Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1965)

“Even the cops wouldn’t keep innocent people in prison” a prisoner ironically exclaims in Satsuo Yamamoto’s farcical crime drama Tale of Japanese Burglars (にっぽん泥棒物語, Nippon Dorobo Monogatari), displaying a strange sense of faith in the system for one who’s already been caught out by it. It is in many ways the system at which Yamamoto takes aim, refusing to blame even the guilty for their crimes while condemning the society that forever tars not only them but their entire families with the criminal brush, similarly defaming the innocent while the mechanisms of the State actively abuse their power to ensure they continue to maintain it. 

Set in 1948, the action takes place as the opening voiceover explains in an exaggerated accent which at times lends itself to lowkey comedy, at a moment of societal collapse in which cash has become almost worthless and the only items of value are clothing and rice. Yet Gisuke (Rentaro Mikuni) it seems was living a life of crime even before the war, the youngest of five brothers left to look after his mother and sister after his father’s death. While operating as an amateur unlicensed dentist having picked up the basics from his dad, Gisuke makes his living peddling black market kimonos stolen from local warehouses. After bungling one particular job he finds himself spotting a strange site on the railway tracks, overwhelmed by shadowy figures of nine men he first fears have come to tackle him but in the end simply pass by even calmly returning his call of good evening as they discuss among themselves the best way to the local hot spring. Taking refuge in a haystack, it’s not until the next morning that Gisuke learns of a train derailment that took the lives of the engineer and two crew members. He realises that the men he saw must have been the ones who sabotaged the track but he’s not a snitch and it’s none of his business so he decides to keep quiet. 

That is until he gets arrested for the botched burglary and ends up incarcerated alongside a member of the accused, Kimura (Mizuho Suzuki), who quickly befriends him and in fact becomes something of a labour activist even inside the prison negotiating better conditions for prisoners. Indebted, Gisuke maintains his silence strangely certain that Kimura and the others will soon be released because they are innocent despite already knowing that the judicial system is infinitely corrupt. The case at hand takes inspiration from the Matsukawa Derailment, a real life incident which Yamamoto had already dramatised in 1961’s Matsukawa Incident, in which suspicion had fallen on the Railway Union who, in the film, are seen leading a protest agitating for better working conditions. Kimura, a prominent unioniser, is picked up along with other members of the rail workers union and left-wing activists on largely spurious grounds solely to discredit their movement at the behest of an overly authoritarian police force. 

The irony is that Gisuke ends up in prison for a crime that he technically is not quite guilty of in that he’s arrested after his wife, a geisha he redeemed with his ill-gotten gains, unwittingly sells some stolen kimonos which he was storing for a friend on the run. Kimura by contrast is in prison for something of which he is entirely innocent, in effect a political prisoner. Yet the force that imprisons both of them is not so much the law as social censure in the stigmatisation of crime. Gisuke feels acutely guilty knowing that his family members continue to suffer because of his criminality, his sister unable to marry as each of her engagements is eventually broken off when they find out her brother’s been in jail. After getting out and vowing to go straight, Gisuke marries again and has a child but is perpetually worried that someone will find out about his past and that his son will forever be stigmatised as a “burglar’s kid”. It’s for this reason that he finds himself torn, refusing to help Kimura by testifying as to what he saw that night even after hearing that he’s been sentenced to death, unwilling to risk his newfound happiness even at the expense of another man’s life. 

Strangely, it’s the injustice of the situation which later changes his mind though in an unexpected way when he realises that his own son has escaped being tainted with his father’s criminal legacy while Kimura’s is bullied at school because his dad’s in jail even though he’s innocent. Pursued by authoritarian police officer Ando (Yunosuke Ito) who attempts to blackmail him into changing his story to incriminate Kimura he eventually decides to free himself by telling the truth despite realising that another witness was most likely murdered for signalling an intention to do the same. “But how is it that the police who are charged to catch us are even bigger liars than the thieves?” Gisuke asks the judge during his improbably humorous testimony, earning rapturous applause from the court in a touch of the absurd with even his wife, hitherto stoney faced despite the laughter all around her, cracking a smile seemingly warming up to his decision to play the hero even if it has taken him rather a long time to decide to do the right thing. 

Yamamoto doesn’t hang around to hear the verdict, perhaps because it’s Gisuke who’s really on trial and the judge appears to be his wife whose forgiveness is the only acquittal necessary. His crimes are in a sense not really his fault, Yamamoto seems to argue, but the fault of an indifferent society which left him with no other choice in order to support himself, the same society which then frustrates his attempts to live an “honest” life by forever tainting him as a “burglar” and tarring his entire extended family with the same brush. Only by owning his stigmatisation can he free himself of it, rejecting the illusionary power corrupt authority has over him while refusing to be complicit in their constant battle to hang on to it by levelling his marginalisation against him. Extremely ironic in terms of tone, often employing archaic screen wipes for comic effect, Yamamoto’s strangely hopeful tale implies that justice can in fact prevail but only when imperfect men commit to it even at the expense of their personal happiness. 


The Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1964)

Little known outside of Japan, Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with post-war noir and particularly with adaptations of Seicho Matsumoto’s detective novels, yet he had a wide and varied filmography directing in several genres including musicals and period dramas. The son of silent movie director Hotei Nomura, he spent the bulk of his career at Shochiku which had and to some degree still has a strong studio brand which leans towards the wholesome even if his own work was often in someway controversial such as in the shocking child abuse drama The Demon or foregrounding of leprosy in Castle of Sand. Part of the studio’s series of double-length epics, 1964’s Scarlet Camellia (五瓣の椿, Goben no Tsubaki) is nevertheless an unusual entry in Nomura’s filmography, adapting a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto essentially setting a policier in feudal Japan and perhaps consequently shot largely on stage sets rather than on location. 

Nomura opens with artifice as Shino (Shima Iwashita) stares daggers at an actor on the stage but later returns to his rooms every inch the giggling fan before finally offing him with her ornate silver hairpin leaving behind only the blood red camellia of the title. The first in a series of killings later branded the Camellia Murders, we later realise that the actor had to die because of his illicit relationship with Shino’s mother whom he brands a “nympho” and as we later discover had several extra-marital lovers. Extremely close to her father who, as we’re told, perished in a fire while resting in the country due to his terminal tuberculosis, Shino is apparently on a quest for revenge against the faithless men who humiliated him though her feelings towards her mother seem far more complex. 

Indeed, Shino regards her mother’s carrying on as “dirty” and seems particularly prudish even as she wields her sex appeal as a weapon in her quest for vengeance. Yet it’s not so much the free expression of sexuality which seems to be at fault but excess and irresponsibility. Shino resents her mother primarily for the ways in which she made her father suffer, off having fun with random men while he shouldered the burden of her family business which, Shino might assume, has contributed to his illness. Aoki (Go Kato), the Edo-era policeman to whose narrative perspective the second half turns, advances a similar philosophy in that there’s nothing wrong with having fun, he has fun at times too, but people have or at least should have responsibilities towards each other which the caddish targets of the Camellia Killer have resolutely ignored. He can’t say that he condones the killer’s actions, but neither can he condemn them because her motivations are in a sense morally justifiable. 

Realising the end is near, Shino indulges in a very modern serial killer trope in leaving a note for Aoki alongside one of her camellias in which she claims that she is exacting vengeance for “crimes not punishable by law”. There was nothing legally wrong in the way these men treated her mother or any other woman, but it is in a sense a moral crime. “You’re a woman and I’m a woman too” she later tells another scorned lover, a mistress thrown over by her patron with two small children after he tired of her, as she hands over a large sum of money and encourages her to return to her family in the country. Shino’s quest is essentially feminist, directed against a cruel and patriarchal society in which the use and abuse of women is entirely normalised, yet it is also slightly problematic in her characterisation of her mother as monstrous in her corrupted femininity for daring to embrace her sexuality in exactly the same way as her male counterparts though they, ironically, mainly seem to have been after her money rather than her body. 

Shino’s mother’s death is indeed regarded as “punishment from heaven” presumably for her sexual transgressions and neglect of her family, rejecting both the roles of wife and mother in a ceaseless quest for pleasure. Yet even in her resentment, Shino’s ire is directed firmly at the men taking the last of her targets to task when he justifies himself that women enjoy sex too and are therefore equally complicit by reminding him that he gets his moment of pleasure for free but the woman may pay for it for the rest of her life. Just as Shino’s mother neglected her family, the men harm not only their wives in their illicit affairs but cause concurrent damage to the mistresses they may later disown and the illegitimate children they leave behind. Abandoning the naturalism of his contemporary crime dramas for something much more akin to a ghost film with his eerie lighting transitions and grim tableaux of the skewered victims, Nomura crafts a melancholy morality tale in which the wronged heroine turns the symbol of constrained femininity back on the forces of oppression but is eventually undone by the unintended consequences of her quest for vengeance even as she condemns the architect of her misfortune to madness and ruin. 


