Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Short clip (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Ballad posterA year after his box office smash The Inugami Family, Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi with The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Akuma no Temari Uta). Like many a Kindaichi mystery, Devil’s Ballad finds him called upon to delve back into the past to satisfy an ageing detective’s anxiety about an old case, only to be faced with a series of new ones as a consequence. This time, however, the mystery leans less on buried secrets than deeply held grudges, betrayals, and lingering feudal feuds as the post-war society tries and fails to free itself from ancient oppressions.

The film opens with a tryst between two adolescent lovers in the ominously named “Devil’s Skull Village” in 1950. Yasu (Yoko Takahashi), the girl, is at pains to let her boyfriend, Kanao (Koji Kita), know that she is keen to take the relationship to the next level but he is old fashioned and wants to wait until their union is formalised. The pair are interrupted by some of their friends who are in the middle of planning a celebration for a visit from a girl who moved to the city, Chie (Akiko Nishina). Meanwhile, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) has arrived at the inn owned by Kanao’s mother Rika (Keiko Kishi) on invitation from a retired policeman, Isokawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who wants Kindaichi to look into the murder of Rika’s husband twenty years ago. Isokawa, then a young rookie, is convinced that Rika’s husband was not the victim but the murderer and the corpse actually belonged to another man entirely – Onda, a drifter who defrauded half the village with a wreath making scam.

Rika and her children – 20-year-old Kanao and his younger sister Satoko (Eiko Nagashima) who has prominent facial birthmarks and rarely leaves the house, came to the village with her husband and are therefore slightly divorced from the longstanding social rivalries. The village has two noble families – the Yuras and the Nires. Feeling the need to modernise, the Nires bet everything on vineyards and it paid off. The Yuras, by contrast, were defrauded by Onda’s wreath scam and lost their fortune and social standing. Yasu, Kanao’s girlfriend, is a daughter of the Yuras, but the Nire’s have been petitioning Rika for quite some time to have her son marry their daughter, Fumiko (Yukiko Nagano), who also has a crush on him (though this is largely irrelevant to her father’s dynastic ambitions). When the younger generation start getting bumped off in ways eerily similar to a local folk song, Kindaichi and Isokawa are on the case, wondering if these new murders have anything to do with their old one.

Despite its 1950 setting, Devil’s Ballad is unusual in resolutely making an irrelevance of the war which only receives a brief mention as an explanation for why some of the case files have been destroyed and for why marriage is such a hot button issue given the lack of men and abundance of women. Nevertheless, the crimes span a turbulent 20 years of Japanese history with the original murder taking place in the early ‘30s during a period of economic instability following the Manchurian Incident. In the socially conservative pre-war era, it seems Onda also got around and may have fathered several illegitimate children with women in the village, some of them noble, some not. These buried secrets seem primed to bubble to the surface now that the children are coming of age and marriage again becomes an issue as worried parents try to think of acceptable ways to block potentially “inappropriate” matches without sending their children off into ruinous elopements or tipping off the wrong people that their kids may not be their kids.

The crimes themselves, old fashioned as they are, are partly reactions to a changing society. We discover that the reason Rika and her husband were forced to come back to the village was that their showbiz careers were stalling – she was a vaudeville performer specialising in shamisen, and he a “benshi” (narrator of silent films) who became convinced his job was obsolete after witnessing a subtitled print of Morocco. Likewise, the two rival families cannot let go of their petty provincial privileges, and as Kanao angrily snaps back at his mother, Japan is now a democratic country and he is free to choose his own wife at a time of his own choosing with or without parental blessing. This remote village is perhaps isolated from the privations of the post-war world but it’s also stuck in the past, hung up on past transgressions and unable to move forward into the new era. However, the primary motivations for murder are as old as time – guilt, humiliation, and self preservation.

