Red Handkerchief (赤いハンカチ, Toshio Masuda, 1964)

The moral compromises of the post-war era are brought home to a trio of frustrated lovers in Toshio Masuda’s Nikkatsu “mood action”, Red Handkerchief (赤いハンカチ, Akai Handkerchief). Starring an ageing Yujiro Ishihara perhaps cast slightly against type as an ultra noble policeman choosing self-exile after accidentally shooting dead a key witness, who also happens to be the father of the woman he loved, in order to save his partner, Masuda’s noirish melodrama takes aim squarely at the radiating effects of social inequality and the moral bankruptcy of an increasingly prosperous society. 

Masuda opens, however, with an old-fashioned foot chase as cops Mikami (Yujiro Ishihara) and Ishizuka (Hideaki Nitani) attempt to run down a drug mule carrying a briefcase full of illicit substances. The suspect later gets hit by a truck and killed while the briefcase is nowhere to be found. Concluding the mule must have abandoned it at a ramen stand he ran past on the way, the cops haul in the old man running it, Hiraoka (Shin Morikawa), who seems to know more than he’s letting on but is too terrified of the gangsters to consider giving anything up. In an effort to get him to talk, Mikami pays a visit to his relentlessly cheerful factory worker daughter Reiko (Ruriko Asaoka), becoming instantly smitten with her as she quickly packs a bag of warm clothing and miso soup assuming her dad’s in for a bit of drunk and disorderly. Their romance is however not to be. Apparently feeling himself out of options, Hiraoka opts for suicide by proxy, grabbing Ishizuka’s gun and firing at police. An Olympic sharpshooter, Mikami draws his pistol to save his friend and the old man is killed. Guilty, the pair attempt to apologise to Reiko, but unsurprisingly she is not in the mood to accept it. 

Four years later, Mikami has left the force for a life of wandering doing odd jobs all over Japan while entertaining his co-workers with sad songs about lost love. Yokohama detective Tsuchiya (Nobuo Kaneko) eventually tracks him down in frosty Hokkaido, encouraging him to return with tales of Ishizuka’s wildly improbable success as a supermarket entrepreneur now apparently married to Mikami’s lost love Reiko. Tsuchiya thinks Mikami was set up and that Ishizuka is a dirty cop who’s been living the high life while Mikami has been slumming it in an unnecessary act of atonement for something that wasn’t really his fault. 

Though they were apparently good friends and loyal partners, Ishizuka flags up a potential source of tension early on in his solo interrogation of Hiraoka explaining that unlike Mikami he’s not an educated man and understands how difficult it is to be poor. Tsuchiya later posits this same sense of class conflict as one reason that Ishizuka may have betrayed him, that he felt inferior and that he would not be able to compete with his elite partner. Ishizuka later implies something similar in his dog eat dog view of the world, explaining to a newly conflicted Reiko that life is a matter of winning and losing and that Mikami is the very image of defeat. He views himself as a winner thanks to his burgeoning supermarket empire, taking full advantage of the rising consumerism of the post-war era and willing to do whatever it takes in order to achieve success even if that means crossing a line that Mikami would never cross. Yet he is also like Mikami hobbled by his love for the “beautiful”, “pure” Reiko, allowing his insecure acquisitiveness to turn violent in his determination to keep her or at least keep her from any other man. 

“Money rules everything!” Ishizuka insists, attempting to justify himself for his turn towards selfish individualism willing to sacrifice not only a “worthless” old man but even friendship in the conviction that he is “a man of great value, a winner!” and therefore entitled to move beyond conventional morality while using his ill-gotten gains to support needy orphans. Even he, however, is later undone by love, perhaps the one true form of “justice”, in realising that Reiko has chosen nobility in the form of Mikami and could never accept the man he is or the things he’s done. A romantic melodrama masquerading as a crime thriller, Red Handkerchief finds Masuda in expressionist mode, the pounding machinery at the foundry where Reiko works pulverising Mikami’s noble heart as his romantic dreams are crushed, the highway streetlights dancing across Reiko’s windscreen as she returns in confusion, and in the constant use of weather to indicate the mood, the sky suddenly brightening behind Ishizuka as his confidence returns. Echoing in The Third Man in its melancholy ending, however, even if slightly inverted, Masuda sets his battered hero adrift in the confusions of the post-war era striding into the mist guitar in hand a perpetual wanderer. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Takashi Miike, 2017)

