Brutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1965)

brutal tales of chivalry posterBrutal Tales of Chivalry (昭和残侠伝, Showa Zankyo-den) – a title which neatly sums up the “ninkyo eiga”. These old school gangsters still feel their traditional responsibilities deeply, acting as the protectors of ordinary people, obeying all of their arcane rules and abiding by the law of honour (if not the laws of the state the authority of which they refuse to fully recognise). Yet in the desperation of the post-war world, the old ways are losing ground to unscrupulous upstarts, prepared to jettison their long-held honour in favour of a dog eat dog mentality. This is the central battleground of Kiyoshi Saeki’s 1965 film which looks back at the immediate post-war period from a distance of only 15 years to ask the question where now? The city is in ruins, the people are starving, women are being forced into prostitution, but what is going to be done about it – should the good people of Asakusa accept the rule of violent punks in return for the possibility of investment in infrastructure, or continue to struggle through slowly with the old-fashioned patronage of “good yakuza” like the Kozu Family?

Here is where we find ourselves in the 21st year of the Showa Era (1947) – the small marketplace in Asakusa is rife with black marketeers and illegal goods, but it’s still the only mechanism by which people are able to survive. The market is overseen by the elderly patriarch of the Kozu Family, Gennosuke (Tomosaburo Ii), who does his best to ensure a kind of “fairness” in its operation, at least in as far as yakuza rules extend. His territory is currently under threat from a rival gang – the Shinsei (literally “new truth”) who obey no such rules and are growing ever more ruthless in their quest to control the local area. Their big idea is to build an entirely new marketplace with a roof to make it a permanent and pleasant place for traders to do business – they will finance this through a kind of crowdfunding paid for by the merchants themselves who will also be paying protection money and kickbacks to the Shinsei. Everyone approves of the covered market project, even the Kozu, but if it means letting the Shinsei assume control is it a price worth paying?

This is a question which faces prodigal son Seiji (Ken Takakura) who returns from the war to find his city in ruins, Gennosuke murdered by the Shinsei, that he is now the new head of the Kozu, and that the woman he loved has been given away in a dynastic marriage to man from another minor clan. Before he died, Gennosuke was able to dictate two important instructions – that Seiji was to take over, and that the gang should proceed on a note of peace, avoiding violence or aggression where possible, leading by example rather than attempting to crush their new rivals. Seiji, having just returned from one battlefield is intent on following Gennosuke’s orders but how far can he really survive on the moral high ground when his opponents are content to fight dirty from down below?

The “Showa” era spanned some 60 years of turbulent Japanese history but in 1965 it was just under 40 years old and already beginning to generate the complicated feelings of nostalgia which are still attached to it today. Showa is right there in the Japanese title as if it were an age already passed but it’s clear in 1965 that something has shifted, one age has or is beginning to give way to another. The desperation of the post-war world with its empty, rubble strewn vistas and population filled with hunger and despair has ebbed away now that Japan is back on the world stage following the 1964 Olympics and the economy has as last begun to pick up. The young no longer fixate on the rights and wrongs of empire building, war and surrender but have begun to turn their attention towards the American occupation, social justice, and foreign conflicts. The young of 1947 were middle-aged in 1965, no one would begrudge them romanticising their youth, and so even if the world of Brutal Tales of Chivalry is a bleak one it still contains a kind of nostalgia for the kind of honourable gangster inhabited by Takakura who embodies traditional values some may feel are under represented in modern society.

Yet, for all that, there’s something subtly subversive in the film’s eventual suggestion that pacifism will only go so far and that one side or another must be banished from the battlefield through violence if peace is ever to prosper. Still, the struggle is a noble one in which honour is defined by strength of character and the selfless desire to ensure the well-being of others as much as it is to a blind observation of arcane rules and obsolete, meaningless ritual. The first in a long running series, Brutal Tales of Chivalry helped established Takakura’s iconic presence which eventually became synonymous with the “ninkyo eiga” as a personification of idealised Japanese masculinity, tough but caring even if passion is often repressed or redirected into violence. Remnants may be all that’s left of “chivalry” in the new Showa era, but there’s a degree of beauty in this brutality that refuses to die even as its era passes.