Ichikawa keeps things simple but splices in a few strange, avant-garde sequences of kokeshi dolls menacingly bouncing balls coupled with shifts to black and white, fast-paced reaction shots, and stuttering still frame sequences all while Kindaichi showers innocent passersby with his famous dandruff, the idiot police officer continues to offer ridiculous theories while his sergeant dutifully follows him around, and the local bobby perfects a line in hilarious pratfalls. Overlong at two and a half hours and falling prey to the curse of the prestige crime drama in spoiling its mystery through casting, the Devil’s Ballad may not be the best of the Kindaichi mysteries but offers enough of a satisfying twist to prove worthy of the Kindaichi name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hibari Ohako: Ojo Kichisa (ひばり十八番お嬢吉三, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Ojo Kichisa still 1Following Benten Kozo, Ojo Kichisa (ひばり十八番お嬢吉三, Hibari Obako Ojo Kichisa) is the second in a small series of movies starring Hibari Misora in a tale adapted from a well known kabuki play and featuring a cross dressing hero/heroine. This time around Misora plays a young woman dressing as a man for the purposes of revenge who eventually meets up with two men sharing the same “Kichisa” name – a lord (Obo), and a priest (Osho), to form a brotherhood of three including her “Ojo” as in “young lady”. Together they fight the injustices of the feudal world (which are myriad) whilst helping Ojo Kichisa get revenge on the men who murdered her parents forcing her into a precarious life of self preservation.

Beginning with Misora singing the title song of the three Kichisa, the action then switches to a small drinking house where a young woman gets herself into trouble with a bossy samurai who accuses her of spilling sake on him. Though the woman, Otose (Eiko Maruyama), apologises profusely, the samurai threatens to make her pay with her body. Fortunately Ojo Kichisa strides in and fights the samurai into submission, temporarily saving the day. Unfortunately, the samurai come back later brandishing a loan agreement Otose’s father had signed and demand immediate repayment or they will take Otose in its stead.

Once again the feudal world is one of intense unfairness and corruption in which the samurai class abuse their privilege to oppress the ordinary men and women of the Edo era. The samurai who takes such extreme offence at Otose’s possible slip-up has no real reason to do so other than expressing his superiority and once humiliated by Ojo Kichisa feels himself duty bound to double down. The samurai order looks after its own and so his underlings spring into motion to manipulate Otose’s family into giving her up. The two loan sharks gleefully celebrate their good luck, confessing that a major reason for lending money to the needy is for occasions such as this – not only for the interest but for the leverage in getting the desired outcome in ongoing schemes.

Meanwhile, there is a bigger game at play concerning the new finance minister and local governor. The governor accepts “gifts” from a shopkeeper hoping to be promoted onto the council whilst subtly hinting that more “gifts” might be an idea while he needs to be turning a blind eye to the smuggling that’s currently going on in town. Of course, the governor turns out to be involved in Ojo Kichisa’s mission too and is currently being blackmailed by an old acquaintance who once helped him steal a famous sword from its rightful owner.

Another of Misora’s frequent cross-dressing roles, Ojo Kichisa starts out as male but is later revealed to be female having adopted male dress to survive in male dominated Edo and pursue revenge on those who rendered her an orphan. After losing her parents, Ojo Kichisa and her young brother Sannosuke (Takehiko Kayama) were travelling in search of relatives when they were abducted by slave traders and separated. Presumably, both managed to escape at some point and have been living by their wits vowing revenge and reunification but apparently largely untouched by the darkness of feudal society.

The darkness is something which gets pushed into the background in this otherwise comedic tale of the little guy standing up to corrupt elites. The three Kichisas each represent various areas of society – the priest, the noble lord who hates the cruelty of his class, and the elegant lady, Ojo. Obo Kichisa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), the lord with a conscience, is committed to protecting the weak and fighting injustice everywhere he sees it, but it’s not long before pretty much everyone has decided the governor has to go thanks to his inherently corrupt approach to governing in which he’s all about take and never about give, neglecting the townspeople under his care and prioritising his personal gain.

Hibari Misora sings the title song twice – at the opening and closing, as well as another insert song but her brother Sannosuke also gets an opportunity to showcase his singing his voice in a mild departure from the star vehicle norm (actor Takehiko Kayama was also Misora’s real life brother). As in Benten Kozo, Wakayama takes on the bulk of the heroic fighting but Misora gives it her all in the many fight scenes in which she too gets to defeat injustice and rescue maidens to her heart’s content. A straightforward jidaigeki idol movie, Ojo Kichisa is unremarkable in many ways but nevertheless another entertaining example of Misora’s talent for playing ambiguous gender roles.


Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Benten Kozo dvd coverStarting out as a child actress, Hibari Misora was one of the biggest singing and acting stars of the post-war period whose songs are often pointed to as embodiments of the era’s melancholy yet determined spirit. Though it’s her singing career which has perhaps had the most historical impact, Misora made an immense number of films most of them in ’50s and ‘60s, many typical star vehicles of the time – silly comedies and softer musicals, usually finding an opportunity or two for a song even in straight drama. Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧), released in 1960 for Toei, is very much of this mould and showcases another somewhat interesting facet of Misora’s career in her readiness to play ambiguous gender roles.

