The Hot Little Girl (しびれくらげ, Yasuzo Masumura, 1970)

“Using women to make money is the same as a yakuza” a repentant gangster insists on confronting the real big bad of exploitative corporate power in Yasuzo Masumura’s ironic exploration of corruptions of a consumerist society. Ironically given the rather salacious title The Hot Little Girl (しびれくらげ, Shibure Kurage), the Japanese a more suggestive Numbing Jellyfish, Masumura’s spicy drama finds an exploited woman fighting back to reclaim her own image and agency by seizing the tools used against her in the company of a sensitive yakuza himself tiring of the amoral world of contemporary gangsterdom. 

Once an ordinary coffeeshop waitress, Midori (Mari Atsumi) is now a successful model thanks to the efforts of her salaryman boyfriend Hiroshi (Yusuke Kawazu). Completely in love with him, Midori is convinced they will one day be married while Hiroshi is obsessed with corporate success and ultimately intends to buy his own advancement with her body by acquiescing to an indecent proposal from an American department store owner to strike a massive trade deal none of his colleagues had been able to broker. Shocked and disgusted Midori refuses but is later won over by Hiroshi’s rather dubious arguments that she must sleep with the American for the good of Japan along with their personal happiness, insisting that nothing will change between them while her sacrifice will buy a more secure footing for their mutual future. 

After the deed is done she seeks additional reassurance, heading straight to Hiroshi’s apartment where they again make love he insisting she is “clean” as the day she was born. In this instance he sells her body directly, though as others point out he was already doing something similar in selling her image for his own gain. Yet he is not the only person to do so, Midori’s feckless father who ruined himself embezzling money to spend on a bar hostess and thereafter going to jail, goes out on the town claiming to be a movie star and showing off Midori’s magazine spread to a woman at a bar who turns out to be there with a petty yakuza. They decide to run a scam on him, demanding compensation for messing with a yakuza’s girl while setting the amount so high they know he’ll never pay intending to press the pretty daughter, should he have one, into sex work in a fairly common gangster manoeuvre. 

The flaw in their plan is that the feisty Midori is less than attached to her dad who continues to ruin her life with his fecklessness, a drunken fool who steals her money and gets himself into trouble. It’s clear that he sees Hiroshi as something of a meal ticket, while Midori sees a marriage to him as a path towards a more stable, conventional life. Nevertheless, she finds herself unable to abandon her father, bravely standing up to the yakuza who threaten her and eventually saved by sensitive gangster Kenji (Ryo Tamura) who instantly sympathises with her situation having grown up with an abusive father he once tried but failed to kill. The gang he’s with are old school yakuza not yet part of the newly corporatising breed, still running petty scams pressing women into sex work through blackmail or parental debt. 

Yet those two worlds are, the film suggests, beginning to merge. The corporation is founded on an image of female exploitation, Hiroshi pimping out his girlfriend while his bosses giggle about it jokingly referring to her as a secret weapon for the company. On being confronted with her father’s problematic past, Hiroshi makes Midori an ultimatum to sever ties with her dad or break up with him because associating with the yakuza will ruin his career despite the fact that he is really no different himself in his desire to exploit her. Kenji’s boss Yamano (Daigo Kusano) instructs him to make Midori his woman and then put her work, but he refuses while Midori eventually opts for an ironic revenge that will quite literally buy her freedom not only from the corporate world but from yakuza threat in allowing Kenji to free himself. Together they determine to “become ordinary people again”, attempting to shake off both parental failure and the corruptions of a rabidly consumerist society to resist the commodification of body and image in world in which everything has a price and nothing any value. 


A Certain Killer (ある殺し屋, Kazuo Mori, 1967)

A nihilistic hitman safeguards the post-war future in Kazuo Mori’s chivalrous B-movie noir, A Certain Killer (ある殺し屋, Aru Koroshiya). Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War with US airplanes flying constantly overhead, Mori’s crime thriller situates itself in the barren wasteland of a rehabilitated city in which betrayal, exploitation and duplicity have become the norm while a former tokkotai pilot turned killer for hire takes his revenge on social hypocrisy as a product of his society, a man who did not die but knows only killing. 

