The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1947)

The Japan of 1947 was one still very much caught up in post-war chaos. In the cities, most particularly, hunger was a major problem. The Fellows Who Ate the Elephant (象を喰つた連中, Zo wo Kutta Renchu) may have a title that strongly recalls the screwball comedies of the ’30s, but is less slapstick comedy than dark satire in its central premise that a bunch of idiot mad scientists might actually eat a deceased elephant in extreme dedication to “mottainai” waste not want not philosophy coupled with the justification that all is permissible in the name of science. 

The elephant is, apparently, the last in Japan and was the childhood friend of zookeeper Yamashita (Chishu Ryu) who brought him all the way over the mountains from Thailand after the war. “Shiro-chan” is very ill with some kind of elephant cold but for some reason the doctors the zoo uses aren’t vets specialising in large, exotic animals but virologists. While they stand around apparently mystified, Yamashita enquires after the professor he usually deals with but is told that, despite being over 60 years of age, he’s currently away on honeymoon after marrying a very young and extremely beautiful woman. Sadly, Shiro doesn’t make it. The professor is saddened to learn of the death from the paper and wonders if it might have been a virus similar to one which attacks hoofed animals like donkeys and horses but is not usually found in Japan (Shiro is Thai after all). 

This is relevant because the disease is fatal and contagious but does not usually pass to humans and is only a risk if you come into direct contact with it, like say if you eat meat from an infected animal. No one would eat an elephant though so there’s nothing to worry about. Enter extremely unpleasant mad scientist Wada (Shinichi Himori) who decides that science dictates they must find out if it’s sanitary to eat elephant meat. Though Wada ropes in fellow scientist Baba (Yasumi Hara) with his scientific justifications, he tricks the other two into eating some without telling them what it is. Unforgivably, he even gives some to Yamashita and seems to get a kick out of feeding him his own childhood friend when Yamashita had only come on instruction from his boss to apologise for being over emotional the day before. Yamashita leaves feeling sick after Wada tells him what he was eating for additional effect, but his wife (Chiyoko Fumiya) later remembers a story he told her about fellow elephant drivers in Thailand who ate some elephant meat from an infected animal and were dead within 30 hours. 

After hearing Yamashita’s concerns, the scientists begin investigating and indeed find cases of people dying after eating contaminated meat. The only cure is the serum they use to treat the horse infection the professor mentioned, but it seems nowhere has any in stock (the disease is rare in Japan after all). The idiot scientists come to the conclusion they will die in exactly 30 hours’ time and decide to put their affairs in order rather than consult an actual doctor who might be able to help them. This mostly involves trying to explain their foolishness to their wives. Watanabe (Takashi Kanda) is a father of three with another child on the way. He regrets that he hasn’t been present enough in his family life and has failed to adequately provide for his wife who he will shortly be leaving to raise four children alone. Nomura (Toru Abe) meanwhile is an uxorious newlywed constantly worried that his wife (Kyoko Asagiri), who already dislikes Wada for being a bad influence on her husband, will not be able to bear the anxiety of knowing he may soon die. Baba who has only his parents retreats back to his old country home to apologise for not being a better son. 

Wada, meanwhile, moans about everyone else’s understandable desires to comfort their wives and families. He criticises Yamashita for trying to excuse himself because he’d rather go home and have dinner with his wife, while mocking Nomura for being a henpecked husband. This might partly be because he has no wife or family of his own and is currently chasing after Tomie (Akemi Sora), a maid at his boarding house, who seems pretty indifferent or even hostile to his attentions, joking that she’d celebrate on hearing of his demise. She eventually agrees to go out with him, but only if he really dies. Other than the wives, no-one quite believes the guys’ bizarre story. Baba’s parents even try to stop him going back to Tokyo when a potential cure is located in case he goes “even more mad”. 

In these trying times, the idea that someone might try to eat a dead elephant is perhaps not quite as ridiculous as it might first seem. The act of trying it, however, also plays into the constant critiques of bad or irresponsible science which are a mainstay of films in the immediate post-war era. Wada knows that he can and so he doesn’t bother to think about if he should, spinning tales of Jenner and Koch as if they’re about to make some grand lifesaving discovery. His brush with death does at least begin to humble him as he finally accepts responsibility for the unexpected consequences of his cruel prank, realising that as a man with no wife or family it should perhaps be him if anyone is going to have to make a sacrifice. Finally someone manages to get through to the professor on the phone who tells them they’re all very stupid and haven’t thought of something perfectly obvious that makes all their panicking completely pointless, but at least the surreal 30-hour near death experience has brought out a warmer side of Wada and given a few irresponsible scientists a quick lesson in social responsibility. 


Inn of the Floating Weeds (浮草の宿, Seijun Suzuki, 1957)

Another of Nikkatsu’s crime inflected pop song movies, Inn of the Floating Weeds (浮草の宿, Ukigusa no Yado) makes space for the singer of the song which gives the film its name, Hachiro Kasuga, but only in a minor role as a supportive friend. Directed by Seijun Suzuki under his birth name Seitaro (he’d change it to Seijun for Underworld Beauty the following year), the film is in some ways typical of his early work as a B-movie director at the studio but nevertheless displays flashes of his later brilliance in its unconventional composition and wistful sense of irony. 

