Sword of the Beast (獣の剣, Hideo Gosha, 1965)

sword of the beast posterHideo Gosha’s later career increasingly focussed on men at odds with their times – ageing gangsters who couldn’t see their eras were ending. His second feature, Sword of the Beast (獣の剣 Kedamono no Ken), is much the same in this regard but its youthful hero knows perfectly that change is on the horizon. Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) tries to ride that change into a better, more equal future but the forces of order will not allow him. The cinematic samurai world of the post-war era is no longer that of honourable men, manfully living out the samurai code even when it pains them to do so. It is one of men broken by oppressive feudal rule, denied their futures, and forced to betray themselves in service to systemic hypocrisy. Yet even if men think of reforming the system, they rarely think to escape it unless it actively spits them out.

When we first meet Gennosuke, he’s crawling around in a muddy grass field, dishevelled and hungry. A lone woman spots him and plies her trade leading Gennosuke to embrace his baser instincts and give vent to his lust, but the pair are interrupted by the sound of approaching horses. Gennosuke is on the run from his clan for his part in the murder of a lord. His pursuers scream at him, “have you no pride?”, lamenting his lack of stoical resignation to one’s fate so central to the samurai ideal. “To hell with name and pride” Gensosuke throws back, “I’ll run and never stop.”

Gennosuke’s odyssey leads him into the path of petty bandits who’ve been swiping gold out of the local river. Unbeknownst to them, a couple from another clan have been living an isolated life in a small cottage where they too have been skimming the Emperor’s gold, only they’ve been doing it for their lord. The man, Jurota (Go Kato), is excited about this work because he thinks when it is completed he’ll finally be accepted as a true samurai and the future for himself and his wife, Taka (Shima Iwashita), will be much brighter. He is quite wrong in this assumption.

Gennosuke, it is later revealed, committed his fateful act of murder upon the assumption that he was part of a revolutionary vanguard, removing cruel and corrupt lords from their positions so fairer minded, decent men could rule in their stead. Instead he realises he’s been rendered a disposable pawn in a political game and that the new master he believed would usher in a brighter future only envisaged one for himself. Jurota has been duped in much the same way, asked to do something illicit, immoral, and against the samurai code under the assumption that he will finally be accepted as “one of us”. He has not considered the corruption of those he wants to join, and does not see that his crime likely means he cannot be allowed to live.

Gennosuke and Jurota are cynical men who nevertheless possess true faith in the way of the samurai. Exiled from his clan, Gennosuke is a wandering beast who pretends not to care about the people he meets, but ends up saving them anyway. Yet if Gennosuke has been “freed” from his illusions, Jurota’s devotion to them makes him a less heroic figure. When Taka is captured by bandits who threaten her life, Jurota has a difficult decision to make – surrender the gold or his wife. Jurota chooses poorly and abandons his wife to a fate worse than death at the hands of uncivilised ruffians. Taka finds this hard to forgive. No longer wishing to stay with a man who values her so lightly she turns to Gennosuke – her accidental saviour, and reveals to him that she longs to become “a beast” like him. Now “freed” of her own illusions as regards her husband’s love, their shared mission, and the fallacy of their future together as noble samurai, Taka is prepared to exile herself from the samurai world as Gennosuke has, but, as he tells her, the wife of a retainer cannot choose the life of a beast.

This world of samurai is facing its own eclipse. The Black Ships have arrived, the spell has been broken, and the modern world awaits. Gennosuke can see this future, he tried to grasp it in the murder of his lord, but it is not here yet. Gennosuke’s friend, Daizaburo (Kantaro Suga), is duty bound to take his revenge as the fiancé of the murdered lord’s daughter though he’d rather not do it, and does so only to give Gennosuke an “honourable” death. The daughter, Misa (Toshie Kimura), is understandably angry and filled with hate but she pays dearly for her vengeance. Following their ordeal, neither Daizaburo or Misa can return to their clan. They are also “freed”, their illusions broken, their debts forgiven. Breaking with the burden of their past, they would now follow Gennosuke into his new world, even if none of them know exactly where they’re going.

