The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Tai Kato, 1973)

After joining the studio in the mid-1950s, Tai Kato quickly made a reputation for himself with Toei’s key brand of ninkyo eiga yakuza movies set in the chivalrous world of pre-war gangsterdom. By the early 70s, however, the genre was already played out and Kato began to work more frequently with other studios and in various genres but 1973’s The Blossom and the Sword (日本侠花伝, Nihon kyoka den), produced for Toho the studio which he had first joined at the beginning of his career in 1937, takes him back to his ninkyo roots if less directly in a politicised tale revolving around the 1918 rice riots

The film opens, however, a few years earlier with the heroine, Mine (Hiroko Maki), attempting to sell children’s educational picture books aboard a train (an activity strictly prohibited). As she explains, they are in the middle of a recession and times are hard for everyone though as we discover the reason for Mine’s journey is that she is in the process of eloping with the mild-mannered Minoru (Kunio Murai), the son of a wealthy family with literary dreams, who is prevented from marrying her because of the class difference between them. The couple are doing well enough evading detection, but are caught out when accidentally implicated in the murder of a treacherous politician by left-wing agitator/noble gangster Seijiro (Tetsuya Watari) who fatefully locks eyes with Mine while trying to escape forever binding their fates together. 

Epic in length the film was originally released in two parts with an interval in-between, this first half focussing on Mine’s doomed romance which is thwarted in part by the outdated social codes of the early Taisho society and the moral cowardice of her lover who finds himself unable to resist them. The pair are thrown in prison as possible co-conspirators and beaten by the police, Mine striking up a friendship with a woman, Tsuru (Junko Toda), imprisoned for distributing pamphlets as a labour activist who later helps her to get a waitressing job and teaches her rudimentary writing while Minoru lounges around in their home sort of writing a novel. Tsuru seems to be touched by their cross-class romance, “where love is concerned to hell with social status!” she insists berating Minoru for giving in so easily when the pair are finally tracked down by his austere mother. Her socialist activism may not directly rub off on Mine but does perhaps inform her later actions after discovering the depths of Minoru’s spinelessness, rescued after a failed bid at double suicide by a truly good man, Kinzo (Meicho Soganoya), who also happens to be a traditional yakuza heading a harbour gang in Kobe. 

After becoming his wife, Mine comes to witness the persistent unfairness and exploitation all around her as mediated by the outcry surrounding the fluctuation of rice prices in the late 1910s caused by attempts at profiteering and the necessity of supplying the military forces then participating in the war in Europe. Meanwhile, would be local dictator and amoral yakuza Kishimoto (Toru Abe) is intent on squeezing the Osada gang out of the harbour further pushing up rice prices while in cahoots with corrupt local authorities. Seijiro re-enters her life when dispatched to assassinate Kinzo on the orders of Kishimoto but stabbing him as carefully as possible to make sure he doesn’t die, thereafter switching sides to fight for the rights of the poor who he warns face even greater oppression should a man like Kishimoto be allowed to dominate the harbour. 

With Kinzo out of action, Mine assumes her natural destiny as a local leader doing her best to stand up to Kishimoto and the corrupt authorities but still faces difficulty getting her voice heard without a man standing next to her. On taking Kinzo’s place at a meeting of local bosses, she is dismissed as “just a woman” before a sympathetic naval officer decides to hand her a lucrative job shifting rice intended for sailors overseas because of her knowledge of current affairs undercutting Kishimoto’s attempts to game the system. It’s the trust the navy have in her that later saves her again when she is arrested and brutally tortured by corrupt policemen working with Kishimoto intent on tracking down Seijiro for the murder on the train all those years previously. Mine’s rise is also in a sense Seijiro’s redemption as he atones for the attack on Kinzo, rejects his association with Kishimoto to re-embrace his socialist beliefs, and fulfils the romantic destiny sparked when their eyes met on the train. 

Drawing a direct line between burgeoning militarism and gangsterdom along with the amoral exploitations of an increasingly capitalist society, Kato makes his intentions clear by dropping a ninkyo eiga hero into a world of infinite corruptions in which he eventually becomes a defender of the poor. Kato’s striking composition and use of colour along with expressionistic imagery lend the air of legend implied by the title as Mine fights her way through the oppressions of her era as a figurehead for justice in an increasingly unjust society.


