A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

A Legend or Was it posterIn 1951’s Boyhood, Kinoshita had painted a less than idealised portrait of village life during wartime. With pressure mounting ranks were closing, “outsiders” were not welcome. The family at the centre of Boyhood had more reasons to worry in that they had, by necessity, removed themselves from a commonality in their ideological opposition to imperialism but newcomers are always vulnerable when they find themselves undefended and without friends. 1963’s A Legend or Was It? (死闘の伝説, Shito no Densetsu, AKA Legend of a Duel to the Death) tells a similar story, but darker as a family of evacuees fall foul not only of lingering feudal mores but a growing resentment in which they find themselves held responsible for all the evils of war.

Beginning with a brief colour framing sequence, Kinoshita shows us a contemporary Hokkaido village filled with cheerful rural folk who mourn each other’s losses and share each other’s joys while shouldering communal burdens. A voice over, however, reminds us that something ugly happened in this beautiful place twenty years previously. Something of which all are too ashamed to speak. Switching back to black and white and the same village in the summer of 1945, he introduces us to Hideyuki Sonobe (Go Kato) who has just come home from the war to convalesce from a battlefield injury. Hideyuki’s engineer father went off to serve his country and hasn’t been heard from since, and neither has his brother who joined the air corp. His mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), sister Kieko (Shima Iwashita), and younger brother Norio (Tsutomu Matsukawa) have evacuated from Tokyo to this small Hokkaido village where they live in a disused cottage some distance from the main settlement.

The family had been getting by in the village thanks to the support of its mayor, Takamori, but relations have soured of late following an unexpected marriage proposal. Takamori’s son Goichi (Bunta Sugawara), a war veteran with a ruined hand and young master complex, wants to marry Kieko. She doesn’t want to marry him, but the family worry about possible repercussions if they turn him down. It just so happens that Hideyuki recognises Goichi and doesn’t like what he sees – he once witnessed him committing an atrocity in China and knows he is not the sort of man he would want his sister to marry, let alone marry out of fear and practicality. Hideyuki, as the head of the family, turns the proposal down and it turns out they were right to worry. The family’s field is soon vandalised and the police won’t help. When other fields meet the same fate, a rumour spreads that the Sonobes are behind it – taking revenge on the village on as a whole. The villagers swing behind Goichi, using the feud as a cover to ease their own petty grievances.

City dwellers by nature, the Sonobes have wandered into a land little understood in which feudal bonds still matter and mob mentality is only few misplaced words away. The village serves a microcosm of Japanese society at war in which Takamori becomes the unassailable authority and his cruel son the embodiment of militarism. Goichi embraces his role as a young master with relish, riding around the town on horse back and occasionally barking orders at his obedient peasants, stopping only to issue a beating to anyone he feels has slighted him – even taking offence at an innocuous folksong about a man who was rejected in love and subsequently incurred a disability. Despite all of that, however, few can find the strength to resist the pull of the old masters and the majority resolutely fall behind Goichi, willing to die for him if necessary.

As the desperation intensifies and it appears the war, far off as it is, is all but lost, a kind of creeping madness takes hold in which the Sonobes become somehow responsible for the greater madness that has stolen so many sons and husbands from this tiny village otherwise untouched by violence or famine. An embodiment of city civilisation the Sonobes come to represent everything the village feels threatened by, branded as “bandits” and blamed for everything from murder to vegetable theft. The central issue, one of a weak and violent man who felt himself entitled to any woman he wanted and refused to accept the legitimacy of her right to refuse, falls by the wayside as just another facet of the spiralling madness born of corrupted male pride and misplaced loyalties.

