Samurai Wolf (牙狼之介, Hideo Gosha, 1966)

A cheerful ronin with strong moral fibre finds himself squaring off against a nihilistic assassin and a corrupt retainer/postmaster in Hideo Gosha’s new wave chambara Samurai Wolf (牙狼之介, Kiba Okaminosuke). Where many jidaigeki of the age would follow the antagonist Sanai (Ryohei Uchida), Gosha’s focusses on the figure of a man with wolfish appetites who is otherwise unaffected by the infinite corruption of the world around him and in that at least unwilling to submit himself to the dog-eat-dog mentality of late Edo-era society. 

Wandering samurai Kiba Okaminosuke (Isao Natsuyagi) explains that he got his name because often he bares his fangs and is known as the Furious Wolf, yet as much as the ferocity of the opening titles might bear that image out he is not cruel or avaricious but measured and honest. After wolfing down an exorbitant amount of food prepared by an old woman at a way station, he announces that he can’t pay. The old woman panics and we wonder if he might become violent or even kill her, but Kiba simply offers to pay in kind fixing the old lady’s leaky roof and chopping a supply of wood much to her surprise and gratitude. It seems, the wolf always pays his way. While there, he witnesses a trio of bandits attack a postal cart and kill the men who were pulling it. He retrieves the bodies along with a runaway horse and takes them back to the outpost they came from but the guard there is disinterested claiming that, as they died on the road and not in the town, it’s not his business. As Kiba soon discovers, the guard is in league with a corrupt lord, Nizaemon (Tatsuo Endo), who is an official messenger for the shogun but wants to take over the public postal service which is why he’s terrorising the postmistress, Chise (Hiroko Sakuramachi), with the intention of getting his hands on the relay outpost. 

There is something a little ironic in the fact that Ochise is blind while Nizaemon’s chief assassin is deaf and mute, both of them excluded from mainstream society and looking for support but finding it in opposing directions. Formerly a samurai woman, Ochise wants to hang on to the outpost because it has become her place to belong while resenting the incursion by corrupt lord Nizaemon who only wants it for the potential to control the cargo route along with raising the rates to use it to exorbitant heights. Shortly after Kiba tries to take out the assassins, a bunch of government inspectors turn up to complain about the missing merchandise while backing Chise into a corner by forcing her to accept the liability for transporting a large sum of gold coins. Kiba originally says he won’t help because he doesn’t want to risk his life for people he doesn’t even know, but of course later agrees in part on the promise of a significant return but also because he likes Chise and resents the kind of corruption men like Nizaemon represent.

On the other hand, his humanity is mirrored in his antagonist, hired gun Sanai who fetches up to help Nizaemon stop Kiba and take over the outpost. Sanai cynically tells him, that in five years’ time Kiba will be no better than he is, if he doesn’t kill him first. Kiba rejects the claim but it’s easy enough to see how someone could be corrupted by the realities of Edo-era society. Sanai later reveals that he fell in love with a samurai woman and eloped with her, a fierce taboo given the class difference between them, and later fell into his present state of nihilistic despair when she was taken from him quite literally betrayed by the social order. But Kiba seems different. He is not naive and has no expectations of human goodness yet remains cheerful and in his own way honest. When a young woman comes to him with her life savings and tells him that Sanai is the man whom she’s been waiting for to gain her revenge, he tells her to keep her money because he’s going to end up fighting him anyway. Likewise, when he realises someone he trusted has betrayed him, he tells them that he understands why they did it and bears them no ill will it’s simply the way things are only he suspects they will regret that others have died because of it. Even in his final confrontation with Sanai, he notices that his opponent is injured and ties one of his own hands to his belt to ensure it will be a fair fight. 

In any case, it seems that Sanai’s morally compromised existence is about to catch up to him with several other players intent on taking his life aside from the sex worker who longed to avenge the deaths of her family murdered during a massacre of peasants killed for standing up to a cruel landowner. A female gang leader also wants revenge for the death for her boss, while the cynical madam at the local brothel offers to team up with him to steal the gold from under Nizaemon’s nose. It seems that Sanai is a man already dead, having long abandoned the lovelorn boy he was for the nihilistic existence of a wandering assassin only to be confronted with the ghosts of the unattainable past. This world is indeed rotten, but Kiba has somehow managed to rise above it embracing his wolfish appetites in more positive ways while opposing injustice wherever he finds it. Much more avant-garde than much of his later work would be, Gosha makes great use of slow motion and silence broken only by the reverberating sound of clashing swords and hints at the meaninglessness of a life of violence in an agonisingly haunting death scene in which a bloodstained man turns and falls as if the air were suddenly leaving his body. In the end all Kiba can do is turn and walk away, on to the next crisis on the highways of a lawless society.


