Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yasushi Sasaki, 1961)

The post-war world was one of increasing globalisation which brought with it anxiety as well as hope as Japan readied itself to step back onto the world stage. The populist cinema of the early ‘60s is marked by ambivalent attitudes to international influences, not just towards creeping Americanisation and its perceived costs but perhaps somewhat uncomfortably towards the wider world and Asia in particular with the same old prejudices which had marked the previous 20 years rearing their heads once again. Voice of the post-war era, the films of Hibari Misora are, by contrast, about as forward looking and progressive as it was possible to be but Law in Ghost Island (幽霊島の掟, Yurei-jima no Okite) in which she plays a noticeably smaller part, is a bizarre exception in which a “lawless” melting pot outpost must be “civilised” by Japanese influences else the creeping rule of thuggish Asian gangs finally reach Japan “proper”.

We’re deep in the Bakumatsu. The Black Ships have already arrived and there is considerable political trouble brewing back in Japan. That’s not our immediate concern however because we’re on a creepy boat with slovenly ronin Yagi Hanzo (Hashizo Okawa) and a mysterious woman wearing a cheongsam (Hibari Misora). Fellow petty gangster and slave trafficker Bunji (Chiyonosuke Azuma) is suspicious of Hanzo, but decides he’s probably just an unlucky retainer on the run from something or other and might prove useful. Therefore, on arrival at Dragon Island, Bunji starts on trying to recruit Hanzo for his boss Chou Yang Po (Isao Yamagata), but Hanzo’s his own man and he hasn’t come here looking for a job. Fearing Hanzo is a government official here to bring the law down on all their heads, Chou tries to force him to harm a man they have in custody and believe to be working for the state. Hanzo gets round this by breaking a chair over the man’s back but leaving him otherwise unharmed, keeping his cover (if that’s what it is) firmly intact.

During his stay on Dragon Island, Hanzo will meet several other shady characters, many of them dressed in outfits more usually associated with the Chinese, Indians, nondescript “islanders”, and strange movie pirates, but what must be assumed is that though Japan “owns” this distant island it is unable to police it and as such it has become a den of scum and villainy in which various tribal gangs vie for hegemony and control over the lucrative smuggling hub which has unwittingly formed in direct response to Japan’s unwise policy of internal isolation which is itself at breaking point thanks to Perry’s Black Ships which we later hear are also on their way to Dragon Island.

Our key into this conflict is the crazed child of the leading gangster, Isakichi (Hiroki Matsukata), who dresses like a cowboy and likes to showoff his hard-won saloon credentials as sharpshooting libertine and all round party animal. Hanzo is not as impressed by this as Isakichi was hoping though an awkward sort of camaraderie eventually arises between them. Meanwhile, Isakichi has fallen in innocent love with the sister of his childhood best friend who is deep into a putative resistance movement hoping to end the stranglehold the smugglers have placed over the previously peaceful island.

Misora’s Madame Song, for some reason posing as a Chinese sex worker, hints at the various ways nothing is quite as it seems in her astute observations of the world around her, sensing that Hanzo is hiding something but also assuming that he is on the “right” side. There is conspiracy everywhere – the putative revolution at home is sending its shockwaves all the way out here as our unscrupulous gangsters try to procure guns to send to various sides on the mainland, while Madame Song ironically laments that what Dragon Island needs is to be more like Japan which is to say ruled less by law itself than an internalised acceptance of the proper order of things. Uncomfortably, it also probably means sending the people who aren’t wearing kimono somewhere else and trying to stop them tricking nice women from Kyushu into coming to tropical islands where they discover they’ve been trafficked into sex work and are unable to leave.

Among Toei’s lower budgeted efforts, Law in Ghost Island bills itself as a supernatural tale and does indeed open with a creepy scene of a misty boat but Hanzo doesn’t end up anywhere like the isle of the dead only a fantasy tropical “paradise” filled with zany movie pirates. Somewhere between pirate fantasy and western, Law in Ghost Island is closer to the kind of spy spoofs Toho would start producing in a few years’ time and even ends with a strangely comic scene in which just about everyone reveals themselves as spy for the same side during the climactic final shootout having been too busy playing spy games to figure any of it out before.

