Terror of Yakuza (沖縄やくざ戦争, AKA Okinawa Yakuza War, Sadao Nakajima, 1976)

An old-school yakuza finds himself cornered on every side while caught in the confusion of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in Sadao Nakajima’s jitsuroku gangster movie Terror of the Yakuza (沖縄やくざ戦争, Okinawa Yakuza Senso, AKA Okinawa Yakuza War). Where similarly themed Okinawa-set gangster pictures such as Sympathy for the Underdog had largely presented the islands as an appealing place for mainland gangsters because the conditions of the occupation which had allowed them to prosper were still in place, Sadao reframes the debate in terms colonisation and conquest as the hero finds himself increasingly marginalised as an island boy contending with amoral city elitists. 

Nakazato (Hiroki Matsukata) has just been released from prison after serving seven years for the murders of two rival gang bosses that allowed his boss, Kunigami (Shinichi Chiba), to rule the roost in Koza. But now that Okinawa has reverted to Japan, everything has changed. Kunigami has formed a loose alliance with another regional gang to oppose the incursion of mainland yakuza but behind the scenes the higher-ups are intent on a mutually beneficial alliance with the Japanese perhaps seeing the writing on the wall and assuming that it’s better to work with the new regime that against it. For his part, Nakazato is more loyal to the clan than he is opposed to Japan but he’s also resentful towards to Kunigami for failing to live up to his side of the bargain now that he’s been released while fearing the influence of his new sidekick Ishikawa (Takeo Chii) whom he suspects of murdering one of his former associates while he was inside. 

As such, much of the drama unfolds as in any other yakuza picture with Nakazato, regarded by some of the other bosses as a loose cannon and potential liability, reluctant to move against Kunigami for reasons of loyalty even while Kunigami becomes increasing unhinged and dangerous, deliberately running over an Osakan foot soldier who was apparently just on holiday with no particular business in town. Kunigami’s recklessness in his hatred of the Japanese threatens to start a turf war the Okinawan gangs fear they couldn’t win, sending snivelling yakuza middleman Onaga (Mikio Narita) along with Nakazato to negotiate in Osaka only to be told the price of peace is Kunigami’s head. Inspired by the Fourth Okinawa War which was still going on at the time of the film’s completion (in fact, the release was blocked in Okinawa in fear that it would prove simply too incendiary), the conflict takes on political overtones as the mainland gangsters assume their conquest of Okinawa is a fait accompli while those like Onaga are only too quick to capitulate leaving Kunigami and Nakazato as two very different examples of resistance. 

Yet Nakazato finds himself doubly marginalised because he is from one of the smaller islands with most of his men also hailing from smaller rural communities (one uncomfortably wearing extensive makeup to ram the point home that he is from the southern reaches) with the result that they are often pushed around by the city gangsters who view them as idiot country bumpkins. On his trip to Osaka, Nakazato even describes himself as such in an attempt to curry favour apologising in advance should he make a mistake with proper gangster etiquette. Like a good platoon leader, Nakazato’s primary responsibilities are to his men which is one reason why he takes so strongly against Ishikawa, one of the new breed of entirely amoral yakuza who care nothing at all for the code and think nothing of knocking off his guys for no reason. Consequently he finds himself caught between the invading mainlanders, the unhinged chaos of Kunigami, the coldhearted greed of Ishikawa, and the spineless venality of turncoats like Onaga. 

It’s no wonder that he eventually loses his cool, going all out war and like Kunigami dressing in vests and combats in an internecine quest for vengeance precipitated in part by Kunigami’s attempt to discipline one of his men for encroaching on his territory by removing his manhood with a pair of pliers. “Someone will get to you someday too” Nakazato is reminded though having lost everything including his loyal wife who insisted on selling herself to a brothel to get the money to fund his war of revenge he may no longer care so long as he cleans house in Okinawa to the extent that he is really able to do so. “Okinawa is such a scary place” one of the Japanese guys admits, though showing no signs of backing off in this maddeningly chaotic world which turns stoic veterans and hotheaded farm boys alike into enraged killers fighting on a point of principle in a world which no longer has any. 


Terror of Yakuza screens at Japan Society New York May 20 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: Terror of Yakuza © 1976 Toei

Writhing Tongue (震える舌, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1980)

Yoshitaro Nomura is best known for his crime films often adapted from the novels of Seicho Matsumoto though his filmography was in fact much wider than many give him credit for. Even so, 1980’s Writhing Tongue (震える舌, Furueru Shita) may seem an odd entry adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Taku Miki exploring the psychological torment of the parents of a little girl who contracts tetanus while innocently playing near a pond. Like the following year’s Call From Darkness, Nomura’s intense drama eventually shifts into the realms of psychedelia in the father’s strange fever dreams while lending this harrowing tale of medical desperation the tones of supernatural horror. 

When five-year-old Masako (Mayuko Wakamori) seems to be under the weather, her mother Kunie (Yukiyo Toake) takes her to the hospital but is told by the disinterested doctor that she simply has a cold. This is a little surprising seeing as Masako’s main complaint is she that cannot open her jaw, probably the best-known indication of tetanus infection which is after all not so rare as to be easily missed by a medical professional. Still worried, Kunie keeps taking her daughter back especially once her leg becomes twisted leaving her struggling to walk, but the doctors that she sees don’t really listen to her, even implying that Masako is having some kind of early life breakdown because her father, Akira (Tsunehiko Watase), is overly strict with her. This may be in part because Masako, perhaps in fear, keeps saying that she could walk or open her mouth if she wanted but is choosing not to. In any case the true diagnosis is only discovered after the couple manage to get a referral from a friend to a larger hospital where the veteran professor (Jukichi Uno) quickly overrules his junior’s lack of concern to have Masako admitted right away later explaining that tetanus is a difficult disease to treat and unfortunately has a high mortality rate. 

