Man with a Shotgun (散弾銃の男, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Man with a Shotgun 1961Nikkatsu’s “Borderless Action” seemingly opened a portal to a world entire to be found within Japan itself. Man with a Shotgun (散弾銃の男, Shotgun no Otoko) is, as the title suggests, another tale of a wandering, gun toting hero though this time one less of aimless flight from failure, responsibility, or rejection than of revenge. Hideaki Nitani gets a (relatively) rare chance to strut his stuff as the lead in a full colour picture, perhaps incongruously starring as one of Nikkatsu’s singing cowboys but he does certainly lend his characteristic sense of gravitas and authority to an otherwise underwritten role.

Ryoji (Hideaki Nitani) rocks up at at rickety bridge looking for a nearby shrine only to be warned off by a grumpy old man in a van. You don’t want to go up there, he tells him, there’ll be trouble if you do. Ryoji is, he claims, a hunter and so he’s not afraid. After all, he’s still in Japan – it’s not as if the entire place is infested with lions and tigers. Then again it’s not exactly game he’s come to hunt.

When he reaches the shrine, Ryoji finds himself in a strange mini kingdom presided over by mill owner Nishioka (Akio Tanaka). The few locals who still live in the village mingle uncomfortably with the migrant work force who people the mill while Nishioka dominates the local economy by owning the only bar in town which is also the only place his largely male workforce have to blow off steam. After getting roughed up by three of Nishioka’s henchmen on the way into town, Ryoji makes the first of many enemies when he stands up to fellow drifter Masa (Yuji Kodaka) when he threatens to throw a man’s daughter to the sex starved labour force unless he pays his debts. The sheriff, an ineffectual local, gets himself seriously wounded meaning the position becomes temporarily open. Nishioka, originally a “benevolent” dictator, is in danger of becoming less so when it is suggested he also form a police force given that the state authorities can’t be bothered with such a remote little village. Ryoji doesn’t quite want to stand for that and volunteers only for Masa to do the same, but the argument is eventually settled to one side of their continued male posturing.

As far as westerns go, Man with a Shotgun leans heavily towards colonial romance and adventure rather than your typically arid, dusty world of saloons and ranches. Lush and green, the small mountain town smacks more of the jungle as does Nitani’s idiosyncratic costume which arrives somewhere between chic safari and fashionable cowboy. Claiming to be a “hunter” Ryoji wanders around with self satisfied smugness, certain that he’s bringing justice to this lawless town all while he makes investigations into the matter which sent him wandering in the first place. Of course, while he’s here, there are other damsels in distress including Setsuko (Izumi Ashikawa) – the younger sister of the sheriff’s late wife, apparently raped and killed by “drifter” bandits.

“Drifters” turn out to be the scapegoated big bad as the migrant workforce quickly take over this little town, making trouble in the bar and hassling the locals, only the locals don’t seem to mind as much as they say they do. There’s trouble at the mill, but not quite the kind that might be imagined. Nishioka has his sticky fingers in some nasty business which also involves not just migrants but actual foreigners and illegal activity on a grand scale. As it turns out, some people are in on the action and some aren’t, and Nishioka is currently making a few calculations as to how to “eliminate” a few inconveniences – something to which he thinks Ryoji and his sparring partner Masa might turn out to be the perfect solution.

Like many a Nikkatsu hero Ryoji is a noble sort, something which engineers for him a happier ending than many get even if it has to be bittersweet to hint at possible followup instalments where Ryoji takes names and fights crime in other small towns. Nevertheless, given the choice he opts for the cool guy conclusion of firing into the air and casting his burdens away rather than damning himself forever in becoming what he hates. Shooting in colour even if not quite with Nikkatsu’s A-list, Suzuki doesn’t get much scope to flex his muscles but does make pointed use of painted backdrops coupled with location shooting, as well as doing everything he can to bring out Nitani’s cowboy cool and adding in a number of B-movie western cliches from letters delivered by a knife thrown into a door to the constant refrains of the title song. Still even if it largely lacks Suzuki’s anarchic touch save for the stylishly composed and absurdly humorous bar room brawls, there’s plenty of fun to be to had with Ryoji and his shotgun as they protect the innocent and seek justice in an often unjust world.


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

rusty knife posterPost-war Japan was in a precarious place but by the mid-1950s, things were beginning to pick up. Unfortunately, this involved picking up a few bad habits too – namely, crime. The yakuza, as far as the movies went, were largely a pre-war affair – noble gangsters who had inherited the codes of samurai honour and were (nominally) committed to protecting the little guy. The first of many collaborations between up and coming director Toshio Masuda and the poster boy for alienated youth, Yujiro Ishihara, Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Sabita Knife) shows us the other kind of movie mobster – the one that would stick for years to come. These petty thugs have no honour and are symptomatic parasites of Japan’s rapidly recovering economy, subverting the desperation of the immediate post-war era and turning it into a nihilistic struggle for total freedom from both laws and morals.