Based on the well known kabuki play, Benten Kozo, which had also been adapted two years previously in a version starring male actor Raizo Ichikawa, Sasaki’s film stars Hibari Misora in the title role – a 13 year old boy who was given up at birth to be raised in a temple which specialises in performing Noh theatre. Kikunosuke (Hibari Misora) is their star, but there’s a dark side to temple performing companies in that they’re dependent on donations and it’s accepted practice to allow wealthy patrons to do whatever they like with the talent, no matter their age or gender. Kikunosuke knows this and isn’t having any of it. Pushed into a room with a lecherous, overly made-up older woman, Kikunosuke balks at the old monk’s attempts to pimp him out and tries to leave, much to the monk’s disappointment.

Unfortunately, just as Kikunosuke is leaving, a thief arrives to steal the money meant for the monk and kills the old woman in the process. Kikunosuke kills the thief but is accused of killing the old woman too and is forced on the run. Tracking down his birth mother, Ofuji (Mitsuko Miura), Kiku thinks he’s found a home but is betrayed, at which point he adopts the name “Benten Kozo” (lit. “Benten Kid” where Benten is the name of the goddess at the temple where he was raised) and joins a gang of Robin Hood-style outlaw thieves.

Like many period films of the time, Benten Kozo revolves around exposing the corruption of the samurai order. In this case, it’s a salt scam – the samurai elders have been stockpiling salt to push the price up, endangering the lives of ordinary people for their own financial gain and thinking nothing of it. The thieves, led by later Lone Wolf and Cub star Tomisaburo Wakayama, are dedicated to robbing the rich to feed the poor but they also aim to expose those in power for the reckless bullies they really are. Benten Kozo joins the “Shiranami Five Alliance” both out of self preservation and out of genuine sympathy with their cause, eventually encountering the same corrupt monk who turned a blind eye to his attempted molestation when he intervenes to save a woman forced into prostitution to pay her father’s debt whom the monk was attempting to rape.

Benten Kozo listens to the woman’s story and decides to give her his savings (which he no longer wants after being betrayed by his mother for whom he’d been saving the money) to pay off her family debt. In fact the pair met earlier when Benten Kozo was on the run and she helped him hide from the authorities. The woman, like several in the film, falls for Benten Kozo’s androgynous charms though he remains resolutely noble and indifferent. Benten Kozo would originally have been played by a male actor on the kabuki stage which did not allow female performers. The “onnagata” or actors who specialised in playing women were often effeminate younger men or boys much like Benten Kozo himself who plays these skills to the max throughout the film.

Hibari Misora, with her low, husky voice, effortlessly switches between the elegant upperclass women Benten Kozo impersonates on stage and in service of the gang’s scams, and the rough and ready dialect of a street ruffian. In a shocking display of bravado, Benten Kozo drops the top of his kimono to show his off his tattoos proving once and for all that he’s no lady but still his appeal lingers perhaps precisely because of his gender ambiguity.

Benten Kozo is not a musical but finds two occasions for Misora to sing – once as Benten Kozo takes off on the road, and the other at the end as he paddles a boat away back to his new found friends. The film ends with a giant mass brawl and also provides ample scope for Misora to escape across roof tops and fight off the unjust but it’s otherwise fairly straightforward fare and not exactly among the singer’s most memorable outings. It is however generally entertaining and interesting enough in its central theme of woman playing man playing woman to warrant attention from more than just diehard Misora fans.


Hibari Misora singing Benten Kozo in concert some years later.

Espy (エスパイ, Jun Fukuda, 1974)

espy posterBy 1974 the Toho SFX movie was perhaps long past its heyday though Jun Fukuda’s Espy (エスパイ) was far from the last. Clearly influenced by popular spy franchises such as James Bond as well as more serious cold war spy dramas, Espy is a jet setting tale of superpowered assassins, international conspiracy, and love as an unexpected source of salvation, but as much as it embraces its hippyish message of total communication it also moves further into the realms of exploitation, skewing closer to Nikkatsu’s ’70s output than the more child friendly supernatural adventures of ages past.