Company man Shunji (Hideaki Nitani) gets into a fight during which Shida, a high ranking executive at Marubishi construction, is stabbed to death. Shunji is kicked into the water and left for dead, while his fiancée, Kozue (Hisano Yamaoka), pines for him at a nearby bar. Five years later Shunji resurfaces hoping to reunite with Kozue after having fled to Hong Kong and taken a job at a shipping company. At the bar, however, he discovers a woman that looks exactly like his lost love but turns out to be her younger sister, Mio (also played by Hisano Yamaoka), the bar’s madam and apparently the mistress of Murayama (Toru Abe), the current head of Marubishi. 

Shunji’s survival and subsequent reappearance is inconvenient for everyone so it’s no surprise that Murayama wants to have him bumped off, but Shunji is determined to stay and find out what’s happened to Kozue who, according to her sister, went missing in suspicious circumstances three years earlier while desperately searching for Shunji. 

Haunted by memories of lost love, Shunji finds himself drawn to the mysterious Mio who closely resembles her sister, while pulled towards a nexus of criminal activity unwittingly positioned between Murayama’s Marubishi and the avaricious interests of his American colleagues operating out of Hong Kong. Indeed, Shunji has himself it seems taken on an alternate identity as Hong Konger Kang Ho-chun, interpreter to the mysterious Mr. Green (Harold Conway). Perhaps still naive, Shunji appears to be unaware of his boss’ shadiness, warned off by good Samaritan Haruo (Hachiro Kasuga) who rescues him after he’s beaten up by Marubishi goons and allows him to rest in his apartment where he’s nursed back to health by his cheerful kid sister Yuri (Ikuko Kimuro). 

The strange goings on on the Saganmaru perhaps testify to an ambivalence with Japan’s new globalising presence which echoes through Nikkatsu’s “borderless” action dramas. Mr. Green is certainly not on the level, later revealed to be involved with drug smuggling through Marubishi and employing a large number of Chinese stewards (he operates out of Hong Kong after all) which plays into a sense of Sinophobia common across the series. The major problem, however, is Murayama whom Shunji later learns tried to assault Kozue after he left and may be connected with her disappearance. Perhaps trying to warn him off, Mio fires back at Shunji that this all his own fault, that Kozue couldn’t live with the knowledge he was a murderer and in the end he broke her heart, while he meekly protests his innocence and vows revenge on Murayama.

Meanwhile, he’s pulled back towards innocence by Haruo and his relentlessly cheerful sister who has obviously taken a liking to him. Mio, echoing the femme fatale, remains enigmatic, concealing key information about her sister, later confessing that she too has been desperate for vengeance but fears that Murayama has grown too powerful. Haruo, singing the mournful song about past regrets and lost love, observes from the sidelines trying to decide if Shunji is rotten inside or merely in danger of being swallowed by a vortex of crime and violence. 

Yet, as it so often is, the gangster world is in danger of collapse, destroying itself through internecine power struggles and petty betrayals. Murayama thinks he’s the top dog but there’s always someone agitating from below. Shunji, didn’t kill Shida, and maybe he’s close enough to finding out who did, clearing his name while figuring out what happened to Kozue, but in someways it hardly matters because the true battle is for the future, not the past. Like the singer of the song, he reflects on what a fool he’s been, resolving to put the past aside as he walks towards a less complicated future and an eventual return to a compassionate and forgiving society.


Title song by Hachiro Kasuga

Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

“No one can be happy without money” the villain of Seijun Suzuki’s Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Ankokugai no Bijo) claims, vainly trying to justify his actions. He may indeed have a point, but you can’t buy happiness through selfish immorality. A noirish tale of changing times, Underworld Beauty pits a noble hearted gangster on the road towards reform against his amoral bosses as he tries to ensure a better future for the sister of a friend whose life was irreparably changed through proximity to crime. 

Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima) has just been released from three years in prison. His first stop is the sewers where he locates a loose brick he’d been using as a dead drop and retrieves a handgun and a small bag containing three diamonds stolen in the heist which got him sent away. Paying a visit to his old gang, Miyamoto makes it plain that he intends to keep the diamonds for himself so that he can sell them and give the money to Mihara (Toru Abe), the man who was crippled during the job and now lives an “honest” life running a small oden stall. To Miyamoto’s surprise, his boss, Oyane (Shinsuke Ashida), says OK and offers to set him up with a foreigner in Yokohama who is interested in buying blackmarket jewels. Unfortunately, the whole thing goes south in predictable fashion when a gang of masked heavies turns up to disrupt the deal. Mihara, who had come along with Miyamoto, swallows the diamonds and promptly falls off a nearby wall. He survives just long enough to tell the police that he “slipped” thanks to his unsteady legs, which makes his death “accidental” meaning he won’t have to undergo an autopsy. That’s both good and bad for the crooks. The cops won’t find the diamonds, but getting them back before the body is burned is going to be difficult. 