Rub Out the Past (日本暗黒街, Masaharu Segawa, 1966)

A former yakuza’s attempts to shed his old identity and start again as an upscale restaurateur are disrupted by the unwelcome appearance of an old acquaintance in Masaharu Segawa’s noirish drama, Rub Out the Past (日本暗黒街, Nihon Ankokugai). Another “akokugai” or “underworld” film, Segawa’s surprisingly subversive Toei crime story involves not only the drugs trade but hints of Manchurian transgression as the hero tries to forget his past while unable to realise his love for the daughter of a man he killed on the order of his boss. 

Now calling himself Yashiro, Kageyama (Koji Tsuruta) runs a swanky bar in Kobe and is in love with his pianist Yoko (Eiko Muramatsu) who is also, though she doesn’t know it, the daughter of a former associate back in his yakuza days whom he apparently killed for otherwise unclear reasons leaving Yoko and her mother alone and defenceless in Manchuria during the evacuation at the end of the war. When a mysterious man arrives and explains he’s from “Hayami Industries”, Kageyama is reluctant to listen but eventually forced to accompany him to Tokyo where he is led into Hayami’s rather swanky new office complete with electronic displays and workers positioned in tiny booths. Since the end of the war, Hayami has become a “respectable” businessman running some of Asia’s most prestigious hotels in addition to a chain of casinos. Yet his real business is of course in drug smuggling, which is a problem because the guy he put in charge of the Hong Kong route has drawn the attention of the police. He makes Kageyama an offer he can’t refuse ,much as he tries, to take it over. He accepts on the condition it’ll just be a one time thing. 

In any case, Kageyama’s involvement with Hayami soon costs him his relationship with Yoko, who is aware of Kageyama’s criminal past but blames Hayami for her father’s death, and with it a potential for redemption. Details are few, but there are constant references to the gang’s illegal and immoral dealings in Manchuria, a time that Kageyama is keen to leave in the past having made a new more honest life for himself in the post-war society while Hayami has shifted into the increasingly corporatised realms of contemporary organised crime. Yet despite himself Kageyama is good at being a gangster, effortlessly subduing the bumbling head of “Sekiya Industries” and realising that part of the problem is that too many of his men are getting high on their own supply. To streamline the business he lays off drug users telling them to come back when they’re clean and temporarily pauses the business while he reorganises it at street level. This however leaves a small vacuum in the underworld economy which is soon filled by “alternative” suppliers. 

More akin to one of Toho’s spy spoofs, Hayami Industries seems to be incredibly keen on zany gadgets like cigarette lighters that double as secret radios and guns which shoot listening devices not to mention the panel wall which hides Hayami’s secret control room or the knuckle dusters and belt swords sported by the Sekiya guys. All of which is slightly at odds with the seriousness of the constant reminders of abuses in Manchuria and on the Mainland, and the frankness with which drugs are treated onscreen with frequent shots of syringes and powder. As usual in these films, the main villain is from Hong Kong, an unhinged maniac who kidnaps Yoko and gets her hooked on drugs partly at the instigation of Hayami who seems to be making something of a strategic blunder in his attempts to manipulate Kageyama. Yet Kageyama can only get his redemption through reassuming his wartime persona to face Hayami if indirectly in trying to engineer a gang war between middlemen with Hong Konger Tei caught in the middle. 

Segawa adds to the noir feel through the melancholy jazz score reinforcing the fatalism and futility that seems to define Kageyama’s life as he tries but fails to escape from his violent past. A product of wartime misuse he finds himself at odds with the contemporary society, inconveniently falling in love with the daughter of a man he killed and therefore unable to move on from the shadow of his life of crime only granted a second chance after losing everything and paying his debt to society by destroying the system he himself helped to create. 


An Outlaw (ならず者, Teruo Ishii, 1964)

Outside of Japan, “king of cult” Teruo Ishii is most closely associated with a particular brand of transgressive ero-guro exploitation films such as Horrors of Malformed Men, yet his career was much more eclectic than many might assume. Starring Ken Takakura with whom Ishii was developing a professional relationship which would eventually lead to the hugely successful Abashiri Prison series, 1964’s An Outlaw (ならず者, Narazumono) is one of a string of noir thrillers from the earlier part of Ishii’s career this one taking place mainly in Hong Kong and Macao. 