The treatment dictates that Masako receive as little stimulation as possible, lying in an entirely dark room with minimal noise so as to avoid the violent convulsions that accompany overstimulation and cause her to bite her tongue. As Akira later puts it, all they can do is wait trapped alone in the dark and tiny room with Masako entirely powerless to help her and with little knowledge of what exactly is going on. Meanwhile, despite having been repeatedly reassured that the disease is not transmitted in that way, Akira is convinced he may have contracted tetanus after being bitten by Masako while trying to prise open her jaw. Kunie too later worries that she also has tetanus, the pair of them sucked into a claustrophobic world of isolation and medical paranoia in which they are unable to sleep or find relief while watching over their daughter. 

Some time later, Akira begins having bizarre psychedelic dreams recalling the time when he too was hospitalised as a child having contracted blood poisoning, remembering his own fear and confusion on being forced to endure “red injections” which he feared would “turn the whole world red” while the hieroglyphics he and his wife have been using to record Masako’s seizures dance before his eyes. He dreams of crows and blood rain while Kunie goes quietly out of her mind at one point threatening the sympathetic Doctor Nose (Ryoko Nakano) thinking it might be kinder to stop the treatment and let her daughter escape this excruciating pain. The utter powerless with which the couple are faced is filled with almost supernatural dread as if Masako had been possessed by some terrible evil, Akira attempting to speak directly to the bacteria asking them why it is they’re trying to colonise his daughter’s body and if they realise that in killing her they kill themselves too.

“It’s odd, our life. It’s so fragile” Akira sighs. All of this happened because of a tiny cut on a little girl’s finger the kind not even quite worth putting a plaster on and yet she might die from it. Convinced they all may die, Akira tells his wife to go home and put their affairs in order while she is so traumatised that she becomes unable to re-enter the room paralysed not out of physical disability but mental anguish. When Masako’s condition finally improves, Akira can hear his daughter crying that she’s frightened reminding him that he can never really understand the way she suffered through this terrible disease while all he could do was watch. A truly harrowing depiction of the hellish psychological torment of serious illness, Nomura’s occasionally psychedelic drama lays bare the fragility of life in a world of constant and unexpected dangers. 


Trailer (no subtitles)

Crest of Betrayal (忠臣蔵外伝 四谷怪談, Kinji Fukasaku, 1994)

“I was trying to reform our times!” cries a man about to abandon his revolution at the moment of its inception. “The times have reformed us” his friend retorts, rejecting him for his self-interested cowardice before seconds later deciding to follow his example. Largely remembered for his contemporary jitsuroku gangster pictures, Kinji Fukasaku’s tale of rising individualism amid political turbulence and economic instability Crest of Betrayal (忠臣蔵外伝 四谷怪談, Chushingura Gaiden: Yotsuya Kaidan) hints at a perceived moral collapse in contemporary post-Bubble Japan defined by a sense of nihilistic impossibility in marrying the classic ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan with the noble tragedy of the 47 Ronin. 

The action opens the very concrete date of 14th March 1702 which as an early title card reminds us is at the close of the Genroku era which had been regarded as a “golden age” but its appearance of affluence had in fact been semi-engineered by the shogunate’s unwise decision to continue debasing the currency which later led to an inflation crisis (sounding familiar?). Meanwhile, in the samurai world Tsunayoshi, the fifth Tokugawa shogun, has deposed 38 Daimyo creating 40,000 masterless samurai each vying either for new positions as retainers in other clans or some other way to survive in a manner which befits their station. 

The 14th March, 1702 is a significant date in terms of the narrative in that it marks the first anniversary of the death of Lord Asano who was ordered to commit seppuku after offending another lord, Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka (Takahiro Tamura), leaving his house ruined and his retainers masterless. Samurai code dictates they seek revenge, but leader Oishi (Masahiko Tsugawa) suggests they bide their time leaving him and the clan open to accusations of cowardice or betrayal, mocked by peasants at the memorial service while Oishi decries their appetite for samurai drama. Enter Iemon Tamiya (Koichi Sato), antihero of the classic Yotsuya Kaidan, who had apparently joined the clan only two months before it was dissolved after years as a wandering ronin biwa player and alone has the courage to ask him if he truly has no appetite for vengeance moments after Oishi has scandalised his men by pointing out that it was Asano’s “short-temperedness” which destroyed their clan. His only answer is that it cannot be now, they must wait a year in order to prove their internal resolve. 

In marrying the two classic tales, Fukasaku directly contrasts the sublimation of the individual self into the samurai code as in the internecine nobility of the 47 ronin avenging the death of their lord knowing their own must shortly follow, and the self-serving individualism of (in this case) conflicted opportunist Iemon. Iemon has indeed been reformed by his times, becoming a thieving murderer out of desperation and misplaced filial piety after he and his father were forced into a life as itinerant biwa players on the dissolution of their clan. In most versions of the classic tale, Iemon is an ambitious sociopath who tricks his way into marrying up but loses interest in new wife Oiwa after she bears his child, later doing them both in to marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant who took a liking to him in a market square. Here, Oume (Keiko Oginome) is taken with him after he hacks the sword-bearing hand off an aggressor but unbeknownst to Iemon her father is a retainer of his sworn enemy leaving him with a double conflict, while Oiwa is a lowly bath house sex worker pregnant with a child he does not truly believe is his. 