Arita (Hiroshi Kondo), a sculptor of mannequins, finds himself perfectly primed to find a solution because he’s been dating Mihara’s little sister, Akiko (Mari Shiraki), who’d been working as a nude model. Mihara had talked to Miyamoto about his sister and his fears for her in the big city. Feeling his debt even more since his friend’s death, Miyamoto decides to save Akiko from the evils of city life, but finds himself fighting an uphill battle. Meanwhile, Akiko is smitten with the intellectual yet cold Arita, who may perhaps be more interested in her for access to her brother’s body than to her own. 

The diamonds themselves become a kind of MacGuffin and symbol of amoral post-war greed. Having been away for three years, Miyamoto is the classically conflicted film noir hero, a noble yet compromised figure forced to operate in a murky moral universe that is at odds with his own sense of justice. That is perhaps why he tries so hard to “save” Akiko even if she resents his sometimes patronising paternalism that, well-meaning as it is, denies her the agency that is a mark of the age. Mihara warned his sister about hanging out with Arita, suspecting he was a no good guy likely to drag her further into the underworld which he had now escaped, but she sees him as “different” from the men around her, mistaking his coolness for sophistication rather than a possibly sociopathic superiority complex. 

Yet it’s perhaps a sense of inferiority which sends him so crazy about the diamonds. A tortured artist slumming it in a mannequin factory, he resents the way he’s chosen to “sell” his art while superficially laughing at those who buy it. There is something quite perverse in the various ways he is “using” Akiko, literally commodifying her body and turning it into a lifeless object, a simulacrum of “real” womanhood sans voice or agency, all the while planning to use her in order to get his hands on the diamonds. Figuring out Arita may have mutilated her brother’s body in order to dig them out, she wonders if he ever really loved her at all. His sudden declarations of affection and an impromptu proposal only further convince her that what he wants is money. She hides the diamonds inside the breast of a half-baked mannequin, just about where the heart ought to be. Later we spot the poor thing dismembered and abandoned, a gaping hole in its chest as it floats ominously in the sewer, discarded in just the way a woman like Akiko might be if she’d let a man like Arita get his hands on the loot. 

Kidnapped as leverage to force Miyamoto to hand the diamonds over, Akiko loses her fascination with underworld darkness in learning what the “yakuza code” really means. “What do you mean, the yakuza way?” She barks at Oyane, “it’s wrong to kill, you idiot!”. Literally steamed clean and making an ironic escape up a coal shoot, she edges towards a new dawn. “What a beautiful day!” She exclaims, declaring herself not bored in the least, freed from the false promises of the underworld and released from the diamonds’ corruption into the bright sunshine of a wide open future.


Tales of Ginza (銀座二十四帖, Yuzo Kawashima, 1955)

“If we all work together we can make Ginza’s night, no the whole world, bright and at peace” insists the hero of Yuzo Kawashima’s chronicle of changing times Tales of Ginza (銀座二十四帖, Ginza 24 Chou), trying to sell a brighter post-war future to a jaded reactionary. By 1955, the consumerist revolution was already on the horizon, and nowhere did it beckon as invitingly as in the upscale Ginza with its elegant department stores and swanky nightlife, but as Hiroshi Shimizu’s Tokyo Profile had shown two years earlier, it wasn’t all glitz and glamour. The world looked very different to the people who lived and worked in the city within a city than it did to those who just dropped in to have a good time. 

Our hero, the incongruously named Mr. Coney (Tatsuya Mihashi), is an earnest florist doing his best to brighten up the city. He’s taken three orphaned teenage girls into his shop, allowing them to support themselves honestly while he teaches them valuable skills, and has also employed the rather less earnest Jeep (Asao Sano). Jeep has had trouble with drug dependency in the past and, Coney fears, is drawn to the easy pleasures of the post-war underworld. The main drama kicks into gear when the upper middle-class Wakako (Yumeji Tsukioka) wanders past the shop and fancies a few roses, asking one of the girls to deliver them to her home later in the day. 

Wakako is currently in the middle of arranging some paintings which belonged to her late father for an exhibition in a gallery where she hopes to sell them. As we discover, she’s in need of money fast because she’s become estranged from her husband, Kyogoku (Seizaburo Kawazu), who has been seduced by post-war criminality. Wakako wants a divorce, but the situation is complicated by the fact her mother-in-law has taken custody of her daughter. In the course of sorting through paintings, the gallery owner spots one Wakako didn’t really want to part with – a portrait of herself as a teenager painted by one of her father’s apprentices when they lived in Manchuria during the war. The painting is signed “G.M”, and the only concrete thing Wakako can remember is that the boy was called “Goro” and was a beautiful, kind soul whom she’d dearly like to see again. 

