Velvet Hustler (紅の流れ星, Toshio Masuda, 1967)

Perhaps overlooked in comparison with his better known contemporaries, Toshio Masuda was a bankable talent at Nikkatsu directing some of the studio’s biggest box office hits largely thanks to his long association with tentpole star Yujiro Ishihara. Nine years on from their collaborative debut Rusty Knife, however, times had perhaps begun to change. Featuring vibrant colour production design by Tokyo Drifter’s Takeo Kimura, a frequent Seijun Suzuki collaborator, 1967’s Velvet Hustler (紅の流れ星, Kurenai no Nagareboshi, AKA Like a Shooting Star) is a reworking of Masuda’s own Red Pier, itself inspired by Julien Duvivier’s 1937 French thriller Pepé le Moko, with Tetsuya Watari in the role originally filled by Ishihara. Apparently drawing inspiration from Godard’s Breathless, Velvet Hustler is a thoroughly post-modern retake, a parodic tale of gangster ennui and post-war emptiness in which rising economic prosperity has brought with it only despair. 

When we first meet petty gangster Goro (Tetsuya Watari), he’s coolly standing by, leaning on a fencepost like a bored gunslinger as he waits for the perfect getaway vehicle. Jumping into a fancy red convertible which it seems has already been stolen by the young man who parked it in this packed car park, the wires handily hanging striped and exposed, Goro barrels along the highway and and performs an infinitely efficient drive-by shooting on a rival gang boss. According to the man who hired him, Goro was only supposed to cause serious injury, not death, but as he points out if the guy insists on dying that’s hardly his problem. Taking his paycheque, Goro agrees to lie low in Kobe for the next six months after which his boss will come and get him. A year later, however, and he’s still there doing not much of anything, hanging out with the local kids and acting as a procurer dragging sailors on shore leave into gang-run clubs where Americans get into fights with Vietnamese émigrés. So desperate for escape are they that Goro’s underling even suggests they go to war, later thinking better of it when he remembers seeing horrific photos from the front.  

In a convenient but unsatisfying relationship with bar hostess Yukari (Kayo Matsuo), Goro explains that it’s not that he doesn’t like her, but he’s bored, “bored with fooling around with women”, but also of the business of living. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, and then it comes up again, every day all the same. His life has become completely meaningless and he has no idea what to do about it. He longs to go back to Tokyo, but is trapped in this strange Kobe limbo land, an end of the line sea port in which there is ironically no sense of escape. He doesn’t know it yet, but there’s a killer (Jo Shishido) on his trail, a killer who eventually reminds Goro that even if he kills him first another man will come. The bullets you fire are aimed squarely at yourself, Goro’s destiny is already set. There is only one way out of Kobe and it doesn’t lead back to Tokyo. 

Meanwhile, another possibility presents itself in the beautiful Keiko (Ruriko Asaoka), a temporary visitor from the capital looking for her missing fiancé presumed to have done a bunk with her father’s money. Keiko is a distinctly cool yet self-assured figure, generating an instant connection with the affable gangster at once reassured by a sympathetic mama-san that Goro is good but also warned that he’s still a yakuza and as such no good for a smart young woman like her. Keiko thinks that Tokyo is pretentious and boring, confused by Goro’s insistence on getting back there but like him perhaps in waiting. “I love you to death” she later ironically confesses while simultaneously insisting that men and women are different. There is no escape for her. Goro is tired of running but refuses to be handcuffed, choosing perhaps the only path to freedom presented to him. 

A nihilistic tale of gangster ennui in which life itself no longer has value, Velvet Hustler is a curiously cheerful affair despite its essential melancholy, Goro and Keiko sparring in a romantic war of attrition while he almost flirts with the dogged detective (Tatsuya Fuji) determined to bring him down. The kitschy production design gives way to Antonioni-esque shots of a strangely empty city while an ethereal sequence of dissolves eventually leaves the pair alone on the dance floor as if to imply their single moment of romance is but a brief dream of emotional escape. The trappings of post-war success are everywhere from Keiko’s elegant outfits to the cute red sports car and the weird club where Goro dad dances in front of his minions, not so much older than them but clearly out of place in this distinctly unhip seaside bar, but finally all there is is a dead end and an infinite emptiness the embrace of which is, perhaps, the only viable path to freedom. 


