Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊, Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)

Toei’s stock in trade through the 1960s had been the ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters set before the war and implicitly in a less corrupt Japan in which jingi could still triumph over the giri/ninjo conflict if at great personal cost to the idealistic hero. By the end of the decade, however, audiences were growing tired of yakuza romanticism particularly in the wake of grittier youth dramas produced by Nikkatsu. Originally conceived as a kind of sequel to Japan Organised Crime Boss, Kinji Fukasaku’s Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊,  Bakuto Gaijin Butai) marks a shift towards the jitsuroku or “true account” trend of the 1970s which would come to dominate the genre following the success of his Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle two years later, employing many of the same techniques from onscreen text to shaky handheld photography but doing so within the confines of moody noir as the hero emerges from a 10-year prison sentence into a very different Japan. 

When Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) gets out, he steps into an empty, windswept street his incongruous zori sandals clashing with his smart suit and sunshades and marking him out as a relic of a bygone era. He’s met only two loyal underlings, his gang apparently now disbanded following the death of his boss who refused to take his advice as regards the big name gang from Tokyo attempting to muscle in to their Yokohama territory. Part of the missing post-war generation, Gunji has no illusions about going straight, wandering into their former HQ now a derelict building and calling the guys, who’ve since moved on to more legitimate occupations, back together. He knows he can’t take on Daitokai with his meagre forces and so settles for extracting from them some compensation money to get out of town, later teaming up with Kudo (Noboru Ando) a similarly orphaned former member of a rival Yokohama gang wiped out by Daitokai, and resolving to relocate to Okinawa where he is convinced the post-war gangster paradise is still very much in existence. 

Okinawa was only “returned” to Japanese sovereignty in 1971, having been governed by the Americans since the end of the war, and of course maintains a large American military presence up to the present day. As such to Gunji, and in a yakuza movie trope which persists right into Takeshi Kitano’s Boiling Point, it exists in a permanent post-war present in which the conditions of the occupation are still very much in play. Gunji knows that he and his guys are products of the post-war era, they cannot adapt to the “new” world of corporatising yakuza in which street brawls and petty thuggery have given way to more sophisticated kinds of organised crime, and so they retreat into an Okinawan time warp, determining to steal turf from under two rival gangs who control between them the ports and the red light district mediated by black market booze from the American military.  

Fukasaku was apparently inspired by Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, intending to make a comment on resistance to American imperialism on the mainland though it has to be said that this is extremely ironic given that Japan is itself a coloniser of the Okinawan islands where there has long been a demand for self-determination and recognition of a distinct identity which has often been subject to oppression in the face of conformist Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the film continues the persistent theme that the chaotic post-war era which has come to a close thanks to rising economic prosperity in the time Gunji was inside is inextricable from the American occupation, implying that Okinawa is in a sense the last frontier and the only viable territory for men like Gunji who, like the melancholy ronin of the Edo era, lack the skills to live in time of peace.  

Nevertheless, modernity is also on its way to Okinawa and where there’s money there are gangsters so as expected Daitokai eventually rear their heads on the island pushing Gunji towards the revenge he didn’t want to take. The Okinawa he inhabits is one of loss and nostalgia, taking up with a sex worker who reminds him of the Okinawan woman who left him when he went to prison and perhaps playing into the slightly complicated political dialogue which positions Gunji as an ironic “migrant worker” salmoning back to Okinawa as many Okinawan youngsters are forced to travel to the mainland for work while the islands themselves remain, it’s implied, mired in poverty and crime economically dependent on the American military. Indeed, the head of the dock gang brokers a deal with Daitokai predicated on the fact that there is plenty of cheap labour available at the harbour. “Good place for a long life” he ironically adds, shortly before all hell breaks loose. Shot with typical Fukasaku immediacy, Sympathy for the Underdog looks forward to jitsuroku nihilism but does so through the prism of film noir cool as its fatalistic hero submits himself to his inexorable destiny.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Kosaku Yamashita, 1984)

The ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters standing up for the little guy with decency and honour, had been Toei’s mainstay throughout the 1960s but a decade later the image of righteous yakuza had been well and truly imploded by the advent of the jitsuroku or “true account” movie which drew inspiration from real life tales of post-war gangsterdom using voiceover narration and onscreen text for added authenticity as it proved once and for all that there was no “honour and humanity” to be found in the gangster life only nihilism and futility. Still, the ninkyo, like many of its heroes, proved hard to kill as 1984’s Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Shura no Mure) perhaps proves. A throwback to an earlier era with its infinitely noble hero and unexpectedly if not quite happy then defiantly positive ending, Kosaku Yamashita’s manly drama nevertheless adopts some of the trappings of the jitsuroku in its infrequent use of voiceover and emphasis on concrete historical events. 

