Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Kei Kumai, 1974)

Sandakan 8 posterSome might argue that Japanese cinema has often been reluctant to examine the nation’s traumatic 20th century history with the proper rigour, but even if subtle and coming from unexpected angles there have been many and varied attempts to ask questions about the lingering consequences of feudalism. Sandakan No. 8 (サンダカン八番娼館 望郷, Sandakan Hachiban Shokan: Bokyo), inspired by a true life account of a woman unwittingly sold into sexual slavery as a child at the turn of the century, is not only a condemnation of socially approved people trafficking and its role in building the short-lived Japanese empire but a mild provocation of the contemporary society which refuses to engage with its traumatic past.

In the contemporary era, graduate student Keiko Mitani (Komaki Kurihara) is engaged in researching the “karayuki-san” – Japanese women who were sold into sexual slavery throughout Asia in the early 20th century. Almost forgotten, the karayuki-san are a taboo subject and even those still living in the areas from which women and girls were sent away are unwilling to speak of them. By chance, however, Keiko runs into an old woman in a cafe who speaks with a standard Tokyo accent and tells them that she spent most of her life “abroad”. Quickly realising she doesn’t mean she was a diplomat’s wife, Keiko wonders if the woman might be have been a karayuki-san and delays her return to Tokyo in order to find out.

There is something, it has to be said, ironically exploitative in Keiko’s determination to get the old woman, Osaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), to open up about a subject on which she so obviously does not want to be drawn. A visit to Osaki’s home reveals her to be living in a run-down hovel on the edge of town which is filled with stray cats whom Osaki feeds because “they’re all abandoned, but still they have to live”. Keiko gets herself brownie points by reacting politely to Osaki’s reduced living situation, eventually staying three weeks during which time she gradually teases out Osaki’s sad life story. Finally asking if there wasn’t anything Osaki might have liked to know about her, Keiko’s hypocrisy is fully brought home to her when Osaki admits that no one was more curious about Keiko than she was but that “people have reasons for not confiding in others” and if it’s something you need to ask about then it’s probably something that the other person may not want to share. In any case, Osaki seems to have known Keiko had an ulterior motive but does not regret sharing her story and has no worries about what Keiko might do with it as long as she makes sure to tell the truth.

The truth, in a sense, seems to be something the villagers feel themselves well acquainted with which is why Osaki lives in a shack on the edge of town. Tricked into sexual slavery as a child by an amoral people trafficker who lured her with promises of money to be made overseas, Osaki found herself in Borneo and a prisoner of “Sandakan No. 8” which was one of 10 numbered brothels on the island largely catering to Japanese travellers overseas, facilitating the expansion of the Japanese empire as accidental emissaries and ports of call. When Osaki was a child, Japan was a poor country and it was considered normal to sell one’s daughter in order to feed a family. Working overseas carried with it a kind of cache though no one, except perhaps her brother, seems to be fully aware of what Osaki is going to and she herself has not in any way chosen or consented to become a sex worker. When she eventually returns to Japan, she finds herself unwelcome in her brother’s house, which her money paid for, because of the shame associated with those who have “worked away”. Even 50 years later, she finds herself living alone, all but disowned by her only son, on the outskirts of her childhood village ostracised by the “respectable” townspeople who don’t for a second believe Osaki’s quick introduction of Keiko as her daughter-in-law.

The daughter-in-law deception is only one heartbreaking aspect of the complex relationship between the two women who are each, in a sense, hiding something from the other but end up forming a genuine connection anyway. Intensely lonely and having lived a life filled with suffering, Osaki is willing to pay for company with her story while Keiko is, not quite deliberately, using her loneliness against her in an attempt to earn her trust and get her to reveal her secrets. Nevertheless, Keiko is able to mine a rich and deep seem of 20th century trauma through the tragic story of just one woman which reaches out to hundreds like her some of whom rest in a graveyard in the forests of Borneo with their backs forever to Japan. The enemy is, once again, poverty more than it is patriarchy or even feudalism, a problem less of the essence in the rapidly improving post-war economy, but as Kumai is keen to point out, this system of state sanctioned people trafficking (finally outlawed only once Japan’s status on the world stage began to rise) had far wider implications than it might be thought which still echo into the present day and perhaps beyond if not for the efforts of women like Keiko who do not wish to forget.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Ballad posterA year after his box office smash The Inugami Family, Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi with The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Akuma no Temari Uta). Like many a Kindaichi mystery, Devil’s Ballad finds him called upon to delve back into the past to satisfy an ageing detective’s anxiety about an old case, only to be faced with a series of new ones as a consequence. This time, however, the mystery leans less on buried secrets than deeply held grudges, betrayals, and lingering feudal feuds as the post-war society tries and fails to free itself from ancient oppressions.

