasant ways. The first girl’s body is shipped back to the studio in a mannequin box which later leaks blood, while the gang are then delivered a cake with the next victim’s name on it in pretty icing with a butterfly moth motif above. There may not be any vampires, but there are certainly moths. The old creepy guy is revealed to be a moth specialist living a giant gothic mansion with a butterfly room in the middle full of specimens nailed to boards. His front door even has a moth motif above it like a coat of arms, while a butterfly mural lies behind it in the hallway. The killer places a decorative moth on each of his victims to cover their modesty which would seem to indicate the grumpy professor but, once he finally arrives, Kindaichi isn’t quite so sure. 

Though this is technically a Kindaichi mystery and he does finally get to unmask the criminal, he is not actually in it very much and as previously mentioned is nothing like later incarnations of the famous detective such as that of Kon Ichikawa’s series of Kindaichi movies released throughout the 1970s. In a common B-movie motif, the main detective work falls to a male and female team in dogged reporter Kawase (Minoru Chiaki) and intrepid model Yumiko (Kyoko Anzai) who eventually succeed in digging up clues at the creepy mansion while simultaneously stumbling across a subplot involving plagiarism in the world of fashion with Tazuko implying that Fumiyo stole her winning outfit from another designer and then passed it off as her own thereby robbing Tazuko of her rightful place as the best designer in Japan. Partly because of all this stress and the vast amounts of money apparently needed to sustain a career in the fashion industry, Fumiyo’s well-meaning boyfriend wants her to abandon the profession but also admits that asking her to give up fashion would be like asking her to give up her life. 

Nakagawa ramps up the tension with a series of elegantly presented reversals, making us think we’re witnessing the killer stalking Fumiyo before pulling back to reveal it’s someone else or presenting the same scene of a masked man ominously peering out from behind a tree. The presence of the “wolf man” links back to a Japanese traveller who supposedly fell victim to a supernatural curse in France described as being akin to possession by a fox in Japanese mythology causing the infected person to gain wolf-like characteristics, become violent, and eventually be consumed by an overwhelming desire for human flesh, but perhaps also hints at the sense of voracious greed that has overtaken the killer and caused them to abandon their sense of of humanity in favour of material riches. Filled with a sense of the gothic along with noirish dread in Nakagawa’s foggy, kilted angles eventually giving way to an atmospheric chase sequence strongly recalling that of The Third Man, The Vampire Moth presents a banal evil with palpable anxiety yet suggests justice will be done to those who however briefly stray from the path. 


Fallen Blossoms (花ちりぬ, Tamizo Ishida, 1938)

By the late 1930s, film censorship had tightened and it was perhaps all but impossible to rebuke the militarist regime through the silver screen. Nevertheless, as always setting your film in the past can make the impossible possible through thinly veiled allegory. This may not have been its primary intention, but it’s impossible to ignore the subtext of Tamizo Ishida’s Fallen Blossoms (花ちりぬ, Hana Chirinu) which sets itself entirely within the confines of a geisha house on the night of the Kinmon incident or Hamaguri Gate Rebellion in 1864 during which anti-Shogunate forces from Choshu marched on Kyoto with the intention of kidnapping the emperor in order to restore imperial rule. The incident ended in devastating defeat for Choshu with rebel forces setting fire to the city as they bid their retreat. 

There is therefore an uncomfortable anxiety in the context of the Japan of 1938 as the women trapped inside the teahouse remark on the chaos outside with unfamiliar soldiers on the streets and townspeople deciding to remain at home which is of course very bad for their business. Aside from the sense of danger, the major problems inside the house are economic with constant talk of declining revenues and the recent closure of similar establishments while even the guests that have come have done so to drown their sorrows as their own business is also going badly because of the rumours of imminent unrest. The situation is all the more acute for Akira (Ranko Hanai), daughter of the house’s madam, because she’s secretly fallen in love with a young man of Choshu she fears may be marching on the city which is one reason she deflects her mother’s attempts to encourage her to accept an offer of marriage from a wealthy associate. 