I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Tai Kato, 1968)

Nephew of Sadao Yamanaka, Tai Kato joined Toho as an apprentice in 1937, returning after the war training under Daisuke Ito and Akira Kurosawa, but later moved to Toei where he became closely associated with ninkyo eiga yakuza movies and jidaigeki. From the mid-1960s, however, he made several movies at Shochiku which had, it has to be said, a house style that was almost the polar opposite with a clear focus on polite, family-friendly melodrama. 1968’s I, the Executioner (みな殺しの霊歌, Minagoroshi no Reika) meanwhile is a surprisingly dark affair even among the grittier examples of Shochiku’s similarly themed B-movie thrillers, an avant-garde noir and proto-giallo in which the fugitive, serial killer antihero sees himself as an agent of divine justice in a hellish and immoral post-war landscape. 

Kato opens with a shocking scene of sexualised violence in which a woman is knocked unconscious, stripped, bound with telephone cord, and finally revived, forced to write down the names of four other women before being brutally raped and murdered by a killer whose voice we have not yet heard nor face seen. The police are mystified, attributing the woman’s death to the fact that she had worked as a bar hostess and maybe things like this are an occupational hazard for women who are surrounded by too many men. Her landlord, however, laments that hers is the second death to occur recently after a laundry boy threw himself off the roof. All things considered, he wishes the boy had picked somewhere else. 

The police have no reason to connect the two unfortunate events and so remain largely clueless, but we gradually become aware that the killer, Kawashima (Makoto Sato), is targeting the women because he holds them directly responsible for the boy’s death. He is the inspector that calls, avenging the death of this young man who, he has learned, like him hailed from Hokkaido and had come to the city at only 16 years old to earn money to support his family, saving almost all of his wages in the hope of opening a shop. Kato shows us scenes of a city under construction, a land of girders casting shadows on the ground like prison bars trapping men like these who are building the new Japan but will be discarded as soon the job is done and their labour no longer so much in demand. Kawashima has another reason for living like this, but he perhaps admires something pure and innocent in the desire of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune so that he might take care of those he loves and that this world betrayed that desire is something he finds impossible to forgive.

The five women have apparently done quite well for themselves, despite the fact that more than one of them has worked on the fringes of the sex trade. Their treatment of the boy is attributed to their boredom in the relative ease of their lives as monied women with little to occupy their time other than getting their kicks abusing the less powerful. It’s an uncomfortable role reversal that places women in a position of power and then sees them abuse it in the exact same way that men do, slinging back the same pithy justifications that men offer for sexual violence while the police meditate on the relative connotations of rape when the word is applied to a man at the hands of women rather than the other way around. If it were their sister, they could understand the desire to kill the men who had done it but a part of them struggles to see that a teenage boy may still find unwanted sexual contact a traumatic enough experience to push him towards suicide. 

Yet Kawshima appears to have no real connection to the boy, and his “revenge” is also a product of his misogyny in that as we later learn he also has reason to feel betrayed by womanhood and is already on the run from previous crime. Nevertheless, he is drawn to the innocent Haruko (Chieko Baisho), a girl-next-door type who works in his favourite ramen restaurant, only to discover that she too has a dark and violent past which may be why she seems to be drawn to him. He struggles with himself, but believes that he is taking revenge on a brutalising society defined by violence and abuse while sublimating his sense of emasculation in the face of women’s growing social and sexual freedoms in the post-war era. It is perhaps the post-war era which is cast as the major villain, one of the women later escaping her protective custody to dance furiously a hip nightclub only to return to the scene of her crime while refusing to see that she has done anything so “wrong” as to merit this kind of persecution. 

“The cycle of divine punishment must be fulfilled” Kawashima finally laments, acknowledging his grim place within this series of post-war tragedies. Surprisingly avant-garde, Kato experiments with blown out negatives, extreme close up, and deep focus mixed with his characteristic low angle composition to add to the sense of noirish dread which paints the modern city as an inescapable hellscape while even the romantic place of refuge shared by Kawashima and Haruko is a gothic moorland lit by moonlight and filled with eerie mist. Lurid and sweaty, the film has a grim sense of humour even in its oppressive atmosphere with a running gag devoted to the lead investigator’s painful case of piles, but its overriding fatalism nevertheless offers the hero a sense of redemption if only in acceptance of his narrative destiny. 


