Sasuke and His Comedians (真田風雲録, Tai Kato, 1963)

Criminally unknown in the Anglophone world, where Tai Kato is remembered at all it’s for his contribution to Toei’s ninkyo eiga series though his best known piece is likely to be post-war take on High Noon made at Shochiku, By a Man’s Face Shall You Know Him in which a jaded doctor finds himself caught in the middle of rising tensions between local Japanese gangsters and Zainichi Koreans. Kato’s distinctive visual style shooting from extreme low angles with a preference for long takes, closeups and deep focus already make him an unusual presence in the Toei roster, but there can be few more unusual entries in the studio’s back catalogue than the wilfully anarchic Sasuke and his Comedians (真田風雲録, Sanada Fuunroku), a bizarre mix of musical comedy, historical chanbara, and ninja movie, loosely satirising the present day student movement and the limits revolutionary idealism. 

An opening crawl introduces us to the scene at Sekigahara, a legendary battle of 1600 that brought an end to Japan’s warring states period and ushered in centuries of peace under the Tokugawa. Onscreen text explains that this is the story of the boys of who came of age in such a warlike era, giving way to a small gang of war orphans looting the bodies of fallen soldiers and later teaming up with a 19-year-old former samurai realising that the world as he knew it has come to an end. Soon the gang is introduced to the titular Sasuke who, as he explains, has special powers having been irradiated during a meteor strike as a baby. Recognising him as one of them, the war orphans offer to let Sasuke join their gang, but he declines because he’s convinced they’ll eventually reject him in fear of his awesome capabilities. Flashing forward 15 years, the kids are all grown up and the only girl, Okiri (Misako Watanabe), is still carrying a torch for Sasuke (Kinnosuke Nakamura) who dutifully reappears as the gang find themselves drawn into a revolutionary movement led by Sanada Yukimura (Minoru Chiaki) culminating in the Siege of Osaka in 1614. 

Don’t worry, this is not a history lesson though these are obviously extremely well known historical events the target audience will be well familiar with. A parallel is being drawn with the young people of early ‘60s Japan who too came of age in a warlike era and who are now also engaging in minor revolutionary thought most clearly expressed in the mass protests against the ANPO treaty in 1960 which in a sense failed because the treaty was indeed signed in spite of public opinion. Kato’s Sanada Yukimura is a slightly bumbling figure, first introduced banging his head on a low-hanging beam, wandering the land in search of talented ronin to join up with the Toyotomi rebellion against the already repressive Tokugawa regime. His underling sells this to the gang as they overlook a mile long parade of peasants headed to Osaka Castle as a means of bringing about a different future that they can’t quite define but imply will be less feudal and more egalitarian which is how they’ve caught the attention of so many exploited farmers. 

Of course, we all already know how the Siege of Osaka worked out (not particularly well for anyone other than the Tokugawa) so we know that this version of the 16th century better world did not come to pass the implication being that the 1960s one won’t either. The nobles are playing their own game, the Toyotomi trying to cut deals but ultimately being betrayed, while the gang fight bravely for their ideals naively believing in the possibility of victory. Sasuke, for his part, is a well known ahistorical figure popular in children’s literature and this post-modern adventure is in essence a kids’ serial aimed at a student audience, filled with humorous anachronisms and silliness while Kato actively mimics manga-style storytelling mixed with kabuki-esque effects. Boasting slightly higher production values than your average Toei programmer, location shooting gives way to obvious stage sets and fantastical set pieces of colour and light which are a far cry from the studio’s grittier fare with which Kato was most closely associated. That might be one reason that the studio was reportedly so unhappy with the film that it almost got Kato fired, but nevertheless its strange mix of musical satire and general craziness remain an enduring cult classic even in its ironic defeatism. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Certain Killer (ある殺し屋, Kazuo Mori, 1967)

A nihilistic hitman safeguards the post-war future in Kazuo Mori’s chivalrous B-movie noir, A Certain Killer (ある殺し屋, Aru Koroshiya). Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War with US airplanes flying constantly overhead, Mori’s crime thriller situates itself in the barren wasteland of a rehabilitated city in which betrayal, exploitation and duplicity have become the norm while a former tokkotai pilot turned killer for hire takes his revenge on social hypocrisy as a product of his society, a man who did not die but knows only killing. 