The film opens with a tryst between two adolescent lovers in the ominously named “Devil’s Skull Village” in 1950. Yasu (Yoko Takahashi), the girl, is at pains to let her boyfriend, Kanao (Koji Kita), know that she is keen to take the relationship to the next level but he is old fashioned and wants to wait until their union is formalised. The pair are interrupted by some of their friends who are in the middle of planning a celebration for a visit from a girl who moved to the city, Chie (Akiko Nishina). Meanwhile, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) has arrived at the inn owned by Kanao’s mother Rika (Keiko Kishi) on invitation from a retired policeman, Isokawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who wants Kindaichi to look into the murder of Rika’s husband twenty years ago. Isokawa, then a young rookie, is convinced that Rika’s husband was not the victim but the murderer and the corpse actually belonged to another man entirely – Onda, a drifter who defrauded half the village with a wreath making scam.

Rika and her children – 20-year-old Kanao and his younger sister Satoko (Eiko Nagashima) who has prominent facial birthmarks and rarely leaves the house, came to the village with her husband and are therefore slightly divorced from the longstanding social rivalries. The village has two noble families – the Yuras and the Nires. Feeling the need to modernise, the Nires bet everything on vineyards and it paid off. The Yuras, by contrast, were defrauded by Onda’s wreath scam and lost their fortune and social standing. Yasu, Kanao’s girlfriend, is a daughter of the Yuras, but the Nire’s have been petitioning Rika for quite some time to have her son marry their daughter, Fumiko (Yukiko Nagano), who also has a crush on him (though this is largely irrelevant to her father’s dynastic ambitions). When the younger generation start getting bumped off in ways eerily similar to a local folk song, Kindaichi and Isokawa are on the case, wondering if these new murders have anything to do with their old one.

Despite its 1950 setting, Devil’s Ballad is unusual in resolutely making an irrelevance of the war which only receives a brief mention as an explanation for why some of the case files have been destroyed and for why marriage is such a hot button issue given the lack of men and abundance of women. Nevertheless, the crimes span a turbulent 20 years of Japanese history with the original murder taking place in the early ‘30s during a period of economic instability following the Manchurian Incident. In the socially conservative pre-war era, it seems Onda also got around and may have fathered several illegitimate children with women in the village, some of them noble, some not. These buried secrets seem primed to bubble to the surface now that the children are coming of age and marriage again becomes an issue as worried parents try to think of acceptable ways to block potentially “inappropriate” matches without sending their children off into ruinous elopements or tipping off the wrong people that their kids may not be their kids.

The crimes themselves, old fashioned as they are, are partly reactions to a changing society. We discover that the reason Rika and her husband were forced to come back to the village was that their showbiz careers were stalling – she was a vaudeville performer specialising in shamisen, and he a “benshi” (narrator of silent films) who became convinced his job was obsolete after witnessing a subtitled print of Morocco. Likewise, the two rival families cannot let go of their petty provincial privileges, and as Kanao angrily snaps back at his mother, Japan is now a democratic country and he is free to choose his own wife at a time of his own choosing with or without parental blessing. This remote village is perhaps isolated from the privations of the post-war world but it’s also stuck in the past, hung up on past transgressions and unable to move forward into the new era. However, the primary motivations for murder are as old as time – guilt, humiliation, and self preservation.