Samurai Wolf opens at New York’s Metrograph on Dec. 26 as part of Hideo Gosha x 3

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Yakuza Papers Vol. 1: Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

Snapshot-2015-12-07 at 11_06_36 PM-930280086When it comes to the history of the yakuza movie, there are few titles as important or as influential both in Japan and the wider world than Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Jingi Naki Tatakai). The first in what would become a series of similarly themed movies later known as The Yakuza Papers, Battles without Honour is a radical rebooting of the Japanese gangster movie. The English title is, infact, a literal translation of the Japanese which accounts for the slightly unnatural “and” rather than “or” where the “honour and humanity” are collected in a single Japanese word, “jingi”. Jingi is the ancient moral code by which old-style yakuza had abided and up to now the big studio gangster pictures had all depicted their yakuza as being honourable criminals. However, in Fukasaku’s reimagining of the gangster world this adherence to any kind of conventional morality was yet another casualty of Japan’s wartime defeat.

The story begins with a black and white image of a mushroom cloud with the film’s bright red title card and now famous theme playing over the top. This is Hiroshima in 1946. Things are pretty desperate, the black market is rife and there are US troops everywhere. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) has just returned from the war (in fact he’s still in his uniform). He gets himself into trouble when he intervenes as an American soldier attempts to rape a Japanese woman in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded marketplace. He manages to cause enough of a commotion for the woman to escape but the Japanese cops just tell him not to mess with the GIs. Things don’t get much better as one of Hirono’s friends is assaulted by a yakuza. They get some rival yakuza to help them get revenge and in the commotion Hirono accidentally kills someone and is sent to prison for 12 years. In prison he meets another yakuza who wants to escape by pretending to commit harakiri and promises to get his yakuza buddies to bail Hirono out if he helps. From this point on Hirono has become embroiled in the new and dangerous world of the Hiroshima criminal underground.

Battles Without Honour and Humanity has a famously complicated plot entered around the various power shifts and machinations between different groups of yakuza immediately after the end of World War II. The film begins in 1946 and ends in 1956 though many of its cast of tough guys don’t last anywhere near as long. The picture Fukasaku paints of Japan immediately after the war is a bleak one. Even if some of these guys are happy to have survived and finally reached home, they’ve seen and done terrible things. Not only that, they’ve been defeated and now they’re surrounded by foreign troops everywhere who can pretty much do what they want when they want. They just don’t have a lot of options – if they don’t have connections to help them find work when there’s not enough to go around then it isn’t surprising if they eventually fall into to crime. Also, having spent time in the military, the yakuza brotherhood provides a similar kind of camaraderie and surrogate family that you might also find in an army corps.

It all gets ugly quite fast. Largely the yakuza are making their money profiting from the political instability, resenting the US occupation yet reaching deals with them to support their efforts in the Korean war and then selling new and untested drugs at home (with less than brilliant results). Betrayals, executions, assassinations in previously safe places like a bath house or the barbers – these are a long way from the supposedly honourable gangsters of old. One minute Hirono is offering to cut off his finger as a traditional sign of atonement (though no one knows exactly what you’re supposed to do in this situation and it all ends up seeming a little silly) and taking the rap for everyone else’s mistakes, but his friend faked harakiri to get out of jail and everyone is double crossing everyone else whichever way you look.

The whole thing is filmed in an almost documentary style with captions identifying the various characters and giving the exact time of their demise (if necessary) as well as a voice over giving background information about the historical period. The film is inspired by real life yakuza memoirs and there are parts which feel quite like a bunch of old guys sitting in a drinking establishment and recounting some of their exploits.

This new postwar world of heartless gangsters is a tough one and almost devoid of the old honour-bound nobility, however somehow Fukasaku has managed to make it all look very cool at the same time as being totally unappealing. You wouldn’t want to live this way and you definitely don’t want to get involved with any of these guys but somehow their self determined way of life becomes something to be admired. That said, there’s a sadness too – that even in the criminal underworld there used to be something noble that’s been obliterated by the intense trauma of the war. You can rebuild, you can move on from the destruction left by the war’s wake but there’s no going back to those days of “honour and humanity” – if they ever existed, they’re gone forever now.


Battles without Honour and Humanity is available in blu-ray in the UK as part of Arrow Video’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity: The Complete Collection box set.