These private revolutions amount to a kind of deprogramming, reawakening a sense of individual agency but one which is unselfish and carries with it the best of samurai honour. Gennosuke may be a “beast” on the run, reduced to a creature of needs rather than thoughts, but there’s honesty in this uncivilised quest for satisfaction which leaves no room for artifice or hypocrisy. It may be a rough world and lonely with it, but it is not unkind. To hell with name and pride, Gennosuke will have his honour, even as a nameless beast, a self-exile from a world of cruelty, greed, and inhumanity.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)

north sea dragon dvd cover.jpgAt the beginning of the 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity would put the ninkyo eiga firmly to bed, but in the mid-1960s, they were still his bread and butter. Fukasaku’s earlier career at Toei leant towards the studio’s preference for youthful rebellion but with a stronger trend towards standardised gangster tropes than the countercultural thrills to be found in similar offerings from Nikkatsu. For Fukasaku the rebellion is less cool affectation than it is a necessary revolt against increasing post-war inequality and a constraining society though, as the heroes of If You Were Young, Rage or Blackmail is My Life find out, escape can rarely be found by illicit means. Jiro, the prodigal son of North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Hokkai no Abare-Ryu), finds something similar even whilst conforming almost entirely to Toei’s standard “young upstart saves the village” narrative.

Jiro (Tatsuo Umemiya), dressed in white with jet black sunshades, nonchalantly walks into his childhood fishing village filled with a sense of nostalgia and the expectation of a warm welcome. The village, however, is much changed. There are fewer boats around now, and the fishermen are all ashore. Arriving at his family home he discovers they now live in the boat shed and his mother doesn’t even want to let him in. Jiro, as his outfit implies, has spent his time away as a yakuza, and his family want little to do with him, especially as his father has been murdered by the soulless gangsters who are currently strangling the local fishing industry.

The local fishermen are all proudly tattooed but they aren’t yakuza, unlike the tyrannical son of the local boss, Gen Ashida (Hideo Murota), who carries around a double barrelled shotgun and fearsome sense of authority. The Ashidas have placed a stranglehold around the local harbour, dictating who may fish when and extracting a good deal of the profits. An attempt to bypass them does not go well for Jiro’s mother who is the only one brave enough to speak out against their cruel treatment even if it does her no good.

When Jiro arrives home for unexplained reasons he does so happily, fully expecting to be reunited with his estranged family. Not knowing that his father had died during his absence, Jiro also carries the guilt of never having had the opportunity to explain himself and apologise for the argument that led to him running away. An early, hot headed attempt to take his complaint directly to the Ashidas ends in disaster when he is defeated, bound, and whipped with thick fisherman’s rope but it does perhaps teach him a lesson.

The other boys from the village – Jiro’s younger brother Shinkichi (Hayato Tani) and the brother of his childhood friend Reiko (Eiko Azusa), Toshi (Jiro Okazaki), are just as eager as he is both to avenge the death of Jiro’s father and rid the village of the evil Ashida tyranny. Jiro tries to put them off by the means of a good old fashioned fist fight which shows them how ill equipped they are in comparison with the older, stronger, and more experienced Jiro but their youth makes them bold and impatient. The plot of Toshi and Shinkichi will have disastrous consequences, but also acts as a galvanising force convincing the villagers that the Ashidas have to go.

Jiro takes his natural place as the hero of a Toei gangster film by formulating a plan to undermine the Ashidas’ authority. His major strategic decision is to bide his time but he also disrupts the local economy by attempting to evade the Ashida net through sending the fisherman to other local ports and undercutting the Ashida profit margin. As predicted the Ashidas don’t like it, but cost themselves a crucial ally by ignoring the intense bond between their best fighter and his adorable pet dog. Things do not quite go to plan but just as it looks as if Jiro is about to seal his victory, he stays his sword. The Ashidas’ power is broken and they have lost enough already.

Fukasaku’s approach tallies with the classic narrative as the oppressive forces are ousted by a patient people pushed too far finally deciding to fight back and doing so with strategic intelligence. It is, in one sense, a happy ending but not one without costs as Jiro looks at the restored village with the colourful flags of fishing boats enlivening the harbour and everyone going busily about their work. He knows a sacrifice must be made to solidify his mini revolution and he knows who must make it. Like many a Toei hero before him, he prepares to walk away, no longer welcome in the world his violence has saved but can no longer support.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (女囚701号/さそり, Shunya Ito, 1972)

scorpion-701Meiko Kaji had already become a familiar face in Nikkatsu’s genre output when she took on the role that would come to define her career at only 25 years of age. Toei’s Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (女囚701号/さそり, Joshu Nana-maru-ichi Go / Sasori) would launch a series of similarly themed films and create a national pop culture icon in its central character. Based on a manga by Toru Shinohara, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion is, at heart, a women in prison film and a cornerstone of the pinky violence genre but first time director Shunya Ito has more on his mind than salacious thrills and offers up a noticeably nuanced approach to his material filled with impressive art house flourishes.

701 is the number printed on the back of the prison uniform worn by inmate Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji). She makes a valiant escape attempt with a fellow prisoner, Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), but the pair are caught and put into solitary confinement where they experience torturous treatment both at the hands of the guards and their fellow prisoners. Mostly known as Matsu but also given the nickname of “Scorpion”, Prisoner #701 is not exactly popular with the other ladies in the joint who seem to resent her escape attempts and quiet dignity, annoyed by her above it all demeanour.

Matsu has just one mission in life – vengeance, on the man who wronged her, on the society that allowed her to be wronged, and on the prison system with its sadistic guards and turncoat inmates. Once an ordinary, law abiding woman, Matsu had the misfortune to fall in love with a vice cop who convinced her to go undercover in a yakuza club to get some vital info he needs to bust it. However, Sugima (Isao Natsuyagi) turns out to be the biggest crook of them all and was merely using her to try and take out the local yakuza to get in with a bigger yakuza boss and key into a slice of the drugs trade. Matsu is brutally gang raped after her cover is blown and ends up being sent to prison after making an attempt to ice her former lover with the desire to get out and complete her mission the only thing that’s keeping her going.

Ito begins with an ironic scene in which one of the prison guards is receiving a commendation for his honourable service, Japanese flag flying proudly behind above, until the occasion is interrupted by the escaped prisoner alarm. Later Ito puts the yakuza boss in a building bearing the large banner “Beautiful Soul and Harmony of Japan” and he even adds in an expressive moment as Matsu surrenders her virginity to Sugima, staining her white sheets with a large red circle. Society is corrupt everywhere from Sugima’s bent copper to gang raping yakuza and the prison system itself.

The guards are effectively running their own little empire, cut off from mainstream law enforcement and left to their own “corrective” impulses. Ito gives us salacious shower scenes and women being marched around in the nude but he places us in the place of a voyeur, making it plain that the prison guards are sating their lust for power through humiliating their charges in sexual dominance and violence. Divide and rule is the name of the game as a top tier of prisoners are “employed” in various prison tasks earning them a different colour uniform and a status bump. These ladies are even worse than some of the male guards and are responsible for much of the cruelty inflicted on Matsu and Yuki during their time in solitary.

Inter-prisoner conflict is not the central theme of the film as Matsu continues to plan for her eventual escape and revenge on the man who has ruined her life. A slight spanner is thrown in the works when an inside woman is recruited to take Matsu out, but Matsu is painted as a the ultimate vengeful warrior. Barely speaking (the bulk of her dialogue is actually voice over for her flashback scene), Matsu waits silently, observing and plotting. Biding her time she manages to take an extremely skilful and poetic revenge against her solitary abuser despite her hands and feet being bound, and when a police mole is placed in a cell with her Matsu sees through the ruse straight away. Seducing her new cellmate, Matsu neutralises the threat with ease maintaining her trademark intense elegance all the way through.

Though the synopsis smacks of cheap and nasty exploitation Ito doesn’t see it that way and films with an art house aesthetic rather than a salacious eye. Matsu’s flashback takes a very theatrical form with a rotating set and Matsu remaining present in the corner as she narrates. Her rape scene is grotesque and nightmarish, shot through a see-through floor as her attackers grin and gurn away at her like fairytale monsters. Likewise, when Matsu traps another prisoner in her own scheme, the woman turns into a classic ghost creature, face white and staring, broken glass firmly gripped manically in front. The acting style is broad and absurd. Policeman laugh loudly and for too long, blood is an artificial kind of red, gloopy like paint, and pantomimeish grotesquery is everywhere. Ito’s backgrounds are expressionist rather than realist but always perfectly pitched.