Ichikawa keeps things simple but splices in a few strange, avant-garde sequences of kokeshi dolls menacingly bouncing balls coupled with shifts to black and white, fast-paced reaction shots, and stuttering still frame sequences all while Kindaichi showers innocent passersby with his famous dandruff, the idiot police officer continues to offer ridiculous theories while his sergeant dutifully follows him around, and the local bobby perfects a line in hilarious pratfalls. Overlong at two and a half hours and falling prey to the curse of the prestige crime drama in spoiling its mystery through casting, the Devil’s Ballad may not be the best of the Kindaichi mysteries but offers enough of a satisfying twist to prove worthy of the Kindaichi name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Oh Seagull, Have You Seen the Sparkling Ocean? : An Encounter (鴎よ、きらめく海を見たか めぐり逢い, Kenji Yoshida, 1975)

seagullSparkling seas sound like hopeful things, especially if you’re a majestic seagull flying far above, bathed in perpetual sunshine. But then, perhaps the water below is shining with the shards of broken hopes which float on its surface, is its beauty treacherous or in earnest? So asks the singer of the title song which recurs throughout the film as if to undercut even its brief moments of happiness. There is precious little joy to be found in the lives of the two protagonists of Oh Seagull, Have You Seen the Sparkling Ocean? : An Encounter (鴎よ、きらめく海を見たか めぐり逢い, Kamome yo, Kirameku Umi wo Mitaka: Meguriai), only pain and confusion as they try to rebuild their ruined lives in an uncaring city.

Katsuo is a drifting young man, one of the many to have escaped the mining industry after the pits began to close down but now finds only temporary manual work available to him. In Tokyo, he works as part of a window washing team, gazing into high rise office buildings which are a world away from his precarious hand to mouth existence. In one particular window he spots an office lady attempting to straighten her stockings in an otherwise empty room. Smitten he decides to pursue the woman though she is far from interested in a peeping tom of a window guy who’s coming on far too strong.

Kumi has her own problems. Like Katsuo she’s found herself in the city after escaping a life of poverty and the unwanted attentions of a relative in a fishing village. Her sights are set a little higher in the increasingly consumerist environment of ‘70s Tokyo, hence her high rise career and desire to find the right kind of husband. However, even here, she doesn’t seem able to get away from possessive men and is stalked by an ex-boyfriend who just won’t take no for an answer.

Eventually Kumi and Katsuo grow closer but on a visit to the beach come across an injured seagull which Kumi immediately tries to bury despite the fact it isn’t actually dead yet – better to die than live on in shame, says Kumi. Katsuo disagrees and decides to take it home and nurse it back to health though Kumi breaks up with him because of it. After a chance encounter the pair get back together but their fragile love story is under attack from every possible direction.

Katsuo and Kumi have each led difficult lives though they have very different ways of coping with trauma. Katuso has retreated into a fantasy world inspired by Gaugin’s famous painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?. When he first meets Kumi, all Katsuo can talk about is Resipuruko and how wonderful everything will be when he gets there. The speech exasperates Kumi who at first feels stupid for not having heard of Resipuruko, but then cheated to discover its just a made up place of the kind that children create out of fun. Nevertheless, Resipuruko continues to become a symbol in their lives, a place of hope and peace in which they would be able to live together freely and in comfort, away from the difficulties of everyday city life.

Katsuo is cheerful and optimistic. Not exactly forward looking but proceeding in the name of hope. Kumi is driven more by fear and resentment, constantly looking behind her rather than ahead. Though Katsuo’s life has not been easy, Kumi has experienced more suffering with less agency which has left her with far less capacity for making the best of things. Like Nina in Chekov’s play, she is the seagull – something beautiful, destroyed, just because it could be. Katsuo’s efforts to heal the wounded bird run in parallel to his desire to save Kumi but then, the seagull wants to be free and Kumi is forced to feel as if she never will be.