The world is at breaking point. A small conflict in a tiny East European nation known as Baltonia threatens to spark a third world war. A UN delegation is currently en route to a conference in which they hope to settle the conflict in a peaceful way but all hope is lost when a sniper equipped with X-ray vision takes them all out with maximum precision.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, test driver Miki (Masao Kusakari) gets into trouble on the course when he swerves to avoid some pigeons. The car spins out of control but just at the last minute, Miki turns it around through his dormant psychic powers which brings him to the attention of the IPPG – the International Psychic Power Group. Following the assassination of the UN delegation, all eyes are on Japan where the prime minister of Baltonia is due to meet the US president in what is hoped will be a bold new development in international relations but the IPPG have reason to believe an attempt will be made on the prime minister’s life and only their ESP equipped team can stop it.

Espy takes the essential components of both the spy thriller in its international conspiracy set up, and the B-movie science fiction adventure in its presentation of the good and evil possibilities of advanced technologies or in this case innate superpowers. The Espy team are pitted against the Anti-Espy who have similar powers but are committed to using them to harm mankind. The leader of the Anti-Espy, Ulrov (Tomisaburo Wakayama), sees himself as a superior being to regular Earthlings and, believing that humans have overpopulated the planet which they continue to damage, is convinced the best solution is a mass cull. He plans to do this by helping the “lesser” humans destroy themselves by provoking a third world war or a hundred mini conflicts in which thousands will die.

Ulrov’s arguments tie in nicely with Toho’s trademark environmentalism and ambivalent attitude towards scientific development, but they go against the prevailing sense of humanism which is to be found in the studio’s genre output. In Ulrov’s fascistic view of the world, he and the other ESPers are a superior race whose existence is threatened by weaker humans and their reckless disregard for the planet as a whole. Due to a traumatic childhood incident, he believes that humans are cruel beasts who lust for blood and talk of peace with hearts filled with hate. He may have a point, but his message conflicts with the positive movement for peace which is advanced by the Baltonian PM who doesn’t want a world in which peace is brokered and balanced but one of true unity.

Espy is, however, of its time and fails to fully live out its peace and love ideals. Team member Maria (Kaoru Yumi) is kidnapped by Anti-Espy and taken to Ulrov’s lair where she is forced to dance lasciviously in front of fellow team member Tamura (Hiroshi Fujioka) with whom she shares an especially strong connection. Tamura’s arms and legs are cuffed as he communicates telepathically with Ulrov, semi-hypnotised by Maria’s strange dance. Maria is then approached by a large dark-skinned man wearing only a loincloth who proceeds to tear open her shirt at which point she snaps out of her trance, frees Tamura, and rips out the attacker’s tongue.

Meanwhile, new recruit Miki has failed in his mission and killed a man for the first time sending him into a kind of depression. Though Miki was introduced as the protagonist, he is in fact absent for most of the film though his journey is among the strangest as he reminisces about a foreign girl he was friends with as a child and enjoys an unusually strong bond with his intrepid dog, Caesar, who teaches the gang a few lessons about unconditional love. Maria is severely traumatised by her attack while Tamura reconsiders his sense of self worth having temporarily lost his powers, but eventually the team realise that their psychic abilities are nothing more than a manifestation of a great love. Ulrov later has the same epiphany but the team’s decision to consider him possessed by something “inhuman” is a worrying one. They don’t want to accept that it was humans who made him that way because it would be too sad, but not to do so is a failure to recognise humanity’s darkness as well as its light.

Espy bites off a little more than it can chew in failing to deal with some of the more interesting ideas it raises though it makes the most of its meagre budget to present an exciting spy thriller voyaging from Japan to Turkey and Switzerland. Skewing more towards Nikkatsu’s brand of exploitation action, Espy is definitely among the more adult orientated of Toho’s SFX adventures but its messages are broadly the same in its insistence on human interconnectedness as the ultimate superpower. 


 

Datsugoku Hiroshima Satsujinshu (脱獄広島殺人囚, Sadao Nakajima, 1974)

DVD coverSadao Nakajima had made his name with Toei’s particular brand of violent action movie, but by the early seventies, the classic yakuza flick was going out of fashion. Datsugoku Hiroshima Satsujinshu (脱獄広島殺人囚, AKA The Rapacious Jailbreaker) follows in the wake of seminal genre buster, Battles Without Honour and Humanity, but also honours the classic Toei ganger movie past in its exploitation leaning, cynically humorous tale of a serial escapee and his ever more convoluted schemes to avoid the bumbling police force’s noose.