The “G.M” mystery begins to whip up a small storm in the already volatile Ginza. Coney comes to believe that his older brother, whom he’d long believed to be dead, may be the man Wakako’s looking for but he doesn’t really want to say so until he’s 100% certain. Meanwhile, there are a surprising number of GMs in the city, including a rather sleazy, womanising “doctor” (Toru Abe) who goes to the papers and tells them he painted the picture though Wakako is not convinced and would be a little disappointed to think the man she wondered about all those years turned out to be a cheesy lounge lizard. Other contenders include a melancholy baseball scout (Shinsuke Ashida) who turns out to have connections to the underworld, and, unbeknownst to Coney, the drugs kingpin of post-war Japan known as the “G.M. of Ginza”. 

Drugs are something that Coney is particularly worried about. He’s seen the effect they’re having on his city, and resents that their influence is making Ginza “dark”. The orphaned girls he has working at the shop all lost their parents to drug abuse, and Coney has made getting Jeep off the stuff a primary goal. Jeep, however, is unconvinced. He thinks Coney is a sucker, and that floristry isn’t a profession for a grown man. In part, he’s kicking back against Coney’s well-meaning paternalism, but is also attracted by the flashing neon signs and easy pleasures of the modern Ginza of which the drugs trade is an increasingly big part. For Jeep, the post-war future is one of amoral and thoughtless hedonism, getting rich quick though low level, “innocent” crime, like peddling drugs and porn. 

Wakako too is tempted by that future, though mostly through lack of other options. She’s planning to open a bar with the money from the paintings, but eventually decides to go into business with Coney, working for his brighter future in the florist’s. The pair perhaps fall in love, but the future is still too uncertain for romance. Wakako refuses to see her husband, insisting only on obtaining a divorce and with it her freedom. Coney volunteers to talk to him on her behalf, essentially arguing that his wife will he happier with him because the kind of future they desire is essentially the same. Kyogoku cannot really argue with him. He is a sad and broken man who realises that his choices have robbed him of the future he desired, forced onto the run unable to see his wife and daughter. He justifies himself with the rationale that if he didn’t run drugs in Ginza, “foreigners” would take over and crime would be rampant. He claims that life is survival of the fittest, and that he has no need of love. Kyogoku never felt loved by the aristocratic mother who raised him only as an heir to their name. The only time he felt loved was by his best friend who was, he says, murdered because he lacked power and because his good heart made him weak. 

There maybe something a little reactionary in Coney’s moral absolutism. He condemns his brother for getting involved with student politics which made him “hate Japan”, though he later signs a student petition himself, and has only contempt for Ginza’s famous nightlife while willingly wandering through it selling flowers to romantically-minded guys in bars, but does his best to avoid judgment as he tries to coax those he feels have strayed back onto a better path. Coney believes in a brighter future where good people work together peacefully, while the Kyogokus of the world are content to plunge us all into darkness in a nihilistic pursuit of empty pleasures. No one really “wins” in the end. Coney gets some answers, but remains too diffident to fight for love, while Wakako is perhaps prevented from doing so in feeling called towards another kind of future, which is in effect the past, because of her maternity. Ginza is changing, and you can’t change it back, but you can do your best to be your best, saying it with flowers if with nothing else.


Currently available to stream on Mubi in the US.

Opening titles (no subtitles)

Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies (ペン偽らず 暴力の街, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1950)

vlcsnap-2020-01-16-00h05m26s354The immediate post-war era was one marked by fear and anxiety. The world had turned upside down, food was scarce, and desperation had provoked a widespread moral decline which rendered compassion a luxury many thought they could ill afford. Yet, in hitting rock bottom there was also the opportunity to rebuild the world better than it had been before. Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies (ペン偽らず 暴力の街, Pen Itsuwarazu Boryoku no Machi), is one of many pro-democracy films arriving in the wake of Japan’s new constitution and makes an unlikely hero of the local newspaperman as the sole means of speaking truth to power in the fierce belief that the people have a right to know.

Tojo, a small town Northwest of Tokyo, was once the centre of the silk trade but as the industry declined, it gradually became home to gangs and a hub for wartime black market shenanigans. The sad truth is that the growing nouveau riche middle-classes profiting from post-war shadiness have more or less got the town sewn up. The corrupt police force is in cahoots with the gangsters who call themselves a “police support organisation” and make a point of wining and dining the local police chief, while also making sure the local paper is firmly in their pocket. The trouble starts when rookie reporter Kita (Yasumi Hara) is invited to a policeman’s ball and figures out the whole thing is sponsored by the silk traders’ union, which he thinks is not quite right. He takes what he’s learned back to his editor and is warned off the story but publishes something anyway, quickly becoming a target for prominent “politician” Onishi (Masao Mishima).

Street of Violence opens with onscreen text taken from the press code which emphasises that mass media has a duty to preserve the truth. Kita’s paper had been in league with the police and the gangsters enabling the atmosphere of casual violence which is gradually consuming the town. Kita, a new recruit, is not yet inured to the way things are and immediately thinks his duty is to blow a whistle, most obviously on the corrupt police force and judiciary. He is only allowed to do so because the previous editor stepped down and a similarly idealistic older gentleman (Takashi Shimura) from out of town has taken over. He decides to fight back, standing up to the crypto-fascist goons by continuing to publish the truth about the links between the police, black market silk traders, gangsters, and the rest of the local press who eventually gain the courage to join him.