The radical samurai had wanted to “reform our corrupt times”, but Iemon like his friend who drops out of the movement after being taken on as a successor to a hatamoto and becoming a direct retainer to the shogunate, comes to the conclusion that the times cannot be reformed and he must conform to them. If he chooses Oume, he betrays his loyalty to his lord by uniting with his rival to further his own prospects, a decision many will understand it is perhaps little more than leaving one firm for a better job at another, but it’s also an unforgivable subversion of the samurai code which drives him deeper even than the class conflict which sometimes informs his choices in Yotsuya Kaidan into a hellish spiral of greed and immorality. “The world hates your type” Oishi reminds him, “they’ll kill you, like a snake. Can you live fighting with the world for the rest of your life?” He asks, pitying Iemon for his self-destructive decision to turn away from “justice” for personal gain knowing that he will never reconcile himself to his choices nor will the world approve them. 

Yet as in Yotsuya Kaidan it’s not so much his latent sense of guilt that does for him as Oiwa’s curse, her ghost with its face ruined by his transgression taking its otherworldly revenge though interestingly only indirectly against him even as she provokes Iemon into destroying his chances for the secure, comfortable life he’d chosen for himself. The 47 ronin, meanwhile, continue with their righteous mission even if it’s a stretch to insist that their vengeance serves the cause of justice or is even intended to “reform these corrupt times”. Those corrupt times, Fukasaku seems to argue, forged a man like Iemon rather than the toxic masculinity, personal insecurity, or innate sociopathy which are generally ascribed to him to explain his dark deeds, and so these corrupt times of post-Bubble insecurity might create more like him. Finding the director in a noticeably expressionistic mood, opening with an ominous storm and climaxing in an unexpected, supernatural blizzard, Crest of Betrayal adopts a register of high theatricality and an etherial air of mystery culminating in a beautifully executed series of ghost effects overlaid with a watery filter but ends on a note of hopeful ambiguity in which Oiwa’s curse has perhaps been healed even if Iemon finds himself condemned, a wandering samurai for all eternity. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Amagi Pass (天城越え, Haruhiko Mimura, 1983)

There’s no statute of limitations on guilt an ageing policeman laments in Haruhiko Mimura’s adaptation of the Seicho Matsumoto mystery, Amagi Pass (天城越え, Amagi-Goe). Co-produced by Yoshitaro Nomura and co-scripted by Tai Kato, Amagi Pass arrives at the tail end of the box office dominance of the prestige whodunnit and like many of its kind hinges on events which took place during the war though in this case the effects are more psychological than literal, hinging on the implications of an age of violence and hyper masculinity coupled with sexual repression and a conservative culture. 

In a voiceover which doesn’t quite open the film, the hero, Kenzo (Mikijiro Hira / Yoichi Ito), as we will later realise him to be, likens himself to that of Kawabata’s Izu Dancer though as he explains he was not a student but the 14-year-old son of a blacksmith with worn out zori on his feet as he attempted to run away from home in the summer of 1940 only to turn back half-way through. In the present day, meanwhile, an elderly detective, Tajima (Tsunehiko Watase), now with a prominent limp, slowly makes his way through the modern world towards a print shop where he orders 300 copies of the case report on the murder of an itinerant labourer in Amagi Pass in June, 1940. A wandering geisha was later charged with the crime but as Tajima explains he does not believe that she was guilty and harbours regrets over his original investigation recognising his own inexperience in overseeing his first big case. 

As so often, the detective’s arrival is a call from the past, forcing Kenzo, now a middle-aged man, to reckon with the traumatic events of his youth. Earlier we had seen him in a doctor’s office where it is implied that something is poisoning him and needs to come out, his illness just as much of a reflection of his trauma as the policeman’s limp. Flashing back to 1940 we find him a young man confused, fatherless but perhaps looking for fatherly guidance from older men such as a strange pedlar he meets on the road who cheekily shows him illustrated pornography, or the wise uncle who eventually tricks him into buying dinner and then leaves. His problems are perhaps confounded by the fact that he lives in an age of hyper masculinity, the zenith of militarism in which other young men are feted with parades as they prepare to fight and die for their country in faraway lands. Yet Kenzo is only 14 in 1940 which means he will most likely be spared but also in a sense emasculated as a lonely boy remaining behind at home. 

He tells the wise man who later tricks him that he’s run away to find his brother who owns a print shop in the city because he hates his provincial life as a blacksmith, but later we realise that the cause is more his difficult relationship with his widowed mother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) whom, he has recently discovered, is carrying on an affair with his uncle (Ichiro Ogura). Returning home after his roadside betrayal he watches them together from behind a screen, a scene echoed in his voyeuristic observation of the geisha, Hana (Yuko Tanaka), with the labourer plying her trade in order to survive. Described as odd and seemingly mute, the labourer is a figure of conflicted masculinity resented by the other men on the road but also now a symbolic father and object of sexual jealously for the increasingly Oedipal Kenzo whose youthful attraction to the beautiful geisha continues to mirror his complicated relationship with his mother as she tenderly tears up her headscarf to bandage his foot, sore from his ill-fitting zori, while alternately flirting with him. 

Yet his guilt towards her isn’t only in his attraction but in its role in what happened to her next even as she, we can see, protects him, their final parting glance a mix of frustrated maternity and longing that has apparently informed the rest of Kenzo’s life in ways we can never quite grasp. Amagi Pass for him is a barrier between youth and age, one which he has long since crossed while also in a sense forever trapped in the tunnel looking back over his shoulder towards Hana and the labourer now on another side of an unbreachable divide. The policeman comes like messenger from another time, incongruously wandering through a very different Japan just as the bikers in the film’s post-credit sequence speed through the pass, looking to provide closure and perhaps a healing while assuaging his own guilt but finding only accommodation with rather than a cure for the traumatic past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Neither Seicho Matsumoto’s original novel or the film adaptation are directly related to the well-known Sayuri Ishikawa song of the same name released three years later though the lyrics are strangely apt.

Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊, Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)

Toei’s stock in trade through the 1960s had been the ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters set before the war and implicitly in a less corrupt Japan in which jingi could still triumph over the giri/ninjo conflict if at great personal cost to the idealistic hero. By the end of the decade, however, audiences were growing tired of yakuza romanticism particularly in the wake of grittier youth dramas produced by Nikkatsu. Originally conceived as a kind of sequel to Japan Organised Crime Boss, Kinji Fukasaku’s Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊,  Bakuto Gaijin Butai) marks a shift towards the jitsuroku or “true account” trend of the 1970s which would come to dominate the genre following the success of his Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle two years later, employing many of the same techniques from onscreen text to shaky handheld photography but doing so within the confines of moody noir as the hero emerges from a 10-year prison sentence into a very different Japan. 

When Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) gets out, he steps into an empty, windswept street his incongruous zori sandals clashing with his smart suit and sunshades and marking him out as a relic of a bygone era. He’s met only two loyal underlings, his gang apparently now disbanded following the death of his boss who refused to take his advice as regards the big name gang from Tokyo attempting to muscle in to their Yokohama territory. Part of the missing post-war generation, Gunji has no illusions about going straight, wandering into their former HQ now a derelict building and calling the guys, who’ve since moved on to more legitimate occupations, back together. He knows he can’t take on Daitokai with his meagre forces and so settles for extracting from them some compensation money to get out of town, later teaming up with Kudo (Noboru Ando) a similarly orphaned former member of a rival Yokohama gang wiped out by Daitokai, and resolving to relocate to Okinawa where he is convinced the post-war gangster paradise is still very much in existence. 

Okinawa was only “returned” to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, having been governed by the Americans since the end of the war, and of course maintains a large American military presence up to the present day. As such to Gunji, and in a yakuza movie trope which persists right into Takeshi Kitano’s Boiling Point, it exists in a permanent post-war present in which the conditions of the occupation are still very much in play. Gunji knows that he and his guys are products of the post-war era, they cannot adapt to the “new” world of corporatising yakuza in which street brawls and petty thuggery have given way to more sophisticated kinds of organised crime, and so they retreat into an Okinawan time warp, determining to steal turf from under two rival gangs who control between them the ports and the red light district mediated by black market booze from the American military.  

Fukasaku was apparently inspired by Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, intending to make a comment on resistance to American imperialism on the mainland though it has to be said that this is extremely ironic given that Japan is itself a coloniser of the Okinawan islands where there has long been a demand for self-determination and recognition of a distinct identity which has often been subject to oppression in the face of conformist Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the film continues the persistent theme that the chaotic post-war era which has come to a close thanks to rising economic prosperity in the time Gunji was inside is inextricable from the American occupation, implying that Okinawa is in a sense the last frontier and the only viable territory for men like Gunji who, like the melancholy ronin of the Edo era, lack the skills to live in time of peace.  

Nevertheless, modernity is also on its way to Okinawa and where there’s money there are gangsters so as expected Daitokai eventually rear their heads on the island pushing Gunji towards the revenge he didn’t want to take. The Okinawa he inhabits is one of loss and nostalgia, taking up with a sex worker who reminds him of the Okinawan woman who left him when he went to prison and perhaps playing into the slightly complicated political dialogue which positions Gunji as an ironic “migrant worker” salmoning back to Okinawa as many Okinawan youngsters are forced to travel to the mainland for work while the islands themselves remain, it’s implied, mired in poverty and crime economically dependent on the American military. Indeed, the head of the dock gang brokers a deal with Daitokai predicated on the fact that there is plenty of cheap labour available at the harbour. “Good place for a long life” he ironically adds, shortly before all hell breaks loose. Shot with typical Fukasaku immediacy, Sympathy for the Underdog looks forward to jitsuroku nihilism but does so through the prism of film noir cool as its fatalistic hero submits himself to his inexorable destiny.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

A True Story of the Private Ginza Police (実録・私設銀座警察, Junya Sato, 1973)

By the early 1970s the ninkyo eiga (pre-war tales of noble yakuza) had begun to fall from favour. Modern audiences were perhaps unconvinced by the romanticism of the honourable gangster caught between personal loyalty and his inner humanity, real life thugs are rarely so high minded after all. The cinema industry may have been in decline, but the consumerist revolution was well underway, the economic miracle was nearing completion, and there was perhaps a readiness to reckon with the recent past from a position of relative safety. The jitsuroku eiga did just that, providing a more “realistic” depiction of the yakuza life based on the recollections of real life gangsters and incorporating the aesthetics of reportage with the use of stock footage, newspaper montage, narratorial voiceover, and high impact text recording the names of characters along with the times of their deaths. 

Released in the same year as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity which has perhaps become the jitsuroku archetype, Junya Sato’s A True Story of The Private Ginza Police (実録・私設銀座警察, Jitsuroku: Shisetsu Ginza Keisatsu) paints an even bleaker picture of the immediate post-war era as one in which chaos and inhumanity rule. The pre-credits sequence follows demobbed soldier Watarai (Tsunehiko Watase) who finds himself in a bombed out warehouse where a woman is drinking around an open fire with a US serviceman. Standing motionless he stares at an upper balcony where another woman is having sex with a black GI. It seems this woman is known to him, perhaps his wife or in any case a woman he thought he was coming back to. She is not overjoyed to see him, breaking down in tears while he spots a baby girl crying in the corner who also happens to be black. Unthinkably he takes the child and throws her into a flooded area of the floor below, chasing the mother when she goes after the baby, strangling and then bludgeoning her to death with a rock. 