As Akira later puts it, her mother was born in the teahouse, became a geisha and then its madam. She sees herself sharing the same fate but wants to experience a different kind of life, curious about what lies outside the pleasure district. Maid Miyako (Kimiko Hayashi) was sold to the geisha house as a child because her family was poor, she doesn’t think the life outside is anything worth seeing. Yet she too wonders what her fate might be, believing herself to be too plain to make it as a geisha and particularly to attract the kind of wealthy patron who could provide an escape route. Matsuba (Ayako Ichinose), a former geisha, did just that but now she’s come back apparently regretting her decision because she’s neither wife not maid in her new home but also occupies a liminal status in the teahouse, her actions deliberate or otherwise reinforcing the idea that she is no longer a geisha in her inability to tie Akira’s obi and claims to have forgotten the words when asked to rehearse a piece of music with another of the women. “Surely it’s OK for a girl to dream, even in the Kuruwa” Akira fires back but perhaps on some level knowing that her mother has a point when she says that samurai don’t marry young women of the pleasure district. 


Even so Akira’s romantic fantasy takes on even greater import when a man begins loudly banging on their door and demanding to be let in, presumably in fear for his life. Akira rushes forward to open it, but is held back by her mother and the other women. After a while the sound of fighting stops and it’s assumed the man has been killed. Akira doesn’t know if the man was her lover or not, but it makes no difference. Someone called for her help and she refused it. Guilt and shame overwhelm her. Her mother’s decision may prove to be a prudent one, though she is in any case later arrested by the pro-shogunate Shinsengumi police presumably suspicious the geisha house may have harboured rebel soldiers. Akira’s double sense of guilt that what’s happened to her mother is partly her own fault prevents her from leaving with the others when it becomes certain that their only choice is to evacuate the city. Her only point of refuge is on the watchtower, apparently unique to her geisha house and said to be haunted by someone murdered by the Shinsengumi, where she sees the smoke of fires glowing on the horizon. Her lover’s poem falls from her hand as if in admission that her dream is ended and there will be no escape for her from the environs of the Kuruwa.

The moment is therefore one of eclipse and endings, a city a falling but not as the invaders are beaten back and defeated. Prophetic and chilling in its import as bells strike ominously in the background while the city burns, the film paints a bleak prognosis for a Japan of mounting imperialist ambitions. Drunken geisha Tanehachi (Reiko Minakami), herself trapped in the Kuruwa apparently because of a bad man she cannot escape, reveals that her father was beheaded in the street for disrespecting a samurai and if this is the beginning of their end then so be it, but even so “Kyoto is finished. No matter who loses it will make no difference.” Adapted from a stage play by Kaoru Morimoto, Ishida’s increasingly anxious drama never leaves the geisha house or repeats a shot and situates itself entirely within a world of women where men are heard but never seen, but finally leaves its heroine all alone watching helplessly as the fires creep closer. 


The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Mikio Naruse, 1960)

For a small boy in post-war Japan, childhood’s summer is already over in Mikio Naruse’s at times uncharacteristically cheerful The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Aki Tachinu) . In truth, the Japanese title is the slightly more depressing “autumn has begun” echoing the dismal circumstances that the hero eventually finds himself in while working his way towards an understanding of the disappointments and loneliness of adulthood. Abandoned by his mother he remains alone, in a sense homeless, trapped between the new Japan and the old in a liminal space shrinking by the hour as the construction of modernity encroaches all around him. 

The amazement on Hideo’s (Kenzaburo Osawa) face is palpable as he exits a train station in the middle of Tokyo peering up at the high rise buildings amid busy city streets. He and his mother Shigeko (Nobuko Otowa) have travelled by train from rural Nagano following the death of his father intending to stay with his mother’s brother (Kamatari Fujiwara) who owns an old-fashioned grocery store in Ginza. What Shigeko has not really explained to her son is that they will not be living there together as she has taken a job as a live-in hostess at a nearby inn. 

Plunged into this unfamiliar world all alone, Hideo cannot help but feel awkward in the house of relatives he has never before met. His grown-up cousins playfully argue in front of him about having to share a room, while he makes a point of not eating too much at dinner though as Harue (Hisako Hara) jokes perhaps he doesn’t like the food seeing as his penny pinching uncle mainly feeds the family on fruit and veg from the store that’s gone past its best. Meanwhile, he struggles to make friends with the local children who mock his country bumpkin accent and use him as a scapegoat when it looks like they might get in trouble. His only companion is the precocious daughter of the owner of the inn where his mother works, Junko (Futaba Hitotsugi), who instantly takes to him and even goes so far as to beg her mother to adopt Hideo as an older brother. 