Shiozawa (Raizo Ichikawa) runs a stylish restaurant by day and supplements his income by night as a killer for hire, apparently highly regarded by the local underworld. As such, he’s approached by a yakuza underling, Maeda (Mikio Narita), on behalf of the Kimura gang who want him to off another gangster, Oowada (Tatsuo Matsushita), who double crossed them in contravention of the yakuza codes of honour. Shiozawa is resolutely uninterested in yakuza drama and so turns the job down but changes his mind when he’s paid a visit by boss Kimura (Asao Koike) himself who sells him a different kind of mission. Kimura characterises Oowada as a “bad” yakuza, one has subverted the traditional gangster nobility by dealing in the “dirty” sides of organised crime, corrupting the modern society by trafficking in illegal prostitution, drugs, and extortion, where as he is a “good” yakuza mostly running construction scams and therefore building the post-war future. His crime is, literally, constructive, where Oowada’s is not. 

Shiozawa doesn’t quite buy his justifications, but men like Oowada represent everything he hates. “They’re not worthy of this world. They’re nothing but cockroaches” he laments, recalling the young men who served with him and gave their lives because they believed in a country which betrayed them. He agrees to take the job in rebellion against post-war venality, but only at a price, asking for four times the original fee. Kimura is willing to pay, because his true aim is profit more than revenge. He plans to take over Oowada’s remaining business concerns. 

Fully aware of this, Shiozawa seems almost uninterested in the money despite having asked for so much of it. He runs his shop as a front for his side business and otherwise lives a quiet, unostentatious life keeping mostly to himself. He is not, it would seem, a cold blooded killer, often making a point of leaving those who get in his way incapacitated but alive. Targeted by a street punk for supposedly messing with his girl he cooly disarms him and walks away, only for the girl to follow attracted partly by his icy manliness and partly by the thickness of his wallet as glimpsed when he made the fatal decision to offer to pay for her meal in order to save the chef from embarrassment over her attempts to pay with things other than money. Unable to get by on her own, Keiko (Yumiko Nogawa) attaches herself to various capable men beginning with the pimp, transferring her affections to Shiozawa whom she petitions to marry her, and then to Maeda, eventually vowing to find a new partner and make lots of money. 

Both Maeda and Keiko chase Shiozawa and are rebuffed. Impressed by his cool handling of the Oowada affair, not to mention the amount of money he now realises you can make in his line of business, Maeda asks to become his pupil in order to become a “real man”. Shiozawa doesn’t regard his work as something “real men” do, and in any case prefers to work to alone. Maeda repeatedly asks to be allowed to accompany him even after plotting betrayal, only to be rejected once again as Shiozawa tells him that he doesn’t like people who don’t know the difference between the job and romance, flagging up the homoerotic subtext for those not paying attention. Maeda parrots his words back to Keiko with whom he had begun a halfhearted affair as joint revenge against Shiozawa’s indifference. 

Following the successful offing of the mob boss, Shiozawa finds himself coopted into another job robbing a drug handoff between Oowada’s former associates, the illicit narcotics ironically packaged inside cartons intended for baby powder. Shiozawa apparently doesn’t object to profiting off the drug trade himself, but later abandons the loot in protest while the remainder is lost or squandered during the final battle with the remaining gang members, Shiozawa’s cartons left sitting ironically on top of a gravestone taken by no one. Cool as ice, Shiozawa places himself above petty criminality, always one step ahead, trusting no one and looking out for himself but reacting as a man created by his times, forged by a war he was a not intended to survive while looking on at another cruel and senseless conflict across the sea. Adapting the hardboiled novel by Shunji Fujiwara, Yasuzo Masumura’s jagged, non-linear script (co-written with Yoshihiro Ishimatsu) is imbued with his characteristic irony but also coloured with nihilistic despair for the post-Olympics society and its wholesale descent into soulless capitalistic consumerism.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Detective Hibari 1: Case of the Golden Hairpins (ひばり捕物帖 かんざし小判, Tadashi Sawashima, 1958)