Onishi continues to masquerade as a “legitimate businessman” and “respectable politician” claiming that he’s “striving for democracy” to help the “downtrodden”, but is also responsible for directly targeting Kita’s mother and sister in an attempt to intimidate him. The editor assigns another reporter, Kawasaki (Ryo Ikebe), to keep Kita safe and starts trying to find locals who will consent to be interviewed about gang intimidation while Kita’s friends from the Youth Association generate a kind of resistance movement holding protests and handing out flyers condemning the atmosphere of violence which has ordinary citizens turning off their lights and avoiding going out after dark to protect themselves from thuggery.

The silent cause of all this strife is of course post-war privation which has made the blackmarket the only means of survival for those otherwise starving but has also given free rein to selfish immorality. The Onishis of the world, the spineless police chief, and the cynical local press, have all abnegated their human responsibilities in wilfully taking advantage of a bad situation to further their own cause. When the press chooses not to turn a blind eye to entrenched corruption, it raises a flag that ordinary people can follow. Too intimidated to speak out, the townspeople had been living in fear but post-war youth has the courage to say no and demand a better future. A mass rally crying out “democracy” and insisting on an end to the cronyism and the corrupt systems of pre-war feudalism produces a people power revolution that can’t be ignored, forcing Onishi into submission, and a clean out of corrupt law enforcement. But, the earnest voice over reminds us, the victory is only partial – violence still exists and will rise again when it thinks no one’s looking. The press, most of all, cannot afford to look away if “democracy” is to be maintained.


The Portrait (肖像, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)

vlcsnap-2018-09-06-01h35m07s763The immediate post-war period was one of fear and hardship. You might survive, but you might not like the person you’ll have to become in order to do so. The (unexpected) heroine of Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Portrait (肖像, Shozo) thought she’d made her peace with her choices, only to be confronted by a vision of her essential self as seen through the eyes of a cheerfully innocent artist. Despite the harshness of the times, there are those who’ve learned to be happy in their lot, but is their talent for happiness inspiration or irritation for those who’ve chosen a different path?

Kinoshita opens with a comic scene in which two shady real estate brokers take a look at a local property. Deciding it’s overpriced and impractical, the pair nevertheless decide to buy it together with the intention of flipping it once they convert the downstairs workspace into more practical living accommodation. There is, however, a slight hitch in that there are sitting tenants – a painter and his family who live in the room upstairs and use the rooms below as a studio. Thinking it will be easy enough to evict them, the men aren’t bothered but the the family are all so relentlessly nice that no one has yet been able to tell them to go. As a last resort, one of the men, Kaneko (Eitaro Ozawa), decides to move into the upstairs with his mistress, Midori (Kuniko Igawa), in the hope that the family will feel so awkward and in the way they will decide to vacate. Innocent and unworldly, the Nomuras all assume Midori is her lover’s daughter rather than his mistress, and start treating her like a well to do young lady. Such sudden and unexpected respect starts to weigh on Midori’s mind as she finds herself playing along, pretending to be “nice” and “respectable” while knowing that the life she’s living is anything but.

The problem is that the Nomuras are so essentially kind and welcoming that they really don’t mind sharing the house. Mr. Nomura (Ichiro Sugai), the middle-aged painter, feels guilty that he doesn’t earn more money and is too poor to move, but he’s also the sort to get over excited about having grown a giant pumpkin that he can’t resist showing to absolutely everyone. As it turns out the Nomuras are also living with a private tragedy – their eldest son Ichiro (Toru Abe) whose wife Kumiko (Kuniko Miyake) and son Koichi also live with the family has not yet returned home from the war and his whereabouts are unknown. Still, they don’t mind talking about it and are as happy as they can be, dancing away under the light of the moon – an unexpected upside to constant power outages. Meanwhile, Kaneko complains loudly as he attempts to finish his accounts in the evening gloom.

Midori half envies, half resents her new neighbours. The longer she lives with the Nomuras the guiltier she starts to feel in deceiving them. Matters begin to come to a head when Mr. Nomura asks permission to paint her portrait. He thinks Midori has a very “interesting” face, in part because he can see a sadness in her eyes that is totally absent in those of his daughter, Yoko (Yoko Katsuragi). Midori agrees and swaps her usual Western attire for the kimono her mother once gave her, but the picture Mr. Nomura paints begins to bother her. The portrait is of a pure young woman, innocent and honest, which is about as far from the way she sees herself as it’s possible to be.

As a friend of Midori’s puts it, you have to survive somehow and Midori thought she’d made her peace with the way she has decided to live but the portrait reminds her that she wasn’t always like this and now she’s not sure which version of herself she ought to despise. She wishes she could paint herself over, but feels her fate is sealed and there’s no way back. Kumiko, a little more worldly wise than her in-laws, is perfectly aware of what’s been going on upstairs but isn’t at all bothered by it. She doesn’t blame Midori for the choices that she’s made and thinks the picture is accurate in capturing her true soul, advising her that it is possible to be that woman again if that’s what she really wants.