Edogawa Rampo’s Beast in the Shadows ( 江戸川乱歩の陰獣, Tai Kato, 1977)

Edogawa Rampo (a clever allusion to master of the gothic and detective story pioneer Edgar Allan Poe) has provided ample inspiration for many Japanese films from Blind Beast to Horrors of Malformed Men. So synonymous with kinky terror is his name, that it finds itself appended into the title of this 1977 adaptation of his novel Beast in the Shadows (江戸川乱歩の陰獣, Edogawa Rampo no Inju) by veteran director Tai Kato best known for his work in the yakuza genre. Mixing classic European detective intrigue with a more typically Japanese obsession with method over motive, Beast in the Shadows, like much of Edogawa Rampo’s work twists and turns around the idea of atypical sexuality, one side cerebral and another physical as the “Westernised” sadomasochism of the heroine’s husband becomes the driving force of the narrative.

Our hero, Koichiro Samukawa (Teruhiko Aoi), is a best selling author who likes to describe himself as the creator of “serious” mystery novels. In this he contrasts himself favourably with the coming younger generation who rely on sensationalised tricks and twists rather than the intricately plotted, traditionally constructed crime stories which Samukawa prides himself on writing. The particular object of his rage is a recently successful rival, Shundei Oe, who is making quite a splash in literary circles in part due to his mysterious persona. Refusing all in-person contact, Oe’s whereabouts are completely unknown and though he supplies a “real name” at the back of each book, there is great speculation as to who he really is, how he lives, and where he might be.

Down south to supervise a movie shoot based on one of his novels, Samukawa is thrilled to run into a fan – particularly as she’s such a beautiful young woman. Shizuko (Yoshiko Kayama) is the wife of a wealthy businessman, Oyamada, who has recently returned from an extended spell abroad though he doesn’t share her passion for literature even if he brings home such luxuries as fancy European gloves. The relationship moves beyond mutual appreciation when Shizuko asks for Samukawa’s help in investigating a series of threatening letters she’s been receiving from an old boyfriend who may or may not also be stalking her. The real kicker is that the letters purport to be from Shundei Oe – apparently the pen name being used by a man who fell deeply in love with Shizuko when he was a student but couldn’t take no for an answer when his creepy behaviour became too much for the then school girl. Though Samukawa is sure the letters are all talk and commits himself unmasking Oe for the perverted cretin he is, Shizuko’s husband is eventually murdered just as the letters threatened.

Though the final twist is one which most seasoned mystery lovers will have seen coming, Kato keeps the audience on its toes with plenty of intrigue and red herrings as Samukawa attempts to discover the truth behind the death of Shizuko’s husband as well as taking the opportunity to indulge in a little intellectual vanity by unmasking his rival. The movie subplot quickly gets forgotten but Samukawa is also helped/hindered by his publisher, Honda (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who keeps reminding him about the looming deadline for his latest work. The case at hand provides ample distraction for the harried writer whose writer’s block is only made worse by thoughts of Shundei Oe’s growing success and his resentment of this new, sensationalised form of crime novel which seems to be eclipsing his own.

If the way he acts in “real life” is anything to go by, Samukawa’s detective novels owe much to the European tradition but still, there’s a persistent fear of the foreign underlining much of the proceedings despite the heavy presence of Westernised clothing, music and culture which seems to diffuse itself throughout daily life. Shizuko’s husband may have just returned from abroad but it seems he brought back much more with him than some fancy gloves and an elegant English mistress (pointedly named Helen Christie). The English style riding crop in Oyamada’s study is not mere affectation but the cause of the nasty looking wound on Shizuko’s shoulder which first caught Samukawa’s attention. Oyamada’s sadistic tendencies are posited as a credible reason he could himself be masquerading as Oe, getting off on driving his wife half crazy with fear, but his eventual murder would seem to rule that out.

Nevertheless the game is one of pleasure and pain as Samukawa comes to the realisation that he is integral to the plot. Challenged by his literary rival to a game of minds, Samukawa is putting his detective abilities to the test as his rival is writing their latest story in reality rather than on the page. Love, lust, betrayal, violence and tragedy all come together for a classic gothic detective story which looks ahead to noir with its melancholy fatalism yet remains resolutely within the dark and ghoulish world of the gothic potboiler. Kato shoots a prestige picture with the undercurrent of repressed eroticism in his strange low level angles and unusual compositions which bind, tie and constrain the elusive Shizuko within the window panes and doorways of her home. Light levels fluctuate wildly, isolating the haunted protagonists in their supernatural gloom until we hit the expressionism of the theatrical finale which takes place in an entirely red, almost glowing attic space. The atmosphere is one of profound unease as Oe is thought to be perpetually watching, hidden somewhere in the house, out of sight.