The hero, Ryuji Inahara (Hiroki Matsukata), is like many heroes of post-war gangsterdom an orphan though his story begins in the mid-1930s as he’s recruited by a friendly yakuza at a karate dojo. As his teacher explains, Ryuji has already been offered a job with the police but given the chance to join the other side instead immediately agrees, explaining that his life’s ambition has been to gain revenge against the force that ruined his father and destroyed his family, gambling. He chooses to do this, however, not by destroying gambling dens everywhere but by becoming a gambler himself determined to be a winner which is, it seems, a textbook example of having learned the wrong lesson. Still, his noble gangster cool stands him in good stead in the yakuza world where he quickly earns the loyalty of other men, rapidly advancing up the ranks to head his own gang by the crime heyday of the mid-1950s. 

As the title implies, this is a story of a man, a very manly man, among other men. The gangster world is intensely homosocial and founded on ideas of brotherhood and loyalty. Thus, Ryuji finds a surrogate father figure in fellow gangster Yokoyama (Koji Tsuruta) who constantly gives him advice on what it is to be a proper man. “Don’t be a fool, don’t be too smart, and most of all don’t be half-hearted” he advises, later adding “you can’t be a man if you’re dirty about money”, and “taking action isn’t the only way to be a man. It takes a man to have patience.” (this last one as Ryuji hotheadedly discharges himself from hospital to get revenge on a punk who got the jump on him outside a shrine). To be a man, Ryuji intervenes when he sees some less than honourable young toughs hassling an old couple running a dango stand at the beach and the young woman from the caramel stall next-door, throwing his entire wallet on their counter to make up for the damage in what will become something of a repeated motif. His manliness earns him the eternal devotion of the young woman, Yukiko (Wakako Sakai), who eventually becomes his devoted wife against the will of her concerned mother who is nevertheless brought round on realising the love she has for him because of his intense nobility. 

Indeed, Ryuji lives in a noble world. He’s a gambler by trade but only because he hates gambling and is trying to best it. He doesn’t participate in the seedier sides of the yakuza life such as drugs or prostitution and is also in contrast to jitsuroku norms a humanist who defiantly stands up against racism and xenophobia, taking another gambler to task for using a racial slur against a Korean opponent while opting to befriend the “foreign” gangs of Atami when eventually put in charge of the lucrative area rather than divide and conquer. This is apparently a lesson he learned from his flawed but goodhearted father who hid a Korean man and his daughter from the pogroms after the 1923 earthquake because “we’re all the same human beings”. Spared the war because of an injury to his trigger finger, Ryuji kicks off against an entitled son of a gang boss for acting like a slavedriver while working at a quarry but earns only the respect of his superiors further enhancing his underworld ties because of his reputation as a standup guy willing to stand up to oppression. 

Such an intense sense of uncomplicated righteousness had perhaps been unseen since the ninkyo eiga days, and Ryuji’s rise and rise does in that sense seem improbable as his goodness only aids his success earning him the respect of over 1000 foot soldiers even as he finds himself in the awkward position of having to exile one of his most trusted associates for getting too big for his boots and disrespecting the yakuza code. His children also suffer for their connection to the gangster underworld, but are reassured that their father is a good man if with the subtle implication that he has damned them as his father did him. Shot with occasional expressionist flourishes such as crashing waves or a midnight sky, A Story of a Man among Men is not free from manly sadness and indeed ends on the sense of a baton passing from one era to another but does so with an unexpected sense of moral victory for its righteous hero who vows to bring his manly ideas with him into a new age of gangsterdom. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Tale of Oiwa’s Ghost (怪談 お岩の亡霊, Tai Kato, 1961)

Yotsuya Kaidan is among the most well-known and enduringly popular of Japanese ghost stories. Originating as a kabuki play first staged in 1825, it has inspired countless film adaptations though Tai Kato’s The Tale of Oiwa’s Ghost (怪談 お岩の亡霊, Kaidan Oiwa no Borei) from 1961 is accounted among the most faithful despite the variation in its title. Usually regarded as a cautionary tale about a man whose ruthless ambition destroys his humanity earning him supernatural retribution, Yotsuya Kaidan is also a tale of female vengeance as Kato’s slight refocussing makes plain. In this version of the tale, all of Tamiya Iemon’s problems are, aside from the offscreen murder for which he has already been exiled from his family before the film begins, caused by female subjugation.

Having married into Oiwa’s (Yoshiko Fujishiro) family, Tamiya (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is in a rueful mood even as the film begins. After randomly killing a man in a fight some time previously, Oiwa has left him because, quite reasonably, she does not want to be in a relationship with a murderer nor do her family wish to be associated with someone stained with such a serious crime. Noticeably ragged, Tamiya swears he’s going to get Oiwa back because he’ll “never find another woman with such a beautiful body”. He wants her firstly because she has rejected him and his pride is wounded, secondly to regain his status, and thirdly because for the moment she is a glittering prize though he’ll later come to tire of her. 

