Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

samurai rebellion posterIf Masaki Kobayashi had one overriding concern throughout his relatively short career, it was the place of the individual with an oppressive society. Samurai Rebellion (上意討ち 拝領妻始末, Joi-uchi: Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu), not quite the crashing chanbara action the title promises, returns to many of the same themes presented in Kobayashi’s earlier Harakiri in its tale of corrupt lords and a vassal who can no longer submit himself to their hypocritical demands. On the film’s original release, distributor Toho added a subtitle to the otherwise stark “Rebellion”, “Hairyo Tsuma Shimatsu”, which means something like “sad story of a bestowed wife” and was intended to help boost attendance among female filmgoers who might be put off by the overly male samurai overtones. The central conflict is that of the ageing samurai Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune), but Kobayashi saves his sympathy for a powerless woman, twice betrayed, and given no means by which to defend herself in a world which values female life cheaply and a woman’s feelings not at all.

Having the misfortune to live in a time of peace, expert swordsman Isaburo has only the one duty of testing out the lord’s new sword (which he will never draw) on a straw dummy. He and his friend Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai) are of a piece – two men whose skills are wasted daily and who find themselves at odds with the often cruel and arbitrary samurai world, refusing to fight each other because the outcome would only cause pain to one or both of their families. Isaburo has two grownup sons and dreams of becoming a grandpa but needs to find a wife for his eldest, Yogoro (Go Kato). He wants to find a woman who is loyal, loving, and kind. As a young man Isaburo was “forced” into marriage and adopted into his wife’s family but has been miserable ever since as his wife, Suga (Michiko Otsuka), is a sharp tongued, unpleasant woman whose only redeeming features are her stoicism and dedication to propriety.

It is then not particularly good news when the local steward turns up one day and informs Isaburo that the lord is getting rid of his mistress and has decided to marry her off to Yogoro. News travels fast and though others may appear jealous of such an “honour”, Isaburo is quietly angry – not only is he being expected to take on “damaged goods” in a woman who’s already born a son to another man, but they won’t even tell him why she’s being sent away, and the one thing he wanted for his son was not to end up in the same miserable position as he did. Nevertheless when Isaburo repeatedly tries to decline the “kind offer”, he is prevented. A suggestion quickly becomes an order, and Yogoro consents to prevent further conflict.

Against the odds, Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) is everything Isaburo had wanted in a daughter-in-law and even puts up with Suga’s constant unkindness with patience and humility. Eventually she and Yogoro fall deeply in love and have a baby daughter, Tomi, but when the lord’s oldest heir dies and Ichi’s son becomes the next in line, it’s thought inappropriate for her to remain the wife of a mere vassal. Summoned to the castle, Ichi is once again robbed of her child but also of her happiness.

Ichi’s tale truly is a sad one and emblematic of the fates and positions of upperclass women in the feudal world. Having had the misfortune to catch the lord’s eye, Ichi tries to decline when the steward shows up to take her to the castle, reminding him that she is already betrothed. Sure that her fiancé will protect her, Ichi says she’ll go if he agrees never thinking that he would. Betrayed in love, Ichi is sold to the castle to be raped by the elderly Daimyo who views her as little more than a baby making machine and faceless body to do with as he wishes. When she returns from a post-natal trip to the spa and discovers the lord has already taken a new mistress, her anger is not born of jealously but resentment and disgust. This other woman is proud of her “position” at the lord’s side when she should be raging as Ichi is now, at her powerlessness, at the male society which reduces her to an object traded between men, and at the rapacious assault upon her body by a man older than her father.

Isaburo is also raging, but at the cruel and heartless obsession with order and protocol which has defined his short, unhappy life. Having been a model vassal, Isaburo has lived a life hemmed in by these rules but can bear them no longer in their disregard for human feeling or simple integrity. Isaburo says no, and then refuses to budge. Having retired and surrendered control of the household to Yogoro, Isaburo leaves the decision to his son who refuses to surrender his wife and swears to protect her from being subjected to the same cruel treatment as before. The samurai order is not set up for hearing the word “no”, and the actions of Isaburo, Yogoro, and Ichi threaten to bring the entire system crashing down. Love is the dangerous, destabilising, manifestation of personal desire which the system is in place to crush.