Junko is in a similarly liminal position herself as we later find out. Her mother (Murasaki Fujima) is the mistress of a wealthy businessman who only visits them every so often and appears to be well aware of the precarity of her position. Junko’s father, awkwardly inviting her out on a playdate with his other two children born to his legal wife who apparently knows everything and at least pretends to be alright with it, urges her mother to take advantage of rocketing Ginza land prices and sell the inn to buy a fancy new apartment but she is understandably wary. Running an inn is all she knows how to do and should he die or simply decide to drop her she’d be in trouble fairly quickly. Hideo’s cousins similarly nag their father to sell the shop, reminding him that with the increasing gentrification of the area there is no longer sufficient footfall to support it, and suggesting they use the money to buy larger premises in suburbia. Both Hideo and Junko are in a sense orphans of these liminal spaces, relics of a disappearing Japan soon to be eclipsed by endless office buildings symbols of the nation’s increasing economic prosperity. 

All of the sites on which the children play are earmarked for construction, Junko later explaining that the docks where they eventually head looking for the sea are built on reclaimed land big enough to build a baseball field. Like Hideo she longs for the country with clean air and unpolluted rivers though as Hideo points out it’s all the same to him, his mother isn’t in either place and so neither has any meaning for him. Her strange idea of adopting Hideo is in a way an attempt to anchor herself with family, assuring her mother that she’s old enough to understand but struggling to parse her family circumstances while deeply hurt on discovering she does have siblings after all only they don’t want to know her. She is looked down upon because of the choices her mother has made, as is Hideo especially after his mother leaves abruptly with a customer from the inn (Daisuke Kato) abandoning him with his uncle in search of romantic fulfilment which it seems she probably did not find considering a later telegram explaining she’s working as a maid at a hotel in the resort town of Atami. 

Shigeko is made out to be the villain, but she too is only chasing safety in a changing society hoping to find it in the arms of a reliable man be he a husband or not. Hideo may be an obstacle to that, but her anxiety is mostly maternal, unwilling to rely on her brother’s goodwill and knowing she will need to find a way to support her son even if she is not with him. Hideo’s cousins meanwhile are the youth of the new society. Harue has rejected the old-fashioned family grocers and now works in a department store while her former student protestor boyfriend is certain of getting a salaryman job seeing as there’s a massive labour shortage. Shotaro (Yosuke Natsuki), who is always kind to Hideo, runs around town on his scooter ferrying girls to the beach sometimes forgetting his melancholy cousin in favour of transitory pleasures. He envisages taking over the store and selling it to open up somewhere new, reassuring Hideo that there will always be a place for him there even while letting him down in the present. 

In the end, Hideo’s only friend is a beetle packaged in a box of apples from his grandma in the country which his uncle selfishly claims for the shop under the rationale that he can’t eat them all himself. A symbol of an older, rural Japan as well of the idyllic childhood for which Hideo’s longs, the beetle is as out of place in central Tokyo as he is the pair of them looking down on the sprawling city and out towards the barely visible sea from the roof of a department store which holds no sense of promise for them. Despite the bleakness of the ending, Naruse’s depiction of an ordinary childhood is deceptively cheerful perhaps implying that Hideo is merely enduring a period of adjustment only to leave him with the crushing weight of impossibility, trapped between the new society and the old with no home to go to. 


French release trailer (French subtitles only)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The End of Summer (小早川家の秋, Yasujiro Ozu, 1961)

Fathers in Ozu are usually sentimental and doting, sometimes insensitive or austere, but by and large responsible. The crises the family faces are generally emotional more than they are practical, few Ozu fathers fail in a duty of care towards their wives and children. And then, there’s Manbei (Ganjiro Nakamura). The hero of Ozu’s penultimate film, The End of Summer (小早川家の秋, Kohayagawa-ke no Aki), is quite the opposite. He does as he pleases and enjoys his life to the fullest without really noticing the effect his behaviour has those around him. But then, as his sister later puts it, he was a very happy man which is rare thing in this society so perhaps he had something right after all. 