Now available on Region A blu-ray from Twilight Time (limited to 3000 copies only)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Fallen Angel (人間失格, Genjiro Arato, 2010)

fallen-angelThe Fallen Angel (人間失格, Ningen Shikkaku), based on one of the best known works of Japanese literary giant Osamu Dazai – No Longer Human, was the last in a series of commemorative film projects marking the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth in 2009. Like much of Dazai’s work, No Longer Human is semi-autobiographical, fixated on the idea of suicide, and charts the course of its protagonist as he becomes hopelessly lost in a life of dissipation, alcohol, drugs, and overwhelming depression.

Even when we meet him as a small child, Yozo Oba (Toma Ikuta), feels himself set apart from his peers. Unable to connect fully with the people around him, Yozo gets through life by playing the clown. As a teenager, he meets another boy, Takeichi, who can see straight through his mask and encourages him in his artistic pursuits. Eventually, Yozo moves to Tokyo where he meets another artist, Horiki (Yusuke Iseya), who introduces him to the seedier pleasures of the city including drinking and hostess bars.

Yozo still feels adrift and is unable to cement his new found friendship with true connection. After asking Horiki to die with him (which he laughingly refuses to do), Yozo begins an ill-starred romance with a melancholy bar hostess with whom he does actually attempt double suicide. She dies, he doesn’t but his life is changed when he loses access to his familial wealth and is kicked out of university because of the scandal. Yozo has another shot at conventional happiness by briefly forming a family with a single mother and her little girl before leaving them because of problems resulting from his alcoholism. Eventually marrying a kind hearted woman, Yozo kicks the booze for a while and builds a career in manga but sure enough Horiki finds him and ruins his marital bliss by setting him back on the road to dissipation.

Arato makes a few changes to Dazai’s novel, mostly streamlining the book’s tripartite structure by eliding two events into one, but perhaps because of the well known nature of the story, he feels comfortable in making abrupt cuts and wide ranging shifts in terms of time. Dazai’s novel is much more focussed on the mental condition of its protagonist, whereas Arato has opted for a more overt display of the increasingly tense political environment with soldiers lurking in the background, later occupying a train shortly before the scene turns into a surreal segment in which Yozo reacquaints himself with all those he’s wronged throughout the course of the film.

Yozo’s tragedy is his inability to connect with other people even though he leads an ostensibly successful social life. Making himself an amiable presence, Yozo keeps people around him by making himself a figure of fun – a mask which gradually becomes far too heavy to wear. This buffoonish aspect of his personality is not very much in evidence in Arato’s film which focusses much more on his underlying depression than the joviality he uses to try and prevent anyone noticing just how broken he is inside. For this reason it becomes harder to see why everybody lets Yozo get away with his extremely bad behaviour for so long. Toma Ikuta captures Yozo’s listlessness and despair but without the necessary intensity to back them up and, ironically, without his sad clown routine Yozo does not always seem like someone anyone would want to hang out with for any great length of time.

Arato has recreated the novel’s pervading sense of numbness and despair to the letter with the consequence that his film remains resolutely cold. As appropriate as that may be, it makes it harder to achieve the kind of connection forged through Yozo’s first person narrative in the book. This approach brings out Yozo’s unpleasant qualities – his selfishness, weakness, cowardice, and propensity to addiction, but fails to display his better ones which lead to him being characterised as the ruined “angel” of the title. In distancing us from Yozo, Arato encourages us to see him either as a metaphor for the political turmoil taking place in his country during his lifetime, or simply as a someone whose intense self loathing eventually destroys his sense of self. What it does not encourage us to do is see that Yozo’s struggle is our own struggle, his despair is our despair felt to a greater or lesser degree. Too obtuse to be affecting, The Fallen Angel fails to capture the overwhelming nihilism of Dazai’s novel and ironically remains far too distant to achieve true connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Memories of You (ラブ・ストーリーを君に, Shinichiro Sawai, 1988)

Memories of youIf you thought idol movies were all cute and quirky stories of eccentric high school girls with pretty, poppy voices then think again because Memories of You is coming for you and your faith in idols to make everything better. Directed by W’s Tragedy‘s Shinichiro Sawai, Memories of You (ラブ・ストーリーを君に, Love Story wo Kimi Ni) stars one of the biggest idols of them all – Kumiko Goto, only 14 years old at the time of filming. Seemingly inspired by classic Hollywood melodramas of the ‘50s, Sawai’s film finds its innocent protagonist attempting to live an entire lifetime in only six months as she succumbs to a cruel and relentless disease.