You can tell a lot about a place from the way it treats its prisoners and when its as bad as this, you start to wonder which side of the bars you’re really on. The guards are only a representation of a consistently exploitative society, but they can at least be outsmarted. “To be deceived is a woman’s crime”, says Matsu, but it’s one she fully intends to atone for – in blood, settling not just her own score but those of all her fellow prisoners caught in the patriarchal trap of hollow promises and abused honour.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blackmail is My Life (恐喝こそわが人生, Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

81eOlRLzY4L._SL1200_Suffice to say, if someone innocently asks you about your hobbies and you exclaim in an excited manner “blackmail is my life!”, things might not be going well for you. Kinji Fukasaku is mostly closely associated with his hard hitting yakuza epics which aim for a more realistic look at the gangster life such as in the Battles Without Honour and Humanity series or his bloody tale of high school warfare, Battle Royale but he also made a few comedies too and often has his tongue firmly in his cheek. Blackmail is My Life (恐喝こそわが人生, Kyokatsu Koso Waga Jinsei) is nominally a crime film, it follows the adventures of a group of young people having a lot of fun doing crime and crime related activities, but the whole thing’s so flippant and ironic that it threatens to drown itself in late ‘60s cool. It doesn’t, of course, it swims around in it whilst looking cool at the same time.

Shun starts the film with a slightly melancholy voiceover (a technique much borrowed in the ‘90s). He was young, he was ambitious but the best thing was he had friends who were more like family. He breaks up with his girlfriend and mopes about his awful job cleaning toilets at a cabaret bar but one day he overhears something about a scam going on with the whiskey they’ve been selling. Shun spots a business opportunity to get his own back on the cabaret owners and get some dough in the process. So begins his life as a petty blackmailer and it’s not long before he’s got his three best mates trapping businessmen into compromising situations so they can film it and blackmail them. The gang carry out petty crime and everything would probably be OK for them if they had stuck to shallower waters, not tried to get revenge for a family member’s death and, crucially, known when they were in way over their heads. Could it really ever be any other way for a self confessed small time punk?

Shun is a bit of an odd duck really. As a girlfriend points out, he’s always thinking about the past like an old man rather than the future, like a young one. He has an irreverent attitude to everything and a vague sense of entitlement mixed with resentment at having missed out in Japan’s post-war boom town. The blackmailing not only allows him to feel smugly superior to everyone else as if he’s some kind of mastermind trickster, but of course also allows him to live the highlife on the proceeds with far less time spent working himself to the bone like the average salaryman.

However, he also has this unexplained sadness, almost as if he’s narrating the film from the point of view of its ending despite being smack in the middle of it. When thinking of happy things he always comes back to his gang of friends enjoying a joyful, innocent day on the beach but later he starts having flashes of rats drowned in the river. Somehow or other he fears he’ll end here, dead among the detritus of a world which found no place for him. He tries to convince himself he’s bucking the system, trying to start a revolution for all the other young punks out there but at the end of the day he’s just another hungry scrapper terrified he’s going to land up on the trash heap.

Like a lot of Fukasaku’s other work, Blackmail is My Life is bright and flashy and cool. Full of late ‘60s pop aesthetics, the film seems to have a deep affinity with the near contemporary work of Seijun Suzuki, in fact one of the characters is always whistling Tokyo Nageremono, the theme tune to Suzuki’s pop art masterpiece Tokyo Drifter. Having said that Fukasaku swaps nihilistic apathy for a sort of flippant glibness which proves a much lighter experience right through until the film’s fairly shocking (yet inevitable?) ending.

Not quite as strong as some of his later efforts, Blackmail is My Life nevertheless brings out Fukasaku’s gift for dynamic direction though the comparatively more mellow scenes at the sea are the film’s stand out. Pulling out all the stops for his crazed, POV style ending with whirling cameras and unbalanced vision Fukasaku rarely lets the tension drop for a second as Shun and co. get hooked on crime before realising its often heavy tarrifs. Another bleak and cynical (though darkly comic) look at the unfairness of the post-war world, Blackmail is My Life may not rank amongst Fukasaku’s greatest achievements but it wouldn’t have it any other way.


Blackmail is My Life is available with English subtitles on R1 US DVD from Homevision and was previously released as part of the Fukasaku Trilogy (alongside Black Rose Mansion and If You Were Young: Rage) by Tartan in the UK.