Produced for Toho and set in Osaka rather than the usual Shochiku and Tokyo, the film opens not with Manbei but with his brother-in-law Kitagawa (Daisuke Kato) trying to set up Manbei’s widowed daughter-in-law Akiko (Setsuko Hara) with a widowed industrialist obsessed with cows. Meanwhile, the family is also trying to find a match for his youngest daughter, Noriko (Yoko Tsukasa), who is put off by the whole idea of an arranged marriage and worried that Manbei and her older sister Fumiko (Michiyo Aratama) may try to pressure her into accepting because their family sake brewery is trouble. Fumiko’s husband Hisao (Keiju Kobayashi) is technically running the brewery and favours a merger to save the business but Manbei is resistant. Manbei himself is largely absent and his increasing habit of skipping out during the day is beginning to worry the family, especially when they discover he’s been visiting an old mistress with a 21-year-old daughter he thinks is his. 

Followed to a cafe, Manbei exclaims that summer refuses to end in an accidental metaphor for his life. For him everything is sunshine and rainbows, scuttling away from the family home like a little boy sneaking out after dark while the now grownup kids are left behind to clean up his messes. Manbei is a widower, and aside from the financial dimension, perhaps it’s not a huge problem if he wants to go and hang out with an old flame, but Fumiko in particular is scandalised remembering the various humiliations he put her late mother through when she was just a child. Hisao advises her that perhaps it’s best not to bring it up. Manbei isn’t going to change his behaviour and it’s only going to create more drama whereas it might be more manageable if they all pretend not know. Fumiko, however, can’t stay silent even if she knows her father isn’t going to listen to her and in fact lies quite baldly about what he’s been doing in Kyoto. 

Fumiko is on the side of marrying Noriko off, but unlike her husband, father, and uncle, is keen to emphasise that they should move slowly and be sure to take her feelings into account. Rather than her sister, Noriko turns to Akiko for support. Originally in favour of meeting the prospective husband, after all you can always turn it down if you don’t like him, she cautions Noriko that the most important thing is character rather than behaviour and that it’s essential to marry without regret. Noriko feels as if she’s obliged to do as everyone says, but is secretly in love with a young man she met on a skiing holiday who has just been transferred to Sapporo. Akiko, meanwhile, was not altogether taken with the cow-loving widower, but in any case would prefer to maintain her present way of life as a single mother even while others pressure her to remarry. 

The conclusion Noriko comes to is, perhaps strangely, inspired by her carefree father in that she decides it’s best to do what will make her the most happy rather than simply going along with what everyone else wants her to do which may or may not be in her best interest. Fumiko grudgingly admits that though her father was often exasperating perhaps he was the only thing holding the family together. Ozu broadly lends the irresponsible but never malicious Manbei tacit approval in celebrating the fact that he lived the life he wanted to live and he was at least defiantly happy in his own eternal summer, but then ends on an uncharacteristically morbid note as two farmers wash vegetables in the river opposite a crematorium remarking on the increasing number of crows while resigning themselves to the cycle of life. Smoke and crows await us all, perhaps Manbei had it right and the thing is to be happy while you can without taking much notice of what others might have to say about it. 


Hit and Run (ひき逃げ, Mikio Naruse, 1966)

The contradictions of the contemporary society drive two women out of their minds in Mikio Naruse’s dark psychological drama, Hit and Run (ひき逃げ, Hikinige, AKA A Moment of Terror). Scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama and starring his wife Hideko Takamine in her final collaboration with the director, Naruse’s penultimate film takes aim at the persistent unfairness of a post-war society already corrupted by increasing corporatisation while caught at a moment of transition that leaves neither woman free to escape the outdated patriarchal social codes of the feudal era. 

The two women, both mothers to five-year-old boys, are mirror images of each other. Kuniko (Hideko Takamine), the heroine, is a widow working in a noodle bar and continually exasperated by her energetic son Takeshi who keeps escaping kindergarten to play pachinko which is not a suitable environment for a small child. Kinuko (Yoko Tsukasa), meanwhile, is mother to Kenichi and married to a high ranking executive at Yamano Motors, Kakinuma (Eitaro Ozawa). These two worlds quite literally collide when Kinuko, emotionally distressed and driving a little too fast, knocks over little Takeshi while he is out playing with some of the other neighbourhood boys. As she is with her lover, Susumu (Jin Nakayama), she decides to drive on abandoning Takeshi to his fate but discovers blood on the bumper of her shiny white convertible on returning home and thereafter decides to tell her husband everything aside from revealing her affair. Kakinuma covers the whole thing up by forcing their driver to take the rap to protect not his wife but the company along with his own status and success fearing that a scandal concerning his wife driving carelessly may have adverse consequences seeing as Yamano Motors is about to launch a new super fast engine that will make them worldwide industry leaders. 