Tamiya is hanging around because he wants to talk to his father-in-law about reinstatement but he is currently meeting with a “masseuse”, unbeknownst to Tamiya planning to sell his second daughter Osode (Hiroko Sakuramachi) to a brothel in order to pay a debt. He has been assured that his daughter will not be expected to participate in sex work but will be running a toothpick stall near the temple. Needless to say, both he and Osode are very much mistaken and once the money has changed hands Takuetsu (Atsushi Watanabe), doctor and owner of the brothel, can do whatever he likes. Tamiya doesn’t much care about Osode, encouraging his lusty friend elixir pedlar Naosuke (Jushiro Konoe) who declared her the more beautiful of the sisters to buy her body that very night. You wouldn’t think Naosuke could afford it but he decides to do just that, only to be gazumped by Osode’s conflicted fiancé Yomoshichi (Sawamura Sojuro) who is about to depart for Edo with the lord for a year the very next day. Rather than save her, Yomoshichi merely takes her virginity and asks her to wait for his return in a year’s time, leaving her in the brothel. 

Both Oiwa and Osode are essentially made to pay for their attempt to refuse male subjugation. Naosuke has “bought” Osode’s body and feels entitled to have it, attempting to rape her while she violently refuses him. His resentment leads him to plot Yomoshichi’s murder, but he mistakenly ends up killing his friend instead while Tamiya takes the opportunity to kill his father-in-law and reunite with his wife under the pretext of revenge for a crime he himself committed, essentially gifting Osode to Naosuke as a kind of reward. But Tamiya isn’t satisfied because he remains poor and lowly. His wife may be from a previously well respected samurai family, but he’s having to resort to making umbrellas to get by and now that Oiwa has given birth to their child he no longer finds her so “beautiful”. Bearing out the misogyny in their society, the men joke that Tamiya had been hoping his wife would die in childbirth so he’d be free of her at last. 

It’s at this point that he is offered an opportunity. Oume (Yumiko Mihara), the daughter of the wealthy Ito family of merchants fell in love with Tamiya when he returned her comb to her after a tussle in the square. Moving in nearby, the Itos are keen to persuade Tamiya to marry Oume but he has a wife and child already. The source of Tamiya’s heartlessness is it seems a kind of toxic masculinity, his intense sense of insecurity and a need to prove himself through promotion that fuels his obsession with advancing up the ranks to serve the shogun. As much as this is about inhumanity, it’s also about a society in flux. Unlike Naosuke, Tamiya is a samurai. The Itos are members of a new middle class whose increasing wealth is beginning to threaten the social order of the tightly regimented feudal society. Mr. Ito wants to make his daughter happy, or so he says, but marrying her to a samurai and therefore into the ruling class even if that ruling class is impoverished and possessed of only illusionary power is certainly advantageous. It is however somewhat irrational to encourage a man to murder his first wife so he can marry your lovestruck daughter, it does not bode well for her future safety. In any case, Tamiya is aware that “one’s reputation affects one’s promotion prospects” and so is unwilling to simply kill Oiwa without “a good reason”, later deciding to try and frame her for adultery which would make her death not only permissible but in fact socially mandated.  

In this age a woman’s life has no value, as Oiwa eventually sees. Tamiya gets the adultery idea after catching sight of the bodies of a samurai woman murdered for having an affair with a servant, marking her double transgression against the social order in both advancing her own agency over her body and her love for a man who was not of her own social class (assuming of course that there was any kind of relationship at all and they haven’t simply been killed on pretext by a man like Tamiya). Oiwa’s ruined face, caused by poison disguised as medicine, is symbolic of her social disfigurement, turning her into a “monstrous” woman who vows revenge on the man who has so maliciously wounded her. She asserts her own agency only in her death, choosing to pursue her vengeance from beyond the grave.

Yet it’s not only Tamiya who must pay, but the Itos too for their attempt to cheat the class system. Unlike other retellings, there is little suggestion that Tamiya’s torment is psychological, he is quite literally haunted, taunted into ruining his bright future by exorcising the demon of crime. Unusual for a Toei programmer of the time, Kato’s camera has New Wave verve, replete with handheld photography and swooping zooms while making use of his characteristic low angle composition but the final confrontation precipitated by a literal storm and earthquake which implodes the transgressive world Tamiya and the Itos are forging, is realised with expressionist ferocity. Tamiya tries to atone by taking refuge in a temple, but is undone not perhaps by guilt but by regret in realising he has destroyed his much hoped for chance of advancement and thereby rendered his existence meaningless. 

Returning the play to its roots, he dreams his relationship with Oiwa as kabuki dance until woken by the sight of her ruined face, demanding to be freed from his torment. Yet vengeance comes in realer terms and it is Osode who strikes the blow, striking back on behalf of her sister and herself as a representative of all wronged women, while Naosuke can only lament that “this life had nothing good in it” as he too pays for his transgressions. Osode reclaims her mother’s comb and with it restores the social order while simultaneously rejecting her subjugation at the hands of duplicitous men, laying Oiwa’s unquiet ghost to rest as she leaves the venal past behind for a (presumably) less inhuman world. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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…