Public support is, largely, behind this new force of order as seen in the local uproar when top gangster Katsumata (Naoki Sugiura) is arrested in connection with an assault. Things being what they are, Katsumata is soon released to laugh at law enforcement from a safe distance but the past is coming for him. Some years ago Katsumata killed a local councillor, Nishida (Ikunosuke Koizumi), and made it look like suicide but three guys from a local gang saw him do it. He paid them to keep quiet, but now one of them feels like talking and thinks Katsumata might like to pay a little more to reseal the deal.

Chatty Tokyo thug Shima (Jo Shishido) gets pushed off a train for his pains but Katsumata is worried enough about the other two to send his guys out to make some enquires. He’s particularly worried about Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) – a “sleeping lion”, Tachibana is a hot head who’s now gone straight after coming out of jail for murdering a guy he thought was a direct cause of his girlfriend’s death. Luckily enough, Tachibana now runs a bar where he employs the other witness, Terada (Akira Kobayashi), to whom he acts as a stern big brother hoping to keep them both on the straight and narrow. Tachibana is unlikely to talk, he wants out of the gangster world for good, but Terada is young and ambitious with a girlfriend to impress. He takes more hush money from Katsumata, not realising what he’s getting himself into, and then lets it go to his head.

Tachibana is the rusty knife of the title. After letting his rage consume him in murdering a petty mobster in revenge for the rape of his girlfriend who later committed suicide, Tachibana has vowed to quell his anger and live a decent, peaceful life. Angry outbursts are, however, never far from the surface and following recent revelations, a rusty knife may find its cutting edge once again.

Keiko (Mie Kitahara), a customer at Tachibana’s bar, is making a documentary about violence in the city which coincidentally turns up a few clues as to Tachibana’s past, not to mention her own. The daughter of the murdered councilman, Nishida, and the niece of another powerful politician, Keiko is a figure of righteousness, charting her own course through the difficult post-war world and attempting to do so with dignity and elegance while refusing to abandon her sense of decency and compassion. Later a real life married couple, Kitahara and Ishihara were a frequent on screen romantic pairing though this time around the connection is more subtle as Keiko begins to sympathise with Tachibana’s plight and commits herself to saving him from destroying himself in becoming consumed by his barely suppressed rage.

Tachibana is indeed raging, though his rage is understandable. As someone later puts it “nothing in this city makes sense”. The systems are corrupt, the wartime generation continue to run the show and run it badly, or at least for their own ends, robbing youth of its rightful place at the forefront of economic recovery. Yet even if Ishihara is a symbol of youthful alienation, his rage is one which must be quelled. Even in this city where nothing makes sense, self control is one’s greatest weapon. If youth is to walk forward into the exciting post-war future, it will have to drop its rusty knives.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Shohei Imamura, 1959)

vlcsnap-2017-01-07-22h53m01s073Like most directors of his era, Shohei Imamura began his career in the studio system as a trainee with Shochiku where he also worked as an AD to Yasujiro Ozu on some of his most well known pictures. Ozu’s approach, however, could not be further from Imamura’s in its insistence on order and precision. Finding much more in common with another Shochiku director, Yuzo Kawashima, well known for working class satires, Imamura jumped ship to the newly reformed Nikkatsu where he continued his training until helming his first three pictures in 1958 (Stolen Desire, Nishiginza Station, and Endless Desire). My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Nianchan), which he directed in 1959, was, like the previous three films, a studio assignment rather than a personal project but is nevertheless an interesting one as it united many of Imamura’s subsequent ongoing concerns.

Set in the early 1950s, the film focuses on four children who find themselves adrift when their father dies leaving them with no means of support. The father had worked at the local mine but the mining industry is itself in crisis. Many of the local mines have already closed, and even this one finds itself in financial straits. Despite the foreman’s promise that he will find a job for the oldest son, Kiichi (Hiroyuki Nagato), there is no work to be had as workers are being paid in food vouchers rather than money and strike action frustrates what little production there is. After receiving the unwelcome suggestion of work in a “restaurant” in another town, Yoshiko (Kayo Matsuo) manages to find a less degrading job caring for another family’s children (though she receives only room and board, no pay for doing so). With younger brother Koichi (Takeshi Okimura) and little sister Sueko (Akiko Maeda) still in school, it seems as if the four siblings’ days of being able to live together as a family may be over for good.

Based on a bestselling autobiographical novel by a ten year old girl, My Second Brother is one of the first films to broach the Zainichi (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) issue, even if it does so in a fairly subtle way. The four children have been raised in Japan, speak only Japanese and do not seem particularly engaged with their Korean culture but we are constantly reminded of their non-native status by the comments of other locals, mostly older women and housewives, who are apt to exclaim things along the lines of “Koreans are so shiftless” or other derogatory aphorisms. Though there are other Koreans in the area, including one friend who reassures Kiichi that “We’re Korean – lose one job, we find another”, the biggest effect of the children’s ethnicity is in their status as second generation migrants which leaves them without the traditional safety net of the extended family. Though they do have contact with an uncle, the children are unable to bond with him – his Japanese is bad, and the children are unused to spicy Korean food. They have to rely first on each other and then on the kindness of strangers, of which there is some, but precious little in these admittedly difficult times.