Perhaps in a way the true villain, Kakinuma cares about nothing other than his corporate success. Kinuko states as much in complaining that he’s never once considered her feelings only his own and that their marriage was a failure from the start, little more than an act of exploitation in which she was traded by her father for money in return for political connections. For these reasons she seeks escape through her extra-marital affair but is unable to leave partly in the psychological conflict of breaking with tradition and partly because she has a son whom she would likely not be permitted to take with her even if it were practical to do so. Another woman says something similar in disparaging Kuniko, implying that her life is in some ways over as few men would be interested in marrying a widow with a child. 

Takeshi’s loss is therefore additionally devastating in severing Kuniko’s only lifeline. A brief flashback reveals that Kuniko was once a post-war sex worker, she and her yakuza brother Koji war orphans who lost their parents in the aerial bombing. When she married and had a child she thought the gods had smiled on her but in true Narusean fashion they gave only to take away leaving her a widow and finally robbing her even of her child. To add insult to injury, they try to put a price on her son’s life, a mere 500,000 yen for a boy of five hit by a car. When the driver stands in the dock, he gets off with only a 30,000 yen fine for the death of a child. Then again on visiting his home, there appears to be a boy of around five there too, perhaps you can’t blame him for taking the money having been robbed of his youth in wartime service. 

Still, on hearing from an eye witness that it was a woman who was driving, Kuniko quickly realises that Kinuko must have been responsible. Quitting her job she joins a maid agency in order to infiltrate the house and gain revenge later settling on the idea of killing little Kenichi, who takes an instant liking to her, to hurt his mother in the way she has been hurt only to be torn by her unexpected maternal connection with the boy. The conflict between the two women is emotional, but also tinged with class resentment that a wealthy woman like Kinuko should be allowed to escape justice with so little thought to those around her while Kuniko is tormented not only by her grief but the persistent injustice of the cover up. 

As in all things, it’s the lie that does the most damage in ironically exposing the truth of all it touches. Kinuko’s escape route is closed when her lover reveals that he’s lost faith in her, unable to trust a woman who’d run away from the scene of a crime and allow someone else to take the blame, while Kakinuma’s emotional abandonment of his social family for the corporate is thrown into stark relief by his immediate decision to further exploit their driver just as he will later their maid. Driven out of her mind, Kuniko has white hot flashes of lustful vengeance as she imagines herself engineering an accident for Kenichi, throwing him off a rollercoaster or coaxing him into traffic, only to regain her senses unable to go through with it so pushed to the brink of madness is she that no other action makes sense. 

Even so the conclusion is brutally ironic, Kuniko accused of a crime she did not commit but half believing that she must have done it because she wanted to so very much. Kakinuma gets a minor comeuppance, encouraged by his servant to make clear what actually happened and exonerate Kuniko thereby walking back his total commitment to the corporate (then again it seems his dream project was itself under threat from a potential plagiarism scandal) though the damage may already have been done. This societal violence of an unequal, increasingly corporatised and unfeeling society, eventually comes full circle bringing with it only death and madness as the two women seek escape from their internal torment. Naruse experiments with handheld camera and canted angles to emphasise the destabilisation of the women’s sense of reality along with blow out and solarisation in the visions that plague them, but curiously ends with a set of motor vehicle accident stats as if this had been a roundabout public information film to encourage careful driving. Then again perhaps in a way it is, a cautionary tale about the dangerous curves of untapped modernity and the cruelties of the nakedly consumerist era.  


Horror of the Wolf (狼の紋章, Masashi Matsumoto, 1973)

“All I wanted was to live a quiet life alone” a teenage werewolf laments unfairly forced into a human world which has no real place for him while he can find no accommodation with its innate cruelty. Adapted from the manga by Kazumasa Hirai & Hisashi Sakaguchi, Horror of the Wolf (狼の紋章, Okami no Monsho) is part high school delinquent movie and part psychedelic werewolf exploitation film in which the hero finds himself drawn into a weird supernatural battle with a crazed nationalist while falling for his beautiful high school teacher who perhaps uncomfortably reminds him of his late mother. 