All of this has happened in the first five minutes. There will be no heroism here, no noble act of resistance only shame and desperation. These are men brutalised by war who’ve come home to a land in ruins where the enemy is now in charge, ruling their streets and sleeping with their women. They are humiliated and resentful, many of them still in uniform likely because they simply have no other clothes. Sato introduces us to the later gang members in turn beginning with a scene which echoes those of the Battles Without Honour series as Iketani (Noboru Ando) is chased and beaten by an angry mob in the chaos of the marketplace after being accused of stealing. Masaru (Tatsuo Umemiya) meanwhile is beaten by GIs who come to the rescue of a sex worker he tries to rape, offended when she tells him she doesn’t go with Japanese customers dismissing him as “just another defeated soldier”. Iwashita (Hideo Murota) uses his service revolver to commit an armed robbery to get money to gamble. Only the gang’s later leader, Usami (Ryoji Hayama), is introduced without a wartime record, named only as a pre-war gangster. The gang is forged when they meet by chance in a gambling den and bond over a grenade, mounting a military operation against the Korean street gang who hassled Iketani by bombing their HQ. 

A few months later they’ve become the “Private Ginza Police Force” of the title, now all in smart suits, loud shirts, and sunshades. They have their eyes set on ruling the area, taking down rival gangsters the Nakane brothers through cunning and trickery, turning an underling by threatening his family. But there is no honour among thieves and the gang is only a temporary arrangement intended to last only as long it’s useful. Iketani goes his own way, starting a small business running black market goods from China, bribing the police to turn a blind eye while Usami runs a conventional protection scam targeting the Chinese owner of a cabaret bar, Fukuyama (Asao Uchida), run as a front for black market smuggling. The problems start when Iketani learns that Fukuyama has been colluding with a government accountant to misappropriate money intended to be used for subsidies. 

This world is infinitely corrupt, from the easily bribed policemen to the civil servants out for all they can get and those who merely make use of them like Fukuyama and Iketani. While the guys get rich opening gambling clubs in Ginza, a wide scale famine creates a shantytown of starving poor at Ueno station where six die per day from hunger. Iketani is in someways the “noble” thug, he looks after his guys and pays attention to their lives, perhaps even claiming that his black market activities are a public service but it’s still every man for himself and if he’s assuming post-war chaos is on its way out he is sadly mistaken. Having got him hopped up on heroine and used him as a ghostly assassin, the gang jokingly refer to Watarai as a zombie, somehow surviving every bizarre death experience that comes his way including being buried alive, but they are walking dead too, soulless men who left their humanity on the battlefield. Fearing the game may be up, Masaru suggests one last hurrah blowing their ill-gotten gains on sake and women. “I’ll show you how rape is done,” Usami deliriously exclaims”, “how we used to do it on the continental front.” Meanwhile, Masaru throws notes all around the room screaming “Rejoice! There will be no tomorrow” sending all into a Bacchanalian frenzy as they cram as much cash as they can grab inside what little clothing they still have on.

All moody, anarchic jazz score and canted angles, Sato’s post-war Tokyo is a world of constant anxiety, a maddening no man’s land of fire and rubble inhabited by ghosts of men who died long ago for whom the war never ended. In true jitsuroku fashion, the picture ends on a note of fatalistic nihilism, the screen filled with red as the narrator cooly informs us what became of our heroes as they find themselves consumed by the futility of their lives of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Call from Darkness (真夜中の招待状, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1981)

“In today’s society, everyone is warped in some way” according to the investigative psychologist at the centre of Yoshitaro Nomura’s Call From Darkness (真夜中の招待状, Mayonaka no Shotaijo, AKA Midnight Invitation). Adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, Nomura’s late career psychological mystery places the dark past at the centre of familial implosion as increasingly estranged brothers find themselves falling victim to the same “curse”, called to destruction by the extreme resentment of one who feels himself wronged both personally and on a familial level. 

The film opens, however, with the heroine, Keiko (Asami Kobayashi), visiting a psychiatrist and visibly perturbed by the strange, twitching figures which surround her in the waiting room. The patient immediately before her is irritated by the psychiatrist’s “childish games”, eventually leaving the room in exasperation with the medical staff who refuse to take his symptoms seriously, convincing him that his pain is all in his mind and his lame leg is merely a manifestation of repressed trauma. Nevertheless, Keiko has not come for herself but for her fiancé, Tamura (Kaoru Kobayashi), who has suffered a nervous breakdown after all three of his brothers mysteriously disappeared leaving him feeling as if he must be next. As Dr. Aizawa (Etsushi Takahashi) points out, disappearances are a matter for the police but he does agree to help treat Tamura’s paranoia in the belief that his family circumstances are a series of unfortunate and improbable coincidences rather than a concerted effort to wipe out his bloodline. 

As it turns out, that is not quite true and Tamura perhaps has reason to worry but then there is no one targeting him, in fact no one very interested in him at all, but still he will be sucked into a vortex of guilt and pain despite having, as it turns out, a different name and minimal connection to those who are his brothers by blood. The youngest of the four boys, Tamura was adopted into another family who had no children of their own at eight years old. His mother had already passed away and after his father too died not long after his adoption he never returned to his ancestral home in Kumamoto and had little contact with either of his brothers besides Kazuo (Tsunehiko Watase) with whom he had remained close and who would often visit him when he came to Tokyo on business. The fact of his brothers’ disappearances does not perhaps concern him emotionally, at least until Kazuo too goes missing, as much as its strangeness threatens his ordinary, conventional life not to mention his engagement to Keiko whose parents do, as expected, urge her to reconsider in light of the dark shadows around Tamura’s family history. 