Isaburo’s rebellion, as he later says, is not for himself, or for his son and daughter-in-law whose deep love for each other has reawakened the young man in him, but for all whose personal freedom has been constrained by those who misuse their power to foster fear and oppression. Having picked up his sword, Isaburo will not stand down until his voice is heard, fairly, under these same rules that the authority is so keen on enforcing. He does not want revenge, or even to destroy the system, he just wants it to respect him and his right to refuse requests he feels are unjust or improper. Like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, Isaburo’s fate will be an unhappy one but even so he is alive again at last as the fire of rebellion rekindles his youthful heart. Those caught within the system from the venal stewards and greedy vassals to the selfish lords suddenly terrified the Shogun will discover their mass misconduct are dead men walking, sublimating their better natures in favour of creating the facade of obedience and conformity whilst manipulating those same rules for their own ends, yet the central trio, meeting their ends with defiance, are finally free.


Available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from Criterion Collection.

Original trailer (English subtitles – poor quality)

The Execution Game (処刑遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1979)

Execution Game BDA year on from The Killing Game, Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) has returned to his old profession, now branded The Execution Game (処刑遊戯, Shokei yugi). Like Killing, Execution is a variation on the themes of The Most Dangerous Game – conspiracy, betrayal, double cross, and corruption, but all in all Narumi’s world hasn’t changed very much even as he seems to become ever more dead to himself as he walks the dark city streets, trench coat, sunshades, and cigarettes blocking out its remaining light and warmth.

Unlike Dangerous or Killing, Execution opens indoors as Narumi lies half awake in an empty, dark and dirty room. Coming to, he remembers a girl and a car followed by a bump on the head but not much else. His attempt to escape lands him suspended from the ceiling in another room that’s shifted from green to red, but as he will shortly find out this is all part of a weird job interview. The shady guys who kidnapped him simply wanted to test his skills and, finding them adequate, now intend to force him to take their assignment to knock off their old hitman because he’s become too “weird” and they don’t need him around anymore. Narumi’s not too happy about any of this but then he does quite like getting paid. As usual, his first job leads to a second which has some wider implications involving international espionage.

Following his previous experiences, Narumi’s personal life seems to be less of a disaster but then that might be precisely because he has no personal life. In contrast to his increasingly detached persona, Execution marks the first time in the series in which he appears to enter into an entirely consensual relationship with a woman whom he genuinely seems to care about. Unfortunately she is not all she seems and, in a sense, betrays him. Nevertheless, even if the relationship is “fake” or at least part of an ongoing operation to trap Narumi into working for people he might otherwise avoid, it does provoke a kind of opening up as far as Narumi’s past is concerned. His seaside boyhood (perhaps why he chose the riverside town for his “retirement” in Killing) and longing for the ocean provide a clue to his restless heart as the sound of waves becomes a repeated cue signalling Narumi’s hidden emotional ebb and flow.

Yet externally he’s even more silent and closed off than before. Narumi’s hitman credentials have never been stronger and he pulls of his hits with steely precision. He is fearless in the face of danger, wading into the bloody finale with barely repressed fury, making sure none of these mass manipulators will survive their attempt to turn him into a disposable tool to be destroyed after use. Once again his second job provides him with a motive to get back in shape, making space for yet another training montage, but this time the mirrors are about more than vanity. Narumi’s world has always been dark, born of night and chaos, yet he remains the only point of order despite the illicit, dangerous, and immoral nature of his occupation. 