blade of the immortal posterGenerally speaking, revenge tends not to go very well in Japanese cinema. It has the tendency to backfire. When you’re immortal, however, perhaps revenge is risk worth taking – then again, it’s not your life your weighing. Takashi Miike is no stranger to the jidaigeki world, though in adapting Hiroaki Samura’s manga Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Mugen no Junin) he harks back to the angry, arty samurai films of the late 1960s from Gosha’s Sword of the Beast with which the manga features some minor narrative similarities, to Kobayashi’s melancholy consideration of corrupted honour, and the frantic intensity of Okamoto’s Sword of Doom.

The film opens in black and white as a disgraced samurai, Manji (Takuya Kimura), tries to protect his younger sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki), who has gone mad through grief only to see her murdered by a bounty hunter. Manji enters a state of furious, mindless killing which leaves the bounty hunter’s vast crowd of henchmen lying dead and Manji mortally wounded. Consumed by guilt and having lost the sister who was his sole reason for living, Manji longs for death but a mysterious old woman who calls herself Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) has other ideas and curses Manji to a life of eternal suffering by means of sacred bloodworms which give him the power of infinite, near instant healing.

Fifty years later, the land is at peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate but peaceful times are dull for warriors. The Itto-ryu school of swordsmanship has a mission – to take over all of the nation’s martial arts facilities and restore power to the sword. They have no honour or ideology save that of kill or be killed and are content to use any and all weapons which come to hand. A young girl, Rin (Yoko Yamamoto), is a daughter of one of these schools and has her eyes set on becoming a top swordswoman herself but when the Itto-ryu show up at her door, Rin’s father’s training proves worthless as he’s cut down with one blow while the gang kidnap Rin’s mother. The Itto-ryu’s sole concession to morality is in letting Rin alone, seeing as it’s “vulgar” to toy with children.

Rin vows revenge on the Itto-ryu’s leader, Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), at which point she runs into Yaobikuni who recommends she track down Manji and hire him as a bodyguard. Fifty years of immortality have turned Manji into an isolated, embittered wastrel with rusty swordskills but Rin’s uncanny resemblance to Machi eventually begins to move his heart. Despite generating a master/pupil, big brother/little sister relationship, Manji fails to teach Rin very much of consequence that might assist her in her plan to avenge her family, leaving her a vulnerable young woman beset by enemies and random thugs, and eventually caught up in a government conspiracy. The irony of Manji’s life is that he’s just not very good at the art of protection and all of his attempts to do something good usually provoke an even bigger crisis, in this case leaving his new little sister open to exactly the same fate as the one he failed to save for much the same reasons. Apparently, Manji has learned little during his extended lifetime except how to brood and glare resentfully at the world.

It turns out being immortal is kind of a drag. Manji wants to die because he can’t cope with the burden of his guilt, but another similarly cursed man he meets has lived much longer and lost far more, becoming tired of the business of of living. Manji’s existence has lost all meaning, but as he puts it to another world weary warrior who shares his brotherly grief, he’s not the only hero of a sad story. Rin’s need for vengeance gives him a purpose again – not just in the literal revenge, but in being the protector (though one could argue this is less positive than it sounds and might explain why he fails to teach Rin anything very useful, even if it doesn’t explain why she also forgets all her father’s teachings).

Rin remains conflicted over her mission of revenge, confessing to a similarly conflicted assassin that she agrees killing is wrong but that right and wrong no longer matter when it comes to people you love. A dangerous and dubious assertion, but it does bear out the more positive message that love, or at least learning to live for others, can be a transformative force for good as Manji allows himself to resume his role as the big brother despite his past failings. Violent and visceral, if also humorous, Blade of the Immortal is, oddly enough, a story of love but also of cyclical paths of violence and revenge, and of the general muddiness of assigning the moral high ground to those engaged in a quest for retribution.


