The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Kihachi Okamoto, 1967)

“Hey, what’s going on around here?” a sidekick asks directly to camera at the conclusion of Kihachi Okamoto’s characteristically anarchic conspiracy-thriller-cum-spy-spoof The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Satsujinkyo Jidai). Sparked by Bond mania, the late 1960s saw a marked trend in B-movie espionage parody though Okamoto’s take on the genre is darker than the norm even if embracing his trademark taste for absurdist humour leaving us wondering who our hero really is and which side, if any, he’s really on in the confusing geopolitical realities of 1967 Japan. 

As we first meet him, the hero is bumbling professor of criminal psychology Shinji Kikyo (Tatsuya Nakadai) who has extreme myopia and a persistent case of athlete’s foot not to mention a prominent mother complex. Unbeknownst to him, he’s one of three targets picked not quite at random by Rudolf von Bruckmayer (Bruno Lucique), former Gestapo chief, who is interested in hiring some assassins trained by the megalomaniac psychiatrist Mizorogi (Hideyo Amamoto) who’s been turning his mentally distressed patients into hyper-efficient killing machines (sometimes literally) under the rationale that all great men throughout history have been in a certain sense “crazy”. Mizorogi is also in charge of a eugenicist project titled “The Greater Japan Population Control Council” which believes that Japan is already overpopulated but they have to ensure that “the lives of people who might become useful in the future must not be destroyed before they’re born.” Therefore, “the people who will be useless should be asked to bow out”, the assassin calmly explains shortly before Shinji is saved by the divine energy of his late mother as her bust falls from a shelf and knocks the killer out. 

The central conceit plays into a real anxiety about the post-war baby boom expressed in earlier films such as Yuzo Kawashima’s Burden of Love while attacking the capitalistic philosophy that regards some people as more useful than others. By the late 1960s, Nazis had begun to make frequent appearances in these kinds spy spoofs as comedy villains usually crazed to the point of being little real threat. Mizorogi too is eventually exposed as exalting the “mad” interested more in the art of chaos and the impulse to murder than in any greater political goal. Indeed, the central MacGuffin turns out to be less to do with a grand conspiracy to create some kind of super society than the very B-movie-esque missing diamond known as Cleopatra’s Tear.

Okamoto piles each of these subplots one on top of the other as if he were making it up as he goes along suddenly undercutting what we thought we knew with an unexpected reversal. Shedding his glasses and shaving his scraggly beard, Shinji shifts from myopic professor to suave super agent using profiling and psychology to stay one step ahead while encountering plots by spiritualist cults, overly cheerful self defence force officers in the middle of training exercises, and eccentric assassins. From a modern standpoint, it might seem uncomfortable that each of the killers is manifesting disability in order to seem non-threatening, a female operative concealing a deadly weapon behind an eyepatch, while her poetry-obsessed colleague stores his in a fake crutch, but then again they are each pawns of a game being played by the crazed Mizorogi. Aided by female reporter Keiko (Reiko Dan) and car thief sidekick Otomo Bill (Hideo Sunazuka), Shinji seems to bumble from one bizarre episode to another but may actually be far more in charge of the situation than we might have assumed. 

Among the most visually striking of Okamoto’s late ‘60s pictures and once again making great use of animation, Age of Assassins features high concept production design, Mizorogi’s asylum lair a maddening corridor of Omega-shaped passages with ornate cell bars on either side behind which we can see a room full of men often engaged in what seems to be a military exercise regime while the plaster effigies of human form seem to be bursting from the walls. As in all of Okamoto’s films the central message lies in the absurdity of violence suggesting in a sense that the dog-eat-dog ethos of contemporary capitalist consumerism is in itself a kind of internecine madness countered only by Shinji’s rather childish mentality crafting his various gadgets out of household objects while attacking this elitist individualism with nothing more sophisticated than a vegetable peeler. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Woman of Design (その場所に女ありて, Hideo Suzuki, 1962)

“This job poisons you and deprives you of your youth” according to conflicted ad-exec Ritsuko (Yoko Tsukasa) trying her best to make it in the still very male world of adverting. A snapshot of the city in the early ‘60s, Hideo Suzuki’s workplace melodrama Woman of Design (その場所に女ありて, Sono Basho ni Onna Arite) considers the changing position of women through the eyes of four friends working at the same company, each facing challenges mainly at the hands of useless men while trying to claim a space for themselves as individuals but discovering that they are still subject to a binary choice when it comes to deciding their romantic futures. 