Two years after Mysteries of Edo and a year after its sequel, Hibari Misora returns as Oshichi in a new series of films, still living undercover in Edo solving crimes and living her best life as a singer and performer. Like Mysteries, Detective Hibari 1: Case of the Golden Hairpins (ひばり捕物帖 かんざし小判, Hibari Torimonocho: Kanzashi Koban, AKA Edo Girl Detective / Here Comes the Girl Detective) sees Oshichi investigating murders of women, though this time the crime is far less involved and much more typical of Toei’s period films in its venal samurai and their insatiable appetites for wealth and status. Oshichi is, essentially, an agent of the state but a much less ambiguous one than she’d become in the following pictures, fighting bravely against corruption and standing proudly for justice in the face of implacable samurai arrogance. 

Having escaped the cage of her noble birth, Princess Tae/Oshichi (Hibari Misora) is still living as an “ordinary” woman in Edo and has just won a singing competition to be named as Queen Beauty. The competition is marred however when one of the other contestants is offed on the way home. Still working with her trusty sidekick Gorohachi (Shunji Sakai), Oshichi quickly realises the woman seems to have been murdered with an ornate hairpin and starts an investigation.

What she discovers is that an unscrupulous gang of samurai is attempting to recover a set of three hairpins which were stolen in a robbery some years previously. The lord claims he’s doing it to satisfy his clan’s honour, but more likely has a less honorable goal in in mind. To put the plan in action, he’s mobilised his conflicted daughter, Sumie (Eiko Maruyama), who thinks this is all a bit much for set of shiny hair ornaments, and her boyfriend Tamiya (Kotaro Satomi) whose family originally owned the jewels which is why he sees it as his duty to get them back, even if that means murdering innocent women and sending the entire city into a panic in the process. Of course, Oshichi agrees with Sumie, and as usual immediately sympathises with her romantic dilemma which earns her a few sarcastic comments from sometime love interest Hyoma (Chiyonosuke Azuma) who will recur throughout the rest of the series.

Hyoma, posing as a drunken ronin but in reality shadowing Oshichi as a protector, like Kawashima in Mysteries, expresses consternation with Oshichi’s atypical feminity, echoing Kawashima’s words that “a woman should be feminine” while claiming not to find Oshichi’s manly fortitude very effective. Kawashima’s words may have wounded her, but Hyoma’s only irritate. She fires back that as a talented samurai he’s wasting his potential drowning himself in drink and he should “stop fighting and do something for society”. Meanwhile, she doubles down – dressing as a man and even joining a kendo dojo to spy on the corrupt lords, scrapping with the best of them and holding her own in a fight. 

Swinging the other way, another of her investigative tactics sees her posing as a geisha and then later as a noble lady, even getting dressed up in her formal princess clothes to beg a favour from her extremely understanding brother. Sympathy for Sumie and a few romantic songs may be the sole concessions to conventional femininity, but Oshichi remains proudly defiant and intent on maintaining her freedoms. It may be true that the unusual degree of freedom she has is permitted her because of her progressively minded brother who ignores “advice” from an elderly servant to exercise more control because he can see being of use to society makes his sister happy and that she’ll probably come home when she wants to, but it’s also freedom that she has actively chosen for herself and chooses to maintain. 

Oshichi gets drunk with Hyoma (apparently for the first time), fights bad guys, and gives orders that stop seasoned samurai in their tracks but not so much for herself as to help those like Sumie who have become victims of corrupt samurai ethics. She does this, however, as someone who largely believes in the righteousness of the system, that the Shogunate is kind and forgiving while local lords may be avaricious or cruel. When her brother arrives to save the day, he announces that the hairpins will be sent to the Shogun who will return them to the people, sharing the treasure with everyone rather than keeping it for himself. Oshichi, meanwhile has found something greater – a worthy sparring partner in the dashingly romantic Hyoma, and the confirmation of herself not as Tae the caged princess but Oshichi who owns the very ground she walks upon and allows no other to tell her where she may be permitted to go. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mysteries of Edo (ふり袖捕物帖 若衆変化, Shoji Matsumura, 1956)

The voice of the post-war era, Hibari Misora was a major marquee star but in contrast to expectation, appears to have been fully in command of her contradictory brand, selling an image of herself not as docile and innocent in the manner of many a manufactured idol but feisty and true, refusing to backdown in the face of injustice. In her contemporary movies, she stood up to gangsters and corrupt corporations alike with salt of the earth charm, while her period roles saw her do much the same only against the inherently corrupt samurai order. An early outing for Toei, Mysteries of Edo (ふり袖捕物帖 若衆変化, Furisode Torimonocho: Wakashu Henge) sees her star in the first of a series of films as a princess in hiding turned feminist detective, investigating series of abductions in the rapidly changing bakumatsu society. 