The Portrait was scripted by none other than Akira Kurosawa whose belief in the essential goodness of humanity was perhaps not quite as strong as Kinoshita’s but the Nomuras are nevertheless typical Kinoshita heroes and it’s their unguarded warmth and kindness which begins to change the world for those around them. Even the cynical Kaneko is eventually moved by their cheerful selflessness, forced to accept their accidental moral victory rather than continue with his nefarious plan. Midori, forced into a reconsideration of herself, stands in for a generation attempting to make peace with the compromises of the past, learning that they don’t need to define the future and that it isn’t too late to strive for a more authentic life of simple happiness even if you feel you may have already sunk too far.


The Nomuras dancing in the moonlight

The Boy Who Came Back (踏みはずした春, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

the boy who came back posterSeijun Suzuki may have been fired for making films that made no sense and no money, but he had to start somewhere before getting the opportunity to push the boat out. Suzuki’s early career was much like that of any low ranking director at Nikkatsu in that he was handed a number of program pictures often intended to push a pop song or starring one of the up and coming stars in the studio’s expanding youth output. The Boy Who Came Back (踏みはずした春, Fumihazushita Haru, AKA The Spring that Never Came) is among these early efforts and marks an early leading role for later pinup star Akira Kobayashi paired with his soon to be frequent leading lady, Ruriko Asaoka. A reform school tale, the film is a restrained affair for Suzuki who keeps the rage quelled for the most part while his hero struggles ever onward in a world which just won’t let him be.

Keiko (Sachiko Hidari) is a conductress on a tour bus, but she has aspirations towards doing good in the world and is also a member of the volunteer organisation, Big Brothers and Sisters. While the other girls are busy gossiping about one of their number who has just got engaged (but doesn’t look too happy about it), Keiko gets a message to call in to “BBS” and is excited to learn she’s earned her first assignment. Keiko will be mentoring Nobuo (Akira Kobayashi) – a young man getting out of reform school after his second offence (assault & battery + trying to throttle his father with a necktie, time added for plotting a mass escape). Nobuo, however, is an angry young man who’s done all this before, he’s not much interested in being reformed and just wants to be left alone to get back to being the cool as ice lone wolf that he’s convinced himself he really is.

Made to appeal to young men, The Boy Who Came Back has a strong social justice theme with Keiko’s well meaning desire to help held up as a public service even if her friends and family worry for her safety and think she’s wasting her time on a load of ne’er do wells. Apparently an extra-governmental organisation, BBS has no religious agenda but is committed to working with troubled young people to help them overcome their problems and reintegrate into society.

Reintegration is Nobuo’s biggest problem. He’s committed to going straight but he’s proud and unwilling to accept the help of others. He turns down Keiko’s offer to help him find work because he assumes it will be easy enough to find a job, but there are no jobs to be had in the economically straightened world of 1958 – one of the reasons Keiko’s mother thinks the BBS is pointless is because no matter how many you save there will always be more tempted by crime because of the “difficult times”. When he calms down and comes back, agreeing to an interview for work at his mother’s factory Nobuo leaves in a rage after an employee gives him a funny look. There are few jobs for young men, but there are none for “punks” who’ve been in juvie. Every time things are looking up for Nobuo, his delinquent past comes back to haunt him.

This is more literally true when an old enemy re-enters Nobuo’s life with the express intention of derailing it. His punk buddies don’t like it that he’s gone straight, and his arch rival is still after Nobuo’s girl, Kazue (Ruriko Asaoka). If Nobuo is going to get “reformed” he’ll have to solve the problem with Kajita (Jo Shishido) and his guys, but if he does it in the usual way, he’ll land up right in the slammer. Keiko’s dilemma is one of getting too involved or not involved enough – she needs to teach Nobuo to fix his self image issues (which are largely social issues too seeing as they relate to familial dysfunction – a violent father and emotionally distant mother creating an angry, fragile young man who thinks he’s worthless and no one will ever really love him) for himself, rather than try to fix them for him.

A typical program picture of the time, The Boy Who Came Back does not provide much scope for Suzuki’s rampant imagination, but it does feature his gift for unusual framing and editing techniques as well as his comparatively more liberal use of song and dance sequences in the (not quite so sleazy) bars and cabarets that Nobuo and his ilk frequent. Unlike many a Nikkatsu youth movie, The Boy Who Came Back has a happy ending as everyone, including the earnest Keiko, learns to sort out their various difficulties and walks cheerfully out into the suddenly brighter future with a much more certain footing.