At one point Kumi says she and Katsuo are on different sides of an invisible window and it’s true that they’re opposites in many ways – he thrives on fantasy, she is destroyed by reality, but they could be perfectly happy together if it weren’t for the vagaries of fate.  Oh Seagull, Have You Seen the Sparkling Ocean? : An Encounter, is a tale of tragedy as young lives are ruined by time and circumstance, leaving them with only broken hearts to face the unfair world before them. Resipuruko exists only in a spiritual sense, but it can be called forth if you believe in it enough. Dreams are fragile things, whether realistic or fantastical, but they, like the seagull, deserve their time to fly unfettered.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Outlaw: Kill! (無頼 殺せ, Keiichi Ozawa, 1969)

outlaw killGoro, Goro, Goro – will you never learn? Maybe he will because this is the last film in the series! Appropriately titled Outlaw: Kill! (無頼 殺せ, Burai Barase), this sixth and final film in the Outlaw series sees Goro once again moving to a new town and trying to lead a more honest life but unfortunately he’s wandered in at just the wrong time because a local gang boss has just been sent to prison after defeating a group of assassins leaving a dangerous vacuum and leading, therefore, to the outbreak of a turf war.

Goro’s first fight is with a gang of thugs who were hassling an elevator girl in a department store – the girl being Yumiko, played by Chieko Matsubara, becoming Goro’s love interest once again. Luckily or unluckily, Goro runs into an old friend from his prison days who is also one of the gang bosses involved in the turf war. After his friend promises him that he will incur no debt from him and he won’t get in the way of Goro finding a proper job, Goro agrees to move in with him and his wife – who only turns out to be the sister of elevator girl Yumiko which is not even the most predictable coincidence in this whole saga.

Despite his protestations about not getting involved in local gang politics, Goro’s attachment to his friend and his growing family means he can’t altogether avoid getting pulled back into the messy gangster world of violence and betrayal. Things end up going just about as well as they ever do and Goro is only able to clean up some of the chaos in this disputed area by creating even more counter chaos.

The format is becoming tired by the time we reach Outlaw: Kill! and it’s true that the film revisits exactly the same narrative beats as all of the other films, though it does so in a fairly exciting fashion. That said, there’s much less nuance here – we get that Goro sees himself as a lonely drifter who doesn’t deserve happiness, a self hating yakuza who is engaged on a long and hopeless walk to the grave. Perhaps it’s just because everyone’s getting older, but now it’s less about never having had a home or a proper place to belong than it is about the (im)possibility of building your own family. Goro’s friend, Moriyama, is married and going to be a father which Goro thinks is a nice thing, broadly, but also worries about what is means for a yakuza who may be killed at any second to have a wife and a child dependent upon him. Goro, being the noble sort of fellow he is, has decided that romance is irresponsible if you’ve already pledged your heart to the outlaw’s creed.

Once again directed by Keiichi Ozawa, Kill! sticks to the formula of his other offerings in the Outlaw series but opens with stylish series of colour filter stills rather than the action filled title sequences of the previous films. The fight scenes are exciting and actually quite bloody but perhaps not as innovative as some of those seen earlier in the series. In an interesting mix of old and new, Ozawa stages his final fight in a club but this time it’s a very contemporary night spot filled with guys and girls dressed in stylish, colourful outfits whilst a hippyish rock band play a cover of a famous pre-war ballad. Swooping around, notably shooting one sequence through a transparent floor/ceiling, Ozawa seems to be pushing forward more, breaking with the traditional ‘50s aesthetic for a new and crazy, youth counter-culture inspired moment which looks forward to the Stray Cat Rock series much more than back to the now ancient ninkyo eiga or sun tribe films.

Maybe Goro’s had his day too as Kill! ends in pretty much the same way as all but one of the previous films with Goro staggering away from the destruction he has wrought into a barren and snow filled landscape. Doomed to be a wanderer forevermore, Goro is a relic of the cruel post-war world which never gave him a break but his story’s now old hat. A man without a home is left forever alone, marching onward to the next confrontation or the final relief of a lonely grave.


Outlaw: Kill! is the six and final ( 😦 ) film included in Arrow Films’ Outlaw: Gangster VIP The Complete Collection box set (which is region free on DVD and blu-ray and available from both US and UK).

English subtitled original theatrical trailer: