Eclipse (金環蝕, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1934)

Shimizu Eclipse 1Though most often remembered for his contribution to the cinema of children, Hiroshi Shimizu was also a practiced chronicler of his difficult times. 1934’s Eclipse (金環蝕, Kinkanshoku), unlike much of his other work from the period, avoids direct reference to Japan’s increasingly global or imperialist ambitions but paints its rapid shift towards “modernity” as dangerous and potentially tragic for the unlucky few who for one reason or another are unable to secure their passage towards a harmonious and prosperous future. Adopting the form of a classic romantic melodrama, Eclipse is a bittersweet exploration of corrupted social virtues which ends on an ironic note of defeated victory.

Shimizu begins in a traditional rural village which is all abuzz because prodigal son Seiji Kanda (Shiro Kanemitsu) – now a big shot lawyer in the city, is set to return and, rumour has it, is on the look out for a good country wife. Regarding a marriage to a promising young man like Seiji as the highest of prizes, the village women gossip about whom he might choose and correctly conclude Kinue Nishimura (Hiroko Kawasaki) is likely to be the front runner given her comparatively high education level, beauty, poise, and kindness. Kinue, however, has long been in love with her diffident cousin, Shukichi Osaki (Mitsugu Fujii), who now finds himself in a difficult position as Seiji’s best friend and the go-between charged with communicating his intention to marry. Called to a secret meeting by an old watermill, Kinue is shocked and offended when Shukichi proposes on behalf of someone else, strongly refusing the proposal and reminding him of all the times they had spent together during which she believed an attachment had been formed. Shukichi, whose family is impoverished, does not reject her affections but claims not to want to stand in the way of his friend’s romantic dreams.

Kinue, perhaps unwittingly setting up the ongoing drama, asks if she is to sacrifice her heart and marry a man she does not love and believes would ultimately be unhappy with a woman who yearns for someone else, in order that Shuikichi may continue to feel noble. In the end, Shukichi tries to make her decision for her by running away to the city in the hope of making a life for himself in the same way that Seiji has done. Kinue, brokenhearted, rejects the idea of marrying Seiji and runs off after him only to end up working as a bar girl under the bright lights of Tokyo. Meanwhile, Shukichi discovers that the bonds of obligation which carry so much weight the village are all but worthless in the city when his various contacts refuse to see him and he finds it impossible to gain promising employment. His big break comes when he is knocked over by the chauffeur of the man who just offered to pay his train fare back to the country and thereafter is taken into the family home as a tutor for the youngest son on the insistence of the forthright “modern girl” daughter, Tomone (Michiko Kuwano). Needless to say, the romantic drama isn’t over as Tomone also has a “cousin” who is in love with her and is also sought by Seiji who was her tutor while he was in college and she in school.

The values of the old world and the new are in constant conflict with each other though ultimately it is the failure to act decisively on one’s emotions which causes the greatest harm. Shukichi, knowing his family is poor and a marriage to Seiji the “better” social and financial option for Kinue, insists on nobly sacrificing himself in what he sees as her interest but in doing so rejects her own agency or right to choose her future, assuming she will simply passively pass into the arms of Seiji with no resistance. Kinue, however, resists by following him to Tokyo but, unable to find him, is forced into the sex trade to support herself. Meanwhile, Shukichi continues to break hearts in the city – firstly that of Tomone who has apparently fallen in love with him despite their class difference, but also that of Kayo (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) – the sister of the chauffeur who knocked him over. Still in love with Kinue he diffidently (but not categorically) rejects the affections of the two women but also refuses to act on his feelings for Kinue until he tries a last ditch attempt to “rescue” her from a fall into a life of prostitution through a worrying act of frustrated physical violence (something which ultimately fails).   

The final resolution is brought about by Seiji who, unlike Shukichi, has been able to reconcile his essential nobility with the forward moving nature of the times. Seiji, figuring out that he’d come between a loose arrangement between Kinue and her cousin, is full of remorse and steps back without a second thought, desiring only happiness for all rather than victory or conquest. Again, at the end, becoming the second choice match for Tomone, he returns to fix what he half feels he has broken by “rescuing” Kinue himself through an act of gentleman’s diplomacy and then giving his friend a good talking to. The problem becomes less of one of East and West, town and country, past and future, but personal integrity. Tomone laments that her “selfishness” has caused pain to others – something for which she is trying to make amends in becoming a “good wife” to Seiji, but this is a lesson Shukichi has been slow to learn. His failure to integrate his conflicting desires coupled with a feeling of social inferiority due to his family’s reduced circumstances and standing in the village has effectively created this web of broken hearts and ruined futures, all of which might have been avoided if he had been braver and chosen to stay at home with the woman he loved at his side, living a life of simplicity but with emotional integrity.