Kobe, 1947. Ueda (Hiroki Matsukata) and his buddy kill a drug dealer and his girlfriend in a robbery gone wrong. Landing himself a twenty year sentence, Ueda resigns himself to spending his prime years behind bars in a Hiroshima prison but then he starts getting a few ideas and his first escape attempt is a moderate success, until he’s recaptured after stupidly going home to his wife.

Nakajima spends quite a long time exploring the unusual environment of the prison in Hiroshima. The life is strictly ordered and run with precision but the prisoners are also forced to do a strange dance for the guards, waving their hands and shouting their ID numbers to prove there’s nothing interesting inside their mouths – a gesture which is hilariously turned back on the warden when a prisoner begins a mini riot after a sports game is turned off at crucial moment. The warden submits himself to the degrading dance but once the man surrenders, he does not honour any of the promises he made to convince him to come down from the tower he was occupying. The guards are corrupt, violent, and untrustworthy whereas the majority of prisoners are docile, resigned, and going mad through inactivity.

Ueda, like many “heroes” of yakuza films is a man who’s had a hard life, left to fend for himself after his father died and his mother left. He appears to love and care for his wife who pledges to wait for him, starting her own seamstressing business in the meantime, but his subsequent escape attempts take him further and further away from his home. Nevertheless, home is the first place he decides to go despite the danger even if his reunion with his wife is anything but romantic.

After being recaptured, Ueda’s desire for escape intensifies, requiring ever more complicated schemes to make it happen. These range from the traditional file hidden inside a lovingly prepared meal delivered by his wife, to simply running away when arraigned for a court date after committing another murder while inside. Seeing as Ueda intends to escape, he cares little for the prison rules and his 20 year sentence is soon doubled thanks to his ongoing crimes both inside and outside of the prison walls.

Other than his wife the other source of support Ueda turns to is his estranged sister with whom he’s had no contact since his mother left sixteen years previously. What he discovers is that the now widowed Kazuko (Naoko Otani) is involved in some dodgy business of her own concerning the local black market meat trade. Ueda decides Kazuko is not getting her fair share and more or less takes over, bending the local petty gangsters to his will, but once again he messes everything up for himself after getting into a fight at a brothel which lands him back at the police station.

Nakajima follows Fukasaku’s jitsuroku aesthetic using frequent onscreen text detailing names and conviction records for each of the major players though his approach owes far less to realism than b-movie action in its willingness to linger on blood and gore even if scenes of violence are generally few and executed quickly. Scenes of a cow being butchered in the woods, blood, skin, and bones dominating, introduce a note of sickening horror but are then echoed in Ueda’s animalistic murders committed with makeshift tools and an unforgiving heart. Despite this frightening coldness, Ueda’s humorous voiceover turns him into a roguish figure whose bumbling acts of self destruction and stubborn attempts to regain his freedom take on an oddly cartoonish quality.  The situation may be hopeless, but Ueda does not give up. His story remains unfinished as he makes another (apparently) successful escape after being betrayed by a fellow criminal who is then himself betrayed by the police he mistakenly thought would help him, but as for how long he’ll manage to keep himself on this side of the bars, that remains to be seen…


 

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)

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1974)

lone-wolf-and-cub-white-heaven-in-hell-japanese Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) have been following the Demon Way for five films, chasing the elusive Lord Retsudo (Minoru Oki) of the villainous Yagyu clan who was responsible for the murder of Ogami’s wife and his subsequent framing for treason. The Demon Way is never easy, and Ogami has committed himself to following it to its conclusion, but recent encounters have broadened a conflict in his heart as innocents and seekers of justice have died alongside guilty men and cowards. Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Kozure Okami: Jigoku e Ikuzo! Daigoro) moves him closer to his target but also further deepens his descent into the underworld as he’s forced to confront the wake of his ongoing quest for vengeance.

Ogami and Daigoro have made it to Snow Country, meanwhile Lord Retsudo is receiving a dressing down from a superior over his total failure to eliminate the Lone Wolf or his Cub. It seems Ogami has already despatched all three of Retsudo’s sons, and so now Retsudo pledges his daughter, Kaori (Junko Hitomi), skilled in the use of daggers and every bit as fine a warrior as her defeated brothers, in the mission to end the Ogami threat.