Akira Inugami (Taro Shigaki) spent the early years of his life in Alaska playing with the local wolves until his anthropologist parents were murdered “due to suspicions of spy activity”. After spending some time raised by the wolves, Akira was then taken in by his fantastically wealthy aunt, the CEO of the top chain of Japanese restaurants in the US where he was schooled until returning to Japan. As the film opens, he’s attacked by a gang of thugs, refusing to fight back and later stabbed but cooly removing the knife from his stomach as if it were only an inconvenience to him. Witnessing this strange event, school teacher Miss Aoshika (Yoko Ichiji) promptly faints, only to receive a shock the next day when the man she thought she saw murdered the night before shows up as a mysterious transfer student at her elite academy. 

Hinting at an underlying theme of class conflict and institutional corruption, the school doesn’t really want to take Akira because he’s a troublemaker who’s always getting into fights, though this claim seems to conflict with his ongoing refusal to engage with physical violence, but is reluctant to dismiss him because his aunt is so very wealthy. The same goes for his rival, Haguro (Yusaku Matsuda), whose father is a yakuza boss. Haguro is the leader of the school’s delinquent thugs, a distinctly cool presence who wanders around brandishing a katana which he is frequently seen unsheathing with the Japanese flag in the background while his family crest appears to feature an eagle reminiscent of those seen in Nazi Germany.

Nationalism aside, the film has an ongoing preoccupation with animal imagery not only with Akira’s wolfishness but Aoshika whose name literally means “blue deer” often appearing in front of a wooden deer ornament while Akira’s apartment seems to be kitted out with AstroTurf or at least a vibrant green carpet with the appearance of grass as well as occasionally shifting into an idyllic dreamscape where he can frolic cheerfully in the wild. When Aoshika comes looking for him, he tells her that he’s simply wearing a wolf mask and refuses to take it off, urging her to leave him in peace because “women are so lacking in delicacy and so overbearing it drives me nuts”. 

Akira is not alone in his apparent misogyny, Aoshika is violently raped on three separate occasions the first being by her own students which the headmaster brushes off as a rather frequent occurrence giving rise to the question of why she continues to work at the school, where she is apparently the only female member of staff, if she continually faces such traumatic violence. Her final assault meanwhile comes at the hands of Haguro who seems to be performing some kind of bizarre ritual while preparing to face off against Akira who saved her from a previous attack by street punks while in his werewolf guise.  

Aside from his brooding intensity, there are few clues to Akira’s true identity other than his ability to heal in rapid time following injury and skilful athleticism in dodging attacks. Repeatedly referred to as a “lone wolf”, partly an insult based on his name (which literally means “dog god” and is used to describe those possessed by the spirit of a dog), Akira adopts a pacifist stance towards his aggressors refusing to fight back later telling Haguro that they’re simply not worth the bother yet his refusal to fight is mistaken for a philosophical position that eventually makes him a figurehead for a gang of leftist teens trying to halt the culture of violence in the school in what seems to be an ironic swipe at the student protests even if also setting up a challenge to Haguro’s crypto-fascist authoritarian thuggery. 

A curiously avant-garde affair, Masashi Matsumoto’s teen wolf drama features striking composition with frequent use of solarisation and an almost mythical opening sequence detailing the hero’s origin story amid the snows of Alaska, along with incongruous practical effects such as the furry wolf mask Akira often wears in his apartment in his half-transformed state. It is also somewhat lurid, unnecessarily revelling in the sexualised violence directed at the heroine with three lengthy rape scenes of varying intensity. Even so in its undeniable strangeness and eventual pathos for those who cannot survive in “a cruel world made by humans” Horror of the Wolf reserves its sympathy for the outsiders unwilling to submit to a world of human cruelty.


Sound of the Mountain (山の音, Mikio Naruse, 1954)

“All I can do for you now is set you free”, a failed father laments. Mikio Naruse is renowned as a pessimist according to whom we are always betrayed by the world in which we live, yet bleak as it sometimes is 1954’s Sound of the Mountain (山の音, Yama no Oto) offers us what in Narusean terms at least might be considered a happy ending. Adapting a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, Naruse and his screenwriter Yoko Mizuki stop their story a little before the original’s conclusion offering an “open prospect” in which the chastened patriarch is forced into retreat, setting the young ones free while reflecting on paternal failures both national and personal. 