The Boy Who Came Back is the first of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Attack on the police van clip (English subtitles)

The Eternal Breasts (乳房よ永遠なれ, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955)

(c) Nikkatsu 1955

(c) Nikkatsu 1955Having made her directorial debut for Shin Toho with the beautifully drawn post-war romantic melodrama Love Letter scripted by Keisuke Kinoshita, and then moving on to her second film after being accepted as a career director at Nikkatsu – the Ozu scripted humorous romantic family drama The Moon Has Risen, Tanaka chose to work with female script writer Sumie Tanaka (no relation) for a tale of female resilience and resistance in the face of extreme suffering. Fumiko Nakajo was a real life figure who had died of breast cancer at the age of 31 in 1954. The Eternal Breasts (乳房よ永遠なれ, Chibusa yo Eien Nare) , a biopic of sorts, was released in 1955, barely a year later but makes no concession to the recency of Nakajo’s passing in examining both the still taboo subject of breast cancer and the effects of the disease and its treatment on the heroine who, arguably, finally learns to become herself through battling her illness.

Fumiko Shimojo, née Nakajo, (Yumeji Tsukioka) is the wife of a grumpy, resentful stock broker and the mother of their two children, Noboru and Aiko. It’s clear that things in the Shimojo household are far from peaceful with the discord between husband and wife a talking point throughout the local community. Despite her husband’s claims to the contrary, Fumiko is the dutiful “good wife” of the period, trying hard to make her marriage work even in the face of her husband’s ongoing resentment and thinly veiled inferiority complex given Fumiko’s slightly elevated class credentials and education. To get away from her disappointing home life Fumiko has joined a local poetry circle specialising in tanka and is well known for the gritty realism of her poems in which she expresses all of her suffering and unhappiness in regards to life with her husband. When she comes home early one day and finds a woman dressed in kimono entertaining her man, she decides it’s time for a divorce, reverts to her maiden name of Nakajo, and goes back to live with her mother and soon-to-be-married brother, regretting only that her husband insists on custody of their son, Noboru.

The early part of the film deals with the equally taboo subjects of divorce and family breakdown as Fumiko struggles to adjust to her life as a single mother as well as coming to terms with being separated from her son. Though she is often approached by matchmakers and encouraged to remarry, her experience of married life has left her reluctant to commit to a second round of matrimonial subjugation. Her mother, whom she partly blames for pushing her into a marriage she never wanted in the first place, and her brother are fully on her side as are her friends, the Horis – a Christian couple who champion her poetry and act almost as a set of second parents despite being only a little older than she is.

Released from matrimonial shackles, Fumiko is free to embrace her life as a poetess even if she never dreams of any kind of literary success. As the tactless women at the poetry circle put it, pain is good for art and it’s certainly true that each advance in Fumiko’s fortunes is accompanied by emotional suffering. Struggling to cope with the divorce and the children, Fumiko neglects chest pains and a strange feeling in her breast only to keel over when an unpleasant woman arrives to reclaim Noboru with whom she thought she’d finally been reunited.

Diagnosed with late stage breast cancer, Fumiko undergoes a double mastectomy. Refusing to shy away from the medical consequences, Tanaka films the surgery as a kind of fever dream as the bright surgery lights loom over Fumiko whose breasts appear in full view as the surgeons prepare to do their work. The loss of Fumiko’s breasts results in one of her most famous poems, published in a national newspaper, but the physical and emotional consequences are not so easily defined. Before her illness we’re constantly told that young Fumiko was a “tom boy”, and at times it appears as if she has been unsexed after being shorn of her femininity. According to her brother, however, Fumiko has become more like a child – something that rings true as she gaily sings in the bath and almost delights in shocking her friend by flashing her surgery scars unannounced. Mrs. Hori, Kinuko (Yoko Sugi), generally a kind and progressive sort, can hardly bear to look and is unwilling to engage with the physical reality of Fumiko’s condition as much as she would like to help her.

Despite proclaiming that at least she won’t be bothered with marriage proposals anymore, Fumiko’s “unsexing” appears to have the opposite effect in reawakening and intensifying her sense of desire. Earlier on, post-divorce and hiding out from her brother’s wedding at which she feels an awkward guest, Fumiko visits Hori (Masayuki Mori) and confesses her love for him though she knows nothing will come of it. Her love is, however, pure – she also loves and respects Hori’s wife Kinuko safe in the knowledge that Kinuko makes Hori happy. After her operation she returns to the Hori’s home and asks Kinuko to run her a bath so that she can bathe in the same water as her beloved – confessing to her friend that she had been in love with her husband. Kinuko seems to know already and is sympathetic, if a little embarrassed. This same boldness later manifests itself in Fumiko’s last great act of passion in which she embarks on a brief yet intense affair with the journalist (Ryoji Hayama) who is covering her career for a paper in Tokyo.

Fumiko’s relationship with the reporter is originally compromised by his overly gloomy copy which proclaims that her death is only a matter of time (then again, for whom is that not true?). Fearing that her death is being fetishised, that no one would be giving her a second glance if she were not dying, Fumiko refuses to write or have visitors. Just as she was “imprisoned” within her marriage, she is now “imprisoned’ by death. As she puts it in one of her poems, the hospital ward is a gloomy place in which she’s often framed by bars – through the windows, through the footboard of her bed, even the hospital kimono she is wearing is patterned with tiny railings. In an eerie, dream-like sequence she wanders out of her room and follows a parade of wailing relatives as a body is wheeled away but just as she is about to leave the metal gate slides shut in front of her, trapping Fumiko like a ghost in the purgatorial world of the hospital ward as she realises that that same gate will be her only exit route.