Things do not go to plan and Retsudo is forced to approach his one remaining son. An illegitimate child born to a concubine, disavowed, and hidden away in the mountains, Hyoe (Isao Kimura) is not well disposed to his estranged father’s request to save the Yagyu clan to which he feels only rage and resentment. Sending his father away, Hyoe nevertheless decides to take on Ogami in the hope of embarrassing the Yagyu by taking him out first. Possibly having spent too much time alone, Hyoe’s plan involves a number of strange rituals beginning with resurrecting three of his men as emotionless (yet intelligent) zombies meant to terrify Ogami and his son into submission.

Throughout the series, we’ve seen Ogami’s world darken as the straightforward missions of eliminating corrupt lords eventually gave way to more morally dubious assignments with the tragic story of Oyuki and later the assassination of an entire family in order to preserve the legitimate arm of a historical clan. Along the way, Ogami has met “true samurai” and villainous cowards, but his encounters with honest men and women have only served to shake his heart as he guides his young son onwards bound for hell by way of death or violence.

The pair have never been afraid before, but Hyoe’s plan hinges on pushing Ogami’s mind into those dark places, preventing him from fighting back against his supernatural soldiers. Death has always surrounded them, but the price of Ogami’s vengeance is brought home to him when Hyoe’s forces unceremoniously wipe out the entire population of an inn where Ogami and Daigoro are staying whilst hovering in some nearby trees to remind them that this is all really their fault and the longer they keep on down this path, the more the innocent will suffer. The zombie trio threaten to destroy Ogami’s human emotions – joy, sorrow, pleasure, and anger, leaving him only with fear. Unbowed, Ogami faces Hyoe but the pair have more in common than they thought and so round one ends in a stalemate.

White Heaven in Hell, though not intended as a conclusion to the series, neatly brings things full circle as Ogami visits his wife’s grave, recalling his familial tragedy and reinforcing his bond with Daigoro. All of the films have, in some way, dealt with functional and dysfunctional family, each commenting on the unusual relationship between Ogami and his son. Finally meeting face to face, Retsudo takes Ogami to task for the loss of his children which Ogami throws right back at him – after all, all he did was defend himself against a threat Retsudo himself instigated. Ogami eventually tells him that he hopes Retsudo becomes so lonely that he goes completely mad. Retsudo’s pointless manoeuvring has cost him dearly in the loss of each of his legitimate children, eventually forcing the acknowledgement of his illegitimate son and daughter whose hatred of him also leads to their undoing. So great is Hyoe’s loathing of the Yagyu, that his last ditch attempt at revenge is in trying to convince his own sister, Azuma, to bear his child and create a new line to finish them off once and for all.

Kenji Misumi declined to return for this instalment, claiming the series had become too much like a Western which is a little ironic as White Heaven in Hell leaves the arid deserts behind for the frozen ice plains of the north. Yoshiyuki Kuroda, making his first and only contribution to the series, had a strong background in horror cinema which might explain the sudden appearance of the supernatural elements in what has been, up to now, a fairly grounded exercise even if somewhat outlandish. This is also the only script with which original creator Kazuo Koike was not not involved and bears the least relation to the then ongoing manga. Still, the action is undoubtedly innovative as the baby cart’s wheels are swapped for skis and Ogami faces off against an entire army of enemies on a snow covered hillside. Kuroda sticks more closely to Misumi’s aesthetic than Saito had done though steers away from the painterly cinematics in favour of showcasing the snow covered terrain, driving Ogami deeper into hell as his heart freezes over but denying him the vengeance that has become his life’s work. White Heaven in Hell is the last outing for Ogami yet refuses to close the circle, his quest may be a never ending one, plunging both himself and his son into an inescapable cycle of violence and regret as the Demon’s Way stretches on endlessly towards an uncertain destination.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道, Kenji Misumi, 1973)

baby-cart-land-demonsOgami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former Shogun executioner now a fugitive in search of justice after being framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan who are also responsible for the death of his wife, is still on the Demon’s Way with his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Five films into this six film cycle, the pair are edging closer to their goal as the evil Lord Retsudo continues to make shadowy appearances at the corners of their world. However, the Demon’s Way carries a heavy toll, littered with corpses of unlucky challengers, the road has, of late, begun to claim the lives of the virtuous along with the venal. Conflicted as he was in his execution of a contract to assassinate the tragic Oyuki in the previous instalment, Baby Cart in Peril, whose story was perhaps even sadder than his own, Ogami is about to descend further still as a commission to kill a living Buddha proves even more sordid than expected.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道,  Kozure Okami: Meifumado) starts as it means to go on as Ogami finds yet another coded way of touting for business when he notices the strange demonic drawing on the face mask of a resting man and correctly reads it as a message for the Lone Wolf and Cub. The Kuroda clan have despatched five of their best men wearing just such masks in order to test his skills and find out if he’s worthy of their job. Each time he defeats one, he’ll receive 100 ryou (a fifth of his fee) and part of the reasons and explanations he requires in deciding whether to take the job.