Narumi’s interaction with the young woman who runs the watch repair shop where he tries to get his pocket watched fixed is perhaps the best indicator of his progress over the series. The girl is first very taken with his watch which is rare and expensive, but is also later captivated by his cool exterior. She flirts with him, subtly, but Narumi deflects it. His demeanour towards her becomes paternal, finally he warns her against chasing every shady guy she meets – she doesn’t see the danger. This Narumi, in contrast to his rather pathetic existence in the first two films, is of the world but not in it. He sees himself as occupying a very different space than this young girl, and is resigned to walking a lonely road. The Execution Game is an apt way to describe his life story, yet even as something of him dies something else rises in his self imposed exile and desire for both self preservation and old fashioned nobility even within the bounds of his world weary cynicism.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Beast Must Die (野獣死すべし, Toru Murakawa, 1980)

LP Soundrack record cover

Yusaku Matsuda was the action icon of the ‘70s, well known for his counter cultural, rebellious performances as maverick detectives or unlucky criminals. By the early 1980s he was ready to shed his action star image for more challenging character roles as his performances for Yoshimitsu Morita in The Family Game and Sorekara or in Seijun Suzuki’s Kagero-za demonstrate. The Beast Must Die (野獣死すべし, Yaju Shisubeshi, AKA Beast to Die) is among his earliest attempts to break out of the action movie cage and reunites him with director Toru Murakawa with whom he’d previously worked on Resurrection of the Golden Wolf also adapted from a novel by the author of The Beast Must Die, Haruhiko Oyabu. A strange and surreal experience which owes a large amount to the  “New Hollywood” movement of the previous decade, The Beast Must Die also represents a possible new direction for its all powerful producer, Haruki Kadokawa, in making space for smaller, art house inspired mainstream films.

Shedding 25 pounds and having four of his molars removed to play the role, Matsuda inhabits the figure of former war zone photo journalist Kazuhiro Date whose experiences have reduced him to state of living death. After getting into a fight with a policeman he seems to know, Date kills him, steals his gun, and heads to a local casino where he goes on a shooting rampage and takes off with the takings. Date, now working as a translator, does not seem to need or even want the money though if he had a particular grudge against the casino or the men who gather there the reasons are far from clear.

Remaining inscrutable, Date spends much of his time alone at home listening to classical music. Attending a concert, he runs into a woman he used to know who seems to have fond feelings for him, but Date is being pulled in another direction as his experiences in war zones have left him with a need for release through physical violence. Eventually meeting up with a similarly disaffected young man, Date plans an odd kind of revenge in robbing a local bank for, again, unclear motives, finally executing the last parts of himself clinging onto the world of order and humanity once and for all.

Throughout the film Date recites a kind of poem, almost a him to his demon of violence in which he speaks of loneliness and of a faith only in his own rage. Later, in one of his increasingly crazed speeches to his only disciple, Date recounts the first time he killed a man – no longer a mere observer in someone else’s war, now a transgressor himself taking a life to save his own. The violence begins to excite him, he claims to have “surpassed god” in his bloodlust, entering an ecstatic state which places him above mere mortals. A bullet, he says, stops time in that it alters a course of events which was fated to continue. A life ends, and with it all of that time which should have elapsed is dissolved in the ultimate act of theft and destruction. His acts of violence are “beautiful demonic moments” available only to those who have rejected the world of law.

Murakawa allows Matsuda to carry the film with a characteristically intense, near silent performance of a man driven mad by continued exposure to human cruelty. Hiding out in Date’s elegant apartment, Matsuda moves oddly, beast-like, his baseness contrasting perfectly with the classical music which momentarily calms his world. Mixing in stock footage of contemporary war zones, Murakawa makes plain the effect of this ongoing violence on Date’s psyche as the sound of helicopters and gunfire resounds within his own head. The imagery becomes increasingly surreal culminating in the moment of consecration for Date’s pupil in which he finally murders his girlfriend while she furiously performs flamenco during an dramatic thunderstorm. Date is, to borrow a phrase, no longer human, any last remnants of human feeling are extinguished in his decision to kill the only possibility of salvation during the bank robbery.

Anchored by Matsuda’s powerful presence, The Beast Must Die is a fascinating, if often incomprehensible, experience filled with surreal imagery and an ever present sense of dread. Its world is one of neo noir, the darkness and modern jazz score adding to a sense of alienation which contrasts with the brightness and elegance of the classical music world. At the end of his transformation, there is only one destination left to Date though his path there is a strange one. Fittingly enough for a tale which began with with darkness we exit through blinding white light.