That’s perhaps one reason Keiko is so keen to delve to the bottom of the mystery, not only to cure Tamura’s depression but to defend her choice of husband and therefore the future direction of her life. Aizawa, meanwhile, proves a strange and slightly dubious guide despite his presentation as a figure of infinite authority. He persuades the pair that the answer lies in dreams, intrigued by a recurring nightmare Kazuo had apparently been having about travelling through tunnels and valleys towards a mysterious castle, a dream that Tamura eventually begins dreaming too. Aizawa and Keiko find themselves making a bizarre visit to a spirit medium, while Aizawa later recommends experimental hypnotherapy treatments, diagnoses based on glanced body language, and describes the oldest brother, Junkichi (Makoto Fujita), as a probable misanthropic sadist based on a series of drawings he made of a man with serious deformities. He later walks back some of these statements as strategy in his quest to help Tamura, but you have to admit that his practice is esoteric to say the least. 

Central to events, the deformed man turns out not to be an invention of Junkichi but a very real “victim” and perhaps symbol of the “warped” society Aizawa alludes to at the film’s conclusion. We learn that the young man suffered from rheumatism and was recommended experimental treatment which led to his deformity and apparently left him brain damaged, unable to look after himself. The mysterious calls the brothers receive late in the night are reminders of the harm they have caused, beckoning them towards a spiritual retribution though there is of course no real way to atone, the young man can never be restored. It’s this sense of dread that leads Aizawa and others to describe what’s happened to the brothers as a “curse” though it’s one largely self-imposed if perhaps precipitated by the intense resentment of the wounded parties which sends itself through the air, and the telephone lines, to convince the brothers they must pay though, in real terms, the young man’s fate is not really their fault only that of the doctors who developed the drug and administered it if, as Aizawa implies, they were aware of what could happen if they went too far. 

Nevertheless, it seems that responsibility must be taken though the extents of that responsibility, rather than the secrecy or the events themselves, eventually corrupt the previously pure and strong relationship between Keiko and Tamura. He wants to end it with money, she is disappointed in his cynical conservatism and lack of compassion. Aizawa meanwhile, believes that the brothers were drawn to death, tired of the business of living and perhaps looking for an exit and an excuse to give in to despair. Nomura slips into painful negative for his explanatory flashbacks, while undercutting a sense of reality through the dissolves and superimpositions of his ethereal dream sequences, but finally returns us to the “warped” society of the present day as the survivors look for new ways of living with a newfound darkness. 


Rex: Dinosaur Story (REX 恐竜物語, Haruki Kadokawa, 1993)

Like him or loathe him, Haruki Kadokawa was the dominant force in commercial Japanese cinema from the mid-70s to the end of the Bubble era. Thanks to his circular marketing approach which involved producing movie adaptations of books his company published starring idols he had under contract at his movie studio and releasing the theme songs they often sang to accompany them on his record label, Kadokawa had a virtual stranglehold on ‘80s pop culture. All that came to an end, however, in 1993 when he was arrested for cocaine use/smuggling and accused of embezzling money to pay for his habit, eventually winding up with a four-year jail sentence. Despite all of that, Rex: Dinosaur Story (REX 恐竜物語, Rex: Kyoryu Monogatari) was until the release of Lord of the Rings in 2002 the highest grossing movie distributed by veteran studio Shochiku and was due to extend its 10-week run but was ultimately pulled early because of the “moral embarrassment” surrounding its director’s arrest. 

That moral panic might be all the more acute because as the title and poster might imply, Rex: Dinosaur Story is a tentpole family film released, despite its Christmas setting, at the height of the summer season and in the wake of Jurassic Park with an obvious eye on merchandising (much of which actually appears in the movie). The slightly ridiculous story revolves around 10-year-old Chie (Yumi Adachi) whose parents have recently split up with her mother Naomi (Shinobu Otake), a professor of veterinary medicine, heading to New York for an exciting work opportunity while she’s stayed behind with her nerdy father Akira (Tsunehiko Watase), a researcher of Japan’s Jomon period, and moved in with her maternal grandmother (Mitsuko Kusabue) at a Hokkaido ranch. Little Chie is it seems finding it hard to adjust and has become very withdrawn, refusing to answer when expected to introduce herself at her new school. Mostly she spends her time alone on the farm hanging out with the family dog and riding a horse while drawing pictures of her longed-for mother in a stylish Edwardian outfit with the farmhouse in the background. 

Meanwhile, Akira has made a discovery. A Jomon statue appearing to feature a boy riding on the back of a dinosaur along with a collection of shards he thinks are from a dinosaur egg have convinced him that dinosaurs may have survived in Japan until the Jomon period and perhaps may survive still. Intrigued by a message on a stele that advises one should not advance any further because a giant god is living further up the mountain, Akira takes his daughter and a handful of researchers to meet an Ainu priest (Fujio Tokita) who eventually leads them to a grotto where they find a giant dinosaur egg, narrowly escaping with it after having angered the gods. Akira and the researchers eventually hatch the egg, giving birth to Rex and allowing Chie to become his “mother”.

The egg’s discovery eventually hastens Naomi’s return, but she virtually ignores her daughter greeting her with nothing more than a curt hello while making it plain she’s only here to work on the historically significant discovery not patch up her family. Chie’s relationship with Rex is, in many ways, a way of bonding with her aloof mother who, it has to be said, comes in for a lot of slightly misogynistic criticism as a woman who “abandoned” her daughter to chase career success. Nevertheless, through parenting Rex Chie comes to understand something of motherhood while recognising that she and Rex are essentially the same and that he is most likely lonely missing his dinosaur birth mother. 