In this, which is Imamura’s primary concern, the children’s poverty is no different from that of the general population during this second depression at the beginning of the post-war period. The film does not seek to engage with the reasons why the Zainichi population may find itself disproportionately affected by the downturn but prefers to focus on the generalised economic desperation and the resilience of working people. The environment is, indeed, dire with the ancient problem of a single water source being used by everyone for everything at the same time with all the resultant health risks that poses. A young middle class woman is trying to get something done in terms of sanitation, but her presence is not altogether welcome in the town as the residents have become weary of city based do-gooders who rarely stay long enough to carry through their promises. The more pressing problem is the lack of real wages as salaries are increasingly substituted for vouchers. The labour movement is ever present in the background with the Red Flag drifting from the mass protests in which the workers voice their dissatisfaction with the company though the spectre of mine closure and large scale layoffs has others running scared.

One of the most moving sequences occurs as Koichi and another young boy ride a mine cart up the mountain and talk about their hopes for the future. They both want to get out of this one horse town – Koichi as a doctor and his friend as an engineer, but their hopes seem so far off and untouchable that it’s almost heartbreaking. Sueko skipped school for four days claiming she had a headache because her brother didn’t have the money for her school books – how could a boy like Koichi, no matter how bright he is, possibly come from here and get to medical school? Nevertheless, he is determined. His father couldn’t save the family from poverty, and neither could his brother but Koichi vows he will and as he leads his sister by the hand climbing the high mountain together, it almost seems like he might.


 

Voice Without a Shadow (影なき声, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

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Make friends with this Oni mask – you will be seeing a lot of him throughout the film.

Seijun Suzuki might be best remembered for his surrealist pop art masterpieces from the late sixties or his even less comprehensible art films which followed his return to directing after settling his dispute with Nikkatsu, but everyone’s got to start somewhere and it comes as something of a relief to know that Suzuki was perfectly capable of making a straightforward movie if he wanted to. Voice Without a Shadow (影なき声, Kagenaki Koe) is exactly what it sounds like – a fifties style, US inspired noir however, Suzuki adds his usual flourishes and manages to wrong foot us pretty much the whole way through so that we never end up where we thought it was that we were going.

To begin with, our story is fairly straightforward. Reporter Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) provides our film noir style voice over as switchboard operator Asako (Yoko Minamida) accidentally dials a wrong number only have it picked up by a strange man who tells her she’s rung a crematorium then laughs hysterically. It turns out that the number was actually for a pawn shop which was in the process of being knocked over and the owner killed – Asako heard the perpetrator’s voice and thanks to her switchboard experience isn’t going to forget it. Ishikawa grows closer to Asako as the case becomes a media sensation but backs off after learning she’s already engaged.

Three years later Asako hears the voice again – a friend of her husband’s who keeps co-opting their living room for mahjong games that go on for days and cost everyone but him a lot of money. Before long Hamazaki (Jo Shishido) is found dead and Asako’s husband is the prime suspect but did he really do it? And if he didn’t, does Ishikawa really want to find out who did?

As you can see it’s a story that wouldn’t be out of place in any B movie noir from the fifties and the telephone set up is even a little reminiscent of Sorry, Wrong Number (though that film has a very different conclusion indeed). Based on a short story by Seicho Matsumoto, Voice, Voice Without a Shadow is full of the classic play of light and shadow that characterises the best film noir and the mood is ably supported by a suitably jazzy score from Hikaru Hayashi. If there’s a criticism to be made in this area, it’s that Nitani’s Ishikawa is a little too nice and pure hearted in comparison to the broken hearted heroes from the detective serials. He seems content to try and help Asako whilst uncovering the truth even if it ends up costing him in the end.

Although Asako herself is technically the leading character she quickly gets relegated to a more conventional woman in peril role. She is the one who recognises Hamazaki’s voice and the only clue linking him to the pawn shop murder three years ago but, while he’s alive anyway, Hamazaki is more interested in having fun terrorising everyone rather than trying to rub her out. In fact, the sudden demise of Hamazaki, played by an extremely young Jo Shishido, is one of the most surprising things about the film in which you’d expect him to remain the central antagonist right up until the grand finale.

Voice Without a Shadow is then a fairly conventional, noir inflected B movie which wears its Hollywood influences on its sleeve. However, there are glimpses of Suzuki’s individual style leaking through such as in his occasional and surprising use of double exposure, innovative composition and other modernist techniques which all help to lift the rather workmanlike script onto another level. In someways, it’s all a little too nice – even Hamazaki’s nasty lowlife activities are neatly skirted around almost like a film noir that’s been through a car wash though its strange pleasantness also has a nicely refreshing quality.

A minor film from the master of the surreal then, but an interesting one none the less. The mystery element proves satisfying even if it could do with a little more dirt under its fingernails and the committed performances also do their bit to enhance the mood. A prime example of its genre, Voice Without a Shadow is a notably restrained entry in Suzuki’s back catalogue but its classical style mixed with an offbeat, absurdist undercurrent make it one worth seeking out.


Voice Without a Shadow is the first film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.