Shiozawa (Raizo Ichikawa) runs a stylish restaurant by day and supplements his income by night as a killer for hire, apparently highly regarded by the local underworld. As such, he’s approached by a yakuza underling, Maeda (Mikio Narita), on behalf of the Kimura gang who want him to off another gangster, Oowada (Tatsuo Matsushita), who double crossed them in contravention of the yakuza codes of honour. Shiozawa is resolutely uninterested in yakuza drama and so turns the job down but changes his mind when he’s paid a visit by boss Kimura (Asao Koike) himself who sells him a different kind of mission. Kimura characterises Oowada as a “bad” yakuza, one has subverted the traditional gangster nobility by dealing in the “dirty” sides of organised crime, corrupting the modern society by trafficking in illegal prostitution, drugs, and extortion, where as he is a “good” yakuza mostly running construction scams and therefore building the post-war future. His crime is, literally, constructive, where Oowada’s is not. 

Shiozawa doesn’t quite buy his justifications, but men like Oowada represent everything he hates. “They’re not worthy of this world. They’re nothing but cockroaches” he laments, recalling the young men who served with him and gave their lives because they believed in a country which betrayed them. He agrees to take the job in rebellion against post-war venality, but only at a price, asking for four times the original fee. Kimura is willing to pay, because his true aim is profit more than revenge. He plans to take over Oowada’s remaining business concerns. 

Fully aware of this, Shiozawa seems almost uninterested in the money despite having asked for so much of it. He runs his shop as a front for his side business and otherwise lives a quiet, unostentatious life keeping mostly to himself. He is not, it would seem, a cold blooded killer, often making a point of leaving those who get in his way incapacitated but alive. Targeted by a street punk for supposedly messing with his girl he cooly disarms him and walks away, only for the girl to follow attracted partly by his icy manliness and partly by the thickness of his wallet as glimpsed when he made the fatal decision to offer to pay for her meal in order to save the chef from embarrassment over her attempts to pay with things other than money. Unable to get by on her own, Keiko (Yumiko Nogawa) attaches herself to various capable men beginning with the pimp, transferring her affections to Shiozawa whom she petitions to marry her, and then to Maeda, eventually vowing to find a new partner and make lots of money. 

Both Maeda and Keiko chase Shiozawa and are rebuffed. Impressed by his cool handling of the Oowada affair, not to mention the amount of money he now realises you can make in his line of business, Maeda asks to become his pupil in order to become a “real man”. Shiozawa doesn’t regard his work as something “real men” do, and in any case prefers to work to alone. Maeda repeatedly asks to be allowed to accompany him even after plotting betrayal, only to be rejected once again as Shiozawa tells him that he doesn’t like people who don’t know the difference between the job and romance, flagging up the homoerotic subtext for those not paying attention. Maeda parrots his words back to Keiko with whom he had begun a halfhearted affair as joint revenge against Shiozawa’s indifference. 

Following the successful offing of the mob boss, Shiozawa finds himself coopted into another job robbing a drug handoff between Oowada’s former associates, the illicit narcotics ironically packaged inside cartons intended for baby powder. Shiozawa apparently doesn’t object to profiting off the drug trade himself, but later abandons the loot in protest while the remainder is lost or squandered during the final battle with the remaining gang members, Shiozawa’s cartons left sitting ironically on top of a gravestone taken by no one. Cool as ice, Shiozawa places himself above petty criminality, always one step ahead, trusting no one and looking out for himself but reacting as a man created by his times, forged by a war he was a not intended to survive while looking on at another cruel and senseless conflict across the sea. Adapting the hardboiled novel by Shunji Fujiwara, Yasuzo Masumura’s jagged, non-linear script (co-written with Yoshihiro Ishimatsu) is imbued with his characteristic irony but also coloured with nihilistic despair for the post-Olympics society and its wholesale descent into soulless capitalistic consumerism.


Original trailer (no subtitles)