These twin destinies are reinforced by the final scenes which find Seiji and Tomone boarding a boat to the West to immense fanfare and celebration, while Kinue and Shukichi are perched aboard a baggage train, he standing and she sitting dejectedly, silent and apart as the rails speed away behind them. The city recedes and the chance of future happiness for our reunited lovers seems slim despite the conventionally romantic nature of their togetherness as they return home drenched in defeat. Seduced and betrayed by the bright lights of Tokyo, Kinue and Shukichi seem bound for the life they should have lived if they’d only been brave enough to fight for happiness at home rather than succumbing to the false promises of modernity but it remains to be seen if their time in the city can be “eclipsed” by a new hope for a traditional future or will continue to overshadow their simple and honest lives in the days to come.


I Hate But Love (憎いあンちくしょう, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1962)

I hate but love posterDoes “pure love” exist in the Japan of 1962, and if so what does it look like? Yujiro Ishihara, the poster boy for youthful rebellion, might not be the best person to ask but it’s his unfulfilled media superstar that ultimately determines to find out. In I Hate But Love (憎いあンちくしょう, Nikui Anchikusho) Koreyoshi Kurahara puts the jazz clubs and delinquency of The Warped Ones to one side for a Technicolor romp that owes more to Day/Hudson than it perhaps does to James Dean or Marlon Brando. Yet there is something mildly subversive in its low level criticism of Japan’s lurch towards the consumerist future, finding only emptiness in fame and success while the central couple’s deliberately repressed desires push them towards a point of both spiritual and physical exhaustion.

Daisaku (Yujiro Ishihara) and Noriko (Ruriko Asaoka) have been a couple for two years. Noriko is also Daisaku’s manager and has been with him since he was broke and an aspiring poet. Now he’s one of Japan’s top DJs and she looks after his schedule which is packed in the extreme – in fact it leaves him no time for sleeping between his radio show, TV appearances, and meetings in bars, not to mention a late night date starting at 2am! Raiding the local papers for a suitable human interest story they can flag up on the show, Noriko stumbles over the tale of a local woman who is looking for a “driver who understands humanism”. Intrigued, Daisaku and his producer Ichiro (Hiroyuki Nagato) set off to interview her but the woman doesn’t want to be involved with the media – she doesn’t want to sully her love! The fact of the matter is, Yoshiko (Izumi Ashikawa) has kept up a romance with a doctor in a rural town by letter alone and used all her savings to buy a jeep to help transport his patients more effectively. Yoshiko doesn’t need to see Toshio (Asao Koike) – her dashing doctor fiancé, she believes in their love and that’s good enough for her. She just needs someone to actually take the jeep to Kyushu where it is most needed.

Just at this point, Daisaku’s relationship with Noriko reaches a crisis point. Lovers for two years, they each feared the sparks would fade and so to keep them popping they’ve committed to a rule of no physical contact. Spark they do (though not always in a good way), but when trapped in Daisaku’s apartment one rainy afternoon and bored out of their minds they nearly give in – damaging the fragile balance they’ve managed to build through mutual rejection of their equally mutual attraction. Though Noriko remains committed to their plan for long term romance, the non-encounter pushes Daisaku into a profound state of crisis in pondering the nature of his relationship – does “pure love” exist, does he really “love” Noriko, what is the point and the purpose of their central bond of negation? Hoping to find all of that out, Daisaku makes a surprise on air announcement that he himself will drive Yoshiko’s truck to Kyushu and see what her Toshio does with that.   

Yoshiko and Noriko set themselves up as rivals – not for Daisaku’s heart but for the true nature of “love”. “Reclaiming” Daisaku’s Jaguar so she can chase after him, Noriko has a few words for Yoshiko, pointing out that she’s been patiently “building” her love with Daisaku for 737 days. Yoshiko looks at her pityingly – you don’t “build” love, she tells her, you just believe it. For Yoshiko her letters were enough, her love an act of faith, but for Noriko love is a process and an almost scientific endeavour filled with recordable and quantifiable data. Yet everything Noriko says about Daisaku is correct – she knows who he is and truly understands him, every part of him is welcome to her and so she is perfectly placed to find him off on his magic quest even if her desire to bring him back to the city is misplaced.