Meanwhile, she’s also acutely aware that not everyone has Rex’s best interests at heart. The birth of a cute baby dinosaur is obviously front page news with the consequence that Rex becomes the moment’s biggest celebrity trotted out for a host of TV commercials (featuring a cameo by Kirin Kiki) one of which has Chie and Rex perhaps insensitively sitting down to enjoy a wholesome family meal of Japanese curry. Aside from the irony, Chie’s attempt to suggest that they take break because Rex is after all a baby and he’s tired results in one of the other scientists, Morioka (Mitsuru Hirata), physically abusing him. Sidelined from the project, he enacts a dastardly plan to steal Rex for himself, turning up with four minions dressing like he’s just joined the Gestapo. 

In typical kids movie fashion, Chie and Rex end up on the run through a weird Christmas wonderland in which religious ceremonies and Santa mingle freely, a choir full of children led by her schoolfriend Kenta (Yuta Yamazaki) eventually aiding their escape by throwing snowballs at the bad guys. Chie’s attempts at “disguise” may be laughably bad, but it seems so many people are indulging in Rex cosplay that it becomes possible to blend in even while travelling with a dinosaur companion wearing a Santa hat and sunglasses. Nevertheless, the lesson that Chie begins to learn is that sometimes mothers have to separate from their children but it doesn’t mean they love them any less or that it doesn’t make them sad. Incongruously relegating the “happy ending” to a post-credits sequence, Rex’s distinctly Mid-Western aesthetic with its Dorothy-esque Hokkaido ranch coupled with the fantastical Jomon-era/Ainu mythology lend it a rather strange flavour but it remains an oddly nostalgic experience even as it lifts gleefully from its Hollywood contemporaries. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1979)

The ensemble crime drama was at its zenith in the 1970s which saw a series of starry mysteries dominate the box office for most of the decade. Director Yoshitaro Nomura had long associated himself with the noirish thriller, frequently adapting the work of Seicho Matsumoto and perhaps skewing a little darker than your average drawing room mystery would usually dare. Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, 1979’s Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Haitatsu Sarenai Santsu no Tegami), meanwhile, is adapted not from Matsumoto but from a novel by American crime powerhouse Ellery Queen, Calamity Town, and as such avoids the central topic of wartime corruption which is at the centre of many similarly themed crime dramas. Nevertheless, it paints a complex picture of Japan in the increasingly prosperous late ‘70s in which class distinctions, it seems, prove hard to kill. 

Nomura begins, as he so often does, with a lengthy train journey this time undertaken by the quasi-protagonist, Japanese-American student Bob (Ryo Hikime) who has come to Japan on a research trip for his East Asian studies degree and is travelling from Tokyo where he stayed with a friend to provincial Hagi where he’s to stay with distant relatives, the Karasawas. As we begin to realise, the Karasawas are fabulously wealthy, members of an entrenched upperclass living out in the country. Grumpy patriarch Mitsumasa (Shin Saburi) is the CEO of a bank, and actually not all that welcoming of his visitor though they agree to put him up in an entirely separate house they had built for the impending marriage of daughter Noriko (Komaki Kurihara). Unfortunately, three years previously once the house had been built and the marriage agreed, Noriko’s fiancé Toshiyuki (Takao Kataoka) simply vanished without trace. Heartbroken, Noriko suffered a breakdown and has been living in a depressive state ever since. 

The trouble begins when already disowned oldest daughter Reiko (Mayumi Ogawa) rings her sister to let her know that Toshiyuki has resurfaced, apparently having been living quietly as a fisherman in Hokkaido. Perhaps surprisingly, their reconciliation is speedy. Noriko brings Toshiyuki home, explains the reason for the breakup was that Toshiyuki was uncomfortable with the constraints of her upperclass life, and states that the wedding is back on. Mitsumasa is understandably irate, but agrees to the marriage on the same terms as before. Toshiyuki must join his bank and they have to live in the house he built for them. Despite his earlier aversion, Toshiyuki agrees and the pair are married but on moving his belongings into the house Noriko discovers three disturbing letters hidden in a book each bearing a future date and addressed to Toshiyuki’s younger sister, the first explaining that his wife has been taken ill, the second that her condition continues to deteriorate, and the third that she has passed away. 

All things considered, it is odd that the marriage was agreed so quickly, the family perhaps feeling that Toshiyuki has had a humbling and is willing to submit himself to the feudalistic, patriarchal world of the upper classes in order to escape hardship while knowing that refusing may be the most dangerous thing for Noriko’s precarious mental health. Entirely absent are the usual background checks such families usually run on a prospective son-in-law, and no one seems keen to ask for much detail as to Toshiyuki’s life over the past three years. The class conflicts are however brought to the fore when a brassy young woman turns up and claims to be Toshiyuki’s previously unseen younger sister who for mysterious reasons did not attend the wedding ceremony and has never been introduced to the family. The contrast between the two women could not be more plain, Noriko often appearing in kimono or elegantly attired in the latest fashions, while Tomoko (Keiko Matsuzaka) is a full on modern girl who finds the house stuffy and the company dull but shows no signs of leaving. 

As so often in Japanese mysteries the focus is very much on the how, or in this case the “if”, rather than the who or the why which are in themselves fairly predictable at least to those familiar with the genre. Bob and middle sister Keiko (Ai Kanzaki) who is being pressured into an arranged marriage with a public prosecutor she doesn’t seem to even like but also has not rejected, are perturbed enough by the letters to start investigating but their biggest obstacle it seems is Noriko herself who is at great pains to exonerate her husband from suspicion believing the letters are some kind of dark joke rather than genuine evidence of an imminent attempt on her life even as Toshiyuki’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic and suspicious. 