There’s also another adaptation of this novel from 1959 starring Tatsuya Nakadai which I’d love to see but doesn’t seem to be available on DVD even without subtitles. This film has a selection of English language titles but I’ve used The Beast Must Die as this is the one which appears on Kadokawa’s 4K restoration blu-ray release (sadly Japanese subtitles ony).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Outlaw: Black Dagger (無頼 黒ヒ首, Keiichi Ozawa, 1968)

outlaw black daggerGoro (Tetsuya Watari) just can’t catch a break. He sends his one true love off on a train to safety only to see her dramatically return because she can’t bear to leave his side. Her devotion costs her her life as she places herself between Goro’s manly chest and an assassin’s knife. Heartbroken, Goro gets out of town only to run into another old flame who is now a mama-san and has apparently married another yakuza (despite the fact that Goro parted with her because of his chaotic yakuza lifestyle). As usual, the past won’t let him go – this time in a more literal sense as Goro encounters another woman who looks exactly like the girlfriend who died in his arms….

This time for the fifth instalment in the Outlaw series, Black Dagger (無頼 黒ヒ首, Burai Kurodosu), it’s not so much family as romance which takes centre stage as we witness just how dangerous it can be to fall in love with a yakuza. Yuri (Chieko Matsubara), the girlfriend Goro couldn’t save, died because she loved him too much.  Saeko loved him too – he succeeded in getting rid of her but she ended up rebound married to another guy who kind of looks like him but isn’t as good, and now there’s Shizuko (Chieko Matsubara again) – a warmhearted nurse who’s once again fallen for Goro’s noble tough guy act. Goro knows the price of love and he thinks he’s no good so he tries to avoid letting himself fall, both for his own safety and for his prospective love, but in the end the one fight he can never win is the one against his own heart.

Oddly Goro gets on quite well with Saeko’s husband, though he’s not keen to get involved with his troubles. He warns him that it might be better to let Saeko go as in the end yakuza only cause suffering for their women and soon enough Goro is proved right when the local gang become intent on pimping Saeko out leaving her husband pretty much powerless to resist.

Apparently this cuts both ways as a sad song from a band of street musicians recounts that a good wife can be a man’s weakness. Again it isn’t really clear how this instalment fits with the others but Yuri’s story is certainly very similar to Yukiko’s as seen in the first two movies and Goro’s guilt over not being able to protect her comes to colour the rest of his life. Once again Goro tries to say goodbye to love, advising Shizuko of the folly of falling for a man like him – she should just find someone nice and be happy. Full of nobleness and conviction, Goro strides out to clean up the town for good, knowing he may not return to see the fruits of his labours.

Black Dagger is once again directed by Keiichi Ozawa and is more or less in keeping with his other efforts in the series, mixing studio bound action with occasional forays into wider outdoor expanses. The film opens with an impressive montage title sequence and fight scene, but other than that the only set piece we get is the street singer sequence towards the end though the final fight is once again action packed and impressively filmed. Black Dagger perhaps doesn’t bring anything too new to the franchise, but it does improve on its already familiar narrative with another doomed love story and a series of shattered dreams for poor old Goro. Unlike the more hopeful ending of the last film, Black Dagger ends on exactly the same note as the other Outlaw movies as Goro staggers away from the crime scene, knife in hand and ready for the next crisis to come his way.


Outlaw: Black Dagger is the fifth of six films 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:

Panic High School (高校大パニック, Sogo Ishii, 1978)

Panic High SchoolSogo (now Gakyruu) Ishii was only 20 years old when Nikkatsu commissioned him to turn his smash hit 8mm short into a full scale studio picture. Perhaps that’s why they partnered him with one of their steadiest hands in Yukihiro Sawada as a co-director though the youthful punk attitude that would become Ishii’s signature is very much in evidence here despite the otherwise mainstream studio production. That said, Nikkatsu in this period was a far less sophisticated operation than it had been a decade before and, surprisingly, Panic High School (高校大パニック, Koukou Dai Panic) neatly avoids the kind of exploitative schlock that its title might suggest.