The Beast in the Shadows does not just refer to the unseen voyeur but to the repressed eroticism which his actions symbolise and is perhaps brought out in the various sadomasochistic relationships created between each of the protagonists. Then again, where are we in all this – sitting in the dark, watching, undetected, seeing things we had no right to see. Kato takes our own voyeuristic tendencies and serves them back to us with visual flair in a late career masterpiece which perfectly captures Edogawa Rampo’s gothic world of repressed desire and brings it to its cinematic climax as two detectives go head to head in a game so high stakes neither of them quite realised what it was they were playing.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)

Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

nikutai_no_mon_2_film-1600x900-c-defaultWhat are you supposed to do when you’ve lost a war? Your former enemies all around you, refusing to help no matter what they say and there are only black-marketers and gangsters where there used to be merchants and craftsmen. Everyone is looking out for themselves, everyone is in the gutter. How are you supposed to build anything out of this chaos? Perhaps you aren’t, but you have to go one living, somehow. The picture of the immediate post-war world which Suzuki paints in Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Nikutai no Mon) is fairly hellish – crowded, smelly marketplaces thronging with desperate people. Based on a novel by Taijiro Tamura (who also provided the source material for Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute), Gate of Flesh has its lens firmly pointed at the bottom of the heap and resolutely refuses to avert its gaze.

A nervous young woman, clearly tired, starving and alone wanders through a marketplace in desperation before a yakuza offers to buy her something to eat. She is wary but has little choice. Soon after she meets toughened prostitute Sen who is the de-facto head of a small group of streetwalkers committed to supporting and protecting each other. They have few rules but the biggest one is no giving it away for free. Maya joins their “merry” band and things are going OK for them until they make the fateful decision to take in a wounded ex-soldier on the run from the American military police. Shin puts a great big wedge between the members of the group, deepening the cracks which were present all along. Sure enough, Maya starts to fall for this damaged man threatening to fall foul of the gang’s single taboo. When you’ve lived like this, without hope, without a future, can you ever go back to being a “real human being” ever again?

Make no mistake, this is a ruined world. Almost post-apocalyptic, it’s populated by the starving and the desperate. The sweet potato seller is king here – the working girls are depicted like packs of rabid animals, descending on any passing male ready to extract any amount of loose change which they immediately run out to thrust into the hands of anyone who has food. The great horror is hunger.

The other great horror is, of course, violence and particularly male violence against women. Maya is assaulted early on and a truck carrying two army officers and a priest tries to make a quick escape after noticing her lying wounded by the roadside. The Americans aren’t going to help her, she’s just another raped Japanese woman after all, but the priest stops and offers another kind of salvation shining from his dangling crucifix. He repeatedly turns up later and tries to convince Maya to come back to church but you can’t live on a communion wafer alone and eventually Maya puts a definite end to the idea of any kind of religious solution to her predicament.

Sex is business for the woman under Sen’s command. They sell their bodies, hence the prohibition on giving them away. Breaking the rules will get you cruelly beaten and humiliated before being thrown out of the group and it’s near impossible to survive alone. The other women have all been injured by the war, they’re all among those left behind. One of them, Machiko, stands a little to the side as a middle class war widow rigidly sticking to her kimono and dreaming of becoming someone’s wife again. Needless to say, she and Sen do not always see eye to eye as Machiko’s desire to return to a more innocent age conflicts with Sen’s hard nosed pragmatism.

This is Japan in defeat. The girls live in a warren of ruined buildings haunted by visions of the past. Shin has returned from the war to a land devoid of hope. He’s a broken man and, as the woman have been “reduced” to prostitution, he has been “forced” into crime. There aren’t any real people here anymore, just animals willing to do whatever it takes just to stay alive.

When Suzuki was given this assignment, they wanted him to make a soft-core exploitation pic full of the sleazy lives of the red light district. Suzuki doesn’t give them that, he gives them another round of beautifully composed, surrealist social commentary in which the downtrodden citizens of Japan are defeated for a second time by the corrupting influences of the American occupation. The final shot of the ascendant Stars and Stripes flapping in the wind while the Japanese flag lies drowned in the muddy river speaks for itself and though Suzuki shows us those defiantly trying to live his prognosis for them is not particularly hopeful. He uses multiple exposure here more than in any other film as the past continues to haunt the traumatised populace in quite a literal way where one scene of degradation leads on to another. Extended metaphor, surrealist examination of the post-war world and also the low level exploitation feature Suzuki was hired to direct (albeit in more ways than one) Gate of Flesh proves one of his most complicated and accomplished features even given his long and varied career.


Gate of Flesh is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from The Criterion Collection.