The final messages too are uncomfortable and ambivalent as Hanzo affirms that if there were more “good samurai” Japan would not become lawless like it is here while also claiming Dragon Island for the mainland in fear external forces may use it as a base to attack Japan. The smugglers pay heavily for their “treachery” in contributing to internal mainland chaos while the revolutionary islanders declare their intentions to make the island a better place, which mainly seems to mean making it more “Japanese” which is a fairly ambivalent message whichever way you look at it. Misora only sings two songs and is relegated to a minor mystery in the strange goings on of Ghost Island which features absolutely no ghosts or supernatural intrigue. It does however perhaps shine a light on a strange moment of cultural flux however how unflattering that mirror may turn out to be.


Brief clip of some of Hibari’s songs (no subtitles)

River Washes Away the Moon (残月大川流し, Yasushi Sasaki, 1963)

River Washes Away the Moon posterTimes are changing fast in Edo. Hibari Misora reunites with director Yasushi Sasaki for another jidaigeki adventure only this time one with much less song and dance and fewer tomboy antics for the often spiky star. Set in 1868 in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, River Washes Away the Moon (残月大川流し, Zangetsu Okawa Nagashi) is, in its own way, a story of revolutions, personal and political, as sides are picked and alliances forged in midst of a city in flux.

Edo, 1868. The Tokugawa Shogunate has been drummed out of the capital by the collective forces of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa but a new regime has yet to solidify itself. While some remain loyal to the Tokugawa cause, others join the new imperial armies leaving Edo a fractured state in which loyalists are on the run and violence rules the streets. Meanwhile, ordinary Edoities are trying to go about their everyday business. Ogin (Hibari Misora), an orphan, is a member of a pickpocketing gang run by a cruel mistress who metes out extreme punishments to those deemed to have transgressed her stringent rules, most often by trying to keep some of the money for themselves rather than hand it to the bosses for “redistribution”. Ogin is good at pickpocketing, but she has a noble heart and feels sorry for the country bumpkins who often become her prey. The madame wants her to take over the gang, but she wants out of the criminal life as soon as possible.

With things the way they are, the the loyalists ask the pickpockets for a favour – steal the shoulder badges off the Imperialist mercenaries so they won’t be able to return to their camps. The madame declares herself apolitical and declines but Ogin, a true child of Edo, feels quite differently and is only too keen to support the loyalists in whichever way she can. She gets her opportunity when a wounded soldier, Shinzaburo (Yoshitomo Ogasawara), creeps into the house she hides out in to get away from the gang. Ogin bravely hides Shinzaburo from the Imperialist troops and then hides him again when he returns sometime later after another battle with a lost little girl in tow. The pair grow closer, but Shinzaburo is under the impression Ogin is a wealthy merchant’s daughter and has no idea she is a poor orphan forced to pick pockets on the streets in return for safe harbour.

Unlike many of Misora’s jidaigeki heroines, Ogin is a much more “feminine” figure – she never gets to do any fighting of her own and the (extremely subdued) romance with Shinzaburo becomes the film’s main focus. She is however steadfast and bold. She stands up to her madame as much as feels she is able and is desperate to extract herself from the criminal world. As an orphan without any other means of support, however, her options are limited and even when she tries to do good it’s thrown back in her face.

Even Shinzaburo whose ideals one would hope to be more compassionate is after all a loyalist and not a revolutionary. His ideals are conservative if bending towards the moral good and therefore when he finds out what Ogin really is their connection is broken, he loses respect for her and though she never lied to him he blames her for the life she was forced to lead. A man like Shinzaburo might have lost his place, but he’s never known the kind of hardship a woman like Ogin has had to endure and the concepts are alien to him.

After getting her heart broken by Shinzaburo, Ogin finds the strength to break away from her criminal family by becoming an itinerant musician which gives Misora a chance to sing another song – her only other musical number is a full on set piece taking place during a community show held to raise money for orphans and possibly reunite dislocated people with their families in the process. Nevertheless Misora delivers an impressive performance as the continuously lovelorn Ogin, convinced that her world is limited by the circumstances of her birth and only latterly realising she has the power to change her fate (if for the slightly dubious reasons of proving herself worthy of Shinzaburo). Ogin opts for her personal revolution while Shinzaburo opts for a political one. By 1963 the winds of change were indeed blowing through Tokyo once again, though if there are any political messages to be found in River Washes Away the Moon they are fairly subtle and lean more towards compassionate living and finding the strength to live by your principles than advocating for direct agitation as the best path towards a fairer world.