Blade of the Immortal was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Entertainment on 8th December.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Blue Lake Woman (青い沼の女, Akio Jissoji, 1986)

vlcsnap-2016-11-15-01h56m08s744Akio Jissoji had a wide ranging career which encompassed everything from the Buddhist trilogy of avant-garde films he made for ATG to the Ultraman TV show. Post-ATG, he found himself increasingly working in television but aside from the children’s special effects heavy TV series, Jissoji also made time for a number of small screen movies including Blue Lake Woman (青い沼の女, Aoi Numa no Onna), an adaptation of a classic story from Japan’s master of the ghost story, Kyoka Izumi. Unsettling and filled with surrealist imagery, Blue Lake Woman makes few concessions to the small screen other than in its slightly lower production values.

Successful artist Nagare had a serious following out with one of his oldest friends five years ago and is so rather stunned to receive an invitation to his wedding. Nagare had been invited to paint the portrait of Takigawa’s father and then asked to stay at his home for an extended period whilst Takigawa travelled in Europe buying art. Tokigawa’s father was old and frail and therefore retired to an annex each night at 8pm leaving Nagare entirely alone in the house alongside Takigawa’s wife, Mizue. The inevitable occurs when the lonely and neglected Mizue falls for the handsome painter but the romance turns dark when she talks Nagare into a double suicide at Blue Lake. Mizue drowns herself but Nagare survives only to be rescued and confined to a mental hospital.

Now five years later Takigawa wants to forget (if not quite forgive) the past and start again with a new wife by his side. The funny thing is wife number two, Ameko, is the spitting image of Mizue. When Takigawa once again asks him to stay alone in the house with his new wife whilst he jets off to America, Nagare begins to wonder exactly what’s going on. Staying at the house a second time, Nagare finds himself haunted by the ghost of the woman who died for him, but whose sacrifice he ultimately rejected. Mizue seems to want him to come to her at the bottom of Blue Lake, but Nagare still lacks the courage to take his own life, if not the inclination. Thinking of Mizue but inevitably becoming closer to Ameko, Nagare is trapped between the living and the dead but it turns out there may be more than supernatural intrigue to his darkly romantic adventures.

Jissoji creates an oppressive and creepy atmosphere for the woodland mansion noisy with the sound of a hundred ticking clocks, filled with shadows and shot from odd angles. Nagare begins to dream strange dreams in which Mizue comes to him, leaving watery footprints and her signature comb behind her to indicate that her presence is not limited to the dream world. Complaining that she’s “alive” beneath the mud next to Blue Lake where she’s cold and lonely, Mizue waits for him to make good on his promise and join her there. Nagare remains unsure if this Mizue is a manifestation of her grudge towards him, or simply a manifestation of his own guilt in allowing her to die alone.

Trapped in Vertigo-esque conundrum torn between the living Ameko and the dead Mizue, Nagare
finds himself in an impossible position unable to clearly distinguish between the two women, at one point physically attacking Ameko believing her to be Mizue’s ghost. It remains unclear if the resemblance between Mizue and Ameko is real or a figment of Nagare’s imagination prompted by both women’s position as Takigawa’s wife and by their watery names (“mizue” literally meaning “water picture” and “Ameko” “rain child”) both of which lead him straight back to Blue Lake. If it’s death Nagare is chasing rather than either women or friendship, he is ultimately unable to follow through on his desires all the while protesting that it’s “desire” which holds him among the living.

The supernatural elements are emphasised and undercut by turns as Nagare discovers their may be a more solid, real world cause for the strange events plaguing him. Still, the past continues to haunt Nagare in one form or another leaving unexplained and half remembered events to linger in his memory, rendering his reality continually unstable. As her name suggests, the ghostly Mizue is always shown in a hazy, watery blue, radiating waves of unease designed to pull Nagare back to the failure of his love suicide and at least as far as his art life in concerned, there’s part of him always submerged beneath the waters of Blue Lake. Even if not quite reaching big screen standards, Blue Lake Woman displays high production values for a 1980s television special anchored by naturalistic performances and innovative camera technique. Filled with Jissoji’s idiosyncratic surrealist imagery, Blue Lake Woman is a haunting, gothic ghost story which refuses to give up on its supernatural chills even whilst proffering a more rational explanation for all of its strange goings on.