Back in 1977, though sadly little has changed in the intervening 40 years, schools are little more than pressure cookers slowly squeezing out every inch of individuality from the young people trapped within them as they cram for tests in subjects they might not actually understand. When a pupil commits suicide, the head master offers a few words of condolence over the tannoy system which the form tutor later backs up by emphasising that no one knows why the boy did this and that it probably has nothing at all to do with the school, exam pressure, or his performance in the recent mock exams. The school expect a line to be drawn here and for everyone to forget about it and get back to work.

However, when the teacher, Ihara, starts going on about the league tables suffering if the kids don’t buckle down some of them have had enough. One young man, Jono, looses it completely and takes a swing at the teacher only to miss and run out of the school in a panic. Whilst wandering around town he passes a gun shop and swipes a rifle before returning to the classroom and assassinating the maths tyrant. Not knowing what to do next, Jono hides out in the school building taking some of his friends hostage and then all hell breaks loose.

At its core, Panic High School is satire laying bare the crisis in Japan’s educational system which places undue emphasis on one particular set of exams which will determine the entirety of a person’s life. The teachers are cruel and heartless, little more than cogs in a machine. They don’t care about the kids, they only care about the statistics and the prestige associated with being the top high school in the area. All of these kids are bright, they already passed the stressful middle school entrance exams to get here, and the school just expects them to succeed but offers no support if they can’t.

Indeed, Ihara isn’t even teaching them anything. At the beginning of the film he asks a female student to solve an equation on the board. When she can’t, not only does he not explain the solution to her, he sends her outside adding to her original humiliation in front of the entire class and preventing her from actually learning how to solve the problem. When the next boy can’t solve it either he simply berates him for not studying, saying a “student at this high school should be able to solve this problem”. When the boy points out he did study but just doesn’t understand all he gets is abuse, no actual teaching at all.

Even when the police have been called, all anyone cares about is the reputation of the school. The headmaster keeps harping on about their status as the top school in the area and how “unfortunate” it would be if a student is killed inside the school – which is completely ignoring the fact that a teacher has already been murdered by a shotgun toting teenager right in the classroom. The police bungle the entire affair, starting by tearing apart Jono’s desk for clues including going right through his lunchbox and pointlessly cutting a hole in the bottom of his schoolbag. Bringing even more guns and riot police into the school to deal with one frightened boy who doesn’t want to shoot anyone else but is only trying to effect his escape (so he can take his entrance exams next year) is far from a good idea.

The kids are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take this anymore. The pressure is extreme and in the face of adult hypocrisy, it’s unsurprising that Jono and the other young people like him find themselves lashing out in extreme ways. Their teachers see them only as products, or even as components in the building of a “future” but never as people. Even if some of them start out wanting to help Jono, by the end even a teacher is trying to grab a gun screaming “That kid! I hate him now – I’ll kill him, he’s abandoned the most important thing – his education! He should never have come here in the first place!” putting the blame firmly on the boy and not on the system. In fact, the other teachers are busy in a huddle talking about how this is going to raise questions about the educational establishment and how they intend to mitigate that (they do not intend to address the “problems” in themselves).

While not as loud or as dynamic as some of Ishii’s later work, Panic High School displays much of his punkish sensibility even if it takes a form closer to ‘70s youth drama complete with all the zooms, whips and pans associated with the exploitation era. However, perhaps because Ishii’s own age is so close that of his protagonists the film is firmly on the side of youth. Far from a “youth in crisis” film, Panic High School places the blame firmly at the feet of the system which forces its young people into extreme and absurd situations. Notably different from Ishii’s later work in terms of tone and style, Panic High School is nevertheless an impressive studio debut feature and a strong indicator of the director’s continuing preoccupations.


Climatic scene from towards the beginning of the film (unsubtitled)