China-based Japanese hitman Nanjo (Ken Takakura) runs into trouble after he offs a man he assumed to be “the biggest thug in the underworld” but actually turns out to have been a law enforcement official working against a people trafficking ring. To make matters worse when Nanjo returns to his hotel where he was supposed to get his pay off, he discovers the body of a young woman in his bed who is later identified as the official’s daughter. Understandably annoyed, Nanjo starts trying to track down the people who hired him to figure out what’s going but is accidentally dragged into underworld intrigue after being mistaken for a drug deal middle-man owing to the yellow flower he’s wearing on his lapel. 

Like any good noir hero and especially one played by Takakura, Nanjo is basically a good guy with a strong sense of justice and an acute moral compass. He doesn’t like having been manipulated into killing someone who wasn’t in the game nor does he approve of those who make their living by exploiting women such as arch villain Mao (Toru Abe) whom he discovers to have been running a nefarious international trafficking ring getting Japanese women hooked on drugs, shipping them to Hong Kong and Macao, and working them to death before abandoning them once they’ve served their purpose. Then again, he also has a strange problem with women who like to lie in bed in the middle of the day which seems slightly puritanical for a man who kills for a living yet you’d have to admit no one could call him lazy. 

Not much of Nanjo’s past is revealed save that he was born in prison to a woman who stabbed her former partner because he left her for another woman while she was pregnant with his child, raising her son to be anything but dishonest especially with women. In any case, he appears to have been based in China and Hong Kong for some time, claiming that he came down from Xiamen for the job and speaking fairly fluent Cantonese and Mandarin though in another strange coincidence many of the people he meets turn out to be Japanese. In this there’s a slightly ironic inversion of the normal patterning of post-war crime films which sees Japan exporting crime to China the big mcguffin revolving around a tin of drugs Nanjo was given by mistake intended for the local market while the secondary target becomes Mao’s people trafficking operation bringing sex workers who’ve gotten into his bad books to Hong Kong or to be used for the pleasure of wealthy men. Despite his apparent disapproval, Nanjo reveals he was given part payment for the job in the form of a girl who he could use for his “convenience” though it seems unlikely that he did so.

On the other hand, the secondary villain, the Japanese-speaking Minran (Yoko Mihara), is painted as something of a femme fatale playing off Nanjo and her boss while trying to get her hands on the drugs to split the proceeds with her Cantonese-speaking lover who accidentally kills a young girl Nanjo had befriended in Hong Kong. The girl’s death is in part Nanjo’s responsibility in that he placed her in danger without warning or an understanding of what he was asking her to do, yet he later proves no better when he kills the landlady of the hotel who had watched as she died and then blackmailed Minran for financial gain. Aside from the girl and her Japanese friend Aki (Yoko Minamida) who is dying of consumption after being worked to death as one of Mao’s trafficked women, and a detective with whom Nanjo later forms an unexpected alliance, Nanjo is the representative of humanist morality despite his morally compromised existence reminding Mao that his mistake was in thinking that there is nothing money could not buy in rejecting his efforts to pay him off. 

Shot largely on location in Hong Kong and Macao, Ishii adds to the noirish tone with frequent voice over and a melancholy jazz score while making full use of the atmospheric environment with its deserted alleyways and cobbled streets not to mention the naturally canted angles of the Victoria Peak funicular, while there is a fair amount of lowkey sleaze more typical of his later career along with a bizarre scene in which Nanjo sucks out blood from the mouth of a woman suffering a pulmonary haemorrhage. First and foremost a fatalistic noir thriller in which the hero, unfairly damned by a corrupt society, is unable to outrun his past transgressions, An Outlaw nevertheless suggests that true nobility is to be found only in those existing outside of its borders.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Thief in Black (黒の盗賊, Umetsugu Inoue, 1964)

Best known as a master of the musical, Umetsugu Inoue had a long and varied filmography embracing almost every genre imaginable. He began his career at Shintoho and later joined Nikkatsu where he quickly became an in demand director often working with top star Yujiro Ishihara, but took the somewhat unusual step of going freelance in 1960 thereafter working at various studios including Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. 1964’s The Thief in Black (黒の盗賊, Kuro no Tozoku) is not a musical but is characteristically playful even within the confines of the lighter side of Toei’s jidaigeki adventures. 