A “newspaper” seller in the street informs us that 14 girls have recently gone missing in this area of town, and no one’s doing much about it. A dance teacher escorts her pupils home to be on the safe side while her apprentice, Oshichi (Hibari Misori), stays behind to teach cowardly samurai Kawashima (Hashizo Okawa) some moves. Local bobby Gorohachi (Shunji Sakai), himself a dance enthusiast, arrives to get some guidance from Oshichi but their lesson is interrupted by the news that the dance mistress and her daughter have become the latest two abduction victims. Oshichi springs into action but quickly falls under suspicion from a rival policeman, Gonroku (Haruhisa Kawada), who questions her background. All too soon, the body of a young woman is discovered at the local shrine and believed to be connected to the abduction cases. Gonroku accepts a bribe from a samurai to get rid of the body as quickly as possible, but Oshichi immediately notices the bruises on the woman’s neck and concludes it’s a murder. She and Gorohachi trace the samurai back to the red light district and discover some shady goings on in a “back house” behind a brothel belonging to a prominent merchant. 

During this era, Japan was still in its isolationist period during which consorting with foreigners was forbidden outside of a few explicitly designated trading spots. Oshichi figures out that the merchant, Nagasaki (Ryosuke Kagawa), is involved with smuggling and uses his second house as a place to entertain foreigners in collusion with local politicians. When he ran out of courtesans from the brothel next door, he started simply abducting random women off the street to entertain his guests with more authentic charms. Those who don’t comply are threatened with being sold off on slave ships, itself another evil of the age. 

Of course, a lowly dance teacher and a bumbling policeman aren’t much of a match for entrenched samurai corruption, but Oshichi has a trump card – she’s secretly a princess in hiding. Bored with the life of an upperclass noblewoman, she ran away from her brother’s home to live an independent life in Edo but can still rely on her class background when necessary. Stealing a pistol and a letter box, she rebrands herself as a man and gets a job in the ministry to try and spy on the corrupt lords while hoping to save her boss, keeping up the ruse well enough but eventually unmasked as a girl. 

As in many of her films, Misora plays on gender ambiguity. Rejecting the cosseted life of a lady, she takes to the streets and then takes charge. She’s technically Gorohachi’s subordinate, but in reality he follows her lead, and she gives as good as she gets in the frequent fight sequences. In the end, however, she’s “rescued” by a masked samurai dressed in white with whom she becomes instantly smitten. She dreams of meeting him in a deserted field where he mildly berates her for her lack of femininity, insisting that he liked “the Oshichi from before”, meanwhile she conjures up the figure of Kawashima who manfully wades in to save her. Previously, in refusing to help, Kawashima had told her that “a woman should know her place and act like a woman”. Oshichi tells him perhaps he should act like a man, practice kendo or something else more manly rather than prancing about learning to dance. His words have perhaps cut her because he tells her the same thing in her dream, insisting that he “could fall for the womanly Oshichi”.

Oshichi tries on womanliness for size, but it only seems to confuse the “real” Kawashima who describes her attempt at genial femininity as “creepy”. She quickly goes back to holding her own, pushing forward where the men hold back perhaps bashful in love but never in justice. Even if it’s true that the dashing samurai arrives to save the day, Oshichi is no damsel in distress watching passively from the sidelines but an active participant threatening bad guys with a gun cunningly smuggled in while she distracted them with a song, and grabbing a sword off the wall to wade into the fray. Rewarded for her good work and asked what she’d like in return, Oshichi chooses her freedom, intending to stay in the town a little longer, solving crimes in old Edo and ensuring that no one, even those who think they have a right to be, is truly above the law.