“Everyone should live the way they like” Bob avows in laughing off a request for life advice, apparently wisdom handed down from his Japanese grandma. That sense of restricted freedoms does indeed seem to be at the heart of the issue, hinting at the changing nature of Japanese society even as it struggles to free itself from the feudal past. Keiko resents being pushed towards the prosector but only ever comes up with excuses, never actively resisting her parents’ attempt to marry her off. Oldest daughter Reiko, meanwhile, was kicked out of the family after eloping with an actor who eventually left her flat and now runs a bar. Keiko may feel she has only these two choices, a marriage such as Noriko’s on her father’s terms only, or a dubious independence which might not suit her in the same way as her infinitely competent sister. Toshiyuki resented placing himself under the patriarchal authority of his father-in-law, a job in his bank, living in a house he built on the property he owns, with no real control over his life. Reiko may well have a point when she eventually tells Mitsumasa that this is all his own fault, a consequence his rigid authoritarianism that insisted on maintaining an outdated ideal of patriarchal control. 

For his part, Mitsumasa is forever keen to emphasise that there are no crimes in his house, resolutely refusing to admit that there are problems within the Karasawa family even while perhaps knowing where the fault may lie. The one mystery which is never solved is why exactly so many women are so in love with Toshiyuki who all things considered is no great catch, a coward who makes a point of disappearing on people rather than deal with unpleasantness only to resent it when his moral cowardice returns to haunt him. He resents the emasculation of being a wealthy man’s son-in-law with its concurrent loss of personal autonomy, but simultaneously refuses to take responsibility for his actions or reject a life of comfort as someone assured both of continued financial security and of a certain place in society. Love destabilises the social order, but seemingly cannot change it leaving only the lovers bruised by their attempts to free themselves from the latent feudalism of the post-war world which continues to promise more than it has to offer. 


Datsugoku Hiroshima Satsujinshu (脱獄広島殺人囚, Sadao Nakajima, 1974)

DVD coverSadao Nakajima had made his name with Toei’s particular brand of violent action movie, but by the early seventies, the classic yakuza flick was going out of fashion. Datsugoku Hiroshima Satsujinshu (脱獄広島殺人囚, AKA The Rapacious Jailbreaker) follows in the wake of seminal genre buster, Battles Without Honour and Humanity, but also honours the classic Toei ganger movie past in its exploitation leaning, cynically humorous tale of a serial escapee and his ever more convoluted schemes to avoid the bumbling police force’s noose.

Kobe, 1947. Ueda (Hiroki Matsukata) and his buddy kill a drug dealer and his girlfriend in a robbery gone wrong. Landing himself a twenty year sentence, Ueda resigns himself to spending his prime years behind bars in a Hiroshima prison but then he starts getting a few ideas and his first escape attempt is a moderate success, until he’s recaptured after stupidly going home to his wife.

Nakajima spends quite a long time exploring the unusual environment of the prison in Hiroshima. The life is strictly ordered and run with precision but the prisoners are also forced to do a strange dance for the guards, waving their hands and shouting their ID numbers to prove there’s nothing interesting inside their mouths – a gesture which is hilariously turned back on the warden when a prisoner begins a mini riot after a sports game is turned off at crucial moment. The warden submits himself to the degrading dance but once the man surrenders, he does not honour any of the promises he made to convince him to come down from the tower he was occupying. The guards are corrupt, violent, and untrustworthy whereas the majority of prisoners are docile, resigned, and going mad through inactivity.

Ueda, like many “heroes” of yakuza films is a man who’s had a hard life, left to fend for himself after his father died and his mother left. He appears to love and care for his wife who pledges to wait for him, starting her own seamstressing business in the meantime, but his subsequent escape attempts take him further and further away from his home. Nevertheless, home is the first place he decides to go despite the danger even if his reunion with his wife is anything but romantic.

After being recaptured, Ueda’s desire for escape intensifies, requiring ever more complicated schemes to make it happen. These range from the traditional file hidden inside a lovingly prepared meal delivered by his wife, to simply running away when arraigned for a court date after committing another murder while inside. Seeing as Ueda intends to escape, he cares little for the prison rules and his 20 year sentence is soon doubled thanks to his ongoing crimes both inside and outside of the prison walls.

Other than his wife the other source of support Ueda turns to is his estranged sister with whom he’s had no contact since his mother left sixteen years previously. What he discovers is that the now widowed Kazuko (Naoko Otani) is involved in some dodgy business of her own concerning the local black market meat trade. Ueda decides Kazuko is not getting her fair share and more or less takes over, bending the local petty gangsters to his will, but once again he messes everything up for himself after getting into a fight at a brothel which lands him back at the police station.

Nakajima follows Fukasaku’s jitsuroku aesthetic using frequent onscreen text detailing names and conviction records for each of the major players though his approach owes far less to realism than b-movie action in its willingness to linger on blood and gore even if scenes of violence are generally few and executed quickly. Scenes of a cow being butchered in the woods, blood, skin, and bones dominating, introduce a note of sickening horror but are then echoed in Ueda’s animalistic murders committed with makeshift tools and an unforgiving heart. Despite this frightening coldness, Ueda’s humorous voiceover turns him into a roguish figure whose bumbling acts of self destruction and stubborn attempts to regain his freedom take on an oddly cartoonish quality.  The situation may be hopeless, but Ueda does not give up. His story remains unfinished as he makes another (apparently) successful escape after being betrayed by a fellow criminal who is then himself betrayed by the police he mistakenly thought would help him, but as for how long he’ll manage to keep himself on this side of the bars, that remains to be seen…