A woman of around 30, Ritsuko has worked her way up to a fairly senior position at Nishigin Advertising which at least appears to be a fairly progressive company run by a compassionate boss who treats his employees equally with respect for all. Nevertheless, Nishigin is very interested in its bottom line especially as the company is apparently not doing so well to the extent that they’ve unfortunately had to cut back on their “entertainment” budget which is apparently how they win and keep clients. A new opportunity has presented itself in the chance to win a contract with a pharmaceuticals company to market their brand new drug aimed at “revitalising” the lives of the over 40s. Unfortunately, they have a rival in the form of Daitsu and suave adman Sakai (Akira Takarada) who appears to have pipped Ritsuko to the post in “seducing” their sleazy PR guy.

Though focussed on her career and somewhat resistant to romance, Ritsuko finds herself attracted to Sakai if eventually wondering if he’s only using her for inside info on Nishigin which she doesn’t directly give him but their relationship does perhaps soften her attitude. Sakai’s minor betrayal in poaching the head of their art department will eventually destroy any genuine feelings they may have had for each other while leaving Ritusko painfully aware of her vulnerabilities as a female employee and of the costs of her momentary decision to break with her long-held determination to keep her professional and private lives entirely separate, admitting that her relationship with Sakai may have been a mistake but refusing to resign because of it. Meanwhile, the boss of the pharmaceuticals company with whom she seems to be on good terms tries to blackmail her into attending an omiai meeting implying he’ll be much more likely to give them the contract if she goes. Not that they necessarily mean she should give up her career, but even Ritsuko’s colleagues seem to be keen that she get married, shocked that she might determine to remain single for the rest of her life. 

That’s exactly the decision her friend Yuko (Akemi Kita) has made, dedicating herself to her career but also moody and embittered. In fact though it is no way explicit, Yuko is strongly coded as a lesbian with a possible crush on friend and colleague Mitsuko (Kumi Mizuno), herself in a difficult position apparently pushed into debt because of an attachment to a no good man whose hospitals bill she has been paying. Ritsuko’s deskmate Hisae (Chisako Hara), meanwhile, is a divorcee wondering what she’s going to do when her ex, whom she’s still hung up on, stops paying alimony, and her sister is forever badgering her for money because her brother-in-law is an irresponsible layabout who can’t hold down a steady job and has no real intention of doing so. “Men who live off women are the worst” Yuko exasperatedly exclaims thoroughly fed up with the bunch of two bit louses who seem to have ruined the lives of all her friends. 

It’s not difficult to understand why Ritsuko may be ambivalent about marriage, but even at work she’s not free of selfish, entitled men who routinely take credit for her work. Sleazy college Kura (Tsutomu Yamazaki) from the art department is forever sucking up to her only to attempt rape while discussing work at her apartment, later brushing the affair off while talking to a female colleague by affirming that older women aren’t his thing anyway. He also undercuts her by visiting the client himself to discuss ideas and changes. Kura later wins a big design prize in part thanks to the slogan Ritsuko came up with only to annoy his colleagues by implying he handled the whole campaign single-handedly. Meanwhile, though in some ways progressive her bosses are conservative when it comes to the business, shutting down the art director’s suggestion of running with an out of the box campaign (the sexier ad featuring a muscular man in his briefs which he later sells to Sakai is the one which ends up winning). Tsuboichi (Jun Hamamura) and Kura perhaps too feel constrained by a top down hierarchal structure which frustrates innovation and in their own ways rebel, but as Ritsuko later makes plain in her speech to the boss if she wants to keep her position she has to play by the rules. “Life’s short. Especially for a woman. We have no room for mistakes” as Yuko cheerfully agrees.

Yet even within that, Ritsuko manages to redefine her boundaries, making it clear that she won’t be doing the omiai. She does not, however, reject marriage entirely only state that “I will get married only when I feel the time is right”, for the moment at least entirely focused on her career. Though the future may have looked gloomy, the crisis passes and the mood brightens significantly with the news that another company is about to officially announce the launch of a long-rumoured anti-ageing cream which provides another potentially lucrative campaign opportunity for Nishigin and of course for Ritsuko should she win it. Having opened with a series of still frames followed by hazy footage of a sea of workers wandering towards their offices on an overcast morning, Suzuki closes in the twilight with the three ladies leaving the office, their friendship solidified as they head off to celebrate renewed hope for the future bolstered by a sense of female solidarity.


Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

A studio director at Toho, Shiro Toyoda was most closely associated with adaptations of well respected works of literature, often with an earthy, humanist touch. He might then be an odd fit for a tale of high romance co-produced with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers and inspired by a classic Chinese legend. Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Byaku Fujin no Yoren) effectively drops some of Toho’s top talent, including “pan-Asian” star Shirley (Yoshiko) Yamaguchi (AKA Li Xianglan / Ri Koran), into a contemporary Hong Kong ghost movie with Toyoda doing his best to mimic the house style. 

As in the classic legend, fate is set in motion when herbalist Xu-xian (Ryo Ikebe) allows “noblewoman” Bai-niang (Shirley Yamaguchi) and her maid Xiao-qing (Kaoru Yachigusa) to board a boat he is riding to escape a storm. The pair bond because they are both orphans out in the rain to pay their filial respects to their late parents on tomb sweeping day. Disembarking, Xu-xian lends the ladies his umbrella, vowing to visit their house the next day after his rounds to reclaim it. When he arrives, Xu-xian is greeted by a near hysterical and extremely romantic Bai-niang who has apparently fallen deeply in love with him because of his pure heart. She proposes marriage, but Xu-xian is wary. He is after all just a poor boy, a herbalist living with his older sister and her husband. He has no money to get married and Bai-niang is a noble woman from a good family, society simply wouldn’t allow it. Xu-xian tries to escape, but his gentle words of refusal only wound Bia-niang’s heart. 

Hoping to smooth the situation, Xiao-qing decides to give Xu-xian a small fortune in silver taels so the money issue will be solved. Strangely, the plan appears to work. Xu-xian quickly gets over his reluctance to accept money from a wealthy woman who wants to marry him and returns to being in love and excited, selling his newfound hope for the future to his sister by showing her the taels. It is, however, not quite that simple. The silver turns out to be stolen as evidenced by a mark of fire on its surface. Xu-xian falls under suspicion as a thief and comes to resent Bai-niang for placing him in such a difficult and embarrassing position. 

Nevertheless, despite all the strange goings on such as the suddenly “abandoned” house, the green smoke, and vanishing women, Xu-xian does not seem to suspect that Bai-niang is not fully human, and is only angry with her for misusing him. In a motif which will be repeated, however, he is eventually won over. After taking a job in his sleazy uncle’s inn, he re-encounters Bai-niang and realises she really is the one for him. But as they begin to build their life together, launched with an unwise loan from the sleazy uncle who can’t seem to keep his eyes (and occasionally hands) off Bai-niang, doubt begins to creep in. Those small cracks are deepened when Xu-xian is accosted by a man who announces himself as a Taoist from Mount Ji and tells him that he has an evil aura over his head, encouraging him to believe that an evil spirit is slowly capturing his heart which why he’s a little bit afraid to go home. The priest gives him some useful talismans, which are of course quite bad news for Bai-niang who now knows that her husband secretly doubts her. 

Meanwhile, prepared to do “anything” to make the man she loves happy, Bai-niang has come to the strange conclusion that Xu-xian’s moodiness is down to the fact that their medicine shop isn’t doing so well. Unfortunately, her big idea is poisoning the local well to make everyone think there’s a plague so they’ll have to buy more of her potions. It’s a fairly nefarious plan, but apparently all for love. As in the original tale, however, the real crisis once again comes with the randy uncle who uses the pretext of a local festival to try and get Bai-niang drunk on special wine that is known to unmask spirits. Realising that his wife is a little bit otherworldly sends Xu-xian into a coma, while Bai-niang goes to ask the gods for help, only to be undercut by the annoying Taoist priest who wakes Xu-xian up by convincing him his wife’s “evil”. 

If you don’t want people to think you’re “evil”, trying to drown the entire town might not be the best move. Bai-niang’s refusal to give up on Xu-xian even when he constantly tries to reject her places her at odds with loyal servant Xiao-qing who is equal parts enraged on her behalf and exasperated that she can’t see sense. Bai-niang tells the gods that the only witchcraft she used was the witchcraft of love even if that love caused her to try and poison the entire town, but now regards herself as nothing more than Xu-xian’s wife and is willing to renounce her powers in order to save him. Once again, Xu-xian has a sudden change of heart, avowing that there are human women with the heart of a snake, and Bai-niang is a woman to him even if she’s a snake spirit which is, apparently, the only thing that matters. Still, theirs is a love this world doesn’t understand, and so only in a better one can they ever be together.


Original trailer (no subtitles)