Set between the Battle of Sekigahara and the Siege of Osaka, the samurai corruption in play is essentially the burgeoning Tokugawa dictatorship, the heroes eventually uncovering Ieyasu’s secret plan for making sure his line (well, more himself in essence) remains in power for perpetuity through an insidious plot to weaken the feudal lords and ensure their loyalty to him. Meanwhile, the still developing city of Edo is beginning to turn against the Tokugawa who seem to be intent on exploiting ordinary people to enrich themselves most obviously through forcing the local workforce to renovate Edo castle rather than cleaning up the town which is apparently rampant with crime. Faced with such lack of leadership, the townspeople have come to admire a Robin Hood-like vigilante known only as the Thief in Black who alone is resisting overreaching lords. 

Part of the problem is that Ieyasu’s rule is still insecure because of the potential threat of Hideyori Toyotomi in Osaka. Consequently, they are fearful that some of the men working on the castle may be Toyotomi spies or otherwise disclose information that might benefit him if he chose to attack which is why they’ve refused the workers permission to return home to their families during the pause before beginning the second phase of works leading to further unrest. Meanwhile, corrupt local lord Tadakatsu (Ryutaro Otomo) and his sleazy priest buddy Tenkai (Minoru Chiaki) have an even darker plan in mind, preparing to simply kill the five master craftsmen in charge to ensure they present no threat. Alerted to the situation on the ground by idealistic samurai Jiro (Hashizo Okawa), their boss instructs Tadakatsu in no uncertain terms that he must treat the workers fairly in order to prevent civil unrest and/or disillusionment with the Tokugawa regime but the pair are entirely unfazed and determined to go on with their nefarious plan getting rid of Jiro if the occasion arises. 

As we later discover and in a typical jidaigeki plot device, Jiro is one of a pair of twins with his brother Kotaro (also Hashizo Okawa) abandoned because of the superstitious belief that multiple births are inauspicious. Though both men unwittingly lay claim to the name, Kotaro turns out to be the masked vigilante, his primary cause to regain the lands of the family who raised him unfairly displaced from their estates on the Musashino plains because of Tokugawa greed. Though Jiro, raised as a member of the establishment, is originally loyal to the Tokugawa who have after all brought about an era of peace, he soon begins to see that their rule is no good for the people of Edo. In his more egalitarian worldview, only by enriching the poor can they secure their rule which means less castle building and more infrastructural development along with paying people fairly for their work and absolutely not killing them afterwards. Kotaro too claims that his rebellion is for the good of the common people though unlike Jiro is much more transgressive in his ideology prepared to shake off his samurai status to become a wandering outlaw rather than content himself with the restrictive life of the heir to a samurai clan. 

Such messages are perhaps common in Toei’s brand of jidaigeki but seem unusually pronounced as the peasant workers are often given voice to lament their fate and resist their oppression more directly, pointing the finger not just at a rogue rotten lord but at the entire system built on exploiting their labour. Nevertheless, Inoue injects a hearty dose of whimsical humour to the politically charged narrative even going so far as to include a bumbling ninja claiming to be the famous Hattori Hanzo along with a comic relief magistrate and former samurai brothel owner taking his own kind of ironic revenge in getting the cowardly lords hooked on modernity with a load of faulty rifles. Obviously, Ieyasu couldn’t be stopped, but perhaps they slowed him down and reminded him of the dangers of underestimating the people. Shot with Inoue’s characteristic flare if remaining largely within the Toei house style, Thief in Black is a surprisingly direct attack on corrupt and entitled government but also a righteous romp as its idealistic heroes shuffle themselves back into their ideal positions while fighting Tokugawa oppression all the way. 


On the Road Forever (無宿者, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

“I take to the road whether or not I am alive” confesses the spiritually defeated hero of Kenji Misumi’s filiality drama, On the Road Forever (無宿者, Mushukumono). Two sons each seeking vengeance for a wronged father become first accidental friends, then almost enemies, and finally something more like brothers bound and ruined by the failures of the samurai code. The villain may not unfairly claim that the system of the world is one “dirty great monster”, but the implications of his revelations lead directly back into the infinite corruptions of the samurai order as mediated through the failures of fatherhood. 