Now in late middle age, CEO Shingo (So Yamamura) is beginning to notice things he perhaps hadn’t before or had merely brushed aside such as the various ways the women around him continue to suffer because of inherently unfair patriarchal social codes. He dotes on his cheerful daughter-in-law Kikuko (Setsuko Hara) but is also aware his son/employee Shuichi (Ken Uehara) is having an affair. Confronted, Shuichi pledges to end the relationship but asks his father if he has honestly remained faithful all his life. Shingo doesn’t exactly deny anything, but remarks that it justifies nothing and his son ought to know better. 

According to Shingo, a man’s success is affirmed if he lives out his life unharmed but one’s success as a parent depends solely on that of the marriages of one’s children and on that front at least Shingo appears to be a failure. Shuichi offers barbed comments about his wife that sound like jokes but clearly aren’t, responding to query as to why they have no children with an excuse that his wife is a child herself, Kikuko’s face contorting momentarily in pain and shame at her husband’s cutting remark yet the only sign of childishness that we see in her is oft remarked cheerfulness. The Ogata household is currently down a maid and it’s Kikuko who’s been picking up the slack as perhaps a daughter-in-law is expected to do, taking care of the household and ensuring her in-laws are well cared for. Ironically enough, the Ogatas love her like a daughter, in part because of her ability to conform to what is expected of a wife despite their son’s indifference, though Shingo is perhaps learning to see past Kikuko’s placid expression, so like the impassive noh mask passed to him by a deceased friend, in the brief flickers of her discomfort. The old couple discuss a double suicide of a couple their age who have decided to leave quietly of their own volition with bleak humour, a look of such total and abject despair passing over Kikuko’s face as she replies to Shingo’s question if she too would write a note if she planned to die with her husband that she might leave one for him. 

The ill-defined relationship between Kikuko and her father-in-law is in essence paternal but profoundly felt, founded on a shared sense of connection and a deep respect. It stands in contrast, however, to that with his own daughter, Fusako (Chieko Nakakita), who returns home to her parents having discovered that her husband is also having an affair. In a sense, this reaction is a facet of post-war freedom, Shingo’s wife Yasuko (Teruko Nagaoka) may suspect her husband had other women but would have pretended not to and in any case would never leave an otherwise successful marriage over such a “trivial” matter. Fusako, meanwhile, has the freedom to demand better and to leave if she doesn’t get it but continues to hesitate blaming her father’s indifference towards her for her husband’s lack of respect something which she believes also fed into his poor choice of match. 

Cheerful, stoical Kikuko meanwhile finds herself caught between tradition and modernity unhappy in her marriage but uncertain if she has the right to escape it. Despite his parents’ niceness, Shuichi has grown into a cruel and selfish man, running down his wife and neglecting his work to romance his father’s secretary, who is not the mistress (not that she wouldn’t like to be), and apparently a violent drunk who routinely beats his girlfriend, a war widow and independent woman who sees nothing wrong in dating a married man because his wife is only waiting for one certain to return. Mirroring Kikuko, Kinuko (Rieko Sumi) is also pregnant but transgressively plans to have the child and raise it alone (supported by her friend and roommate). Telling no one, Kikuko learns that she is expecting but unilaterally opts for an abortion telling her husband that she cannot in good conscience give birth to his child knowing the kind of man he is. Confronting Shuichi, Shingo describes it as a kind of suicide and he is at least right in that she kills the image of herself as the good wife but does so by choosing her own integrity, seizing her agency in rejecting a dissatisfying present to seek a happier future. 

By contrast, we get the impression that Fusako, who has two children already, will likely return to her husband. Shuichi has the talk with his brother-in-law his mother hoped he would, but bonds with him in male solidarity, excusing his affair while advancing that Fusako doesn’t understand that he is merely working hard for their family laying bare a fundamental disconnect in the thinking of men and women further borne out by Yasuko’s assertion that men and women deal with sorrow differently. It’s this series of disconnects, between men and women, parents and children, that Shingo is beginning to bridge only to be confronted with his own patriarchal failures. While he and his wife are seemingly happy enough, he brushing off her self-deprecating remark that he was “unlucky” in marrying her only because her prettier sister died, his children’s marriages have each failed. His failure stands in for that of his generation, realising that he all he can do for them now is set them free. Meeting Kikuko in a park with wide open vistas, oddly like the final meeting of doomed lovers aware they must now part, Shingo vows retreat, planning to retire and move to the country with his wife as if liberating the youth of Japan from the oppressive social codes of the past in ceding the “open prospects” of the post-war society to his surrogate daughter in order that she might at least seize her freedom to chase her own happiness. 