Giving no clue as to its eventual destination, Memories of You begins with two young men returning from a hiking trip. You can tell the pair are committed alpinists because of their distinctly alpine attire and by the way they look at a glockenspiel. In this early comic scene, Araki (Shingo Yanagisawa) is heading straight to an important job interview that he hopes will help him get his girl back if he’s hired so he’s talking a mile a minute whilst awkwardly changing into a business suit inside a photo booth.

The other young man, Akira (Toru Nakamura), runs into the star of film, Yumi (Kumiko Goto), on her way back from the hospital. Akira used to be Yumi’s tutor and it’s obvious she has kind of a crush on him. Unbeknownst to Yumi, the results of her tests are much more serious than might be assumed from her cheerful persona. Yumi has leukaemia and the doctors do not expect her to survive for more than six months at most.

Yumi’s devasted mother shifts her grief away from the pain of losing her only child, to that of her stolen future – no high school, no romance, no love, marriage, or children. Accordingly she asks teacher in training Akira for a considerable sacrifice – essentially, pretend to date Yumi and give her the kind of love story that she will never now be able to experience.

Needless to say, this is a little creepy given that Akira is in in his mid-twenties and Yumi is only fourteen. Of course, it’s all very chaste and innocent like something out of a shoujo manga but still even in 1988 the scenario rings alarm bells. Akira is conflicted about his new role as a fake boyfriend for a dying teenager but it would be heartless to refuse, though one may wonder about what effect all of this may have on his future chosen career.

The world of 1988 is noticeably sexist in that Yumi’s mother works as a cookery teacher, reminding her pupil’s that this is the most important course because they’ll all be competing with their future mother-in-laws in the great culinary battle to win their husband’s hearts. These girls are raised to be housewives and nothing more, although, Yumi’s mother is divorced and now has a career, is taking care of Yumi alone and is not particularly looking to remarry. So, swings and roundabouts in terms of social progress.

The film flits between the viewpoints of Yumi and Akira as they both try to adapt to this unusual situation. As is common in these kinds of films, Yumi is not quite as in the dark as everyone had assumed and is readying herself to say her final goodbyes. This also brings about a reunion with her long absent father who has emigrated to Canada where he has a new wife and younger daughter. Yumi’s family status is an uncommon one for 1988, yet there is relatively little stigma surrounding it. Perhaps her father’s return after three years is one factor in Yumi’s realisation of the seriousness of her condition (as her mother feared it might be) but the final reconciliation does at least bring her a little more calmness and stability.

Yumi’s illness is a mountain which cannot be conquered. The beauty of the natural world and the desire to overcome it, in a sense, through physical exertion are the chief motifs of the film as Yumi dreams of travelling to Switzerland – the spiritual home of alpinism (it would seem). The loving looks at the glockenspiel in the opening scenes develop into an underlying musical theme as they also recur during the lengthy cabaret sequence close to the film’s climax. Of course, Yumi finally attempts to climb her mountain with Akira as her guide but there is only so far she can proceed.

Despite its melodramatic touches and desire to be a grand tearjerker, Memories of You is too restrained to make the full force of its tragedy achieve the kind of emotional effect that it aims for. Filled with syrupy, orchestral music very much like that employed by classic Hollywood examples of the genre, Memories of You really wants the viewer to experience the intense sadness of such a young life taken by a cruel and indiscriminating disease but often overplays its hand. This isn’t helped by the unsettling nature of the “romance” between Akira and Yumi or the (entirely understandable) lack of chemistry between the leads who each give independently high quality performances. An interesting example of an “idol movie” which steps outside the genre norms, Memories of You doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions but is another nicely photographed effort from Sawai.