“Drifting crow” Ipponmatsu (Raizo Ichikawa) temporarily teams up with fallen samurai Kuroki Yaichiro (Jun Fujimaki) who has become desperate enough to unwisely attempt robbing a gambling den. Nevertheless, we are clued in to the idea that these are the good guys when they’re helped by a young village woman, Haru (Mikiko Tsubouchi), who lends them her father’s horse instructing them to return it to him at a nearby village which the guys later do even attempting to hand the old man some of their ill-gotten gains as a thank you though he refuses and warns them not to hang around too long because “it’s a rough neighbourhood”. All too soon we discover what he means. A big wig former yakuza who suspiciously came into massive amounts of money two years previously has pressed the villagers into debt and is currently inducting them into indentured servitude on Sado island in order to recoup costs. Perhaps Ipponmatsu doesn’t approve, but he’s on a journey for a reason and would have carried on by had he not heard word that that shady yakuza Shima-ya Jubei (Toru Abe) may be connected to the death of his father during a high stakes robbery on a mountain pass. 

Ipponmatsu, whose name literally means “a single pine”, is the archetypal wandering son who ran away from his clan without permission in rebellion against his authoritarian father who raised him alone after his mother’s death and tried to instil in him the values typical of his class through the medium of violence. Having come across a decomposed body with his father’s distinctive sword at the scene of the robbery, Ipponmatsu has had a change of heart and dedicated his wandering to avenging his memory. Sticking around in the town, he comes to suspect that Yaichiro’s father Hanbei may have been behind the theft of the missing imperial gold only later realising that he too is on a quest to learn the truth in the hope of clearing his father’s name. The two men end up raising swords against each other but discovering they are indeed different, Yaichiro a gentle soul who apparently excelled in the dojo but has no “courage” in the field and Ipponmatsu a fiery hothead who thinks killing is less a matter of skill than “courage and explosiveness”. 

There is, it has to be said, a fairly obvious twist that neither man perhaps too bound up in their own sense of responsibility fully considers. Nevertheless, they are both faced with the decision of what to do should they discover the truth considering that raising a sword against one’s father is an unforgivable sin while knowing that such a heinous betrayal of their code cannot go unpunished. The villains boast of their well connected networks and supposed untouchability laying bare the essential corruption of the samurai order as they wilfully manipulate and exploit impoverished peasantry for their own ends while cruelly joking that all classes are alike in their greed when tempted with riches, entirely unrepentant even as they lament the hypocrisy of the samurai who have no money yet continue in their arrogance. 

Despite having been raised in a homosocial environment told that falling in love with women is a pointless waste of time, Ipponmatsu picks up the affections of two firstly earnest farm girl Haru and secondly misused mistress and sister of Shima-ya, Osei (Eiko Taki). This is however a manly drama concerned with the ways in which men interact with other men, firstly in the awkward fraternity of Ipponmatsu and Yaichiro and then in their mutual and continually changing relationships with their absent fathers living in the shadow of patricide and justice. Elegantly composed as always, Misumi frequently shoots through obstacles imprisoning the men within the broken beams of ruined buildings or spying in a POV shot from an upstairs balcony while making full use of his trademark love for the natural world in closing with a painful confrontation in which the nature of filiality is turned inside out as a corrupt father falls on his sword for his noble son amid the rocks surrounded by rolling waves. As the title suggests, the melancholy ending severs the hero from his ancestral “home” leaving him forever a wanderer untethered yet in a sense never free of his paternal legacy. 


Battle of Roses (薔薇合戦, Mikio Naruse, 1950)

Mikio Naruse was famously unhappy with most of his ’40s work, believing that his career did not begin to revive until the release of Ginza Cosmetics in 1951. The late ‘40s were indeed a difficult time in terms of the industry as Naruse’s home studio, Toho, became entrenched in a series of labour disputes which eventually led to the creation of new studio “Shin Toho” (lit. “new Toho”). Naruse meanwhile though sympathetic to the cause kept a low profile working in theatre and thereafter with other studios such as Shochiku which is where he made 1950’s Battle of Roses (薔薇合戦, Bara Kassen) .