Untamed (あらくれ, Mikio Naruse, 1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Kihachi Okamoto, 1959)

By 1959, Japan was well on the way towards economic recovery but this transitionary period brought with it its own dilemmas and particularly for those whose main line of business had in a sense depended on instability and desperation. The first of Kihachi Okamoto’s early crime capers, The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Ankokugai no kaoyaku) finds the yakuza at just this moment of crisis, prescient in a sense in perhaps prematurely implying that post-war gangsterdom was already on its way out. 

The film opens, however, with a piece of yakuza thuggery as a mysterious man guns down an industrialist before barreling down the stairs and into a waiting car occupied by getaway driver Mineo (Akira Takarada) who is inconveniently spotted by a passerby, 16-year-old ramen restaurant waitress Kana (Rumiko Sasa). As we discover, Mineo is the younger brother of veteran gangster Ryuta (Koji Tsuruta), a middle-ranking member of the newly rebranded, rapidly corporatising yakuza outfit Yokomitsu Trading who seem to specialise in legal debt collection and running the entertainment district. Torn between their desire for a degree of legitimacy and their thuggish instincts, Yokomitsu have evidently knocked off a rival using an external hitman but now have a problem on their hands especially as Mineo has apparently embarked on a career as a singer in a teen jazz bar located in the same area as Kana’s restaurant which is at the very least unwise. 

Mineo is in many ways the “innocent” seen in many other similarly themed yakuza dramas, still too young to have been corrupted by the underworld and only an accomplice in the crime for which he is being asked to pay. He wants to get out of the yakuza life and sees singing as his escape route, adopting the persona of “Eddie Mineo” and styling himself as a teen idol in the vein of the rock ’n roll American pop culture which seems to be dominiating the late ‘50s youth scene. Yet Okamoto is also clearly evoking the world of Hollywood crime cinema, the environment open and dusty while everyone seems to drive massive Cadillacs and his gangsters behave much more like those in American movies than traditional yakuza even as the traditional yakuza is also changing. 

“I can’t stand it anymore” Ryuta finally exclaims, “There’s neither righteousness nor rules among mobsters”, tipped over the edge by the gang’s plan to kill the teenage witness. He wants out too, but considers himself already too far gone while pulled in two directions in his desire to save both his brother and his young son who has a lame leg and is being cared for in a hospital. Ryuta wears his wedding ring throughout though there’s no mention of what happened to his wife, while he’s also pulled between two potential love interests in the sympathetic doctor who cares for his son, Sumiko (Yumi Shirakawa), and the brassy cabaret girl, Rie (Mitsuko Kusabue), who does her best to save him, but in the end is never very much interested in either of them. He’s constantly haunted by his crimes, knowing what happens to yakuza who fall from grace in his murder of a man who limped and walked with a crutch just like his son. 

The clan are also planning to off a former foot soldier, Ishiyama, who in fact commits suicide immediately after his release from prison realising the futility of his position. Ishiyama’s suicide note directly references that of notorious post-war gangster Rikio Ishikawa whose life inspired Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor 15 years later “I took too big a gamble. lt’s a big laugh. It’s been a thirty year long spree.“ Ryuta realises there’s no way out of his life of crime, but finds himself conflicted even in his desire to ensure his brother and son remain free of it. His sense of futility is however wider, witnessing the death and decline of the traditional yakuza in itself the film climaxing in a moment of yakuza apocalypse as those apparently sick and tired of violence and intimidation finally fight back making it clear that organised crime is no longer welcome in the increasingly prosperous society. 

Skewing darker in tone than Okamoto’s subsequent entries into the “ankokugai” or “underworld” series, The Big Boss is lighter on his characteristically absurdist sense of humour but does feature a little of the exaggerated, cartoonish violence otherwise his hallmark while adding a note of irony as in his use of a sign outlining the numbers for police and ambulance or the sight of a bunch of children playing with guns while a hitman has a go on the swings. There is perhaps a sense of resistance to the conventionality of the material or that his relative inexperience, this being only his third film (the first two both romantic comedy vehicles for Izumi Yukimura) prevented him from fully embracing his anarchic spirit but The Big Boss nevertheless sows the seeds of his later career in its insistence on the absurdity of violence. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)