The same image is repeated at the end of the film as Fumiko’s own bed is wheeled through the mortuary gates which slam shut across the eyes of her confused children who have been left entirely on their own and without a proper explanation of where their mum is going. Fumiko’s final poem is crushing in its anger and ambivalence as it instructs her children to accept her death as the only thing she has to bequeath them. This terrible legacy seems too cruel, condemning her children to a life of grief and mourning even as she instructs them to “accept” her passing. Yet it also speaks of the final contradictions of her character – loving mother and passionate woman, fierce poet and shy genius. Unlike the sickly heroines of melodrama, Fumiko does not always bear her suffering with saintly stoicism but rages, finally embracing the “true self” she only dared to express through her poetry, learning to live only in the knowledge that she must die.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)

north sea dragon dvd cover.jpgAt the beginning of the 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity would put the ninkyo eiga firmly to bed, but in the mid-1960s, they were still his bread and butter. Fukasaku’s earlier career at Toei leant towards the studio’s preference for youthful rebellion but with a stronger trend towards standardised gangster tropes than the countercultural thrills to be found in similar offerings from Nikkatsu. For Fukasaku the rebellion is less cool affectation than it is a necessary revolt against increasing post-war inequality and a constraining society though, as the heroes of If You Were Young, Rage or Blackmail is My Life find out, escape can rarely be found by illicit means. Jiro, the prodigal son of North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Hokkai no Abare-Ryu), finds something similar even whilst conforming almost entirely to Toei’s standard “young upstart saves the village” narrative.

Jiro (Tatsuo Umemiya), dressed in white with jet black sunshades, nonchalantly walks into his childhood fishing village filled with a sense of nostalgia and the expectation of a warm welcome. The village, however, is much changed. There are fewer boats around now, and the fishermen are all ashore. Arriving at his family home he discovers they now live in the boat shed and his mother doesn’t even want to let him in. Jiro, as his outfit implies, has spent his time away as a yakuza, and his family want little to do with him, especially as his father has been murdered by the soulless gangsters who are currently strangling the local fishing industry.

The local fishermen are all proudly tattooed but they aren’t yakuza, unlike the tyrannical son of the local boss, Gen Ashida (Hideo Murota), who carries around a double barrelled shotgun and fearsome sense of authority. The Ashidas have placed a stranglehold around the local harbour, dictating who may fish when and extracting a good deal of the profits. An attempt to bypass them does not go well for Jiro’s mother who is the only one brave enough to speak out against their cruel treatment even if it does her no good.

When Jiro arrives home for unexplained reasons he does so happily, fully expecting to be reunited with his estranged family. Not knowing that his father had died during his absence, Jiro also carries the guilt of never having had the opportunity to explain himself and apologise for the argument that led to him running away. An early, hot headed attempt to take his complaint directly to the Ashidas ends in disaster when he is defeated, bound, and whipped with thick fisherman’s rope but it does perhaps teach him a lesson.

The other boys from the village – Jiro’s younger brother Shinkichi (Hayato Tani) and the brother of his childhood friend Reiko (Eiko Azusa), Toshi (Jiro Okazaki), are just as eager as he is both to avenge the death of Jiro’s father and rid the village of the evil Ashida tyranny. Jiro tries to put them off by the means of a good old fashioned fist fight which shows them how ill equipped they are in comparison with the older, stronger, and more experienced Jiro but their youth makes them bold and impatient. The plot of Toshi and Shinkichi will have disastrous consequences, but also acts as a galvanising force convincing the villagers that the Ashidas have to go.

Jiro takes his natural place as the hero of a Toei gangster film by formulating a plan to undermine the Ashidas’ authority. His major strategic decision is to bide his time but he also disrupts the local economy by attempting to evade the Ashida net through sending the fisherman to other local ports and undercutting the Ashida profit margin. As predicted the Ashidas don’t like it, but cost themselves a crucial ally by ignoring the intense bond between their best fighter and his adorable pet dog. Things do not quite go to plan but just as it looks as if Jiro is about to seal his victory, he stays his sword. The Ashidas’ power is broken and they have lost enough already.

Fukasaku’s approach tallies with the classic narrative as the oppressive forces are ousted by a patient people pushed too far finally deciding to fight back and doing so with strategic intelligence. It is, in one sense, a happy ending but not one without costs as Jiro looks at the restored village with the colourful flags of fishing boats enlivening the harbour and everyone going busily about their work. He knows a sacrifice must be made to solidify his mini revolution and he knows who must make it. Like many a Toei hero before him, he prepares to walk away, no longer welcome in the world his violence has saved but can no longer support.


Original trailer (no subtitles)