Perhaps because of its turbulent production genesis, Battle of Roses is a distinctly unpolished and surprisingly reactionary take on female liberation adapted from a newspaper serial following the lives of three sisters pursuing different paths in the complicated post-war society. The action opens with the death of the husband of the eldest sister, Masago (Kuniko Miyake), who had been the head of cosmetics studio White Lily but is currently under-investigation for large-scale embezzlement of which it appears he is almost certainly guilty. After he dies, Masago inherits the company but is pursued by massive debts to the film’s villain, Mogi (Toru Abe), who is also after the most pure hearted of the sisters, Hinako (Setsuko Wakayama). Masago makes some kind of shady arrangement with her husband’s former associate Kasahara (Eitaro Shindo), pays off the debt, and starts her own rival company Nigera where she is the CEO. Youngest sister Chisuzu (Yoko Katsuragi), meanwhile, also works at Nigera but is a fully modern woman who wants “to be free and know everything about life”, resentful of her sister’s authority and planning to move out into her own apartment where she later begins a “trial” marriage with Ejima (Shiro Osaka), a journalist from Fashion and Films magazine who turns out to be no good at all.

The sisters are each, in a sense, punished for a perceived naivety in the way they pursue their goals, the implication being that they are mere women thrown unprepared into a male world they lack the skills to navigate. This is most obviously true of Masago who is shown to be a surprisingly astute business woman but a bad judge of character while also criticised for wielding her femininity by leveraging her business affairs through Kasahara who nevertheless declares that he wants to keep their business and personal relationships separate which is why the original loan comes with interest. Masago then gives an accountancy job to her inexperienced boyfriend who proves up to it, but also creates tension in the office seeing as she is unwilling to go public about their relationship even after they agree to marry while he remains resentful of Kasahara.

After spotting her with Mogi who continues to pursue her despite her obvious dislike of him, Masago contrives to have Hinako marry a trusted assistant, Hinatsu (Mitsuo Nagata), pushing her into a marriage against her will to prove her sisterly loyalty while Hinako herself has taken a liking to divorced advertising executive Sonoike (Koji Tsuruta) who is the film’s only real “good” man. Hinatsu, however, turns out to be less reliable than Masago thought, resentful that his marriage to Hinako while guaranteeing continued employment has actually adversely affected his career prospects with Masago unwilling to promote him for fear of claims of nepotism. To avoid “ending up like Hinako”, Chisuzu agrees to a weird quasi-marriage with Ejima in which she insists that they live separately so that he won’t “meddle” in her life because “men only want to stay in a superior position”.

Chisuzu is later taken to task for attempting a take a “male” role in terms of her sexual agency, Ejima’s wife (Noriko Sengoku) suddenly turning up with a child on her back to refer to her husband as a “male mistress” and demand money from Chisuzu who has already been guilted into handing over vast sums to Ejima to prove her love. Ejima later threatens to blackmail the whole family with a tell all book detailing what he’s learned about the “immoral” lives of the three sisters behind Nigera cosmetics. Meanwhile, Hinako’s marriage has also gone south the extent that Hinatsu eventually tries to steam her to death by locking her in the bathroom and stoking up the fire only to think better of it in the nick of time, causing her a miscarriage and landing her in the hospital for three months during which Sonoike continues to send her flowers while Hinatsu struggles to understand why she might not want to accompany him on the job transfer he is forced to accept after he’s discovered to have committed fraud while having an affair with a woman from sales.

Hinako is punished, essentially, for excessive womanliness in trying to make everyone happy by suppressing her own feelings, rejecting her agency in deference to her sister who is punished for being too “manly” in business while Chisuzu is punished for being sexually liberated and behaving “like a man” in terms of her desire to maintain romantic independence. Sonoike’s ex-wife is seemingly punished for the same thing, desperately trying to win her husband back after cheating on him but is rejected for her transgression in her foolishness at being taken in by a faithless man. The sisters are forced to acknowledge the mistakes they’ve made, making a fresh start with more humble ambitions pushed back towards the feminine norms, e.g. a “small shop” for Masago rather than a big company while Chisuzu returns “home”. Only Hinako is given the possibility of a more positive future in seizing her own agency to follow her heart’s desire, ending her marriage to the adulterous Hinatsu and perhaps finally entering a romance with the patient Sonoike. Somewhat different in style from typical Naruse with its shorter scenes echoing fast paced city life, inelegant cuts and abrupt scene transitions, Battle of Roses lands less as a condemnation of male manipulation and duplicity than a subtle implication that women aren’t equipped for independence and are best defended by “good” men, Sonoike on hand to sort out each of the women’s problems with rational calm, even while offering the sisters the possibility of starting over once the storm has passed.


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)