Sing, Young People (歌え若人達, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

Keisuke Kinoshita has sometimes been dismissed by Western critics for his supposed sentimentality, but his mid-career comedies can be surprisingly cynical. Scripted not by Kinoshita but Taichi Yamada, 1963’s Sing, Young People (歌え若人達, Utae Wakodotachi) is in someways an exception to the rule, a breezy take on the student comedy updated for the present day, but underneath all the absurdist humour and jibs about youthful ennui is a real sense of adolescent hopelessness as these aimless young men ponder their “pitch-black” futures in a rapidly changing Japan where the best they can hope for is fulfilling the salaryman dream.  

Shooting in glorious colour, Kinoshita opens with a lengthly pan over contemporary Tokyo which the jaunty voice over describes as “the number-one city in the world” before homing in on the incongruous figure of a strangely dressed man holding a sign advertising “sensual massage beauties”. A relic of an earlier advertising age, the wandering sign man nevertheless catches sight of someone even “weirder” than he is, a student wearing a student’s cap! Kinoshita then takes us on a brief detour through Japan’s major universities demonstrating that no one is so uncool as to wear a student’s cap in the age of protest, drawing a direct contrast to the student comedies of old while showing us a series of scenes of students “playing” hard with part-time jobs in bands or as models, training hard in preparation for the upcoming Olympics, fomenting the revolution, or fighting in the streets. In the first of many meta touches, our hero, Mori, is eventually woken by the narrator after falling asleep in class, his eyes “gleaming with hopes for the future”. 

Or, perhaps not, he’s just tired. Mori (Tsutomu Matsukawa) is as he describes himself a man without hopes or dreams who believes that the road ahead of him is “pitch black”. Dropping a brush from the window washers’ platform at one of his part-time jobs, he asks himself if there shouldn’t be more to life than this. The only son of his widowed mother, he’s pinned everything on graduating from a top university but feels powerless and empty, adrift in the post-war landscape. Where his calculating friend Miyamoto (Yusuke Kawazu) fills the void with romance and a determination to “get lots of As” and then land a top job, his roommate Okada (Shinichiro Mikami) earnestly studies hard afraid to disappoint his austere family but also quietly resentful in his lack of autonomy, and the dopey Hirao (Kei Yamamoto) simply goes about being nice to people more or less forcing them to eat the traditional treats his loving mother is forever sending. 

Yet for all the bleakness Mori seems to see in his future, he only ever falls up. Luck follows him and he’s presented with ever more fantastic opportunities at every turn. In fact, it’s his slightly grumpy expression as he cleans the windows of an office building that leads to them snapping a picture and making him a cover star without ever bothering to ask his permission though they do eventually pay. Still Mori remains indifferent, telling a reporter who tries to interview him that he had nothing to do with the cover, he has no dreams or aspirations for the future but lives his life day by day. He describes himself only as “nervous”. His words run ironically over the magazine literally becoming tomorrow’s chip paper, used by a stall owner to wrap her croquettes, as a stand for a hot pot, and otherwise bundled up to be pulped. Nevertheless, the cover leads to great opportunities from a TV network looking for a fresh face to front their new youth-orientated drama serial. 

Despite all the promise, Mori remains indifferent, later irritating a new colleague and potential love interest (Shima Iwashita) when he idly suggests he might just give up acting and fall back on the salaryman dream. As she points out, she had to fight all the way to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress so hearing someone say they’re going to throw away a tremendous opportunity that came to them entirely by chance is mildly offensive. Miyamoto meanwhile is growing lowkey resentful, realising that maybe nothing matters after all it’s all just dumb luck. Mori deliberately didn’t do anything because he thought his life was pointless but everything has landed right at his feet while Miyamoto’s life is crumbling. He’s lost all his girlfriends and endured a lonely New Year alone in the dorm, coming to the conclusion that his future really is “pitch black”.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to remain resentful about a friend’s accidental success and so each of the men eventually finds direction in even in directionlessness. Mori realises that he might as well ride his wave of fame for as long as it lasts, accepting in part at least his sense of powerlessness, while Okada does the reverse in deciding to rebel against his authoritarian family by marrying in secret. Miyamoto resolves to make a success of himself in his own way, and Hirao seemingly accepts the hand fate has dealt him with good humour. Kinoshita ramps up the meta comedy with Mori joining Shochiku, encouraged to try and work for that “excellent” director Keisuke Kinoshita, later referencing Garden of Women, while Mariko Okada and Keiji Sada turn up as onstage guests at an event launching him as a young actor. Playfully using outdated, quirky screen wipes and opening with an artsy title sequence featuring colourful confetti falling up, Kinoshita perhaps adopts a slightly ironic tone in satirising the all pervasive sense of confusion and hopelessness among the younger generation but does so with only sympathy for those coming of age in uncertain times.