Daisaku’s journey puts them both through the ringer though their bond is never seriously in question. He runs and she follows, though neither of them can quite escape the net of the society in which they live. Daisaku’s flight is perhaps more from his micromanaged yet extremely comfortable life than it is just of a difficult romance. Taking to the road he wants to feel something, to know that there is something real out there. Unfortunately, even his attempt to embrace something “real” is subverted by his media buddies who secretly film him and air the footage like it’s all been a giant publicity stunt. Fearing that their cash cow is “drunk on humanism”, they ready a contingency plan to bring him back into the fold.

Ichiro tells Noriko that her desire to “tie Daisaku down” is not love but “female egotism”. What drives Noriko isn’t really a desire for control (Daisaku seemingly allows her enough of that), but a need to be needed and fear that Daisaku, now rich and famous, will eventually leave her. Paranoid their love will fail, she rejects its consummation. Yet faith alone is not enough, as Yoshiko painfully finds out on witnessing the disconnect between her imagined love created through her letters and the real flesh and blood man before her to whom she essentially has no real connection. Reaching the end of their journey, Daisaku and Noriko are forced together again, each abandoning some part of their Tokyo lives and personas to break through to something deeper and more essential. Their path takes them straight into a bizarre summer festival complete with giant floats and excited men in traditional Japanese underwear throwing water everywhere. When they finally reach their destination, their love transcends faith to become ritual, their ennui somehow transformed into an ironic celebration of life in fulfilled desire.   

Ichiro categorises Noriko and Daisaku as stingy children – defiantly saving the best for last. There is certainly something immature in their constant bickering and bargaining, the superstition that they can keep their love alive by continually rejecting it and repressing their desire for each other, but there’s also something faintly realistic in the messy grown-up commitment phobia of it all even if it joyfully strays into the absurd. Light and bright and breezy, Kurahara works in the darknesses of early ‘60s Japan from the destructive effects of celebrity and media manipulation to the emptiness of a life of excess but even if he doesn’t quite find “pure love” he does find something close to it in a perfect merger of faith and industry.


Intimidation (ある脅迫, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960)

Intimidation still 1Social class as a means of social control is rarely dealt with overtly in Japanese cinema, but it’s been there all along from the feudal concerns of the jidaigeki to the inherent unfairness of the post-war world which made so many false promises to ambitious young go-getters, misselling dreams of social mobility in a newly meritocratic society. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Intimidation (ある脅迫, Aru Kyohaku) is a noirish tale of blackmail and inexorable fall, but the title refers not just to the act literal act but to the oppression of a society in which the unscrupulous prosper and friendship, even love, is willingly sacrificed for the superficial comforts of wealth and status.

Bank manager Takita (Nobuo Kaneko) is riding high. He’s just been awarded an important new promotion but his success is less down to his innate talents, than to the fact he’s married the chairman’s daughter, Kumiko (Yoko Kosono). While Takita went to university and catapulted himself into the upper middle-classes, his childhood friend Nakaike (Ko Nishimura) only graduated middle school and has been working hard as a clerk in the same bank ever since. To make matters worse, Kumiko was once Nakaike’s sweetheart and Takita the lover of Nakaike’s sister, Yukie (Mari Shiraki). Where Nakaike is meek and earnest, Takita has abused every privilege he’s been given – illegal loans, backhanders, dodgy business deals and even an affair or two have left him wide open to blackmail. Takita’s party is about to end – Kumaki (Kojiro Kusanagi), a Tokyo hood, has proof of Takita’s improprieties and he threatens to expose all if he doesn’t get a sizeable amount of cash. It’s money that Takita doesn’t have, but Kumaki has a plan – Takita needs to rob his own bank. After all, who would expect the bank manager to raid his own vault?

Takita’s rise is as much down to societal corruption as it is his own lack of moral integrity. He’s got on by the traditionally “corrupt” ways that society condones – i.e. a dynastic marriage. He may have worked hard to get into university and get a good job that would enable him to be the kind of match a middle-class father would seek to arrange for his daughter, but everything after that is as straightforward and inevitable as a pair of train tracks. Takita has made it – his father-in-law will take care of everything else, all he has to do is sit back and avoid making any catastrophic mistakes. Perhaps because of the oppressive simplicity of his life, Takita has a lot going on the side – the “playing with fire” that he jokes about in his affairs and illicit backdoor deals are perhaps his ways of bucking the system, laughing at if not quite biting the hand that feeds. 