Hibari’s musical numbers (no subtitles)

Hibari Ohako: Ojo Kichisa (ひばり十八番お嬢吉三, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Ojo Kichisa still 1Following Benten Kozo, Ojo Kichisa (ひばり十八番お嬢吉三, Hibari Obako Ojo Kichisa) is the second in a small series of movies starring Hibari Misora in a tale adapted from a well known kabuki play and featuring a cross dressing hero/heroine. This time around Misora plays a young woman dressing as a man for the purposes of revenge who eventually meets up with two men sharing the same “Kichisa” name – a lord (Obo), and a priest (Osho), to form a brotherhood of three including her “Ojo” as in “young lady”. Together they fight the injustices of the feudal world (which are myriad) whilst helping Ojo Kichisa get revenge on the men who murdered her parents forcing her into a precarious life of self preservation.

Beginning with Misora singing the title song of the three Kichisa, the action then switches to a small drinking house where a young woman gets herself into trouble with a bossy samurai who accuses her of spilling sake on him. Though the woman, Otose (Eiko Maruyama), apologises profusely, the samurai threatens to make her pay with her body. Fortunately Ojo Kichisa strides in and fights the samurai into submission, temporarily saving the day. Unfortunately, the samurai come back later brandishing a loan agreement Otose’s father had signed and demand immediate repayment or they will take Otose in its stead.

Once again the feudal world is one of intense unfairness and corruption in which the samurai class abuse their privilege to oppress the ordinary men and women of the Edo era. The samurai who takes such extreme offence at Otose’s possible slip-up has no real reason to do so other than expressing his superiority and once humiliated by Ojo Kichisa feels himself duty bound to double down. The samurai order looks after its own and so his underlings spring into motion to manipulate Otose’s family into giving her up. The two loan sharks gleefully celebrate their good luck, confessing that a major reason for lending money to the needy is for occasions such as this – not only for the interest but for the leverage in getting the desired outcome in ongoing schemes.

Meanwhile, there is a bigger game at play concerning the new finance minister and local governor. The governor accepts “gifts” from a shopkeeper hoping to be promoted onto the council whilst subtly hinting that more “gifts” might be an idea while he needs to be turning a blind eye to the smuggling that’s currently going on in town. Of course, the governor turns out to be involved in Ojo Kichisa’s mission too and is currently being blackmailed by an old acquaintance who once helped him steal a famous sword from its rightful owner.

Another of Misora’s frequent cross-dressing roles, Ojo Kichisa starts out as male but is later revealed to be female having adopted male dress to survive in male dominated Edo and pursue revenge on those who rendered her an orphan. After losing her parents, Ojo Kichisa and her young brother Sannosuke (Takehiko Kayama) were travelling in search of relatives when they were abducted by slave traders and separated. Presumably, both managed to escape at some point and have been living by their wits vowing revenge and reunification but apparently largely untouched by the darkness of feudal society.

The darkness is something which gets pushed into the background in this otherwise comedic tale of the little guy standing up to corrupt elites. The three Kichisas each represent various areas of society – the priest, the noble lord who hates the cruelty of his class, and the elegant lady, Ojo. Obo Kichisa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), the lord with a conscience, is committed to protecting the weak and fighting injustice everywhere he sees it, but it’s not long before pretty much everyone has decided the governor has to go thanks to his inherently corrupt approach to governing in which he’s all about take and never about give, neglecting the townspeople under his care and prioritising his personal gain.

Hibari Misora sings the title song twice – at the opening and closing, as well as another insert song but her brother Sannosuke also gets an opportunity to showcase his singing his voice in a mild departure from the star vehicle norm (actor Takehiko Kayama was also Misora’s real life brother). As in Benten Kozo, Wakayama takes on the bulk of the heroic fighting but Misora gives it her all in the many fight scenes in which she too gets to defeat injustice and rescue maidens to her heart’s content. A straightforward jidaigeki idol movie, Ojo Kichisa is unremarkable in many ways but nevertheless another entertaining example of Misora’s talent for playing ambiguous gender roles.


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.