This time the assignment is to do with a mislaid yet incriminating letter from the Kuroda lord, Naritaka (Shingo Yamashiro), who has unwisely been deceiving the Shogun as to the identity of his children. Very much in love with his mistress, Naritaka has been passing off their daughter, Hamachiyo (Sumida Kazuyo), as his son Matsumaru. Meanwhile the real Matsumaru, his legitimate heir through his legal wife, has been imprisoned in the compound and kept away from prying eyes. A particularly stupid and pointless ruse, yet the lord has created even more problems for himself by allowing a letter outlining all of this to fall into the hands of a treacherous priest, Jikei (Hideji Otaki), who turns out to be the head of a ninja spy network. Ogami’s job is to kill Jikei and get the letter back but it comes with some additional spice – Jikei plans to hand the letter to Lord Retsudo, Ogami’s arch nemesis.

Ogami’s world is a feudal one where allegiance to one’s lord trumps almost everything. The lords are, however, often dishonest, selfish, and cruel. The hypocrisy of the samurai world is a phenomenon well known to all, and most particularly to Ogami who has found himself at the mercy of the ambitious Yagyu clan. Whatever else he may have become, Ogami is a man of honour to whom the way of samurai maintains a deep spiritual importance. Jikei’s attempt to unsettle Ogami by asking him what he thinks he’s going to achieve on the Demon’s Way and if killing a living Buddha is a fitting use of his talents, further pushes Ogami into a spiritual crisis regarding his quest for vengeance and ongoing career as a sword for hire.

Naritaka has, indeed, broken his code in lying to the Shogun but also in rejecting his position and creating an alternative family of his choosing by favouring the female child of his mistress over his legitimate male heir. In addition to his contract to kill Jikei and retake the letter, Ogami also receives a request to assassinate the lord himself alongside his concubine and even their daughter. This illegitimate line cannot be allowed to continue, the illicit family born of personal choice must be cut off before it begins to corrupt the future of the Kuroda clan. Actively plotting the death of one’s lord is an unthinkable concept, yet a retainer also has a responsibility to guard the honour of their house and so the lord must go, even if the retainer is bound to follow him.

The decision to execute the entire family recalls the series’ origins in which Ogami was seen to act as a second in the “harakiri” of a toddler shortly before seeing his own family fall under the sword of a Yagyu plot. Daigoro is growing older at an unnatural rate but shows a little more willingness to engage in acts of altruistic heroism than his father, such as in an episode where he decides to refuse to identify a local pickpocket even if it means he himself will be flogged in her place. Ogami looks on in inaction, yet there is the faintest flicker of pride in his otherwise impassive face as his fearless son opts to undergo a harsh punishment rather than allow someone else to suffer even as she tries to save him in turn. Daigoro also has an awkward moment of connection with the similarly aged unlucky princess but remains apparently unmoved by her fate at the end of their mission. The legitimate prince may have been liberated and the official line restored, but there has been a heavy price for all concerned and the Kuroda clan is far from saved.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons marks the return, albeit for the last time, of the series’ original director Kenji Misumi who gets rid of the heavily exploitation leaning approach brought by Buichi Saito in the previous film, Baby Cart in Peril. No voiceovers, no musical sequences, and an overall return to quiet contemplation mixed with impressively balletic fight sequences rather than the frenetic action and sudden trickery which defined Baby Cart in Peril send the series back to its spiritual roots after a brief foray into the contemporary jidaigeki. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is also the first in the series which contains no female nudity though it does make room for another skilled female warrior and also repeats the motif of Ogami leaving a melancholy woman behind him as he sets off into the sunset, yet this time it’s a woman who has chosen her own path in keeping with her own code and earned Ogami’s respect, and perhaps sorrow, in the process. Ogami is drawing closer to Retsudo, though his path leads him through a land of demons each more villainous than the last and justice seems like an unrealistic ideal where only men like Ogami stand at the gates of man and beast.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)