 

Murder Unincorporated (大日本殺し屋伝, Haryasu Noguchi, 1965)

0089_86_MURDER_UN-INCORPORATED“If you don’t laugh when you see this movie, I’m going to execute you” abacus wielding hitman Komatsu warns us at the beginning of Haryasu Noguchi’s Murder Unincorporated (大日本殺し屋伝, Dai Nihon Koroshiya-den). Luckily for us, it’s unlikely he’ll be forced to perform any “calculations”, and the only risk we currently run is that of accidentally laughing ourselves to death as we witness the absurd slapstick adventures of Japan’s craziest hitman convention when the nation’s “best” (for best read “most unusual”) contract killers descend on a small town looking for “Joe of Spades” – a mysterious assassin known only by the mole on the sole of his foot.

After the amusing Bond style opening, we witness the first victim of Joe of Spades who happens to be one of the five top gangsters in town. Sure enough, the other four then receive a threatening phone call to the effect that they’re next in line for a bullet in the brain. After ringing up an assassins agency and holding a series of auditions, the head honchos wind up with a gang of hitmen bodyguards each of whom have their own theme and wacky back story.

The leader of the gang is Heine Maki – a poetry loving, bowler hatted killer whose signature weapon is a heavy book of poems with a gun hidden inside,. He’s joined by O.N. Kane – an ex-baseball player who missed out on the major leagues through being too good and carries a baseball bat that’s really a gun, “Knife” Tatsu – ex-sushi chef knife thrower with an intense fear of fish, Al Capone III – a midget who claims to be the Japanese grandson of Al Capone and is obsessed with the Untouchables TV show, and of course Komatsu himself whose signature move is to throw his abacus in the air and invite chaos in the process.

The guys are really a little more than this small town can handle though they quickly discover the situation is nowhere near as straightforward as they thought and wind up facing off against some equally eccentric foes. That’s not to mention the mama-san at Bar Joker who turns out to be at the center of the case and a local mechanic who’s suspiciously handy with a pistol.

There really are no words to describe the quick fire, extremely zany universe in which Murder Unincorporated takes place. This is a world ruled by crime in which each of our “heroes” showcase extremely sad backstories which explain why they had absolutely no choice but to turn to killing people to survive. Take “Knife” Tatsu for example, he became a hitman because he was unable to kill the fish gasping away on his cutting board so he decided to kill people instead. O.N. Kane turned murderous after being let down in his baseball dream, Heine has a romantic tale of lost love, Capone III simply has it in the blood, and Komatsu? He wants to be a pharmacist…

This is all inspired by legendary Japanese funnyman Kobako Hanato who is famous for his Southern Japan flavoured absurd comedy routines. Kon Ohmura, who plays Komatsu, was one of his top collaborators for a time and became one of Japan’s all time great comedians. Meta quips such as remarking that the police are about to turn up “for the first time in this film” and involved jokes like the one that sees Komatsu tracking down identical “Joes” in varieties club, diamond, heart (amusingly, dressed as a geisha and playing pachinko), before heading into a punchline it would be a crime to spoil only add to the feeling that absolutely anything could happen and that would be perfectly OK.

Director Noguchi mostly keeps things straightforward but builds a fantastic comedic rhythm managing the quick fire dialogue and general absurdity with ease. Much of the film is told in flashback or reverie but the device never becomes old so much as easily syncing with with general tone of the film. There are some more unusual sequences such the opening itself, keyhole view, and a later sequence where we see directly though Komatsu’s big square glasses but otherwise the deadpan filming approach boosts the inherent comedy in the increasingly surreal situations. Quirky, oddly innocent, absurd, and just extremely laugh out loud funny, Murder Unincorporated is a world away from Nikkatsu’s po-faced crime dramas but exists in a crazy cartoon world all of its own that proves near impossible to resist!


Murder Unincorporated is the third and final film included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.