Meanwhile, mild-mannered Nakaike has been patiently muddling through waiting for a break that society just does not want to give him. Leaving school early (for circumstances which are never revealed but probably easy to guess) has defined his life prospects. Takita went to university, married Nakaike’s teenage sweetheart, and then became his boss – it isn’t fair, but it’s how things work. Not content with swiping Nakaike’s prospects, Takita continues to lord it over him, pretending to be “friends” like old times but belittling Nakaike behind his back and even continuing to carry on with his sister Yukie who has never given up on the childhood sweetheart who threw her over for career opportunity. Nakaike is bound by the superficial rules of society and men like Takita laugh at him for it, they think he’s a fool who doesn’t understand how the system works and only exists as a mechanism for them to exploit.

When Takita gets Nakaike roaring drunk as a part of his nefarious plan, Nakaike admits that he always found Kumiko intimidating – he has a natural deference to and mild fear of her upper-class elegance. Takita has no such qualms – he wants into that club, and he doesn’t care what he has to do or who he has to step on to get there. Yukie blames her brother for their present situation. She thinks his meekness makes him an obvious doormat, that if he had any kind of spine he wouldn’t have let Takita walk all over him and marry Kumiko which would mean she wouldn’t be trapped in the never-ending torment that is being Takita’s mistress rather than his wife. Playing lady Macbeth she needles and provokes her brother, though even if he should snap there’s not a lot that he could do.

Kurahara begins with the passage of a train and later ends on the same image. Our two protagonists are each railroaded towards their fates even if they think they can make a break for pursuing their own destinies. They both think they’ve won, got ahead of the other and the various things which chased them, beaten the intimidation of the society in which they live which attempts to “railroad” them onto a set of pre-ordained courses, but all each of them do is lose. The train rolls silently onward, there is no point of disembarkation save that which it allows, and its conductors are everywhere.


Robbery scene (dialogue free)

The Incorrigible (悪太郎, AKA The Bastard, Seijun Suzuki, 1963)

(C) Nikkatsu 1963

(C) Nikkatsu 1963Seijun Suzuki often credits 1963’s Youth of the Beast as the real turning point in his directorial career, believing that it marked the first time he was ever really able to indulge his taste for the surreal to the extent that he truly wanted. The Incorrigible (悪太郎, Akutato, AKA Bastard), completed directly after Youth of the Beast, is another turning point of a kind in that it marks Suzuki’s first collaboration with set designer Takeo Kimura who would accompany him through his ‘60s masterpieces contributing to the uniquely theatrical aesthetic which came to be the director’s trademark.

Inspired by an autobiographical novel by Toko Kon, The Incorrigible of the title, Togo Konno (Ken Yamauchi), is a young man coming of age in the early Taisho era. He’s of noble birth and enjoys both wealth and privilege – something of which he is well aware, but is also of a rebellious, individualist character believing himself above the normal rules of civil society. Expelled from his posh Kyoto school after getting into a dalliance with a teacher’s daughter (she’s been sent off to a convent), Konno is then abruptly abandoned by his mother who has tricked him into travelling to a remote rural town where a friend of a family friend has promised to reform him at his military middle school. Konno thinks he’s too clever for this, he makes a point of deliberately failing his entrance exam in the mistaken belief that failing to get in would make him free to travel to Tokyo and start life on his own. He’s wrong, and failure to pass the exam would only entail being held back a year. Konno capitulates and agrees to start his new life as one among many in a backward little village in Southern Japan.

Though set in the Taisho era, Konno’s youth seems to suffer from the same problems that would plague the young men of 30 years later. His school is proto-militarist and hot on discipline. The boys are trained to be strong rather than smart and have inherited all the petty prejudices of their parents which they hone to the point of weaponry. The “Public Morals” department operates almost like a mini military police for students – making routine inspections of students’ home lives and keeping an eye out for “illicit” activities round and about town. Konno sees himself as grown man with a rebellious heart – he smokes openly, keeps a picture of the girl who got him into this mess in his room, and tells bawdy, probably made up stories about how he lost his virginity to a geisha (for free). He will not bow to the morality police, or any authority but his own.

Authority is something Konno seems to be good at. Picked on for his continuing preference for Japanese dress, Konno neatly deflects the attentions of the Public Morals division and comes out on top. When they raid his room and complain about his novel reading habit, he shouts them all down and gets them to sit on the floor while he “educates” them about foreign literature. Militarism has not yet arrived, but anti-intellectualism is already on the up and up. Konno’s love of literature is one of his many “deficient” qualities as teachers and students alike bemoan his “frivolous” hobbies, seeing his sensitivity and disregard for the commonly accepted ideals as signs of his unwelcome “unmanliness”.

Konno’s other big problem is, as might be expected, girls. Having been in town only moments Konno takes a fancy to doctor’s daughter Emiko (Masako Izumi) – his desire is only further inflamed after catching sight of her in the book shop and realising she too has bought a copy of Strindberg’s Red Room. She doesn’t care for Strindberg’s misanthropy, but a bond is quickly forged between the two sensitive souls trapped in this “traditional” small town where feelings are forbidden and youth constrained by social stricture.

It is, however, a love doomed to fail. The majority of Suzuki’s early work for Nikkatsu had been contemporary youth dramas, yet the artfully composed black and white photography of the Taisho setting is a melancholic affair which rejects both the rage of the modern action dramas and Suzuki’s trademark detached irony. Using frequent dissolves, The Incorrigible conjures a strong air of nostalgia and regret, a sad love story without end. Yet at its conclusion it makes sure to inject a note of uplifting inspiration as our hero wanders off into a fog of confusion, filled with a passion for pursuing truth and vowing to live without losing hope.


The Incorrigible is the fourth of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (峠を渡る若い風, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass posterSeijun Suzuki made his first colour film in 1960 – Fighting Delinquents starred young matinee idol Koji Wada as a noble hearted construction worker with a temper who suddenly learns that he is the heir to an aristocratic fortune. Suzuki would make another two youth dramas starring Wada before getting to 1961’s The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (峠を渡る若い風, Toge wo Wataru Wakai Kaze, AKA Breeze on the Ridge) – this slice of colourful anarchy is a world away from Nikkatsu’s usual action fare though it does make space for the odd pop song or two.

Naive and cheerful university student Shintaro (Koji Wada) loves to travel and has taken off to wander around alone during the summer break. Getting thrown off a regular city bus for not having the cash for a ticket (his request to defer payment is not looked on kindly), Shintaro catches a lift with a group of travelling performers heading into the summer festival in the next town. Once there Shintaro showcases his lack of forethought once again when he happily sets down to start selling some of the “merchandise” he was given as a salary when the last place he worked at went bust. Not having realised that one generally needs a permit to sell goods in a market, Shintaro gets into an argument about the evils of monopolies and freedom verses regulation with the guy on the next stand all of which brings him to the attention of the yakuza. Luckily for Shintaro, he’s run into the nice kind of yakuza who just think he’s funny and invite him to travel on with them for a bit. Being so essentially good hearted and innocent, Shintaro agrees without thinking about all the reasons travelling around with a bunch of shady yakuza might not be a good idea.

Connecting with both the yakuza and the travelling players, Shintaro becomes involved in a number of interconnected crises – the biggest being the fate of the performers when a local gangster type swipes their headline act. The head of the troupe, Kinyo Imai (Shin Morikawa), is a traditional magician who performs in exaggerated Chinese dress complete with Fu Manchu moustache, but it doesn’t really matter how good he is, the rural audience is only here for the strip show. No stripper means no bookings which Kinyo knew already but it’s still a huge blow to his self esteem to realise that his magic doesn’t do the business anymore, especially as he’d always been conflicted about the strippers anyway.

Shintaro is one of Nikkatsu’s wandering heroes but unlike most he’s a cheerful soul who wanders out of a sense of curiosity and adventure rather than a need to escape something or someone at home. He likes meeting new people, even if the relationships are transitory and necessarily shallow, and treats everyone he meets with kindness and an open mind. In return he meets only kind and open people – even the yakuza are a generally decent sort who treat him like a new friend and can be relied upon to come to his aid if called. The only note of sourness arrives in the form of shady gangster Akita (Hiroshi Kondo) who pinches the troupe’s stripper, and their sometime patron who makes an indecent proposal to Kinyo as a kind of bet to decide whether he continues to fund their moribund performing career.