Kinoshita returns to the idyllic countryside to close his framing sequence, reminding us that these events may have been unthought to the level of myth but such things did happen even if those who remember are too ashamed to recall them. Tense and inevitable, A Legend or Was It? reframes an age of fear and madness as a timeless village story in which the corrupted bonds of feudalism fuel the fires of resentment and impotence until all that remains is the irrationality of violence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ghost in the Well (怪談番町皿屋敷, Toshikazu Kono, 1957)

Ghost in the Well poster 2Love across the class divide threatens to overthrow the social order. Inspired by the classic folktale Bancho Sarayashiki, Ghost in the Well (怪談番町皿屋敷, Kaidan Bancho Sarayashiki) is indeed the story of a haunting though perhaps not altogether of the kind you might be expecting. This is a tale of romance, but also one of impossible love in which the only possible union is in death. The pure love of a servant girl is deemed incompatible with the oppressive world of samurai honour, and so she must die, but her lord cannot survive it. He cannot reconcile himself to having chosen to preserve his honour, his status, his lineage at the cost of her life and his love.

Rowdy samurai Harima (Chiyonosuke Azuma) loves making trouble in the streets. As the lord’s bannerman he knows he has a degree of status and likes to throw his weight around in the yoshiwara, much to the lord’s consternation. Harima has also taken a fancy to one of his maids, Okiku (Hibari Misora), who continues to reject his advances despite returning his affections because she knows the class difference makes a legitimate relationship between them impossible and a dalliance with her lord means losing the opportunity to marry anyone else. Harima tells her that there’s no such thing as status when it comes to love and that he doesn’t think of her as a passing infatuation. Eventually Okiku gives in and a kind of promise is made between them.

Nevertheless, it’s a promise which can’t be kept. The Aoyama family is in trouble and the obvious answer is to make a good match for Harima that will restore both status and wealth. When one of Harima’s friends is ordered to commit seppuku for the exact same petty punk antics Harima gets up to all the time matters come to a crunch. To keep him safe, Harima’s uncle arranges a marriage with an influential family. Harima tries to refuse but he too is more or less powerless even if he weren’t torn between the obligation to his samurai code and his illicit love for servant girl whom he would never be permitted to make his wife. To cement the match, Harima’s uncle has prepared 10 precious plates as a dowry, but Okiku, catching sight of Harima’s bride-to-be, drops one and breaks it in two. Her fate is sealed. Harima draws his sword on her and she backs away, eventually falling into the well and dying there.

The broken plate is, of course, a symbol of their broken covenant but also of Okiku’s shattered dreams as she watches a beautiful but haughty woman steal away her last hope of happiness solely through the accident of noble birth. As her friend tells her, a commoner cannot become the wife of a samurai and all Okiku can do is resign herself to her unhappy fate. Having broken the plate, however, all is lost. The men of the household admit their responsibility for entrusting the entirety of their future to a mere slip of a girl in the middle of intense heartbreak, but Okiku cannot go unpunished and Harima must claim his new life by destroying his past love.

Harima does what he’s supposed to do, if in passion and half by accident. Yet the marriage remains broken, the family in jeopardy, and Harima without hope of future. The ghost of Okiku, real or imagined, haunts him while he remains guilt ridden and filled with regrets. Despite his rowdiness and manly pride, he chose his samurai honour and condemned his one true love to a lonely death. Her love has, however, survived and resurrected her not as a demon of vengeance come to lead him to his doom but as a lovelorn woman keen to remind him of the promise he made and broke but which might be mended.

Harima pays for his transgressions, though more as a mischievous samurai who allowed his over inflated ego to convince him he had the right to oppress his fellow retainers than as a man who caused the death of an innocent woman, first by corrupting her and then by the same rigidity which has led to his present predicament. There can be no “love” in a such a society, let alone the love of a bannerman and a servant girl. Theirs is a blood wedding, uniting them in death, consumed by the impossibilities of the samurai era. At only 45 minutes, Ghost in the Well is perhaps a slight retelling of the tale and somewhat in imbalanced in its presentation of the fates of the two lovers but is nevertheless a refreshingly romantic take on an often dark story in which a scorned woman’s vengeance is reframed as a powerful condemnation of an oppressive society.


Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Benten Kozo dvd coverStarting out as a child actress, Hibari Misora was one of the biggest singing and acting stars of the post-war period whose songs are often pointed to as embodiments of the era’s melancholy yet determined spirit. Though it’s her singing career which has perhaps had the most historical impact, Misora made an immense number of films most of them in ’50s and ‘60s, many typical star vehicles of the time – silly comedies and softer musicals, usually finding an opportunity or two for a song even in straight drama. Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧), released in 1960 for Toei, is very much of this mould and showcases another somewhat interesting facet of Misora’s career in her readiness to play ambiguous gender roles.

Based on the well known kabuki play, Benten Kozo, which had also been adapted two years previously in a version starring male actor Raizo Ichikawa, Sasaki’s film stars Hibari Misora in the title role – a 13 year old boy who was given up at birth to be raised in a temple which specialises in performing Noh theatre. Kikunosuke (Hibari Misora) is their star, but there’s a dark side to temple performing companies in that they’re dependent on donations and it’s accepted practice to allow wealthy patrons to do whatever they like with the talent, no matter their age or gender. Kikunosuke knows this and isn’t having any of it. Pushed into a room with a lecherous, overly made-up older woman, Kikunosuke balks at the old monk’s attempts to pimp him out and tries to leave, much to the monk’s disappointment.

Unfortunately, just as Kikunosuke is leaving, a thief arrives to steal the money meant for the monk and kills the old woman in the process. Kikunosuke kills the thief but is accused of killing the old woman too and is forced on the run. Tracking down his birth mother, Ofuji (Mitsuko Miura), Kiku thinks he’s found a home but is betrayed, at which point he adopts the name “Benten Kozo” (lit. “Benten Kid” where Benten is the name of the goddess at the temple where he was raised) and joins a gang of Robin Hood-style outlaw thieves.

Like many period films of the time, Benten Kozo revolves around exposing the corruption of the samurai order. In this case, it’s a salt scam – the samurai elders have been stockpiling salt to push the price up, endangering the lives of ordinary people for their own financial gain and thinking nothing of it. The thieves, led by later Lone Wolf and Cub star Tomisaburo Wakayama, are dedicated to robbing the rich to feed the poor but they also aim to expose those in power for the reckless bullies they really are. Benten Kozo joins the “Shiranami Five Alliance” both out of self preservation and out of genuine sympathy with their cause, eventually encountering the same corrupt monk who turned a blind eye to his attempted molestation when he intervenes to save a woman forced into prostitution to pay her father’s debt whom the monk was attempting to rape.

Benten Kozo listens to the woman’s story and decides to give her his savings (which he no longer wants after being betrayed by his mother for whom he’d been saving the money) to pay off her family debt. In fact the pair met earlier when Benten Kozo was on the run and she helped him hide from the authorities. The woman, like several in the film, falls for Benten Kozo’s androgynous charms though he remains resolutely noble and indifferent. Benten Kozo would originally have been played by a male actor on the kabuki stage which did not allow female performers. The “onnagata” or actors who specialised in playing women were often effeminate younger men or boys much like Benten Kozo himself who plays these skills to the max throughout the film.

Hibari Misora, with her low, husky voice, effortlessly switches between the elegant upperclass women Benten Kozo impersonates on stage and in service of the gang’s scams, and the rough and ready dialect of a street ruffian. In a shocking display of bravado, Benten Kozo drops the top of his kimono to show his off his tattoos proving once and for all that he’s no lady but still his appeal lingers perhaps precisely because of his gender ambiguity.

Benten Kozo is not a musical but finds two occasions for Misora to sing – once as Benten Kozo takes off on the road, and the other at the end as he paddles a boat away back to his new found friends. The film ends with a giant mass brawl and also provides ample scope for Misora to escape across roof tops and fight off the unjust but it’s otherwise fairly straightforward fare and not exactly among the singer’s most memorable outings. It is however generally entertaining and interesting enough in its central theme of woman playing man playing woman to warrant attention from more than just diehard Misora fans.


Hibari Misora singing Benten Kozo in concert some years later.