End credits and title song (not sung by Kumiko Goto)

W’s Tragedy (Wの悲劇, Shinichiro Sawai, 1984)

W's TragedyHiroko Yakushimaru was one of the biggest idols of the 1980s. After starring in Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, she went on to become one of Kadokawa’s tentpole stars in vehicles such as Detective Story and Main Theme but she hit her artistic stride in 1984’s W’s Tragedy (Wの悲劇, W no Higeki) which earned her her first Blue Ribbon award for Best Actress. Inspired by the 1982 novel of the same name by Shizuko Natsuki (translated into English under the title Murder at Mt. Fuji), Sawai’s film radically diverges from its source material as the central murder mystery takes place on stage but eerily begins to mirror real life events.

Shizuka Mita (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is an aspiring young actress desperate to find her place in the spotlight. After spending the night with her teacher, she wanders home through a park and begins monologuing her life on the stage of an outdoor amphitheatre. Unbeknownst to her, a young man was sleeping on one of the rear benches and wakes up to applaud her performance. Despite her hostility towards him, Akio perseveres in getting Shizuka’s attention and the two eventually develop a tentative relationship.

Shizuka’s acting school offers its pupils the opportunity to star in a full scale production with established stars of the stage as part of their training and this year’s play is based on the recent novel, W’s Tragedy, which centres around a murder in an aristocratic family. Shikuza is desperate to win the leading role of Mako who claims to have murdered her grandfather after he tried to assault her. Losing out in the original auditions process but winning a small role which also comes with some backstage craft experience, Shizuka begins to lose heart. However, after building up a relationship with the star actress in the show, Shizuka is offered the opportunity to displace her rival through underhanded means but just how far is she willing to go for stardom and what will it all mean if and when she gets it?

Taking its cues from All About Eve, W’s Tragedy, reconfigured as a vehicle for Yakushimaru, becomes more about dualities as Shizuka effectively splits into two different “selves” – the young and innocent girl dreaming of a life on the stage, and the insecure, ambitious student willing to sacrifice anything to get there. Though clearly conflicted, Shizuka easily gives in to dubious suggestions that will earn her what she wants though not perhaps in the way that she wanted it. Her rival is shown to be a very competent actress who has also sacrificed parts of herself to attain the position that Shizuka so covets though it’s the older actress, Sho, who is the first to lament the fate of the displaced former leading lady even if she adopts a casualty of war ethos about the whole entrprise.

Shizuka gives the best performance of her life at a press conference held when she replaces the other actress in the show as she lies through her teeth to reinforce the fake story she and Sho have concocted together to their mutual benefit. Taking the brunt of a scandal just as Mako tries to take responsibility for a crime in the play, Shizuka becomes rather than performs an entirely different persona as she gives a heartfelt account of a passionate love affair with a married man that belongs to someone else entirely. Taken to task by Akio who doesn’t know the story is fake but has come to despise this manipulative side of the acting profession, Shizuka begins to wonder who she really is underneath all of the lies, scheming, and performance.

Though the directing style is generally straightforward and in keeping with Kadokawa’s mainstream idol movies of the time, Sawai adds in a few interesting flourishes which often pay homage to similarly themed Western movies such as an overtly All About Eve moment with Shizuoka taking to the stage and reciting the lead role when she thinks no one’s looking. A strange shot near the end takes place during the play but has been constructed entirely for our benefit as Shizuka looks at her reflection on a pane of glass. The audience would not be able to pick up on this ghostly effect of the two Shizukas – the stage persona and the shade of the innocent girl dreaming of the spotlight, but the effect itself is a perfect evocation of the ever present theme of duality.

Very much of its time and bearing most of the hallmarks of the classic Kadokawa idol movie, W’s Tragedy is, in many ways, the evocation of another era. However, it does provide a plum leading role for its star and an interesting meditation on the nature of acting as a profession as well as the double standards and hypocritical judgements inherent to the running of the entertainment industry.  Though less explosive than the later Perfect Blue with which it shares a few common themes, W’s Tragedy provides another set of mirrors into the nature of stardom, identity, and the price of success.


