The Devil’s Island (獄門島, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Island posterKon Ichikawa revisits the world of Kosuke Kindaichi for the third time in Devil’s Island (獄門島, Gokumon-to). Confusingly enough, Devil’s Island is adapted from the second novel in the Kidaichi series and set a few years before Ichikawa’s previous adaptation The Devil’s Ballad (the twin devils are just a coincidence). As with his other Kindaichi adaptations, Ichikawa retains the immediate post-war setting of the novel though this time the war is both fore and background as our tale is set on profane soil, a pirate island once home to Japan’s most heinous exiled criminals, which is to say it is the literal fount of every social failing which has informed the last 20 years of turbulent militarist history.

In 1946, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) travels to Kasaoka to catch the ferry to the island. On the way he runs into a demobbed soldier hobbling along on crutches only to catch sight of the man quickly picking his up crutches and running across the railway tracks when he thought no one was looking. Kindaichi is in luck – before he even reaches the boat he runs into the very man he’s come to see, Reverend Ryonen (Shin Saburi), for whom he has a message. Posing as a fellow soldier, Kindaichi reveals he has a “last letter” from a man named Chimata who sadly passed away right after the cessation of hostilities having contracted malaria. Chimata, as we later find out, was the legitimate heir of the island’s most prominent family. Kindaichi chooses not to reveal his true purpose, but the truth is that Chimata suspected his death would put his three younger sisters in danger from various unscrupulous family members attempting to subvert the succession.

Your average Japanese mystery is not, as it turns out, so far from Agatha Christie as one might assume and this is very much a tale of petty class concerns, island mores, and changing social conventions. The extremely confusing island hierarchy starts with the head of household who doubles as the head of the local fishing union and then shuffles out to the branch line and brassy sister-in-law Tomoe (Kiwako Taichi) who is keen claim all the authority she is entitled to. The old patriarch, Yosamatsu (Taketoshi Naito), went quite mad at the beginning of the war and is kept in a bamboo cage in the family compound where he screams and rails, only calmed by the gentle voice of Sanae (Reiko Ohara), a poor relation raised in the main house alongside her brother Hitoshi who hasn’t yet returned from the war. Aside from Yosamatsu, the absence of the two young men means the main house is now entirely inhabited by women, looked after by veteran maid Katsuno (Yoko Tsukasa).

Then again, Japanese mysteries hinge on riddles more than they depend on motives and there are certainly plenty of those on this weird little island where they don’t like “outsiders”. Ichikawa hints at the central conceit by flashing up haiku directly on the screen along with a few original chapter headings for Kindaichi whose eccentricities might seem less noticeable in such an obviously crazy place but strangely seem all the more overt, his trademark dandruff falling like rain from his tousled hair. It has to be said that Kindaichi fails in his otherwise pure hearted aims – he doesn’t make a great deal of effort to “save” the sisters and only attempts to solve the crimes as they occur, each one informing the next. This time around he gets trouble from both irritatingly bumbling detective Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and his assistant Bando (Kazunaga Tsuji) , and the local bobby who immediately locks Kindaichi up and declares the crimes solved on the grounds that they only started happening after Kindaichi arrived.

Meanwhile, there are rumours of an escaped “pirate” running loose, demobbed soldiers, and a host of dark local customs contrasting strongly with the idyllic scenery and the strange “pureness” of this remote island otherwise untouched by the war’s folly save for the immediate events entirely precipitated by the absence of two young men taken away to die on foreign shores. Though the various motives for the crimes are older – shame, greed, classism, a bizarre dispute between Buddhists and Shamans, none of this would have been happening if the war hadn’t stuck its nose into island business and unbalanced the complex local hierarchy. Tragically, the crimes themselves all come to nought as a late arriving piece of news renders them null and void. Just when you think you’ve won, the rug is pulled from under you and the war wins again. Ichikawa opts for a for a defiantly straightforward style but adopts a few interesting editing techniques including fast cutting to insert tiny flashbacks as our various suspects suddenly remember a few “relevant” details. This strange island, imbued with ancient evils carried from the mainland, finds itself not quite as immune from national struggles as it once thought though perhaps manages to right itself through finally admitting the truth and acknowledging the sheer lunacy that led to the sorry events in which it has recently become embroiled.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cats in Park Avenue (公園通りの猫たち, Shinichi Nakada, 1989)

vlcsnap-2017-01-06-00h41m34s475Looking at the poster and its “A Most “Oshare” Movie” tag line, you’d assume Cats of Park Avenue to be very stylish kind of story, about some fashionable felines living on an uptown street comparable to the famous New York landmark. The title is entirely coincidental as it’s a literal translation of the Japanese and just means the cats live on a street near the park. These cats are full on alley cats, scrappy and free, roaming the rooftops of Shibuya and not giving a damn about whatever it is cats are supposed to do. Ostensibly a throw away young adult movie about a group of dance students and their obsession with a gang of local street cats, Cats of Park Avenue (公園通りの猫たち, Koendori no Nekotachi) takes on a surprisingly individualist message as the virtues of freedom and validity of life outside the mainstream are resolutely reinforced through cute animation and nonsensical musical sequences.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on a local dance troupe who are about to put on a musical show inspired by the life of the their local cats (no, they don’t seem to be aware it’s been done already). Each of the main girls is lined up with a corresponding alley cat with whom she shares a degree of affinity and, oddly enough, the cats themselves are allowed to take centre stage for large parts of the film as they play, fight, and make improbable leaps from building to building.

Aside from the show, the main narrative kicks off when a wealthy old lady one of the girls works as a baby sitter for starts to get paranoid that one of the alleycats is after her prized kitty Marilyn. When she thinks Marilyn has gone to the dark side, she immediately kicks her out as “dirty” and starts on a mass “purification” programme for the surrounding area to eliminate all of the stray cats, including our beloved heroes. The “Cat Busters” are called in as a kind of storm trooper-esque exectution squad complete with a strange scanning machine which works out if a cat is nasty or nice and dumps the unwanted ones right into the furnace. The cats, however, are about ready to fight back and free their friends from certain doom.

The cats have to save themselves in the end, aided by the villainess’ young son who wields the weight of his own privilege to help them. The girls are aligned with the cats in ways which are intended to be positive – emphasising the freedom they would like to have, the strength and daring, but are contrasted with the more “conservative” attitude of the film’s villain who wants everything to be “clean”, with “cats” confined to the home in a kind of golden cage. It is interesting in that sense that the evil instigator is herself a woman, wealthy and successful with a young son but seemingly unmarried. Despite living outside of the mainstream, it is she who seeks to grade the cats according to their usefulness and destroy the ones which don’t meet her criteria. The girls however, perhaps talking for themselves, insist the cats need to be free and keeping them indoors as pets where they don’t want to be not only makes them miserable but deprives them of the right of being what they are.

Intended for a very specific audience, Cats of Park Avenue cuts between images of these quite odd looking cats doing what they do, to large scale dance sequences and infrequent animation. The human cast are not the focus of the film and the character arcs of the real life girls take a back seat to those of their feline counter parts but they do at least get the opportunity to show off their singing and dancing credentials. The final show does indeed bear a significant resemblance to that other well known musical, but is much more cheerfully silly despite the heavy, if surreal, events which have previously taken place. A strange odyssey back to 80s consumerist pop, Cats of Park Avenue is unlikely to find much of an audience among modern viewers but is a kind of interesting time capsule of the lower end of populist movies in the late 1980s.


TV Commercial (part of a reel of ’80s adverts – starts at 1:44)