This being a regular program picture there’s not a lot of scope for experimentation but as it’s also a slightly odd entry to the Nikkatsu catalogue Suzuki does have the freedom to spice things up in his own particular way. Making the best use of colour film, Suzuki has a ball capturing Japan’s unique summer festival culture with its giant floats and cheerful market atmosphere. Wandering around the festival in a lengthy POV shot manages to exoticise something which would be quite ordinary to many viewers (at least those not born in large cities) but Suzuki’s other innovations are mostly relegated to one extremely interesting sequence in which Shintaro has a paint fight with yakuza he’s fallen out with (don’t worry, they both end up laughing like school boys). Every time Shintaro gets hit with paint, the entire screen tints to match neatly intensifying the effect and marking an early example of Suzuki’s love of colour play. Warm and goodnatured, The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass is a gentle tale of youth finding its path but also one in which Suzuki takes advantage of the travelling motif to break from the regular programming and present an anarchic carnivale of music and song.


The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass is the second of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

o0500070913581105946Nikkatsu’s main stock in trade during its 50s/60s heyday was the youth movie – films which captured the frustrations of being young (and usually male) in the scrappy post-war years. It’s a surprise then that the hero of Seijun Suzuki’s “action” movie Take Aim at the Police Van (13号待避線より その護送車を狙え, Jusango Taihisen Yori: Sono Gososha wo Nerae) is a genial middle-aged man who’s more Cary Grant in North by Northwest than Japanese James Dean. A programme picture, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the movie on paper but it’s among the first in which Suzuki indulges his talent for the surreal including a number of fantastically choreographed action sequences.

The film opens with a warning as a sniper trains his sights on a set of road signs which state that many accidents have occurred in this area. The one which is about to befall unlucky prison warden Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) is however entirely man made. Momentarily confused by the figure of a woman watching the bus from the roadside, Tamon is blindsided when the sniper opens fire and kills several of the passengers while another, Goro (Shoichi Ozawa), cowers in the back. Tamon is suspended for six months but isn’t particularly upset about it. He’s not a detective and he knows he should leave it to the professionals, but he’s desperate to know why someone would bother attack such a lowly crew of petty criminals. Wondering who the woman was and how she fits into the case, who the snipers were aiming for and if they got them, and perhaps wanting to assuage his own feelings of powerlessness during the attack Tamon gets on the case.

Tamon is not your typical Nikkatsu action hero. He’s a little on the old side for starters – hardly the marquee face the studio was beginning to favour with its collection of “Diamond Guys”. He’s also not a policeman or a detective, he has no idea what he’s doing or what he’s getting himself into. What Tamon is is a righteous man. Almost immediately he’s sucked into the seedy underbelly of late ‘50s Tokyo with its strip clubs, trafficked women, and petty gangsters. This world is alien to him and he’s disgusted by it. Meeting the female manager of the “talent agency” which supplies in-room strippers to sleazy hotels where businessmen go when they’ve told their wives they’re at a conference, Tamon is horrified to hear her admit she thinks of the girls as “merchandise”. He pauses to explain to her that he always thought of the felons he looked after as “humans” rather than “criminals”, no matter what it was they’d done. Such naive humanitarianism is too much for Yuko (Misako Watanabe) – she’s instantly smitten, which is a problem because it means she needs to play both sides of her own game.

The pair end up in an uneasy alliance as Tamon’s goodness begins to work its magic. An unlikely white knight, Tamon finds himself wanting to save all the ladies threatened by “Akiba’s” dastardly plan from the icy charms of Yuko to Goro’s cabaret girl Tsunako (Mari Shiraki), and another young one, Shoko (Kyoko Natsu), about to get sucked into the Akiba web. What he discovers is a nasty trail of exploitation running from the bars and clubs of the city centre to the genial holiday spa towns where the moderately wealthy travel to pursue their discrete pleasures.

Tamon may be a little older than your average Nikkatsu action star, but he’s also a perfect fit for a film noir hero in wrong man mould. Tamon is not on the run, but he is out of place in this world, perhaps harking back to a presumably more innocent age where honesty and compassion still counted for something. He views his job as a prison warden as a public service, believing that there is goodness in everyone and it’s the job of people like him to find it and bring it to the surface. This he does at least seem to accomplish with Yuko who (despite her role in events so far) seems to have “reformed” and intends to follow Tamon’s lead in taking her “talent agency” in a more legitimate direction. 

Suzuki often claimed that Youth of the Beast was the first of his films where he was able to fully embrace his madcap desires, but Take Aim at the Police Van contains a fair few Suzuki touches of its own from the bold opening sequence shot through the sights of a sniper rifle, to the show girl killed by an arrow to her bare breast, bizarre murder by petrol tanker set piece, and exciting train station finale. Keeping the camera fluid, Suzuki captures a world in motion, seemingly running away from our noble hero until justice, in the form of an unstoppable steam train, finally arrives.


Attack on the police van clip (English subtitles)