Unsubbed trailer (look out for a brief cameo from the late Yukio Ninagawa):

And here’s a clip of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 30 year anniversary concert back in 2013:

The Drifting Classroom (漂流教室, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1987)

Drifting ClassroomNobuhiko Obayashi may have started out as an experimental filmmaker and progressed to a lengthy narrative film career but he remains best known for his “what the hell am I watching?” cult classic Hausu. Aside from his 1983 take on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, very little of his other work has travelled outside of Japan. In the case of 1987’s The Drifting Classroom (漂流教室, Hyoryu Kyoshitsu), this is doubly surprising firstly because it’s based on a hugely popular manga by the godfather of horror comics Kazuo Umezu and secondly because it’s set in an international school so around 80% of the dialogue is in English.

Obayashi jettisons most of Umezu’s original plot which involves an ordinary Japanese school being suddenly and mysteriously uprooted from its city centre location leaving only a gaping hole to mark its place. This time our hero is Shou – a teenage boy who has recently returned from living in LA and is attending Kobe International School until his Japanese improves enough to get into a normal establishment. Having lived abroad for so long, Shou is a totally Americanised boy with a rebellious, individualistic streak and just wants to hang out with his cool American pals rather than study like his parents want him to do so he can get a foot on the all important ladder of the Japanese educational system. Consequently he argues with his mother and says some very harsh things which leads to her telling him to get out and not to bother coming back – sentiments which both are about to spend the rest of their lives regretting.

Right before taking the register some weird shit goes down and there’s an intense storm which fills most of the school building with sand. Looking out of the windows, everything seems to have become desert. The kids and the two remaining teachers think about what to do and settle on practical things like rationing the food and water left in the school canteen. Back in Kobe, there’s just a giant hole in the ground and a whole lot of confusion….

For some reason, Obayashi decided to set the story in an international school which means that most of the dialogue is in English (though judging by the accents and languages there are some Europeans and students from other parts of Asia around too). This is the single worst decision of the adaptation as the dialogue, which is overly silly to begin with, is offered in stilted, halting tones by its disappointing child actors with the native English speakers not doing very much better than the Japanese kids who are at least trying their best. Perhaps for these reasons (or just out of operational necessities) the film is entirely shot in non-sync sound and the dubbing never quite links up either.

It almost seems as if Obayashi is targeting an overseas audience as his tone is very much indebted to ‘80s kids’ movies with its cast of slightly plucky (sometimes irritatingly so) youngsters trying to solve the mystery of their own disappearance. However, it doesn’t seem as if the film was ever released outside of Japan (where it has never even been released on DVD) despite the presence of one time American star Troy Donohue leaving the strange Americanisms as a sort of exotic plot element with no real resolution.

Though the story seems to be aimed at older children with the usual themes of perseverance in times of adversity and the importance of teamwork and friendship, there are a few scary moments including a psycho style gag where a teacher’s head spins round before dissolving into sand. However, the majority of the special effects are extremely unconvincing resembling an ‘80s kids TV programme with a host of matte paintings, bad green screen, early digital effects and even some tokusatsu style people in rubber suits playing strange cockroach-like monsters. Arguably the best of these is the friendly creature who hangs round with the kids from school and most closely resembles a disgruntled potato with legs (but may actually be giving the most accomplished performance in the entire film).

All of this could have added to the film’s kitsch, “bad movie” vibe but Obabyashi opts to get serious every now and then and ruins everyone’s fun in the process. Weirdly, everyone just seems to accept the “timeslip” argument right away as if that’s a perfectly normal thing that happens every now and then like sinkholes or spontaneous human combustion – there’s even a geologist (?) being interviewed on the news who just says “yes – it is probably a timeslip” when asked to provide some “scientific commentary” on the disappearance of the school children. Completely bizarre but not in a very interesting way, The Drifting Classroom is a misfire on all levels neither making a good adaptation of its source material or an entertaining movie in its own right. Camp classics enthusiasts or Obayashi fanatics only.


The Drifting Classroom was also adapted into a TV drama in 2002 under the title of Long Love Letter which is much better than this movie.

A short scene from the film starring its best character whom I have decided to name “Spuddy” (English dialogue):